When done correctly, bow hunting can be just as quick and humane as hunting with a rifle. When done incorrectly, it can be a disaster, both for the hunter and for the animal. Good technique is critical, but it’s also easy to learn. After just a few sessions on the range, you’ll have the confidence to bring down even the biggest buck.
So what does it take to be a good bow hunter?
First, you’ll need to understand the basics; how to hold your bow, how to draw it and how to aim it. You’ll also need to choose a good bow for your size and strength. After that, you’ll need to put together a kit, with arrows, quiver, sight and trigger at a bare minimum. And that’s before you spend any time on the archery range.
Now you’ve got your kit, and you’ve practiced. Great! Before you go hunting, you’ll still need to get a license. And then you’ll need to understand the basics of deer hunting so you don’t spook your prey. A lot of those techniques will be familiar to people who’ve hunted with firearms in the past.
But there are a few key differences with bow hunting, mostly due to the fact that bow ranges are short compared to guns. Even experienced rifle hunters will need to up their game to reliably bring venison home from a bow hunt.
If that all sounds daunting, it’s really not that bad. We’re going to walk you through each step of the process, with plenty of helpful hints along the way.
Fundamentals of Archery
Equipment is the sexy part of hunting. Hunters will spend hours telling you about their favorite air rifle or bow, and people on firing ranges are usually excited to show off their gear. We’ll get to gear in a minute, though. The fact is that before you choose a bow, you’ll need to understand how to use it.
Picking a bow before you know how to shoot is like choosing a rifle without knowing the difference between a bolt action and an autoloader. With that in mind, let’s talk about how to draw and aim properly.
As with any other sport, proper archery starts with your feet. Keep them about shoulder-width apart, at a 90-degree angle to your target. If you draw a line between your big toes, it should point more or less straight at the target, just like a good golf stance.
If you watch a lot of movies, you probably picture archers holding onto the middle of their bow with a clenched fist. This is actually a terrible idea. Holding the bow in your fist causes you to tighten your arm muscles, and you’ll tend to twist the bow as you release, wrecking your accuracy.
Instead, hold the bow in the web between your thumb and forefinger, and keep your fingers loose. A lot of archers even let their fingers hang, just so they don’t accidentally grip the bow. Ideally, you’ll want to make as little contact with the bow as possible, applying just enough pressure with your thumb and forefinger to hold the bow up and aim it.
Drawing Your Bow
Once you have an arrow nocked, hold onto your release with your dominant hand, and push forward on the bow itself with your bow hand. You want to hold it as far from your body as possible, while still keeping your elbow flexed. Locking your elbow is bad, since it causes your muscles to tighten up, giving you less control over your aim.
Now pull back on the bowstring, keeping your draw elbow pointed in an upward direction. You’ll want to pull the back of an arrow to a comfortable, easy to remember spot. Most archers draw to the point of their chin or the corner of their mouth, but do what works for you.
The important part isn’t the exact location of your draw, but consistently drawing to the same spot every time. If you draw to your chin one time and to your cheek the next time, your shots are going to go all over the place.
Not all sights are the same, but most have a similar design. There’s a small peep site closer to your body, and a larger bow sight further out. Both of these sights are round, and the bow sight has one or more pins inside it for marking where the arrow will strike at various distances. If you line up your bow so the peep sight exactly overlaps the bow sight, your arrow should fall exactly where the pin is.
Much like with a rifle, your bow sight will need to be zeroed in and adjusted before you hunt with it. Also much like a rifle, it’s a good idea to learn the basics of shooting without a sight before you start using one.
A modern bow release has a trigger, so your fingers aren’t actually holding the bowstring. Instead, you simply pull the trigger on the release, and it lets go of the string for you.
Once again, there are some similarities to shooting a rifle. If you pull the trigger with a sudden jerk, you’re going to flinch involuntarily, lowering your accuracy. Not only that, the jerking motion itself can cause your shot to go astray. Squeeze the trigger slowly, so it surprises you when the bowstring releases.
In the case of archery, follow-through is easy. Just don’t do anything. Keep your bow steady until the arrow strikes your target. This will prevent you from lowering the bow too early, spoiling your shot.
No Dry Firing
If you’re used to rifle hunting, you’re probably accustomed to dry firing a new rifle to get a feel for the trigger. While this is perfectly safe to do with a centerfire rifle, it can destroy a bow.
The reason for this is the way these two weapons work. When a rifle fires, the firing pin strikes the cartridge, setting off the primer and causing the powder to explode. In a dry fire, the firing pin strikes nothing, and nothing happens.
