Bow Shootout 2003 A test team grades this year's leading bows

To put today's hottest bows to the test, we gathered a team of five serious bowhunters: Jim Hill, Larry Kendall, Joe Democko, Randy McPherren and me. Our bowhunting experience ranges from 3 to 30 years, and there isn't a person in the group who doesn't hunt at least 20 days each fall. Because these guys would be making critical judgments about new products, I made them raise their right hands and swear to drop all biases in order to give you the straight scoop.

Accuracy was not a factor in this test. We left it out because there's no way to eliminate the human element from bow accuracy. Any well-made bow shot in a shooting machine will place identical arrows in the same location over a short period of time. But in a field test, bows are shot offhand, and people have different degrees of comfort and familiarity with different bow types. These human factors make accuracy hard to gauge.

THE SPECIFICATIONS

Every bow was set at 70 pounds with a 29-inch draw length and shot a 513-grain arrow. Each was rigged with a NAP QuickTune 3000 arrow rest and a nock set. The bows were graded on a 100-point scale in eight key areas:

Balance: how the bow sits in hand

Craftsmanship: overall quality of machining and assembly

Draw Cycle: how smooth the bow feels while being drawn

Grip: how comfortable the grip feels to the shooter

Noise: subjective measure by ear alone of how much noise each bow produces when fired

Recoil: subjective measure based on how the bow feels during the shot

Speed: arrow speed as measured by a chronograph (The highest speed was given 95 points, the lowest was given 65 points. All others were pro-rated to determine scores.)

Valley: how comfortable the bow was at full draw

Each area was weighted equally in determining the final score. We show only the top numerical final score (Editor's Choice). All other scores are shown as letter grades, which represent numerical ranges (see chart).

THE BOWS

AR 34

Archery Research (AR) is a new company, but the product is manufactured by an old hand at bowmaking: PSE. The AR 34 has the highest brace height (the space between a bow's nock point and rest while a bow is not drawn) of any bow we tested. This would suggest that it's the most forgiving, because the arrow is on the string for a shorter period of time. The high brace height would also account for the bow's slow arrow speeds when compared to its peers. The testers didn't like the bow's valley; they felt it was too short. But overall, it was deemed to be a solid bow. Look for AR to continue to improve its bows.

BOWTECH EXTREME VFT

Two categories held the Extreme VFT back: It has a very aggressive (not smooth) draw cycle and the bow tips forward when you relax your hand. Some archers like a bow that tips forward after the shot; this one will do that without a stabilizer. But many of the members of our test team didn't like the motion.

The Extreme VFT definitely had its strengths, however, or it wouldn't have landed near the top of this prestigious peer group. For starters, it is fast (only 2 feet per second slower than the Mathews, with the same brace height of 6 5/8 inches). I liked its grip, but some of the testers didn't, which held the bow's final score down. With its very radical limb angles, in which the limbs are almost parallel at full draw, the bow produced low vibration and recoil and was reasonably quiet for a fast bow--it was on par with the Mathews in this regard. The Extreme VFT had a very solid draw stop that could be adjusted to tweak the length of the letoff valley.

BROWNING MIRAGE ZX

At $749, the Mirage ZX has the highest suggested retail price in the group, but this price does bring some impressive new technology. The bow has a two-part, counter-rotating idler wheel that permits the bow to easily balance the torque that pressures its limb tips. We weren't sure the system had been debugged, however; the Mirage ZX was the only bow in this test that was difficult to tune. It tore tail-low through paper (a problem always related to nock-point path as the string moves forward). The bow felt great at full draw, but it was not very fast and had a bit more recoil and noise than most others in the test.

FRED BEAR TRX 32 Outdoor Life GREAT BUY 2003

With a suggested retail of $399, the TRX 32 is a find. In fact, it's such a sweet shooter that one of the testers felt it was the bow he wanted to buy. The bow is not particularly fast with a 7 1/2-inch brace height, but it is very forgiving of poor form. It is also well-balanced and very quiet. The TRX 32 would be a good choice, regardless of price.

GOLDEN EAGLE OBSESSION

Though the Obsession is one of the smoothest-shooting bows in the test, it is also fraught with many critical problems. Its grip is wide and square and very uncomfortable for most hands. Also, every tester complained when he pulled back the bow and felt its jerky draw cycle. Once at full draw, however, it felt good (though the grip still didn't). After so many bad first impressions, it shot very quietly and with little recoil. Several testers ranked its recoil as being the lowest of the group. We were amazed that a bow that seemed so awkward could shoot so wonderfully, but that wasn't enough to pull this one up from the cellar.

