LAST UPDATED: May 1st, 2015
This topic that has the potential to start World War III, so before we begin discussing it, let’s set aside our bow-brand jihadism and take a realistic look at building the ultimate hunting bow.
We have to start by defining what makes a bow setup great for hunting. There will always be differences in opinion on particular details, but we should all be able to agree on this:
The perfect bow should be setup to be as effective as possible for the widest variety of realistic hunting situations that bowhunters encounter.
We need speed, yes, but we also want shootability and consistency. Missing fast isn’t effective, but neither are arrows that impact without energy.
We want a setup that provides accuracy (capable of tightly stacking arrows when all goes well) and forgiveness (doesn’t react harshly to variations in our form or shot release).
This bow needs to withstand the rigors of hiking mountains, climbing tree stands, enduring heat, cold, wind, rain, and snow. Durability and reliability are paramount.
Consistently delivering a well-placed, broadhead-tipped arrow with high energy is what building the perfect hunting bow is all about.
The Complete Package
A bow is only as good as the functional components that are bolted to it. It’s trivial to label items like the rest, sight, and arrows as “accessories”, because they are integral to the performance aspects that we just talked about. It is also these components that tend to be the weakest link in a bow setup. Let’s address these items first.
The first step I take in analyzing gear is to consider the K.I.S.S. Principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid). The simplest of all hunting rests is the Whisker Biscuit; I have shot them for years, and they do perform quite well. Loss of speed and decreased accuracy from increased arrow contact are common concerns with this design, but in my real-life testing, neither issue was prevalent. There are, however, other problems that I have experienced firsthand with this type of rest, including: noise upon draw with some arrows, increased wear and tear on arrow fletching, and the performance of the rest in wet or freezing weather.
I switched to mechanical, drop-down and fall-away rests several years back and had very good luck with most of these rests, but others have proven to be troublesome to setup and unreliable over a long season of hard hunting. These days I tend to stay clear of cable-drive rests for hunting bows and use drop-down rests that are activated by the bow’s limb. These rests, which are naturally in the “up” position at full-draw, and are pulled down when the limbs are extended upon the arrow’s release, eliminate the need to tune drop-down timing. In the rare case that you break, cut, or strike the activation cord in the field, all you have to do to repair the rest is tie a new one one and keep hunting; whereas, with a cable-driven rest, you would have to worry about fall-away timing an inaccuracies due to clearance and contact issues.
Trophy Taker’s Smackdown Pro arrow rest provides the consistency of a limb-driven system, incredible durability, silent operation, and full-containment for hunting situations. This is one of many high quality drop-away arrow rests available to today’s bow hunter.
Single-pin adjustable or fixed multiple-pin? That’s an important question to answer when selecting the perfect bow sight. My preference is to go for both in the same sight!
I love the simplified sight picture of a single-pin sight, and the pin-point accuracy of being able to dial the sight to a specific yardage increment. But I also appreciate the ability to “pick the pin” with a multiple-pin sight and know that I don’t have to dial my sight to a specific yardage. It’s also nice to be able to quickly “gap” between multiple pins for those in-between yardages.
A multiple-pin, slider-style adjustable bow sight is the best of both worlds and makes for an incredibly versatile hunting sight.
A 3-pin, slider-style sight provides a simplified sight picture (how can anyone be expected to keep 7 pins straight in the heat of the moment!?), the ability to have a fixed sight with set pins for common shot distances (0-40 yards), and the ability to dial the sight out and have precise yard-by-yard accurate for longer shots. I have been using style of sight for years, and it’s the perfect solution for long-range practice, whitetail hunting (where most shots are close), and hunting out West (where the chances of a longer-distance shot increase significantly).
For close, quick shots you have a few pins to work with, and gaps to hold for, and for longer shots – where you’ll have more time to range and come up with exact yardages – you can dial the sight in and focus on just one pin.
Beyond sight pin configuration, look for a sight that offers adjustability on all axes, including 3rd-axis adjustment and an adjustable bubble level. You’ll also want a sight that features bright pins with plenty of fiber optics; however make sure those fibers are well protected to stand up to the rigors of whatever you may throw at it.
