How to Aim a Bow and Arrow

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The fifth step in the archery shot sequence: aiming your bow at the target

If you’ve been following this archery shot sequence guide, you might find it strange to only now be considering how to aim the bow and arrow properly.

That’s because the previous steps are more important for ensuring you accurately hit the target. Your stance, how you hold and draw the bow, your anchor point etc – getting consistency in these steps will do most of the aiming for you.

‘Aiming’ is really just aligning your body and therefore your arrow toward the direction of the target.

However there are unique aiming techniques that you can learn on top of this. These techniques are often additional reference points that combine with your anchor point. More references for alignment will make you more accurate.

The basics of how to aim a bow and arrow

Let’s first re-cover what you need to ensure have been done correctly before you begin to process the idea of aiming:

  • You’ve drawn the bow back with the weight of the draw on your shoulder blades and back muscles
  • Therefore you should find it possible to maintain your anchor point for an extended period of time without too much difficulty

It is ONLY at this stage (after anchoring securely and holding the position) that your mind should shift to thoughts of aiming at the target. You do this through a reference point on the bow or arrow, which will typically be one or more of the following:

  • Peep sight
  • Pin sight
  • Scope sight
  • The string
  • Tip of your arrow.

One major thing to consider before you start to aim

Do not worry if when you try to keep the bow steady, you have a slight bobble to your aim. It is normal to find it hard to keep the arrow completely still.

It will improve with practice, but you will always move or vibrate a little bit when at full draw. Trying too hard to keep the bow still can result in unnecessary tension. Keeping your body relaxed is a far more important technique to learn for aiming. Don’t force the target to perfectly align with your aiming method.

If you use a sight, your objective is to have the centre filled with the target. But if your aim is wobbling, don’t try too hard to time your release for when the target is exactly in the middle of the sight. You will learn that proper release is better when it feels natural and instinctive.

Before we look at different aiming methods, let’s consider a few more important notes.

An image of a target on a tree stump with an arrow hitting the middle of the bullseye due to perfect aiming of the bow and arrow

Other pre-aiming steps to consider:

  • You should be using your dominant eye to aim the bow, but this is determined by which eye is underneath the arrow rest. Determine your bow-handedness and which eye the arrow rest lies under here
  • Many archers will close their non-dominant eye when aiming at the target, but this is not absolutely necessary
  • Whilst one eye will be the primary method of vision, it is still preferable to keep both eyes open, as this lets in more light to view the target
  • However if you have a lopsided dominant eye (i.e. your left eye is dominant when you are right-handed) then you should close your dominant eye to begin with when aiming. This is also true of those with an equal dominant eye.
  Remember it is crucial to wait before you start the mental process of ‘aiming’ your arrow. Look at your target before you lift the bow, but do notaim’ at it until you are already at full draw and anchored. Aiming at the point you begin drawing will distract your focus away from the technique of drawing the bow correctly.  

Aiming tips for your bow and arrow: using a sight

For any of the below methods on how to aim a bow and arrow, it’s important to remember another key rule. You should always just focus on the target. Everything we discuss as a technique to ‘aim’ your bow and arrow is simply a reference point to align with the target.

Here’s a good example of what we mean by this. If you were throwing a ball, you would not look at your arm or the ball itself as you threw it. You would look at where you are throwing. It’s important to note this before all the below information on different reference points for your arrow and your bow.  

A special mention also on the peep sight. This is a piece of equipment you can attach to your bow string. It is part of your anchor point, but should be affixed to your bow string after all other aiming methods are aligned consistently on each shot. You do not aim down a peep sight to the target like you would a pin sight. You use a peep sight as an additional guarantee that your anchor is in place and matches up with your pin sight and other additional aiming reference points.

An example of using a bow's peep sight to improve your best anchor point
Example of a peep sight

Aiming with a pin sight

The first thing to note when aiming with a sight is, you may need to permanently adjust your anchor point and string-holding technique based on what allows you the best vision through where the sight is located on your bow. Of course, if you have full flexibility of where to place the sight, you’ll want to prioritise whatever allows your anchor point to be comfortable.

Remember that even though you have a sight, you still need to align your body and other aiming references. It is simply just one of many reference points. There is no guarantee that having the target in the middle of the sight will mean you will hit the middle of the target!

However in principle, the centre of the target should align with the middle of your sight.

