In Summary: A powerful compound bow is easier to aim than a powerful recurve as the string forces at full draw are reduced due to let-off. It is also smaller, more adjustable and has more model choice and market availability. The recurve bow is cheaper, easier to maintain, more stylish and the bow you'll normally be taught to use as a beginner. It is also the only bow currently allowed in the Olympic games.
Deciding on your first bow, your next bow? Want to join a club? Ready to hunt? Writing a project? Just plain curious???
If you can’t decide between, or aren’t sure of the real differences between a compound vs a recurve we’re going to try and comprehensively outline everything for you in this article. We’ll also give you an insight as to what each type of bow is used for, by what type of shooter and for what reason!
First let’s start with a very brief introduction to both types of bow and the defining features, just in case you are completely new to the subject.
Recurve - Major feature - Limb Re-curve
A recurve bow has limbs that curve away from towards the archer at the ends.
That curve is known as re-curve and can store and provide more power to an arrow than a simple longbow of the same size could.
A longbow is a standard bow shape that you’d made yourself from a stick.
The limbs and string make a standard D shape, no-recurve at the tips.
Compound - Major feature - ‘Let Off’
A compound is so called because the little wheels (known as cams) at the end of the limbs work with the string and compound the forces held within the drawn bow.
What that means is that when a compound bow is fully drawn you don’t have to hold back all the force stored within the bow, but when you release the string the cams will unwind and accelerate the string faster than the weight you’ve been holding. The effect of this reduction in forces is known as ‘let off’.
Here’s a quick example.
A 70 lbs draw weight recurve bow will require you to draw and hold back 70 lbs when aiming. 70 lbs of force will be applied to the arrow on release.
A 70 lbs compound bow with a 50% let off will require you to pull through 70 lbs of weight during the draw, but will only require you to hold back 35 lbs of force when aiming.
70 lbs of force will still be applied during the arrow release.
Hopefully that’s made things a little clearer, but if not checkout this article we’ve written on all the different types of bows available today where we cover some of this in more detail.
Let’s move onto the major feature categories of both type of weapon.
You’ll find that the top end of bows on the market for both styles coming in at around 70 lbs of draw weight. 70 lbs is enough power to accomplish pretty much anything anyone wants to accomplish with a bow. Manufacturers and retailers don’t tend to stock 80 lbs bows for this reason, these isn’t much call for them.
In an ideal world, with ideal conditions and ideal measurement a 70 lbs draw weight compound bow should perform better than a 70 lbs recurve drawn to an optimum length and using exactly the same length and weight of arrow. You’d think they should both impart the same force but in reality the compound system of string and cams is more efficient at flinging arrows and ends up being more powerful in the field.
Most Powerful - Compound
Coming back to let-off once again… a 70 lbs compound bow at full draw with 80% let off (which is common) will only require you to hold 14 lbs of force back when aiming. A 70 lbs recurve bow drawn to an optimum length so that there is actually 70 lbs of force exerted by the limbs, will require you to hold and aim with 70 lbs of force straining against you.
That’s gotta give the the edge to the compound.
Easiest to Aim - Compound
Difficult to call this one. A compound and recurve can both be fitted with limb dampeners and string silencers to help lower the noise created from a shot. If you’re bow is properly tuned and you’re using an arrow that’s just the right weight for the power of the bow then you’d expect both bows to be quiet.
Loudest - Draw
A compound bow of the same power as a recurve is generally a LOT smaller. A 70 lbs compound will typically measure anywhere from 30-32” from limb tip to limb tip.
Measure a recurve of the same power and you’ll be looking at 60-64” from tip to tip. That makes the recurve double the size of a compound.
Smallest - Compound
There’s more involved in the construction of a compound bow than a recurve. Although the recurve is bigger, once you factor in the cams, stops and extra string, thickness of the riser to cope with the strain etc you usually end up with a heavier compound bow than a recurve (which just keeps things simple).
Lightest - Recurve
Most recurve bows nowadays are takedown. That means you can remove the limbs and break them down into 3 pieces, riser, top and bottom limb to transport them. You can’t do this with a compound (not easily anyway).
A compound is built and stays built. The broken down form of a takedown recurve will take up less room and is smaller than a compound, but you can’t shoot it when it’s in pieces….
Most Portable - Compound
You can purchase different types of limbs for a recurve bow to increase and decrease the power of the bow. An assembled bow with one set of limbs is going to give you one range of power only. You can under-draw a recurve bow to cause it to shoot an arrow with less force, however that’s not really adjustability, that’s just going to cause bad form.
