There is lots of misconception and outdated info circulating the interwebs regarding crossbow technology as a whole. This is probably due to the quick advancements in the area, driven by the increasing popularity of crossbow hunting.
Recurve crossbows are still perceived as rough, clunky, and not that effective weapon. You would often see statements like:
These are not quite true in 2021. So despite all that has been written on the matter, these two crossbow styles deserve a fresh comparison. One that also reflects what is available in today's market.
Recurve and compound crossbows are getting closer and closer if you look at their main characteristics - power, size, ease of loading, and so on.
Yes, compound crossbows have an easier time ejecting those arrows at over 400 fps (feet per second). But the gap is melting and there are at least a couple of battle-tested 400-420 fps recurve crossbows on the market.
Here is the time to add a small clarification: there aren't that many companies that make recurve crossbows. And if you are looking to buy a recurve crossbow from a reputable manufacturer, you basically have one choice: Excalibur.
For instance, they offer the Assassin 420 TD (stands for "takedown") model, which can shoot arrows at 420 fps, which is quite impressive for a recurve crossbow. There aren't even that many compound crossbows that reach that speed.
For comparison, look at one of the models of another popular brand, which is specialized in the production of compound crossbows:
The Nitro XRT by TenPoint features the whooping 470 fps and "reverse limbs" style.
Now let's look at their technical specifications in more detail:
|Assassin 420 TD (recurve)||Nitro XRT (compound)|
|Arrow Speed||420 fps||470 fps|
|Draw Weight||290 lbs||225 lbs|
|Weight||8 lbs||7.4 lbs|
As you can see, both products offer high-end performance and come packed with tons of extras like built-in crank devices.
The cams on compound crossbows can get out of sync which would lead to one limb pulling with a higher force and your arrows might not land where you'd expect them to.
This issue has no analogy in recurve crossbows as they have no cams and cables - the bowstring is tied directly to the limbs.
And as they say: "crossbow hunting is all about accuracy!". A badly placed shot may deliver slow death to the animal due to blood loss, but you won't have much chance to recover it.
This is not to say compound crossbows are less accurate. But you can expect a somewhat higher consistency from a recurve crossbow as they suffer less frequently from technical issues that affect their accuracy.
If we forget about arrow speed for a moment, the biggest practical difference between the two would be in the perceived draw weight. Both would be at least somewhat hard to pull back for the average male shooter, but those 290 lbs, in particular, would require some extra physical strength, to put it mildly. Imagine deadlifting 290 lbs every time you want to cock the crossbow!
Luckily, these days almost nobody pulls the string back with their bare hands, unless it's some low-powered model with simpler construction.
Most times you'd be using some device to assist you in this effort - either a cocking rope or a crank device. A rope would reduce the needed pulling force by 50%, and a crank would bring the draw weight down to about 5%!
Add the fact that most top-of-the-line powerful crossbows are sold with built-in crank cockers and we can relax about those startling draw weights that we see on the technical papers.
Recurve crossbows tend to be wider because of the longer limbs which makes them a bit less maneuverable and it might be slightly less convenient to traverse through dense vegetation carrying one.
But these days you can get a model from Excalibur's Micro series which are quite compact and lightweight (less than 6 lbs), even if you compare them with compound crossbows with similar stats. At the same time, they do provide considerable power (330-400 fps). The only "sacrifice" is that they are generally harder to cock compared to the normal-sized models due to the shorter and stiffer limbs.
There is no direct relation between the type of crossbow (recurve or compound) and its weight. Yes, recurve crossbows come with larger and heavier limbs, but compound crossbows use extra components that add to the overall weight.
Shots with recurve crossbows are somewhat quieter.
At the same time, they are loud enough so if you're thinking about follow-up shots on the same animal, these won't be possible in most cases. Within the usual hunting distance with a crossbow (30-40 yards), the shot sound will almost certainly startle the animal irrespectively of the crossbow type.
This is where recurve crossbow shine and the main reason so many crossbow hunters swear by them.
While recurve crossbows rely mainly on the limbs and the power stroke to generate power, compound crossbows use a more complex "cams" and cable system (in addition to the limbs).
Yes, cams are a smarter way to reduce the draw weight and increase the arrow speed, but these are additional elements plus added complexity in comparison to the simpler recurve technology. And more elements = more things that can break; more complex = more prone to problems (usually).
Also, you won't be able to do some maintenance tasks and light repairs on a compound crossbow, unless you have a crossbow press. The limbs and the bowstring are under constant tension so you won't be able to replace the string or set the cams timing if you don't squeeze the limbs in a press first.
If you are not the DIY type of owner or don't want to invest in a press, you would have to bring the crossbow to a pro archery shop.
Note: There are exceptions to the above statement. Compound crossbows from the Mission manufacturer provide the option to loosen the string by turning the limb bolts.
Recurve bows are easier to service. You can change the string even if you are in the woods.
Here's how Excalibur present the advantages of the recurve technology:
Speaking of strings, it is worth noting that recurve crossbows wear out this component faster, meaning you would have to change it more frequently. So this is a small advantage to compound crossbows.
You might have read that recurve crossbows are cheaper because of their simpler construction. But if you do a quick check, you would see that this is not quite true. The newest models from Excalibur are relatively expensive.
At the same time, high-end compound crossbows from companies like Ravin , Mission and TenPoint carry much higher price tags.
As many things in life, deciding what type of crossbow is best for you - compound or recurve, is a matter of priorities.
Do you want a simpler and easier to maintain weapon? Don't want to deal with archery shops if you can avoid it? Don't like surprises? Get a recurve one.
And maybe you are a "speed-chaser" and small problems from time to time don't scare you? Or you just like the cool and futuristic looks of modern compound crossbows? Well, you probably know the answer in that case.