Speed bows are loud and hard to shoot, right? Not really. Extra speed is always a good thing for bowhunters, and you don’t need to make many concessions to get it
Do an online search for “speed bows” and you’ll find no shortage of articles and forum threads highlighting all the supposed problems associated with them for bowhunters. It’s become so common, in fact, for writers to trash-talk speed bows that we’ve created our own set of speed bow cliches and buzzwords. One of my favorites: “A slow hit is better than a fast miss.”
What a bunch of nonsense. The implication is that in order to get speed, you must sacrifice the other desirable traits of a hunting bow, like a smooth draw, quiet arrow, and high level of accuracy. But speed doesn’t preclude any of those things. If it did, low-brace-height speed bows would be at a huge overall disadvantage. But most major bow companies still sell them. Is that because would-be speed bow customers are too stupid to know the difference, and those bow brands are shysters? I doubt it; most of the guys I see shooting speed bows are both gear nuts and very accomplished bowhunters, who strive to use the best stuff. And the people who work at bow companies are almost universally hunters themselves, who genuinely believe in their products.
Truth is, all else being equal or close to it, extra speed is always a good thing to have in a hunting bow.
It could be that the ones speaking of speed bows in a negative light don’t really know what they’re talking about. Truth is, all else being equal or close to it, extra speed is always a good thing to have in a hunting bow. And the “all else” I’m talking about — smooth draw, quiet shot, good accuracy — is much easier to find now than speed bow detractors would sometimes have you believe.
Advertised speeds, whether ATA or IBO, aren’t realistic for real-world hunting. If you’re talking speed bows, you need to understand that first. Generally, IBO/ATA speeds are calculated using a 70-pound bow set to 30 inches, shooting a bare-shaft 350-grain arrow, with a naked bowstring (no peep, etc.).
In the real world, most male hunters draw 28 to 28.5 inches, pull 65 pounds, and shoot a finished-weight hunting arrow (that’s fletching and broadhead included) of around 400 grains. Female shooters generally have shorter draw lengths and shoot a little less weight, but ladies’ bows usually advertise IBO speed, too.
Take those speeds with a grain of salt. Besides the differences in real-world specs, some bow brands inflate what they advertise because they know most hunters will never actually check them. Still, IBO/ATA ratings give you a baseline to know whether you’re shooting a “speed bow” or not, by looking at the year-to-year average speeds.
Today, the trend for flagship bows is about a 330 IBO average, and 340 to 350 for speed bows. There are a few that claim speeds of up to 360. Regardless of real-world speeds, the speed bow will be faster than the “regular” bow, if all else is the same — say, 28 inches, 65 pounds, 400-grain arrow. The speed bow shoots the same arrow faster when set to the same specs, and that creates a trajectory advantage, which helps with a lot of things. You can get by with fewer pins, and tighter gaps between your pins, for one. And it helps compensate for slight errors in range estimation on longer shots.
More speed also makes arrows penetrate better — again, assuming the arrow is equal — because extra speed increases both the kinetic energy and the momentum of your arrow. That, in my opinion, is the real benefit to shooting a speed bow. No matter what bow I’m shooting, most of my shots at whitetails are inside 25 yards, where the trajectory advantage is no big deal. But I like the confidence of knowing my setup will break a bone if needed and will bury to the fletch on angled shots. And I can do even more to help that penetration potential at close range, like shoot a heavier arrow (mine are 475 grains), increase the front of center, or switch to a cut-on-contact broadhead.
The extra speed only helps with all of the above. Simply put, a bow that shoots harder is better at killing stuff, and the physics on that don’t lie.