A sight pin attached to a recurve bow that allows for better aiming of the bow and arrow
A pin sight on a recurve bow

The point of the pin sight is that you adjust it depending on where your arrows have landed. If they landed above the shot, adjust your pin sight upwards. It is the same for any direction.

To know how to configure your sight and make adjustments, just look at the manual/guide that came with it. In most versions, there are screws attached which when you loosen, will allow you to adjust the position..

As mentioned, the most common mistake for beginners using a pin sight is that they try too hard to make sure that the target stays in the middle. Forcing the pin to stay still is the worst thing you can do. Do not stress – let the pin wobble. Focus on the target, relax, and wait for the instinctive moment to release.

How to do active or passive aiming with a bow pin sight

To get more technical, there’s two variations of how you mentally handle the pin sight’s wobble over the target. We said before that you should not try too hard to time the moment the pin sight has the target in the middle. This is still true, however if you want to try this aiming method, the basic principle is you can either:

  • Focus on the target first and wait for the pin sight to be over it
  • Focus on the pin sight, and wait for the target to be within it.

The difference between those two methods is known as ‘active aiming’ or ‘passive aiming’.

‘Active aiming’ is when your eyes have the dot of the sight in focus and the target is blurry. ‘Passive aiming’ will have the target in focus and the dot will be blurry.

For beginners, passive aiming is a better technique to learn as it teaches you to stay relaxed and focus on the target. It gives you the option later down the line to do both.

Starting out with active aiming will put too much dependency on gadgets rather than natural skill. This is also why passive aiming is generally considered a technique used more by recurve archers, whilst active aiming is more for compound bows.

An example of passive aiming. The target is in focus and the scope sight is blurry.
An example of active aiming. The pin sight is in focus and the target is blurry. Image courtesy of Peterson’s Bowhunting.

So if using a recurve bow, even with a pin sight, the focus of your eyes should always be on the target.

How to aim with a compound bow

Compound bows will often have a unique type of pin sight. It’s worth getting additional insight on how to use it.

To use the pin sight on a compound bow, first make sure it is properly mounted and adjusted.

  • It consists of several pins of fibre optic or LED lights that are adjustable for different distances
  • Each pin corresponds to a specific distance
  • Your draw weight and arrow speed will determine the distance relative to the space between each pin
  • Try aligning a chosen pin to the target and then make adjustments depending on how high over the target is goes.
  • However you’ll have to make sure your form and anchor point is consistent to know for certain that it works!

There is also often a ‘level’ within the pin that you can see in the above image (the green thing underneath the pins).

When the level is centred, the bow is being held vertically solid, and the pins are aligned with the target in a straight line. This is important because even a small tilt in the bow can cause the arrow to veer off course, resulting in a missed shot.

The best thing about compound bows for aiming though is that you will have less of a ‘floating’ aim. That’s due to the design of the bow allowing you to hold the tension of the bow at full draw for longer. Therefore you will want to take a few seconds more to properly align your target in your sight.

Compound bows therefore are more appropriate for active aiming.
This is because compound bows are traditionally hunting bows, and you would therefore have a moving target!

Some compound bow sights even have a magnifying glass! Helping you to aim even better.

How to aim a bow without a sight

If you do not have a sight affixed to your bow, aiming will be more difficult.

However with practice and some of the below methods, you will still be able to hit the target consistently. The major way we begin aiming without a sight is to use the arrowhead as a reference point to the target. Some consider this the most instinctive form of archery – and is what you would normally do with any barebow.

However, there are many who believe that true ‘instinctive’ archery requires no conscious aiming whatsoever – we will explain this in further detail later in this guide.

Using the arrowhead to aim a bow and arrow (the parallax effect)

When you aim at the target, you might think to align the arrowhead with the centre of the target in your eye view.

This of course would be a mistake. That’s because the arrow you’re shooting (when in a correct anchor position and at full draw) is below your eyeline and tilting upwards. This means your arrowhead will always first shoot upwards from the point of view that your eye has of it. Eventually it will dip (as gravity brings it downwards, in what is known as a parabolic trajectory).

That an arrow does not shoot straight, but instead moves up and wobbles, is what is known as the parallax effect in archery. Instructors will therefore tell you in the beginning to in fact aim at the bottom of the target. As therefore the upward trajectory would more likely take it towards the centre.

This is of course a simplification because it depends on the distance to the target. With some bow types, and certain distances, aiming with your arrowhead will vary greatly. It’s just important to remember: the arrow will shoot upwards before falling downwards!

