Subscribe for 2 free episodes and receive exclusive giveaway opportunities and stay up-to-date on the latest articles, podcasts and more!
Nothing instills more confidence as a bowhunter than working on and tuning your own archery equipment. Knowing your bow and arrow inside and out will not only make you more accurate but will make you a better bowhunter. So much about shooting a bow is mental, especially when you are drawing back on a trophy buck or bull. Having the confidence that your bow is well-tuned and your broadhead will hit behind the pin will empower you to make a good shot in the moment of truth. My archery skills took a big leap forward when I took the plunge into working on my own archery equipment.
Why Tune Your Own Bow and Arrow
Even if you get your bow initially set up by an archery pro shop, having the ability to work on your own bow and arrow after the initial setup is very important. A few of the most important reasons to tune your own equipment are:
My DIY Archery Shop
Over the years, I’ve purchased every major piece of archery shop equipment to completely tune my bow and arrow at home. I’ve purchased nearly all this equipment from Blackovis.com; they have a great selection all in one place. The following is a list of shop equipment that I have used and recommend:
Tuning your Bow should Start with Archery Software
Tuning your bow starts with tuning your arrow. If you have not already read my three-part series on “Bowhunting Forgiveness” in previous issues of Western Hunter Magazine (Sept/Oct 2021, Nov/Dec 2021, and Jan/Feb 2022), I highly suggest you do so. In this series, I walk the reader through the process of picking an arrow design to maximize its effectiveness for a specific hunt. Once you have arrived at a chosen arrow design, the first thing to do is build out the arrow design using archery software. Personally, I use Archer’s Advantage Online. It's $20 a year and worth every penny for shaft spine selection and building custom sight tapes.
For Archer’s Advantage to work best, you need to start with a known arrow weight and arrow velocity (shot through your bow). I suggest going to a pro shop and shooting different arrows of varying weights through their chronograph. Typically, pro shops will have different arrows lying around that you can test shoot through the chronograph (the bow does not need to be tuned to the test arrow). You don’t need to find an arrow that weighs the exact same as your desired arrow design; as long as the test arrow is within 50 grains or so, it should be good enough.
Within the “Setup” section of Archer’s Advantage, enter in all your bow information and the TEST arrow build information; it doesn’t really matter what you enter for arrow build information here as long as the overall arrow weight in the program is reflective of the TEST arrow. Once this section is fully defined, go to the “Sight In” section and, under the “Chronograph” tab, enter in the velocity of the TEST arrow and click the “Sight In” button. At this point, the program has linked the test arrow velocity to the test arrow weight that was entered in the “Setup” section.
Archer’s Advantage Shaft Selector
Now, switch to the “Shaft Selector” section and here you enter into the program your DESIRED arrow build including shaft model, spine, length, and point weight. You can even play with the peak draw weight to see how that changes things. Archer’s Advantage will calculate an arrow velocity for your DESIRED arrow design based on the test arrow velocity and weight.
The program will then calculate and plot the dynamic spine of the DESIRED arrow design. For a hunting arrow, I’ve had great experience staying on the stiff side of optimal spine. The reason for this is the broadhead. Broadheads are always longer than field tips, so the increased length of the arrow with the broadhead will weaken the arrow’s spine. From a hunting standpoint, being over-spined is not really a problem; conversely, being under-spined is something you want to avoid. In the Archer’s Advantage program, I like to be in the yellow region of the spine plot or “marginally stiff.” I tweak the design of my arrow in this “Shaft Selector” section until I like the arrow speed and weight and, ideally, the arrow spines out “marginally stiff.”
The main concepts for finding the right arrow spine are as follows:
Easton Arrows and Ironwill Outfitters Insert System
From here, the process moves to actually building your desired arrow. I like to use Easton shafts for a few reasons. The foremost reason is that they are very consistent in spine from shaft to shaft. Additionally, Easton shafts do not have a prominent spine line, which means they have more consistent circumferential spine. This translates to less time nock tuning to get arrows to tune together. The second main reason is that Easton hunting shafts are made by pultrusion/Acu-Carbon process; the ends of the arrow are not prone to wobbling like arrows that are made from the wrap-and-roll process; this is especially important if you have a long draw length.
To start building, I typically cut a little off the insert end of the arrow, and then square it with a G5 arrow squaring tool. I intentionally leave the arrow long at this point. I then insert the arrow with the chosen amount of insert weight. I prefer micro diameter (4 mm) shafts, and my favorite component system for these arrows is the Ironwill Outfitter system. The system consists of DEEP SIX H.I.T. inserts that insert up inside the shaft and an external collar that slips over the shaft. This system is very versatile because it comes in a variety of weight options, and you can also double stack inserts in the shaft.
Prepping the Bow for Tuning
Once the arrow is inserted, I start prepping the bow for shooting bare shafts through paper. I start this process by setting the arrow rest to a reasonable center shot (13/16”). The next step is tying on a D-loop such that the arrow is approximately 90° to the string with the center of the shaft passing through the center of the Burger Hole. I don’t worry about pulling out an arrow square to get the arrow perfectly perpendicular to the string because, inevitably, I’ll move the D-loop up or down according to the bare shaft paper tear. I don’t cinch down the D-loop hard yet either, nor do I tie nock sets at this point (I do later) so that I can easily move the d-loop as needed. The last step before shooting bare shafts through paper is timing the cams and cam alignment. For these steps, you need a draw board and a bow press.
Cam Timing and Alignment
First: Cam timing. Draw the bow in the draw board and verify that the draw stops on the cams are hitting at the same time. If the bottom cam is hitting before the top cam, add twists to the bottom cable end. Alternatively, add twists to the top cable end if the top cam is hitting before the bottom cam. You will repeat this process of checking the bow in the draw board and adding twists to the cables until both draw stops are hitting at the same time.
Cam alignment/lean is a bit trickier. Cam lean exists when the vertical plane of the cam is not parallel to the vertical plane of the bow. Different bows have different methods for aligning the cams and adjusting cam lean. The most common methods for aligning cams are yoke tuning or shimming with spacers, top hats, etc. Either of these methods requires the bow to be pressed.
I like to observe the cam lean of the bow at brace/rest and at full draw. Because the load shifts from the string at rest to the cables at full draw, the cam will lean differently throughout the draw cycle. If the cam is leaning heavily to one side at either rest or full draw, it needs to be adjusted before tuning further. More on adjusting cam alignment below.
With the arrow rest, cam timing, and cam alignment/lean set as described above, I begin to shoot bare shafts through paper (remember, the bare shafts are intentionally left long at this point). I prefer to shoot bare shafts through paper because they are much more sensitive than fletched arrows. Vanes will instantly start correcting the flight of a mistuned arrow, and the vanes can also make it difficult to see exactly how an arrow is tearing. I start shooting 6 to 10 ft behind the paper.
The very first thing to do after shooting through paper is correct any vertical tear (disregard any horizontal component of the tear at this point). If you are tearing nock-high, you need to lower the nocking point by sliding the D-loop down. If you are tearing nock-low, you need to raise the nocking point by sliding the D-loop up. After correcting the vertical tear, the next step is to micro-tune the dynamic spine of the arrow by incrementally cutting down the shaft. As the length of the shaft changes, the dynamic spine of the arrow changes. This will change the paper tear most dominantly in the horizontal direction.
Tuning the Dynamic Spine of the Arrow
Shoot the bare shaft through paper again. After observing the paper tear, I remove the nock and cut the arrow from the backend of the shaft half an inch at a time until I start to see the paper tear resolve. Remember, you’ve intentionally left the bare shaft long to begin this process, which means the arrow’s dynamic spine will initially be weak. Typically, a weak arrow will tear nock-left for a right-handed shooter but will tear nock-right for a left-handed shooter. A few times I have also seen a weak shaft tear nock-high; this is more of an exception than a rule, however.
After a few iterations of shooting and cutting, as I am zeroing in on the tune, I start cutting off a quarter-inch at a time. I continue this process until the arrow shoots a bullet hole. Once the arrow shoots a bullet hole, you’ve tuned the dynamic spine of the arrow to the bow. If the arrow is longer than you would like, I don’t have a problem with cutting up to an additional inch off the arrow to stiffen it up (this may change the paper tear – if it does, you can adjust the arrow rest to compensate for it). As you are going through this process of tuning the arrow to your bow, if the paper tear isn’t resolving and you’ve cut it down to the desired length, first review your arrow profile in Archer’s Advantage to make sure you’ve selected the correct shaft spine.
If the spine is correct and cutting the shaft down isn’t bringing the arrow into tune at your desired length, the next step is to go back to the bow tune. I suggest adjusting cam alignment first and then adjusting the arrow rest second (cam alignment adjustments are macro changes and rest adjustments are micro changes). It’s certainly okay to tweak the cam alignment slightly or the arrow rest position to bring the arrow into tune at the desired shaft length. Be prudent here, as I don’t recommend going too far from the standard bow center shot or cam alignment. Going through the exercise of tuning the dynamic spine of the arrow to the bow is important to optimize the overall tune of the bow and arrow.
Tuning the Bow
Now, the question is: How do you tune the bow depending on the paper tear? We will start with cam alignment. If the arrow tip is entering on the right side of the paper, and the nock-end is tearing to the left, this is called a “nock-left” tear. To correct a nock-left tear (regardless of being right-handed or left-handed) you move the cam (top cam or bottom cam) to the left. If the tear is severe, you can move both the bottom and top cam to the left or use a bigger/smaller set of spacers.
With the example of my Hoyt RX7, you move the cam left by adding a bigger spacer on the right side and a smaller spacer on the left. In the case of yoke tuning, add a twist to the left yoke and remove a twist from the right yoke. If you don’t add and remove the same number of twists to/from each yoke, it will change the timing of the cams. The opposite of this is true if the arrow is tearing nock-right. For a nock-right tear, move the cam to the right or add a twist to the right yoke and remove a twist from the left yoke.
Like I said before, I like to adjust the cam alignment before touching the rest. I like to keep the rest as close as possible to 13/16”. Although, in the case of cam alignment, you may not find an exact combination of spacers to get the arrow to tune with the rest exactly at 13/16”. If this is the case, I adjust the cam alignment to get the paper tear as small as possible and then adjust the rest from there. If the arrow is tearing nock-left, you move the rest to the right. If the arrow is tearing nock-right, you move the rest to the left. The easiest thing to remember is to move the cam in the SAME direction as the tear but to move the arrow rest in the OPPOSITE direction as the tear. When adjusting the rest, be aware that a little bit goes a long way. I recommend moving the rest in 1/32” increments.