HOYT RAZORTEC

Hoyt's new RazorTec scored the highest in one important category: "noise." Several of the testers didn't like the non-traditional lines of the bow and its tendency to tip backward toward the archer, two factors that held the bow's overall score down. If these two categories were dropped, the RazorTec would run neck-and-neck with the Mathews.

For 2003, Hoyt has introduced a new concept it calls "Cam & 1/2." The new design is a hybrid that incorporates the best feature of a single-cam (it can't go out of time) with the level nock travel found in perfectly timed two-cam bows. The Cam & 1/2 system is very smooth and produces an ample letoff valley that is not too short for comfortable shooting. One tester felt the back wall was "spongy," but most liked the feel of the bow at full draw. The RazorTec and the Golden Eagle Obsession tied for the "quiet" category.

MATHEWS LX Outdoor Life EDITOR'S CHOICE 2003

Mathews has a reputation for producing quality bows, so its place at the top was not surprising. The Mathews LX's scores never dropped below 80. It scored higher than any other bow in four of the eight categories: speed, craftsmanship, grip and balance.

The Mathews LX was the fastest bow in the test. It shot 513-grain Beman Carbonmetal Matrix 300 shafts at a speedy 256 feet per second. It has a fairly low brace height compared to several of the other bows in the test, so conventional wisdom suggests that it might not be as forgiving of flawed shooting form. The LX sports a new cam (faster and smoother) and a new V-Lock limb-pocket system that guarantees that the limb will stay straight.

PEARSON FREEDOM

This is a fairly fast bow that is plagued by harsh recoil and vibration. It also had a jerky draw cycle and a short valley at full draw. Despite the fact that the bow appears to be very well built, the testers weren't comfortable with it.

PSE PRIMOS STL

When I asked PSE to send its hottest new bow for the test, I expected to see the Nitro or some version thereof. I was surprised when the Primos STL slid out of the box. I was also surprised when it nearly took the top spot. This is a great bow with a longer than usual length and a higher than typical brace height, which suggests that the Primos STL is also one of the most forgiving and stable bows involved in this test. Its "draw cycle" was deemed excellent (one tester even gave it a perfect score). It also took top billing in the "balance" category (it stood perfectly vertical in a relaxed hand).

We noticed that the Primos STL had a little string noise after the shot, but that's common for longer bows--at 38 inches, it was the longest bow we checked out. We didn't try to eliminate the low-pitched twang because all testing was done with the bows as they were delivered. The Primos STL features PSE's NV System, a vibration absorber attached to each limb bolt to help muffle noise.

REFLEX BUCKSKIN

The Buckskin is a basic, no-nonsense bow that features Hoyt's Cam & 1/2 system. (Hoyt manufactures Reflex bows.) The Buckskin has a more conventional riser than the Tec series in Hoyt's line, but the riser is nonetheless distinctive. The testers liked nearly everything about the Buckskin except its noise level and recoil. The Buckskin produced a kick, but was good enough in many areas to place in the middle of the pack. If Reflex removes these weaknesses from the bow, it will be among the best on the market.

bows

MANUFACTURER/MODEL

AR 34 (520-884-9065; www.pse-archery.com) Suggested Price $600* Speed (fps)** 243 Brace Height*** 8 in. Axle-to-Axle Length 33.5 in. Speed G Noise G Recoil VG Draw Cycle VG Balance VG Valley F Grip VG Craftsmanship VG Final Rating G Comments The AR 34 is a solid bow. It has a very short valley. It's a little slow, but its balance is very good.

BowTech Extreme VFT (541-895-8950; www.bowtecharchery.com) Suggested Price $629 Speed (fps)** 254 Brace Height*** 6.625 in. Axle-to-Axle Length 34.0625 in. Speed VG Noise VG Recoil G Draw Cycle VG Balance G Valley VG Grip G Craftsmanship VG Final Rating VG Comments The Extreme VFT is fast and well-built. It tips forward after the shot. It has a good grip.

Browning Mirage ZX (801-876-2751; www.browning.com) Suggested Price $749 Speed (fps)** 239 Brace Height*** 7.25 in. Axle-to-Axle Length 33 in. Speed G Noise G Recoil VG Draw Cycle G Balance VG Valley VG Grip VG Craftsmanship VG Final Rating G Comments The Mirage ZX has a lot of recoil and is a little too shiny. On the other hand, it has a very good valley and grip.

