How do archery sights work?

A lot of people, when they grabbed a bow for the first time, feel completely lost on where and how to aim. On my first day, my coach gave me a reference point on the bow but he did tell me that it wasn’t going to be that precise until I fired my first few shots. Of course, my first shot went a little bit too high; my second was on target and from then on it became easier to aim as I got used to feel of the bow.

When I moved on to the specialized training and I bought my own Olympic recurve bow, my coach made me buy a sight. It felt so weird to use a sight after months of shooting just with my instinct. But, after some time shooting with it, you get used to the sight. It becomes something you want, something you need.

How does a bow sight work?

It’s pretty simple, you just aim and shoot. I’m kidding, but not entirely. The sight is something you can exchange on your bow. It is not something that normally comes with the other parts of the bow; so it’s not set up to any specific standards. That means that you can choose it carefully and that you can set up however best suits you.

I’ll pre-warn you, swapping to using a sight, won’t make you hit the target with every shot. You must place it, grab a close target, something like 10 or 20 meters away, then shoot. This is the only way you’ll find out if the sight is properly placed for you.

After your first shot with the sight you’ll have a reference point. I like to aim exactly at the centre of the target. From that point, you must pay attention at where the arrow is going and adjust the sight. Normally, you won’t have a perfect shot after placing the sight for the first time on the raiser. You’ll need to try and learn from your mistakes with each shot, adjusting the sight and making sure to always shot in the same way to get reliable results. 

How to move the sight

The sight in archery works in a confusing way. If your shot is going below the target, then you have to raise the bow. So, in order to raise the bow, you must lower the sight. I know, I know, it sounds kind of confusing but just trust me and do this exercise. Without any arrow, assemble your bow and sight, aim at a small focus area. Then, raise your bow a little bit, you’ll realize that the sight is now way over the focus area. So you’ll have to lower the sight again in order to have it on target again.

It’s a simple way to show you that if you lower the sight, you’ll force yourself to aim higher. So, when your shot is low, lower the sight. On the other hand, if your shot is a bit too high, raise your sight. This will make you lower the bow when shooting. It is confusing, every time I move my sight I have to stop for a second a think about which way I’m moving it.

On the other hand, talking about the right and left aiming adjustment, this part is really easy. If you want your shoot to be more to the right, move the sight to the right. The same thing when you want your shot more on the left. This is common sense; the up and low adjustment is just something which isn’t always instinctively easy to wrap your head around.

How to aim with a sight

Aiming is all about breathing and focusing on the target. First of all, you must be aware of which one is your dominant eye. This can be done with a simple test, just place your hands together leaving a small hole, observe a small and specific object, once you focus on the object, close one eye, then the other. One of your eyes will keep the object on your sight, the other will make it disappear. The one that keeps the object is your dominant eye.

Once you know which one is your dominant eye, you must make an important decision. Shoot with both eyes open, or with just one eye. Personally, I prefer to aim with both eyes open. This is how they tough me to shoot. When aiming, in my style, with both eyes open, your aiming should focus on the target, although you’ll realize the sight becomes a bit blurry. Trust me, trust your eyes and your sight, it is blurry but you can still aim by placing the blurry dot of your sight on the target. I am trying my best to explain this in words, but it is something you must practice and experience with your sight!

How to set up a bow sight?

There isn’t a huge science behind setting up a bow sight. Normally, it depends on the kind of sight you’re using.

Most recurve bows regular sight is set in just two steps. It is divided in two parts, a big one with the base, and a small and tiny part with is the actual sight where you will look at. First, adjust de base to the raiser at any number you wish. There are numbers on the sight base, moving it forward or backwards will alter your shot, so remember the number where you attach the base of the sight, should always be the same. At least for a good time you should stick to the same number.

Once you set up the base and decided a number to adjust it, you have to put the sight. I normally place the base at the number 7, then place the sight and adjust it to make sure it won’t fall when shooting or putting the bow down. Just a small reminder, since several times it happened to me, if you’re shooting and you hear a weird noise every time you shoot, check that your sight is properly adjusted. Over time it often tends to loosen just a bit with the vibration from the bow.

Just in case you’re wondering, here is a good explanation on how to set the sight on a recurve bow, step by step.

And here is a video on how to set up the sight on a compound bow.

Which sights are not allowed in Olympic Archery?

Technically, there’s nothing in the rules that disqualifies any specific sight. While there is a pretty specific description of what a sight can’t have, or it will end up in the disqualification of the archer.

For example, a sight in Olympic archery must not have any electronic property, in other words, it can’t be an electronic device. The sight cannot incorporate a prism, magnifying lens or lenses, neither any magnifying device, levelling, electric or electronic devices attached to it. It also should not provide more than one sighting point. The overall length of the sighting circle or point shall not exceed 2cm.

