Are you fascinated by the sport of bowhunting? Even if you're satisfied with your firearm, learning how to shoot a bow and arrow offers plenty of benefits to the average hunter. Relying on this simple tool to take down a deer, or even a bear, can provide a new appreciation for the hunt, and what is truly at stake. While most of us no longer rely on knowing how to shoot a bow and arrow for our food, modern bowhunting allows us to step back in time and experience the connection with nature felt by past hunters.
But before you strap a bow to your back and head out into the woods, you need to understand the basics of how to shoot a bow and arrow. While fantasy films like The Lord of the Rings make this skill seem simple, many factors and techniques go into firing a strong, accurate arrow. So how do you shoot a bow and arrow correctly? And how do you take this skill from the practice range into the wild?
What Is a Bow?
Archery, particularly for hunting, has been around for millennia. This practice dates back as far as 20,000 B.C., or the Stone Age, but the earliest confirmed use of the bow and arrow was in Ancient Egypt circa 3,000 B.C. Cultures around the world used the bow and arrow for hunting, warfare, and sport. Today, most people don't learn how to shoot a bow as a part of growing up. But this tool is still a huge part of the modern day hunting culture.
In many ways, the bow and arrow look much different than their thousand-year-old counterparts. But they are also surprisingly alike. Some of the more low-tech bow varieties, like longbows and recurve bows, greatly resemble bows used by the likes of Robin Hood and other iconic characters. And while the crossbows used now look extremely modern, the technology dates back to the 5th century. Not only do these bow styles all look different, but the process of learning how to shoot a bow also varies with each type. So what are the main bow types used today?
Longbows are the most basic type of bow. If you ever tried to make and learn how to shoot a bow as a child, you probably tried to fashion a primitive longbow out of a stick and some string. This bow type features a long stick with a string pulled taut between the two ends. The pressure from this string causes the bow to bend in on itself slightly. Generally, a longbow should be about as tall as the user.
Historically, longbows were useful military weapons because they were light and quick-to-draw. Whether you were on the Medieval battlefield or defending a castle tower, you could easily load and shoot an arrow in the blink of an eye. Longbows were also commonly used in hunting throughout England and Wales. Today, longbows are still used for recreational hunting and target practice. While you see these bows more often at your local Renaissance Faire than out in the wild, they still play a major part in bow hunting.
Recurve bows closely resemble traditional longbows. These bows have the same sleek, tall structure. But each end features a curve, similar to the neck of a violin. Recurve bows have a reputation for smoothness, arrow speed, and accuracy.
Although recurve bows also tend to be a bit shorter than longbows, they are still considerably tall relative to their user. Many historians believe that the main reason for this size difference is the recurve bow's use on horseback. The Mongolians, credited with the recurve bow's first design, used this shorter stature to move the bow to either side of their horse.
Historically, recurve bows were simple wood and string. But today there are countless options for purchasing a ready-made recurve bow or designing your own. Parts can be metal, acrylic, fiberglass, and traditional wood. Oftentimes, recurve bows are the top choice of professional target shooters, including Olympians. While the bow used by an Olympian and the bow used by a recreational shooter are vastly different, they are both technically recurve bows.
At first glance, compound bows look much more complicated than they are. Compound bows use a pulley system to deliver extra power and speed. Because of the pulley system, compound bows are able to deliver an arrow unmatched by most traditional shooters. Many hunters and recreational shooters first learn how to shoot a bow practice with a compound bow before any other type.
The first compound bow was actually a modified recurve bow. In 1966, Holless Wilbur Allen applied for a patent for his new creation. This creation was a recurve bow with the ends sawed off. In their place were two sets of pullies which held the bow's string. While compound bows are the most modern iteration of the bow and arrow, they are now more popular than longbows, recurve bows, and the to-be-mentioned crossbow. In fact, over 60-percent of shooters exclusively use a compound bow.
Compared to the other three bow varieties described above, crossbows look much different. These bows are held horizontal to the ground and form a cross-like shape. Instead of pulling back on the string and releasing the arrow manually, most crossbows use a finger trigger system. Other forms of the crossbow use a crank to add tension to the string.
The first crossbows are believed to have come from early China, but these bows also appear in Ancient Greek texts. In medieval England, crossbows were nowhere near as fast or accurate as a longbow in combat. But with a crossbow, unskilled warriors could learn how to shoot a bow much easier than with a more traditional bow. Later on, advancements in the crossbow design would actually make it faster and more powerful than the longbow. While crossbows are no longer the military weapon of choice, you can still find some modern shooters in hunting circles around the country.
