I have received plenty of good advice over the years on how to shoot a bow. In this column, I am going to share those pearls of wisdom that have helped me most.
1. Let the Pin Float
I remember the first time I heard this advice; I thought the guy was crazy. Spencer Land, who owned High Country Archery at the time, told me the best shooters didn't try to hold their pin steady on the spot. Instead, they let it float a bit, usually in tight circles or even in figure-eight patterns around the spot. While the pin was floating, they squeezed the trigger and let the bow fire without a conscious command.
It took me years to appreciate the value of that advice. I was young, and target panic wasn't really part of my vocabulary. I could hold the pin steady on the spot, so I never understood what Spencer was promoting. But as the years went by, I started to get a feel for target panic. The inability to hold the pin steady on the spot started to cause mental trauma for me at full draw. Remembering Spencer's words, and those of others who reinforced this great advice over the years, I started shooting their way and immediately the panic dissolved and archery became fun again.
2. Keep Aiming Until the Arrow Hits
This piece of advice has been around for as long as I can remember, so I am not sure where I heard it first. However, when I finally applied the advice, it had a big impact on my shooting, especially at game. The ability to focus on a small point and try to keep the pin floating near that small point until the arrow hits it is a natural way to improve both your aiming and your follow-through. We tend to get anxious when shooting at game, and that can often cause us to skip the important step of picking a spot. It also encourages us to drop our bow arm during the shot — to quit aiming.
I have helped dozens of friends over the years when they were having trouble with their shooting. In nearly all cases, at least part of the problem was their tendency to drop the bow arm during the release. What a person is doing with their bow right after the shot is the same thing they are starting to do during the shot. That also is a good piece of advice I have learned over the years, this time from Randy Ulmer.
So, if my friends were dropping their bow arm after the shot, they likely started to do that while the arrow was still on the string speeding forward. Getting people to hold their aiming position for a few seconds after the shot usually fixed most problems — or at the very least, it improved their shooting enough that they were once again effective in the field. The simplest way to get people to understand this was to tell them to keep aiming until the arrow hits. This isn't possible in the strictest sense; the bow moves too much as the pressure comes off the bow arm and the arrow leaps forward, but trying to hold the pin on the spot and trying to stay focused on the spot is enough to keep the follow-through a lot steadier.
This is literally the perfect quick fix if your shooting (or your friend's shooting) is going south and you need to get back on target during the middle of the season.
3. Aim with Your Body
I think this piece of advice actually came from my own experience. I believe someone planted the seed once. I can't remember who or what they told me, but I shoot my best when the bow arm is a lifeless extension protruding from my upper body. In order to change my aiming point, I have to turn my upper body or pivot my hips.
Small muscle groups (such as hands and arms) are typically fast twitch, while larger muscle groups, like your core and hips, tend be slow twitch. I want slow-twitch muscles controlling my aim as much as possible. It is easier to relax and let the pin settle when the slow-twitch muscles are positioning it.
4. Control Your Breathing
I believe it was Randy Ulmer who first brought this bit of advice to my ears. I have learned a ton from Randy over the years. But I think my friend Gary Keeton also reinforced the need for having a set breathing pattern when shooting. No one will say exactly what the breathing pattern needs to be, but they will say it is important and that each person needs to arrive at their own system.
It has to do with exhaling and inhaling in rhythm with the shot. From this advice, I have adopted my own system. I take a big breath as I am drawing the bow and then let it out slowly as I start to settle the pin. Once I get the pin close to the spot I want to hit, I hold my breath until the shot goes off.
You likely will arrive at a slightly different way to do this, but having some kind of breathing system is an important part of shooting a bow accurately.
5. Squeeze the Trigger on Game
All of these tips sound great on the range, but when we take them to the field and mix in the adrenaline that comes from shots at live animals, we tend forget fast. Of course, the more we practice a certain shooting style, the more ingrained it becomes and the more likely we are to use it instinctively, even in the clutch.
In this case, the advice on handling shots in the field came from PSE's Pete Shepley. When visiting with him at one of the ATA Shows back in the late '90s or early 2000s, Pete told me specifically that you have to squeeze off while hunting, just like you do on the range. I asked him about those times when the shot opportunities are short or quick, but Pete didn't waver, stating, "It doesn't matter. You have to squeeze the trigger on every shot."
Until then, I was always under the impression that game was different. What worked on the range or 3-D course wasn't necessarily what worked in the field. I always pulled the trigger (and sometimes punched it) on game, because I always felt timing was much more important than pure accuracy. Pete assured me I was wrong.
His advice was simple: never take a sloppy shot, no matter the circumstances. If a certain shooting style is most effective on the range, it should also be most effective in the field. Accuracy is accuracy, after all. The more I thought about it, the more I came to understand his point — and I began to apply it. I shot literally tons of does during the early 2000s as our neighborhood was overpopulated. During that time, I made a point of achieving a surprise release on every single shot by squeezing the trigger while aiming.
I was surprised that I shot better than I was used to shooting and equally surprised that this slow-down style of offense never cost me a single animal. Since then, I have made a point of shooting this way on all my shots at game. The extra couple of seconds required to squeeze rather than pull the trigger have greatly reduced the panic that comes at the moment of release on game. It has also made me more confident. My brain may be in a blender, but as long as I aim and squeeze, the shots work out well nonetheless.