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 bow hunting: 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 in a few times and places. One variety that’s still in use today is the Japanese Yumi. These bows are made from a mixture 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 Yumis 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 longer 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.