A Second Look At Recurve Bowhunting
September 24, 2010
At one point or another, most compound bow hunters ponder what it would be like to try recurve hunting. Here's what you need to know.
Mike McDaniel suggests that recurve hunters practice under a variety of conditions, and that they practice a lot. He shoots 10 groups of 10 arrows each every day starting in July.
Photo by Bruce Ingram
When I was a boy growing up in the South, my mom and dad bought me a recurve. I had begged for a bow because in my 8-year-old heart of hearts, I just knew that I would be able to shoot more easily the cottontails that dwelled in the woods behind our house. My neighborhood chums and I had spent hours fashioning primitive longbows and then had deemed them unsuitable as bunny bows after unsuccessfully spending many more hours chasing after our quarry.
Alas, although Phillip, Michael, Steven and I all received recurves from our respective parents, we were all still unable to arrow a rabbit. And so ended my flirtation with the recurve until I became a father and my son was interested in bowhunting and wanted to learn how to shoot both a compound and a recurve. I didn't know how to help him select the latter category of bow so out of touch was I with this form of bowhunting.
Like many modern-day hunters, I began to bowhunt as a way to extend my deer-hunting season -- not because of any particular fascination with the pastime of archery. And when I did select a bow, my choice was the typical one -- a compound, which is by far the norm for many sportsmen in the region. But if you want to undertake a different and very traditional form of bowhunting, then the recurve is worth a look.
One recurve enthusiast who has been successful in making the switch is Mike McDaniel, a sales manager for Tridim Filter Corporation in Roanoke, Virginia. McDaniel's dad gave him his first exposure to this type of bow when Mike was a youngster growing up in western Arkansas.
"When I was 14 years old, I began to hunt with an old Ben Pearson wooden recurve that had a draw weight of 40 pounds," recalled the 40-year-old McDaniel. "All I wanted to do growing up was to fish and hunt, and my dad's recurve was a way I could spend time in the woods and maybe bring something home for my family to eat.
"As a kid, I liked everything about my bow -- the simplicity in the construction, how light it was, no need for tuning, and the fact that there were no cables. There weren't any deer around then, but I was able to shoot some squirrels and rabbits with my recurve. Heck, at that age, to kill anything was a big deal."
McDaniel used the old recurve for several years, but as was inevitable, his arms grew, the bow aged, and as he notes: "I wrecked the limbs." His dad then bought for him an early compound and thus ended for some 20 years Mike's experiences with a recurve. But not his pleasant memories with this kind of archery tackle.
"By the time I was 35 years old, I, like many Southern hunters, had killed a lot of deer with rifles, muzzleloaders and compounds," McDaniel said. "I don't want to say that deer hunting had become easy for me, it definitely hadn't, but I wanted a little more of a challenge or at least a different kind of challenge, and I found it by going back to the recurve."
The Virginian has mostly stopped pursuing whitetails with a rifle or muzzleloader and also ceased employing a compound for deer, except when he decides to still-hunt for them. Mike maintains that it is simply too hard for him to sneak up on a bedded or feeding deer and move within effective recurve range.
Perspective recurve users should know their effective maximum range, insists McDaniel; for him it is about 20 yards. At distances beyond that, the "arcing factor" comes into play. That means that an archer may have to aim 6 to 8 inches high at distances of around 30 yards. This is definitely a difficult task and decision-making process when a whitetail is approaching and the time to make an assessment is short.
Another reason why the recurve is strictly a short-range bow is the relative slowness that an arrow propelled travels. For example, McDaniel said that his Martin Hatfield Take Down, which has a draw weight of 60 pounds, will send forth an arrow at 180 feet per second. Conversely, arrows coming from his compound will reach 305 feet per second. At a distance of 30 yards, the arrows coming from a recurve are rapidly losing speed, as well as dropping.
