As I researched DEERLAND, I learned a lot about America’s deer-hunting subculture. I was especially fascinated by how profoundly hunters’ gear, tactics, and values have shifted over the space of just a single generation. It turned out the exploding popularity of bowhunting was a big part of that story.
In my last post, I described an even more recent development: how the rising popularity of crossbows has led to much controversy and discord among hunters. Some bowhunters see crossbows as an unfair advantage, while others point out that a modern compound bow is already an extremely effective hunting tool that has a surprisingly short learning curve.
Meanwhile, many anti-hunters unfamiliar with modern archery equipment believe that bowhunters’ shot placement is utterly random. Images like this one further reinforce these perceptions, and those who oppose bowhunting are certain the few arrows that do hit their mark create small, painful wounds that are rarely fatal—and even then, only after hours or days of unbearable suffering. These people believe that bowhunting, more than any other kind of hunting, is unavoidably cruel, unusual, and evil. They’re certain bowhunting is the sport of Satan.
To support this view, they often cite anecdotal evidence or questionable studies from thirty or forty years ago. I won’t try to answer these claims one by one; others already have taken time to do that. Instead, let’s start fresh. Let’s look specifically at modern archery equipment, and let’s examine observable facts. Only then can we begin to answer a question that many hunters might prefer no one raised in the first place: Just how accurate, lethal, and humane is modern bowhunting equipment?
The question deserves rational, objective consideration, and it’s something I learned more about while researching DEERLAND. In my chapter on suburban deer issues, for example, I tagged along with a couple of urban bowhunters. One of their stands was in a three-acre patch of woods nestled behind a row of houses on a quiet cul-de-sac. The other was at the edge of a half-acre lawn just three blocks from downtown. Clearly, these hunters were confident in the knowledge that if they chose their shots carefully, deer wouldn’t go far before toppling over.
Modern enthusiasts have demonstrated that in the right hands, even an atlatl can be a surprisingly effective hunting tool. And for those willing to put in enough practice time, traditional archery gear can arguably be a challenging but still ethical alternative. (As an aside, I suspect many DEERLAND readers have been surprised to learn that Aldo Leopold was an avid bowhunter who played a major role in the sport’s 20th Century renaissance. His favorite bow is now on display at the Pope & Young Club Museum of Bowhunting.)
Modern bowhunting gear, however, is entirely different. Let’s take a closer look. If you’re a bowhunter, the next couple paragraphs will seem very basic. Stick with me. We want to get everyone else up to speed, too.
First, all those pulleys, cams, and cables provide an important mechanical advantage. When a bow is fully drawn, it typically requires 20% of its full draw weight to keep it there. If a bow requires 70 pounds of force to draw, only 14 pounds will be required to hold it at full draw. This allows hunters to use a bow with more draw weight, and it also allows them to hold at full draw for much longer. That’s good, because modern bowhunters need time to aim carefully; they no longer shoot instinctively the moment they reach full draw.
Instead, they carefully align a peep sight on the string with another sight on the bow. (Earlier, they’ll have laboriously and methodically sighted in their bow so it shoots where they’re aiming—just as one would a rifle.) They’re not pulling the string with their fingers, but with a “release aid” strapped around their wrist. The release aid’s jaws grip the string, and are opened by pressing a button or pulling a trigger. The most popular type works and feels just like the trigger on a rifle.
The group of arrows in the photo at the beginning of this post was shot at 20 yards by a relative beginner (me) who had first picked up a bow only a couple weeks earlier. I already had some basic rifle skills, and they seemed to be fairly transferrable.
Admittedly, not all of my groups look like that. Most of them don’t. But for skilled archers, groups like these are the norm at 30 yards, not 20. Here, in the context of testing the importance of seven different equipment variables, are some examples from a recent Field & Stream article. (My impression, by the way, is that most bowhunters understand the importance of practice better than do some rifle hunters.)
Modern arrows fly more accurately, at a higher velocity, and in a flatter trajectory that requires less precision in range estimation. They’re tipped with more advanced broadheads, and many models expand upon impact with a scissor-like motion. Some have a cutting diameter of up to two inches, and yet the arrow often passes completely through the animal. (Apparently bowhunters call this a “pass-through.”)
Whether from a bullet or an arrow, the damage that makes an animal’s death quicker and more humane is not a fun thing to see. But if you’re still unconvinced about the lethality of modern bowhunting equipment, feel free to search the internet for helpful images and videos, sometimes posted by broadhead companies with names like Rage or Killzone. I shall provide no links. Even though I’m a hunter, and even though I co-authored the #1 selling book on how to butcher one’s own deer, I find this sort of footage rather distasteful. So it’s a bit awkward asking antihunting vegans who abhor bowhunting to hurry up and search for, say, “rage broadhead uncensored video blood.” But there you go.
As an adult-onset hunter who thinks a little too much about these questions, I do feel less confident about hunting with a bow. Even with modern bowhunting equipment, things can go wrong. Just as with rifles, some hunters practice less than they should and take shots they shouldn’t. And it could certainly be argued that all else equal, a high-powered rifle is a more reliably humane hunting tool. Today it could also be argued, however, that a modern compound bow is itself a very humane hunting tool.
You’ll still hear anecdotes about deer being wounded by bowhunters and not recovered. Lately, however, I’ve also been hearing more anecdotes about deer that barely flinched after an arrow pass completely through them. They continued browsing for a few seconds, and then toppled over dead. Arrows kill differently than bullets, and comparisons aren’t simple.
I’m not an archery expert, and so far I’ve mostly just been shooting at targets. But on the basis of what I’ve learned so far, I’d say modern bowhunting equipment is potentially very accurate, lethal, and humane.
So how would you answer the question???
© 2013 Al Cambronne