Confusion for Left-Handed Shooters
There may be a little confusion out there regarding tuning adjustments for left-handed shooters. I myself am left-handed. The adjustment rules that I stated above apply to both left and right-handed shooters. The reason why some confusion exists for left-handed shooters is that some online tuning charts reference the direction you move your rest by comparing to the riser (in- toward riser or out- away from riser).
For example, if I had a nock-left tear, I would move my rest to the right to correct it. Moving my rest to the right (me being left-handed) is moving the rest AWAY from the riser. For a right-handed shooter, moving the rest to the right is moving the rest TOWARD the riser. Since the riser is on opposite sides for right and left-handed shooters, this gets very confusing. So, don’t think about the riser when trying to decide which way to move your rest. Regardless of left-handed or right-handed, if you get a nock-left tear, move your rest globally to the right. If you get a nock-right tear, move your rest globally to the left. It’s that simple.
Bare Shaft Tuning Before Broadhead Tuning
The next tuning step I take after paper tuning is shooting bare shafts with fletched arrows at 20 to 30 yards. Shooting bare shafts at distance is the best way I have found to micro-tune a bow. Air resistance on arrow vanes causes the back of the arrow to track the front of the arrow; this causes a fletched arrow to quickly self-correct shortly after leaving the bow. A bare shaft doesn’t self-correct, so any tuning-related errors manifested in the bare shaft are magnified at longer distances.
Broadhead tuning is particularly important and should never be skipped. After all, the ultimate goal of a hunt is to pass a broadhead through the lungs of a big game animal. You can certainly jump straight from paper tuning to broadhead tuning if you’d prefer, but I like to shoot bare shafts at distance first to minimize the impacts of shooting broadheads into my target. Most of the time, if you get your bow tuned well enough to group fletched arrows and bare shafts at 20-30 yards, you likely won’t need to make any adjustments for broadheads. Never assume this, though. You should always confirm your broadhead flight before going afield.
Bare shaft and broadhead tuning are not complicated. The idea is to aim at a single spot at your preferred distance and shoot both fletched arrows and bare shafts/broadhead tipped arrows. The way the bare shaft/broadhead arrow impacts compared to the fletched arrow tells you which way you need to micro-tune your bow. See the adjacent diagram for tuning solutions depending on the bare shaft/broadhead point of impact.
When shooting multiple bare shafts/broadhead arrows, it’s possible that some of them will behave differently than others. If this is the case, you will need to nock-tune the misbehaving ones. Nock-tuning is quite easy and involves simply twisting the nock in the back of the arrow in small increments between shots. Shoot the arrow after each nock twist to see how it changes the point of impact. I like to nock tune during the bare shaft shooting phase. If you have to nock-tune each individual arrow, it can be very time-consuming. This is a huge reason why I like Easton shafts; they are very consistent in spine and do not require much nock-tuning.
Last Call for Cam Timing
One last comment about vertical adjustments. It is possible to correct a vertical tuning error by changing cam timing. However, this is not my preferred method for fixing a vertical tuning error. Depending on your bow, if you adjust your cam timing to fix a vertical tuning error, then your draw stops will not be hitting at the same time. If your draw stops are not adjustable to make them hit at the same time, the back wall at full draw will feel more spongy.
To correct bare shafts grouping ABOVE fletched arrows (corresponding to a nock-low paper tear), you need to advance the top cam by twisting the top cable end. Putting twists in the top cable end results in the bottom cam hitting the draw stop first at full draw. To correct bare shafts grouping BELOW fletched arrows (corresponding to a nock-high paper tear), you need to advance the bottom cam by adding twists to the bottom cable end. This results in the top cam hitting the draw stop first at full draw. Again, this is not my preferred method for correcting a vertical tuning error, but I wanted to bring this up because it may be the only method that will resolve a vertical tuning issue with some bows (a few older Prime bows required me to do this).
The off-season is the perfect time of year to learn a few concepts about tuning your own bow and arrow. Even if a pro shop does your initial bow tune, having the skill set to tune your own equipment will make you a better bowhunter. It will most certainly make you more accurate with broadheads (broadhead tuning is of paramount importance) and can save you in a pinch if something happens to your bow while on a big backcountry adventure.
The beauty of stalking mule deer in lush alpine basins in August; the sweet sounds of elk ringing out in the elk woods in September; the buildup of anticipation when twigs snap in the treestand in October; the privilege of chasing mule deer in serene, snow-covered landscapes in November. If you are like me, it’s really hard to pick a favorite season. The beauty of this modern era of hunting is that you don’t have to. There is so much opportunity out there, and you can experience it all if you are willing to branch out. Branching out and experiencing new forms of hunting doesn’t come challenge-free, however. Each one of these different hunting seasons brings new tactics, new challenges, and new gear.
To hit the ground running with the right gear and tactics in a new area, especially with a general archery tag, can be the difference between success and going home empty handed. Success on a public land, DIY bow hunt comes down to the little details. Being a student of the game and taking advantage of the wealth of knowledge shared in Western Hunter Magazine will make you a more versatile hunter. In this article, we’ll go over some of the key factors of a successful archery hunt.
If you are branching out and going on a new archery hunt this coming fall, this article is perfect to help you be better prepared for your hunt. This article is the third installment in a series I have written discussing “bowhunting forgiveness.” Bowhunting forgiveness essentially means optimizing your bow and arrow for each hunt and season so that it performs and makes up for possible heat-of-the-moment mistakes you may make because of difficult hunting circumstances. There is nothing easy about public land bowhunting out West, and optimizing the forgiveness of your bow and arrow can make all the difference in the world for success in the mountains.
The ultimate goal of a bow hunt is to pierce a big game animal’s lungs with a broadhead, so the single most important thing to fine tune for each hunt is the broadhead delivery system. If you haven’t already read the first two articles in this series, I highly suggest you do so. I’m not talking about generically tuning your bow and arrow in these articles, I’m talking about tips and tricks to specifically tweak your bow and arrow to be better suited for different hunts and seasons.
This third article discusses gear selection, tuning, tips, tricks, and tactics for hunting with multiple arrow designs optimized for your different hunts. The content is perfectly suited for the time of year that this issue is hitting your mailbox. The beginning of the year is a great time to focus on hunt planning, strategy, gear preparation, and gear testing.
Three Primary Arrow Designs
Throughout this archery series, I’ve been talking about my three primary arrow designs that I use, depending on the circumstances of my hunt.
In my experience hunting many western states, these three arrow designs fully cover the multitude of hunting situations present out here. Having these different arrows built and ready to use is only part of the equation, however. The bigger part of the equation is figuring out how to accurately deliver these different arrows through the lungs of a big game animal. This is precisely why throughout this series I have used the term “broadhead delivery system” instead of just saying “arrow.” The arrow is only one part of the equation. The broadhead delivery system consists of the arrow, the bow, and the tune. Short of having three different bows fully set up and tuned to independently shoot each one of these arrow designs, it is not trivial figuring out how to accurately shoot each arrow.
Planning Out Hunting Season
For the last five years, each season, I have used a combination of the three arrow designs listed above. Regardless, deer or elk, I prefer to bow hunt in mostly open terrain, relying on my glass and my stalking skills. Elk on public land and especially in OTC areas are highly pressured. Therefore, the big herd bulls become very, very difficult to call in. For this reason, even for elk, I prefer to hunt mostly open terrain where I can physically see the animals. This means that without fail, every year, I use my long-range arrow build. You could call this my default arrow for the majority of hunting that I do. I encourage you to think about the hunts you routinely do (just as I have explained above) and figure out what characteristics your arrow should have to maximize the forgiveness of your system for that hunt type.
Most every year, I generally use one other arrow design. In 2020, for example, the big buck that I dedicated my season to lived in deep, dark timber throughout the summer and fall. During the entire early season, I would mostly carry my heavy, short-range arrow in the quiver because I was mostly hunting from a treestand and ground blind. Once the rut came in mid-November, the big buck moved out of the dark timber and into more open terrain. At this point, I focused more on my lightweight, long-range arrow setup. I ended up killing this buck in open terrain with my long-range arrow.
In 2021, I got a new bow, the Hoyt RX5, and built up completely new arrows for it. For the fall of 2021, I made plans to bow hunt mostly open terrain, so the first arrow that I built was my tried-and-true, long-range arrow. I made plans to bow hunt deer and elk in Utah in mostly open terrain, elk in Colorado above timberline (very open), and late-season mule deer in open, sage country in Idaho. For my second arrow, I decided that instead of building my normal, short-range arrow, I would be better off designing an arrow that catered to my late-season mule deer hunt in Idaho (Idaho requires fixed blade broadheads). I talked about this arrow build at the end of the second article; it weighs 525 grains and is very forgiving when shooting fixed-blade broadheads at extended ranges.
Preparing For the Worst
One thing that I’ve wanted to bring up in this series is the importance of a backup bow. I think owning and maintaining a backup bow is extremely important. To illustrate the importance of maintaining a backup bow, I will relate a story from my 2020 hunt chasing that big buck.
One evening, in the final stretch of the hunt, I saw “KK” move into an area where I had some game cameras and a ground blind in a funnel point. I was very excited hiking out that night because I figured I would have a good chance of killing the buck the next day. It was late November, and a cyclic freeze/thaw pattern had developed in the weather. It froze hard that night, and to my horror, I slipped on the ice going out and broke a bracket on my bow sight. Instead of being able to hunt KK the next day, I spent all day fixing my bow sight and re-sighting in.
The following day, after having fixed my bow sight, I went back up to hunt. I checked the game cameras in the pinch point and discovered that KK and his does had crossed through that funnel point, a mere 30 yards from my blind, four times throughout that day. That was an absolute gut-puncher. I’ve owned a backup bow every year since 2016 for this exact reason but, like an idiot, I sold my backup in the spring of 2020 to finance other gear. At the time, I thought I had blown my only chance of killing KK simply because of the stupidity of selling my backup bow. The story turned out fine because I ended up killing the buck but, nevertheless, lesson learned; I will never again go into another season without a backup bow.
Shooting Multiple Arrow Designs – Option 1
Maintaining a backup bow can not only save your bacon in situations like I described above, but it also presents the easiest solution for accurately shooting two different arrow builds. Without a doubt, the easiest way to hunt with multiple arrows is to have two different bows (a main bow and a backup), each tuned to shoot a different arrow design. With both setups at the ready, it simply comes down to deciding which bow and arrow combination is most suited for a particular hunt. This is no different than the serious rifle hunter, one who owns multiple rifles, selecting the most appropriate rifle and caliber for a specific hunt. This is a very common occurrence in the rifle hunting world.