Where Can You Find Archery Supplies?
Depending on your geographical location, finding archery supplies will vary in difficulty. If you live near a hunting epicenter, then it shouldn't be hard to find modern compound bows and the occasional longbow or recurve bow. But if hunting is non-existent in your area, finding a reliable archery retailer can be more challenging.
Many specialty firearms retailers will carry archery supplies. However, they will probably carry more compound bows and accessories than anything else. Large outdoor retailers, like Cabela's, are a great place to start your search. But if you're looking for more specialized items, you will likely need to turn your attention to online retailers like 3Rivers Archery Supply or Lancaster Archery Supply.
While you can buy pretty much anything you can imagine online, having access to a local retailer is invaluable. They can be an excellent resource when first learning how to shoot a bow. Also, they will be intimately familiar with local laws and regulations regarding the use of your archery equipment. If you have access to a local retailer, even if they don't have exactly what you're looking for, we suggest supporting them whenever possible.
How Do You Set up a Bow and Arrow?
If you want to learn how to shoot a bow, you might think it's as simple as picking up a bow and arrow and hitting the range. But if you want to know how to shoot a bow and arrow with accuracy and confidence, you need to understand the basic set up process first. Neglecting to spend time properly adjusting your bow will only lead to frustration.
Each type of bow requires some unique preparation steps before you can draw the string and shoot. Most of this setup, sometimes called tuning, can be done at home. However, you may need special equipment to perform these adjustments safely. Some archers choose to take their bows into a professional for routine maintenance. But if you are passionate about learning how to shoot a bow, it is also worth learning how to care for your weapon correctly.
How to set up a longbow or recurve bow
Before you can learn how to shoot a bow, you need to understand proper care and set up. For longbows and recurve bows, the setup process is typically easy. Longbows and recurve bows are designed to be shot right off the shelf. While you will probably need to perform some slight tuning to get the perfect shot, they do not require extensive adjusting and experimentation to get started.
One thing you will need for your longbow or recurve bow is a commercial bow stringer. This tool is necessary for safely unstringing and restringing your bow. With longbows and recurve bows, you also want to allow for the string to stretch before "shooting in" a new string. You can accomplish this by simply letting the bow sit overnight or shooting immediately after stringing. However, if you don't allow for this natural stretching to occur, your brace height and nocking point will shift.
The brace height of a longbow or recurve bow is the distance between the bow's handle and the string. For most longbows and recurve bows, this distance is around six to seven inches. Finding the right distance for your bow requires trial and error because each bow is slightly different. The nocking point is where your arrow will "sit" on the string when drawing and firing. Setting a nocking point, either with a metal marker or piece of string, allows you to shoot from the same position every time consistently.
How to set up a compound bow
Unlike other bow varieties, compound bows come with a diverse range of accessories. Your full compound bow setup might include sights, arrow rests, stabilizers, and releases. With so many parts working together to create the perfect shot, caring for and performing regular tune-ups is essential to maintaining a quality compound bow. However, it also means that setting up and tuning one of these bows can vary greatly depending on your exact equipment. However, there are a couple of steps that remain the same for every compound bow.
The first step to setting up a compound bow is ensuring that you have the proper size. While some compound bows now come in universal sizes, oftentimes a bow will be designed for a certain size or build. Adults can normally buy and use a single compound bow for their entire lives. But growing children may need to upgrade their compound bow when it becomes too small. Some bow enthusiasts swear by an arm span measurement to determine the proper size bow. However, getting fitted by a professional is the best way to ensure a good fit.
Next, if your compound bow is not at the manufacturer's specifications, you will want to adjust it appropriately. If you don't have the proper equipment for these adjustments, you may need to take your compound bow in to a professional. By resetting your bow to these specifications, you can more easily make adjustments and changes as needed. You can now use traditional target practice techniques to check your bow's accuracy and record any adjustments you choose to make.
How to set up a crossbow
On a crossbow, the strings take much more wear-and-tear than on a traditional or compound bow. Because of this, you should inspect your bow's strings regularly.
To keep your bow's string in good condition, it's best to clean and wax your bow after each use. Failure to do so can result in broken or snapped strings while firing your crossbow. But even with proper care, your bow's strings will eventually age and need replacing. You should also routinely tighten the fasteners on your crossbow as the jolt of shooting an arrow can loosen them over time.
