August 19, 2022
The Western hunting adventure has become increasingly popular in recent years — and for good reason. Hunting elk and mule deer can take you to the most remote and breathtaking places in America, and yield plenty of delicious table fare, too. Many hunters from across the country have done all the research on tag options, points and outfitters, and plan their hunts far in advance. But have they planned to be “Western lethal?” These hunts will bring new and challenging circumstances to those who are new to the West. So, what does it take to be Western lethal? Attention to detail!
The first step in being a lethal bowhunter is optimizing your bow. Just as your favorite squirrel rifle isn’t suited to taking deer, not all bow setups are created equal. In the West, you likely will be hunting larger-boned and thicker-skinned game, and in harsher elements. In the mountains, your cardio will be pushed. And in the moment of truth, a less-than-steady hold will be the norm. For these reasons, the ultimate Western hunting bow should be a stable and forgiving one. Ever wonder why pro 3-D shooters always opt for slower, longer ATA bows instead of the shorter, faster “hunting” bows that seem to be all the rage? The reason is stability. A longer axle-to-axle bow with a generous brace height will transfer less torque and shaking into the shot, allowing greater accuracy. Bows in the 33 to 36-inch range are stable and proven to cross over well from 3-D to the field. Also, adding a rear stabilizer for balance in the wind and for those steep uphill/downhill angles common out west will benefit a longer bow.
Draw weight is also critical, even for the traditional bowhunter using a recurve or longbow. There is little to gain from choosing heavy draw weights. For the compound archer, a heavy draw weight not only isn’t unnecessary due to the efficiency of today’s bows, but it’s also detrimental to executing those sudden shots at odd angles that are common to Western hunts. Being able to hold at full draw longer when a bull elk hangs up behind trees, and being able to confidently lean out and shoot around obstacles, will increase success. It doesn’t matter how well you think you can handle 80 pounds; you will always shoot lighter better!
The Arrow Build
There has been a lot of emphasis put on extremely high FOC (front of center) and very heavy (600-plus grains) arrows lately. I would caution against this for the Western hunt. I’m not saying that heavy arrows don’t have their place — like from a traditional bow, where speed is never an option, or from a treestand where shots are usually close and a heavy arrow’s momentum will surely punch a downward-pointing wound channel and exit, creating massive hemorrhaging. But this is not the Western hunting scenario, where more than likely the shot will be farther (should you choose to take it), on level ground or even uphill, through a crosswind, and at an animal that takes steps of two to four yards in a fraction of a second. Here is where faster flight times and flatter trajectories are beneficial. I can say from my own experience, and that of many of my friends, that more opportunities are lost from yardage errors versus a lack of penetration — trajectory is a big deal!
From the time you range a bull elk until the time you are drawn, anchored, and ready to shoot, that bull could easily have taken a few steps and be five or 10 yards farther than your last range — a very real variable in the heat of the moment. Another factor is your arrow’s trajectory path. Obstacles like limbs and branches well above your line of sight become a problem, and with super-heavy hunting arrows this consequence becomes more exaggerated and unpredictable. And, of course, a heavy arrow’s longer flight time becomes even more crucial when your quarry is keyed-up or moving at the time of the shot. Inches matter.
Since there is no added benefit to an arrow that blasts through an animal with 40 pounds of extra force versus an arrow that passes through with only five pounds of force to spare, logic suggests choosing an arrow weight that penetrates but is also flatter and faster. Building the “humerus” arrow is just that… humorous!
Arrows in the 425 to 500-grain range — especially those of smaller diameter that experience less drag with 16 to 18-percent FOC — yield ample penetration, flatter trajectories, and carry through wind better. I cringe when I hear someone declare the perfect arrow weight without considering draw length. It will vary from one archer to the next, so it’s a relative value.
Speaking of wind and trajectory, super-fast, ultralight arrows and crosswinds don’t mix well. As in other shooting sports, there’s a point of diminishing returns between speed and stability. In bowhunting, this seems to occur around 285 FPS. Long-draw archers have the option to add extra weight to their arrows (and often need to), and still keep that forgiving and stable speed.
A Word On Lethality
Now I want to address the question of lethality. What is the most lethal arrow performance? I challenge the popular view of the pass-through being optimal on the Western hunt. If sufficient penetration through the vitals is obtained, meaning a pass-through of the vitals, there is little benefit to the arrow blasting through the animal and into the ground. The customary argument of a second hole for better blood is negated, I believe, by steep shot angles and the fact that the lower-body cavity will now capture blood before it pours out the entry or exit holes. This is especially true on large, Western animals with thick layers of hole-plugging fat over their ribs and voluminous chest cavities. That said, there are benefits to the arrow staying in the animal.
First, the blood trail. A shaft remaining in the entry wound will keep it open and force hydraulic bleeding as the walls of the wound press against the shaft and then retract. This squirts blood, and while it may not pour blood on the ground in dramatic fashion, it will yield a more consistent trail for a longer distance than many pass-throughs on level ground.
Second, an arrow lodged deep in an animal’s body cavity will continue to cut vital organs, especially as the rear of the arrow comes into contact with outside forces like brush or even the animal’s scapula, forcing the broadhead to make wide, slashing lacerations. Choosing a durable arrow that won’t break easily when leveraged upon and a sharp cut-on-contact head that moves freely, like a knife, will enhance this effect.