In 2021, I ordered one RX5 for my main bow, tuned it for my long-range arrow, and liked it so much that I ordered a second RX5 for my backup bow. I tuned my backup bow to shoot my 525-grain arrow, which is designed for hunting open country with fixed-blade broadheads. Your backup bow doesn’t need to be the same make and model as your main bow but, ideally, it should be similar in feel so your shot execution is similar. The downside to this two-arrow/two-bow solution is cost.
It is not cheap owning two bows and quality accessories for both. However, the benefits of owning and maintaining a backup bow are substantial. Instead of upgrading your bow and accessories every single year, which is very expensive, even if you get top dollar resale value, consider using that extra cash to invest in a second bow setup. I believe you will be much better off in the long run. You’ll be more accurate shooting the same bow for multiple years, you’ll have a backup bow for when shit hits the fan, and you’ll have an easy way to shoot a second arrow design that is better suited for different hunts.
Shooting Multiple Arrow Designs – Option 2
The second option for shooting multiple arrow designs involves a single bow, is more budget-friendly, and doesn’t require a Ph.D. in bow tuning to accomplish. Inherently, different arrow designs react differently when shot through a bow. To account for this, the bow needs to be set up or tuned for each arrow. As I said in the first article, this series assumes that the reader has a moderate to advanced level of understanding of archery and how to tune a bow. Concepts like paper tuning, bare-shaft tuning, or broadhead tuning will not be discussed in depth. If your two arrow builds are designed appropriately to result in a similar dynamic spine (more on this in the section below), the difference in the bow tune from one arrow to the other will be minor. What I mean by this is, if your two arrow designs have a similar dynamic spine, then the arrow rest on your bow may only need to be tweaked slightly to achieve a bullet hole through paper for each arrow.
Well before the hunting season begins (right now in the winter is a perfect time), you should build up your two arrow designs and get them tuned to your bow. How I like to do this is first pick my default arrow and get my bow tuned perfectly around that arrow. I set my arrow rest to a horizontal center shot and start tuning first by making adjustments to the cam spacing and alignment. Depending on your bow, this may be yoke tuning, top hat shimming, spacer shimming, etc. Any minor adjustments needed after that can be accomplished by tweaking the arrow rest in small increments. Once that arrow is tuned to your liking, mark the arrow rest so that you can easily go back to that exact position.
Most arrow rests are aluminum, so it’s pretty easy to use a razor blade to make a very small but permanent mark on the rest, indicating where your default arrow is perfectly tuned. The next step is to tune your secondary arrow, but instead of making changes to the cam alignment, first, make adjustments to the arrow rest. If you have designed your arrow builds so they spine out consistently, then it should only take a minor tweak (likely less than 1/8th of an inch) to get that arrow to tune. If it takes more than 1/8th of an inch, then you will likely need to make some cam alignment tweaks.
Whatever you do, if you have to adjust cam alignment, make sure you document well what you did, so that you can undo those same steps later. Once that arrow is tuned, mark the rest (or make notes regarding changes to cam alignment). The concept here is that, having done this work in the off-season, you can now very easily (and very repeatably) toggle between a perfectly-tuned default arrow and a perfectly-tuned secondary arrow in a matter of minutes at home or in your shop during the hunting season. This is something that can easily be accomplished in a matter of minutes in between hunts.
The next step after tuning both arrow designs is sighting in. The arrows will have significantly different trajectories. The light and fast arrow will have a flat trajectory versus the significant drop of the heavy, short-range arrow. The easiest way to sight in these different arrows is to have two different sights that mount on the bow via a dovetail mount (it also works very well with Hoyt’s new Picatinny attachment). Dovetail or Picatinny attachments make for very repeatable sight installation, so it’s best to use a mounting system like one of these if you plan to take the sight off frequently. From here, it’s pretty straightforward sighting in each sight for each arrow. Just as you need to toggle between arrow rest positions to switch arrows between hunts, you will also toggle between the two sights.
Best Tools for the Job
There are two bow sights on the market right now that I am extremely impressed with in terms of their adaptability for use with multiple arrows. Those sights are the HHA Tetra Max and the digital Garmin Xero A1i and A1i Pro. Both bow sights are extremely modular and can easily handle multiple arrow trajectories in a single unit. In addition to their modularity, I think both these sights are among the top sights in the industry in terms of features and functionality. Writing this at the end of the 2021 bow season, I have put both bow sights through the wringer this year and am very impressed with both.
HHA Tetra Max Bow Sight
The Tetra Max is HHA’s top-of-the-line slider bow sight. It’s a fantastic sight that strikes the perfect balance between tough-as-nails, feature-rich, and lightweight. Its noteworthy features include first, second, and third axis adjustment; durable and bright pins with brightness control; geared slider drive (no drive stripping or drive “burnout,” which has been a problem for me in the past with other sights); magnified yardage wheel indicator (I really like this); easily interchangeable sight scope heads; and easily interchangeable slider-drive yardage wheels. In fact, the Tetra Max not only has removable/interchangeable yardage wheels but every sight ships with two yardage wheels!
This is directly off of HHA’s website: “Shoot different arrows depending on the season? Every Tetra Max sight includes two yardage wheels, making the switch between [arrow] setups a snap, and not a day on the range.” HHA has designed their Tetra Max model with this two-arrow concept in mind! Between the interchangeable yardage wheels and the easily interchangeable sight scope heads, this sight was made to shoot multiple arrow designs.
I like to shoot three or four-pin slider sights. For my fast arrow setup, I like three pins at 30, 40, and 50 yards. For my heavy arrow setup, I like four pins at 20, 30, 40, and 50 yards. Ultimately, I like to have fixed pins out to 50 yards, regardless of the arrow. Swapping between my different arrow builds in between hunts with the Tetra Max is as easy as loosening a bolt to replace the scope head and loosening a set screw to replace the yardage wheel. It couldn’t be any easier.
Garmin Xero A1iPro Bow Sight
The newly released Garmin Xero A1iPro is simply an amazing sight. I will be doing a more in-depth review of this sight in a later issue of the Western Hunter, but I’ll explain why I like it for multiple arrows and a few other highlights here. First off, durability was at the forefront of my mind when I first got this sight, and despite it being a digital bow sight, it has been very durable. The features on the Garmin are just outstanding. The first great feature is being able to range at full draw. The Xero is a range-finding bow sight that automatically illuminates a pin for the measured range.
This is an absolute game-changer wherever it is legal to use (a few states don’t allow this kind of bow sight). Oftentimes, the difference between disappointment and successful encounters on trophy animals comes down to seconds, so the ability to eliminate the steps of ranging and scrolling your bow sight is groundbreaking. This feature alone will reduce ranging errors and missed shots and lead to far fewer wounded animals.
Other features that I think are awesome are the digital torque indicator, fixed pin mode, pin brightness control, clean sight picture, and the ability to manage multiple arrow profiles. The digital torque indicator is fantastic. Despite shooting tens of thousands of arrows over the years and feeling very confident with my archery form, this bow sight has helped me become more consistent with my bow grip simply because of the digital torque indicator. You can track if your grip is exactly consistent from shot to shot. The clean sight picture, especially in fixed pin mode, is excellent. Imagine a sight picture with all the benefits of a fixed multi-pin sight without the clutter and obstruction from the actual black pins. There are no physical pins to obstruct your view in this sight’s sight picture, just small, lighted aiming points.
The main reason why I wanted to discuss the Garmin Xero in this article is the multiple arrow profile feature in the A1i and A1iPro models. There simply isn’t a better sight on the market to use for multiple arrows. With a few clicks of a button, you can toggle between different arrow profiles – that’s it. Sight in each of your arrow designs on separate arrow profiles, save those profiles, and then toggle between those profiles as you swap between arrows for different hunts. The Xero is very intuitive to use (especially the new A1iPro with its micro-adjustability). It’s so quick and easy to use that I can toggle between arrow design profiles in a matter of a second, mid-stalk!
Shooting Multiple Arrow Designs – Option 3
Switching arrows mid-stalk is the concept that leads me to the final option for shooting multiple arrow designs. The idea behind this option is similar to the second option described above but takes it one step further. It is possible, if you meticulously design your arrows, to get two different arrow designs to tune at the same arrow rest and cam/yoke settings. This means that you won’t need to adjust your tune to swap between your arrow designs. As long as you have a way to track the trajectory of each arrow with your bow sight (more on this later), you can carry both arrow designs in your quiver and quickly select the arrow that is most ideal for the shooting situation while in the field!
I think of this as the pinnacle option for shooting multiple arrow designs. However, the reason why I have listed this option last is that it can be very difficult to accomplish. Getting two vastly different arrow designs to tune to the same settings can be quite challenging. Despite this requiring a lot of work to accomplish during the offseason, I think it’s worth the effort because it offers a groundbreaking amount of flexibility to be able to carry multiple arrow designs in your quiver and have the best of both worlds – a flat trajectory and bone-splitting momentum – at your fingertips.
It takes quite a bit of trial and error playing with different shafts, spines, arrow lengths, point weights, nock-end weights, arrow rest plunger tensions, etc, to get both arrows to tune together. The very first step toward accomplishing this is building out test arrow profiles using archery software like Archer’s Advantage. Within Archer’s Advantage, you enter in all your bow information and arrow build information. Archer’s Advantage will then calculate and plot the dynamic spine of that arrow design in relation to the bow specifications that were entered. It’s pretty neat software that I use all the time for spine tuning and custom sight tapes.
Use Archer’s Advantage to get your different virtual arrow builds to yield approximately the same dynamic spine. The main concepts to keep in mind when working toward this are as follows:
Your two arrow designs will likely require one or even two size differences in spine. Additionally, for a hunting arrow, I’ve had a great experience staying on the stiff side of optimal spine. In the Archer’s Advantage program, I like to be in the yellow region of the spine plot or “marginally stiff.” I tweak the design of both arrows until I like the arrow speeds and weights and both arrows ideally spine-out “marginally stiff.”
From here, the process moves to actually building the different arrows. I like to use Easton shafts for a few reasons. The main reason is that they are very consistent in spine from shaft to shaft. Additionally, Easton shafts do not have a prominent spine line, which means they have more consistent circumferential spine. This translates to less time nock tuning to get arrows to tune together. The second reason is that Easton shafts are made by “pultrusion,” meaning that the ends of the arrow are not prone to wobbling like arrows that are made by the wrap-and-roll process.
Building and Tuning the First Arrow Design
To start building, I typically cut a little off the insert end of the arrow, and then square it with a G5 arrow squaring tool. I then insert the arrow with the appropriate amount of insert weight. My favorite component system on the market for micro-diameter arrows is the Ironwill Outfitter system. The inserts are H.I.T. inserts that fit up inside the shaft. This system is very versatile because it comes in a variety of weight options and you can also double-stack inserts in the shaft. I like to add more insert weight (up inside the shaft) than broadhead weight.