Aiming with the gap or gap shooting in archery

As mentioned, for target archery you will often be aiming below or above the target. This will often leave a ‘gap’ of space in your vision, between your arrowhead and the target itself. This vertical gap, between the tip of your arrowhead and the target, is a reference point you can aim with! This is also known as ‘gap shooting’.

The easiest way to get started without over thinking this is to just attempt a few shots. After they go wayward, you can adjust the gap between the tip of the arrow and the target until you are shooting in a more accurate fashion. This is also called ‘shooting by compensation’.

When you feel you have the right ‘gap’, you know now what your reference point is for that distance & target, though it will be hard to be exact with this measurement. To shoot at further distances, you will generally have to be closer to or above the target, and for shorter distances you will have to aim below the target.

Again though, you need a variety of references to ensure accurate shooting. As well as the gap, you also need to use your anchor points and other visual references in this aiming guide.

Getting technical: how to measure gap shooting with different bows

The gap size varies significantly between archers due to factors around your personal bow setup. Elements like arrow speed, draw weight, arrow length, anchor point position, string grip, and draw length all influence how gap shooting will work. Consequently, it’s up to you to gauge the gap and understand how it relates to the typical distance covered by your bow.

To estimate the space, visualize what appears to be a centimetre in the gap and shoot several arrows at different centimetre increments. Try 5cm, 10cm, and 15cm – to see the results. You can also sketch on your riser to simplify gap measurement. If you can quickly distinguish between these measurements, this technique might work well for you. See the image below from charlesarcheryblog to see an example of gap shooting.

When gap shooting, you can choose for your eyes to focus on the gap itself, with the target in peripheral vision. This is like active aiming. However we would advise again to use passive aiming. Keep the target in clear vision, while the gap and arrow tip remain in your peripheral vision (as above image shows).

Additional tips for using the arrowhead or gap to aim the bow in archery

An alternative method for aiming at the arrowhead, is using your bow hand’s index finger to point at the target while you shoot. This can help as an additional reference point and allow for more accurate close-range target hitting.

This method also simplifies the mindset you need to have. Point and shoot. As opposed to the measurements of gap shooting, which some archers consider an overthinking of the aiming process.

Most importantly when doing any type of aiming with the arrowhead, is to remember these final tips:

  • Proper alignment of your anchor point, arrow tip, gap, and target is crucial – focus on the target and not just the arrow tip to maintain accuracy
  • Avoid adjusting your anchor point to see the arrowhead better. Having the arrow too close to your eye can be hazardous. While some archers do this, it’s not advised for beginners
  • The “gap” you look at should only be vertical – never have a horizontal gap. Ensure proper horizontal alignment with the target, which is achievable with a good anchor point and the arrow below the eyeline
  • If your arrow misses the target to the right or left, your stance or anchor point may need adjustment instead
  • Some archers will have the arrow alongside the eye rather than underneath it, however this requires ‘gap shooting’ with both a horizontal and vertical gap, which is not recommended for beginners. It is possible, just much harder!

The string as your reference point when aiming a bow

If you’ve followed the steps correctly for holding the bow and anchoring, the bow string should be in front of your peripheral vision.

This means that whilst you’re looking at the target, you will also be able to see the top of the string in front of you. This is another great reference point, along with the tip of the arrow (or a sight if you’re using one). See where the string aligns as you aim your bow and shoot, and make adjustments as you get closer to the target.

The major benefit of having a pin sight (typically on a recurve bow), is it serves as a great way to align with your string.

When you have the target in your pin sight, and you have the bow string in front of you; you now have two references that should align in order to make your shots consistent.

However, do not have the string too close to the sight. This is because it’s generally frowned upon to look ‘through’ your bow to aim – instead you should look ‘past’ the bow. Some visual representations below will explain this.

Having the bowstring in a parallel position is a great reference point for aiming. The above image shows a right handed archer using the left of the bow frame, the string and the scope to aim with.

It’s bad practice to aim straight through the bow. This image has the string too close to the sight whilst aiming. It should be at a slight angle and parallel, like the previous image. Images courtesy of ‘The Archery Channel’ on YouTube.

Key ‘beginner’ facts to know for how to aim a bow

It’s important as a beginner to remember that, despite all of the references or element of your bow that you can aim with, the key is to always focus on the target!

Use the tips in this guide as a measurement exercise, but always have the target focused in your sights before you actually release the arrow.

