Traditional Bow, Compound or Crossbow: What’s Best for You?

Each type of archery equipment provides a unique shooting and hunting experience. Here’s how to pick the right tool for your bowhunting needs.

Traditional Bow, Compound or Crossbow: What’s Best for You?

Are you struggling to decide between a traditional bow, compound or crossbow? It’s a question every new bowhunter must consider, and so for help, we spoke to Michel Brooks, archery area manager at Jay’s Sporting Goods in Gaylord, Michigan. Brooks says each type of bow provides a unique recreational experience, and picking the right bow for you depends on your goals, time, skills and budget.

Generally speaking, traditional bows (recurves and longbows) and compound bows are sometimes called “vertical bows” because their riser and limbs are held perpendicular to the ground. A crossbow’s riser and limbs are parallel to the ground, making it a horizontal bow, although that isn’t a popular term. Here’s a look at each type, and the experience you’re likely to get from shooting them.


Traditional Bows

Recurve and longbows are simple compared to other bow types. They don’t necessarily require a sight, stabilizer or arrow rest. Therefore, except for the bowstring, they don’t need much maintenance, which makes them rugged and reliable. However, traditional bows require lots of practice before a hunter can shoot consistently. And unlike with compound bows, the traditional bow’s entire draw weight must be pulled and held throughout the shot process.

In the hands of a proficient archer, traditional bows are deadly on game of all sizes. Trad bows are especially popular with small game bowhunters who shoot instinctively (no bowsights) because this bow type and style of shooting works best on moving targets, and hunters can quickly draw and shoot follow-up arrows in only seconds. Because a trad bow doesn’t require numerous accessories, it can be less expensive to shoot than a compound or crossbow.

Recurves and longbows are the most challenging style of bow to learn, but it’s a challenge many bowhunters enjoy. (Photo courtesy of the Archery Trade Association)
Recurves and longbows are the most challenging style of bow to learn, but it’s a challenge many bowhunters enjoy. (Photo courtesy of the Archery Trade Association)


Compound bows are used to hunt a variety of game animals, and their speed, popularity and ease of use appeal to most new bowhunters. Unlike traditional bows, compounds use a series of cables and pulleys (called “cams”) to provide more force than the flex of the limbs alone. At the same time, those cables and cams create “let-off,” which greatly reduces the strength required to hold the bow at full draw, making it easier to take careful aim.

There are lots of compound bow options, too, which makes it easy to find a bow that feels comfortable to shoot. Many manufacturers offer different levels of bows, including beginner, midrange and flagship, all of which have different price points. Customers can find a “grow with me” bow that offers a wide range of adjustability in draw length and draw weight (example: 5 to 55 pounds). This allows an archer to increase their poundage as they get stronger, and/or their draw length as they grow. Most compounds marketed toward adults offer 10 pounds of adjustment (example: 50 to 60 pounds).

Unless you buy a bow package, you’ll have to purchase accessories such as a bowsight, arrow rest, stabilizer, quiver and wrist strap. You’ll also need a release because modern compounds are too short to be shot effectively with fingers (either a tab or glove). Buying tip: If you buy high-quality accessories and a midrange bow to start, and you enjoy shooting a compound, you can always upgrade the bow itself later and then transfer the accessories over.



Most crossbows offer good out-of-the-box accuracy, and they’re incredibly powerful, making them ideal for big game hunting. Crossbow manufacturers sell mechanical cocking devices, too, which make it easy for hunters of all ages and abilities to cock and shoot these bows. This all makes crossbows family friendly because everyone can use the same bow. They’re also great for people with limited upper body strength, shoulder injuries or little time to practice. Crossbow users can become proficient quickly.

Like compounds, crossbows come in all price ranges, from beginner to high-end. Most new crossbows include the accessories you’re likely to need, such as a scope and a few arrows. 

Crossbow regulations are more variable than vertical bow regulations. Some state wildlife agencies let all bowhunters use them, while other states allow them only for older or disabled hunters. Some states allow crossbows during specific parts of the season or on certain properties, while others make no distinction between crossbows and vertical bows as legal equipment. Check the regulations in your state to ensure you can legally hunt with a crossbow.

Hunters who don’t have a lot of time to practice at the archery range can still bowhunt by choosing a crossbow.
Hunters who don’t have a lot of time to practice at the archery range can still bowhunt by choosing a crossbow.

Brooks recommends hunters ask themselves the following questions before buying a bow:

*What type of hunting do you want to do?

If you’re getting a traditional or compound vertical bow, you need to shop for one suited to the game animals you plan to hunt, and also your own physical capabilities. Big game such as deer and elk requires more power to ensure a quick, clean kill. If you choose a vertical bow, it must have a heavy enough draw weight to do the job.

*How much time do you have to practice?

Each bow type requires a different level of skill and commitment to become proficient. Learning to shoot a traditional bow well without a bowsight requires the most time and effort. And conditioning the muscles required to shoot a compound bow well requires more time than shooting a crossbow.

*What are the bowhunting equipment laws in your state?

Some state wildlife agencies have minimum draw weight requirements for vertical bows, and crossbow regulations vary widely across the country. Be sure to buy a bow that’s legal for your area.


Try Before You Buy

Visit a pro shop to work with a professional who will ensure you find what you need. First, they’ll ask questions to get to know your plans and budget. Then they’ll let you test different bows and models until you find one you like.

There should be no pressure to buy. Most retailers want to answer customer questions and provide an enjoyable shopping experience. Because of that, beginners should shop in person at a reputable pro shop rather than buy products online.

In addition to providing tailored advice and assistance, pro shop experts will help you get set up and offer tips on shooting form. You might be tempted to buy products online for less, but you’ll end up wasting money if you buy the wrong thing. Pro shop staff will work with you to select a bow that fits properly and feels great. Use Bowhunters United store locator ( to find an archery shop near you.


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