I got an email from a Olympic Recurve student regarding what kind of bow to move up to. He is a serious student who has a good beginner/intermediate bow, an SF Premium Plus. He had tried a couple of other bows but went on to say “Not that it will make me a better archer, but if I feel more comfortable, maybe it will help me improve. What do you think?” Often these requests are just fishing for recommendations of brands and models for them to go check out but this request is more level-headed and needed to be taken seriously. Specifically, it is important to not pooh-pooh the effect of a new bow on keeping interest in the sport up. One does not, though, want to encourage students to be constantly buying new gear because that is what they like best about archery.:. playing with new gear. If the archer’s goal is to shoot competitive scores, the equipment’s role is secondary and if you let it become primary, don’t expect to meet high goals.
Here’s my response to this student’s question (slightly modified):
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Let me quote former Olympian, Simon Needham of England:
“When an archer starts out a reasonable ‘beginner bow’ is a good bow to start with. Then when moving on to the point of to getting their own bow, a mid-priced bow will be a good choice with ILF limbs. Then, as they get better and stronger, they may well need to get higher poundage limbs. As they pass the 500 point and perhaps are looking for a better bow, I suggest that they get a top level riser, either new if they can afford it or a good second hand one. At this stage of shooting, a new or good second hand bow will have the same benefit. Any of the manufacturers best risers will take the archer up to the 650 level. It is really only scoring at that level that one manufacturer’s riser will suit an archer better than another.”
The “500 point” he is referring to is a score in the Olympic Ranking Round (72 arrows shot at 70 m at a 122 cm target face, 720 points possible). The 650 level is an internationally competitive level and he is saying that only when you are that good can you tell the difference between one high quality bow and another.
So, basically, you can go a couple of routes. You can stick with what you have and make adjustments (see below) or you can upgrade to a near top-tier bow (used high quality risers are much cheaper than new). You don’t really need to worry about nuances until you are shooting very, very well. I also add that the very top-tier bows require elite expertise to shoot them well and are to be avoided until you reach that level. (Some students get carried away with a credit card.)
If you decide to keep going with what you have, the same basic considerations are involved: how does the bow feel and how does it shoot? The feel is determined by the weight of the bow (which can be adjusted by adding stabilizer weights or weights screwed directly to the riser, and the grip section. Grips can be purchased to replace the grip on your bow or, if that is not possible, the grip that is on your bow now can be modified (using polyester auto body fillers, tape, etc.—see photos). You may want to experiment with adjustments to both of these to get a better idea in your mind what you want from your bow—some prefer heavier bows, some lighter. If you prefer lighter, don’t buy a heavy riser, etc. I spend a great deal of time sanding and taping grips so they feel right in my hand.
Also, if you are shooting with others and someone has a bow with a draw weight you can handle, it is acceptable to ask them to try their bow. It is also acceptable for them to say “no” to your request and you must not take this personally. If you do get a chance to try other bows, be sure to use your sling! Dropping someone’s bow on the floor or ground is not a good way to make friends.
Some bows fit me like a glove. Others are uncomfortable no matter what I do (too heavy, too front heavy, etc.). Trying a selection of bows will educate you as to what you like and do not like.
Evaluating whether you can shoot a bow well can only happen after you buy one because you have to tune it in, shoot it until you are comfortable, and then shoot some practice rounds to see if it at least scores as well as your old bow. (If it doesn’t, no matter how hard you try, it goes up on eBay to get enough money to buy another.)
I suspect you wanted me to say “Buy a Hoyt” or some such, but it is not the case. I heard Coach Kim of Korea ask in a seminar at the Olympic Training Center in California “Who make best bow?” When we were confused as to what he was asking, he followed with “Hoyt make best bow” which we were a little shocked at. Then he chuckled and pointed to himself and said “Hoyt dealer for all of Korea! Ha, ha!” He went on to say, “bow doesn’t really matter.” An archer who shot a 1340 FITA Round, would be given a new bow and when tuned in and comfortable, he would be shooting 1340 FITA rounds with it. “It is archer, not bow,” emphasized Coach Kim.
Having said that, there are personal preferences and Coach Kim was comparing top drawer bows from elite manufacturers. There are differences between bows but the best bows made by the major manufacturers are all capable of supporting world record scores, if the archer is capable. And as Simon mentioned above, you are not going to be able to even notice the differences between one high-end bow and another until you have reach quite a high level of expertise.
Also, you can go piecemeal on this. Buy limbs first or riser first, then the other later. (Buying better limbs will affect performance much more than buying a better riser.)
Buying a new bow is something I recommend to archers who a) have settled on a draw weight (have you?) and have reached a plateau in their performance (have you?). The only “need” of a new bow is when the bow you have is limiting your performance somehow. Buying good limbs is quite expensive and after you do if you decide you need a different weight limb, you have just spend a wad of money on a short-term use of the first limbs you bought. If you are still trying out different draw weights, I recommend you stick with limbs like those available for the SF Premium risers.