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Modern Shot Selection For Bowhunters

Modern Shot Selection For Bowhunters

I get a lot of questions on my Web site about shot selection. People generally question a certain shot they saw me take or a shot they watched on TV.

It always comes back to the same question in the end. Because of the equipment we now have at our disposal, have the rules for ethical shot selection changed, or are people just being irresponsible?

Video: Modern Shot Selection


Oh boy, it is going to be an interesting column this month! This subject is charged with a lot of raw emotion. But I am going to try to cut through the emotion and take a look at this question objectively -- maybe not truly scientifically -- but at least with an open mind.

Just to set the record straight, I don't pretend to be bowhunting's ethical authority. I am just a bowhunter at heart, trying to make the best decisions I can to balance success with responsible behavior toward the animals I hunt. I don't want to wound game, but if I can cleanly kill animals with a wider range of shots than was once possible, I want to understand the options.

So, here goes.

Maximum Shooting Range
When I first started bowhunting, everyone preached 20 yards and in. A long shot was 30 yards. Obviously, a lot has changed in the past three decades. People are shooting a lot farther now, and you are constantly hearing about someone shooting an animal at 50 or 55 yards. Have our equipment and abilities really changed so much that our ethical maximum range has increased to this degree?

I don't think 50 yards is the new 20, but I do think we are more effective at longer distances than we were in the past. This is due to three things. First, we now have super accurate laser rangefinders that take the guesswork out of distance estimation. I use mine on nearly every shot past 25 yards now. I feel much more confident at full draw than I ever did prior to the popular use of these devices. As a result, I am more effective at longer distances.


Second, today's bows are faster and more powerful. They produce much more kinetic energy than bows from prior generations. While I never felt my arrows were underpowered in the past, I do think those shooting lower draw weights may have gained a slight edge in this department. So, the killing power of today's bows is slightly greater.

Third, the equipment we use today is simply more accurate. The bows themselves are more precise. In this same issue of BOWHUNTING, I am reporting on the great new bows for 2011, and in that feature, you will notice the constant progression in bow technology. Each year, bows move a baby-step closer to perfection. After a couple of decades, all those small steps have added up to a good-sized leap in capability. We used to put up with a lot of junk on the market, simply because we didn't know any better.

As compound bow design has matured, the bows have become faster, easier to tune and more consistent. This maturity also applies to the accessories we use -- especially the strings and harnesses we put on our bows. They don't stretch nearly as much as those we used just 10 years ago.

I can remember a number of hunting trips I went on back in the early '90s where I arrived at my destination only to find that my string and harnesses had stretched and my bow was no longer in tune. My fixed-blade broadheads guided my arrows all over the place. I didn't feel good about my maximum range on those hunts! Today's bows aren't handicapped in this way. Throw in mechanical broadheads for bowhunters who want maximum accuracy and you end up with a system that is much more accurate than any we have enjoyed in the past.

Compact, fixed-blade broadheads and even smaller mechanical versions that are less prone to wind-planing have made it possible to shoot fast arrows more accurately than at any other time in history. Does this create the opportunity

for more aggressive shot selection while hunting?

So, with greater energy, flatter trajectories, pinpoint rangefinders and accessories that do their jobs consistently, we are definitely more accurate today than we were 20 years ago.

That brings us back to the question again. Are the shot selection principles we live by outdated? Should be more aggressive on the trigger? Are today's bowhunters less conservative than they used to be? Are they less ethical?

I'm not done yet; I still have more logs to throw on the fire of this debate. It is time to get even more controversial.

Shot Angles
With the greater energy stored and released by today's bows and the improved penetration ability of today's small-diameter arrows, is the shot selection criteria we have stuck with for decades becoming outdated? And with broadheads that cut two inches, or more, can we make quick kills

without making perfect shots?

In other words, maybe there are shots we can take now that we couldn't take 20 years ago. We need to take a close look. Going one step farther still, it is possible that the bowhunters coming up through the ranks today may not even have a clear shot selection criteria such as was pounded into our young bowhunting minds back in the '70s and '80s?

I think under the right conditions there is a small bit more latitude in shot selection now than there was many years back. But it is very minor, at best. I shoot a heavy draw-weight bow of 80 pounds that stores massive amounts of energy. I shoot a heavy, small-diameter arrow and conservative broadheads that penetrate very well. I have killed maybe 10 deer-sized game animals over the years with pure frontal shots. I am not talking about elk or moose here. I would not try this shot angle on them; only on mule deer, whitetails and caribou. In each case, the arrow passed completely through the animal and brought it to ground very quickly. Many of these animals were whitetail does, which are easy to penetrate, but I have taken a couple of good bucks this way too. I have also taken some heat for it when the shots appeared on videos.

When you think about it, with a well-placed shot, I am getting at least one lung, the liver and the paunch. That is taking out a lot of organs in one pass. Of course, this is not a good choice for bowhunters using low poundage bows, or taking long shots. But at 15 yards, with a powerful bow, this is an absolutely devastating hit.

Now for those big broadheads. Some people tell of paunch shots that result in very fast kills using the latest large-cutting-diameter broadheads. I haven't been using them, preferring to stick with my smaller, more conservative designs, so I guess I had better not offer my opinion. However, I cannot see where a large head would change my shot selection decisions. If anything, I might have been prone to pass up the few frontal shots I have taken. At best, a large head would merely turn a mediocre shot into a quick kill. While that is a good thing, I don't believe it is ethical to take any shot that is not aimed squarely at the vitals, regardless of the size of the broadheads. Nor would a big broadhead make me more likely to take longer shots.

On average, my shots today may be slightly longer than they were 20 years ago, but I'd bet the difference is not more than five yards. If I hunted Western game more often, the difference would be larger, I suspect. The problem with longer shots is not so much human error, but the fact that game animals can, and do, sometimes move while the arrow is in the air. The longer the shot, the more they are able to move, resulting in a poor hit. For this reason, I don't take many long shots, even when I feel my skills are up to the task.

The only additional concession to technology is the fact that I now at least consider some shot angles that I was unwilling to take when I first started. Again, these are just a small number of my overall shots at game.

Without question, today's equipment makes us more efficient killers, and with this efficiency comes the opportunity to shoot farther and drive the arrow deeper. Given this opportunity, I think it is fair for experienced hunters to carefully rethink their shot selection criteria, while beginners should take only the tried and true close, broadside shots until they gain experience.

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