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One of the most important aspects of archery is distance and knowing how far an arrow will fly. Target archery, in particular, is based on the distance an arrow is shot and the accuracy of impact on the target.
When archers cast an arrow (go through the shooting process), they can somewhat feel in the pull of the bow and release of the arrow whether it will go a good distance. Yet this isn’t a truly effective guide to know precisely how far an arrow will fly.
So, what is the simple guide to know how far an arrow will fly?
The simple guide to knowing how far an arrow will fly is that it’s a combination of arrow type, external physical forces, and archer skill. Experienced physicists can use complex formulas to calculate exact distances that arrows are likely to travel, based on several known factors.
Yet most archers benefit from a simple, general understanding of what influences the distance an arrow will travel.
As archers practice and progress in the sport, they will develop an instinct as to how to shoot arrows to achieve the desired distance.
Understanding how the type of arrow and external forces combine to achieve distance can help archers decide on equipment and which type of target practice to pursue.
However, ultimately it is the archer’s skill with bow and arrow that truly generates the distance an arrow will fly.
In archery, there are three main types of arrows: wood, aluminum, and carbon. Each of them has unique properties due to their material and design.
The properties of an arrow shaft greatly influence how far it will fly.
There are two primary properties of each arrow type that determine how they fly through air:
- Weight: The weight of an arrow is generally measured in “grains.” The grains per inch weight measurement of arrows depends on the shaft diameter, thickness of walls, and material. The weight of the arrow used is related to the construction of the bow; the heavier the bow, the heavier the arrow used to shoot. Archers must consider arrow weight carefully, as heavier arrows move at lower speeds yet lighter arrows are less likely to penetrate targets.
- Strength: Each type of arrow has a different strength. In the context of archery, strength often refers to the arrow’s ability to penetrate a target. When archers pull an arrow back against the string of a bow, the arrow gains potential energy. This potential energy is converted to kinetic energy once the arrow is “loosed,” or shot from the bow. The strength of an arrow is a combination of how well it withstands the kinetic energy and impact of the target.
When it comes to the potential distance for an arrow, it’s partially dependent on a balance of its weight and strength relationship.
When specifying the material of an arrow, it refers to the make-up of the shaft or the long, hollow tube between the arrowhead (point) and nock (the rear plastic tip that attaches to the string of the bow).
Arrows are typically made of one of the following materials: wood, aluminum, or carbon. The strength and weight of each arrow material are different, which affects how far they can potentially fly.
Here is a comparison of weight properties among the three main arrow types:
- Carbon fiber arrows are very light in weight which allows for consistent performance and good speed.
- Aluminum arrows have a heavier weight than carbon which signifies they do not travel as fast.
- Wood arrows are extremely light and fast.
Here is a comparison of strength properties among the three main arrow types:
- Carbon arrows are very strong and can withstand great kinetic energy when shot from almost any bow.
- Aluminum arrows are also quite strong and can withstand the kinetic energy of most bows.
- Wood arrows are considered delicate and fragile due to the natural variations found in wood. They are not for use with compound bows because they are not strong enough to withstand the kinetic energy.
On the basis of weight and strength relationship, carbon arrows are likely to fly farther than aluminum arrows, which are likely to fly farther than wooden arrows.
Side note: I wrote a whole article about Why Carbon Arrows are WAY Better than Aluminum Arrows and you can read it right here!
However, arrow material is not enough to determine how far an arrow will fly.
When an archer shoots an arrow from a bow, the experience is called cast. Cast is basically the arrow’s speed and distance range when loosed from a bow. Archers strive for greater cast, meaning that the greater an arrow’s speed, distance, and momentum, the better the cast performance.
When it comes to arrow cast, most archers value three principles:
- Momentum—the motion endurance of an arrow when potential is converted to kinetic energy, and the endurance upon target impact. Essentially, momentum is how well the arrow conserves motion from the energy stored (when it is drawn against the bow) to the point it hits a target and stops.
- Speed—the velocity with which the arrow is launched and the level it maintains in flight. The moment an arrow is loosed from a bow is its highest point of velocity. As it flies, the arrow decelerates due to gravity and wind resistance (drag).