When you fire a bow, the energy of the string is released directly into the arrow. Without an arrow to absorb that force, all the energy from the string gets released back into the bow. This can cause severe damage, in particular with compound bows which have a lot of parts. In the worst cases, a dry fire can even cause the whole compound to explode.
Dry fires can happen by accident if the nock on your arrow is damaged. If the arrow slips off the string during the shot, it can lead to an accidental dry fire, with the same catastrophic results. This is one reason to always check your equipment before shooting.
Different Types of Bows
Now that we’ve covered technique, we can get into the most exciting part of bowhunting: the bows themselves. There are several types of bows available, so we’ll tackle each variety individually.
Traditional bows – sometimes called “simple bows” – are the most basic type of bow available. They have arms that curve straight back towards you, and generally have the least strength of any kind of bow. They’ve been obsolete since at least the time of ancient Greece, when Homer writes about Greek warriors using recurve bows.
The exception to this is a special kind of traditional bow: the longbow. Longbows make up for their basic construction by being taller than the archer. Their size gives them incredible power. This is a historical weapon for serious enthusiasts; it’s not a good hunting bow.
Recurve bows are by far the most popular type of bow. The arms on this bow are curved towards you in the middle but curve back away from you towards the tips. This double curve basically doubles the strength of the bow. Most armies in history have used recurve bows.
These bows are the best choice for beginners, since they give you more than enough power for hunting without any complex parts or adjustments.
Compound bows were invented much more recently, in the 1960s. They were designed specifically for hunting large game, where you may want to hold the bow drawn for an extended period while you’re waiting for the animal to present for a good shot.
These bows use a series of cams and pulleys to store the energy from the draw. A powerful compound bow will be just as hard to pull as a recurve at first, but as you draw the string further back the pulleys will take more and more strain off your hand. At full draw, they’re almost like holding nothing at all.
There are some other types of bows out there, most of which were only used it a few times and places. One variety that’s still in use today is the Japanese Yumi. These bows are made from a mixture of bamboo and wood, which isn’t as strong as hardwoods like yew.
To compensate for the weaker material, the Samurai made these bows taller than a man, with a design that’s similar to a recurve bow. While Yumi’s are too cumbersome to be useful for hunting, they’re still used in Japanese martial arts.
Another type of rarely-used bow is the decurve bow. A decurve bow is the opposite of a recurve, and actually turns towards the user towards the tip. This makes the string almost totally slack when not drawn, but doesn’t pack much punch.
These bows were used by tribes like the Mojave, who lacked hardwoods for making sturdier bows. It allowed them to have something for hunting in the absence of hardwoods. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a decurve bow today, though. There’s no reason to use one unless it’s a historical recreation.
Reflex bows take the idea of a recurve to the extreme. When unstrung, the arms curve away from the user along their full length. This gives them extreme levels of tension, and they can be significantly shorter than a recurve bow while still being extremely powerful. They were designed for shooting from horseback, where a long bow can be a hindrance. Some of history’s most feared horse archers – including the Huns, the Mongols, and the Parthians – used reflex bows.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a true reflex bow these days. Most so-called “reflex bows” on the market are actually just very short compound bows with extra stiff arms for more resistance.
Crossbows are their own special breed. They were first designed in ancient China to solve the main problem ancient militaries had with archers: they’re hard to train! Using a regular bow takes training and practice, but the Chinese were able to equip peasant armies with crossbows and have them trained very quickly. In modern times, crossbows are rarely used as a military weapon, but have experienced a resurgence as a popular style of hunting bow.
A crossbow typically has a much stronger pull than a regular bow, but it also has a shorter draw distance, so the arrow will fire with similar force. To fire a crossbow, you simply crank back the drawstring, nock an arrow, aim , and pull the trigger.
Crossbows are controversial among bowhunters. Some people love them because they’re easy to use. Others think they’re too easy to use, and take the skill out of the sport.
What is the Best Bow For Hunting?
While we’ve talked about several types of bow, there are really three choices if you’re using one for hunting: a compound, a recurve or a crossbow.
If you’re used to hunting with a firearm, a crossbow will be close to that experience, just quieter and at shorter range. It’s a perfectly viable way to kill a deer, but it doesn’t give you the full experience. Compared to a recurve or compound bow, there’s not much technique involved.
That said, you’ll still have to deal with a lot of the challenges of bowhunting, especially the short-range. It might not take much skill to draw and fire a crossbow, but getting within thirty yards of a prize buck is a challenge in and of itself.
If you’re looking for a more traditional bow, whether a compound or a recurve is best for you is a matter of preference. Compound bows are easier to hold, but recurve bows have a smoother draw, since the resistance is consistent throughout the length of the draw.
