The anticipation leading up to Western big-game draws can be excruciating! Countless bowhunters endure the slow ticking of time each year, and many will embark on their very first out-of-state bowhunting adventure when their application is miraculously pulled from the proverbial hat. The initial reaction after obtaining a coveted, limited-draw tag is generally one of elation and celebration, but inevitably, the focus quickly turns to obsessive preparation. After all, you aren’t going to get one of these tags — or make that kind of trip — every year. So, there’s some pressure to make the most of the opportunity! Am I going to buy a new bow? What broadheads should I use? What about my boots? And on and on it goes, until you have asked more questions than a curious 4-year-old hyped up on sugar! No stone will be left unturned, and no variable will be left to chance.
Your chosen species will likely have a significant impact on many aspects of your gear preparation. For instance, if you will be hiking up, down and around the Rocky Mountains, you would be wise to do some serious research on footwear and make a decision quickly so that you have time to break in the boots — and your feet! Going to be hunting early October at high altitudes? Better prepare for the possibility of nasty weather conditions and pack high-quality, adaptable clothing. You get the idea. You prepare with a purpose!
One of the equipment options that often goes without enough consideration is the arrow you will depend on to deliver the fatal sting. Obsession over bows and broadheads is common, and certainly important, but overlooking your arrow can come back to bite you. According to P.J. Reilly of Lancaster Archery Supply, the art of arrow-building is on the rise — as are the sale of fletching jigs! That’s not surprising, considering there are more high-quality arrow shafts and components than ever before. And thanks to modern technology, instruction and advice on how to properly use those products is more accessible than ever. With that, let’s take a look at the key considerations when it comes to arrow-building and examine various available solutions.
In your quest to build the best arrow to fit your application, you may find yourself looking to bump up the overall weight to increase penetration on a tough animal such as a moose, elk or brown bear. There are raging debates concerning the merits of kinetic energy versus momentum that find exceptionally intelligent individuals on both sides of the dividing line, but I think it will suffice to say that there is plenty of evidence that increased mass (weight) increases your potential for greater penetration. And we will just leave it at that.
If increased mass is your goal, there are many options to help you get there. You can start with a heavier shaft such as the Victory Archery Xtorsion at 12.7 grains per inch (gpi) in 350 spine, Carbon Express Piledriver DS at 11.4 gpi in 350 spine or Easton FMJ Legend at 11.3 gpi in 340 spine. Additional weight can be added through other methods as well, including Easton’s Break-Off brass inserts, Gold Tip’s FACT screw-in stackable weights or Victory’s SHOK inserts. There are even weighted nock adapters if you choose to add additional mass to the back of your arrow. Of course, you can add weight through your broadhead selection as well, with many manufacturers offering models that weigh 150 grains and up. Many of these heads are marketed to traditional archers but can just as easily be shot from a modern compound bow.
On the other hand, if you are anticipating long shots on antelope, generally 40-50 yards and beyond, you will likely want to decrease arrow weight to flatten out trajectory. Getting a range on antelope can be tricky, and they will often take a few steps between the time you put your rangefinder down and get your bow to full draw. This makes a flat-shooting setup even more important. Still, you want an arrow with a solid front-of-center balance point (FOC, explained in a later paragraph) for long-range stability and a relatively small-diameter shaft to manage wind drift. My Western arrow last year was a great example of a setup made for these conditions — a Gold Tip Airstrike that weighed 407 grains with an outside diameter of .258-inch and an FOC of 11.76 percent.
Meanwhile, most whitetail bowhunters spend the majority of their time perched in a tree or seated in a ground blind, where they hope to get a relatively short-range shot. That means a great many bowhunters are simply looking for a good, all-around arrow. In my experience, the vast majority of these bowhunters shoot an all-carbon, standard-diameter arrow that has a finished weight somewhere around 400 grains and an FOC between 8 percent and 15 percent. There are many arrows that fit into this “all-around” category, including the Black Eagle Spartan, Easton 6.5 Bowhunter and Gold Tip Hunter XT.
A Note About FOC: As you are experimenting with increasing or decreasing arrow weight, you may want to keep an eye on your FOC, as many of the options to increase weight are focused on the front of the arrow. FOC is the percentage of the arrow’s total weight that is in the front half of the arrow (point end). Grab a calculator, tape measure and pencil, do a quick Google search and you will know your arrow’s FOC in about two minutes. While the key benefit of increasing FOC is greater arrow stability, especially at longer ranges, it is also lauded by some to enhance tuning and penetration.
So, what is the ideal FOC for a bowhunting arrow? Although there are factors that may change the ideal FOC for your setup, such as the amount of drag induced by your fletching, there is a general recommendation I’ve found in my research that was backed up when talking with Easton’s Clint Warner. “Our studies have shown that, on broadhead-tipped hunting arrows, FOC measurements between 10 percent and 15 percent offer the most benefit, with quickly diminishing returns beyond that,” Warner said.
On the other hand, both Nick Mundt and Travis “T-Bone” Turner of the Bone Collector crew, who have put more animals on the ground than gravity, prefer heavy arrows with FOC percentages reaching anywhere from 15 percent to 20 percent. So, what’s the answer? Experiment, and find that sweet spot for your setup!
