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The Straight Truth About Carbon Arrows

By Jerry Bush

The Straight Truth About Carbon Arrows
The author deliberately caused this break to show that wrapped carbon arrows do not splinter when broken.

Carbon arrows began to appear just after I had finally settled on an aluminum shaft from which I believed I’d never sway.

Ah, but had I duped myself?

I’d heard some interesting things about carbon arrows: (a) They are perfectly straight; (b) There is no significant weight difference when comparing arrows of similar spine strength; and (c) Graphite shafts are indestructible.

Of course several disconcerting rumors floated about as well: (a) Carbon arrows can splinter on contact and contaminate the meat.  If this happens a person might choke to death on the splinters; (b) Graphite arrows sometimes shatter when released, and can injure the shooter’s bow hand; and (c) Carbon is poisonous and contaminates the meat; and d) Carbon arrows are too light to adequately penetrate large game animals.

So what was true? I needed an education regarding carbon arrows!

Five basic concerns about arrow quality deserve analysis: spine strength, straightness, weight, durability and overall performance. It is no secret that aluminum arrows are manufactured with various grades of material. As a general rule of thumb, the more expensive an aluminum arrow is, the less likely it is to be damaged. But carbon is carbon — right? I’d always heard carbon arrows are always straight, their weight is always consistent, and car-bon shafts are stronger. Well, to an extent these assumptions are true.

Believe it or not, Easton’s XX78 Super Slam aluminum arrows are held to a straightness of +/-.0015, which is a tighter tolerance than most carbon arrows. In fact, the only carbon arrows I found to surpass that stringent standard are Beman’s ICS Hunter Elite and Gold Tip’s Pro Hunter, both of which claim to meet a straightness tolerance of +/-.001. Carbon Extreme’s Maxima, CX, and Terminator Select shafts are very close, with a straightness tolerance of .0025 respectively. Easton’s own A/C Super Slim arrow rivals its Super Slam by demanding a .002 straightness requirement, but this shaft is actually an aluminum tube with a bonded carbon exterior.

Carbon arrows should actually be respected more for their weight, diameter and durability characteristics than initial straightness. They are subject to weight tolerances measured in grains, whereas aluminum arrows are usually compared to each other by percentage. The allowable variance of the best aluminum arrows is listed at +/- 1 percent, and because aluminum arrows that weigh less than 300 grains are rare, we are basically looking at permitted weight variances of at least +/- 3 grains.

The Straight Truth About Carbon Arrows
With the help of a simple arrow inspector, bowhunters can find and set aside the straightest arrows for hunting situations.

Easton’s Super Slam aluminum arrows are manufactured to the most stringent requirements of any metal arrow. A hunter shooting 30-inch Super Slams with a bow set at 65 pounds would likely choose a 2413 shaft that optimally weighs 312 grains. Because these high-quality arrows are subjected to a weight tolerance of +/- 1 percent, one arrow from a dozen could weigh 309 grains, and another might weigh 315 grains; a total variance of 6 grains. If a bowhunter then chooses broadheads that vary by +/- 2 grains, it is possible the hunter could be shooting two broadhead-tipped arrows from the same lot that vary by as much as 10 grains.

Conversely, if the bowhunter chooses middle of the line, 30-inch carbon arrows that are also selected for a bow set at 65 pounds, the target weight of the arrow could be 246 grains. The manufacturer’s tolerance of +/- 2 grains assures one arrow could weigh as little as 244 grains, and another could weigh as much as 248 grains. The same broadhead with possible weight variances of +/- 2 grains presents a possible total variance of 8 grains. That’s a 20 percent improvement.  Consider that top of the line carbon arrows boast consistent weights that register within +/- 1 grain, and the advantage of composite materials becomes even more impressive.

You might wonder why arrow manufacturers don’t simply make all carbon arrows to the best quality standards. Because each archer has his or her own priorities, manufacturers continue to produce arrows that meet various quality criterions. Advancements in technology are truly permitting manufacturers to develop new composites and improve production methods, but these enhancements come at a price. Just as with aluminum arrows, expensive carbon arrows are straighter, stronger and more consistent than their more economical counterparts.

Competition shooters and serious trophy hunters are more likely to concern themselves with subtle differences in weight and straightness and are therefore willing to pay for increased manufacturing tolerances. One dozen high-end carbon arrows will retail for $100 or more.  Weekend bowhunters are more apt to seek bargain prices.

That statement in no way infers the budget-conscious bowhunter is using inadequate equipment.  After all, I place myself in this group of experienced hunters who realize a bargain is only a bargain if the merchandise consistently performs satisfactorily. Even mid-value carbon arrows, which sell for about $40 less a dozen, will be weighed to within +/- 2 grains, and manufactured to a straightness of +/-.005 or better.

Because carbon arrows are so close in weight, bowhunters can minimize the difference even more by simply comparing and sorting arrows. Scales, like those used for bullet reloading, can be used to weigh arrows, and inexpensive devices allow shafts to be inspected for straightness.  The frugal bowhunter may then simply set aside the most consistent carbon arrows for hunting situations, and use the remaining arrows for practice. To further tweak performance, also weigh broadheads to match them with arrows that will provide the best overall weight similarities. 

Obviously this tactic can also be performed with aluminum arrows, but because the weight is likely to vary more to begin with, the amount of correction might be limited.

Certainly the added cost of a scale and arrow inspector must be considered. But after making the initial purchase, the archer will have the tools forever at his disposal. The added benefit of being able to check the alignment of the broadhead is alone worth the price of the inspection device. A misaligned broadhead is more likely than manufacturing tolerances to cause an errant shot.

Are carbon arrows susceptible to splintering and ruining the meat?

