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Accuracy counts for everything in archery. Whether you’re hunting or target shooting, even small misses can have bad results. Although we see archers consistently shoot bull’s-eyes in Hollywood movies, developing accuracy is actually pretty challenging. Consider that your goal is to strike a point about an inch square with an arrow launched from a distance of 20 yards or more. In addition, even slight tweaks or twists in form or equipment can result in big misses. Depending on the situation, misses of just a few inches might be failures. One way to ensure consistent accuracy is to practice proper form and technique while shooting. However, proper form is only half the battle of becoming an accurate archer. Another part of that equation is to shoot arrows that fly straight. Not all arrows fly true, and all must be tuned to do so.
“Arrow tuning” refers to the practice of modifying an arrow so the entire setup flies correctly. It helps to think of the process as “building” an arrow, because arrows aren’t concrete objects. Arrows can be customized from point to nock, but each change you make will affect the arrow’s flight. Luckily, you can make alterations to get the best possible arrow flight. Before learning about these customizations, however, you’ll need to understand how arrows work.
Defining the Archer’s Paradox and Arrow Spine
Newcomers to archery usually aren’t aware of all that’s happening when an arrow flies from the string. Rather than simply arcing straight toward the target, arrows are constantly wobbling, all the way from the bow to the intended target. If you aren’t familiar with this phenomenon, which is called the “archer’s paradox,” I’d encourage you to get online and check out some slow-motion videos of arrows in flight.
So, arrows flex. Why does that even matter? While all arrows flex, not all arrows flex the same. Manufacturers are well-aware of this and sell arrows according to their flexibility, also referred to as “spine.” Manufacturers determine an arrow’s spine by suspending a weight from its center while the point and nock are supported. The more the arrow flexes during this test, the weaker its spine.
When building an arrow, the trick is to match its spine to the bow you’re shooting. Each bow exerts different force on the arrow, depending on its draw weight and how it’s set up. Fortunately, you can roughly match an arrow to your bow with math formulas, and most manufacturers have charts that’ll tell you the correct arrow spine for your bow. However, a manufacturer’s recommendation won’t get your arrows tuned specifically for you and your bow. That’s why each archer needs to take a little time tuning their own arrows.
Choosing Arrow Components
Photo by Cody Assmann
Before buying your first batch of arrows, you’ll need to know your bow’s draw weight. This is easy for compound bows, since they generally come in predetermined weight ranges. Traditional bows can be a little trickier, because the draw weight changes depending on your draw length. Traditional bow manufacturers typically determine draw weight for a 28-inch draw. For every inch you draw past 28 inches, the general rule is to add 3 pounds of draw weight. For every inch you draw shorter than 28 inches, subtract 3 pounds. Once you know your bow’s draw weight, you can buy a small batch of arrows as recommended by the arrow manufacturer for your bow.
When buying arrows, buy full-length arrows. Full-length arrows are uncut and generally around 32 inches long. Buying them long will give you more room for customization. After tuning your first arrow, future batches of arrows can be bought cut to the length you prefer.
After buying your arrows, you’ll need to decide how heavy a point you want to shoot. I could write a full article on the topic of arrow point weights, but most compound shooters opt for 100- or 125-grain points. On the other hand, traditional shooters tend to shoot heavier points. Personally, I shoot a 175-grain broadhead with my longbow, so I build my arrows to match that point weight. Simply said, matching the arrow to the point is easier than matching the point to the arrow.
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Once you have a full-length arrow and the point determined, assemble a few more items to get started. First, you’ll need hot glue and a lighter to heat it with. Archery suppliers generally sell hot glue for less than $10. You’ll also need an arrow-cutting tool. There are expensive arrow saws out there, but most DIY folks use a high-speed rotary tool.
Make an Arrow and Identify Flight Errors
Before you start shooting, use hot glue to glue your point inserts into the shaft. The benefit of hot glue is that heating the arrow point will remelt it, which will allow you to place the insert several times while tuning. If you’re using carbon arrows, however, you’ll have to be cautious about overheating the shaft and ruining the arrow.
Before starting to shoot, it’s helpful to know what problems you’re going to see. Diagnosing arrow flight errors is done by looking at the arrow nock in relation to the point when the arrow strikes. If the nocking point on the string is too high, the flight is referred to as “nock high”; it’s called “nock low” if it’s too low. Arrows will also come out “nock left” or “nock right” if the spine is too weak or strong, respectively (for a right-handed archer). Knowing this, it’s wise to set your bow up to purposely achieve certain errors. Doing so will make identifying and fixing problems much easier.
