The Perfect Elk Hunting Arrow
Here’s a simple question with a complex answer. What constitutes the perfect elk hunting arrow? While your bow may be your most important piece of equipment, the arrow is your only physical contact you have with the elk in the field.
So, if you are serious about killing an elk with archery equipment, you need to be very thorough in choosing, building, and maintaining your arrows. I’m extremely fussy about my arrows, because I usually only get one shot a year at a bull. When I do get that shot, I want to be confident of two things: First, that the arrow hits where I aim it; and second, that it arrives there with plenty of energy to get the job done.
I’ve chosen my current elk hunting arrow based on a lot of years of tournament competition and many more years of bowhunting experience. In my opinion, there are several qualities needed in an elk hunting arrow. I’ll list these characteristics and discuss them one by one and as you’ll see, many are interrelated.
This is the one attribute of an arrow that most profoundly affects accuracy/grouping. Obviously, the straighter the arrows, the more consistently they’ll shoot and the better they’ll group. You can usually determine the straightness of a certain model of arrow by looking at the technical specs on the manufacturer’s website. Usually, the straighter the arrow, the more expensive it will be. Try to buy the straightest arrow you can afford.
I prefer to use a relatively heavy arrow for elk. I want the arrow to be light enough to have a reasonably flat trajectory, but heavy enough to penetrate well. The ideal arrow weight for you will depend on your draw weight and draw length. The more kinetic energy your bow imparts to the arrow, the heavier your arrow can be while still maintaining a relatively flat flight path. My bows are usually set at about 70 lbs., and an arrow between 450 and 500 grains seems to provide the perfect balance between speed and weight.
Elk probably don’t see color very well (if they see it at all). However, they can see things that shine in the sunlight, and they can see light-colored things. So, with that in mind, make sure your arrows don’t glint in the sun, and don’t use light-colored fletchings such as white or yellow. If you need to use brightly colored fletching for some special reason – so your arrows are visible on camera, or if you just like to see your arrow in flight – cover the fletchings with a sleeve while they’re in your quiver.
It’s also important for your arrow to be quiet in flight, because elk will “jump the string” just like a whitetail deer (unfortunately, I know this from a lot of personal experience). Avoid feathers (unless you use traditional gear) because they are noisy in flight and noisy in your quiver. And for the same reason, use the smallest fletching and the smallest broadhead that will get the job done well. The smaller these turbulence-creating arrow accessories are, the quieter the arrow will be in flight. Also, don’t use broadheads that rattle in the quiver. And lastly, use a heavy arrow, because that alone will do more to quiet your bow than any other single thing you can do with your equipment.
You need to have enough fletching to get the arrow spinning quickly and to provide enough drag to control the broadhead. An arrow needs more wind resistance on the back end of the arrow than on the front (its COP, or center of pressure, needs to be well back from the center of the shaft). When it comes to controlling the broadhead, more fletching is better. However, the longer and taller your fletching (more surface area), the more your arrow will drift in the wind, the faster it will lose speed downrange, and the more noise it will make flying through the air. So, you have to balance broadhead control with these other factors.
Using a very streamlined broadhead with very little turbulence-producing structure (less wing) will allow you to use much smaller fletching. The less turbulence you create on the front of the arrow, the less steering you need on the back of the arrow. I’ve found that if I use short fletching with maximum offset, I reduce the surface area of the fletching, while still getting the control of a larger fletching applied with less offset (applying the fletch with a helical clamp seems to help as well.)
In all the testing I’ve seen, small diameter arrows penetrate better than larger diameter arrows of the same weight. Though the stiffness of a carbon shaft may play some role in penetration, diameter appears to be the greatest reason that small diameter shafts do so well in these tests. A smaller surface area reduces resistance as the shaft slips into the target. So, use the smallest diameter arrows you can get away with.
Because small diameter arrows have less surface area, they drift less in the wind. They are also quieter in flight and require less fletching and less energy (when compared to a larger diameter shaft) to get them spinning.
Smaller diameter arrows also maintain their speed better downrange. Arrows slow down as they move because of the friction of the air. The greater the surface area of an arrow, the quicker it slows down. At 40 yards, small diameter arrows lose much less of their initial speed than a larger diameter arrow. I know, from my own experience, that the difference between large diameter and small diameter arrows grows even wider beyond 40 yards. It’s not a huge difference, but bowhunting is a tough game and I’ll take every advantage I can get.
Even though speed is not an intrinsic characteristic of an arrow, it is one of the things people bring up frequently when discussing hunting arrows. Thirty years ago I was obsessed with speed and shot the fastest setup I could muster. However, my setups have been getting slower and slower over the past 15 years (even though I’m shooting the same draw weight and shooting bows that are ever-more efficient).
The main reason I began shooting slower was because of the advent of the laser rangefinder. It’s not nearly as important to shoot a fast arrow if you know the distance to the target. There are many other good reasons to shoot slower: Your bow holds up longer (as do your joints). Your bow will be more forgiving and accurate. And most importantly (for me at least), your bow will be quieter. Lastly, assuming you shoot the same weight bow, when you shoot a slower arrow it will maintain more kinetic energy and momentum downrange than a lighter, faster arrow.
An arrow’s intrinsic accuracy is dependent on four things: 1) straightness of the shaft; 2) Uniformity of spine around the shaft (no info is available to the public on this arrow characteristic; I use a spine testing machine to test this); 3) consistency of the fletching. I insist on fletching my own arrows to ensure that they are perfect – and you should too! It’s very simple once you get the hang of it; 4) consistency of weight. Just to show an extreme example, on my setup, one grain difference in arrow weight equates to 5/8-inch difference in impact point at 100 yards.