If you are adding a lot of weight up front and are running into spine problems, adding insert weight into the shaft can help remedy this, somewhat. When adding point weight into the shaft instead of out in front with a bigger broadhead, you are changing the center of mass of the front of the arrow. You are shifting the center of mass backward, which effectively increases the spine of the arrow.
Once the arrow is inserted, I leave the arrow long and start shooting bare shafts through paper. I start this process with the arrow rest at a reasonable center shot (13/16” to 7/8”) and with reasonable cam alignment on the bow. After shooting and seeing the paper tear, I remove the nock and cut the arrow from the back end a half-inch at a time until I start to see the paper tear resolve. After a few iterations, as I am zeroing in on the tune, I start cutting off a quarter-inch at a time. I continue this process until the arrow shoots a perfect bare shaft bullet hole. It’s certainly okay to tweak the arrow rest position or cam alignment slightly to bring the arrow into tune at the desired shaft length. Be prudent here, as I don’t recommend going too far from the standard bow center shot.
Tuning the Second Arrow Design
The next step is tuning the second arrow design. Leave the arrow rest and cam alignment settings the same as with the first arrow. After the arrow is inserted, start shooting it through paper, cutting off the back end of the shaft as necessary to bring it into tune. You may get this second arrow close but not perfectly tuned by this method alone. If it’s tearing more than a quarter-inch at about 10 feet, then you will need to start some trial-and-error tinkering. The goal of the tinkering is to get both arrows to react the same way when shot through paper.
The first thing to test is the arrow rest plunger tension. Try increasing and decreasing the plunger tension. Further tinkering can include adding or removing point weight on either arrow (try different collar weights, collar on/collar off, and different field tip weights); wrapping electrical tape around the backend of either arrow to stiffen it up (the electrical tape simulates weight on the back of the arrow from vanes, wraps, etc); and nock tuning (rotating the nock of the arrow will slightly change the paper tear). As you tinker and make changes to the system (cam alignment, arrow rest, plunger tension, point weight, nock-end weight, etc), make sure to go back and shoot the first arrow to see how it reacts to the changes. Eventually, after enough tinkering, you should be able to get both arrows to react about the same through paper.
One of the most important aspects of all of this is to give precedence to and perfectly tune the arrow you have designed to shoot fixed blade broadheads. When shooting multiple arrow designs, if one is tipped with a fixed blade and one is tipped with a mechanical, it is far more important to get the fixed-blade arrow tuned perfectly. Depending on your setup, it may be difficult to get both arrows to shoot perfect bullet holes, but that’s okay as long as the arrow that isn’t perfect is shooting a mechanical. As long as the tune is close, an arrow tipped with a low-profile mechanical (like the Sevr) will self-correct very quickly out of the bow (will not experience major tuning-related drift downrange). If the mechanical-broadhead arrow is tearing less than a quarter-inch through paper, then the tune is probably good enough. If you are a perfectionist and just need both arrows to tune perfectly, be prepared to do A LOT of tinkering!
One last thing to note about tuning between the two different arrow builds is the orientation of the paper tear. If the difference between your perfectly tuned arrow (the one that will be tipped with a fixed blade) and the mechanical arrow is a small vertical tear (say less than a half-inch at 10 ft), then that is not a big deal, especially if the mechanical arrow is tearing nock-high. If you can’t resolve a small vertical tear from the mechanical arrow but the fixed-blade arrow yields a perfect bullet hole, that is completely okay. Horizontal paper tears are the ones that should be resolved to ideally less than a quarter-inch.
Two Arrow Trajectories in One Bow Sight
The two different arrow designs in option three will have vastly different trajectories that need to be accounted for with the bow sight except, here in option three, it’s not feasible to change out your bow sight mid-stalk, so, you need to be able to account for two different arrow trajectories with a single bow sight. The first and easiest option was already discussed above. Both the Garmin Xero A1i and A1iPro models have a multiple arrow profile feature that will allow you to toggle between different arrow profiles in about a second by pressing a couple of buttons. Mid-stalk, if you see that you are going to be presented with a close-range, frontal shot, you can nock your heavy arrow (as opposed to your light/fast arrow), press a few buttons on your sight to change the arrow profile, and you are good to go.
Before using the Garmin, I was able to accomplish this task in a few different ways, depending on the sight that I was using at the time. As I have said before, I prefer multi-pin slider sights – typically, three or four pins. Multi-pin sights are more versatile for use with multiple arrow designs. I typically set up my sight such that my pins are positioned to yield 30, 40, 50, and 60 yards with my fast, lightweight arrow. It just so happens with my bow setup that these pins (without moving them) correspond pretty closely to 20, 29, 37, and 45 yards. To figure this out, I get my pins set exactly where I want them to be with my primary arrow (for me, that’s my light and fast arrow). I then walk the archery range, shooting my heavy arrow at different yardages to figure out exactly where those previously set pins correspond with the heavy arrow. Most years, I am satisfied with this setup as-is. I have fixed pins out to 60 yards for my lightweight arrow and fixed pins out to 45 yards for the heavy arrow.
Inherently, I always set up my sight tape and slider portion of my sight to correspond to my lightweight, long-range arrow. In the past, I have set up a second sight tape on the backside of my sight, corresponding to the heavy arrow. Whereas the main sight tape for my light arrow starts at 60 yards, the heavy arrow sight tape starts at 45 yards. This allows me to dial to yardages beyond my bottom pin, even with my heavy arrow. I was able to do this previously on a Black Gold Pure Gold sight, but it is also possible to place a second tape offset to the side of the main sight tape on the HHA Tetra Max yardage wheel.
In practice, you need to be on top of your game and fully in the details to hunt with multiple arrow designs in your quiver. I recommend fletching the different arrows with different color vanes as a clear arrow indicator. Whenever I am in a stalking situation and I nock an arrow, I consciously state in my mind, over and over again, what my pins are set for, for that arrow. If the lightweight arrow is nocked, I think, 30, 40, 50, 60… If the heavy arrow is nocked, I think, 20, 29, 37, 45 repeatedly. I’ve never screwed this up in the field because it’s ALWAYS at the forefront of my mind.
Only as Good as the Weak Link
All of this attention to detail with the arrows; all of the talk about accuracy and forgiveness; all of the time that goes into your bow and the tune; are only as good as the weak link in your system. Hunting out West, bowhunters are often faced with long, steep shots that require accurate ballistic solutions to land an arrow in the kill zone. Most rangefinders on the market use the rifleman’s rule to determine the ballistic solution for steep shots. It’s performing a math function – cosine of the angle of inclination multiplied by the line-of-sight distance – to determine the horizontal component of distance.
Using the rifleman’s rule, you shoot for the horizontal component of distance only. This is a decent approximation, but if you have ever shot at a steep-mountain 3D shoot, you’ve probably noticed that during those long, steep shots, your rangefinder isn’t delivering as accurate of ballistic solutions. The longer and steeper the shot, the more error is introduced, using the rifleman’s rule. On long, steep shots, there is enough error with the rifleman’s rule that it’s very possible to wound or flat-out miss an animal because of a bad range estimate.
Leupold RX-Fulldraw 4 Rangefinder
Throughout this series, I have briefly mentioned the new Leupold RX-Fulldraw 4 rangefinder. The RX-Fulldraw 4 is the first truly archery-specific rangefinder available, and I think it’s a game-changer for accuracy and forgiveness. This is the first rangefinder to use archery-specific inputs like arrow weight, arrow initial velocity, and peep height to calculate more accurate ballistic solutions for steep shots. It’s taking the science of ballistics that is heavily used in long-range rifle shooting and applying it to archery.
Based on my experience using the RX-Fulldraw 4 at Total Archery Challenge at Snowbird and throughout the 2021 archery season, this rangefinder delivers substantially more accurate ballistic solutions than any other rangefinder I’ve ever used, and it’s very intuitive to use. To get ballistic solutions this accurate before, guys were developing handmade cut charts and, based on the shot angle, would have to cross-reference this chart before dialing for the distance. The RX-Fulldraw 4 does all these calculations in a fraction of a second and yields a ballistic solution almost instantly.
The intent of this series of articles is to inspire you, the reader, to think more about and become more aware of the clear advantages that different arrow designs can promote in the hunts that YOU do. If a bowhunter goes into the field with an arrow optimized for his/her specific hunt, it’s a distinct advantage that can directly lead to a trophy at the end of the blood. If the entire goal of the hunt is to pierce the lungs of a big game animal, there is nothing more important to fine-tune than the broadhead delivery system. I would not have had the success I have had if it weren’t for my methodical approach to engineering my broadhead delivery system. I know my system has helped me kill animals that I would have otherwise not killed due to heat-of-the-moment mistakes on my part.
The pinnacle of “bowhunting forgiveness” is setting up your broadhead delivery system to simultaneously shoot different arrow designs. This will allow you, the bowhunter, to have the best of both worlds – flat trajectory and bone-splitting momentum – at your fingertips. I can’t think of a greater advantage to take into the field as a bowhunter.
Deer and elk shoulders are tough… really tough. Nearly all bowhunters who have hunted long enough have experienced the horrors of hitting the front shoulder only to see 90% of their arrow hanging out, wiggling like a noodle as the animal runs off. Animals can survive these botched shots, but regardless, they are gut-wrenching and should be avoided at all costs. I’ve unfortunately experienced this, as have nearly all my hunting friends.
Why does this happen? That’s actually a two-part question. Why does this happen from an arrow design, lack-of-penetration point-of-view? Which we will talk about later.
But why does this happen from a shot-setup and accuracy point-of-view? Why does that front shoulder seem to have a tractor beam that sucks arrows right to it?
Shot Setup & Accuracy
The couple of times that I have hit the front shoulder and nearly all of the times my friends have, the shots have occurred inside 40 yards and, most of the time, a lot closer than that. If shots inside 40 yards are supposed to be slam dunks because they are so close, why do we miss and hit the front shoulder sometimes?
The answer is actually quite simple. Short-range situations typically happen fast, under less-than-ideal circumstances, and at awkward angles. Unlike longer-range encounters, where the situation develops slowly and you have time to calm your nerves and wait for an ideal shot angle, during short-range engagements, the situation often goes from 0 to 100 in a matter of seconds. You don’t have time to completely dissect either the shot or the shot angle. Short-range engagements are present in situations like calling in elk in thick timber, sitting a treestand or ground blind, sitting water or an active game trail, ambush hunting, etc.
