So you want to try a traditional bow, eh? You’ve seen a couple of stick-and-string bows and now you’re thinking, “I’d like to carry one of them into the woods this fall.”
There was a time when the only gear bowhunters had was traditional. Then along came the compound bow, followed by modern crossbows, and traditional bowhunting kind of took a back seat.
But it’s enjoying a resurgence now, with lots of longtime bowhunters ditching their various bows with wheels and picking up traditional equipment. And many newcomers are going straight for the trad gear, no doubt drawn by its primitive allure.
For those of you thinking about going trad, here’s what you need to know. First, “traditional” means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. We don’t discriminate here, so anything that could be considered traditional is included here.
There are four basic types of traditional bows: recurve, longbow, hybrid longbow and self bow.
A recurve bow has a big riser with a sculpted grip below a shelf. When the bow is at rest, the wide, thin limbs extend straight up from the riser and then curve forward at the tips. When strung, those limb tips point straight up, parallel to the riser.
A recurve can be all wood, or it can be a mix of wood and carbon and/or fiberglass, or it can have a metal riser and then limbs made of wood, carbon and fiberglass. Recurves are the most forgiving traditional bows, draw the smoothest and produce the least hand shock.
A longbow has almost no riser, except for a grip and a thin arrow shelf. When the bow is at rest, the narrow, thick limbs extend straight up from the grip. When strung, a longbow looks very much like the letter “D.” It can be all wood or a mix of wood and fiberglass.
Longbows are notoriously harsh to draw in that they feel heavy and are hard to hold at full draw. They also unleash a ton of hand shock at the shot.
A hybrid longbow looks mostly like a longbow, but the limbs curve forward slightly at the tips like a recurve. Also, the hybrid’s limb profile is a bit wider and thinner than the longbow’s. It can be all wood, or it can be a mix of wood and carbon and/or fiberglass.
Not surprisingly, the experience of shooting a hybrid longbow is between that of a recurve and a longbow. It draws smoother than a longbow but harsher than a recurve, and the hand shock is lighter than with a longbow but heavier than with a recurve.
A self bow is handmade from a single piece of wood. It usually has a thick section in the center wrapped with leather to serve as a grip, and the arrow rests on top of the archer’s fist.
Self bows arguably are the most difficult trad bows to shoot. They’re stiff and unforgiving at the shot.
Here’s another area where “trad” can mean different things to different people. Some purists believe the only traditional arrows are made of wood. Wood arrows are beautiful and fly nicely, but good ones tend to be expensive. It’s also difficult to find two wooden shafts that are identical, and they are more fragile than arrows made from other materials.
You don’t have to shoot wood arrows from a traditional bow. Carbon and aluminum arrows will work. Some arrow manufacturers even give their aluminum and carbon arrows a wood finish so they look “trad.” Carbon and aluminum are going to be more consistent from arrow to arrow than wood, and more durable too.
Shooting a traditional bow requires a good bit more strength and focus than shooting a compound bow. Traditional bows have no let-off. You know how a lot of adult bowhunters shoot compounds set at 70 pounds? You’re not likely to find any traditional bowhunters pulling that weight.
If a trad bow is rated for 50 pounds, you’re pulling and holding all 50 pounds, all the time. Fifty pounds, in fact, is about as heavy as most traditional bowhunters will go with draw weight. Many prefer 40 or 45 pounds.
Since the draw weights for traditional bows are so much lower than for compounds, traditional bowhunters usually tip their arrows with big, fixed-blade broadheads. The low draw weight and slow arrow speed aren’t ideal for expandable broadheads. You want a big, sharp fixed-blade head that starts cutting the instant it hits an animal.
Traditional bows are shot by drawing and holding the string with your fingers. Mechanical release aids are not used. So you’re going to need a shooting glove or a finger tab to protect your fingers. Both are typically made of leather. A tab is a leather pad that’s folded around the bowstring as a barrier between the string and your fingers.
Except for self bows, where you rest the arrow on your fist, the most common arrow rest in traditional archery is the shelf above the grip. You simply rest your arrow on the shelf, which is covered with a fur, hair, felt or leather pad to protect the shelf from sliding arrows. In some cases, recurve bowhunters will use actual arrow rests specifically designed for recurve bows, but that’s less common.
Sights generally are not used in traditional archery. That’s why most trad bows don’t have accessory holes on the back of the riser for mounting a sight. Aiming is done by using the arrow as a reference. Some traditional bowhunters actually put the point in a specific location for aiming. Others shoot their bows so much that they know by instinct where to hold their arrow to get it to hit where they want.
In either case, accuracy in traditional archery is nowhere near as precise compared with shooting compound bows. Practice is required to develop any consistency with a traditional bow. And for traditional bowhunters, ethical shots at game animals are rarely taken beyond 25 yards. The closer you can get with a trad bow, the better your chances for success.
If you thought bowhunting in general was challenging, try traditional bowhunting. It’s arguably the most challenging way to chase wild game — and that makes it all the more rewarding when you start filling out that tag.