- Distance—the amount of linear area the arrow travels from bow to target. This is a result of a combination between the arrow’s momentum and velocity keeping it in flight for time and interval of space.
In terms of cast, the weight of an arrow affects its momentum. In turn, the momentum of an arrow affects its speed. Therefore, the distance an arrow will fly is partially based on its momentum and speed when cast.
External Forces and Speed
Archery is based on the transfer of potential energy when an arrow is drawn against a bow to kinetic energy when force is applied to the arrow being “loosed” from the bow. The momentum of the arrow is influenced by the kinetic energy force and its weight, which affects its speed and distance.
Heavier arrows store more potential energy than lighter ones, which is converted into more kinetic energy causing greater impact when the arrow hits a target.
However, the heavier weight ultimately impacts the speed of the loosed arrow due to the negative force of drag.
There are some paradoxes when it comes to the physics of archery. However, understanding the basics of arrow speed doesn’t have to create frustration or require an advanced degree. Essentially, the weight to speed relationship of an arrow can be explained as follows:
- The heavier the arrow, the more potential energy is created during a draw
- This potential energy is converted to kinetic energy upon the arrow being loosed
- The arrow is at its highest velocity at the moment of launch
- Once the arrow is in flight, air resistance acts on it as a negative force, called drag
- This drag affects both the arrow’s speed and power
- The greater the mass of the arrow, the greater the negative deceleration force
- Therefore, heavier arrows lose more speed than lighter arrows because of drag
External Forces, Speed, and Distance
In addition to slower speeds, heavier arrows travel shorter distances.
Lighter arrows are faster and therefore take less time in flight through the air. This allows them to travel a more direct route to the target and experience less overall drag.
Heavier arrows better penetrate both the air and target due to their mass, yet the negative drag force slows them down and they cover less distance.
Most arrows are fitted with fletchings, which are the light, “fin” shaped devices attached toward the back end of the shaft. Historically, arrows were fletched with feathers.
Today, most arrows are fletched with modern plastics. Fletching is intended to stabilize an arrow aerodynamically—basically to keep the arrow steady as it flies through the air.
Fletching can enhance the distance an arrow will fly due to this aerodynamic stabilization. However, like all things in archery, fletching must meet a balance between weight, strength, and physical forces to be effective.
Ultimately, if an archer wants to know how far an arrow will fly, the simple guide is to consider the following:
- material of the arrow, and its weight and strength properties
- the force of kinetic energy on the arrow in relation to its stored potential energy when drawn
- the negative force of drag on the arrow and its influence on speed and distance
Finally, in addition to these factors, the distance an arrow can travel is also up to the skills of the archer.
Most archers spend the bulk of their time doing target practice, whether they consider archery to be a sport or pastime. This is accomplished by shooting arrows at a target placed a certain distance away and attempting to hit the target with accuracy.
Archers develop their skills by working on improving their shooting distance and accuracy.
Much of archery skill is about strength in drawing the bow, accurate aim, and smooth release of the arrow. These conditions create enhanced cast—momentum, speed, and distance—in launching the arrow from the bow.
Traditional archers work primarily with wooden arrows, which don’t travel as great a distance due to their lightweight and low strength.
Modern, competitive archers often use carbon arrows due to their balanced weight and high strength which enhances distance.
Whether archers fall into traditional, modern, competitive, or recreational categories, experts agree that the only way for an archer to know how far an arrow will fly is to shoot it.
This is why archers practice within the safety of archery ranges so that they can develop their form and technique, accuracy and distance.
In a sense, archery isn’t about understanding how to know how far an arrow will fly. That can be left to the physicists. Instead, it’s about knowing what factors combine to influence the distance an arrow will travel.
In archery, these primary factors are the type of arrow, external physical forces, and archer skill. Skilled archers can understand these factors and use them in their favor to practice and further enhance their performance.
One of the most appealing characteristics of archery as a sport and pastime is its connection with history, science, mythology, physical ability, and even modern culture.
Those who wish to pursue archery to see how far they can shoot an arrow are in good company, as archery grows more popular each year.
I live in Alberta, Canada where I enjoy indoor and 3D archery with traditional bows and compound bows. On this site, I share everything I’ve learned about archery along the way.