When it comes to tuning your crossbow, target practice is the best method. Aim to group your arrows to check for consistency and accuracy. If your arrows aren't firing as desired, then you can go in and make adjustments to your crossbow. You can repeat this process until you are satisfied. Some shooters test multiple types of arrows to determine the best position for each style. That is especially important if you're using your crossbow for hunting.
How to Shoot a Bow: The Basics
When learning how to shoot a bow, it might seem as easy as pulling back the string and letting go. But for a successful archery shot, much more needs to occur before and during the shooting process.
For any type of bow, you will need to know your dominant eye. For some people, this is the same as their dominant hand. But in many, it is the opposite. The best way to determine your dominant eye is to make a triangle with your fingers and hold them out in front of you. When doing this, frame an item in the distance with your fingers. Now, close one of your eyes and then switch. Having one of your eyes open should keep the object inside your fingers more than the other. That is your dominant eye.
The other universal factor in learning how to shoot a bow is your stance. Most archery shooting ranges have what is called a shooting line running parallel to the targets. This is a useful tool for assuming the proper shooting stance, but it is not necessary. If you don't have a shooting line, simply imagine one is present. To begin, stand at a 45-degree angle to your target and place one foot on each side of the shooting line. Your leading foot should be the side holding your bow. Position your feet shoulder-width apart and square them up so they are pointing parallel to the shooting line. Stand up straight and tuck your chin over your leading shoulder. This is the basic shooting stance.
How to shoot a bow: longbows and recurve bows
When learning how to shoot a bow, the most basic steps are pulling back and releasing the arrow. But to properly shoot a longbow or recurve bow, you will need to focus on three key techniques: your hook, anchor point, and strength. If any one of these factors falls short, your shot will be weak or inaccurate. If you learn how to shoot a bow in a more formal class setting, then these techniques will probably be taught to you. Self-taught archers will often need to master these techniques on their own.
Your hook refers to the finger placement on the bow's string when you draw back and release. If you don't actively grab the same spot every time, or if you use an incorrect grip, you will struggle with inconsistent shots and develop blisters or other injuries to your hand. The most common hook style places the bowstring inside the first knuckle of your fingers. Your index finger should sit above the arrow, while your middle and ring fingers sit below. Your pinky should remain free from the bowstring entirely.
When first learning how to shoot a bow, you may be unsure of where to position your drawn bowstring. That is your anchor point. A common rule given to beginners is to draw the string back to the corner of their mouth. The string will often end up pressing against your cheek, chin, or nose. Finding the same anchor point every time will lead to more accurate arrows.
Finally, strength refers to the confidence and power behind your string draw. It is not enough to just halfheartedly pull back your bowstring and release. Using the proper muscles and movements for each shot will ensure your arrows travel strong and true toward their target.
How to shoot a bow: compound bows
When it comes to the compound bow, learning how to shoot a bow relies on many of the same techniques as a longbow or recurve bow. However, you must also know how to use the additional accessories included in your compound bow setup. Compound bows still require a proper hook and anchor position to fire accurately. But the use of sights and mechanical releases will change the shooting process slightly. No matter what type of bow you use most, when learning how to shoot a bow it's important to use the same accessories as you plan to use in the field.
If you're using a sight with your compound bow, then the steps are very similar to those of a longbow or recurve bow. The only difference will be in how you aim the bow. You will still use your dominant eye to aim, but you will use the sight as a guide instead of aiming freely. Most compound bow sights come with several adjustable markers. Your preferred marker on any given day may depend on target distance, arrow type, or other factors. Outside of aiming, a properly installed sight shouldn't affect your shooting.
Mechanical release aids change the shooting process a bit more than sights. When using a mechanical release, instead of hooking the string you hook the release aid (which connects to the string itself). You then draw the string to your anchor point as with a longbow or recurve bow. But when it comes time to release the bowstring, you aren't simply letting the mechanical release slip from your fingers. Each mechanical release aid is built with a trigger, hinge, or another mechanism that releases the string. Many compound bow shooters prefer this method because it allows for a smoother, more consistent shot.
How to shoot a bow: crossbows
When it comes to learning how to shoot a bow, crossbows deviate quite a bit from longbows, recurve bows, and compound bows. Of course, you will still utilize your dominant eye for aiming and a strong stance. But the actual mechanics of a crossbow differ greatly from most other varieties of a bow.
