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August 1, 2023
The subject of hunting bows can be controversial to some, but after over 40 years of bowhunting as well as over 30 years as a competitive target and 3-D shooter, there are a few “must-haves” when it comes to finding the best hunting bow.
First off, let me say that there are many great hunting bows out there nowadays, and personal preference certainly comes into play when choosing the best bow for your particular style of hunting, but here are a few basics that I have found should be considered imperative to every bow hunter, regardless of their hunting location or game hunted.
But before I go into these details, I want to establish the parameters on which I am basing these statements. For this discussion, we are talking about the most popular equipment and shooting styles — a compound bow with a shooter using a good modern release aid and bow-mounted sights. This is not a discussion about traditional bows, crossbows, or those who shoot without the sights of a release aid.
Now let’s look at some of the things that you should consider when shopping for a new hunting bow.
First and foremost, make sure that the bow has the proper draw length. Correct draw lengths can be achieved with most any compound bow that has a draw length setting that fits your personal stature, so while this is critical to your success, this article will focus more on the variables within the bow model itself that make one particular choice generally better than others for most bow hunters.
First on our list is cam style, or more accurately, the draw force curve that each cam system style creates and the resulting performance. I feel that for most bow hunters, having a bow that is drawn with relative ease is imperative. That means one that you can draw with your bow hand pointed at the target without any wild gyrations up or to the side to get it back. Of course, the bow’s poundage has a lot to do with this (more on that later). However, cam design also plays a critical role.
If your bow has a cam design with a radical draw cycle that hits peak weight early on and maintains that pull throughout the draw cycle, it will invariably be more difficult to draw in a hunting situation when maybe you are not in an optimum position or the cold or excitement kicks in.
These extreme draw cycles do increase the bow’s efficiency and, therefore will launch an arrow at a faster speed, but all that doesn’t help you much if you can’t get the bow drawn or if drawing creates so much movement and noise that the animal reacts to it when you try to draw.
Fortunately, nowadays, there are some really efficient cams. The cam system delivers a smooth draw force curve that builds poundage a little slower in the cycle and drops off smoother in the back end, which also produces amazing performance and a smooth draw cycle.
Two great examples of this type of cam is the New PSE Evolve and E-2, cam systems. In my experience, these are the best cam system I have seen for hunting bow accuracy and performance in an easy-to-draw configuration. Other brands also have great cam systems as well, but in my opinion, the Evolve systems shine above the rest.
One more important thing to remember about the cam system is the length of the “valley”. This refers to the amount of draw cycle that is remaining after the cam breaks over to its full draw holding weight. Recently, some bows have really been pushing the envelope with this and making the valley shorter and shorter. These cams break over hard from peak weight to full draw holding weight, and there is very little room in between the two extremes. While this design can certainly add a few feet per second to your arrow, the downside is a “jumpy” feeling cam that will pull away hard if you let up even slightly from the solid back wall of the draw cycle.
This may not be a problem on the target range shooting relatively flat terrain, but that changes dramatically when shooting up or downhill — especially uphill. You see, when shooting at angles (most notably uphill), the effort it takes to hold the bow at full draw is increased due to the structure of the human body. In these situations, the bow can tend to pull forward more easily, resulting in severe issues. I have seen more than a few times where the shot completely gets away from the shooter when his jumpy cams pull forward during the aiming process and send the arrow to parts unknown.
Having a longer valley gives the shooter more lead way when shooting at the extreme angles that we see a lot in hunting situations. The result is more accuracy and repeatability shot to shot, which will inevitably lead to more filled tags.
The brace height of the bow can also play an important role in determining the overall “forgiveness” of the bow (how well the bow shoots when you make shooting form mistakes).
Brace Height is the distance from the bow’s grip to the string when the bow is at rest. This distance can vary from 4 ½ inches to as high as 8 ½ inches. Generally, the lower the brace height, the faster the bow will shoot due to the increased time the string is pushing against the arrow nock during the shot. While speed can be a great thing, the issues arises in two areas on bows with super short brace heights.
First, because the string is engaged with the nock for a longer period of time, it also means the shooter’s form must stay perfect for a longer time. To some, it may seem like all this happens so quickly, does an added millisecond of string engagement really matter? However, in truth, the faster the string disengages from the nock, the less time there is for shooter inconsistencies to alter the flight of the arrow. And yes, a millisecond or two can make a world of difference where this is concerned.
The second issue with short brace bows is the clearance between the bow arm and the string. This can be especially problematic when you need to wear heavier clothing when hunting on that chilly morning or that all-day November sit. If the bowstring contacts your sleeve on the shot, you have no chance of that arrow finding its mark, so once again, all that performance means nothing at all.
