On the first afternoon of every year’s bow test, longtime fellow tester Danny Hinton and I unbox each of the new flagship compounds. We’ll check each for IBO specs and chronograph them before the day is out, but before we get to that, Hinton and I sit around a bucket of spicy fried chicken and mull over the field. We’ll often bust out the winners from previous years, shoot them a bit, and make some long-range predictions about how this year’s bows will stack up.

We’ve been doing this test for almost a decade, and most years there’s something in the pile that promises to perform in some way better than ever—faster, smoother, quieter. This year’s field of bows was different. The big players largely focused more on updating existing designs than on chasing next-level performance, and it showed. Nearly across the board, the field was slow, and frankly, a little boring from a tester’s standpoint. On the other hand, if what you’re after is a solid hunting bow, there are some great options on the shelves in 2020. They are plenty fast enough, and there are some excellent shooters too. Plus, several of this year’s bows are easier than ever to tune and adjust yourself, at home, without a bow press.

Without further ado, here they are and how they did, from the eighth-place finisher to our overall winner.

8. Bear Divergent EKO

Bear Divergent EKO
The Bear Divergent EKO is lightweight, handy, and affordable. Bear Archery
  • Specs: 323.15 fps., 30” axle to axle, 6.5” brace height, $700
  • Efficiency: 78.2%
  • Final Score: 74.5 (out of 100)

The Divergent was the test’s least-expensive bow, and for the price it was pretty good-looking, with a nice fit and finish. It was also lightweight and handy. We shot it decently enough, averaging 1.52-inch groups. And we liked that the EKO Cam system allows users to adjust the let-off amount in four settings, from 75% to 90%.

Unfortunately, there was a fair bit not to like about the Divergent too. It had a demanding draw cycle, all out of proportion to its speed; it ranked second-slowest in the test. It was the third-loudest bow, and had more vibration than anything else. Worst of all, the Divergent was physically painful to shoot, with a grip that dug into the palm of every tester, and a string that seemed to slap forearms almost regardless of how the bow was held. It’s worth trying if you’re shopping on a budget. Maybe we got a bad one. (That’s happened before). But you’ll want to shoot a few others to compare before handing over your credit card.

7. Best Value: Gearhead Disruptor 30

Gearhead Disruptor 30 compound bow.
The Disruptor 30 looks cool and is fun to shoot. Gearhead Archery
  • Specs: 315.4 fps, 30.6” axle to axle, 5.5 to 7” adjustable brace height (we tested it at 6″), $844
  • Efficiency: 79.3%
  • Final Score: 79.5

It’s tempting to write off the Disruptor’s radically different design as gimmicky. It is indeed different and not for everyone—but we found it to be a quality product, and a lot of fun to shoot. As for performance, the Disruptor did not compare to the competition in most categories. It was the test’s slowest bow by a fair margin, and the most difficult to shoot accurately. We averaged 1.69-inch groups with it, which were the largest of the test.

Still, it had a very nice draw cycle, and it finished near the top for lack of vibration. (It should be noted, however, that the accelerometer used for vibration testing at Stress Engineering could not be attached to the riser in the same location that it was to the other bows, and that did cause some concern among the engineers).

The grip is interesting in that it’s both adjustable (reminding me of an overdraw system from the ’90s) and customizable with different panels. At considerably less money than the flagships ahead of it, I’m comfortable calling it the best value of the test, despite its shortcomings. If you’re after something a little different, this is a bow to consider.

6. Prime Black 5

Prime Black 5 compound bow.
The Prime Black 5 has a smooth draw cycle and a rock-solid back wall. Prime Archery
  • Specs: 325.6 fps., 35” axle to axle, 6” brace height, $1,099
  • Efficiency: 79.7%
  • Final Score: 80

Prime’s signature “double cams” have been updated for the 2020 Black Series with the debut of the ROTO Cam system, which has a self-contained module that allows users to adjust the draw length and let-off of the bow in ½-inch increments, without a press. Performance-wise, this one was pretty fast, and had a good—albeit slightly demanding—draw cycle with the solid back wall that Prime is known for. The Black 5 is a nice-looking bow that balances nicely, although having two cams on each axle makes the bow a little bulky. That, combined with the longest axle-to-axle measurement of the test models, made the bow’s size stand out.

I thought the Black 5 would be a top-tier finisher early in the test, but it ended up falling short in several objective categories, finishing in the middle of the pack for accuracy, and near the bottom for noise and vibration. Combine that performance with a price tag identical to the winning bow, and it took a hit in the value category too.