A lot of hunters prefer recurves for small game, since you can draw them faster and release faster without sacrificing accuracy. This makes them ideal for sniping a rabbit before it runs off. Bow fishermen almost always use recurves for the same reason. When you need a lightning-fast shot, there’s no better option.
Compounds are generally considered better for big game. Imagine that you’ve got a bead on a big buck, but he’s facing straight towards you. You know that taking a frontal shot with a bow is risky, so you wait for him to turn away. Except he stops to eat something, and now you’re standing there with your bow drawn.
A recurve bow is going to get heavy fast in that situation. After a minute, you’ll be sweating and your hands will be shaking. With a compound bow, you can wait as long as you need for that perfect shot.
Fundamentals of Bow Hunting
To begin with, let’s state the obvious: you’re going to have to get close, within about 30 yards or so of your target. This means you’ll need to be downwind of your target, since deer will smell you well before they get within that range.
The best spot for this is near the edge of a hill or ravine, where the wind is blowing consistently in the opposite direction. Deer urine is useful as well, since it will help to mask your unique human odor.
You’ll also need to be very careful about your profile. A lot of inexperienced hunters hide behind cover, but forget to watch their backs. Make sure there’s a dense bush or pile of scrub behind you, to keep deer from spotting your silhouette.
A deer call is a useful tool you don’t want to be without. They don’t always work, but they can make a deer stop in its tracks, or turn around. Be careful about decoys, though. Sometimes they attract deer, but timid bucks are likely to spook and run when they see one.
Know The Animal’s Anatomy
A lot of hunters only practice on dummy targets that have a nice big kill zone marked on the side. This is fine for practicing broadside shots, but deer don’t always present that perfectly in the field.
All too often, you’ll find them quartering away or towards you, which can lead to a liver or gutshot if you’re aiming for a broadside kill zone. If you’re hunting from a tree stand, you’ll need to aim a little higher and further back to hit the heart.
No matter what, you’ll need to have a three-dimensional picture of the deer’s guts in your head. Know where the heart and lungs are, and shoot for that location inside the animal, not for a kill zone on their side.
Track Your Kill
The ideal bow kill is quick and clean. A well-aimed broadside shot will penetrate the heart and both lungs. The deer is liable to jump, and drop-dead within a couple of seconds. But not every shot is ideal. You may hit one lung, or nick a major artery.
This will still lead to a quick death, but the animal may run a hundred yards or more before it dies. Worse yet, you may hit the liver or guts, which leads to a slow and painful death.
After your shot, go to the spot where you hit the deer, and look for blood or your arrow on the ground. The blood will be your first clue as to the animal’s condition. If it’s pink and bubbly, congratulations! The deer is almost certainly heart shot, and should be easy to track down by the trail of blood.
If the blood is darker, you’re looking at a liver or muscle shot. Track the deer, looking for trampled down, broken tree limbs, or blood on the ground. As a hunter, it’s your responsibility to use as much effort as possible to track down your kill. Keep an arrow nocked while you’re tracking it, just in case it’s still alive and you need to make another shot.
Must Have Bow Accessories
You don’t need to have a bow with all the bells and whistles, but there are a few accessories you’re going to need in order to have a successful bow hunt. Here are a few of them.
For hunting, you’re going to want some broadhead arrows. These are wider and sharper than target arrows, and will do a lot of damage when they hit a live target. Target arrows are a better choice for practicing, since they’re cheaper, and you won’t be dulling your broadheads on a target.
Modern quivers generally clamp onto the side of the bow opposite the sight. There’s no reason to get fancy here, but the alternative is to use an old-school quiver that hangs on your back. These have a tendency to snag on branches, and can overturn and dump your arrows out if you need to move quickly.
A release is the tool you use to pull back the bowstring and has a trigger for releasing the string. There are two main styles: a wrist strap release and a handheld release. Wrist strap releases mount on your wrist, and you pull the trigger with your index finger.
These are a great choice for people who are used to shooting rifles, since the feel is very similar. A handheld release has a trigger that you press with your thumb. Both styles are equally accurate, so which type you use is a matter of preference.
Bow Hunting Licenses
Most states require a bowhunting license to actually shoot anything with your bow. These rules vary from state to state, and many states have exceptions for hunting on private land. Other states, such as New York, are even more strict, and require a special hunter safety course in order to get your license.
Bowhunting season typically takes place at the very beginning of hunting season, when the deer are least skittish and most likely to stray close to humans. In some states, crossbows have their own separate season, or are restricted to certain counties. Check your state’s regulations to make sure you don’t fall afoul of the law.
Where Can You Practice?
