In the early ’90s, Greg Tinsley, a former editor of BOWHUNTING magazine, came out from the big city of Los Angeles to hunt whitetails in the boonies with me. He was an experienced bowhunter of Western game, but he and I definitely had different ideas on gearing up for whitetails! When he pulled his bow out of the case, I nearly rolled into a ditch laughing. Nine pins! Now, mind you, I love Greg, but what the heck did he think we were going to be hunting? In his defense, it was simply his hunting bow, it was not a dedicated whitetail rig.
I have no idea the distances for which those pins were set, nor do I know what types of shots Greg was normally taking. All I know is that the buck he arrowed after a couple of cold November days was exactly four yards from his tree. I suspect all nine of those pins fit on the buck’s vitals when he squeezed the trigger.
If you are gearing up for whitetails, having too many pins is a bigger mistake than having too few, because there is risk of confusion with each added pin. It can be dumbfounding when you have to choose quickly between several pins. I’ve had it happen to me a couple of times. The first time was a classic meltdown. I was hunting caribou, and I’d spent most of the off-season practicing at fairly long distances so I was ready for anything — with five pins to prove it. My pin selection had been fine when I was on the range, but it short-circuited when I really needed it. After six hours of staring at his giant rack — waiting for him to stand – the big bull quickly got on his feet and began angling toward brush. I could have just as easily recited Einstein’s Theory of Relativity as select my 30-yard pin.
I knew he was 35 yards away, which I reasoned had to be somewhere toward the middle of my pin stack, but for the life of me I couldn’t decide which pins I needed to bracket. So, I simply put the middle of the stack on his chest and pulled the trigger. I made a good, double-lung hit, but that one taught me a valuable lesson: mental function erodes at full draw!
Squirt a syringe of adrenaline into the blood stream and the task of quickly picking the right glowing dot from a wall of glowing dots seems more difficult than saying the alphabet backwards. In the game of bowhunting, success often goes to the hunter who keeps things simple. One of the best ways to idiot-proof your bow is to eliminate as many pins as possible. I’ve studied this subject and can recommend two setups that will work for nearly every whitetail hunter.
Understanding The Typical Shot
We start by understanding the shots we will face. I recently e-mailed a dozen serious bowhunters and asked them to go back over every successful shot they had taken during the past 10 years. I ended up with more than 160 successful shots at bucks in my tally. I asked for the distance on every shot. The average shortest shot for the 12 bowhunters was 4.2 yards. The average longest shot was 39.2 yards. The average overall shot was 19.1 yards.
When you hear people say that whitetail hunting is a 20-yard game, they are only partially right. More correctly, it is a four-40 yard game, but 75 percent of the shots fell between 15-25 yards.
Now, the goal is to devise a hunting setup that excels at producing reliable, accurate, idiot-proof shooting from 15-25 yards, with a lesser emphasis on shots under 15 and over 30. Here is what I came up with:
The 30-Yard Bowhunter
If you don’t plan to shoot past 30 yards, a single pin is all you need. If you hunt from treestands, you can use a pendulum sight with a single pin that swings as your bow angle changes to compensate for shooting distance automatically. Shoot your bow with the sight attached before buying it. Some are rattle traps. Pendulum sights have a maximum effective range from a treestand of roughly 30 yards and a minimum range of roughly five yards.
Now for the fixed-pin option. Because the average shot from my study was 19 yards, it would be easy to assume 20 yards is the best sight-in distance for a single pin. Not so fast.
If you spend much time hunting deer, shots pushing 30 yards will become common. For the record, my own average shot distance at whitetail bucks has been closer to 25 yards. In setting one pin, don’t forget about these very realistic 30-yard shots, because they will come to represent a substantial percentage of your trophy room. With that in mind, I studied trajectory tables for arrow flight from a treestand and came up with the best sight-in range that offers the greatest margin for error in range estimation.
I will assume an arrow speed of 260 fps, a kill zone that’s eight inches in diameter and a treestand height of 20 feet. If you sight-in for 20 yards, you’ll hit the kill zone for all actual distances from zero to 27 yards by simply aiming for the center of the kill zone. If you set your pin for 25 yards and aim dead-on, you’ll hit the kill zone for all actual distances from 15-32 yards. If you shoot a faster arrow, the numbers get even better.
On the surface, it may seem that the 20-yard setting is ideal because it offers a wider window, but you’re likely to change your mind when you start considering the nature of range estimation errors. It is much easier to tell when a shot is closer than 15 yards and then compensate by aiming a little low than it is to recognize when a shot is beyond 27 yards and then figuring out how high you have to hold. Those extra five yards on the far end of the window are more important than losing 15 off the close end.
Without getting too technical, I’ll summarize by saying that if you plan to take shots up to 30 yards, you’ll have better success over the long haul with a single pin set for 25 yards than you will with a single pin set for 20 yards.
The 40-Yard Bowhunter
If you expect to take shots beyond 30 yards, you need to add a second pin. It’s as simple as that. It’s tough to consistently hold a short-range pin high. When things happen fast, it is much easier to simply hold a second pin dead on and squeeze off the shot. Using the trajectory tables again, I found that the best sight-in distances for the 40-yard bowhunter are 25 and 35 yards. The 25-yard pin will produce a kill for all actual distances from 15-32 yards while the 35-yard pin will produce a clean kill for all actual shots from 31-40 yards. Again, this was assuming 260 fps. With a faster arrow, the numbers get even better.
In other words, if you think the shot is less than 30 yards, use the top pin. If you think it is more than 30 yards, use the bottom pin. That is about as simple as we can make this stuff and still set up an effective bow.
Obviously, if you know the exact distance of the shot you can take some of the pressure off your shooting form. Simply aim using the center of the gap between the two pins for a 30-yard shot and either hold the top pin low or the bottom pin high for pinpoint accuracy on close and long shots. You’ll work out your own system on between-pin shots by practicing from various distances during the off-season.
It has been my experience that bucks are anything but predictable in the routes they take during the rut — forget about trails, they hardly use them. You are much more likely to face a shot that leaves you guessing than one where you know the exact range. Under these conditions, it pays to have a sighting system that offers the greatest possible margin for error and requires the least amount of thought. Keep things simple and you’ll enjoy greater success.