Note I apologize for the length of this post but this is a very common question archery parents ask and the answer isn’t simple. SPR
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I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked about whether some archer “needs” better equipment, but it is a lot. Often this comes from the parents of youths as much as the archers themselves. Most of the time, archers or archery parents seem to be lusting after equipment that is laced liberally with “carbon,” a shorthand term for carbon fiber. Carbon fiber is now used as a lamination in limbs, in stabilizer rods, in bow sight extension bars, and of course in arrows. Even bow risers, compound and recurve, have been made of this high-tech material.
The question, though, is really: “Do I (or my son or daughter) need ‘better’ equipment?” The answer to this question unfortunately has to be answered with another question: “Is your equipment limiting your performance?” Because if it is not, then you don’t “need” better equipment and, more importantly, better equipment will not help you score better. If your equipment is limiting your performance, then you need better equipment. The basic idea is if your poorer shots are created by limitations in your equipment, they are not giving you the feedback you need to improve your performance. So, is your equipment limiting your (or your child’s or your student’s) performance? This is not an easy question to answer. To get some perspective, consider the following historical example.
In 1979 Darrell Pace set a new world recurve record for the 1440 Round (formerly FITA International Round) with a score of 1341 in Japan; that record stood for 10 years. Stories say that he was jet lagged and using a bow that wasn’t well-tuned, but those are just stories, I can’t confirm them.
Darrell shot a Hoyt Gold Medallist (I think a TD4) when he shot the WR in Japan and, with the premiere arrow shafts of the day . . . aluminum. There wasn’t a gram of carbon in his whole setup: the stabilizers were aluminum, his sight was made of aluminum, the limbs were wood-fiberglass, the bowstring was probably Dacron, a string fiber no serious archer would use today.
Now a FITA Round score of 1340 is roughly the equivalent of a Olympic Ranking Round score of 670 out of 720, a very credible score even today. So one could argue that a carbon-free setup should not be limiting until you reach that level of performance. But that would be a bit simplistic. The first serious target carbon arrows came out in 1986-87 (by Beman), and were used by Esheev to win the 1987 World Championships, in Australia. Today everyone at the Olympic or World Championship level is using all carbon or aluminum-carbon arrows. I would argue that the vast majority of improvement in archery equipment between 1979 and now is due to improvements in arrow technology. Today’s arrows are lighter and hence faster than any before. They maintain the required stiffness due to the use of carbon fiber in their construction.
So, carbon arrows seem to be a positive benefit. But this is also simplistic. Many people at the highest levels are sponsored by equipment manufacturers. For example, in golf, almost all of the top archers use Titleist golf balls. Why? Because they are paid by Titleist to do just that (somehow the TV commercials leave that fact out of their spiels). Many archers, also have “arrow contracts.” Their pay often comes in the form of free or reduced-price arrows as archery is not as rich a sport as is golf, but even so such perceptions like “all of the elites are using those arrows” are biased because of this.
So, “who is using what” does not seem to be a reasonable basis for determining the value of a piece of equipment. Probably the best you could come up with is a sponsored archer’s performance is not being limited by that piece of equipment (or that contract would get shredded quickly).
How to Tell if New Equipment is Needed
I think everyone would be a lot better off if they were to establish criteria for whether a new piece of equipment is needed or not. This is also not easy.
When Equipment is Based Upon Feel Let’s say you have an “old” and “antiquated” stabilizer system and you have seen a number of “new and improved” stabilizer systems being offered for sale. Will an upgrade improve your scores? Most people leap to an answer and offer reasons like “Archer X says his scores really jumped up when he switched to these stabilizers.” Uh, did Archer X happen to list his scores? How much of a jump did they make? Did they really jump or were they just within the same range?
Some archers feel that they need a change in equipment to fuel their interest in the sport. Don’t pooh-pooh this. A new piece of kit can get you back thinking and fiddling and tuning and shooting more than you have been. If this is the case, and you have evidence that this is not just wishful thinking, then this is a valid reason to pursue an upgrade. But to preserve your sanity and to not end up pursuing better scores primarily with a credit card, you need to test your beliefs. Spend some time with the new stabilizer system. Adjust end weights and side bar angles, whatever you need to create the feel you want and then shoot practice scores. Are they better? Are they the same? Did they go down? If they are better or stayed the same, you have a reason to stay with the change (even if they stayed the same, going back seems like a lot of work for nothing). If they went down and no amount of tuning can bring them back, well, only an idiot would keep that change. I would go back to my former system and sell the “new, improved” system at a steep discount to one of my rivals.
When Equipment is Not Based Upon Feel Now you are looking at a new compound bow or a new recurve riser or new limbs or new arrows. From these purchases, you are supposed to be acquiring better performance, so this is the basis upon which you need to decide what to do.
If you are, say, getting new limbs that have a different draw weight rating, that is an entirely different animal than getting new limbs that have the same draw weight rating. The same goes for a case in which your compound bow has run out of adjustment for draw weight and you want to go higher or lower. A significant change in draw weight is a major change requiring a number of additional changes, typically including needing different arrows. While compound bows have a wide range of arrows that can be tuned in, recurve bows do not. If your arrows were too stiff for your heavier drawing compound bow they are going to be way too stiff for a lighter drawing one, etc.
In either case, you need to prepare for such changes if you want to evaluate whether they made any difference. You need:
1. a measure of success, and
2. records of those previous measurement
Common measures of “better/worse” are practice round scores, competition round scores, group sizes, etc. I do not recommend competition round scores as a primary gauge, but sometimes the pressure from competition is the only true test of performance. Who cares if your practice rounds scores go up if your competition round scores go down at the same time? My preference is that I would rather get all of these things worked out before a competition is involved.
So, if practice round scores is to be your test, then you need 3-5 recent scores in which the practice rounds are shot under competition conditions. What I mean by “competition conditions” is many archers get into bad habits when shooting practice rounds; after all it is “only practice.” Archers often quit mid-round if they aren’t shooting well. Or they shoot extra arrows or they score creatively, etc. Proper conditions need to take into account shooting high and low (indoors), with a timer if appropriate, etc. (You only need follow the rules, you don’t have to create the ambiance, too.)
Then after the equipment is swapped out and tuned in, 3-5 more practice rounds are needed to make the comparison. These “tests” can be made tougher by stretching out the distance.
If your scores are basically unchanged, well, you just spent a lot of money on no real improvement. “Better” equipment gives you better feedback that allows you to shoot better. There is no magic involved where the equipment causes you to shoot better.
There is a big difference between thinking/guessing/hoping an equipment change is going to improve your scores and it actually doing so. If you have proof, in the form of practice round scores, or other measures, that your scoring has improved, that is quite a different thing, especially mentally when it comes to having confidence in your new equipment.
If you are a coach, you really need to think about what kinds of equipment changes really make a difference. I had a sponsored compound archer tell me he preferred his sponsor’s bows because they were more accurate. Bows do not provide accuracy, archers do. Bows provide consistency and arrow speed, that’s it. These are things coaches need to know. And, the more you know, the easier it will be to separate the good stuff from the bull stuff. (I don’t blame that compound archer, he was trying to say something good about his sponsor’s bows, which he clearly liked (and for good reasons), but I don’t think those sponsors provide their sponsored archers with talking points … maybe they should.