Against all odds, you’ve managed to beat a mature whitetail buck’s keen senses of sight, smell and hearing — not to mention that pesky sixth sense that has sent him walking the other way in the past when all seemed in your favor. Now he’s 30 yards out, broadside, and has no clue you’re within 20 miles.
In bowhunting, this is the hard part. Getting close is what drives even the most skilled hunters looney. Now, it’s up to you to finish the job.
Are you ready? Have you spent enough time on the practice range to make this shot? Do you have the right tools for the task? It sure would be a shame to get to this point and then discover you haven’t sufficiently prepared for the few aspects of a bowhunt you actually have some control over.
Is your bow tuned properly? Are your sight pins “on?” Do you have the right bow stabilizer?
Yes, a bow stabilizer is more than just an accessory that makes your compound bow look cool. Certainly, it’s not as critical to accurately delivering an arrow as your rest or sight. But if you didn’t put any thought into the stabilizer that’s on the bow you’re now drawing to let loose an arrow at the buck of a lifetime, you might end up eating a tag sandwich.
“A lot of guys just pick something that looks cool to them, stick it on the bow and then they wonder why their bow is noisy or why they can’t shoot tighter groups,” said Rob Kaufhold, a former member of the U.S. Olympic Archery Team and co-owner of Lancaster Archery Supply in Lancaster, Pa. “With the right stabilizer, you can fix that.”
When he’s not selling archery gear all over the world, Kaufhold is instructing and outfitting competitive shooters and bowhunters. His advice when it comes to picking a stabilizer is simple.
“Go to a pro shop and try out a couple of them,” he said. “See what works best for you.”
HOW STABILIZERS WORK
According to Kaufhold, stabilizers perform two main functions — dampening noise and vibration and making it easier to hold the bow steady. Both affect accuracy.
When a compound bow is drawn, energy builds up in the limbs. Release the string and you release all that energy. The arrow obviously absorbs a lot as it speeds down range. (The lighter the arrow, the less energy it absorbs.) But some slams into the bow as well, causing it and every accessory on it to vibrate. Vibrations can cause you to adjust your hand position, sending your arrow offline. They also create noise, which can alert a deer, possibly causing it to duck before your arrow arrives.
Stabilizers work to kill vibration and noise in two ways. First, many stabilizers incorporate rubber and/or similar materials in their construction. At the shot, that material is able to soak up a lot of the vibration.
Think about the pounding you feel in your legs as you run on pavement. Now imagine if you ran off that pavement onto a fluffy layer of sand. The sand, which gives under the weight of your strides, absorbs some of the shock of your feet hitting the ground.
Rigid stabilizers that have no rubbery material usually feature long rods. The surface area along those rods offers more room for the vibrations from the bow to spread out, which minimizes their overall effect. It’s like pouring dye into a thimble of water, versus a glass. The effect of the dye is diluted when there’s more water.
The right stabilizer also can, as the name suggests, stabilize your bow as you aim. Added weight on the lower half of your bow pulls the bow straight down, allowing you to hold it steadier. Sticking out from the front of the bow, the stabilizer’s weight also makes it more difficult for you to torque your hand at the shot — a common shooting problem. Length and weight extending away from the front of the bow resists that torquing action. The longer the stabilizer, the less you’ll torque the bow.
BASIC STABILIZER DESIGN
Walk into an archery pro shop and you’re going to see stabilizers of all lengths, thicknesses and weights. It can be overwhelming trying to pick one just by looking at them. Kaufhold breaks stabilizers into two basic categories — dampeners and accuracy aids. That might sound odd, since the best stabilizer should do both, right? That’s true, Kaufhold said, but he noted most are better at one than the other.
“The short, fat ones basically are for dampening noise and vibration,” he said. “The long, skinny, heavy ones are going to help you most with aiming.”
Pick up any stabilizer, regardless of its length. If its weight is evenly distributed, Kaufhold said, that’s a stabilizer designed for dampening. It’s going to soak up as much vibration as possible, thereby quieting the bow.
“As far as I’m concerned, you can never quiet a bow enough in terms of both noise and vibration,” Kaufhold said. “That’s critical for the bowhunter who doesn’t want to spook the game animal he’s aiming at.”
The stabilizers that will do most to improve your aiming, according to Kaufhold, will be top heavy. That is, the bulk of their weight will be concentrated at the end, away from the bow. That weight usually is attached to the bow via a long, skinny rod.
“Longer is better,” he said. “Heavier is better, and you want all that weight at the end. That’s what will make your sight pin sit still. A simple test is to shoot with a 6-inch stabilizer and then shoot with a 12-incher. The longer one is going to make your pin steadier.”
Several manufacturers offer discs of varying weights and diameters that are attached to the end of a stabilizer. All the weight is in one circular spot to keep the overall length down, as opposed to a series of small weights stacked in a linear fashion.
“You’ll still be more steady the farther out from the bow that weight is, but you can get away with a shorter stabilizer using a disc,” Kaufhold said.
CHOOSING YOUR STABILIZER
So, should you go short and fat or long and heavy? That’s something each hunter has to determine, Kaufhold said, based on what they want in the woods. Sure, a 12-inch stabilizer with a 17-ounce weight at the end will make you rock steady at full draw, but you might regret carrying something that heavy all day. Or, if you hunt from a ground blind, a long stabilizer could make it difficult to draw without hitting a support pole. A stubby stabilizer is much more maneuverable and makes the bow easier to carry. But if you’re hunting antelope or elk, where you might have to take a 40-50-yard shot, having a steady aim is critical.
“There are people who are going to go for the extremes at either end, but I think most hunters are likely to fall in the middle somewhere,” Kaufhold said.
Those hunters will want a stabilizer just long enough and heavy enough that it helps with aiming without being burdensome. And they will want it to have enough dampening features to quiet the bow without totally sacrificing aiming stabilization.
Kaufhold recommends you first look at your bow to find out where to start. Many of today’s high-tech bows, such as the Mathews Z7, have grips that are radically set back toward the shooter from the front ends of the limbs. You can put a 4-inch stabilizer on such a bow, but that stabilizer won’t be long enough to protrude beyond the limbs.
“If you’re short of the limbs, it’s not doing much for accuracy,” Kaufhold said. “At that point, dampening and a little extra weight is all you’re getting.”
On such a bow, you might need a stabilizer no shorter than eight inches. The less radically the grip is recessed, however, the shorter a stabilizer you can use and still get sufficient dampening along with some aiming stabilization, Kaufhold said.
Also know that different bows vibrate at different frequencies. The same goes for accessories, such as sights and quivers. Various stabilizers are better at dampening some frequencies than others. So, a particular stabilizer that quiets one bow might do very little for another. The only way to know which one works for your setup is to try a few.
A hunter who shoots with a quiver attached to his or her bow might find that when an arrow is released, the top of the bow tilts in the direction of the quiver. To straighten that out, Kaufhold recommends a stabilizer that, instead of sticking out directly under the grip, is offset from the riser to the side opposite the quiver. That should counter the weight of the quiver and balance the bow.
Generally, Kaufhold tells bowhunters to use the longest stabilizer — up to 12 inches — they feel comfortable with. Whether it’s solid rubber or a carbon rod, the stabilizer’s body should be heaviest at the very end. And he recommends as heavy a stabilizer you feel comfortable shooting and carrying around.
“This is an accessory I wish [hunters] put more thought into,” Kaufhold said. “A stabilizer could make your hunt a big success or a big disappointment.”