Probably the most overlooked part of any bow is the string. Its not sexy like the riser. Its not the powerhouse like the limbs. Its not a engineering marvel like high end sights and its certainly not aerodynamically perfect like an a/c carbon arrow. Even in the minds of some archers, its just a bit of string. Well ………..no!
Traditionally, linen, silk, hemp, hair, rawhide, sinew and assorted vegetable fibres were all being used to make strings of varying efficiency – the best apparently being linen. These materials did give you a string for your bow. However, in the modern era of archery, string performance is WAY past the natural world’s bounty and archery strings can get really high tech. To be clear, the strings job is to transfer energy from the limbs to the arrow as efficiently as possible while not damaging the limbs/riser or bow and therein lies the conundrum of what string material to pick.
So … since we’re here to help, what sort of string should you have on your trad bow/recurve/compound?
Traditional: B50/B55 – Dacron
Strings on traditional bows should have the capacity to give a little. Archers refer to this give as “a softer shot”. This flex in the string cushions the jarring the (often all wood) bow takes after release. You feel this as hand shock from the abrupt stop of the limb tips which is basically residual kinetic energy that didn’t make it into the arrow.
A good material to look at for trad is Dacron. This is a polyester material invented in the 1950’s and is ideal for traditional bows. B50 is considered to be abrasion resistant, pretty durable and consistent when shot. It isn’t fantastic at transferring the potential energy in the bow to kinetic but high performance is not really required in a field bow or longbow. With these you’d prefer stability and that softer feeling shot so Dacron has solid credentials for a trad string. B55 is just a slightly modified version of B50 with better durability and lower stretch because B50 does have a slight issue with stretching when on higher poundage bows. Nice chunky strings with 12-16 strands are pretty much the norm with lots of twists being beneficial. This slows down the shot and gains some stability via inertia making the shot more forgiving and less twitchy to a clunky release. Think of a heavy string = slow stable string and more twists = more give = softer shot.
Newer archers, even ones with their own kit, should stick to Dacron early on to take advantage of its forgiving nature. Training bows use this sort of string as well to help out beginners. However you’ll find strings on training bows rarely need more than 10 strands as there isn’t any real power in the bows. Thus no need for many strands to soak up the excess energy.
Recurve: Fast Flight/8125/652 Spectra – Dyneema
Recurve bows with their hi-tech limbs, better able to handle stress, are able to use strings with improved ability to transfer energy from limb to arrow. These higher performance strings are made with variations of Dyneema (also called high-modulus polyethylene).
This material was created in the late 1960’s and is extremely strong, light and durable, exactly whats required for a performance bowstring. There’s still some give in this material but not as much as Dacron. With these strings its a harsher, less forgiving shot than you get with Dacron. This is because it lacks the same mass and reflects more accurately what the archer is doing at time of release. In other words, it will punish sloppy releases while rewarding clean, crisp releases. One of the earliest brands using Dyneema was Fast Flight which is still popular today. There have been experiments with the materials used in Dyneema strings, for example adding a strand of GORE performance material (as used in 8125G), intended to improve durability. However, these were not really successful, with studies showing the GORE strand increased harshness in the shot and so wear on limbs/riser. One study concluded noting the increased chance of often shot bows failing due to this.
Pure Dyneema as used in the popular 8125 string material, seems to be the best choice currently for recurve. As long as you aren’t going to make too many mistakes that will be punished by your high performance string! 16-18 strands of this considerably thinner material is normal for performance strings required to kick out the highest feet/sec possible. Indoors however, you do see chunkier 20 strand strings looking for more stability and forgiveness at the closer distances.
Compound: 452X – Dyneema/Vectran
Compound strings are extremely uncompromising. They require to be ridiculously strong due to the high draw weights and to experience as little stretching (aka creep) as possible. This is because of how the compound works with its cams needing to be in simultaneous harmony and the peep requiring to be precisely centred. Any stretch will throw off the bows tune or timing.
452X is made up of 67% Dyneema and 33% Vectran. A high-performance multifilament yarn, Vectran is spun from a liquid crystal polymer. This fibre is five times stronger than steel and gives the bowstring the resilience to deal with the extremely high draw weights compounders feel they need. It does, however, make the shot insanely harsh and completely unwilling to compromise on what makes a good shot. With the transfer of energy extremely efficient, this combination of materials works well for the compound since it doesn’t really care about bad releases. Why? The vast majority of the dark side use release aids where its almost impossible to have a bad release (or as recurvers call it – cheating).
And as for the lack of softness in the shot? Dyneema/Vectran is such a harsh combination that it will wreck any other sort of bow. It might take a lot of shots as recurves are resilient but its pretty guaran-damn-teed for a wooden bow in short order so beware this material and never use it on a recurve or trad. Compound strings will look quite bulky with 20-24 strands being common, again because of that high draw weight. If it has too few strands it won’t absorb enough energy and this results in significant vibration that will damage both bow and probably archer!
To sum up, there are lots of brand names for strings which would make this article very long and boring if we listed them all. The key is to check the material in the string which will give you a good idea what sort of performance you are looking at and then select whats best for your bow. You definitely don’t want a bow that’s highly strung with an inappropriate string material and on the verge of catastrophic failure. Its bad enough we have archers like that! ;o)
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Fast Flight, 8125, 8125G, 652 Spectra, B50, B55, 452X … are all brand names for various string types.
Picture of lady with long hair courtesty of Wikimedia Commons