“That just isn’t so,” reports Marvin Carlston, owner of Gold Tip. Marvin, who started shooting carbon arrows in 1991, designed the first cross-weave carbon arrow.

“In the early days of carbon shafts, the fibers were linear and pointing the same direction as the shaft,” reports expert bowhunter and wildlife videographer Wade Nolan. “When those early carbon arrows broke, it was possible (though very unlikely) they could splinter. I have never heard of anyone ingesting a carbon fiber splinter, and today’s shafts are even better. Most are manufactured with multi directional layers of carbon fiber in an epoxy matrix that is then baked. This creates a shaft that is made of bonded fibers that usually break clean, if they break at all,” says Nolan.

Lennie Rezmer of Carbon Extreme agrees. “Technology continues to refine the processes used to produce our carbon arrows. New resins and manufacturing techniques have improved dramatically since the first carbon arrows hit the shelves. There was probably a time when straight fibers could have splintered if the arrow impacted unexpected obstacles, such as hardwood branches or stones, but this never has been a big story. Today’s wrapped-carbon arrows are better and stronger than ever,” emphasizes Rezmer.

Gary Cornum of Easton Archery adds, “Today’s technology is allowing our company to produce thinner, yet stronger shafts. We have even figured out how to install and secure collarless inserts into some of the new materials and resins used to make our arrows, thus permitting the unthreaded portion of the broad-head’s screw to provide a body-bound fit. We are confident this will assure the best possible broadhead alignment, and therefore provide bowhunters with a more accurate arrow."

Do carbon arrows really transfer poisons?

Carbon composites are increasingly being used for human joint replacements. Carbon composite joints are lighter, more comfortable, and wear better than most competitive materials.  The Mayo Clinic is reporting great success in replacing arthritic knuckles with pyrolitic-carbon joints. This fact justly bursts the myth that carbon is necessarily poisonous.

Are arrows made of carbon more likely to shatter when released and penetrate the shooter’s hand?

“In every instance of a broken arrow impaling a shooter that I’ve ever heard of (and there have only been a couple), the arrow was actually jammed or squeezed at the arrow rest,” states Gold Tip’s Carlston. “Archers must understand that upon release all arrows flex because in essence the nock is physically trying to surpass the broadhead. It is absolutely imperative the arrow be unhindered as it zips off the arrow rest. Improperly adjusted, prong-style rests were most often the culprit, because narrow shafts were permitted to fall too deeply between the prongs, where they wedged,” reports the arrow designer.

Subscribe Today!Injury could also occur if a previously damaged arrow is fired. Each carbon arrow is imprinted with a warning to “flex the arrow each time before shooting.” This is a simple safeguard that only takes a second to perform. This warning might falsely lead consumers to feel graphite shafts are more susceptible to damage, but in essence the precaution is advised primarily because cracks in carbon shafts are tougher to visibly distinguish than are similar imperfections in metal arrows.  Never chance shooting a suspect arrow, regardless of the material from which it is made.

Though carbon arrows rarely retain significant bends, it is not impossible. Some carbon arrows can and will memorize bend if subjected to abuse. Always protect arrows by storing them vertically when stowing them for long periods of time; and avoid placing heavy items on arrows when traveling to and from hunting locations.

What about carbon arrow performance?

Most archers experience in-creased accuracy because the lighter, thinner material flies so well. “I first started using carbon arrows about six years ago to get more speed and thus use fewer pins,” reports Ken Piper, editor of I have a short draw length (28 inches), and was frustrated with having to worry so much about distance. I tried carbons and immediately eliminated two pins from my bow sight. I had heard the horror stories about carbon arrows, but I decided to try them anyway. My confidence has increased and I enjoy more success because the use of fewer pins allows me to just concentrate on the shot itself,” reports Piper.

Perhaps the best evidence of carbon performance is supported by Wade Nolan. “I have done over $14,000 worth of high speed arrow filming, and I can offer this,” states the videographer. “At launch, all arrows pick up a bend or paradox as the nock end begins to move faster than the front of the shaft. Slow motion footage of aluminum arrows made my jaw drop when I first filmed it. It happens so fast we can’t see it with the naked eye, but aluminum arrows osculate during the entire flight to the target. There was a stark contrast when I first observed a wrapped-carbon shaft in flight. At first, a carbon arrow also osculates back and forth along two anises. But the carbon shaft damp-ens the flexing with each cycle. In a well tuned bow, this flexing is gone before the arrow travels 15 yards.

See More Buckmasters Feature Stories“This is important because if the arrow flexes all the way to the target it will be bent into a shallow C-configuration when it strikes the target. This wastes kinetic energy and hurts penetration. We noted a noticeable difference in penetration between ‘snaky shafts’ and straight ones,” reports Nolan.

Another misnomer is that carbon arrows are too light to provide reliable penetration when hunting dangerous game and larger members of the deer family, such as elk and moose.

“I killed a 450-pound Glacier black bear with a carbon arrow, and I’d say that’s a good-size animal that deserves respect,” concluded Carbon Extreme’s Rezmer.

“I wonder where these negative comments come from,” questions Easton’s Gary Cornum. “If concerned, bowhunters do have the option of choosing heavier graphite arrows. For example, our Beman-Max-4 was designed with added mass, exclusively for serious hunters who desire greater penetration.” 

My decision to switch to carbon arrows was a conclusion easily reached after shooting projectiles made from the lighter, thinner, yet stronger material. Consistent shot placement is my number one consideration, and my accuracy improved dramatically after I switched. Because I am a budget-minded archer, I truly appreciate the durability of carbon shafts. Finicky bowhunters may choose to fine-tune selections by weighing, spinning and sorting, but the bottom line is that most archers who switch to composite arrows will shoot more proficiently anyway!

-- Reprinted from the July 2006 issue of Buckmasters Magazine