5. Hoyt Axius Alpha

Hoyt Axius Alpha compound bow.
The new Axius Alpha from Hoyt is handy and fast. Hoyt Archery
  • Specs: 328.15 fps., 29.5” axle to axle, 6 1/8” brace height, $1,199
  • Efficiency: 80.2%
  • Final Score: 82

The shortest axle-to-axle flagship to date from Hoyt, the Axius Alpha was handy, and the third-fastest bow of the test. It posted pretty good scores for lack of noise and vibration too. It uses Hoyt’s new ZTR cam, which is an update of the ZT cam from the past few years. We found the overall draw cycle to be pretty demanding, which cost the bow a few points, but the Axius had a solid back wall, as advertised.

Where the bow lost the most ground was in the double-weighted accuracy category since, across the board, we found that the combination of a demanding draw cycle and a short riser seemed to make the bow difficult to shoot well. We averaged 1.6-inch groups with it. Combine that with a pretty steep price tag that cost the bow major value points, and it slipped to fifth place.

The Axius has additional updates to the riser, including a rear stabilizer port and the Integrated Rest System, which is in essence a dovetail mounting made to accommodate rests such as the QAD Ultrarest Integrate.

4. Xpedition MX-16

Xpedition MX-16 Compound Bow.
The new MX-16 was the second-fastest bow in our test. Xpedition Archery
  • Specs: 329.7 fps., 33” axle to axle, 6” brace height, $1099
  • Efficiency: 83%
  • Final Score: 87.5

On first impressions only, we had the MX-16 bow pegged as a top finisher. But then the Bowtech edged it out as the test’s speed champion, though only by one foot per second. The MX-16 should’ve been faster, since it had the highest advertised IBO of the test (348-352 fps.). It obviously fell short of that. We don’t deduct points for such discrepancies, but they’re worth pointing out.

Still, the MX-16 performed well in most categories, with a good draw cycle and solid back wall. (The “hybrid dual stop” cam allows you to set it up with either a limb or cable stop.) It was the most efficient bow of the test, the second-quietest, and it had the second-least amount of vibration. The bow handled nicely, and although we preferred the balance and grip of the three bows ahead of it, it didn’t lose much there. We averaged 1.53-inch groups with the bow overall, which was a quarter-inch increase from the top-three finishers, and what caused the Xpedition to slide in the rankings. Still, all things considered, this is a new “speed” bow that also happens to be pretty smooth, quiet, and vibration-free.

3. Bowtech Revolt X

Bowtech Revolt X compound bow.
The Bowtech Revolt X features a new Deadlock tuning system. Bowtech Archery
  • Specs: 330.45 fps., 33” axle to axle, 6½” brace height, $1,199
  • Efficiency: 82.4%
  • Final Score: 89

One of two flagship bows tested this year with a new signature tuning system, the Revolt X’s Deadlock technology allows you to tune the bow by moving the cams and string along the axles, as opposed to moving your rest. We put the system through its paces and found that it worked well and was easy to use. That said, we were able to paper-tune the bow using the rest about as quickly. We were a little concerned that the system doesn’t have a clear “return to zero” indication on the cams, which might potentially cause problems for shooters inclined to tinker with things, but even so, we didn’t run into any hassles with it ourselves.

As they has with previous flagship models, Bowtech gave the Revolt X its FlipDisc system, which allows you to shoot the bow in either “Comfort” or “Performance” setting. And as they have for the past several years, Bowtech sent us their IBO-spec bow in Performance, and their 28-60 in Comfort. It’s always a nice try. We made the adjustment, and evaluated both bows in the Performance setting.

The Revolt X was both the test’s speed and accuracy champion. It had a nice draw cycle, but not as nice as the Elite or Mathews. It scored middle-of-the-pack in noise and third place in vibration. Combine that with a price tag that’s $100 more than the two bows ahead of it, and it slipped to third.

It’s worth noting that Bowtech won the 2019 test with the Realm SR6 and in our eyes, the Revolt X was a step back—something we don’t see too often. It’s 19 fps slower, less efficient, and not as smooth as the 2019 flagship. To accommodate the Deadlock system, the Revolt X uses Bowtech’s older binary cam system, in contrast to the higher-performance, Overdrive Binary system seen on previous flagships. Still, compared to its fellow 2020 flagships, the Revolt X is a great bow—fast, accurate, and innovative enough to get on our podium.

2. Elite Kure

Elite Archery Kure compound bow.
The new Kure has a perfect draw cycle that is classic Elite. Elite Archery
  • Specs: 327.4 fps., 32″ axle to axle, 6.5” brace height, $1,100
  • Efficiency: 80.5%
  • Final Score: 90

Like the Revolt X, Elite’s new Kure has a signature new tuning system, albeit one that works much differently. The S.E.T. (Simplified Exact Tuning) technology allows users to adjust the tension to one or the other split limbs on both ends of the riser, which affects the cam lean and allows the shooter to fine-tune the bow to his or her specific shooting style.

