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“Traditional Bow” vs. “Recurve Bow”: What are the Differences?


If you’re just getting into archery, you’ll soon be amazed by the variety of bows used by modern archers from the traditional bow to the modern recurve and everything in between. The kinds of bows used by archers vary greatly depending on what the archer is trying to accomplish and which types of bows an archer prefers.

So is there a difference between Traditional bows and recurve bows? What are the differences?

Technically there is no difference between a traditional bow and a recurve bow because some traditional bows are recurve bows. There are differences between traditional recurves and modern recurves, including if the bow has removable limbs, the material of the bow, and the equipment that it can use.

If you’re having trouble deciding between a traditional bow and a modern recurve, continue reading. I will outline the difference between traditional bows and modern recurves as well as the advantages and disadvantages of each bow.

Types of Traditional Bows

Traditional archery is all archery that uses bows and arrows that are more traditional in nature and tends to exclude all modern equipment. These bows are typically made using materials and techniques that have been practiced for hundreds of years.

If you’re interested in the history of archery, then traditional style bows are a good fit for you. For more general information on Traditional Archery, I suggest reading my article all about Traditional Archery here.

Traditional bows tend to have the following characteristics:

  • Sometimes have recurved limbs (curved away from you) and sometimes do not
  • Are typically made from one solid piece of wood or several pieces laminated together, although some bows have detachable limbs and these are called “takedown bows”
  • Do not use any significant amount of metal or any synthetic materials
  • Do not use any special equipment like sights, stabilizers, or high tech arrow rests

There are two main types of traditional bows still used in archery today. These include the longbow and the traditional recurve bow.

Let’s dive into them!

What is a Longbow?

A longbow is the type of bow that has been used since early man first started using bows for hunting and protection, and they are also the simplest kind of bow to make.

The English were particularly famous for their Longbows all throughout history. I wrote an article all about the English Longbow and why it so awesome.

The shape of the longbow is what sets it apart from a recurve. A longbow has what some people describe as a D shape. The limbs of the bow bend slightly toward the archer, making a smooth curved line where the string does not make contact with the bow limbs.

Longbows are usually made from a single piece of wood or several pieces laminated together.

What is a Traditional Recurve Bow?

Many different cultures have used recurve bows for thousands of years. The shape of the bow is what is important when it comes to recurves. All recurves have the same basic shape where the tops of the limbs curve away from the archer.

Traditional recurve bows are typically made of a solid piece of wood and do not have any equipment like sights or stabilizers added to them.

Types of Recurve Bows

Any bow that is shaped like a recurve where the ends curve away from the archer is considered a recurve bow regardless of other features. Even crossbows can be described as having recurved limbs if they are shaped this way.

Modern recurve bows are typically made of metals or compositive materials, but they can also include some wood components.

Unlike the traditional recurve, a modern recurve is not usually made of a single piece of material. Instead, modern recurves have the ability to be broken down into three pieces: two limbs and the riser. This feature is convenient for transporting the bow and allows the limbs to be replaced more easily if they become damaged.

When archers talk about modern recurves, they are usually referring to either the barebow or the Olympic recurve.

What is Barebow Archery?

A “barebow” is a recurve bow that does not have any extra equipment added to it, which is why it is called “bare.”

A barebow will not have any of the following accessories:

  • A clicker
  • A sight
  • Stabilizers
  • High tech arrow rest

There is some debate among barebow enthusiasts regarding what truly constitutes “Barebow”. Some think small stabilizers should be allowed; some think that basic arrow rests should be allowed. However, ALL barebow enthusiasts agree on 1 thing: NO MECHANICAL RELEASE AIDS ALLOWED!

Barebow enthusiast practicing.

What is an Olympic Recurve Bow?

An Olympic recurve bow is the kind of bow that is used by archers competing in Olympic-style archery events, but archers of all kinds have been known to use Olympic recurve bows. Occasionally, you might even find someone who uses it for bow hunting, but this is a rare occurrence.

An Olympic recurve bow is exactly like a barebow except that an Olympic recurve bow uses extra equipment like a sight, a clicker, and stabilizers.