Start vertical tuning by setting your nocking point too high on the string. Arrows are generally nocked on the string 1/8 to 1/2 inch above level with the arrow rest, if your bow has one, or with your hand if not. If you set your nocking point 5/8 to 3/4 inch above level, you’ll get nock high. To fix nock high, you’ll simply have to move the nocking point down the string until the arrow begins to fly straight.
Once your arrow is properly tuned vertically, you can transition to fixing horizontal flight errors. The following process is for right-handed shooters. Left-handed shooters can simply reverse the instructions.
Again, if you’ve purchased full-length arrows with the correct spine for your bow, an unaltered arrow should shoot nock left. If your first shot with a full-length shaft comes out nock right, you’ll likely need to buy new arrows with a stronger spine. In most cases, you’ll need to start fixing nock-left arrow flight.
To fix nock left, you’ll need to shorten your arrow. To do this, carefully reheat the arrow tip, remelt the hot glue, and remove the insert. Next, reduce the arrow length by 1/4 inch, reglue the insert, shoot the arrow again, and determine if you’re still getting nock-left arrow flight. Repeat as many times as necessary until the arrow flies straight. Remember, you should slowly reduce arrow length to avoid cutting too short. If you shorten your arrow too much, it may need to be discarded, and you’ll have to start over.
Photo by Cody Assmann
At this point, you know how to identify and fix arrow flight errors. That being said, it’s almost impossible to examine arrow flight while you’re shooting. You can use any of the three following methods to determine what your arrow is doing in flight.
Paper tuning is the process of diagnosing flight problems by shooting arrows through paper, and it’s one of the most popular methods of tuning.
Set up for paper tuning by finding a safe place to shoot your bow, and hanging a large piece of paper between you and your target. Make sure the paper is anchored securely to whatever it’s suspended from.
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Begin the tuning process by shooting a full-length arrow through the paper and into the target beyond. As the arrow travels through the paper, it will make a tear pattern, with a hole for the shaft and three slits where the fletching tore through. Examine the tear pattern to see how your arrow is flying. If you’ve followed the preceding advice, your fletching tears should be above center and to the left on your first shot. Bring your nocking point down until the tears are level with each other horizontally. Next, reduce your arrow length gradually until the tears are aligned vertically as well.
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As your arrow begins to fly true, the tears in the paper will begin to line up. Ideally, when you’ve finished paper tuning, the paper will have a hole where the shaft traveled through, and three fletching tears perfectly centered around that hole.
Photo by Cody Assmann
Photo by Cody Assmann
Once your arrow has been paper tuned, you might benefit from shooting it as a “bare shaft.” A bare shaft is an arrow with the fletchings removed. Fletchings help stabilize an arrow in flight and correct tuning problems. By removing the fletchings, you’ll get an honest look at how the arrow is tuned. An arrow that’s perfectly tuned to a bow doesn’t actually need fletching to fly straight.
There’s one caveat for successful bare shafting: Unless your shooting form is 100 percent the same with each and every shot, arrow flight errors might be due to your form, instead of your arrow. Changes in form can have a significant impact on arrow flight. Erratic nock patterns while bare shafting are an indication that your shooting form is inconsistent. If that’s the case, you’ll need to spend more time practicing before you can use bare shafting to tune your arrows.
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If you remove the fletchings from a paper-tuned arrow, you’ll likely see flight errors once again. When bare shafting, you’ll diagnose flight errors by examining whether your arrow is sticking with the nock high, low, left, or right in the target. Unless you’ve overcorrected while paper tuning, the arrow should be shooting nock high and left again. The same rules apply to fixing flight problems when bare shafting as when paper tuning. Continue to shoot the arrow until you’re getting perfect arrow flight from the bare shaft.
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The final tuning technique is one I learned about while watching Clay Hayes’ archery videos on YouTube. If you have a partner willing to stand behind you and film while you shoot, you can examine the video footage in slow motion to interpret arrow flight. Prior to the past few years, this method wouldn’t have been practical. However, as slow-motion video technology becomes more common, it might be a method you can use in lieu of the traditional methods above.
Tuning arrows is an important task that all archers should be familiar with. The uniformly spined arrow shafts and point weights available today make this task much easier than it used to be. Fortunately, after you’ve gone through this process once, you should be able to replicate that tuned arrow over and over again until you fill a quiver. If you ever decide to change bows, point weights, or arrows, however, you’ll need to go through the process again. In a sport where accuracy is everything, you should afford yourself an hour or two to ensure your arrows are flyin’ true.
Cody Assmann is a lifelong outdoorsman. He’s most passionate about archery, passing on traditional outdoor skills, and exploring history. He lives in Nebraska with his family and runs a living history and outdoor business. You can see his curriculum at Frontier Life.