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Archery is both a fun hobby and an important survival skill.
Unlike, say, firearms, you can practice archery in your own backyard (provided you have a good backstop!)
A bow is also a silent companion in the woods and, with the right arrows and enough practice, you can put down any animal in North America.
But there’s a bit of an ego problem in the sport.
I used to teach Renaissance-era archery. 6’5″ men would come up to me and demand the biggest, strongest bow I had because they hunted with a 75-pound compound bow.
I’d hand them a 42-pound self bow and they would be in over their heads, arrow hand shaking, arrow landing somewhere in the hay.
They’d look over at their girlfriend, new to the sport, with a bow under 20 pounds, landing arrows in the dragon’s neck.
When it comes to bows, heavier isn’t always better.
And for those of you new to archery, what the heck is draw weight anyway?
What is Draw Weight?
Draw weight is one of the more important bow measurements, alongside draw length.
When you pull back on a bowstring the limbs bend, loading with potential force held in check by your fingers.
Those limbs want to return forward to their original position. The further back the bow is drawn, the more force awaits your release, and the more “weight” your fingers feel.
You can measure how much weight you’re drawing back with a bow draw weight scale, though I’ve used a luggage scale in a pinch.
Bows are designed to “weigh” a certain amount at a certain distance, typically 28″ inches.
That distance is the bow’s anchor distance, by the way.
Why is Draw Weight Important?
Knowing your draw distance is important because you lose several pounds of draw weight for every inch shorter than the anchor distance you draw and gain several pounds for every inch you draw past the anchor point.
And if you draw too far past the anchor point then you may subject the bow to more force than it was designed to handle, with explosive results!
But that’s not the only reason why you want to know your draw weight.
Your draw weight is how many pounds you can comfortably hold when at full draw.
Using a lighter bow is not a problem but you won’t have as much force behind the arrow as possible, which is a handicap when hunting or shooting over long distances.
Using a heavier bow is more of a problem.
That’s because your muscles won’t be able to hold the bow and arrow steady, destroying your accuracy.
Compound bows have let-off so you don’t hold the bow’s true draw weight when at full draw.
However, if its peak draw–the highest amount of weight you have to pull through–is too heavy for you then you’re going to become fatigued much faster than if you use a bow with a proper draw weight.
Also, form is extremely important for archery. Using a too-heavy bow makes it harder for you to maintain proper form, whether it’s a traditional or compound bow.
How to Tell if Your Bow is Too Heavy
It’s easy to tell if your bow is too heavy for you when you’re shooting a traditional bow, such as a self bow or recurve.
Stand in the proper stance and pull the string back to full draw and hold it for three seconds.
Does your hand start to shake during that time?
Then that bow is too heavy for you!
If you’re steady when standing but not when kneeling then your bow is slightly too heavy for you, too.
The hand-shaking test doesn’t work with compound bows thanks to the let-off, but there are some tests and signs to watch out for.
The easiest way to tell if a compound bow is too heavy is to see if you can easily draw the string straight back without having to start the draw with the bow pointed upward.
Starting with the bow up and pulling it down with your left hand as you draw with your right brings more muscles into play, allowing you to draw a heavier bow than you should be drawing.
This action is fine at the range but can get you in trouble in the woods. Tree limbs might get in the way or you may not have the space to perform such an action in a hunting blind.
You can also test if your bow is set too heavy by drawing from unusual positions.
Sit on a chair with your feet in the air. Kneel on the ground. Or even stand up, bend down, and aim at the ground while drawing.
If any of those are difficult despite standing up straight in perfect form is easy then you may be using a bow that’s slightly too heavy for you!
Determining Your Draw Weight
If you’re an experienced archer then you can use the above tests and a bow scale to figure out a good draw weight for you.
Hint: It’s slightly lighter than when you fail the tests.
If you’re new to archery, however, how do you know where to begin?
In either case, you want to start with a lighter draw and work your way up.
Otherwise, fatigue will foul your results.
You can use the following information to give you a range of bow weights to start from.