Typically, short-range engagements happen in thick cover, resulting in small shooting windows. Bowhunters need to think and act quickly in order to capitalize on these encounters. Because these encounters happen so fast and sometimes under limited visibility, a shot may be taken with the hunter thinking that the animal is broadside, but it might really be quartering, or a small branch that wasn’t visible to the hunter may deflect the arrow. Nerves can definitely get the best of you in these situations as well; I can personally attest to the excitement that comes along with a very close encounter with a screaming bull elk.
This Is Bowhunting
Whatever crap happens, this is bowhunting, and situations are never perfect. That is why it is vitally important as bowhunters that we select our gear to maximize our success. It’s critically important to be in the details and check off as many preparation boxes as we can.
That’s the intent of this article, to help hunters optimize their equipment selections to load the scales of success in their favor. This article is Part Two in a three-part series discussing different arrow designs, promoting bowhunting forgiveness. I said this in the first article, and it’s so important that I’m going to say it again. If the ultimate goal of a bow hunt is to pierce a big game animal’s lungs with a broadhead, what is more important than checking boxes and fine-tuning the broadhead delivery system?
If you haven’t read the first article in this series, I highly suggest you do so. I’m not talking about generically tuning your bow and arrow in these articles, I’m talking about specifically engineering an arrow design to maximize your potential on a particular hunt. The first article focused on optimizing a flat-shooting arrow design to maximize range forgiveness for long-range encounters. This article focuses on designing a bone-penetrating arrow to maximize your effectiveness for short-range engagements. Maximizing your effectiveness in short-range situations is all about designing a “shot-angle” forgiving arrow.
The attributes that make a bow and arrow setup forgiving for each of these engagement types are wildly different because the encounters are totally different. In my opinion, picking one balanced arrow right in the middle to handle each of these situations is mediocrity and far worse than optimizing for a single encounter type. With one mediocre arrow design, you aren’t taking advantage of anything; you have neither a great trajectory nor bone-splitting momentum. I do not use the same arrow on a high country mule deer hunt in Colorado that I use on a dark timber elk hunt in central Idaho.
Short Range Engagements
Here, I am talking about shots in generally thick terrain, under 40 yards, and, oftentimes, much closer. Through years of bowhunting high-pressured general units out west, in my opinion, these are the encounters that are hardest to convert into successes because there are more variables and more things left to chance. The closeness of the shot may be a slam dunk, but most of the time, you aren’t even presented with a good shooting opportunity.
Personally, I’d much prefer an encounter at 60 yards in open terrain, where I am more in control of the variables. Unfortunately, hunting in thick, close quarters is a necessary evil. When deer and elk get pressured in general units, they often retreat to their thick-country sanctuaries. So, if you want to be successful on your hunt, you need to pursue them where they are.
I consider hunting in close quarters and thick terrain to be similar to trying to score a touchdown inside the red zone. The problem is the defense is more alert, and the offense has less room to make mistakes. Everything becomes more critical in these situations, especially in high-pressured units. The wind swirling; your little movements; the noises from your pack, bow, or clothes squeaking or brushing against stuff; drawing your bow; even the sound of your breathing can be loud enough to blow up a close-range encounter.
Close-range encounters in the thick are typically harder as well because the animal is generally up and alert. It’s not like you are stalking a partially asleep, bedded mule deer in open terrain. For one reason or another, I have had SO MANY close-range encounters blow up in my face over the years. It’s because of this that I try to minimize the amount of time that I spend in the red zone. The longer you are in the red zone waiting for a perfect setup, the more likely the situation will blow up in your face. I have had far more success in close-range situations when I shoot as quickly as possible, just as soon as the first remotely good shooting opportunity presents itself. Because of this, some of the shots I’m presented with are at awkward angles.
Momentum is King
Hitting the front shoulder of a deer or especially an elk is never ideal. I never intentionally aim for the front shoulder, but this is bowhunting, and sometimes the arrow just finds its way there. The best thing you can do as a bowhunter is to be prepared for the situation. So, how do you prepare for a potential front shoulder hit when bowhunting in close quarters? How do you design an arrow to be “shot-angle” forgiving? If you can design an arrow to successfully breach the front shoulder of a bull, you’ll be in good shape for any close-range encounter.
I’ve learned over years of playing with different arrow designs that momentum is the biggest factor for breaking and penetrating a hard object like a bull’s shoulder. From an arrow perspective, maximizing momentum primarily comes down to shooting a really heavy arrow. My short-range engagement arrow weighs 658 grains. I have been shooting an arrow this heavy since 2018 for short-range encounters and have killed four bulls and a buck with it.
I don’t believe there is anything magical about 658 grains, other than the fact that this is the only arrow I’ve shot that has successfully passed through a bull elk front shoulder. I’ve mistakenly hit a bull elk front shoulder with an arrow weighing in the mid-500 grains with no luck breaching it. 650 grains+ was the next logical step in my testing, in terms of weight and momentum, after the 500-grain arrow failed. On my very first hunt with the 650-grain+ arrow, it passed through the offside front shoulder of a bull. This heavy arrow design has suited me well ever since.
Ultimately, the final weight of your heavy arrow will be dictated by the components you choose and the bow tune. That being said, for a dedicated short-range arrow setup, I’d definitely recommend 650 grains+. Keep in mind, even though this arrow may only be going 250 FPS or less, arrow trajectory doesn’t really matter as much in short-range encounters. Momentum is king here, not trajectory.
The Skinny on Skinny Shafts
For my short-range arrow, I’ve used the same 4 mm Easton Axis Long Range shafts that I use for my long-range setup, except on my short-range arrow, I use a 250 spine. I’m also experimenting with the Easton 4 mm ProComp, which has exceptional spine consistency for superb fixed-blade broadhead flight (I’ll get more into tuning details in Part Three).
The 4 mm diameter shaft is certainly less critical for short-range engagements compared to long-range engagements because crosswinds are not as much of a factor over short-range. In order to create an arrow this heavy with a 4 mm shaft, I typically have to load up the front of the shaft with lots of insert weight. This weight upfront can really reduce the dynamic spine of the arrow and will require a stiffer shaft. The stiffest spine available for most 4 mm shafts is 250 spine. In consequence, some long-draw archers will need to move to a different arrow to get a stiffer spine.
Ironwill Outfitters for the Win
I build my heavy, 4 mm shafts with the Ironwill Outfitters insert and collar system. This system utilizes the Easton Hidden Insert Technology (HIT) in the micro diameter, deep-six configuration. The deep six system is necessary for shooting the micro-diameter shafts because I refuse to shoot any sort of outsert or half-out. Half-outs and outserts are not nearly as concentric and can be prone to bending and tweaking. I especially like HIT inserts because they eliminate unnecessary tolerance errors in the insert; they directly align the shoulder of the broadhead, which is the highest tolerance part of the broadhead, to the inner diameter of the arrow shaft (highest-tolerance part of the arrow).
This directly translates to broadheads that spin perfectly and arrows that fly true downrange. The weakness of HIT inserts is the potential for the broadhead to break through the side of the arrow with heavy side loads. This weakness is completely eliminated with the addition of an arrow collar that slips over and protects the front of the shaft like a sleeve.
A major benefit of the Ironwill Outfitter insert system is the ability to really fine-tune the front weight of the arrow. When adding point weight, I prefer to add the weight inside the shaft with a heavier insert instead of shooting a bigger, heavier broadhead. Sourcing broadheads is much easier when looking for common 100-grain or 125-grain weights, compared to less common, heavier broadheads. If crap were to hit the fan and you lost your broadheads in the field or traveling, it’d be far easier to find replacement 100-grain or 125-grain broadheads in town versus heavier ones.
Ironwill’s HIT inserts come in five different weights: 15, 25, 50, 75, and 100 grains, which really allows the archer to fine-tune the arrow front weight. The added benefit of HIT inserts is the ability to stack inserts together inside the shaft for even more versatility. For example, my heavy, short-range arrow has two 100-grain Ironwill HIT inserts glued inside the shaft, stacked one on top of the other. To complete the arrow build, I have a 25-grain steel Ironwill collar and a 125-grain broadhead. This gives a total of 350 grains of weight up front, and the arrow has a calculated front of center (FOC) of 21%.
My main goal in building this arrow was targeting the weight, not the FOC. First and foremost, I needed the arrow to tune with all the point weight and I wanted it to weigh about 650 grains. I was not targeting a specific FOC. I do believe that high FOC is important for bone penetration, but a well-tuned arrow with lots of momentum has more importance for me, personally. Don’t sacrifice the integrity of the arrow or the tune of the arrow to achieve a higher FOC.
One additional benefit of a really heavy, high FOC arrow is its ability to cut through the wind. This heavy arrow build is very resilient in crosswinds. Typically, I shoot this arrow with a fixed-blade broadhead, but if the forecast is calling for high winds, my secret weapon is this heavy arrow with a Sevr 1.5” mechanical head on the end. Fixed blade broadheads will plane and behave sporadically in crosswinds, so it is important to shoot a low-profile mechanical broadhead in these conditions.
In fact, if for any reason (like for a wounded animal) I have to force a longer shot in gusty winds, I would opt to shoot this heavy arrow with a Sevr 1.5” over my dedicated long-range arrow setup. The combination of my heavy arrow build with a Sevr 1.5” results in far less wind drift in my experience. This is another reason why I like to build my heavy arrows with 4 mm shafts. They promote the best crosswind performance available.
For short-range encounters, I pair my heavy arrow build with a fixed blade broadhead. I’ve tried two-blade, three-blade, and four-blade broadheads. I’ve settled on the two-blade with a small bleeder blade as my preferred design. The issue I find with three-blade heads is that they penetrate poorly in bone. This is because three-blade heads must break the bone in three distinct directions/angles. It takes more energy to break the bone in three directions, so they penetrate less.
Four-blade heads cut in two directions, but they have a lot of cutting surface so they tend to penetrate less as well. two-blade fixed heads without bleeder blades penetrate exceptionally well, but because they make only a small slit cut, they produce poor blood trails. I’ve had a few nightmare blood trailing experiences as a result of shooting two-blade fixed heads with no bleeders.
My preferred broadhead for my heavy arrow has been the Ironwill Outfitter S125. This is a two-blade design with a bleeder blade. The main blade is non-vented (so it flies quietly) and has a cut diameter of 1-1/16”. The S125 also boasts a ¾” diameter bleeder blade.