The FOC (front of center) is simply a calculation of how far the the balance point of the arrow is away from the physical center of the completed arrow. If the arrow were to balance dead center with half the arrow shaft in front of the balance point and half of the shaft behind the balance point, the FOC would be zero. If the balance point is 3 inches in front of the center of the shaft on a 30-inch arrow, the FOC would be 10%.
The heavier the point weight, the higher the FOC. I like to have a high FOC for a couple of reasons. I believe a higher FOC makes the arrow penetrate better and group better. So if you’re going to add weight to the arrow, add it to the front. This is another good reason to use small fletchings. The less the fletchings weigh, the higher the FOC. On my elk hunting rig, I use 125-grain broadheads and I add additional weight to the insert area.
The nock needs to be strong enough to withstand the force of a high poundage hunting bow (almost all currently available nocks available are strong enough). The nocks must be consistent from nock to nock (some aren’t). The most important thing about the nock is that it fits the string properly and has a throat deep enough to keep the arrow on the string when you let down. If you use a D-loop, the nock doesn’t require as deep a throat as is needed if you attach the release below the arrow.
We discussed broadheads in a previous column, so I won’t go into too much detail here. However, no discussion on the perfect hunting arrow would be complete without mentioning this most important of arrow components. Let’s just repeat a few salient points: Use the most streamlined, razor sharp, solidly built broadhead you can find. Don’t overlook some of the recently released, rear-deploying mechanical heads. Though mechanicals were once an anathema in elk hunting camps across the West, a select few of these heads have more than proven themselves in the field on large-bodied big game animals. I’ve used them exclusively (except where they are illegal) for the past ten years.
Today’s smallest diameter carbon hunting arrows are very skinny when compared to some of the popular aluminum arrows or large diameter, thin-walled carbon shafts. A small diameter carbon shaft has a surface area only half that of the larger diameter shafts. When you shoot small diameter arrows in a crosswind, they exhibit less sideways drift than larger diameter arrows. Wind drift is directly related to the total surface area of the arrow. Obviously, fletching must also be added to the total surface area. As we’ve said before, it takes much less fletching to spin a small diameter shaft than it does to spin a large diameter shaft. So, you can use smaller fletching on small diameter shafts, further decreasing the arrow’s total surface area.
You can also use much smaller fletching on an expandable broadhead than you can on a fixed blade head. This is a big deal when hunting out West, where it is often windy and shots tend to be longer. Another benefit of an arrow with minimal surface area is that it maintains its speed better downrange, which means more energy at the target and less downrange drop.
Wind drift is usually of more concern to mule deer and antelope hunters than it is to elk hunters. However, I’ve shot plenty of elk in a howling wind. A small diameter arrow is more likely to save the shot if you forget to compensate for the wind.
By switching from large diameter arrows to small diameter arrows with smaller fletching, you can cut your wind drift by more than half on longer shots.
Momentum and kinetic energy are directly related to an arrow’s speed and its weight. The faster an arrow travels and the more it weighs, the greater its energy and momentum. Penetration is directly related to momentum and kinetic energy. There have been (and still are) plenty of disagreements as to which (momentum or kinetic energy) is the most important factor in regard to penetration.
I think the argument is moot – that is if you do as I said before and use a little common sense when choosing your arrow weight. Find the best balance between speed and arrow weight for your setup. In your quest for better penetration, you may be tempted to increase your bow’s draw weight. Just remember to keep in mind that you have to be able pull your bow back comfortably – even when you are cold and excited!
I prefer stiffer arrows for hunting elk for two reasons. First, I believe that stiff arrows penetrate better than weaker arrows (though I don’t have any direct testing to support my view). Second, when shooting broadheads, my arrow groups tighten up measurably when I shoot arrows that are slightly “stiff” for my draw weight and draw length.
Number Your Arrows
If it’s in your budget, start with at least a dozen brand new arrows. Number each arrow. Start with a clean target and put field points on your arrows. Shoot all your arrows at a paper target at your maximum accurate range. Don’t look at the numbers as you shoot the arrows. When you go to pull them, write the corresponding number next to each hole.
Shoot every arrow at least six times and then look at the target. By keeping a log of where each arrow hits, you’ll begin to notice a pattern for each arrow. If an arrow hits outside the group consistently, rotate the nock to the next fletching and see if that brings it back into the group. You’ll likely have one or more arrows that are consistently flying wide. The higher the quality of your arrows, the fewer fliers you’ll have. Obviously, cull the loose-grouping arrows out of your quiver before the season. I actually use a shooting machine to do this because it takes out the human error.
Sorry, I got a little carried away and told you more than you probably ever wanted to know about arrows. Just remember this: Buy the best arrows you can afford (price is almost always commensurate with quality). Use a small diameter, very straight, slightly stiff, reasonably heavy arrow with just enough fletching to adequately steer the broadhead. Make sure your arrows are not shiny and not too brightly colored. Make sure your arrows are consistent. And, most importantly, group your arrows to make sure they all shoot the same.
My Current Setup
Here’s what I currently use for elk:
Shaft: Easton Injexion 340, 28 inches long.
Fletch: I use 4 fletch, 1.6 inch AAE Plastifletch Max (a very small, stiff fletching – I wouldn’t recommend fletching this small for any but the most streamline mechanicals). I fletch with maximum offset and I use a helical clamp.
Nocks: I use Easton pin nocks.
Broadheads: I use the Ulmer Edge 125-grain solid stainless steel. (These broadheads are made for the Deep Six insert that comes standard on the Injexion arrow.)
Weight: I add an additional 40 grains to the front of the arrow to increase both FOC and total arrow weight. My total arrow weight is 468 grains. My arrow speed is approximately 280FPS.