Remember: It’s better to use a lighter bow than a heavier one when learning archery. Form is more important than force!
Beginner Draw Weights
Your age, size, biological sex, and previous athletic ability all affect what weight you should draw when learning archery.
That’s not to say that those factors affect your archery skills, though. I’ve seen accurate archers of all shapes.
I’ll give suggested draw weight ranges for both traditional bows and compound bows, since the let-off typically lets new archers use a heavier peak draw weight.
Having some experience in other sports typically lets a beginner archer handle a heavier bow than someone who’s never thrown a ball or been on a balance beam, so each bow style has two sets of numbers:
The first for people new to physical sports and the second for people with other athletic experience.
|Age/Size||Traditional (New)||Traditional (Exp)||Compound Bow (New)||Compound Bow (Exp)|
|Children Under 10||10 - 12||10 - 15||10 - 18||10 - 20|
|Children 10 to 13||10 - 15||12 - 20||15 - 20||20 - 25|
|Teenagers||15 - 22||16 - 25||20 - 25||22 - 30|
|Small Framed Women||18 - 30||20 - 32||25 - 35||30 - 40|
|Small Framed Men||20 - 35||22 - 35||40 - 55||40 - 60|
|Large Framed Women||25 - 40||30 - 45||40 - 60||45 - 70|
|Large Framed Men||35 - 45||35 - 50||45 - 60||50 - 75|
Remember, these are suggested starting ranges, not strict guidelines.
How Much Draw Weight Do You Need to Hunt?
You can slay burlap targets at the range every day with any weight bow.
But real-world animals require minimum draw weights.
Sure, a 20-pound bow can kill a grizzly bear, but you’ll have to do it close and you’re rolling a pair of dice and hoping they’ll come up double sixes.
Plus, don’t let the game warden catch you out there with a bow that’s too light to meet your state’s hunting regulations!
When in doubt, learn and follow those.
However, the following guidelines are commonly accepted minimums.
Deer, Antelope, and Black Bear
Deer and antelope are similar animals of a similar size. Ish.
You want a 40+ pound bow to hunt these animals.
Black bears are bigger than deer but 40 pounds is the minimum for hunting them, too.
Elk, Moose, and Brown Bear
The bigger ungulates and ursines of the world should be hunted with even stronger bows.
Most advice I’ve seen for these animals is to use the strongest bow you can comfortably draw, with a minimum of 60 pounds.
Some states have a lower legal minimum draw weight than this. For example, you can legally take goats, moose, muskox, and brown bear with a 50 pound bow.
I’d err on the heavier side, though!
Bows do best when they match your body.
Draw length, based upon your arm length and shoulder width, is one such measurement.
Just as important, if not more so, is draw weight.
You want to use a bow that’s neither too heavy nor too light for you so you have as much accuracy and power behind your arrows as possible.
Finding this draw weight takes a bit of trial and error but is well worth the trouble.
So go out there, find the perfect bow for you, and slay that target!
Can You Practice With a Too-Heavy Bow?
Some people think it’s a good idea to practice with a bow that’s too heavy for you because it’ll function like strength training and get you to the point where you’ll be able to use that bow properly.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work that way.
See, while you may get a bit stronger, you’ll also be practicing bad form.
That’ll ruin your archery ability more than you’ll gain from using a slightly heavier bow.
Hit the gym and train your pulling muscles to use a stronger bow.
What Draw Weight Do Olympic Archers Use?
Olympic archers are elite archers, but they don’t use the biggest limb-breakers they can find.
Most Olympic archers, both men and women, use bows that fall within about 40-55 pounds.
What’s the Heaviest Draw Weight on a Bow?
A 75-pound recurve may be a monster bow today but would be considered a training bow in years past.
We don’t know precisely how heavy historic draw weights were, partially because historians boasted about how strong their archers were and so tended to inflate the numbers.
The heaviest war bows may have encroached upon 200 pounds.
The heaviest bow on record, drawn by Mark Stretton of the UK, weighed 200 pounds at a 32.5″ draw.