So you have some feathers to fletch. Should you use feather fletching, or plastic vanes? I recently put together some new arrows for my recurve bow and had to make this very decision. For me there was only one option, feathers all the way!
The rule of thumb is that if you shoot your arrows off an elevated rest then you can use either feathers or vanes. There are advantages and disadvantages to either. However if you shoot off the shelf you must use feathers without exception!
While the above is good advice, there is more to consider than the blanket rule. I wrote this article to help others decide whether they should fletch their arrows with feathers or plastic vanes.
Purpose of Fletching
Let us first discuss what fletching is actually for. The purpose of fletching is to correct an arrows flight. Arrows almost never leave a bow perfectly in line with the target. The arrow almost always leaves the bow at a slight angle. The fletching’s job is to correct this, straightening the arrows flight. There is also the archers paradox where an arrow flexes back and fourth after leaving the bow. Again the fletching helps to straighten out the arrows trajectory.
A perfectly tuned bow, shooting a perfectly matched arrow and shot by the perfect archer can technically shoot straight without fletching. In fact, tuning a bow often involves observing the flight of an unfletched arrow shot through paper. The tuner ‘reads’ the arrow’s hole in the paper and tunes the combination until the arrow flies perfectly straight without fletching. Because such perfect conditions (and archers) are few and far between, archers use fletching to correct their arrows flight.
Most traditional archers shoot off the shelf or off the top of their hand depending on the bow. These archers have only one choice of fletching, feathers. The reason for this is that as the arrow passes the shelf the feathers flex and lie flat against the arrow, allowing the arrow to follow its path unimpeded. In contrast, vanes do not compress in the same manner and force the arrow off course as they bounce off the inflexible riser. Using plastic vanes here will result in inaccurate shooting as well as damage to the arrows vanes and possibly even the bow.
I won’t dare speak for all of them, but traditional archers often also prefer the look and feel of the more traditional feather over modern plastic fantastic vanes. I am with them here, they look great! Feathers today can be synthetic, but most are still made using the flight feathers of a turkey.
Real feathers last longer than synthetic feathers and I always use real turkey feathers on my own arrows. The durability of feathers is an attribute they have over many styles of plastic vanes. ‘Roughed up feathers’ can be easily smoothed back into place. You can’t do that with a cracked plastic vane!
Feathers are typically longer than vanes which can mean they stabilize arrows more quickly. On the other hand, larger feathers add drag and make an arrow prone to wind drift when shooting over a longer distance. For shorter range target and hunting purposes, I don’t notice a difference. The drag introduced by the larger size of feathers is definitely something to consider for outdoor target shooters.
Lastly, feathers don’t shed water as well as a plastic vane. Shooting feather fletched arrows in the rain is a real chore! The arrows become inconsistent as they soak through and are difficult to dry in the field. Plastic vanes obviously don’t have this problem.
Vanes are a more durable and water resistant option when compared to feathers. This makes them a better option in the field for hunters and 3D target archers. They are also made to be extremely consistent in terms of weight and size, more so than feathers. In archery, consistency is accuracy and this small difference could be everything to the competitive target shooter. Vanes also come in a number of shapes and sizes that are just not available in feathers. Put it this way, you cannot get glow in the dark feathers!
As much as it pains me to say it, most modern archers shooting off an elevated rest are probably better off with vanes. Feathers are a necessity for certain types of bow, but if you don’t shoot off a rest or your hand then you should seriously consider going with plastic vanes.
I’ll add one additional point about vanes that could make them a winner depending on your shooting. New vanes are straight from the packet and can be fletched straight, or with a helical twist in either direction. Feathers on the other hand can only be fletched with a left or right twist (depending on which wing of the bird they came from). Most archers don’t care, but if you have a preference, plastic vanes give you that flexibility.
Spin wings are a special style of curled vane. The aggressive curl causes the arrow to stabilize very quickly with a faster arrow spin. Spin wings are used almost exclusively by high level competition recurve bow shooters (think Olympic archers). This sin wing vane does not perform well at faster speeds and are not typically used by compound shooters or bow hunters using heavier weight bows. They are also more delicate than other fletchings and are typically taped, not glued to the arrow. They works for competition shooters who can easily repair an arrow during an event but again it is something that makes them unsuitable for hunters and compound shooters.
If you are the kind of shooter who might benefit from spin wings then you probably already know about them. If you are not a competative target archer, then spin wings are best avoided (for now).
As I said in the intro, the fletching choice for me is easy. I shoot a recurve bow off the rest and so feathers are my only fletching option. There is a compound bow in my future though and when fletching arrows for that bow, it will be hard to ignore the many advantages plastic vanes bring.