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Can you keep your bow strung?

It’s getting close to bow hunting season where I live and the season is already in full swing in other places.  There’s probably a lot of you that are going out to shoot your bows everyday. It would be really convenient just to be able to pick up your bow and go.  So you might be wondering, like me, “Can I keep my bow strung?” I used to do it all the time when I was just starting out as a kid. At that time my bow was a red fibreglass recurve that my dad got me from Walmart for like $50 with 3 arrows with bent vanes.  It didn’t seem like a problem then but I started to think I might not want to do that with a bow that cost more than $50 so I looked around to see what info I could find on the topic.

The answer comes down to 2 basic factors: 1) what material your bow is made from, and 2) how often your shoot.  If your bow is made entirely from wood then you can keep your bow strung for the short term (a couples days). If you know you won’t be shooting for a long time (weeks or months) then it is better to unstring your wooden bow when you’re done shooting.  If your bow is made from synthetic materials, then you can leave your bow strung for much longer periods of time without the risk of fatiguing the limbs. Some synthetic bows can be left strung indefinitely. If your bow is a composite of wood and synthetics then you can leave it strung longer than an all-wood bow but it’s best to unstring it after shooting to maximize the longevity of your bow.

All bows are made to last but only when they are properly cared for.  Let’s look at some of this in more detail.

Why Your Bow Material Matters

Most people want their stuff to last a long time.  Let’s face it: nobody goes out and buys a brand new bow and says, “Gee I can’t wait for this thing to break so I can drop another $$$$ on a new one.”  Everyone wants their bow to last. So how can I get the most out of my bow?

It depends on the material.

When you string your bow (and here I’m not talking about compound bows), the limbs are put into constant bending load by the string.  To be more precise, the back of the limb is in tension and the belly of the limb is in compression. Every time you draw the string back, the load on the limbs increases.  When you release a shot, the load is rapidly reduced but not completely. This constant and repeated load-unload cycle gradually weakens the limbs over time.

This gradual weakening process is called fatigue.

For some materials, it takes a very long time and many many repetitions for the limbs to be completely fatigued; for other materials not very much time.  Ultimately, the way to increase the lifespan of your bow, no matter what material, is to increase the time in which the limbs are under no load at all; the limbs should be given time to rest.  

Wooden Bows: Unstring When Finished

By far, the most common material used for bows is wood.  Every culture throughout history that has had archery has had wooden bows.  There are a couple reasons for that: wood is pretty readily available and it is very good at withstanding bending forces.

Wooden bows are generally made a couple of different ways:  carved from a single piece of wood like a lot of traditional longbows or glued and pressed together thin wood layers (a process called lamination) like many recurve bows.  Both types of bows take advantage of the natural ability of wood to bend without breaking.

But there are limits.

If you’ve ever tried to start a campfire, you’ll know that dry wood is best.  That’s because there’s less moisture. If you’ve ever found yourself without any dry wood, you probably went to look for some.  Imagine you found some sticks for kindling and tried to break them into smaller pieces. How did you know which ones were good? By how easily they broke.  The drier sticks break much more easily than the ones with more moisture and the green wood is hardest to break. You have to bend it back and forth to get it to break at all.

Wooden bow limbs are the same.

There is an optimal moisture content in the wood that allows it to bend and spring back without cracking like a dry stick.  Wooden bows are stained not only to make them look nice but also to hold in the moisture at the optimal level and slow down the natural decomposition of the wood.  The staining and sealing only last for so long, although it lasts a very long time. It helps keep the wood able to withstand the repeated load-unload cycle of shooting.

The natural decomposition of the wood is the main thing that shortens the lifespan of a wooden bow.  At a microscopic level, wood is a bunch of fibres. As time goes by, those fibres become dry and brittle.  With every shot of you make, those fibres get gradually weaker and weaker. By unstringing the bow after shooting, the limbs are completely unloaded and the wood is given the maximum lifespan.

If you decide to leave your wooden bow strung, you run the risk of warping the limbs.  This happens because wood grain is not uniform through a given piece of wood. As it breaks down naturally and drys out, it also expands and contracts along and across the grain.  Having the constant load of the string bending the limbs hastens the breakdown process and can result in warping. Thankfully, if the warping is not severe, it can be fixed.

For a wooden bow with laminate limbs, the layers can become separated due to the constant load on the limbs.  If that happens, it’s game over and you’ll need a new set of limbs or a new bow altogether.

Recommendation: unstring your wooden bow after each shooting session.

Composite Bows: Unstring When Finished

Composite bows are those that are made from at least 2 different materials (even 2 different types of wood).  The main goal is to choose materials that are good in tension for the backing and materials that are good in compression for the belly.  

A good example of this is the old sinew backed bows with horn bellies.  Sinew is very good in tension (and also used for strings) while horn handles compression forces very well.  When they work together as a composite, the result is a bow that performs very well over a very long period of time.

In our modern times, a common type of composite bow is a wood-fibreglass laminate.  This is where the bow or limbs are made of alternating layers of wood and fibreglass, glued and pressed together.  The main reason for using fibreglass with wood is because it is a very flexible material and not as susceptible to fatigue from repeated bending as wood.

If you keep a wood composite bow strung, the same break-down mechanism is at work as with an all-wood bow.  The only difference is that it takes a lot longer because of the help from the other material. For that reason, it’s recommended to unstring your bow after each session to maximize the lifespan.

Synthetic Bows: Can Leave Strung Indefinitely…Almost

Modern materials technology is absolutely amazing.  When it comes to archery, the materials used for limbs and risers widely varied but they all have 1 goal in common: endurance.  I talked about the load-unload cycle of stringing and shooting a bow. All modern synthetic materials used to make bows are engineered specifically to stand up to those forces over thousands of repetitions.  Obviously, it depends on the specific manufacturer but, for all intents and purposes, that means a modern bow can be left strung indefinitely.

I still recommend unstringing your bow simply because it’s a good habit to get into in case you have multiple bows which may be wood or if you plan to buy a wood bow some day in the future.