By Lee Mason
Like many archers I actually started with a compound bow. It seems ironic that so many of us start with the latest technology only to choose to revert to technology of years (or even centuries) past. My journey into the incredible world of traditional archery started in 2008 while deployed to Afghanistan.
My buddy was an avid outdoorsman and his family would send him care packages every few weeks. Inside one of those packages was the latest Great Plains Bow Co. catalog. That booklet sat on our makeshift plywood coffee table between our two bunks for weeks until one day I finally picked it up.
Inside were the most beautiful bows I had ever seen. Longbows, recurves, one-piece, take-downs, shorter bows, longer bows… I began daydreaming of shooting one. The “Long-Curve,” model really caught my eye. It featured recurve limbs with a straight longbow-type handle.
The bows were made to order and being deployed with no wife or kids at home meant I had money burning a hole in my pocket (at least at 20 years old that’s how I felt). I placed a call to Great Plains Bow Co. at about 1am (due to the time difference) and spoke to them about what I was looking for. I ordered a custom-built 60-inch Long Curve with bamboo limbs for speed and a 55-pound draw weight. If memory serves it cost about $1,000 and would be waiting at my dad’s house a year later when I got back to the United States.
Do Not Spend $1,000 on Your First Trad-bow
Custom bows are awesome. They’re made of the finest materials, look like works of art and shoot incredibly, once you know what you’re doing. If you are new to traditional archery and pick up an expensive custom bow, you are not going to be able to shoot it any better than a $200 Samick Sage or $75 used recurve you picked up off craigslist.
In the beginning it is probably a better idea to buy a less expensive yet still quality bow and spend the rest of your budget on other necessities that can help you practice more.
Another reason not to spend big bucks on your first bow is that no matter how pretty it is or how great it shoots, at some point another bow will probably catch your eye. This happens to anyone that gets into traditional archery. You have a perfectly fine bow, but that one over there sure looks cool too, and you wonder if you could shoot that one just a little better.
Ask anyone that has shot traditional for more than 5 years if they are still shooting their first bow, no matter how good it was. More often than not they have probably gone through 3, 4, maybe even 10 or more different bows, if for no other reason than wanting to try something different. If you spent less on your first bow, it makes it easier to move on to the next when you’re ready to.
I have shot traditional archery going on 12 years now and I still have my Great Plains Long Curve, but currently I’m shooting a Great Northern Field Bow and honestly like it more. It was less than half the cost of my Long Curve. I think in total I have owned 5 or 6 traditional bows since starting this journey. It is easier to sell a cheaper bow too as the pool of buyers is much larger and anyone willing to spend a lot of money on a trad-bow will get a new custom one of their own rather than your second-hand one (most of the time).
Where to Get Your First Bow on a Budget
The Samick Sage is a great bow by all accounts. It is inexpensive and you can replace the limbs as you gain proficiency, increasing the draw weight with essentially the same bow. You can find them online in many places. If I were to start over this would probably be my first bow.
Craigslist is a great option for finding deals on used bows. I bought a Martin Recurve for $75 once and it shot beautifully after I waxed the string and made sure there were no safety concerns (cracks, frayed string, etc.). If buying a used bow from a private party make sure to thoroughly inspect it for damage, you can always say no to the deal if you’re concerned.
Besides the Samick, there are many more inexpensive “starter” bows becoming available due to the increase in popularity of traditional archery. 3 Rivers or Kustom King archery have great online stores where you can spend as little or as much as you want on a new longbow or recurve. There are many in the $150-$300 range, perfect for a first bow.
Go With a Lighter Draw Weight to Start
My Long Curve had a 55-pound draw weight. I was young and strong and figured I could handle it. For the most part I could, but I was also 6’2” tall and 200-pounds without an ounce of fat, so I had a physical advantage that not everyone has. One drawback to a heavier draw weight is that you get fatigued faster when practicing, so you cannot shoot as many shots.
For a first bow a 40-pound draw weight gives enough power that you can legally hunt with it in many states but it is light enough for a beginner to get the hang of it without undue fatigue. A 40-pound bow also gives enough arrow speed that practicing out to 20 yards isn’t too hard because the arrow doesn’t have as much drop as a lighter weight bow.
My current bow, a Great Northern Field Bow, actually draws at 42-pounds and it is a dream to shoot. Enough speed to hit right where I’m looking but light enough to practice all afternoon.