  • The Sight: A sight attaches to the riser and gives the archer the ability to aim using a pin or a dot. For Olympic recurve bows this sight cannot provide any magnification or enhance your natural vision in any way.
  • The Clicker: A clicker is a narrow piece of metal that sits above the arrow and makes a clicking that can be felt and heard when the archer draws the bow a certain amount. This helps the archer make sure they are drawing the bow the same way each time they shoot an arrow which increases their ability to get off consistently accurate shots.
  • The Stabilizer: A stabilizer is a weighted metal rod that sticks out from the front of the bow and sometimes from one or both sides. This adds stability and balance to the bow. Archers will use different lengths weights, and arrangements for their stabilizer depending on their personal preference.

Here’s a video clip of the Men’s Olympic Recurve Gold Medal match in Rio 2016:

Is a Modern Recurve Bow Better than a Traditional Bow?

The best bow to use is the one that suits your purpose the best and that you have the most fun using.

Many archers love shooting with an Olympic recurve bow when practicing target archery because, with all the extra accessories, you can get extremely accurate at longer ranges.

Others love the different skills involved in Traditional Archery. There is a certain awe and glory one experiences when practicing archery the way our ancestors have done for thousands of years.

The ease of use, power, accuracy, and portability of each bow are all factors you will need to consider when selecting which bow you want to use.

Power

The power of a bow is one of the most important features it has to offer.

What is Power? In technical terms, Power is Work/Time. Basically, the bow that can shoot the same arrow faster is the more powerful bow.

This does not necessarily mean the bow that has a higher draw weight

Power factors into how far you can shoot an arrow and how hard the arrow will hit a target when you’re using it.

All things being equal, a recurve bow is more powerful than a longbow. This is because the shape of a recurve bow allows it to hold more energy in the recurved limbs than a longbow (it can launch the arrow faster).

Because longbows tend to have more geometrical imperfections in the limbs (they don’t draw perfectly straight every time), recurve bows will also transfer the energy to the arrow more effectively than a longbow.

Traditional recurve bows, which are made of wood, are generally not as powerful as those made of more modern materials. The limbs of modern bows can benefit from the use of composite materials which work better than wood.

An Olympic recurve bow isn’t actually any more powerful than any other top of the line modern recurve bow. The only difference is the accessories. The equipment helps improve an archer’s consistency and accuracy from distances, but it does not increase the power.

Ease of Use

A longbow and a recurve bow may require different shooting techniques, but one isn’t necessarily easier than the other.

The only advantage a recurve bow has is that they usually have a lighter draw weight. A lighter draw weight means it can be easier to use when you are still building your arm, back, and shoulder strength.

Accuracy

An Olympic recurve would typically be equipped with a sight, which can make it easier to aim. However, many experienced archers have success with a technique called string walking to aim their arrows.

When an archer uses string walking, they aim at the target and draw the bow from different locations to cause the arrow to hit higher or lower. This method relies on the archer being very experienced in this method and knowing the feel of a shot.

A sight allows archers to be more consistent, and they do not need to learn string walking. It is easier for beginners to get the hang of especially those who are familiar with using a sight in other sports.

Portability

The modern recurve bow is almost always going to be more portable than a traditional longbow or even a traditional recurve. This is because a modern recurve bow can be broken down into three pieces and packed into a case.

However, a bow of any kind can be made easily portable by using a case.

Any Olympic recurve bow is easy to travel with, but it is not typically used outside of target archery because it is bulky and difficult to maneuver in tight spaces.

Here is a chart that summarizes the difference between the longbow, traditional recurve, barebow, and Olympic recurve:

  Longbow Traditional Recurve Barebow Olympic Recurve
Power Less powerful More powerful Most powerful Most powerful
Ease of Use Requires experience Good for beginner Good for beginner Using a clicker is not good for beginners
Accuracy Less accurate unless highly experienced Less accurate unless highly experienced Less accurate unless highly experienced Most accurate
Portability Less portable Less portable Most portable Less portable
Bow Hunting* Good option Good option Good option Not a good option

*Most bow hunters use compound bows.

The Takeaway

Even though a traditional bow can also be a recurve bow, the difference between traditional recurve bows and modern recurve bows is significant.

Traditional recurves are made of one solid piece of wood and modern recurves are made of metal and composite materials and can be broken down into three pieces.

The bow you choose to use will depend on what you’re trying to do with it, the power and portability you require, and how experienced you are.

How to Shoot a Bow and Arrow Instinctively

The bow and arrow is commonly shot through superior sights in today’s world. But for thousands of years, people have used them for both hunting and warfare. According to artofmanliness.com, most people throughout history had to learn the art of shooting a bow instinctively.

