From past to present: The evolution of bow technology
You’ve been hiking rocky terrain all day, bow in hand. Finally, you reach the top of a steep slope, ready to take a break from the grueling day, glass for bucks, and rest. Sitting, you make sure your bow is ready, arrow nocked, just in case your prize decides to wander your way. While weeks – possibly months – have been involved in figuring out what you would take with you on this hunt, the compound bow in your hand – and its evolution along the technological timeline – most likely hasn’t crossed your mind.
But it should. Because advancements within the bowhunting arena have not only influenced how you hunt, but also allowed the sport to advance beyond a scattering of practitioners and turn into the global community that it is today.
“Technology makes it easier to actually shoot bows,” says Rick Mowery of Pope & Young Club, a legendary bowhunting and conservation organization. “It still takes a lot of practice, but in the large scale of things, technology has helped make bowhunting more broadly appealing.”
With the next generation of bowhunters including more children and women, archery manufacturers have focused on designing lighter bows scaled for shorter arm spans and lower draw weight. This has allowed for all ages, sizes and abilities to participate in an activity that has been around for centuries.
Long before Fred Bear and Earl Hoyt, Jr. were household names, bows and arrows had already played an integral role across multiple cultures. The earliest arrow broadheads were discovered by archeologists in South Africa and are thought to be 71,000 years old while it is believed that Egyptians were the first ones to build composite bows back in 2800 BC. In fact, scientists believe that the design of this tool for both hunting food and warfare may have been the factor that elevated man above his Neanderthal counterparts, according to Scientific America.
Composite bows were often made from wood. The ends were tipped with animal horns and the bowstring was made of sheep intestines. Longbows – with straight limbs – first appeared in the Middle Stone Age followed by the recurve bow. The invention of the recurve bow delivered a different design: curved limbs that allowed for increased force, accuracy and speed without adding to the draw weight.
Since these early beginnings, the bow and arrow has been in constant use and has enjoyed significant placement in both myths and legends that are still around today, like Odysseus, Robin Hood, and William Tell. Even Genghis Khan, an experienced archer on horseback, understood the power of the bow.
Arrows: wood to aluminum to carbon
Historically, arrows were made of wood from a variety of trees like cherry, ash, cedar, oak and hickory. Like the bow, the materials used to make arrows also evolved and included glass and metal. The arrow’s progression was helped along by James Easton, who began manufacturing arrows out of aluminum instead of wood in 1939. This year transformed the trajectory in arrow manufacturing and marked a significant innovation in materials used for arrow production. Today’s arrows are made out of aluminum alloy and/or carbon for strength, agility and speed. Fletching, which was originally turkey-wing feathers affixed to the arrow shaft, transitioned to plastic or vinyl vanes that now outfit most modern day arrows. To read more about arrow fletching, check out “The archer’s guide to fletching.”
The evolution of longbows and recurves to compound bows made a major difference in opening up archery – and bowhunting – to a larger audience. Now, with the invention of the compound bow – and the ability to create let-off – the limitations between draw weight and upper body strength were not as significant. Traditional longbows and recurves require bowhunters to pull 60 to 70 lbs or more without any let-off. The compound bow design uses two wheels (or cams) that provide a mechanical advantage over the longbow and recurve because the cams decrease the amount of effort needed to draw back the bow.
While Bear, Hoyt and Mathews are household names among bowhunters, it is important to recognize one critical inventor and avid archer: Holless Wilbur Allen, who on June 23, 1966, applied for the patent, “Archery Bow with Draw-Force Multiplying Attachments.” Because of Allen – and his partner, Tom Jennings – the first compound bow was in production. In 1970, both the compound bow and release aid debuted at the United States National Archery Competition.
“I didn't switch from recurve to compound until 1977 when the dreaded target panic creeped into my archery,” says musician and longtime hunter Ted Nugent.
Like many bowhunters, Nugent’s decision to move from recurve to compound was significant – and one that is incredibly memorable. Over the next few decades, the compound bow and its related accessories experienced continued evolution – some for bowhunting advancement and some for marketing enhancement. The general compound bow design remained fairly consistent, despite tweaks to limbs, grips, cams and other minor components until the release of the No Cam bow design by Mathews, Inc. in 2015.
Nugent says, “Without the compound bow, bowhunter participation would be inconsequential in wildlife management, industry impact, conservation awareness and the critical family hours of recreation that it creates and funds. The advances in technology have encouraged more people to experience what is surely one of life’s highest of highs… easier to shoot compounds, straighter arrows, more forgiving mechanical releases, arrow rests and sighting devices provide increased confidence, but dedicated practice is still the guiding force to become proficient.”
Which is better: technology or tradition?
While technology obviously plays a role in the future of bowhunting, skill is still an essential element; the latest and greatest technology will only take you so far. In fact, according to Mowery, the average shot distance is still less than 22 yards – a distance that any longbow, recurve or compound could handle.
“The number one Pope & Young whitetail typical buck was taken with a recurve in 1961,” says Mowery. And despite modern technology, no one has beaten that record since. He adds, “While there are more animals being taken, that is due to more bowhunters out there – not technology.”
For vintage bow collector and Fred Bear enthusiast Shane Reed, technology isn’t always better. In fact, for him, traditional bows are preferable. He says, “I started without a sight so I learned to shoot instinctively. It took me a while to learn to use sights and I constantly had to struggle with being left eye dominant and shooting right handed.”
Reed is not alone in his interest in using traditional bows despite the uptick in technological advances. According to the Archery Trade Association, there were 18.9 million participants in bowhunting and archery in 2012. While compound bows topped the list of type of bow used and many said that they enjoy using both recurves and compounds, 14% preferred recurves exclusively, which means this traditional design still holds its appeal hundreds of years later.
“Technology has definitely made bows much easier to use,” says Reed. “For someone who shoots traditional bows, compounds are easy, but I like antique. I like traditional. It is a passion so that’s what I like to use.”
Those who bowhunt are going to spend hours, days or weeks in camouflage, waiting for that trophy animal to appear, with a bow that the bowhunter feels confident in using, regardless of where it falls on the technological timeline. Technology can only provide an advantage when mixed with skill and patience.
“After 60+ years of nonstop bowhunting, I can tell you that bowhunting is bowhunting, regardless of the archery technology in your hands,” says Nugent. “Proper bowhunting will always be stealth, attentiveness, being one with the wild, the deep reverence for the animals we live with and hunt and the dedication to that higher level of awareness for ultimate self-sufficiency that the art of bowhunting epitomizes.”