How Far Is Too Far?

By PJ ReillyAugust 26, 201410 Comments

LAST UPDATED: May 1st, 2015

“Bad hit!”

I knew it as soon as I released the arrow. The doe was only 20 yards away, but I felt myself pull the bow to the left the instant I touched the release. Not surprisingly, the arrow went left and hit the deer a little far back.

Let’s just call it what it was. A gut shot.

The doe hunched its back when the arrow passed through, then walked away slowly. Hoping for another chance, I quickly nocked another arrow. The doe stayed in some heavy cover, but hit an opening at precisely 53 yards, and turned broadside. I took the shot and sent that second arrow through both lungs. Within seconds, the job was finished.

Fifty-three yards is a good poke with a bow and arrow in the Eastern hardwoods. A lot could have gone wrong. But once my first arrow hit that deer poorly, my usual rules about shooting went out the window. All that mattered was cleaning up the mess I created.

Would I have taken a 53-yard shot with my first arrow?

Maybe.

I have five pins set in 10-yard increments from 20-60 yards on my Spot Hogg Hogg-It sight. And I feel comfortable shooting out to 60 yards. But that’s on the practice range shooting at stationary targets.

Bowhunting trophy
The writer shot this Missouri buck at 35 yards without hesitation.

In a hunting situation, how far is too far?

That’s a loaded question; and the answer certainly is going to vary from bowhunter to bowhunter.

As a general rule, 40 yards is my self-imposed “no-worries” range for hunting whitetails. That means I will take a shot at any whitetail 40 yards and closer without hesitation. I might shoot beyond 40 yards if the conditions are right, but I’m going to put some extra thought into such a shot.

And unless I’m chasing a wounded deer, 60 yards is my absolute maximum, since that’s what my farthest sight pin is set for. If a deer is beyond 60 yards, then it’s too far for me regardless of the circumstances.

Now, it should be noted here that I mainly hunt in Pennsylvania, Maryland and the Midwest, pretty much entirely from tree stands in the woods. The guy who stalks the prairies of North Dakota is going to operate in a completely different world, and so he or she will have different variables to consider.

The truth about where I hunt is most bowhunting shots at deer are 20 yards or less. I have shot dozens of deer over the past three decades, and can count on one hand the number of shots I’ve taken over 40 yards. That’s what happens when you hunt from tree stands in the woods.

Bowhunter using rangefinder
Knowing the precise distance of distant targets is critical for long-range success.

And while 10-yard shots are common for me, they’re going to be rare for ground hunters on the open prairie. In that world, I know guys who will shoot out to 90 yards with confidence.

If you don’t regularly practice shooting at 50, 60, 70 yards etc., then you should never shoot at a deer at those distances. Or maybe you do practice at those distances, but you can’t consistently group your arrows.

A twitch of the arm when shooting at a deer 20 yards away might send your arrow an inch or two off your aiming point. If you think of a deer’s vital as being about the size of an 8-inch paper plate, you’re still going to kill that deer — even with the twitch. That same twitch when shooting at a deer 60 yards out will cause your arrow to hit well outside the vital area. Then you’ve got real problems.

Point being, the greater the distance, the more precise your shooting must be. Some bowhunters just flat don’t have that precision, and so they shouldn’t be taking long shots. They should probably stick to a 30-yard max, or whatever range where their shot groups start falling apart.

Pulling arrows from archery target
When your shot groups start to fall apart, you know you’re shooting too far.

My bow is set with a 74-pound draw weight, and I have a 29-inch draw length. My arrows weigh about 400 grains. With that setup, my arrows will have plenty of momentum at 60 yards to sink into a deer’s body cavity.

If you’re shooting a bow set at 40 or 50 pounds, your arrow is going to lose a lot of punch the farther you shoot. A lot of folks think 45 foot/pounds of kinetic energy is the minimum needed for bowhunting whitetail-sized game. I’m one of them. Shoot through a chronograph and weigh your arrows, then use a kinetic energy calculator to figure out the KE of your arrows.

That KE figure will apply to arrows shot at point-blank range. But if you’re anywhere under 60 foot-pounds when your arrow leaves the bow, then there’s no way you should be shooting at deer beyond 30 yards. Your arrow is going to lose speed – and kinetic energy – fast as it leaves the bow. Such an arrow is likely to not get the job done at 40 or 50 yards, especially on a questionable impact.

Also consider the arc of your arrow when you shoot at long range. You might be able to see a deer’s vital area perfectly from 60 yards away, but that branch 3 feet above its back at 40 yards could deflect your arrow. If you’re not sure about what might be in the arrow’s flight path, don’t take the shot. All it takes is a slight deflection to send your arrow off course, which means you could hit a deer in a non-vital area.

Archer at full drawWestern hunting often requires longer shots in order to be successful.  Despite the seemingly open terrain you can never be too careful of possible obstructions between you and your target, no matter how small they may seem.  Hunter seen wearing Lost Camo.

When it comes to figuring out how far is too far, here’s the bottom line. When you draw back on a deer, the thought going through your mind should be, “I’m going to drill this thing.” You still might not score a perfect hit, due to any number of circumstances, but your confidence should be unwavering.

If your thought at full draw is, “Man, I hope I hit the vitals,” then the shot is too far. Don’t risk it. We owe it to the animals we hunt.

Trust me, the sinking feeling you get when you watch a monster buck walk by at 60 yards and head out of sight without you ever raising your bow is nowhere near as gut-wrenching as the feeling you’d have if you stuck that buck in the hindquarters, and watched it run through the woods carrying your arrow with it.

Clint Eastwood’s famous character Dirty Harry always said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” And that applies to all bowhunters.

PJ Reilly
P.J. Reilly is an avid archer and bowhunter disguised as an outdoor writer. P.J. lives in a swamp in southeast Pennsylvania, where he watches deer and tries to avoid poison ivy.
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