Some compound bows can have their draw weight / power and draw length adjusted by using a tool to tweak the position of the cams. Some bows like the Diamond Infinite Edge allow you to adjust the weight from 5 lbs to 70 lbs and the draw length from 13” to 31” all without the use of a bow press.
Most Versatile - Compound
Both types of bow these days are constructed from a range of materials. The riser of a recurve bow can be made from aluminium, carbon or laminated wood, the riser of a compound is usually made from aluminium or carbon. The limbs of both styles of bow are made from similar wood laminations. There’s no clear winner here.
Best Construction Methods - Draw
There’s more that goes into the construction of a compound. More moving parts, assembly and transport is more technical, the recurve keeps it simple and is more cost effective for it.
Cheapest - Recurve
Maintenance and Repair-ability
If the string snaps on your compound out in the field you’re probably stuck with a bow you can’t use. A recurve on the other hand is easy to re-string by yourself and by hand, clearly the winner. A broken limb on a recurve is also relatively easy to fix, if you have a takedown bow you just purchase another limb (or set of limbs) and bolt them on. The same isn’t so easy for a compound bow, they’re designed to stay assembled and only be taken to pieces and repaired by a professional at a pro-shop.
As there are more moving parts on a compound bow there are more things to go wrong.
Easiest to Fix - Recurve
Both types of bow can come with a riser drilled to accept all sorts of accessories. You can fit a sight, arrow rest, quiver, stabilizer, string silencers, limb dampeners to either type of bow. There’s no real winner in this department.
Most Available Accessories - Draw
Availability & Choice
Visit any of the top manufacturers websites like Bear Archery, PSE or Hoyt and you’ll find a large selection of both types of bow available. The compound is the favorite of the hunter and as hunting is such a large market in the USA and other parts of the world the choice and selection of compound bows is slightly greater than that of the more traditional recurve.
Best Choice and Availability - Compound
Whilst you can get some pretty exceptional looking compound bows, they are a lot less appealing to the eye and to the touch than something with a host of heritage and style behind it like the Bear Grizzly.
Most Stylish - Recurve
Hawkeye shoots a compound, Katniss Everdeen shoots a recurve. Some of the most memorable bows in video games like the predator bow in Crysis are compounds. There’s no real winner in terms of cool.
You can be just as cool shooting either…. So long as you’re accurate and maybe have super powers 🙂
Cool People Shoot - Either!
A compound has ‘let-off’ you can hold the bow at full draw easily for long periods allow you to wait hidden and stationary in a tree-stand or the woods to take-down your prey.
Compounds are also smaller and easier to carry when fully assembled. Easier to attach to a backpack and won’t snag so easily on the woodlands as you make your way through.
It’s clear to see why the compound has become the bow of choice for the hunter.
Hunters Favor - The Compound
For a youth archer, you need adjustability. As youth grows a bow needs to adjust in draw length and power to suit the frame of the child. A good compound bow will accomplish this with far more ease than a recurve. Unless you’re specifically training your child to become a recurve archer then a highly adjustable compound bow will last longer and grow with the archer.
A Bow That Grows - The Compound
As a total beginner your strength and technique will develop to the point where you will want to try a higher power bow than the one you first started with. Use a compound and you’ll be able to just adjust it to suit you. For a recurve, you can buy different limbs and don’t need a whole new bow.
You’ll generally find that if you ‘try archery’ at some sort of even you’ll be given a recurve bow. The simplicity of the recurve has to compete against the adjustability of the compound.
We go for simplicity...
Best for Beginners - The Recurve
You can bowfish with a recurve or a compound. Bowfishing usually requires you to attach a reel to the stabiliser mount on your bow and use barbed arrows which you can then reel in after spearing a fish. There are kits for both types of bow and speciality bows on the market of both types.
Bowfishers spend a lot of time at full draw aiming and waiting, so a compound works well here, but also you can get off a ‘snap-shot’ much more quickly with a recurve.
Which is best is probably going to come down to which you are used to and familiar with, can’t say we see a clear winner yet.
Bowfishers Prefer - Either
For target shooting?
Target shooting competitions exist for both recurve and compound shooters. The distances and target sizes are similar so you can’t really differentiate here. Depending on how ambitious and indeed how good you are, the one factor that can be used to split the two is that the only discipline allowed at the Olympic games is the recurve. No compounds in sight…. At least not yet.
The Target Shooting Elite Use - The Recurve
Well that's it! I think we covered everything, if we didn't... let me know! We monitor and respond to comments all the time 😉