Fred Bear TRX 32 (352-376-2327; www.BearGolden Eagle.com) Suggested Price $399 Speed (fps)** 242 Brace Height*** 7.5 in. Axle-to-Axle Length 32 in. Speed VG Noise G Recoil VG Draw Cycle G Balance VG Valley VG Grip G Craftsmanship VG Final Rating VG Comments The TRX 32 is the best value of the bunch. It shoots smooth and quietly and is very well-balanced.

Golden Eagle Obsession (352-376-2327; www.BearGoldenEagle.com) Suggested Price $399 Speed (fps)** 236 Brace Height*** 7.875 in. Axle-to-Axle Length 34 in. Speed VG Noise VG Recoil F Draw Cycle F Balance F Valley VG Grip F Craftsmanship F Final Rating G Comments The Obsession has a very uncomfortable grip. Its draw cycle is clunky, but it shoots very smoothly.

Hoyt RazorTec (801-363-2990; www.hoytusa.com) Suggested Price $719* Speed (fps)** 248 Brace Height*** 7.25 in. Axle-to-Axle Length 33 in. Speed VG Noise VG Recoil VG Draw Cycle G Balance G Valley VG Grip VG Craftsmanship VG Final Rating VG Comments The RazorTec is a very sweet shooter. It's fast, quiet and very well-made, but its balance is off.

Mathews LX (608-269-2728; www.mathewsinc.com) Suggested Price $719 Speed (fps)** 256 Brace Height*** 6.625 in. Axle-to-Axle Length 35 in. Speed VG Noise VG Recoil VG Draw Cycle VG Balance VG Valley VG Grip VG Craftsmanship VG Final Rating 87.7 Comments Speed is the LX's best feature. This is an all-around solid bow. There was no weak point to drag the bow down.

Pearson Freedom (251-867-8475; www.benpearson.com) Suggested Price $699 Speed (fps)** 250 Brace Height*** 6.6875 in. Axle-to-Axle Length 35.1875 in. Speed G Noise G Recoil G Draw Cycle G Balance G Valley G Grip G Craftsmanship VG Final Rating G Comments The Freedom's shot noise and vibration is a bit high. It's not comfortable to shoot.

PSE Primos STL (520-884-9065; www.pse-archery.com) Suggested Price $599* Speed (fps)** 248 Brace Height*** 7.75 in. Axle-to-Axle Length 38 in. Speed VG Noise G Recoil E Draw Cycle VG Balance E Valley VG Grip VG Craftsmanship VG Final Rating VG Comments The Primos STL is extremely smooth and stable. It has wonderful balance and a good grip.

Reflex Buckskin (801-363-2990; www.hoytusa.com) Suggested Price $499* Speed (fps)** 250 Brace Height*** 7.25 in. Axle-to-Axle Length 34 in. Speed G Noise G Recoil VG Draw Cycle VG Balance VG Valley VG Grip VG Craftsmanship G Final Rating VG Comments The Buckskin is a solid bow in almost every regard except vibration and recoil during the shot.

*Typical retail price (others are suggested retail prices).

**At 70 pounds with a 29-inch draw shooting 513-grain Beman Carbonmetal Matrix 300 shafts.

***The distance from the nock point to the arrow rest when a bow is not drawn.

What the scores mean Fair: 60-69 points Very Good: 80-89 points Good: 70-79 points Excellent: 90-100 points

The OL Test Team (Left to right)

Jim Hill has been bowhunting for more than 30 years. He grew up in central Wisconsin and can remember when bowhunting meant deer drives, recurve bows and shooting at everything that ran by.

Randy McPherren is best remembered by residents of his rural Iowa hometown for the many times he was seen riding with his bow over the handlebars of his bike. Randy is now employed as a conservation officer for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Bill Winke has been bowhunting for 25 years. He earned enough money for his first bow by mowing lawns when he was 14 years old. He grew up hunting wood lots near the rural Iowa dairy farm. For the past 12 years, Winke has worked full-time writing articles about bowhunting and is a frequent contributor to OUTDOOR LIFE.

Larry Kendall is a relative newcomer to bowhunting, but he has taken Pope & Young--caliber bucks in each of the past three seasons.

Joe DeMocko (not pictured) is a chiropractor. Joe is in his mid-30s and is a self-diagnosed bow junkie. He spends two months each fall in pursuit of deer and elk.

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