If you tell me where you are going to hit them, I'll tell you what broadhead, arrow and bow to use. Of course, we don't always hit exactly where we aim; and therein lies the problem. That's why it is so important to select gear that makes the most of marginal hits. I have broken this column down into two categories -- shoulder hits and paunch hits. Unfortunately, these two common miscues require very different gear for best performance and shortest blood trails.
Shoot the heaviest draw weight you can pull without having to raise your bow arm toward the sky. If you can't hold the string at full draw at least a minute without shaking, the draw weight is too heavy.
The sweet spot on most big game is only a few inches away from one of the heaviest bone structures on the animal. I have hit two good bucks in the shoulder, along with several does and a caribou. And I've hit a bull elk in the front leg. Those aren't big numbers. I have been lucky in that regard, yet the shoulder hit is still something I prepare for as if it were guaranteed. As a result, all those shoulder-hit animals made it to my freezer.
But I have helped with a few blood trails that ended well short of the prize when the hit in question was in the shoulder. Most bowhunters don't optimize for the shoulder hit, and eventually they pay the price.
The standard equation for success on game is accuracy first and penetration second. Hit the lungs and the rest will pretty much take care of itself. However, when dealing with the possibility of a shoulder hit, penetration should run a very close second. Here are a few things you should consider when setting up for the season:
Arrow design: Every test I've seen or done suggests arrows with smaller diameters penetrate better than arrows with larger diameters, provided weight is kept the same. With their smaller diameter, carbon arrows penetrate better than aluminum shafts of the same weight. Thin, pultruded carbon shafts were the most impressive arrows I've ever seen when it comes to penetration. They had very small diameters, were very stiff and had a good weight for hunting. However, their external components caused problems during assembly and tuning. The new arrows from Trophy Ridge are the closest we come to this design on today's market. I'll be testing them this fall.
The next smallest diameter shaft design, following the pultruded shafts, is the Axis from Easton. The Axis is smaller than other internal component carbon shafts because it uses an unconventional insert that presses completely inside the shaft. The Axis is also heavier than most carbon shafts on the market, making it a perfect choice for serious penetration.
I have used the Axis, and its predecessor the Super Slim, for the past several years and found the performance very impressive.
Maximum accuracy at unknown ranges requires the flat trajectory of a light arrow.
However, the more the arrow weighs the more energy it will soak up from the bow and the better it will penetrate. So, there is a trade-off here. If you only shoot inside 30 yards, go heavy. If you will occasionally take longer shots, possibly without the aid of a rangefinder, look for a good compromise -- a finished arrow weighing about 6€‰½-7 grains per pound of your bow's draw weight.
Bow specs: You don't need a heavy draw weight to kill deer if you hit them in the lungs every time. However, if you hit the buck of a lifetime in the shoulder or front leg, you'll be wishing you were packing more heat. Shoot the heaviest poundage you can draw without raising your bow arm skyward and then hold steady for at least a minute without shaking.
For every pound of draw weight you add, you increase penetration energy by about 1.5 percent. Even a five-pound increase will make a difference.
Broadhead selection affects penetration. Small cutting diameter heads with stout tips perform best on bone hits.
A bow with a low brace height will also produce more penetration energy. If you are a proficient archer who practices a lot, you can likely benefit from a bow having a 6-inch brace height without seeing adverse affects to your accuracy. It is worth considering.
When you hit the shoulder, there is no such thing as too much arrow energy.
Broadhead style: I was hunting elk in Montana with a friend back in the mid-90s. Paul was shooting a popular two-blade, cut-to-the-tip head. When he hit a bull in the shoulder, the tip of the blade curled over and the arrow literally bounced back out. It was all on film. Not surprisingly, the company that made that head is no longer in business.
Choose a broadhead that will break through bone without the tip curling. That means the head needs a stout tip. Muzzy has built its reputation on the motto, "Bad to the Bone."
There is no question Muzzy heads are rugged and bone-ready. Others that are similarly constructed will also do well.
Penetration is inversely proportional to cutting diameter (especially through the shoulder blade). So, if you are deadly serious about shoulder hits, stick with small, conservative heads with cutting diameters of 1-1€‰¼ inches.
I had a mix-up with my cameraman and hit a big deer low and back last year on Nov. 7.
The buck didn't bleed, and we never found him; but the hit killed him nonetheless. We found the carcass when shed hunting in March -- nearly a mile away. I was using a small cutting diameter broadhead on that hunt, and more than one person assured me that if I had been using a Rage 2-inch broadhead, I would have recovered him that day. There's no way to be certain that is true, but there is no doubt I would have caused more tissue damage that potentially would have brought on septic shock sooner.
If you are going to hit a deer too far back, shoot the biggest broadhead you can find. I once shot a buck in Kansas with a Wasp Jak-Hammer with a 1€‰¾-inch cutting diameter.
That buck was dead within an hour, yet when I gutted him, there was no blood to speak of in his cavity. That means he died of septic shock. I attribute that quick kill, in part, to the large cutting diameter broadhead I used. It caused more damage for a quicker kill.
Obviously, we are staring at our second big trade-off when selecting a broadhead. That is why I flinch when people ask me which head they should buy. I always ask them where they expect to hit them. They will say, "The lungs, of course."
My answer is, "Then any head will work."
When they keep pressing me, I have to concede it is impossible to find the perfect broadhead -- because it doesn't exist. It would have to have a cutting diameter that changes based on what it is traveling through. So, until someone comes out with a truly efficient head with a variable cutting diameter, you will always have to balance bone-ready ruggedness and penetration against maximum soft-tissue slashing.
I don't know for sure where to fall on this trade-off anymore. I have always favored small, conservative heads for the shoulder success they promise. But after last season, I am rethinking that. My guess is I will stick with the smaller heads again this year, but that is a decision every bowhunter has to weigh individually. How you outfit your bow may not matter on perfect shots, but it will definitely make a difference on marginal ones.