If you own a firearm, practicing is a pretty cut and dried thing: rural people can usually shoot in the backyard to their heart’s content. Folks in cities and suburbs need to go to a gun club or shooting range. With archery, the lines can get a little bit blurrier. Here are a few ideas for archery practice.
Your Own Backyard
If you live in the country, this is a no-brainer. In the suburbs, check your local regulations, but many locations have no problem with people shooting a bow and arrow on their own property, provided there are no safety issues. Safety is really the key here since the last thing you want is to miss your target and have your arrow go into the neighbor’s yard.
Town or City Parks
This is another thing you’ll want to check with your local authorities about, but some towns and cities allow archery in public parks. Much like with shooting in your yard, safety can be an issue here. Make sure there’s nothing behind your target that you don’t want to hit.
Not every firing range welcomes archery. The main issue here is that rifle and pistol shooters typically take dozens of shots at a target before they need to go downrange and put up a new one. Unless you have a Robin Hood-sized quiver, you’re probably shooting half a dozen arrows at the most, which means needing to call all-clear more often so you can retrieve your arrows.
Many firing ranges allow archery, though, so it’s definitely worth asking. Make sure to be courteous of others on the range, and wait a few minutes before asking for an all-clear.
Archery Stores and Clubs
Archery is more of a niche sport than shooting, so there aren’t a ton of dedicated archery ranges, although they do exist. Your best bet is to find a club or a shop with an indoor testing range. A lot of owners, particularly at small local shops, are more than happy to have people come in for target practice as long as they’re not in the way of customers.
Colleges and Universities
Most colleges and universities have an archery team, and those teams need somewhere to practice. Call up the school’s athletic director and find out what their policies are on members of the public using their range. Your mileage may vary. Some schools will say “absolutely not”, and others will be more than happy to let you come use their facilities when the team isn’t practicing.
Top Tips For Improving Accuracy
We’ve already talked about the basics of archery: stance, grip, draw and follow-through. But there are a few more things you can do to improve your aim.
Relax Your Muscles
The human body has a remarkable ability to tense up during a stressful situation. Whether you’re shooting at a paper target or a live one, the pressure of trying to make a shot can cause you to tense up your back, your arms, and your legs.
All of this has a negative effect on your accuracy. When you’re practicing, make a conscious effort to relax every part of your body that isn’t actually touching the bow. The looser you are, the more accurate you’ll be.
Breath Control is Key
Rifle shooters will be familiar with this rule. When you’re breathing, you use your diaphragm, which is located smack in the middle of your torso. It’s impossible to flex or relax your diaphragm without moving your abdominal and lower back muscles. These muscles, in turn, are impossible to move without moving the rest of your body.
The solution to this problem is controlled breathing. Before you shoot, take a deep breath. Then breathe out slowly. When you’re about a quarter to halfway done exhaling, release your shot. This will not only help you relax your muscles, but will also lower your heart rate, improving accuracy.
Fighting Target Panic
Target panic is a problem that even professional archers have to face down from time to time. Basically, you find yourself releasing the arrow as fast as possible the moment it’s lined up with the bulls eye. As we know, sudden shots are inaccurate shots.
The problem here is all in your head. You can control target panic by practicing aiming and not shooting. Draw your bow, line up your shot, then hold in that position as long as possible. Release slowly without firing, and repeat the process a few dozen times. If you do this 30 to 50 times every time you practice, you’ll be less likely to succumb to target panic when there’s a ten point buck on the line.
Video on Bow Hunting for Beginners
Despite the widespread availability of hunting rifles in the US, bow hunting remains a popular sport. According to a 2012 study by the US Department of the Interior, 8.4 million Americans went bow hunting that year. And just like everyone has their own favorite bow, everyone has their own reason they love bow hunting.
The two most common reasons you’ll hear are the added challenge as opposed to rifle hunting, and the ethics of a “fairer” hunt. Both of these reasons stem from the same assumption: a bow is harder to hunt with than a rifle is.
Let’s be honest. Hunting with a rifle isn’t exactly easy. Sure, you can tag a buck from 200 yards or more with the right gear. But long-distance shooting requires a lot of practice, an experienced eye for distance, and an understanding of windage.
From closer ranges, rifle hunters run into a lot of the same issues bow hunters run into; your unmistakable human smell, and sharp-eyed deer spotting you and spooking just before you take your shot.
Still, there’s nothing like the thrill of luring a deer into a blind for a close bow kill or stalking one to get the perfect broadside shot. And every yard closer the deer gets, the more chance there is that it’s going to spook.
No matter why you want to go bow hunting, we hope our tips helped you prepare for the experience. With the right sized bow, the right draw, and a good set of broadheads, you’ll be well on your way to a successful hunt. And remember, practice, practice, practice.