We tested this system, too, and it does work. The bow took third-place overall for accuracy, but for me personally, it was the best shooter of the test. I averaged 0.8-inch groups with it, but I can’t say one way or the other whether it was due to the S.E.T. system.

I can tell you that in addition to the tuning feature, the Kure had a perfect draw cycle that I’d describe as classic Elite. It was smooth to the end, with a nice valley and solid back wall—something I haven’t been able to say for some of their more recent, speedier flagships. Speaking of speed, the Kure was the fourth-fastest bow in the test, but it’s important to remember that we’re talking about a very narrow range of speed for our top six bows. If not for the Kure’s stumbles with some objective tests—it finished middle-of-the-pack in both noise and vibration—it would have threatened Mathews for the win.

1. Best of the Test: Mathews VXR 28

Mathews Archery MXR 28 compound bow.
The new VXR 28 finished at or near the top in every test category. Mathews Archery
  • Specs: 326.7 fps., 28” axle to axle, 6” brace height, $1,099
  • Efficiency: 82.5%
  • Final Score: 96.25

The company once synonymous with “Solo Cam” bows has now been riding a four-year wave of dual-cam success. The CrossCentric Cam system debuted on the 2016 Halon and subsequently powered the Halon 32, Triax, and Vertix in the years since. These bows have been so good that they’ve either won or finished runner-up in each of our last four bow tests. We like to see innovation, but sometimes things just work, and you ought not mess with it too much. As for the VXR 28, Mathews only messed with a few things, and the result is an even better bow.

The VXR 28 scored top of the pack in five of our seven test categories, including draw cycle, noise, vibration, handling, and fit and finish. And it ranked so near the top in both speed and accuracy/forgiveness, that there was no chance for any other bow to catch it.

How does the VXR compare last year’s Vertix? Well, for one, it’s slower, but that was the trend for the entire field of compounds this year. It’s a tad lighter, thanks to a slightly redesigned, more skeletonized 6-bridge riser. The VXR 28 is quieter than the Vertix, and it vibrates less. We shot this bow a little better, too.

The VXR has other improvements, including a new module system that lets you make the usual draw-length changes, but also peak-weight changes in 5-pound increments, while keeping the limbs bottomed out. Additional features include an improved grip that we liked, the new Silent Connect System for a bow sling and pull rope, and repositioned 3D dampeners. The draw cycle was flawless—smooth to the end, with a solid back wall—and the bow was the second-most efficient of the test. All those things left us with a rig that wasn’t really surprising, but undeniably the best.

How We Test Compound Bows

Our bow test takes place every March at my place in Kentucky, and this year we were unboxing the first-to-arrive equipment in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. We had to cancel some travel plans for test-panel members, and the procedure took longer than usual. There were many days spent with one person on a lonely range, shooting groups and taking notes. But we weren’t willing to sacrifice the integrity of our test to make it easier.

As usual, we received two of each compound bow model. One was set to IBO specs, which means a 30-inch draw length and 70-pound draw weight, and the other was set to 28 inches and 60 pounds, for range testing. Hinton and I checked the specs of the IBO bows and adjusted them as needed. Then we chronographed them with a bare-shaft, 350-grain IBO-spec arrow. We use a Whisker Biscuit rest and D-loop for this procedure, so you can assume a loss of 5 feet per second, give or take, with those things added.

That done, I took the IBO-spec bows to Mason, Ohio, for objective testing at Stress Engineering. The firm has helped us with our test for four years running, using their equipment and procedures to measure noise and vibration for each bow, in addition to mapping draw force curves and calculating efficiency.

Hinton and I then set up each of the 28/60 bows with drop-away rests and single-pin slider sights; fitted them with peep sights and d-loops; paper-tuned them; and then shot a series of five, 25-yard groups through each. Zach Bell, an avid bowhunter who has helped us with behind-the-scenes work on past tests, stepped in as a shooter so that we’d have a larger sampling of groups. Hinton and I finished by evaluating the bows in the categories of draw cycle, fit and finish, balance and handling, and grip before calculating the final scores.

Our test is an invitational, open to all bow companies. If you’re wondering why brands like PSE, Martin, and Obsession aren’t included, it’s because we invited them and they declined to participate. But that won’t keep us from sending another invitation next year. —W.B.

F&S Bow Test Accessories

Collage of bowhunting gear and archery supplies.
Rinehart’s RhinoBag, HHA’s Tetra Max Sight and Virtus Rest, and Carbon Express’s Maxima Hunter Arrows. Collage by Dave Hurteau

Bow testing requires a lot of gear besides bows. Along with the companies that sent in their flagship compounds for testing, we’d like to thank the following companies for providing additional critical gear.