In 2007, PSE released their first version of the X-Force bow. It was built and marketed mostly around unprecedented chronograph readings. With advertised arrow speeds of up to 350 fps, its launch changed bowhunters’ collective focus on what a hunting bow was capable of—and what we should focus on as consumers.
For several years to follow, whether you were at the range or in a pro shop, the conversation about bows always seemed to center on how fast they were. It was a weird time to be a bowhunter, particularly a whitetail bowhunter. With our average shots coming in at about 20 yards, we didn’t really need the flat-trajectory advantage of blistering arrow speeds.
We also didn’t need the short brace heights, the aggressive draw cycles, and the tuning issues that often came with prioritizing big numbers on the chronograph—or the potential rotator cuff problems that speed bows are notorious for creating. What the speed movement did do was show us what was possible, but the trade-offs were high at first.
Eventually, better bow designs bridged the gap between arrow speed and shootability. PSE had set a speed benchmark that most bow companies needed to hit to be relevant. Before long, though, they had to do it in a way that allowed consumers the chance to actually enjoy the shooting experience. In this manner, beyond parallel limbs, cam designs and configurations, and even cable guard advancements have all forced the industry to level up or be left in the dust. Aside from contributing to generally higher bow prices, these were all good things.
When it comes to the latest flagship rigs, you’ll see that advertised arrow speeds are still in the conversation. They are not the focal point of bow performance, however. That’s probably because it’s a metric that has stopped rising. This is evidenced through offerings across the industry, which tend to average about 325 to 340 fps as advertised. These numbers, which you won’t get in the real world unless you’re shooting a lightweight arrow at a 30-inch draw length, have been rangebound for a long time.
That’s just fine with me. After more than a decade of testing bows (and a lifetime of hunting with them), I can safely say that our shift away from speed obsession to overall performance is most welcome. We’ve probably peaked on speed, but there may be other shootability advances to come in the next decade.
Efficiency is What Matters
While bow technology will inevitably evolve alongside the availability of better materials and creation of more innovative designs, the limiting factor is often us as the shooters (which is one of the main reasons we seem to have peaked with arrow speeds). We can only put so much energy in, and the bow can only transfer so much of that energy to the arrow. Room for improvement on this front can be found in that lost energy, which is where Mathews’s Design Engineering Manager Mark Hayes devotes a lot of his attention.
“The efficiency of the compound bow has drastically increased over the last 10 years,” Hayes told MeatEater. “There is no metric more important in determining if a bow will make it past the prototype phase for Matt [McPherson, owner of Mathew’s] than efficiency. This is the foundation of a desirable shooting experience and will fundamentally define the product.”
The implied, undesirable aspects of shooting that Hayes is referring to are things like hand shock and vibration. Both, as well as shot noise, are physical manifestations of a bow’s stored energy not converting to the kinetic energy propelling the arrow. While not as sexy or as easy to understand as arrow speed, increased bow efficiency translates to a better shooting experience. This means a better feel and less noise, as well as downrange performance and arrow penetration.
Whether at 75 or 90% let-off, bow efficiency isn’t entirely a static function of a specific model. This is only what the bow is capable of achieving, just like advertised arrow speeds. Efficiency is also affected by arrow weight, with heavier ammo soaking up more power than lighter weight options when all else is equal.
Still, a more efficient bow is always preferable to a less efficient bow. Efficiency is a major driver behind most modern bow designs. It’s also one area where future innovation will likely result in better overall performance. So when it comes to efficiency, bow technology has definitely not peaked.
One of the great intangibles of compound bow quality is tunability. While arrow choice, shooting form, tip weight, and a host of other factors can influence arrow flight, bleeding-edge technologies are built into new bows every year solely for the purpose of making them easier to tune.
One company leading the charge on this front is Bowtech. Brand Manager Todd Snader says that this was an intentional effort to give bowhunters what they need to have a better bow-owning experience.
“Across the industry, manufacturers have focused on making bows smoother or faster, but with no other benefits outside of that,” Snader said. “Our DeadLock technology, for example, allows users to fine-tune the energy directly behind the arrow and lock it down for repeatable performance.”
In layman’s terms, Bowtech’s latest technology allows shooters the ability to adjust cam positioning left or right to achieve a perfect tune and then lock it into place ensuring it’ll stay that way all season. This, aside from resulting in better arrow flight, also contributes to a more efficient system.
This feature also provides more forgiving shooting. In the backyard during a July practice session, this isn’t a big deal. In September, when you’re on a mountainside staring down a bull elk or in a tree saddle as a buck feeds past, it’s everything. Starting with a perfectly tuned bow is a big deal at the moment of truth.
Emphasis on the ease of tuning and increased bow efficiency are two areas where archery engineers will continue to focus over the next decade. Barring some extreme leap in materials, bowhunters will likely witness an annual, incremental march in a better direction on both fronts. Will 2020 models vary all that much from 2021? Probably not. But will bows in 2025 and 2030 be noticeably more efficient, smoother, and quieter? Absolutely.
This won’t result in arrow speeds of 400 fps anytime soon, but should produce higher-performance rigs that are easier to dial in and more enjoyable to shoot.
Those advancements alone are most welcome. They are also further affirmation that it could be a long time before we witness the high-water mark of bow design and technology.