Repetition is key for archery, but most importantly for aiming. This is because, aside from your conscious reference points, your brain is subconsciously analysing and assessing what works and what doesn’t.

  • As a beginner, always adjust your aim after a few shots, not just one. This is because there may be more than one element (than your aim) which is throwing the arrow off course. It could be your stance, draw, hold, or anchor
  • Your draw length being correct is very important for aiming. Too short and the target jumps around in your sights more, too long and it circles uncontrollably
  • If struggling to aim, consider a lower draw weight. This will allow you the chance to assess what is going wrong in the shot sequence, without struggling to hold anchor as much before release
  • The colour of your bowstring may make a difference when using it as a reference point. Remember that bowstrings can often be bought separately and applied to any bow. So have a look online for a bowstring that is a more ‘stand-out’ colour and see if that helps with your use of it as a reference!
  • When at full draw, aiming starts. Focus, but also relax! We usually tense our body when concentrating. Avoid that and shoot relaxed – to stay true to your aim.

Advanced techniques for how you aim a bow

There are a variety of advanced techniques you can use for aiming. They are not really appropriate for a beginner’s guide to the shot sequence. However we will quickly list them out below, as well as mention in more detail one of the key techniques mentioned in this post already: instinctive archery.

How to aim your bow with instincts

As the name implies, this methodology relies on your brain’s instincts, and muscle memory, to aim within a split second.

This implies shooting at the moment the anchor point is reached, without any conscious thoughts towards where the arrow or sight is, before you shoot. As mentioned, the reason this works is due to all the steps before and after the shot sequence. With a perfected stance and anchor point, perfect hold of the bow and release, you often can rely on your instincts to shoot. You won’t need any visual reference points to aim the bow.

When you are shooting instinctively, all you should focus on is the target. You will still see reference points in your peripheral vision, but you will not consciously choose to focus on any of them. Every factor you would normally consider, such as distance or wind, is instead analysed subconsciously. You don’t see the bow or anything else in the distance – just the spot on the target that you want to see the arrow hit. After a while, your brain should begin to process subconsciously how to get there.

Situations to use instinctive archery

It’s this reason that instinctive shooting is most common in situations where you have a moving target, or a target in an open space where your position to the target is constantly changing. However it has become more popularised in target shooting after the videos of Lars Anderson.

In a way, aiming with the gap is also a type of instinctive shooting. However, with this type of instinctive archery, you don’t really look at the gap at all – at least not with the conscious mind. ‘Gap shooting’ still uses your conscious mind to think ‘where do I shoot’ – instinctive shooting only lets the subconscious mind do this.

Gap shooting is better for shooting at a range, in a straight line. Out in the wild, instinctive shooting will be more accurate.

Other advanced techniques:

Here’s a list of other techniques you can deep-dive into, to get even more knowledge on how to aim a bow and arrow in archery:

  • Breathing and focus techniques. Getting your breathing rhythm in line with your shot sequence is one of the major techniques you can learn to improve your aim
  • Timing techniques. How long does the process take to complete your draw? You can try timing yourself in seconds, and repeating this each time, to maintain consistency. Anything more than 10 seconds is too long. At an advanced level, it will be roughly 2-3 seconds. Somewhere in the middle is ideal for a beginner
  • String walking. An advanced technique based on changing your hand position on the string to adjust your aim, rather than the bow’s position. Adjusting your hands position on the string will change your anchor point. However the logic is quite straightforward: the more your fingers are closer to arrow nock on the string, the more it will generally fly at a long distance. If it is further down the string, or further away from the arrow, it will travel a shorter distance. Not recommended for beginners as it will stop you finding consistent form
  • Face walking. Changing your anchor point to one that adjusts the elevation of the arrow. Low anchor point makes arrow shoot upwards, high anchor point to the eye will go down/short distance. Not recommended for beginners as it will stop you finding consistent form
  • Use a stabiliser. Not an advanced skill, but advanced equipment you can use to reduce the movement of your bow when at full draw. This allows you to hold the ‘aim’ position for longer.

So to sum it up

  • Begin the aiming process only after you’ve finished the full draw process and technique, reaching your anchor point and holding it in place. Focus on your body’s alignment before you focus on the target
  • Use as many reference points as possible (sights, string, arrow) to align the arrow
  • Measure the gap or use your sights for assessing your distance
  • Focus your vision on the target
  • Do not aim for too long – rely on your form and your instincts. The ideal length of time to aim for a beginner is 3-5 seconds.

    Happy shooting!

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