Third, an arrow’s fletching, protruding and clearly visible, will give better clarification as to the lethality of the hit and better prepare the hunter for the appropriate recovery steps.
Here’s an example. A friend of mine shot at a buck that ducked the shot. The arrow impacted at the top of the pelvis, skipped off the bone, drove forward and down toward the bottom of the liver, and then stopped with six inches of the arrow protruding above the hip. A very bad hit owed to the lightning reflexes of the buck, but one that I thought still showed promise for recovery. The next morning, we started on a 1,000-plus-yard blood trail that was scant, but still clear enough to recover the deer within a few hours of taking up the trail.
Now, you could say this is a poor example, as the recovery would have been quicker had the arrow passed through the heart or lungs. True enough. But the point is, on a marginal hit, an arrow staying in an animal is often beneficial to lethality and recovery.
Another contributor to arrow performance is broadhead type, and no topic starts more brawls around the campfire than this one, but the facts are the facts. Although they may cut big holes, large mechanicals use more energy (robbed from the arrow’s momentum) to deploy and to penetrate than cut-on-contact heads do. This loss of energy is not ideal for penetrating the thick-skinned, big-boned animals found in the West, especially when considering the variety of impact angles. By no means am I suggesting all mechanicals are destined to fail. Some are better than others, but regardless of which of the most popular mechanicals you use, there will be some loss of penetration simply due to physics.
Mechanicals aren’t the only heads to be mindful of. Other fixed-blade broadheads featuring chisel tips atop long ferrules with blades set farther back, are not ideal for penetrating bone. These heads try to wedge bone apart in three directions. It may shatter the bone, allowing the arrow (now drained of its energy) to slip through. Or it may not, ending the arrow’s penetration altogether. And, as with mechanicals, a ferrule extending well past the blades will not move as freely inside an animal. However, like mechanicals, some fixed-blade designs are better than others. Those that have a sharply tapered ferrule with blades positioned close to the tip will do better, but not quite as good as one other tried-and-true design.
Cut-on-contact (COC) broadheads, typically two-bladed or three, deliver the full-penetration potential (momentum) to the animal. And they are flat out destructive when they remain in a body cavity. The only argument against this design is their perceived tuning difficulties. However, this is not accurate. Most tuning problems with COC or fixed heads (assuming the bow is in proper tune in the first place) can be corrected by very subtle changes to the arrow, such as using longer fletching and adding helical to enhance stability by inducing more spin on the arrow. Most pre-fletched arrows use a short, tall, stiff fletching that does not offer sufficient stability when combined with some of these broadhead designs. I have heard it said that longer fletching and/or helical are simply “Band-Aids” and don’t truly correct this problem. But the same could be said of other commonly accepted quick fixes. Bottom line: Longer, helical fletching works. And while we’re looking at fletching, note that a stiffer vane will cause more deflection than a softer one, should your arrow clip an unnoticed branch or twig in flight.
Even if you don’t want to change fletching, there are still a multitude of short-profile COC heads to choose from that make tuning a breeze. And to those hunters who prefer not to tune broadheads before each season... I have a question. What shooter, of any discipline, doesn’t vigorously verify his tune before a tournament? And how much more of an obligation does the hunter have to ensure his equipment is lethal when a quick, humane recovery is at stake? I am not opposed to mechanicals, but to choose them for every hunt purely to avoid a few minutes of tuning, is lazy and unethical.
It may appear that I am carelessly bashing 95-percent of the broadheads out there, but that’s not the case. A rifle hunter chooses different bullet weights and construction for specific hunts, and the bowhunter is best served doing the same with his arrows. Wide-cutting mechanicals pair well with heavy arrows for some hunts but may not always be the best choice out west. Although long-ferruled, fixed heads might seem like a good compromise, they too suffer on penetrating the bones of large Western game. For the Western hunt, where animals are bigger and the shots longer, the ultimate broadhead combines the best penetration capabilities with flatter-shooting arrows, and more lethality when lodged in a rib cage. In my opinion, that broadhead is in the cut-on-contact category.
Just a quick note on what happens if your equipment does prove lethal. Will you be ready to respond? I see so many elk hunters, especially first-timers, carrying a small pack on their back. The problem is that the Western hunt demands the prompt care of meat. Say it’s 10 a.m. on September 12, and you just shot a bull elk at 9,000 feet in broken terrain 21⁄2 miles from your truck. If it’s a good shot, you will find the bull in an hour, break him down, hang him, and head out with the first load — unless you wore one of those tiny daypacks that only has room for a midsized jackrabbit! What if the temperature is forecasted to be 85 degrees that afternoon? Now you’re in danger of losing some of the meat you worked so hard for — all because you can’t take a load on your first trip out. You’ll wish you had carried that extra two pounds of a full-sized backpack that has the versatility to carry heavy loads.
A lot of thought must go into being well-prepared for a Western hunting adventure. That doesn’t always mean buying the newest gear or following the popular trends. I may have raised a few eyebrows here, but my thoughts are based on my experiences. I have to run with what works for me, and you should do the same. Just remember that when it comes to being “Western lethal,” it’s all about the details.
The author, a Wyoming bowhunter, takes part in all his state has to offer, including fly fishing and dodging grizzlies.