Another variable building your own arrows allows you to control is your vane configuration. Although the use of three vanes in an offset configuration remains more or less the “industry standard,” you’ve probably noticed that playing with other configurations is all the rage these days, with some archers adding six or more vanes to the back end of their arrows!
The bottom line is this: You have great control over the type, size, orientation and number of feathers or vanes you use. The trick is to apply the right amount of drag/steering to match your complete arrow design and application. Too much fletching will rob your arrow of speed and create added noise in flight; too little will lead to erratic arrow flight. There are many arrow-building tools designed to make you an expert, such as Last Chance Archery, Bitzenberger and Bohning jigs, the Arizona Archery EZ-Fletch, primer pens, shrink fletch and arrow wraps. While many believe arrow wraps are simply for show, they actually offer a superior surface for vane adhesion.
Beyond these tools, let’s talk about what would drive us to pick one fletching setup over another. Going back to the decoying antelope on the open plains scenario we mentioned before, there are several factors to consider when fletching your purpose-built arrow. On this hunt, you are probably shooting relatively longer distances and have a high chance of encountering crosswinds. A low-profile vane produces less drag, catches less crosswind and allows the arrow to maintain a higher velocity downrange — all great benefits that are made even better if you hit the sweet spot in terms of FOC and choose a mechanical broadhead (low profile). Many vanes fit the mold for this hunt, such as the Bohning Heat, Firenock Aerovane III, Q2i Fusion X-II 1.75 and VaneTec’s Super Spine.
Revisiting the whitetail-hunting scenario mentioned earlier, it can be determined that the bowhunter will generally have a short- to medium-range shot. Let’s add a couple factors to that situation — your arrows are tipped with a large, fixed-blade broadhead, and you are focused on a quiet setup. The blades on a large-diameter fixed-blade head will try to steer the arrow if no counterforce is present. To offset this effect, we want to induce an adequate amount of drag through either a higher-profile vane, a longer vane or more vanes, all of which would increase surface area. Vanes that fit into this category are the NAP QuikSpin, AAE Max Hunter and Bohning Blazer, which has become an industry standard. You also want a vane that is super-quiet, and that generally means a stiffer vane material. Easton’s Bully vanes and TAC Vanes models are known for their stiffer material and quieter flight. Of course, you also have the option of fletching any of these in variable degrees of offset or helical to increase drag even more.
Some additional notes on vanes: The purpose of using an offset or helical vane configuration is to create spin and induce drag, thereby improving stability from the back of the arrow. Something I’ve heard from top shooters that was repeated by Lancaster Archery’s P.J. Reilly can be summed up in P.J.’s statement, “Hard helical fletching will actually destabilize an arrow at long distances, causing what is known as the ‘parachute effect.’ ” I’ve never personally experienced that, mostly because I don’t often shoot long distances or helical vanes, but I certainly give it merit based on P.J.’s knowledge and experience. When considering vane shape, height and length, remember, it is all about surface area and induced drag, which means you need to find the right combination of offset/helical and surface area.
Finally, it should also be noted that there are some very convenient fletching options in the QuikFletch and TrueFletch shrink-wrap sleeves offered by NAP and Bohning, respectively. These fletching solutions are available with a variety of vanes, including Bohning’s Blazer and NAP’s QuikSpin, Hellfire and Twister. A crossbow version of the QuikFletch is also available.
“QuikFletch and TruFletch make the fletching process almost impossibly easy,” BOWHUNTING Editor Christian Berg said. “They also allow you to fletch a dozen arrows in about three minutes. They fly great, and you can replace damaged vanes in the field with nothing more than a pot of boiling water. I’ve successfully used both on numerous hunts for everything from deer and antelope to elk and bears.”
Easton’s Warner sees a trend in archers moving to lightweight arrows, largely because it allows them to make up the weight difference through added customization. “Arrow builders are not necessarily going light as a means to faster speeds, but to give them room to experiment and build up the arrow with wraps, additional vanes and specialized components while looking for that perfect balance and tune,” Warner said.
Lancaster Archery’s Reilly brought up the growth in sales of arrows with special “slick” coatings such as Victory’s Ice nano ceramic coating or aluminum jackets such as Easton’s FMJ, noting that these features make removing these arrows from targets significantly easier.
Finally, look on manufacturer websites and social media outlets for tons of great information and resources centered around arrow-building. You will find tip sheets, FOC formulas, instructional videos and much more. It really is a great time to start purpose-building your arrows.
As we have discussed, the ability to put as many variables in your favor as possible when pursuing a specific game animal is the biggest, but not the only, advantage of purpose-building your arrows. It also allows you to control the quality and consistency of your arrows while saving money over the long haul.
Convenience is also a huge factor in self-building arrows. No more missing an arrow just because a single vane got roughed up. Instead of waiting to make a trip to the pro shop, you can fix it yourself.
Experimentation is another big benefit; you can play with all of the component combinations until you find the sweet spot — that one perfectly tuned arrow that fits your setup like a glove.
Easton’s Gary Cornum put it best when I asked him why he builds his own arrows, even though many common builds will get the job done in 95 percent of the situations. “I want to put every advantage in my corner, because any bowhunter who has been at this long enough knows things don’t always play out as planned,” Cornum said. “Building an arrow I have complete confidence in is huge in boosting the mental game, which drives us to make good decisions and avoid errors.”
There is nothing like total confidence in the equipment you carry afield. It is a game changer!