Since our family first began building wooden arrows, over fifty years ago, the choice of fletching has always been real turkey feathers. In furthering our education, we have tried other alternatives including natural goose and plastic vanes. There is a place for natural goose feathers in our quivers but not for plastic vanes. We have found that even fish arrows are more accurate with no feathers than with plastic vanes. That should tell us all something. In reality, it is a fact that when shooting with traditional bows (and many mechanical devices) real feathers provide greater accuracy than plastic vanes. This is due to several factors including feather forgiveness, bow designs, speed, and weight.
Feathers are softer than plastic vanes and therefore provide greater forgiveness as the arrow passes over the arrow rest. If one could view in slow motion, as the arrow leaves the rest plastic vanes would cause the nock end to elevate therefore dipping the head. This of course also happens with natural feather fletching but to a lesser degree. The real feathers simply fold out of the way. The end result is, the arrow begins its flight more smoothly when natural feathers are used for fletching.
The design of the bow also plays a critical role in arrow flight. If one examines the arrow rest on modern custom bows you will notice that the rest is usually not flat. It is convex so that the launching arrow has limited contact with the rest. When commercial bows become mass-produced this design often times changes. Study commercial production bows manufactured by Bear Archery, Shakespeare, Browning, and others from the 1970s. Quite likely you will notice a flat arrow rest. During mass-production it was easier and more cost effective to mill a flat rather than a convex arrow rest. Due to the fact that the arrow was in contact longer, the flat rest often created a distorted arrow flight. Commercially, erratic arrow flight was partially solved by the addition of elevated arrow rests. Unfortunately this all but eliminated their traditional of shooting “off the shelf”. Elevated rests took on many forms including rubber flippers, wire springs, and even feather quills. The fact that feathers were used on the arrow as well as on the rest should speak for their properties. The important point here is that good arrow flight is dependent on many factors. Today, since most traditionalists have chosen to shoot directly off the shelf (or even their hand) then real feather fletching is the only logical choice.
It has been reported that arrows fletched with real feathers provide a faster arrow flight than those with plastic veins. According to the literature Norb Mullaney the noted archery authority reported that at 29 yards down range the feather fletched arrows were on the average 4 ft/sec faster than the identical plastic fletched arrows. Not being real concerned with arrow speed we have not taken the time to perform our own tests. We simply state this as a comparison. One thing that we do know is that real feather fletching weighs less than plastic fletching and may account for more velocity.
In conclusion it is only fair to mention the positives of plastic fletching. The plastic vanes are less costly and will recover quicker from abusive weather. Neither of these are of any great concern because real feathers are within the traditional budget and with a little effort are very stable even in inclement weather. Lastly, real feathers are a natural work of art. Whether on the bird, the arrow, or in a box, they are beautiful and make a great contribution to the values of traditional archery. Simply put, not only do real feathers work better, they look better.