The first step of shooting a crossbow is cocking the bow. Most modern crossbows offer two cocking options: manual cocking and crank cocking. While manual cocking is not an easy task, often requiring special tools to perform properly, cranking takes an extremely long time. If you have the strength, you can manually cock a crossbow by stepping into the stirrup and pulling the bowstring straight back. To make this task easier, you can also use a rope cocker. This tool makes the manual cocking process a little easier by providing more grip and leverage to the bowstring. A crank cocking system pulls the string back with the turn of a handle.
Crank systems sometimes come pre-installed in crossbows, but you can also buy them separately.
After cocking is complete, though, shooting a crossbow is extremely simple. Place and nock the arrow into the bow's channel. Then aim, using a sight if needed, and pull the trigger. As you can see, shooting a loaded crossbow is very similar to shooting a firearm. Knowing how to shoot a bow in the traditional sense won't help much when it comes to the crossbow.
Where Can You Shoot a Bow and Arrow?
If you want to learn how to shoot a bow, you need to have some place to practice. You may be surprised by how few guidelines restrict the use of bows and arrows on private property. But before practicing how to shoot a bow in your backyard, double-check all relevant city, county, or state restrictions.
Many cities and towns do allow archery practice on private property, including in your residential backyard. However, you need to follow some simple safety rules before practicing how to shoot a bow just yards away from your neighbors. Ensure that no stray arrows can travel into neighboring properties. All archery targets should utilize a backstop, but this is especially important in residential areas. Also, it's not a bad idea to place your target in a direction free of houses, even if there is little chance an arrow will go astray.
If backyard shooting isn't a reasonable option for you, there are other places to practice your archery. Depending on your location, you may have access to an outdoor or indoor archery range. These establishments are similar to a firearms range and may charge a fee. But they are an excellent place to practice your archery skills with other enthusiasts.
Another option is finding a friend or family member with a large plot of land who is willing to let you practice on their property. Farmers often have empty fields where practice poses no risk to livestock or crops. Many recreational parks also accommodate small archery target ranges that are open to the public. This option might mean traveling a bit to practice how to shoot a bow, but if you're passionate about archery, it can be worth the effort.
What Are the Best Targets for Archery?
Another integral part of practicing how to shoot a bow is choosing the right targets. While archery targets are not hard to come by, or even make yourself, they are much different than shooting targets used for firearms. You should be able to find pre-made archery targets at any major sporting goods or hunting store. However, if you don't have access to one of these retailers, making your own will require just a short trip to the hardware store.
Some archers opt to use a wooden board with generic targets stapled to the face. It is a great low-tech archery target and you can make with scrap wood or cheap boards from the hardware store. You can purchase bulk sheets of printed targets. However, you can also spray paint directly onto the wood or even print out targets using your home printer. With a little creativity, basic archery targets are extremely easy to put together.
Other target materials include hay or foam. While some archers prefer the size or portability of these targets, the real benefit is that they do minimal damage to shot arrows. While hard wood will quickly dull an arrow tip, foam or hay will not. Some arrows, like broadheads, aren't well suited to these types of targets. But most lightweight arrows perform exceptionally well in softer targets.
No matter what type of target you choose when learning how to shoot a bow, using a suitable backboard is essential. A backboard not only catches arrows that are off-course, but it also protects any people, wildlife, or property that may be behind your targets. Even if you situate your targets in an empty field, it's not a bad idea to invest in a simple backboard for extra peace-of-mind.
Hunting with Your Bow and Arrow
After all the trouble of learning the terminology and techniques for how to shoot a bow and arrow, how do people use this skill? Many archers use their shooting skills for hunting, either in addition to or instead of hunting with a firearm. Some hunters feel this is a more natural or authentic way of hunting. Others prefer the bowhunting season to their state's firearms season. But even if you don't plan to use your bow for hunting, learning how to shoot a bow and arrow is still a valuable skill.
Before taking your bow out into the wild with the hopes of landing a buck or pheasant, you need to make sure you understand and adhere to all of your local bowhunting regulations.
Even if you have experience hunting with firearms, you will be hunting during a different season, with different limits and different licenses. If you ignore these regulations, you will be putting both yourself and the local wildlife at risk.
Which bow type is best for hunting?
Most bowhunters use a compound bow. The use of sights, release aids, and other accessories make it the easiest bow to shoot quickly and accurately out in the woods. But all of these extra features do little good if you don't understand the basics of how to shoot a bow. And if you aren't confident in your archery skills, then adrenaline can send your arrows off in directions you never intended.