This bleeder blade does an excellent job of opening up the wound channel to generate better blood trails without sacrificing much penetration. In my experience, this broadhead combines the perfect balance of blade diameter, cutting surface, and penetration. This broadhead spins well and flies true. It has resulted in great blood trails for me and has even passed through the offside scapula of a bull elk. The attention to detail and the science behind these heads are second to none. From the cut-on-contact Tanto Tip to the hardened A2 tool steel material, these broadheads are perfectly designed. The wider Tanto Tip increases impact strength for hard bone impacts, and the hardened A2 tool steel is in a league of its own for edge retention and high-impact toughness.
Just when I thought I had found the perfect broadhead for my heavy arrow, Ironwill Outfitters one-upped their previous design. New for 2021, Ironwill Outfitters released a solid series, single-bevel head. It’s the same great broadhead as the S125 that I was previously shooting but now offered with a single bevel. I will be shooting these single-bevel heads this year, because of the science behind the single-bevel blade.
This design is engineered to maintain the arrow’s rotational spin through impact, resulting in a bone splitting effect and more tissue damage through the animal. What is most revolutionary about the Ironwill single-bevel head is the addition of a single-bevel bleeder blade. This single-bevel bleeder is paramount to open up the hole and assist in the continued rotation through the animal, and it results in massive tissue damage.
The Proof is in the Pudding
A lot of people may say that a 650-grain+ arrow is complete overkill for big game in North America, and I agree with those people when considering good shot placement. However, this arrow design distinguishes itself over others when conditions and shot placement are poor. This arrow design has never failed to completely pass through animals for me, including a shot that passed cleanly through a bull elk’s front shoulder. As I said before, I’ve not designed this arrow to intentionally shoot an elk front shoulder, but this is bowhunting, and sometimes it happens. The important thing is to prepare and stack the deck in your favor so that you can still kill your quarry even if you make a marginal shot.
Take, for example, an in-the-field experience I had in Idaho in 2019. During this hunt, my friend Jaron and I chased elk in the thick timber. The hunt was an over-the-counter archery tag in a highly pressured unit. Because of the hordes of pressure, the elk moved into the thick timber early in the season. The elk were not very vocal, so the odds were stacked against us, hunting where we couldn’t see them. We all dream of the sweet, successful pain of a burly elk pack out, but that was looking to be only a dream by this point in the hunt.
On one occasion, toward the end of the hunt, Jaron was calling for me in a small grove of aspens. Jaron’s sweet mews pulled a nice 6x7 bull inside 40 yards. The bull walked through my only shooting lane, and I released what I thought was a perfect arrow at 36 yards. To my horror, I saw the arrow deflect right before it impacted the bull. There was a small sapling branch that I could not see from 36 yards away. The arrow entered the bull further back and a little higher than I would have hoped but still looked to be a lethal shot. Despite deflecting off the branch, the arrow stayed relatively on course and retained enough momentum to still pass through the bull. After a long, exhausting blood trail, we were able to put our hands on the bull and fulfill our dream of coming out heavy.
This story illustrates the importance of designing the right arrow for the conditions. I’m fully convinced that if I was shooting what most would consider a well-rounded arrow, I would not have killed this bull. The momentum of a 658-grain arrow kept the arrow true on its course, despite hitting a branch. Furthermore, the Ironwill S125 was still solid and sharp enough to pass through the bull. This is a perfect example of how my detailed preparation turned what would have otherwise been a sour experience into a good one. The arrow performed exactly how it should have, making up for my heat-of-the-moment mistake of hitting the branch.
In Part One of this series, I covered bow selection extensively. For the sake of not repeating the same thing here, I will paraphrase. The most important things to keep in mind in terms of bow energy are brace height, cam design, and draw weight. Shortening brace height increases energy transfer into the arrow. Don’t get carried away with this, however.
Decreasing brace height is a double-edged sword. I do like to maximize bow energy, but not at the expense of ultimate accuracy. Decreasing brace height will, in general, decrease an archer’s accuracy/accuracy forgiveness. Decreasing brace height too much can also lead to the string making contact with the clothes on your bow arm. A 6.0-6.25” brace height is about as short as I would shoot because below that, the string has a greater chance of making contact with your forearm, especially with layers on and poor form in a hunting situation.
In terms of cam design, look for a bow with a cam and mod system that is optimized for your draw length. For me, that bow is the Hoyt RX-5. The RX-5 is incredibly efficient at the 28-inch draw length setting. This is because the 28-inch setting is at the top of the draw mod for this bow. Shooting a bow at or near the top of the draw length range of the mod will always generate the most energy.
Bow draw weight is going to come down to personal preference. I will give one caution. Don’t over-bow yourself simply because you are mesmerized by the performance of an 80-pound bow. Shoot as much draw weight as you can comfortably and accurately shoot. Also, consider how much time you are able to shoot in terms of the number of reps. There is no better exercise to strengthen your shooting muscles than just shooting your bow. I am a big believer in high reps to build strength and muscle memory. If you don’t have a lot of time to shoot and maintain strength, an 80-pound bow is probably a poor choice.
That being said, I would encourage anyone to shoot daily, if nothing more than shooting a high number of reps at close range in the garage. I shoot thousands of arrows a year at five yards in my garage. I’ve heard it said, you should be able to comfortably draw (no sky draw, bow arm parallel to ground) when seated flat on your butt with your legs straight out in front of you. If you struggle to do this, you are drawing too much weight.
Mechanical Broadheads Outlawed
Building a forgiving bow and arrow system to maximize the chance of piercing a big game animal’s lungs is the name of the game. I stated before that a single well-rounded arrow design to cover both long-range and short-range encounters is mediocrity and doesn’t maximize anything. The only time I consider a jack-of-all-trades type arrow design like this is when I’m hunting open country in a state, like Idaho, that requires fixed blade broadheads.
Most of the time when I hunt Idaho, I hunt elk in big timber, so I generally use my heavy, short-range arrow. However, this year in Idaho, I will be bowhunting deer in wide-open terrain, which means I want an arrow that has a flatter trajectory and more range forgiveness than my heavy arrow can provide. It would be the type of hunt that is perfectly suited for my long-range arrow setup that I discussed in Part One. The problem is, I can’t use my long-range arrow setup because it’s shooting at 316 FPS, which is much too fast for fixed-blade broadheads.
280-290 FPS is about as fast as I like to shoot fixed-blade broadheads. Any faster than this, and shooting fixed blades can be tricky, especially in hunting situations. It’s plenty possible to get fixed blades to fly true at faster speeds in practice, but when you add the difficulties of bowhunting, I don’t recommend it. Shooting fixed blades in bowhunting circumstances, with your heart pounding, uneven footing, steep angles, and windy conditions is completely different than shooting them in practice, on a flat range with no wind, no emotions, and perfect form.
Many bowhunters these days are familiar with mountain 3D archery courses like the Total Archery Challenge. Many bowhunters struggle on these mountain courses with field tips. Imagine going to Total Archery Challenge Snowbird and shooting fixed-blade broadheads. I can only imagine all of the arrow casualties.
Regardless of how tuned your bow is, shooting fixed blades out of a fast bow, in mountain-bowhunting circumstances, is the opposite of the forgiveness this article is trying to teach. In order to stack the deck in your favor in these states that require fixed blade broadheads, I highly suggest not shooting any faster than 290 FPS for the most forgiving setup. To achieve this speed, I play with arrow weight and build out my arrow design such that the total arrow weight is what it needs to be to achieve 280-290 FPS.
The intent of this series of articles is to inspire the reader to think more about and become more aware of the clear advantages that different arrow designs can promote. Clearly, if a bowhunter goes into the field with an arrow optimized for his/her specific hunt, that’s a distinct advantage that can directly lead to a trophy at the end of the blood trail instead of disappointment. It's critically important to be in the details when it comes to your bow and arrow setup.
I would not have had the success I have had if it wasn’t for my methodical approach to engineering my broadhead delivery system. If you are a bowhunter who hunts primarily in short-range situations where a flat trajectory isn’t as important – treestand, ground blind, ambush, or generally thick country – you should definitely consider building your arrow to maximize “shot-angle” forgiveness. With a high-momentum arrow and a stout, fixed-blade broadhead, you will be able to take advantage of shot angles and situations that were previously too risky. This will allow you to spend less time in the critical “red zone” and will directly lead to more “grip and grins” and fewer wounded animals.
What is the worst possible outcome of a bow hunt? This is a personal question, but for myself and many others, it’s unequivocally missing a makeable shot, or, even worse, wounding your quarry. Carefully selecting your gear, practicing your shot all year long, maintaining your physical fitness, executing a perfect stalk into bow range; all that preparation ending with a botched shot will pretty much break any hunter, including myself. If you are like me, the miss will haunt you, your mind continually replaying the shot sequence over and over again.
Picking yourself up and learning from the experience is what separates the successful from the unsuccessful. Why did you miss? If you felt like you executed a good shot, you probably did; your gut doesn’t lie. Missing or wounding the animal may have come down to something else besides screwing up your shot sequence or “buck fever.” Did you get the wrong range (this happens more than you’d think even with a rangefinder)? Were your equipment selections appropriate for your hunting situation?
More than any other sport that I’ve invested significant time into, bow hunting requires you to learn from your past failures to have future success. Success on a public land, DIY bow hunt comes down to the little details. There are a thousand little boxes that need to be checked in order to tip the scales in your favor. Unfortunately, some of those little boxes can only be checked after learning from personal experiences. However, some of those boxes can be checked by learning from other hunters’ experiences. That’s the reason why I’ve written this article. That’s hopefully the reason you are reading this article. Being a student of the game and taking advantage of the wealth of knowledge shared in Western Hunter Magazine will make you a better hunter.
Broadhead Delivery System
If the ultimate goal of a bow hunt is to pierce a big game animal’s lungs with a broadhead, what is more important to check boxes and fine tune than the broadhead delivery system? I’m not talking about generically tuning your bow and arrow here – I’m talking about specifically engineering an arrow design to maximize your potential on a particular hunt. Can a specialized arrow design, one catering to a specific hunt, be the difference maker that directly leads to a trophy at the end of the blood trail instead of disappointment? Based on personal experience, I firmly believe the answer is yes.
For the last five years, I have been anxiously engaged in the science of engineering hunting arrows. Not just building an all-around arrow to be used hunt after hunt, year after year, but rather engineering specialized arrows for specific hunts. To me, a big part of maximizing your opportunity on a public land, DIY bow hunt means optimizing your gear for that hunt. Optimizing your broadhead delivery system for a hunt means maximizing the forgiveness of that system for that hunt.
We all make mistakes, no one is perfect, and no situation is perfect. We all get excited, we all mess up our shot sequence, we all rush things a little too much, we mess up the range, the animal moves; as a devoted OTC-type hunter, I’ve learned that maximizing the forgiveness of my archery setup so that it still performs and makes up for my deficiencies under these difficult circumstances has directly led to more success in the field.
