One moment I was peacefully hiking across the alpine slope; the next, I was sucking air and running with my pack on, all while fumbling for an arrow. A nice muley buck had suddenly popped up out of nowhere.
He was moving cross-slope to some unknown bedding area. It was late in the hunt, and I knew this was most likely the last opportunity I was going to get. I charged ahead, hoping for a shot.
Just as I peered my eyeballs above a rise, I could see the deer’s rack bobbing and glistening in the Nevada sun. I jammed the rangefinder to my eye — 45 yards. As I did this, he caught my movement and froze. I swung my bow up to draw, but as I did so, he bounded uphill and cleared a large patch of vegetation before stopping to look back. I compensated for the added distance, settled the pin, and hurriedly triggered the shot.
The “thump” of the arrow impact was reassuring as the deer then vanished over the next lip in the terrain. I waited for a few moments, then took a quick peek ahead. The deer was down, but then he slowly stood up, so I sent a second and final arrow directly through the buck’s chest, ending it all.
Bowhunting scenarios such as this remind me of the extreme demands placed on the hunting archer and his or her equipment. During my shot at that muley buck, every important arrow attribute was brought into play. The shot was rushed, so arrow forgiveness was essential. The distance was also unknown, so arrow speed and a flat trajectory was critical as well. And last, but certainly not least, a high-penetrating, lethal broadhead and shaft combination was needed to drive deep and cut with incredible devastation, in order to put the animal down for good. With that said, let’s examine each of these factors, and how they can impact your success.
There are many ways to accentuate shooting forgiveness. Two are to choose a well-designed bow and a quality release aid. Another is to boost forgiveness by improving the quality of your arrow setup. This starts with using consistently uniform shafts, with exact weight and straightness tolerances. Typically, the more you spend on shafts, the better the tolerances. My advice is to buy high-tier carbon or carbon/aluminum shafts, and once you find a good one, stick with it.
Spine consistency is super critical, yet it’s difficult to test. Most premium shafts are sorted based on spine uniformity, but some may lack the tolerances you need to take your shooting to the next level. One way to check for spine consistency is to “group shoot” your arrows, then mark certain shafts that tend to group away from the main cluster. This will weed out shafts with spine variances outside of the acceptable range.
Additional forgiveness can be achieved by indexing the nock, so the high spine of the arrow is in the same location for each shaft. Ideally, this is done by using a spine-testing machine, like the one made by Ram Products. But you can also achieve similar results by floating your arrows in a bathtub filled with water and mild dish soap. By letting each shaft spin naturally in the water, the heavy spine of the shaft will face downward. Adjust the nock, so this portion is at the top of the arrow when it’s clipped to the bowstring. I’ve achieved noticeable accuracy gains by using this technique.
Choosing the right fletching is another fundamental step in establishing shooting forgiveness. The key is to use just enough fletching to properly stabilize your preferred broadheads. Every broadhead style is unique, therefore you’ll have to experiment with fletching size and configuration to come up with the perfect combination for your setup.
Keep in mind that smaller, low-profile fletching will improve arrow performance in windy conditions. However, providing too little drag at the rear of the arrow could ruin your ability to thread the needle in a tough hunting situation, so tread cautiously when using the smallest fletching designs.
No matter the vane, mount it using the maximum offset allowed by the shaft’s diameter. The idea behind this is to improve centrifugal force by causing the arrow to spin quicker and faster out of the bow, stabilizing it through a building up of air resistance. This ultimately helps correct less-than-perfect shots for deadlier hits in the woods.
Speed & Trajectory
Don’t ever let speed trump shooting forgiveness. After all, a fast miss is just that — a miss. But, as illustrated in the opening of this column, there are certain situations where improved arrow trajectory can really save the day. The key is to use balanced speed, something in the 260–285 fps range.
Many bowhunters are tempted by catchy advertising slogans that describe arrows as, “lightning quick and deadly,” but don’t take the bait. An arrow that’s too light can cause noisy shooting and penetration issues. A heavier arrow matched with a more efficient bow design is a much better solution to improving speed, without giving up forgiveness and energy capability.
(Note: To examine how arrow speed, weight, and FOC can impact trajectory, use this online calculator at backcountrybowhunting.com/calculator.)
Penetration & Terminal Performance
After years of serious bowhunting, exhaustive testing, and analyzing variables that impact arrow penetration, I’ve concluded that sufficient arrow mass, precise arrow tuning, and proper broadhead selection are the three most vital elements needed for improving an arrow’s ability to penetrate well on game. Here are some critical points to take home.
Mass and Momentum: Without adequate carrying force, an arrow will not penetrate with authority. The weight and velocity of an arrow determines this capacity the best, which is why linear momentum means more to bowhunters than kinetic energy. The formula is (Mass of Arrow x Velocity) ÷ 225,218 (In Pounds-Force x Second) = Momentum. I’ve found that arrows weighing somewhere between 6.75 to 8 grains per pound of draw force yield strong penetrating power, when using modern bow designs and low-profile broadheads. This translates to 420 to 550-grain arrows for most hunting archers.
Arrow Tuning: When it comes to penetration, the arrow’s ability to fly straight is just as critical as the arrow’s weight and the type of broadhead that it’s attached to. The reason behind this involves efficiency. An arrow that comes out of the bow in a direct line harnesses as much of the bow’s power as possible, and resists dissipating this energy by not wobbling or vibrating in flight, thus maximizing striking energy. This is why well-tuned arrows penetrate better than poorly tuned ones. To ensure your bow is spitting arrows out as straight as possible, paper-tune the arrow until it produces a clean hole in paper, matching the exact footprint of the shaft and fletching.
Broadhead Selection: A broadhead’s job is simple: Cut through hide and muscle with as little resistance as possible, while producing extensive trauma to vital tissue and blood vessels.
Both fixed and mechanical broadheads work well with today’s equipment. However, when push comes to shove, I typically choose a fixed head for the majority of my bowhunting. My reason is simple: I tune my bows precisely, and usually don’t have a problem getting fixed heads to fly well. I also have a fairly short draw length (27.5 inches), so I want to maximize penetrating force as much as possible.
However, your setup might be different than mine, and a solid mechanical design may be more forgiving and lethal given your specific energy and speed output. The key is to ensure the head flies well at your given arrow speed and has a deep-penetrating design.
There are few things more important in bowhunting than the arrow setup. Its job is to strike the target precisely, and then penetrate with extreme force. My advice is to do your part and choose the setup wisely, weighing every pro and con that exists.