It’s so often said that speed bows are louder and vibrate more than slow bows that many take it for a fact. That’s the trouble with the internet. I’ve done enough objective testing of various bows in sound chambers to know it’s not a universal truth. Riser design and materials, limb design, and sound and vibration deadening systems — all key areas of focus for today’s bow engineers — have way more to do with noise and vibration than a bow’s IBO rating. To be fair, I’ve shot speed bows that would rattle your teeth — but I’ve shot slow bows that were loud and kicked, too. The best bows out there are smooth, quiet, and fast (and that blend is what you pay for if you’re shelling out dough for a high-end flagship bow).
I’ve read that speed bows are harder to shoot accurately, due to their “short, unforgiving brace heights.” Short brace heights and demanding draw cycles do have some pitfalls (more on that in a bit), but personally I’ve never seen that make a difference in the group size I could turn in with a speed bow. On the contrary, I’ve actually seen many archers shoot better with speed bows than with slow bows. Why? It may be coincidence. Or perhaps it’s because that more demanding draw cycle encourages better shooting form and concentration.
To be fair, I’ve shot speed bows that would rattle your teeth — but I’ve shot slow bows that were loud and kicked, too.
I’ve read that broadhead flight gets erratic at high arrow speeds, unless you use a mechanical. If this were true, you’d never get fixed-blade broadheads to group from a 400-plus-fps crossbow, right? But I’ve seen that happen over and again. Now, broadhead flight can get sketchy at extreme speeds, but the fix is not as simple as just using a mechanical. Generally speaking, smaller-diameter broadheads do group better at high speed — but not always. I’ve seen some fast crossbows group really well with standard 1 3/16-inch fixed heads, and then spray mechanicals all over. Point is, try multiple broadheads with any bow you’re shooting, but don’t let anyone tell you you’re required to shoot a mechanical because your bow is fast.
The Real Drawbacks of Speed Bows Aren’t What You Think
To quote Matt McPherson, founder of Mathews Archery, extra speed does come at a cost — again, if all other things are equal. For most bow brands, the “speed” version of a flagship bow has about the same cam system but a shorter brace height; 5 to 6 inches is the going measurement among today’s speed bows. Brace height is the distance from the bowstring to the throat of the grip; the shorter it is, the longer the arrow is in contact with the string. Thought of another way, it’s like increasing the draw length but on the front end of the draw cycle.
A short brace height means the shooter has to draw the bow farther, under peak draw weight, to reach full draw. That’s a difference you can feel, and it’s often referred to as a “demanding” draw cycle. Short-brace-height bows are more difficult to pull throughout the duration of the cycle than otherwise identical bows with a longer brace height.
Short brace heights tend to cause more forearm and wrist-slap issues, too, since the string is closer to your arm at rest. Nobody likes to get slapped in the arm. And a string slapping a heavy coat on a cold morning can be a disaster. Still, good shooting form and a properly positioned bow arm pretty much mitigates that problem.
Here’s a true story. I’m not a “speed freak,” but I’ll take extra if I can get it. I started last bow season shooting an Elite Kure, which has a 6.5-inch brace height and an IBO of 335 fps. It’s a good bow that I shot well, and it had the feel of a classic “smooth bow,” with an easy draw cycle from start to finish. I killed a couple of deer with it and had few complaints.
But about midway through the season, I got a chance to test the new EnKore, which could be called Elite’s first speed bow. It actually had similar specs to the Kure but was an inch longer axle to axle and had a shorter 6-inch brace height, which bumped its IBO rating up to 340 fps. There are some way faster bows out there — but the point is, the EnKore is a lot like the Kure, except a bit faster. And by all counts, I liked it better. There’s a slight difference in the draw cycle, but no difference that I could detect in noise or vibration. I shot the EnKore better than I did the Kure, and it was a little punchier, too. I killed good bucks with it in Tennessee and Texas, plus some pigs and a big Rio Grande gobbler.
Picking a bow remains pretty subjective, and in my opinion the most important thing a buyer can do is shoot multiple bows from multiple brands, side by side. But from there, remember that there are objective parts to consider as well — and the truth is, if you can shoot it well (and you probably can), a fast bow has real advantages over a slow one.