A bit of a side note, should you decide to sell your bow, a lighter draw weight bow will be easier to sell than a heavy draw weight bow.
A Short Bow is Great, But a Long Bow is Forgiving
Without getting too technical, a longer length bow will be easier to learn to shoot well than a shorter length bow. The main reason for this is that at any given draw-length, the limbs of a longer bow travel less during the draw and during release than the limbs of a shorter bow. That means less room for human error during the shot.
There are people out there that can explain and show this a lot better than I can, but that is the gist of it. After getting a 66-inch longbow at one point I noticed that if I screwed-up my release or didn’t get perfectly to my anchor point before shooting, the effect on my accuracy wasn’t nearly as much as if I had been shooting my 60-inch Long Curve.
If You Plan to Hunt With Your Trad-bow, Use Heavy Arrows
This I learned the hard way. Once I became proficient in shooting my bow, I began hunting with it. During my second or third year hunting with my Long Curve I finally had a shot opportunity on a beautiful 8-point Whitetail buck. The shot was far, paced off afterwards at nearly 35 yards (too far to be shooting a trad-bow at game, but more on that in a future article). I nailed him and he took off.
A very sparse blood trail and lack of finding the arrow led me to believe I had hit him in the shoulder blade and the arrow did not penetrate into the vitals. My dad and I tracked that buck for an entire day and for over a mile, with tiny drops of blood every 20 or even 50 yards. It was an agonizing tracking job. We never recovered the deer and hope he made a full recovery.
Lesson number one here is not to take long shots at game with a trad-bow. Regardless of your setup, the arrow just will not have the energy to penetrate if it hits any bone at all. Lesson number two is to use heavy arrows.
I was using lightweight carbon arrows and 125-grain 2-blade broadheads. I did not know any better at the time, but that’s no excuse. With a trad-bow heavy arrows are your friend. A longbow will never approach the speeds a compound bow can achieve, but it will fling a much heavier arrow almost as fast as it will fling a lighter arrow, and a heavier arrow penetrates better 100% of the time, all else being equal.
Think about this: would you rather get hit with a baseball thrown at 50 mph, or a bowling ball at 25 mph? The baseball will hurt, but the bowling ball is going to break bones or worse.
Carbon arrows are great for durability, just make sure they are heavy if using them with your trad-bow.
Buy LOTS of Arrows, You Wouldn’t Just Buy 12 Rounds for Your 9mm
So I spent $1,000 on my first bow, then was a cheap-ass and only bought a dozen arrows and that’s all I had for the longest time. Silly. The more arrows you have the easier it is to practice, and if some get damaged (they will), you have plenty to keep shooting.
We will have to talk about types of arrows in a future article, but carbons are best for durability while wood arrows are nice and heavy without having to modify them. The cost really isn’t much different between the two, and I have found wood arrows to be surprisingly durable. Personally, I shoot wood arrows built by Joe Callahan at True North Arrows. They are beautiful, heavy and I have yet to break a single one!
Set-up a Good Range, it’ll Save Your Arrows and Your Fence!
Use some of that money you saved by buying a cheaper bow on good targets, several of them. My favorite practice setup is to have four of the big layered foam block targets stacked on each other 2x2. It provides a lot of area to shoot at and if you miss you will probably still hit the target.
Placing a sheet or two of thick OSB plywood against your fence behind your targets is cheap insurance for when you inevitably miss. Even a 40-pound bow will send a heavy arrow straight through standard fence planks (I’ve done it, unfortunately). Having the OSB board will at least provide your fence with some protection and keep your arrows from going where they shouldn’t.
Ready to Get Started?
Hopefully you can take some things away from my experiences and get into traditional archery a bit smoother than I did. There are definitely places to spend more money (arrows, targets) and places to spend less (the bow itself) when getting started, at least in my estimation.
Traditional archery is incredibly fun, there is nothing quite like looking at a target without sights, releasing the string and having that arrow go right where you wanted it to. It takes a lot more practice than many outdoor pursuits, but like anything worth doing it brings a great sense of accomplishment once you start getting the hang of it.
Get yourself a trad-bow and join in the fun!
Lee Mason is the owner and craftsman at Mason Leather and has been leatherworking since 2011 and hunting since he could carry a rifle and hunting with a tradbow since 2009