Glued near the rear of most arrows are 3 (sometimes 4) feathers or plastic vanes, arranged in an equal pattern around the circumference of the shaft. These parabolic-shaped pieces of material (sometimes collectively called the "fletching") serve to help steer the arrow during flight. If the tail of the arrow is precisely following the tip during flight, the fletching slices cleanly through the air without changing the arrow's path. But if the arrow's tail isn't perfectly following the tip, friction occurs between the air and the fast moving fletch - pushing the fletch (and the tail of the arrow) back into proper alignment with the arrow's tip. So the fletching helps to stabilize and correct the arrow's flight. Easy enough!
Of course, all fletching materials aren't created equal. Arrow fletching is available in a number of different shapes, colors, types, thicknesses, lengths, etc. And they can be applied in different configurations: straight, offset, or helical (spiral). So how do we know which ones to pick? Should we go with feathers? Or vanes? Would a bigger fletch do a better job than small ones? Is one more durable than another? What are the trade-offs? Well, let's start with the easy ones.
STANDARD VANES (Duravanes/Rubber Based): Vanes are made of soft flexible plastic and are the popular choice for today's archer. They're inexpensive, easy to apply, quiet in flight, available in almost any size/color, and they can be easily fletched in a number of different patterns (straight - offset - helical). Since vanes are impervious to water, they make an excellent all-weather choice for hunting. In addition, they're also relatively durable. Vanes can be crumpled and abused (up to a point of course) and they still pop back into shape ... or they can be heat-treated with a hair dryer and made to pop back into shape. Either way, vanes aren't nearly as delicate as feathers.
However, compared to feathers of the same size, vanes are heavier - as much as 3X the weight of a comparable length feather. And since most vanes have a smooth surface, they don't "dig-into" the air as well as the rougher surface of feathers. So all other things being equal, vanes don't stabilize arrow flight quite as well as feathers. But don't make too big of a deal out of the vane's limitations. For the vast majority of applications, they're more than sufficient for the task.
SPECIALTY VANES (Blazer Vanes): The standard Duravane style vane is an enduring staple item of the industry, and it's the most widely used type of vane, BUT ... someone is always trying to invent a better mousetrap. So specialty vanes make a splash in the archery market periodically (Quikspin Vanes, Blazer Vanes, Spin Wings, Bi-Delta Vanes, FOB's, etc.). Of course, the "improved" vane designs tend to come and go over time ... but the one specialty vane that seems to be hanging tough is the increasingly popular Blazer Vane, by The Bohning Company.
The Blazer Vane is a small stiff 2" vane which is more plastic-like (urethane based) than rubber. Its claim to fame is three-fold. First, it's a little tougher than rubber-based vanes, so it stands up to Whisker Biscuit abuse without distorting or wrinkling. Secondly, the surface of the Blazer Vane isn't smooth, it's textured slightly to "bite" into the air better than smooth vanes. And finally, the manufacturer claims that the unique shape of the vane - specifically the straight leading edge - provides some kind of aerodynamic benefit.
Now, with all that said, we shouldn't get too carried away here. A 2" vane (regardless of the advertising wizardry and technical hoo-hah) is still a 2" vane - with the surface area of a 2" vane. So realistically, a claim that 2" Blazers can outperform standard 4" Duravanes might be a technical stretch. Nonetheless, Blazer Vanes are small, light, look cool, and seem to work well enough. Over the past few seasons, we've begun to see our customers opting for Blazer Vanes more and more often. Roughly 32% of our 2009 arrow orders went Blazer.
The only obvious downsides to Blazer Vanes are increased cost (roughly +$5 p/dozen arrows over standard Duravanes) and the fact that they can be very fussy to fletch. In spite of Bohning's claim that "Blazer Vanes are chemically treated to promote proper adhesion ...," the day to day reality is somewhat different. After building literally thousands of arrow sets with Blazer Vanes, we can confidently say that fletching Blazer Vanes is a pain in the neck. If you don't have just the right glue, the right temperature, the right humidity, the right phase of the moon, and the right music playing in the background, they don't stick. If you're a home fletcher, keep this in mind before you decide to go Blazer.
FEATHERS: Of course, feathers are the original arrow fletching material. When it comes to design, you just can't deny that mother nature knows best. First, feathers are very light. Three 4" Gateway feathers weigh just over 8 grains - compared to 24 grains for three 4" Duravanes. This means your arrows fly faster with less loss of trajectory downrange. Feathers also have a natural texture that effectively bites into the wind. So feathers do a particularly good job at stabilizing large broadheads and finger-released arrows. And archery feathers have a natural curvature to them (left-wing or right-wing, depending on which side of bird they're from), so they help arrows to spin in flight - which also aides in arrow stabilization. As a matter of achieving the best possible flight, it's just hard to beat a feather.
But feathers are not for everyone or every application. Firstly, feathers are rather expensive. Basic 4" feathers can cost four to ten times as much as comparable vanes. But remember, archery feathers aren't a synthetic product - they are made from the primary flight feathers of turkeys (usually). They must be harvested, cleaned, dyed, cut, sorted, inspected, etc. As you might imagine, this is a labor-intensive process. So archery feathers cannot be mass produced with the same kind of speed and automation as plastic vanes. So they cost more. And the fancier the feather, the fancier the price tag.
Feathers also require a little more care from the user. If you rough handle your feather fletched arrows, they won't respond well to the abuse. Feathers can be bent, crumpled, split, and degraded when they make high-speed contact with other surfaces (like arrow rests). And while a little steam and finger-rubbing can sometimes resurrect defunct feathers, they just aren't as tough as synthetic vanes. So you have to treat them well if you want them to last.
Finally, we should mention weather and the feather. We hear many archers remark that they don't want feathers because of the weather. This is probably an exaggerated prejudice. Feathers are certainly an outdoor product, designed for outdoor use. But not all feathers are the same. The answer to the question "What happens when a feather gets wet?" depends on what kind of feather you're talking about. Fluffy down feathers (like in your pillow) will soak-up water and flatten down like wet hair. But primary flight feathers, like the feathers used for archery, have a much more rigid structure, made from keratin (the same protein found in fingernails), with interlocking rows of barbs, barbules, and hooklets. This interlocking lattice-work allows primary feathers to generally retain their shapes even when wet. So don't assume that a wet feather is automatically a ruined feather. But do consider the weight of the water. A wet feather obviously weighs more than a dry feather, which means your arrow will weigh more and will fly differently when its feathers are wet.
If you are the kind of hardcore hunter who might sit for hours in the rain, you might want to consider waterproofing your feathers. Gateway Feathers offers a waterproofing powder specifically formulated for the task. Or if you want a quick and easy solution, pick up an $6 can of tent or boot waterproofing spray at Wal-Mart. Many archers report this works just as well, and only takes a minute to apply.