Maximizing the forgiveness of your broadhead delivery system: According to today’s hardcore bowhunting trend, that seems to mean a heavy, high-FOC arrow, tipped with a stout, fixed-blade broadhead that shoots quietly out of a well-tuned bow at moderate speeds… right? Wrong! Well, wrong, in my opinion, on about 75% of the hunts that I go on. To fully understand what I mean, let me explain my definition of the word forgiveness in a bowhunting context, and I assure you it’s not your cookie-cutter definition.
Before I explain, let me first say that this article is going to make some assumptions:
I break out bowhunting forgiveness into three different categories: long-range engagements, short-range engagements, and engagements in states with laws that require the use of fixed-blade broadheads. The attributes that make a bow and arrow setup forgiving for each of these engagement types are wildly different because the encounters are different. For long-range engagements, you typically have time to wait for an ideal shot angle and dial your sight; ranging accuracy is your biggest variable.
Time and time again, if I miss a well-executed shot in open country, it’s likely some sort of range issue. It’s far easier than you’d think to get a bad range estimate, even with a rangefinder. For short-range engagements, you typically don’t have much time and are forced to take quick shots at awkward angles; shot angle is your biggest variable. I don’t like to wait for a perfect setup on short-range encounters. I want to shoot as soon as possible.
An arrow setup that is forgiving for long-range engagements is not ideal for short-range engagements and vice versa. In my opinion, picking one balanced arrow right in the middle to handle each of these situations is mediocrity and far worse than optimizing for a single encounter type. With one mediocre arrow design, you aren’t taking advantage of anything; you have neither a great trajectory nor bone-splitting momentum. I do not use the same arrow on an open, high country mule deer hunt in Colorado that I use on a dark timber elk hunt in central Idaho. The arrows are extremely different; much the same as an experienced rifleman having different caliber rifles for different hunting situations.
This article is the first in a series of three articles to discuss the science of optimizing your arrow design or designs to the type of hunting that you do. This first article focuses on concepts and long-range engagements. The second article will discuss short-range engagements and engagements in states that require the use of fixed blade broadheads. The final article will tie everything together and discuss an advanced topic of tuning multiple arrow designs to the same bow and carrying both arrows in the field to be shot at the bowhunter’s discretion based on the engagement type.
When I say “long-range,” I am talking about shots in open terrain from 50 yards and beyond. As a bowhunter, getting as close as possible is of utmost importance, but in open, loud terrain, it can be very difficult if not impossible to get close. Through years of bowhunting high-pressured deer and elk out west, I’ve learned that the single biggest liability in long-range engagements is ranging accuracy, even with a rangefinder.
Beyond 50 yards, depending on their weight, arrows can start to drop at accelerated rates. By the time you get to 80 yards, heavy arrows can drop as much as five inches or more if the range estimate is off by just a single yard. In this scenario, there is very little margin for error and it’s far too easy to foul up your yardage estimate at extended ranges; difficulty guessing yardage when there is no time to range; animals moving after ranging; accidentally ranging vegetation immediately in front of or behind the animal (this happens often, especially in steep country); an animal crosses in front of or behind a pre-ranged location. Even ranging the butt-end of an animal bedded, facing away can be enough error at distance to drop an arrow low or out of the kill zone.
Things can go wrong at any range, but beyond 50 yards, ranging errors are exacerbated. Suffice it to say that hunting open country out west is full of range-related variables. Regardless of all your preseason shooting, regardless of how perfectly tuned your bow is, regardless of how amazing of a shot you are, if your range is off even a little bit at extended range, your accuracy is going to suffer.
I will refer to this concept as “range forgiveness,” which directly leads to accuracy forgiveness. For long-range engagements, I rank range forgiveness highest on my list of needs for ultimate accuracy and ability to get an arrow into an animal’s lungs. Shooting a well-tuned bow is a given, but after that, I rank range forgiveness higher than other qualities like bow quietness, bone-splitting arrow penetration, broadhead cut diameter, brace height, axle-to-axle length, etc.
So how do I select a system to be most forgiving at extended range? How do I design an arrow to have the highest chance of piercing lungs and putting my quarry down at extended range? In my opinion, there is a balance of qualities that leads to a bow and arrow’s effectiveness at extended range, and maximizing range forgiveness is at the forefront of my mind. A very important attribute for range forgiveness is a fast, flat-shooting arrow that minimizes arrow drop. However, I’m not saying that arrow speed is the end-all-be-all and everything else needs to be sacrificed for arrow speed. We will talk about the balance I try to strike when engineering my system.
Increasing the speed of an arrow can be accomplished in one of two ways: decreasing the overall arrow weight or increasing the potential energy of the bow. Let’s start with arrow build. Here I am going to get into a few things that will not apply to everyone. If you are shooting an older compound bow (older bows are not as effective at transferring all of the string energy into lighter arrows), or if you do not have adequate energy in your bow setup (combination of low draw weight and short draw length), some of this advice will not be applicable for you. It is generally recommended to shoot an arrow with at least 65 foot-pounds of kinetic energy for big game in North America, especially if you are shooting a mechanical broadhead.
Most bow manufacturers have a safety recommendation of at least 5 grains of total arrow weight per pound of draw weight. The arrow must also have enough stiffness (spine) to tune appropriately at your draw length. With today’s high-modulus carbon, arrow manufacturers are building stiffer arrows per weight than ever before. Now, it is possible to build an arrow that spines out appropriately but doesn’t meet 5 grains/pound.
I’d recommend staying above 5 grains/pound. I shoot an 80 pound Hoyt RX5 at a 28-inch draw. According to the 5 grains/pound rule, this gives me a minimum arrow weight of 400 grains. For the last six years, my extended-range arrow build has been tuned with a 300 spine shaft between 420 and 430 grains of total weight.
I like 4 mm arrows like the Easton Axis long-range, especially for extended range hunting opportunities out west in open, windy terrain. 4 mm arrows have a lower crosswind drag coefficient and they generally have a 20-30% reduction in cross-sectional area. This translates to dramatically less wind drift at an extended range, compared to conventional diameter arrows. I like to build these Axis long-range arrows with the Ironwill Outfitters insert and collar system. This system utilizes the Easton Hidden Insert Technology (HIT) in the micro diameter, deep-six configuration. The deep six system is necessary for shooting the micro-diameter shafts because I refuse to shoot any sort of outsert or half out.
I especially like HIT inserts because they eliminate unnecessary tolerance errors in the insert; they directly align the shoulder of the broadhead, which is the highest tolerance part of the broadhead, to the inner diameter of the arrow shaft (the highest tolerance part of the arrow). This directly translates to broadheads that spin perfectly and arrows that fly true downrange. The weakness of HIT inserts is the potential for the broadhead to break through the side of the arrow with heavy side loads. This weakness is eliminated with the addition of an arrow collar that slips over and protects the front of the shaft like a sleeve.
My bow and arrow setup is an 80 pound Hoyt RX5 at 28 inches. This bow shoots my 425 grain Easton Axis long-range at 315 feet per second. It’s a lean, mean, forgiving, X-pounding machine. However, at 315 feet per second, shooting fixed blade broadheads out of this bow would be an absolute nightmare, even with it perfectly tuned. As a bowhunter, there are just way too many inconsistencies in the field to reliably shoot fixed blade broadheads at these speeds. For my long-range arrow setup, I exclusively shoot mechanical broadheads simply because they are more likely to hit behind your pin, even at very fast speeds and marginal shooting conditions.
I have experimented with nearly all types of mechanical broadheads, and I MUCH prefer rear-deploying broadheads. I settled on my favorite head, the 1.5” Ulmer Edge, after much testing. Then, the Ulmer Edge went out of production and I was left wanting until its replacement came out, the Sevr. The Sevr did nothing but improve on the design, and the 1.5” version is what I would consider the perfect mechanical broadhead. The goal for long-range engagements is ultimate accuracy and the Sevr broadhead facilitates this better than any other. A flat-shooting arrow tipped with a surgically accurate Sevr dramatically improves my chances to pierce lungs despite likely in-the-moment errors on my part.
Modern compound bows have become much more effective at transferring most of the string’s energy into the arrow, especially lightweight arrows. As a result, these bows can shoot lightweight arrows very quietly and efficiently. Although modern bows are very efficient, there are a few things to consider when selecting a bow to maximize your long-range effectiveness as a bowhunter.
Three main things dictate the potential energy of the bow: cam design, bow draw weight, and power stroke. Power stroke is simply the distance the arrow remains on the bow string when the bow is cycled. It is essentially the draw length minus the brace height. For a given archer, their draw length remains constant, so to increase power stroke, an archer would select a bow with a shorter brace height. Don’t get carried away with this, however. Decreasing brace height is a double-edged sword. I do like fast, flat-shooting arrows but not at the expense of ultimate accuracy.
Decreasing brace height will, in general, decrease an archer’s accuracy/accuracy forgiveness. Decreasing brace height too much can also lead to the string making contact with the clothes on your bow arm. At a 28 inch draw, I generally prefer bows with at least a 6.5-inch brace height. After shooting for many years, I just find that with my shooting form and the forgiveness I want during hunting situations, a 6.5-inch brace height suits me. It’s the right combination of forgiveness and speed for me. Each archer will need to evaluate this for themselves.
All that being said, my 6.5-inch brace height rule is not set in stone. For 2021, I was blown away at Hoyt’s offering with the new RX5 and its binary-like HBX cam. Although the bow has a 6.25-inch brace height, the new HBX cam is FAST, smooth, and very efficient at a 28-inch draw length. The combination of the efficiency, quietness, shoot-ability, and tuneability of this cam system combined with Hoyt’s legendary carbon riser sold me. I typically would have selected the RX5 Ultra with a 7.0-inch brace height, but based on the bow and cam design, it’s not as efficient at the 28-inch draw length.
The increased speed and performance at 28 inches from the RX5 more than outweigh the consequence of a slightly shorter brace height. Regardless of performance and shoot-ability, a 6.0-6.25-inch brace height is about as short as I would shoot because below that, the string has a greater chance of making contact with your forearm, especially with layers on and poor form in a hunting situation.
Bow draw weight is going to come down to personal preference. I will give one caution. Don’t over-bow yourself simply because you are mesmerized by the performance of an 80-pound bow. Shoot as much draw weight as you can comfortably and accurately shoot. Also, consider how much time you can shoot in terms of the number of reps. There is no better exercise to strengthen your shooting muscles than just shooting your bow. I am a big believer in high reps to build strength and muscle memory. If you don’t have a lot of time to shoot and maintain strength, an 80-pound bow is probably a poor choice. That being said, I would encourage anyone to shoot daily, if nothing more than shooting a high number of reps at close range in the garage.