The other side of that coin is the performance loss in bows with super high brace heights. In these bows, the arrow leaves the string very early in the shot cycle, and you have loads of arm clearance. However, the resulting performance loss can be detrimental to both the trajectory of the arrow in flight and the terminal performance when it hits your animal.
For this reason, the middle of the road is usually best. For most shooters of average capability, a brace height between 6 ½ inches and 7 ½ inches will allow good bow performance and a relatively forgiving bow without sacrificing too much in either shootability or performance.
The let off of the cam refers to how much draw weight the shooter is holding at full draw as compared to the peak pulling weight during the draw cycle. Most modern compounds have let off that varies from 65% to over 90% (some like the PSE Evolve 2 cam shown, have adjustable off). That means if your draw weight is 70 pounds, you’re holding the draw weight at full draw would be 24.5 pounds with a 65% let off and only 7 pounds with the 90% let off version.
As you might imagine, this range can make a huge difference when you are at full draw and must wait for the animal to give you that perfect shot opportunity. While some shooters feel that they are slightly more consistent with a little higher holding weight, I have always felt that it pales in comparison to having the added ability to hold your bow at full draw for the longest possible time when in a hunting situation. So many times I have drawn on an animal only to have it take an extra step out of a clear shooting lane or turn, offering a bad shot angle. In these situations, being able to hold comfortably at full draw (sometimes for several minutes) until the animal clears or offers a decent angle is critical.
That is why I always opt for the highest possible let off on all my hunting bows, and for me, the higher let off is also more accurate.
One of the biggest innovations to come to the bow building art is the advancement in parallel and now even beyond parallel bow limbs. This means that rather than the bow’s limbs bending backward toward the shooter when drawn and jolting forward on the shot, now the bow’s limbs flex vertically, basically straight up and down toward each other when the bow is drawn, and upon release, they return to position by moving straight away from each other.
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The advantages of this design include drastically less felt recoil on the shot, greatly enhanced efficiency, and less shot noise. This is a win–win for everyone, and there is really no downside to having a hunting bow designed with parallel, or even better yet, beyond parallel limb configuration.
The bow will be easier to shoot accurately and with much less noise than the old-style vertical limb bows that would jump forward on the shot due to the inertia of the heavy bow limbs traveling forward toward the target. The advent of this new bow limb design has also resulted in efficiencies that reach close to 90% in some models. Bottom line — insist on parallel and accurate bow limbs on any new hunting bow.
I touched on this area a bit earlier in this article, but the poundage, or mass weight, of your hunting bow is one of the most critical decisions a shooter can make when choosing a new hunting rig.
First off, you must have at least enough poundage to be legal for hunting in whatever state and for whatever species you plan to pursue. Most states have minimum draw weights for hunting bows, and some have different minimums for different species. This is to ensure that bow hunters have enough raw power to take game effectively with archery gear.
In most states, bows of 40 pounds are the minimum for deer-sized game. So for beginning archers and some ladies, this is one of the first hurdles you must overcome. The good news is that with modern compound bows, the efficiency has gone up exponentially in the past 10 to 15 years, and now even a few bows with a 40-pound draw weights will produce forces that rival those of 60 to 70 lbs. pound bows from just a few years ago.
With that said, you should still strive to shoot the heaviest poundage that you can draw easily. This just gives you the most power from your bow that you can get, which is always nice to have. But remember — you MUST be able to pull your hunting bow while your bow hand is pointed at your target without a lot of straining and gyrations up, down, or sideways. If you struggle with this and you have time, you may be able to work up to that level with consistent and regular daily practice, but if you find yourself still struggling a week or two before your hunt, you are best served by turning the bow poundage down to a level you can pull easily.
Again, if you can’t get your bow back without tipping off your game, all the speed and power of the fastest bow in the world won’t help you.
String angle is important for the bow hunter because this will greatly determine where your peep site is mounted in the string as well as how large the aperture of your peep will need to be to center your sight housing. In the old days, it was the general rule that the shorter the axel to axel length, the more severe the string angle, and therefore the farther away the peep sight would be from your eye when aiming.
Nowadays, however, many bows with short axel to axel lengths also have large diameter cams, which in effect, reduce the sting angle when the bow is drawn. What this does for you in the woods is give you a bow that is relatively short and easy to maneuver but still has a string angle that allows you to use a peep sight that is close enough to your eye to allow reasonable light through for those critical low light shooting situations.