Whether you select a single pin adjustable, multiple fixed-pin, or multiple-pin adjustable sight make sure you select one that is built well and will handle the duties you intend to use it for. A popular sight with whitetail hunters, the HHA Optimizer series (above) features an extremely bright and fully protected fiber optic pin.
There are so many different arrows on the market that it’s almost impossible to not be overwhelmed by the options. Most hunting arrows will perform adequately in most hunting situations – assuming, of course, that you are shooting the proper spine of that arrow model for your bow. But in this article, we want better than adequate – we want what’s ideal.
If you want the perfect hunting arrow, you’ll obviously need good straightness and weight tolerances. Beyond that, you need to pay particular attention to arrow diameter and shaft weight (GPI, “grains per inch”). Physics and scientific research make a strong case for “heavy and skinny” arrows, and my experience has convinced me that the benefit of using these arrows is real.
An arrow that is thinner in diameter will have less surface area, which means that during flight it is more resistant to wind drift, and upon impact with an animal there is less friction, which results in more penetration.
Similarly, as you increase the weight of an arrow you are increasing both kinetic energy and momentum, which results in even greater penetration – even though some speed is lost. As an added benefit, a heavier arrow also results in a much quieter bow.
So, while you might be able to get away with a “fast and light” arrow on smaller, thin-skinned game – if you want the perfect hunting bow that’s suitable for a wide variety of hunting situations, then heavier than average is better than average. I have shot arrows from 350-500 grains in total weight, and I have settled upon 425 grains being a good combination of speed, downrange kinetic energy, and momentum for my needs as someone that hunts various sizes and species of animals.
Arrow Recommendation: There are a lot of great brands and models out there! I suggest “building backwards” by determining what you want your final arrow weight to be, then calculate what shaft weight you’ll need for the shaft length that you shoot and the broadhead you use. Then find the arrow shafts that have the right weight for your spine requirements.
Finally, it’s time to talk about the bow itself. Can I just lower your expectations right off the bat and say that bow selection isn’t any more important than anything else we’ve talked about?
The fact is, modern bows are so incredibly good across the board that it is difficult to single out any particular bow and say that it is objectively better than any of a dozen other high-quality bows out there. Nearly every bow manufacturer in the business is making a great product these days, and as much as we like to debate the pros and cons of various models – most of them are very good.
All of that said, I do believe that there are characteristics that hunters should consider when selecting a bow for hunting. First, let’s start with let-off. I believe that a high let-off bow, in the 70-80% range, is best for most hunters and most hunting situations. The easier a bow is to hold at full-draw, the more effective hunters can be at remaining still, calm, and patient when an animal has, or is getting ready to, present a shot opportunity.
Never lose sight of the importance or durability and reliability for every piece of your bow’s setup. The bow package is only as good as the weakest part, and an equipment failure during a hunt is unacceptable. In this photo, the author is rechecking his bow’s performance after it took a long fall down a mountainside in a hail storm. Fortunately, everything was still fully functional and perfectly accurate.
On a related note, consider the valley of the bow’s draw cycle. Whereas a high let-off will decrease holding weight at full-draw, a generous valley will give the hunter some margin to get away with subtly creeping (letting up on) the string. We don’t want to creep, of course, but the fact is – it happens. And what’s better – for the bow to let you get away with some creeping, or for the bow’s cam to engage at the slightest bit of string movement and rip itself back to brace height while you are trying to wait for that buck to take its last step for a clear shot?
I also believe that brace height is a very important element to consider. In the end, I don’t believe that shortening brace height to extreme measures to gain speed is a wise choice for most hunters. When brace height is decreased, forgiveness is typically diminished as well. You might shoot a short brace height bow great on the range, or in pre-season practice, but what happens to your accuracy when you find yourself battling “buck fever”, or contorted into an odd position that breaks down your flawless shooting form? Moreover, a very short brace height bow has other downsides, such as the increased likelihood of interfering with your sleeve – especially when wearing bulkier gear for cold weather. For the ultimate hunting bow I think the brace height should be at least 6.5″, and preferably 7″.
Don’t evaluate the performance of your hunting setup based on shooting in perfect conditions, and with perfect form. What happens when you are stuck at full draw, contorted in an odd position, or trying to shoot trough the adrenaline of a heart-pounding encounter? For these reasons, and many more, don’t just chase the fastest bow on the market; select the one that you can shoot most consistently in all circumstances.