Before someone asks, believe me, they will know if your bow is doesn’t have the proper specs for the Olympic archery rules. Before the competition begins, referees will ask every archer to approach them with their bows fully assembled for the check. I have two recommendations for every archer interested in an Olympic, pre-olympic or competitive competition within the rules of World Archery. The first one, please play by the book. Follow the specifications of World Archery and use the proper equipment, it is best if you practice with it too, that way you are prepare for the competition. My second suggestion is for you to be early to the competition and the bow check by the referees. It may take some time and the line could get long, so it is best for you to be early and set on your position.

Do I need to do any of these if I am not into Olympic Archery?

If you’re just shooting as a hobby, there is no need to follow any of my previous comments. Those rules are not for you. But, if you’re into any competition regulated by World Archery or within their rules, then yes, you must follow each spec on your bow and equipment.

Everyone who is just doing this for fun, since archery is a great hobby in any style of shooting, you can use whatever you want on your own. There are some fun sights that work like the sniper ones, with magnifying glasses and stuff like that. It is up to you to try different things according to your objective.

Differences between recurve sights and compound sights

Most differences are physical. As you could see on the videos above, they are quite different on the form and method of attaching to the bow. There’s no better or worse on this topic, it is a matter of what you prefer.

Most compound bow sights have a magnifying lens to improve the archer’s accuracy since their targets tend to be smaller than recurve targets. It is allowed in Olympic competitions and it is regulated in world archery. Why can compound bring magnifying glasses? Because recurve archery tries to be fully cantered in the archers own sight, his eyes and ability. On the other hand, compound archery shots are much faster and stronger, which requires a level of precision almost unnatural. That’s why they require magnifying glasses on the sight.

Can I shoot a bow without a sight?

As a matter of fact, this is an interesting topic. Yes, you can. It is called barebow archery. This kind of archery is also regulated by the world archery, it is an official competition and if you ask me, it is the closest one to the original and traditional archery. Archers use the same recurve bow, only that they don’t have a sight or any stabilizer. It’s just you, with the bow and arrow. In this kind of competition, archers must rely mostly on their instincts and trust their gut. Also, some practice with specific distances may help you have a good idea, especially for your first shot since it will be your reference for the rest of the competition.

Barebow archery is great fun for people in love with the origins of archery. I tried it, not in a competitive way, just because I wanted to have a go. It is a fun story, I went to our practice field and I realized I forgot the tube that had my stabilizer and my arrows. Thankfully, my club had some arrows to lend archers since this happens a lot. But we didn’t have a stabilizer as a spare, so I started shooting without the stabilizer and it felt pretty weird. At that point, one of my friends suggested me to take the sight away, since I am pretty much into traditional archery as a fan of the medieval and roman history. Of course, I said it sounded like fun, so I took the sight away and started practicing.

Before I continue my story, there was a woman in our club, and her order of the bow parts took a little longer than expected. So she had her bow without stabilizer and sight for almost 3 months. We didn’t realize but she was already training for barebow without even knowing and she was getting pretty good at it. Since she never complained or told us, no one realized how she was practicing. Well, when I forgot my stabilizer, I did notice, because, at first I was really sceptical about shooting without a sight and stabilizer. When I saw her doing it, I went to ask a couple of questions and she told me “Don’t you remember we started at the club with barebow, with wooden bows”- That’s when I realized it is the same, only that with an extra 10 meters apart. So I started shooting without a sight and I’ve got to say, it was a lot of fun and I felt amazing with each shot.

That experience also made me realize how much I appreciate my sight, especially for the first shots. But it also made me realize that I can’t rely fully on the sight. There’s got to be some instinct in it, some gut. We’ve got to feel the air flow and direction, trust what we feel. A small recommendation, use your instincts from time to time, in outdoor competitions the air flow may change every minute, and you can’t stop every time it changes to adjust and readjust the sight. Prepare it for normal conditions and let your instinct do the rest when a situation presents.

So, that’s all on sights. I think it’s important to get to know each part of your bow, but also learn how to live without those parts that technology has been adding with time. Learning from the absence of something,  makes you be more aware of its presence and capabilities. Also, keep in mind everything mentioned for World archery regulated competitions. It is not nice to be there for your first time and get disqualified just for a mistake when buying a sight. Try to always have a sight that is regulated for competitions in case you want to try them out.

For the last, practice with your sight, get used to it at different ranges and practice how to do quick adjustments to the sight. In a hunting or competition situation, it might be a game changer to earn those extra seconds.

Keep practicing and happy shooting everybody!