By Joe Bell
Today's line of broadheads is vast. Why is this? Why so many configurations? What works best? These are commonly asked questions among newcomers to the sport. But experienced bowhunters know all about the ever-changing broadhead offerings, and the opinions and hype that often follow them. After more than three decades of tackling game with archery gear, I certainly have my own views on what I consider to be the most lethal broadhead designs.
Let's take a look at the different categories of modern broadheads, and outline the perceived pros and cons of each. Then we'll explore certain details that often dictate the best choice for a particular bow setup and hunting application. I'll do my best to keep this column as brief as possible by relying only on the structural and aerodynamic properties of the various heads, and not getting into other traits such as blade sharpness, durability, or flight noise.
Relentlessly reliable and deadly, a fixed set of cutting blades has been a part of the bowhunting tradition since Native Americans brought down game with flint-knapped arrowheads. Fixed heads work, and they are known to out-penetrate any other broadhead style. What this translates into is more pass-through shots, and an entrance and exit hole for consistent blood trails.
Of course, there's a downside. Fixed heads can plane, or veer in flight, due to exposed blade surface area, particularly with modern tackle and high arrow speeds. To overcome this issue, manufacturers have sculptured more aerodynamic, compact models to enhance flight characteristics, even at speeds beyond 300 fps. Yet all things come at a cost, and compact heads have less cutting volume compared to popular mechanical broadheads. This trait is considered a major downside, and certainly why mechanicals have risen in popularity.
Speed has given tremendous momentum to the mechanical broadhead market. With blades captured inside the ferrule, there's little to no planing effect. This equals easy, hair-splitting accuracy, especially in windy conditions. Mechanicals also allow the use of a wide-cutting swath, for ultra-devastating wound channels and copious blood loss. Bowhunters like how these "big blades" put game down fast and within sight, compared to their fixed-head counterparts. This is why they are gaining fans, especially among whitetail hunters who seek deadly results, even on marginal "far-back" hits.
Despite these noteworthy pluses, some bowhunters have concern for mechanical-blade malfunction. Certain design features may have caused blades not to open correctly, or ricochet off bone during a prior hunting experience. Also, some styles do in fact require an intense amount of energy to initiate blade deployment. Many of these same blade systems do not open until after initial penetration, causing a small entrance hole for little to no blood flow.
Of course, such malfunctions can be traced back to shoddy, past-made models, yet those that had one bad experience are unwilling to chance it again, so they become diehard fixed-blade advocates.
All these perceived downsides to both fixed and mechanical broadheads have brought about a new design marvel - a broadhead style that offers the best of both worlds. The hybrid head certainly isn't new. I remember seeing and sampling different models years ago, but the first-generation heads didn't gain much in popularity. All that has certainly changed in recent years with better, more functional models on the market.
Of course, the hybrid's mission is to provide the perfect solution, if you will. This is done by boasting two fixed cutting edges that penetrate exceedingly well - yet are small enough to allow for excellent high-speed flight - and combining this design with two foldout mechanical blades to produce that highly desired gaping wound channel. The up-front fixed cutting portion of the head is also designed to alleviate any potential energy loss from the opening of wide-cutting mechanical blades, giving you reliable, deep penetration with a very big cut.
Everybody wants a cut-and-dry answer in life, but when it comes to broadheads, there isn't one. The best broadhead is and always will be based on myriad circumstances. These variables are hinged on the bowhunter's setup, and the ability to take solid, high-percentage shots. Let's touch on these important details and, with some hope, steer you to the broadhead that may work best for you.
Light vs. Heavy Setup
When it comes to killing game, deep penetration is a must, as there needs to be enough forward energy to puncture both lungs. If not, lethality suffers. With bows using lighter draw weights and shorter power strokes, mechanical heads with big cutting swaths (and blade mechanisms that require a lot of force to open) will oftentimes cause penetration problems.
This is where care must be exercised in matching the right mechanical or hybrid to your setup. As a general rule of thumb, bows drawing 60 pounds or more are best matched with a large 1¾ to 2¼-inch mechanical head when pursuing deer-sized game. If you hunt larger game, like elk or moose, it's wise to shoot more weight, or use a deeper-penetrating fixed head or a smaller-cutting mechanical such as the Rage Hypodermic +P.
This is a huge detail, particularly when body angles come into play. Years ago, I did an explicit broadhead test by shooting into a piece of particle board covered with a blanket. The premise was to try to duplicate a broadhead impacting hide and bone at a fairly sharp angle, and what would happen. What I found was astonishing, with many of the broadheads ricocheting completely off the board. However, some designs (a few fixed and mechanicals) penetrated successfully.
In other words, they accentuated straight-line energy. The heads that performed well all featured a long, sharp cutting nose followed by gradually sloping blades. Since performing this test, I often look for heads that have this design footprint in order to enhance penetration, especially under those worst-case shooting scenarios.
Of course, some will argue that marginal shots shouldn't be taken, and I fully agree. However, animals do jump the string, or take a quick step at the moment of the shot (more apparent on longer shots out west), so this is a realistic detail to consider when choosing a lethal design.
Other possible scenarios could be the chance of a broadhead colliding with small twigs or some leaves, or how it performs when shot through mesh while inside a blind. Only personal testing will identify the best broadhead under all these conditions.
Accuracy In The Wind
Many bowhunters choose mechanicals over fixed heads because they buck the wind better. Some believe at 40 yards, in a strong crosswind, a fixed head can veer six to eight inches off target, if not more, while a mechanical may veer only two to three inches. However, much of this largely depends on the style of fixed or mechanical being used, and whether or not the wind affects the bowhunter's ability to keep the sight pin on target. All in all, there's a lot of room for inconsistency here. Again, you must test the possible outcomes to see what works right for you.
I do believe a mechanical will out-shoot a fixed-blade head in the wind. But I also believe there are trade-offs to consider. Don't forget that the wind will certainly cause the arrow to wag at varying degrees, depending on the wind speed and arrow's flight time. This will ultimately cause the projectile to impact the target at a slight angle, and a deep-penetrating broadhead design is still a must for this scenario, so choose wisely.
Obviously, broadhead selection is a never-ending debate, and certainly can't be fully examined in one short column. Over the years, I've witnessed a lot of excellent blood trails. But I've witnessed a lot of bad ones, too, and I believe some of these poor blood trails or lost game had a lot to do with the broadhead itself, and not the shooter or the arrow's energy or placement. These experiences have taught me that as an ethical bowhunter, it is my duty to select the very best broadhead that can handle the very worst shooting conditions. When you base your decisions on this kind of motto, I believe good results will almost always follow.