Perspective recurve purchasers have much more to consider, especially concerning construction. Some strict traditionalists demand recurves that are made only of wood, often maple. Walnut, bubinga and zebrawood are some of the other woods used in bow construction. Some recurves also feature fiberglass-backed or laminated fiberglass limbs as well as limb tips with phenolic fibers. In short, today's recurve can be a strictly traditional wood model, have some elements of modern technology, or can be relatively high tech -- as far as a recurve is concerned. Prices typically range from just over $200 up to $850. Used bows on E-Bay can often be bought for under $200.
If you really want to step into the proverbial hornet's nest, then debate the merits of cedar arrows vs. those made from aluminum or carbon.
"There can be real arrogance on this topic," McDaniel noted. "For example, when I had just gotten back into shooting a recurve, I went to an elk hunting camp out West. There I met a guy who had one of the most meticulously constructed and painted traditional recurves I have ever seen. He acted very snobbishly toward me and the other people using recurves and said that the only arrows that should be shot from a recurve had to be made from cedar.
"Well, we went out to the range to target shoot before the hunt, and the guy's cedar arrows were all over the place and flying who knows where. As I had feared, he went out and shot an elk in the hip and couldn't find the wounded animal.
"I'm not saying that cedar arrows are impossible to pattern; there are a lot of archers who kill a lot of deer with them. But I am saying that each cedar arrow is an individual piece of wood with its own idiosyncrasies. A bowhunter has to spend many, many hours practicing with his recurve and cedar arrows to make sure that he can make a killing shot."
For McDaniel, however, the best option was to try arrows of more modern construction. The Virginian first employed aluminum but could not learn how to shoot those arrows consistently either. He then decided to try the same carbon arrows that performed so well with his compound, and to his joy they also matched up well with the recurve.
The only thing McDaniel had to do was utilize longer carbon arrows (30 5/8 inches) with his re
curve than he does with his compound (28 inches). For instance, for a recurve, the sportsman prefers a bow with a length of 60 inches, as anything shorter tends to "pinch" him up. He also "shoots fingers" as compared to the release he uses when afield with a compound. All these factors combined required him to have arrows of slightly longer lengths.
ODDS AND ENDS: ACCESSORIES
Although by nature and construction, recurves are inherently quieter than compounds, McDaniel still wanted to make his recurve more noise-free. So he attached the same spider silencers to the string that he uses for his compound. Traditionalists often employ silencers made from beaver hide.
Bow quivers are often considered an essential accessory. Traditional quivers are often crafted from leather and mount solidly to a bow in two places. Some recurve enthusiasts prefer a back quiver. This style can contain up to a dozen arrows, as well as have pockets to store calls, knives and scents. Quivers can range from $40 to $80.
Rests also offer the traditional and modern-day options. Arrow rests covered with bear hair are often favored by those in the former camp, while sealskin is sometimes the choice for the latter. And both constituencies typically demand arm guards.
"You bet your life, string slap from a recurve can be painful," McDaniel confessed. "It won't happen every time you shoot, but it will happen enough to make you think about it and cause you to flinch sometimes when you shoot. String slap often happens when an archer wears clothing that is too loose and baggy. The worst string slap I ever had was when I shot at a squirrel. I felt like I had been hit by a .22."
Traditional arm guards are usually made from deerskin, while others are composed of leather or some combination of synthetics. For the latter, expect to pay between $15 and $20.
Another consideration is the type of arrow vanes. For cedar shafts, real feathers are often the choice because they flatten when they come into contact with the shelf. Synthetic feathers do not. Finally, broadhead style is another topic to ponder. McDaniel recommends two-blade versions over three-blade because, in his opinion, the latter require more energy to penetrate sufficiently. Two blades cut much deeper on impact.
McDaniel emphasized that individuals thinking of taking up a recurve for deer hunting must commit to considerable preparation time.
"Every year, I start seriously practicing in July," he said. "If I have the time every day, I try to shoot 10 groups of 10 arrows each. I set up a pie plate on a target that is 20 yards away with my goal being to put all 10 of those arrows inside the pan. Even if I don't have the time, I'm going to at least shoot 25 to 30 arrows."
While interviewing McDaniel, I told him that I annually begin practicing with my compound in mid-July and from then until the season begins, I shoot nine arrows a day, five days a week. He told me that although that regimen will work fine for compound users, it would not suffice for the recurve archer.