The key here is having your peep sight close enough to your eye so you don’t have to use a super small peep aperture in order to center your bow sight housing. Small apertures are harder to see through when the light is fading, and this is when most bow hunting shots occur. Your draw length will also affect the string angle, so those with longer draws may want to consider a little longer axel length bow to begin with.
Besides the basic features of the bow itself, there are many add-on accessories and gear that will greatly aid in your bowhunting success. Two of the most important of these are the stabilizer system and the wrist sling.
The stabilizer is a simple device that works to help you hold the bow steady on the target and reduce the effect of the torque that is induced by the pulling of the bow’s cables to one side to allow for arrow clearance.
All compound bows have this issue, and the stabilizer is just a simple lever that helps keep the bow pointed straight at the target on the shot by adding resistance to the side forces that are induced by the cable guard system and bow mounted accessories that also affect the bow’s post shot reaction. Basically, it creates an effective shot stability system that helps keep your bow from twisting. This will greatly reduce left-right misses as well as make it easier to make the release go off correctly because the sight is setting steadier on the target.
The wrist sling is another simple device that fits loosely around the bow hand’s wrist and keeps the bow from falling out of your hand on the shot. To some, this seems like a weird thing to worry about; however, any advanced shooter will tell you that there should be no tension in your front hand during the shot and certainly no gripping of the bow. Any muscle involvement, whether intentional or reactionary, from the front hand will always result in diminished accuracy. The front hand should be holding the bow completely loose, with no gripping either before or after the shot. If you shoot correctly and do not use a bow sling, the bow should actually end up on the ground in front of you. If it doesn’t, then you are inducing accuracy eating torque from your grip during the shot cycle. The bow sling simply keeps the bow from falling to the ground.
No matter how well-versed you are as a bow hunter and archer, the fact remains that bowhunting is a close-range sport, and the closer you are to your target animal, the easier it is to place a killing shot on that animal consistently.
There is no doubt, in the right hands, a modern compound bow is fully capable of making fatal shots on the game out to 80 yards and even further. With that said, accuracy and killing percentages go up exponentially the closer the animal is to the shooter. You are simply going to make a fatal shot much more often at 20 yards than you will at 60. It’s just common sense.
One great new technology that can make getting this close much easier is the HECS concealment system. This system is patented and provides substantially more concealment than any visual camo pattern ever could. This is due to the fact that HECS gear actually uses a conductive carbon grid woven right into the specialized fabric that blocks your body’s natural bioelectric signature. It is now known that most of the animals we hunt actually use these tiny electrical emissions to verify the movements of living beings from inanimate ones. This will allow the bow hunter to approach their quarry much closer, and the game will stay calmer as well. This allows for many more of those high-success shot opportunities, which equals more meat in the freezer!
Learn more about HECS at www.hecshunting.com.
So the opportunity for today’s bow hunter’s to get the perfect bow for hunting any game has never been better. There are many great bow options from many different manufacturers, but if you keep these few basic keys in mind, you will soon be shooting the ultimate bow for your style of hunting. This will help you be confident in the hunting fields, and that will result in much more enjoyment and success. And that is really what it’s all about!
Mike Slinkard has been successfully bow hunting and competitively shooting all over the world for over 3 decades. His success hinges on the accuracy he can achieve with his chosen equipment.
Currently, Mike is shooting the PSE Levitate bow at 70 pounds and a 28.5” draw length. He has a Spot Hogg “tommy hog” sight with 7 pins set from 20 to 80 yards. He uses his bottom pin as a “rover” for shots beyond 80 yards. He uses the AAE Elevate rest, Bee Stinger stabilizers, TAP torque-reducing cable guard, custom string stops set at 90% let off, Spot Hogg “Wise Guy” release, and Victory TKO 300 spine arrows with trophy Taker Shuttle T Broadheads. His arrow weight is 455 grains, and they are traveling at 290 feet per second. This combination has been effective on everything from elk, deer, black bears, assorted African game, and even Alaskan Brown bears.
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Mike Slinkard is a life long bow hunter, professional archer, successful entrepreneur, and self described science geek from the rural town of John Day Oregon. Mike has spent his life in close proximity to all types of animals. His grandfather was a well known cattle and horse rancher who first instilled Mike’s keen interest in animals and why they react the way they do in different situations. Mike’s insatiable curiosity in this realm led him to team with other professionals to make the HECS discovery in 2009. Mike has hunted all over the world and has taken over 30 species with archery gear including 48 elk to date. Mike currently hosts “Hunting with HECS TV” on the Pursuit Channel. He has also written many bow hunting and archery articles as well as being a guest on many different hunting podcasts.