However, some hunters opt for traditional longbows or recurve bows as their weapon of choice. Those who start with a compound bow when learning how to shoot a bow often consider longbows and recurve bows to be harder to use for hunting. But with practice, many bowhunters are extremely successful with a simple longbow or recurve bow.
The final choice is, of course, the crossbow. There has been some controversy around using crossbows in modern bowhunting. In Wisconsin's 2017 hunting season, for example, crossbows downed more deer than vertical bows for the first time ever. But many bowhunters feel that bowhunting shouldn't include these weapons for bowhunting seasons around the country. While crossbows are a perfectly valid bow for hunting, this classification may change in the future.
Where can you hunt with a bow and arrow?
Bowhunting is technically legal in all 50 states. However, there are restrictions on crossbows for hunting in some states and outright banned in Oregon. Also, some wilderness areas only permit bowhunting, banning firearms, while others permit both during their respective seasons. Your area's bowhunting places and seasons will vary greatly. It's important to access resources specific to your state and county before planning an excursion.
While there are millions of acres of public land available to bowhunting in the United States, you can also hunt on private land. Before bowhunting on private land, though, you will need explicit permission from the legal landowner. That is simple if you own land yourself or have a close friend or family member who does. But there are also plenty of landowners willing to open their land to bowhunters across the country.
Whether you are bowhunting on public or private land, it's always important to respect other hunters and property lines. Also, ensure that you hold the proper license for the area and game you plan to hunt.
What game can you hunt with a bow and arrow?
Learning how to shoot a bow and arrow opens up countless opportunities for hunting both big and small game. Before hunting any given game, make sure you understand relevant animal anatomy. As a responsible hunter, your goal is to deliver a clean and quick kill. Sloppy shots will damage the animal and cause unwanted suffering. You might also injure a target without actually landing the kill, causing you to lose a now disabled animal. That is when the techniques you learned when practicing how to shoot a bow become essential to effective hunting.
Common big game animals include deer, moose, elk, bear, wild boar, and bighorn sheep. Of these animals, though, white-tailed deer are the most popular amongst bowhunters. If you're learning how to shoot a bow with the intention of landing one of these animals, then you want to use a recurve bow, compound bow, or crossbow. You also want a bow with at least 60 pounds of weight to guarantee penetration and a clean kill. You should also choose arrows with a large, sharp head for this game.
Small game animals are also a popular target for bowhunters. These animals vary greatly depending on your region, but popular animals include rabbits, pheasants, raccoons, turkeys, and squirrels. For smaller game like these, you want a lighter bow with small, sharp arrowheads. Some hunters also use blunt-tipped arrows to knock out small game.
How do you obtain a bowhunting license?
Learning how to shoot a bow properly is only the first step to becoming a bowhunter. You also need to obtain the proper licenses for your area and chosen game. While a state's hunting license typically covers firearms and bows, you may also need to purchase an additional endorsement to bow hunt during archery-only seasons. Consult with your local DNR office for the most accurate and up-to-date information about hunting in your area.
You can obtain hunting licenses from a variety of retail stores and organizations across the country. You may also be able to purchase the appropriate licensing online. Remember that you must hold a hunting license for the state you plan to hunt in, not just where you live. If you are traveling to hunt, make sure you secure the proper non-resident licenses before heading out.
Getting the Most out of Your Bow and Arrow
Learning how to shoot a bow and arrow can provide an excuse to get outside throughout the year, even beyond scheduled bowhunting seasons. Whether you choose to honor the traditional style of archery with a longbow, recurve bow, or go modern with a fully decked out compound bow, knowing how to shoot a bow of any kind is an invaluable skill set.
While learning how to shoot a bow is certainly something you can accomplish on your own, don't hesitate to reach out to outside resources. Many universities and community centers offer basic archery classes for students and community members. And the skills and tricks you walk away with after attending a class or workshop on archery may surprise you.
Once you've become comfortable with a bow and arrow in your hands, you can try your hand at bowhunting, target shooting, and other archery activities. Archery is also an excellent activity to pass onto children and grandchildren as they become old enough to take an interest in the outdoors, hunting, and conservation. Whether you dream of becoming a modern day Robin Hood or just want to expand your survival skills, understanding the basics of how to shoot a bow can be a great way to step into the diverse world of archery.