I shoot thousands of arrows a year at 5 yards in my garage, focusing on high volume and form. Shooting high volume will increase your ability to shoot heavier poundage, which will directly translate to more arrow performance. With a modern 85% let-off cam, the difference in holding weight between a 70-pound bow and an 80-pound bow is only 1.5 pounds. As a result, shooting a heavier-poundage bow typically relies more on being able to effectively draw the bow when fatigued than just holding the draw. I’ve heard it said that you should be able to comfortably draw (no sky draw, bow arm parallel to ground) when seated flat on your butt with your legs straight out in front of you. If you struggle to do this, you are drawing too much weight.
80 Yard Range Forgiveness
Putting all of this advice together will illustrate the importance of range forgiveness for long-range engagements. I consider 80 yards to be the critical long-range distance – not because my goal is to shoot an animal at 80 yards (I’m not promoting that), but because 80 yards is the critical breaking point at which you can truly measure a bow and arrow’s performance. I judge a setup’s long-range effectiveness with a concept I call “80 Yard Range Forgiveness.” For each of my setups, I want to know exactly how far off my range estimate can be at 80 yards and my arrow still land in the kill zone.
I consider the vitals on big mule deer, my main pursuit, to be 10 inches tall (much bigger than this for elk), so that gives me plus/minus five inches of arrow drop at 80 yards if aiming for the vertical center of mass. To determine my “80 Yard Range Forgiveness,” I set my sight for 80 yards and first shoot a small sticker at 80 yards to confirm the arrow group hits right in the middle. I then mark with a small piece of tape five inches directly below and five inches directly above the center of the sticker.
With my sight remaining fixed at 80 yards, I step forward a yard at a time, shooting three-arrow groups at each yardage (aiming at the original sticker every time) until I find the exact yardage where my arrow group hits the tape above the sticker. I then do the same thing, stepping back to determine the yardage distance where my arrow group hits the tape below the sticker.
The difference between 80 yards and these new yardages is my “80 Yard Range Forgiveness”. I typically boil this down to 80 yards plus/minus a single number. In the case of my Hoyt RX5, my “80 Yard Range Forgiveness” is plus/minus nearly four yards. That means at 80 yards, my range estimate can be off by four yards in either direction and my arrow will still land in the kill zone. This is by far the best 80 Yard Range Forgiveness I have had in a bow setup, ever. As a public land bowhunter hunting highly pressured mule deer, this is a groundbreaking advantage. Take a moment and really think about how game-changing that is.
The Proof is in the Pudding
To set the importance of this concept in stone, I will relate an in-the-field experience from 2020, when I killed one of the largest mule deer to ever be killed in Northern Utah with a bow. I hunted this particular buck on and off for four years in an OTC archery unit. He was nearly impossible to find, much less kill. After 47 trips up the mountain for him in 2020 alone, I had drawn on him several times but for one reason or another, never released an arrow. With 30 minutes of light left on the final day of the 2020 extended archery season, I made a Hail-Mary stalk on this buck.
I got in range and was shadowing downwind of him as he chased does above me. I paralleled below the buck for about 40 yards, just hoping that he’d stop long enough in an opening for a shot. When he finally stopped in a small opening, I ranged him at 65 yards and drew. Just as I was settling my pin, he started walking again. I quietly let down and continued to parallel below him in the pines. Within 15 yards, he stopped again, I ranged him at 63 yards and drew, and he started walking again.
This time I didn’t let my bow down. I consciously made the decision that I didn’t need to re-range him because as I paralleled him, I remained about the same distance away from him. I knew that my arrow had a very flat trajectory, so even if the range was off a few yards, I was certain my arrow would still land in the kill zone. After a few more steps, he stopped for the final time. I immediately executed my shot sequence just as I have practiced a million times. My arrow pierced the buck through his heart. The buck took one big leap and then collapsed, dead.
I firmly believe that I would not have killed this buck in this situation if I wasn’t shooting an arrow optimized for long-range engagements. If I was equipped with a “balanced,” mediocre arrow, I probably would have sailed an arrow right underneath him. I was expecting a shot beyond 50 yards on this hunt, so I designed my arrow to maximize Range Forgiveness. Since 2015 I have been able to kill three world-class mule deer with my bow in general units on public land.
All three of these bucks were killed in open country situations beyond 50 yards, where range forgivingness was critical. I killed each of these bucks with arrows optimized for long-range engagements. All three arrows weighed between 420-430 grains, were going over 300 FPS, and were shot out of an 80-pound bow. Optimizing your bow and arrow setup to be most effective for your hunt is a critical box that needs to be checked to maximize opportunity for a trophy at the end of the blood trail.
There are a few game changers when it comes to gear and successful western big game hunting; optics are at the top of that list. High-quality optics and good glassing tactics are one of the most consistent factors in filling tags. I have found over the years that those who use their optics see more game, but glassing is not just a long-range tactic. My binos live on my eyes in both close and far hunting scenarios. Long-range glassing is important, but if you are not properly close-quarter glassing, you are not fully utilizing one of the best tools available. I am going to cover my five best close-quarter tactics to help you spot more game and get busted less.
The Timber Roll
Optics are heavily underutilized when hunting in timber. In thick cover, the name of the game is “spot them before they spot you.” A large majority of the elk I guide hunters to take are spotted in close timber when my naked eye would have missed them.
As I move through the timber, I use my binos to scan, looking for pieces of the animal. I then roll the focus to gain clarity on objects at varying distances. Doing this gives me an advantage over just my naked eye by allowing me to focus past all the brush and trees in the way. It allows me to look deeper in the cover I am walking through and pick out animals before getting busted.
When I am moving through a good area of cover, I take a step, look, then put up my optics, scan, scroll the focus to difference distances to make sure I cover it all, then step, and repeat.
It always amazes me how an animal the size of an elk can be invisible less than 100 yards away. This year, while moving in on some bugling bulls in the timber during the archery season, I used the timber roll tactic to spot branches moving 75 yards away through the thick cover. I quickly realized as I rolled the focus that it was the antlers of a raking bull. I would have blown a great opportunity if I left spotting that tine through the trees to my naked eye, and I have better than 20/20 vision.
During the middle of the day, I find a ton of success, especially when I am bowhunting. For me, stalking a bedded animal tends to yield the best opportunity for a shot. Knowing this, and knowing that most game animals seek shade and cover to bed during the day, hunting for good shade and bedding is a no brainer.
I have found that getting into rifle range (300-600 yards) of good potential bedding areas, breaking out the spotting scope or binos on a tripod, and really picking apart the dark, shaded pockets has upped my hunt opportunities tenfold.
Looking into shade from distance, you may find animals, but to really cover bedding areas where I have seen animals go in or places that have high contrast and harsh glassing light, you have to get closer. I have found that by getting a closer vantage, then using high-powered optics, I am able to see detail that goes unnoticed in the heat waves at distance. By doing this, I capitalize on the midday lull and set myself up for a potential high-percentage stalk.
Regen (regenerating forests) are seen years after a burn, large blowdown, or logging operation. This regrowth can turn once easy-to-spot elk and deer feeding areas into seas of small pines that hide nearly everything in them. While they can seemingly swallow entire herds of elk, these are great places to focus your attention for hard-to-find bulls and bucks seeking solitude.
These areas are tough to glass from afar, especially if they nearly cover the animals in them. I have found that using my binos or spotter from close vantages allows me the detail to pick out small parts and antler tips in the thick trees.
The best method for hunting the regen is to get on a ridge 200-500 yards away and grid-glass back and forth, covering the entire area and looking for the tiniest details. It can often seem tedious and unnecessary when you feel close enough to see it all with just your eyes, but I have pulled out more bucks and bulls than I can count doing this. If I have a tough week finding animals, this tactic is always my go-to.
This past season, while guiding in Montana, I picked out a bull across the canyon only 250 yards away that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. With just a tine sticking up, even at that close distance, he was nearly impossible to see. Safely nestled in the thick cover, the bull thought he was invisible, and he was nearly right. Without glassing the stuff that looks “too close,” my hunter would have gone home without filling his tag.
The New Country Scroll
One of the easiest mistakes to make while hunting is walking over a ridge and blowing out something just over the other side that you failed to see. You can combat this by using your binoculars to meticulously scan the new country below you as you peek over.
Even at close range, the back of a deer or elk, in just some light cover, can be hard to see with the naked eye. People often overestimate their ability to see animals up close. While some stand out, others get missed. Then, two steps later, it is too late. You are visible to them, and they blow out.
To prevent this, as I move over a ridge into new country, I slow down and glass the stuff near and far as it is revealed. I then take a step and re-scan. As each new bit is uncovered, I use my binos to look it over. Much like the timber roll, here you are using your optics to give you an advantage and covering the close country as you move. This tactic has saved me many times.
On a recent sheep hunt, I had climbed up a ridge after not seeing much in the basin we were hunting. As I crested over, scrolling the stuff below, the back of a sheep became apparent through the binoculars. The sheep were close! I backed out and got set up. Unfortunately, there was no legal ram in the group, but without regularly using this tactic, we would have blown the sheep out before we ever saw them.
Stalk and Spot
I like to think of western big game spot-and-stalk hunting in two phases. First is the spot and stalk part – you see the animal, then stalk in. The second part happens as you move in. I like to call it the “stalk-and-spot” phase. You are already on the stalk, but you don’t want to blow that stalk after losing sight of the animal you are closing in on or by not being aware of other animals that may mess up your opportunity.
As I close in on a stalk, I use my binoculars as much or more than when I may have been set up and glassing for the animal in the first place. I put all the close-quarter glassing tactics together. If I am moving into an area of cover, I go slow and timber roll, looking past the obstructions to get eyes on my target animal.
I am also continually glassing into other close shade pockets to keep an eye out for other bedded animals. It seems like most of the animals I miss from afar are ones that went unnoticed while bedded in the dark shade pockets nearby.
Also, as I creep into the position where I last saw the animal I am stalking, I scroll the new country with every step. It is important that I see them before being seen.
Since animal eyesight is often multiple times better than ours, I like to even the playing field by using my optics at all distances. It always amazes me when I am hunting and observe people carrying optics but rarely looking through them. I would say that the biggest mistake most hunters make is using optics only to verify what their eyes see.
Hunters that regularly use their binoculars will out-spot others 100 to 1, whether looking up close or at long range. You have the ability to supercharge your eyesight. Just because you are not looking far does not mean that you can’t benefit from using your optics. By using your optics strategically in close-quarter scenarios, you will find a lot more success in the field.