"So much more can go wrong with a recurve," he told me. "For example, you have to hit your anchor point just right and you have to have a perfectly smooth release. This is not always easily accomplished because recurve hunters use fingers. I also think it is essential for the recurve hunter to practice from the same elevated heights where his tree stands will be positioned."
The Old Dominion archer explains that he has two stand sites in his back yard. The first is a ladder stand that he has erected behind the house, and the "second" is his sundeck. From both locales, he places a target 20 yards away. McDaniel said that he cannot emphasize enough the need for recurvers to learn precisely what is a 20-yard shot. Even then, the unexpected can happen.
"Several years ago, I had been in a tree stand the entire morning, but it was raining and I hadn't seen anything," remembered McDaniel. "So since the forest floor was very quiet, I decided to climb down and still-hunt. I came to the foot of this old logging road that went up a mountain, and there -- not 20 yards uphill from me -- was an 8-point buck feeding broadside in the road.
"I drew back on the buck and sent an arrow right over his back. The reason why I missed is that I had never practiced shooting uphill before. I really had no business shooting uphill -- or downhill for that matter -- unless I had practiced that kind of shot."
Obviously, all bowhunters should extensively rehearse the type of shot that might occur in the field. But McDaniel proclaimed that this is particularly true for those who bowhunt with a recurve.
BIG BUCKS ARE POSSIBLE
Can a recurve toter expect to kill a big buck? Mike McDaniel certainly believes so.
"Several years ago, I watched a fine, wide-beamed 8-pointer fight another buck in a creek bottom, and the next week I came back to the same spot," he recalled. "It was mid-October and really warm that morning -- as it often is in the South -- and a 15- to 20-minute shower had just finished. Not long after the rain stopped, the buck came out of the creek bottom along a trail that led to a clearcut. I had an easy 18-yard shot and the deer only went about 60 yards."
This anecdote illustrates several important points relevant to recurve users.
First, recurve users must set up close to trails, as McDaniel did. Whereas archers afield with compounds can often take and make 30-yard shots, those bowhunters using recurves generally cannot.
Second, recurve users will often have to crowd deer feeding and bedding areas. There are no fiber optic sights on a traditional recurve that will enable an archer to shoot just after sunrise or late in the evening.
Third, McDaniel maintained that recurvers must mind the wind. Since they will be set up closer to feeding and bedding areas and paths, these archers are more likely to have deer scent them. Very strict scent control is a must. Also important is wearing fleece or very quiet clothes, he said.
Finally, the Virginian recommended that recurve archers always cut shooting lanes. Since an arrow propelled from a recurve travels at a slower speed, and therefore follows a more "arched" flight path, the arrow is much more likely to be deflected if it kisses any type of stick or limb.
The bow has existed for thousands of years and helped propel humans into modernity by giving them the ability to kill animals from a distance. Not much later, our ancestors learned that the bow could also be employed to kill their fellow human beings from a distance, as bows were used in wars as early as 5,000 B.C.
Sometime in the 10th century, the Turks began to use the precursor of the modern-day recurve. Their bows were a mixture of wood and animal horns and tendons and curved outward at the tips. During the Crusades of the Middle Ages (the time of Henry II, Richard the Lionhearted and Robin Hood), a nasty l
ittle weapon called the crossbow wreaked havoc. The longbow became the weapon of mass destruction in the 1300s and 1400s. Indeed, in 1415 at the Battle of Agincourt, 13,000 Brits armed with longbows decimated a French army of 50,000 strong. But the longbow's position as the ultimate weapon also came to an end, as firearms came to the fore in the 1500s.
And on the final day of archery season last year, Mike McDaniel was high in a tree stand overlooking a trail that led to a field. He could have been there with a compound; instead, the sportsman clutched his recurve. Twenty minutes before sunset, 13 antlerless deer emerged from a bedding area and began making their way to the opening. McDaniel drew back, released an arrow and it found its mark. And once again, the recurve proved its worth for a modern-day bowhunter.