What’s the maximum distance you’ll shoot at a big game animal with your bow? At first, the answer seems obvious. You practice regularly, and you know how far you can accurately group arrows on the range. Upon further thought, however, the answer to that question becomes more complex.
In the field, you’re often wearing bulky clothes, battling buck fever or out of breath because you had to jog a quarter of a mile to get into position for a shot. Other uncontrollable factors might also be present, including a steep shot angle, an uncomfortable shooting position or a strong crosswind.
With the possible exception of religion or politics, few things heat up a bowhunting camp debate more than a discussion of the maximum distance at which a skilled bowhunter should take a shot at a big game animal. Yet the answer to this question is fundamental to your success.
Don’t Gamble On Game
It had been a close-but-no-cigar week of elk hunting for me in the Madison Mountains of southwestern Montana. The September weather had been beautiful and warm, and I’d been into bulls every day. I could’ve shot a couple 2½-year-old raghorns, but I was holding out for a shot at one of the real dandies I’d seen earlier herding their harems into the dark timber at first light. I’d yet to release an arrow.
During the last evening, after a stick-and-move calling confrontation that had taken more than an hour, a very large 5x5 bull stepped into an open meadow approximately 40 yards away from me. There he stood, perfectly broadside, bugling and tearing up the muddy grass in a rut-crazed frenzy. But by the time I raised my bow and came to full draw, the sun had dropped just far enough behind the peaks that I couldn’t get a clear picture of my sight pin against the bull’s dark, mud-crusted chest. Not wanting to risk a marginal hit, I quietly let up on my draw and enjoyed the show until dark.
It was a fitting and wonderful end to one of the finest weeks of wilderness elk hunting I’ve ever experienced. It’s also a good illustration of my philosophy of shooting at game with a bow: If I’m not 100 percent sure I can hit the animal square in the chest, I won’t shoot.
A 40-yard shot is well within my personal shooting abilities and one that I’ve made on game many times. I practice diligently at much longer ranges, and if everything’s right I wouldn’t hesitate to take an even longer shot at an animal with complete confidence.
The key phrase in that last paragraph is “if everything’s right.” With that big Montana bull, everything was right—except the dim light. I’d guess the chances were 60-40 that I could’ve hit him in the lungs, but those odds aren’t good enough for me, or for anyone else in my opinion.
The Equipment Equation
Twenty-five years ago, I shot a compound bow with a draw weight of 80 pounds and size 2317 aluminum shafts tipped with 125-grain broadheads. The total weight of my arrows was more than 600 grains, and they’d fly at approximately 220 fps—I thought I was shooting lasers! Bowsights, arrow rests and finger-tabs were unrefined compared to today’s gear, and you had to guestimate shot distances. Shots beyond 40 yards were considered totally out of the question for all but the most talented archers.
In contrast, modern 60- to 70-pound-draw compound bows and any number of carbon arrows and lightweight broadheads can be combined to produce arrow speeds of 250-300 fps. Add smooth-as-silk mechanical release aids, micro-adjustable drop-away arrow rests, high-quality bowsights and a laser rangefinder, and you have a deadly setup. When properly tuned, this equipment can have an archer consistently hitting a bull’s eye smaller than a deer’s heart/lung area at 80 yards—twice the maximum distance most of us abided by during the early 1980s.
Here’s an example: Right now I’m hunting with a BowTech Guardian set at 70 pounds with a Rip Cord drop-away arrow rest and Sonoran Bowhunting Products fiber-optic sight. I use a Jim Fletcher Fletch Hook release aid with a string loop and shoot a 28-inch Gold Tip Pro Hunter 5575 carbon arrow shaft tipped with a 100-grain replaceable-blade broadhead for a total arrow weight of 410 grains. My chronographed arrow speed is 278 fps, which gives me an initial kinetic energy of 70.37 foot-pounds. This rig is smooth as silk to draw and release, quiet as a church mouse, incredibly accurate and has enough “juice” to take any big game animal in North America. No longer is my equipment the limiting factor in hitting a bull’s eye; now it’s solely my shooting ability.
What’s Your Max?
No two bowhunters have an identical skill level, and for that reason you must determine your own shooting ability and always stay within your limits. What you’re really trying to pinpoint is your maximum effective shooting range, which can be abbreviated as MESR. Remember this important point: Your MESR changes as in-the-field conditions change. The key is recognizing that it does change and then staying within the limits of the conditions at hand.
Skilled, experienced bowhunters know what we all must learn and remember: Distance is only one of the factors that must be considered before taking any kind of bow shot. On the elk hunt described earlier, poor light was the determining factor. On another occasion—a bedded mule deer buck on a grassy slope—the 40 yards my rangefinder indicated was in no way the reason why I didn’t shoot. A strong, gusting crosswind of perhaps 30 mph would’ve pushed my arrow to the side at a distance of which I was unsure, and so I tried to sneak closer to minimize the wind’s effect. But impatience made me hurry, and at 25 yards I rolled a softball-sized rock right onto that buck’s back. Had I been bowling I would’ve been in the chips! As it was, I had an excellent view of the buck’s backside as he bounded off into the dark timber.
MESR isn’t a factor for only spot-and-stalk Western bowhunters. It often comes into play when treestand hunting for whitetails, such as when you’re set up along the edge of a field. Your laser rangefinder will precisely measure potential shot distances long before a deer appears, and to be totally prepared for any situation it’s important to practice shots at distances that range from right under your treestand to “way out there.”
The Bottom Line
The bowhunters had some treestand hunting experience for whitetails, and they’d booked a mule deer hunt in the sagebrush foothills of New Mexico. Back home they hadn’t taken the time to practice the hunting skills needed to kill a muley in Western terrain—stalking silently, moving as the game dictates and extending their MESRs through diligent practice. And as the week wore on, it was apparent a miracle might be needed in order for them to fill their tags. Out of frustration, they began flinging arrows at bucks anywhere from 40-75 yards away. One of them shot 17 times and another shot 12 times. Thankfully, neither hit a deer.
Don’t become like these slobs, whose only concern was their egos. Ethical bowhunters take the time to tune their equipment, practice regularly and take only those shots that are within their MESRs. The bottom line is the new high-tech archery doodads are great, but they can never take the place of experience—with your equipment and with the animals you pursue.