The ancient Chinese saw the bow as a philosophical metaphor in many cases. Confucious, who was an archery teacher used the mind-body practice as an analogy for effortless action.

 “To successfully shoot a bow and arrow intuitively, you’ve got to try not to try, because the moment you start trying too hard to aim, you end up missing the target completely. So it goes in life as well.”

            -Confucious’ thoughts on the Bow and Arrow, artofmanliness.com

If you use a bow to hunt, I do not necessarily recommend adopting a style of instinctive shooting. It could still, however, be a useful and fun bow and arrow skill to learn, and the steps to doing so will be explained below.

This is a practice best suited for recurve bows and traditional bows. It is possible to practice this method with a compound bow, though it is not recommended.

1.      Take a Relaxed Stance

Stand upright, stay relaxed and keep your shoulders pointed at your target. In terms of your feet, you can stand in 2 ways.

You can adopt an open stance or a square stance. A square stance is when your feet are in line with your shoulders, with each foot’s sides parallel to the target. This is the standard fundamental stance. If at any point you realize that you are pulling the bowstring with your arms and not your back muscles, take on and ensure that you’re a sound square stance.

In an open stance, the back foot is in the same place as it is in a square stance, but the foot closer to the target is pulled backwards a few inches, leaving the toes pointed towards the target. An open stance rotates your hips towards the target and is great for shooting on uneven ground. This is not a stance for beginners.

2.      Attach the Nock to the Bow String

Place the ace the arrow shaft on the bow’s arrow rest. Next, attach the arrow’s nock, the plastic part at the end of the arrow, to the bowstring. If your bow has two nock locators, the plastic beads on the bowstring, place the nock in between them. If your bow has one nock locator, place the nock below it. Always place your nock in the same permanent location.

3.      Make Sure You are Gripping the Bow Correctly

Place the bow in your non-dominant hand. That is your left hand if you are right-handed and vice versa. You want the grip of the bow to rest on the pad of your thumb.

Make sure you do not squeeze the bow too tightly. The best way to envision this is as if you are holding fine china. You want to hold it firmly because obviously, you can’t drop it, but loosely enough so that you would not crack or break it.

Also take care that your forearm is not too in-line with the string, if you aren’t wearing an armguard, this will hurt. If your knuckles create a 45-degree angle with the grip, this is a good way to ensure that you are gripping the bow correctly. Another good way to envision gripping, just for the sake of pressure, is to imagine you are shaking someone’s hand.

Once the arrow is correctly nocked, and you are gripping the bow with your opposite hand with a sound form, you are ready to grip the bowstring. There are actually various ways to grip a bowstring, but we will discuss what is called the Mediterranean Method.

With this method use 3 fingers, your index, middle and ring fingers, to pull the arrow string back. The string should be in the groove behind your top knuckles and the arrow’s nock should be in between your middle and index fingers. If that is too uncomfortable, you can put all three finger beneath the nock.

4.      Prepare for the Draw

Before you draw back the bowstring, you want to make sure the box is in the right location. The only thing you need to make sure is right is the opposite arm holding the bow should be pointed outward at shoulder’s length.

5.      Drawing Back, Anchoring the String and Aim

DO NOT use your arms to pull back the bowstring, this will cause you to underdraw it. Use your back muscles and imagine you are squeezing your shoulder blades together while doing so.

Draw the string back to your anchor point. This is the reference point in line with your shoulders, on your face, that you use to ensure you draw the arrow back consistently. It could be your chin, a spot on the corner of your mouth, etc. Just make sure it’s in line with your shoulder, and make sure you use the same anchor point all the time.

Aim the point of your arrow at your target. Don’t overthink this or grip hard. Take a big breath on the draw-back, and slowly release your breath until releasing the arrow.

6.      What Makes Perfect?

Practice!

Like with most things, practice makes one a perfect instinctive bow shooter. A few more tips are to follow through with your shot. This means to push your bow hand forward towards the target and pull your string hand back.

But again, the biggest thing is to shoot a bow frequently. Becoming an accurate and steady instinctive shooter is about developing a feel, and that takes lots and lots and LOTS of practice.

Peter Sontrop

I live in Alberta, Canada where I enjoy field archery and target shooting with traditional bows and compound bows. On this site, I share everything I’ve learned about archery along the way.

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