Al Cambronne

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What Your Butcher Knows: Broadheads for Deer

Here’s that same photo I showed you last time.  But today, never mind the bullets.  Instead, check out those two bits of steel over toward the left, the ones that look like twisted fragments of a razor blade.  They’re from an expanding broadhead.

Over on the far left, you can see four broadheads that were recovered from deer.  Although the arrow shaft is broken or missing on all four, the fixed-blade broadhead is totally intact.  All three of the expanding broadheads have pieces missing.  Sharp pieces.

(Even though I have other photos showing these broadheads more clearly, I decided to go with this one in case anyone is here on their lunch break.  The broadheads had just been set aside, and they unfortunately hadn’t yet been cleaned.)

I myself am not a bowhunter; I may give it a try someday.  But I’ve talked to some real experts, and here’s the deal.  Many bowhunters prefer mechanical broadheads that are designed to expand when they hit a deer.  In theory, because these points have less surface area, they make for more accurate arrow flight than you’d get with conventional “fixed-blade” broadheads.  In theory, after hitting a deer they instantly scissor open to a larger diameter, thus cutting an even larger wound channel than you’d get with ordinary broadheads.

In practice, it doesn’t always work that way.  These points often come apart, especially when they hit bone.  At Hursh, and probably at most processors, there are special blanks on hunters’ check-in forms.  First, “Bow or gun?”  Next, bowhunters are asked to state whether they recovered their broadhead.  No matter what the answer, they’re then asked whether they used an expanding broadhead.  And in either case, they’re also asked to describe exactly where the arrow hit.

On one of my visits to Hursh Meat Processing, I talked with Clyde Hursh, a butcher who’s also a bowhunter himself.  He’s shot dozens of deer with a bow, and every fall he butchers hundreds more for other bowhunters.  He’s seen first-hand what works and what doesn’t.  He told me it would be a kindness to butchers everywhere if fewer bowhunters used expanding broadheads.  Just as important, it would be a kindness to deer. 

All too often, Clyde explained, these expanding broadheads don’t expand as designed.  Even when they do, they often come apart when they hit bone.  They fail to penetrate, or else they pentrate without creating the kind of wound channel that leads to quick, humane kills.  Plus, there are those twisted bits of razor blade that could end up in your steaks or Clyde’s fingers.

Clyde has seen these failures with pretty much every brand of mechanical broadhead out there.  He told me, on the other hand,  that the more reliable fixed-blade broadheads can actually be quite accurate.  He also told me there’s just one word I needed to remember about broadheads: “Muzzy.”  This was apparently an unsolicited, unpaid testimonial for a particular brand.  Since he’s a butcher and a bowhunter, I’ll take his word for it.  But whatever brand you choose, maybe those expanding broadheads aren’t such a great idea after all.

© 2011 Al Cambronne

14 Comments

  1. Very interesting, Al. I’m a cautious, novice bowhunter, and have never actually shot a deer with an arrow. (For now, I really like my rifle.) I know hunters who swear by mechanical broadheads, but I’ve never been too sure about them. Now I even less sure.

    The broadheads I do own are simple, single-piece points (though not Muzzys).

  2. I have to agree. When I someday take up bowhunting, I think I’m going to avoid the mechanical ones, too. Maybe they work great “most” of the time. Still, I’m not sure what odds I’d be willing to accept. One failure in five? One in ten? Or even one in a hundred? That’s definitely way fewer than they’re seeing at Hursh. Just that they need to ask such questions on the check-in form, that says something. So with so many other variables remaining, maybe this is one that could be easily eliminated.

  3. Interesting article. Do butchers ever get injured by non-recovered mechanical pieces left in deer? That’s a nasty surprise!

    • Rarely, but every once in a while it does happen. I’ve also heard that hunters who butcher their own deer should look for old wounds before they start skinning and butchering (and maybe even before field-dressing). Apparently every once in a while a deer will be wounded by an arrow but heal up and be just fine. For months, or even years, it will be carrying around that other hunter’s broadhead just under its skin. That would be an even nastier surprise!

  4. I’ve seen a blade break on a fixed broadhead also. Last season actually. A buddy of mine shot a buck with a fixed blade and while we were skinning the deer we found one of the entire blades broke off in the shoulder.

  5. I use Muzzy’s, so I’m not pointing this out to support what I shoot – but it looks like of the four “fixed blade” broadheads to the far left, three are actually from Rage broadheads (expandables).

  6. Great piece,
    I too am a novice archer. When I went looking for advice on broadheads on local fora from those far more experienced than me, I got a lot of different responses but most fell into one of three categories: 1) Slick Tricks (the clear winner and seemingly super popular broadhead here in Alberta) 2) Muzzy 3) G5 Montecs. A few others said ‘whatever shoots well, they all work when they hit the vials’. Most guys advised me to stay clear of mechanicals although the Rage and Grim Reaper had some ardent adherents. I bought Slick Tricks. They shoot like my field points and are a very solid head. Archery season starts next Thursday….

  7. I’v been bowhunting for 30 years and have used just about every type of broadhead including all of the namebrands mentioned above. I have harvested dozens of deer with all the namebrands as well and can honestly say when shot placement is where it is supposed to be all broadheads have done the job. Where people run into problems is with marginal shots and/or dull broadheads. Shot placement and razor sharp heads are key! You hit a mature buck square in the shoulder(scapula) with any broadhead and your chance of recovering that animal is pretty much zero! That being said I have used Rage heads for last 5 years. They open a massive would channel which makes blood trailing much easier and for less than perfect shots the 2″ cut hits vitals that a fixed blade may have just missed by fractions of an inch. Archery is an inches game and I’ll take every advantage I can get! Might be the picture above has more Rage heads in it because that’s what people are using!

    • Hello, Bone Collector! Thanks for stopping by to comment. Over the past few months this post has generated a fair amount traffic—and a lot more still when it’s been mentioned on various archery forums. So your comment, like all those others, deserves a substantial and thoughtful reply.

      First, I never meant to pick a fight or insult anyone’s favorite broadhead. I’m learning bowhunters are often very loyal to a particular brand. For them, Mathews, Hoyt, and Bowtech are like Ford, Chevy, and Dodge for truck guys.

      And since this isn’t a scientific study, we do indeed have some uncontrolled variables that could be skewing our “results.” As you mentioned, for example, we don’t know how many bowhunters in this area are using various types or brands of broadheads. According to the butcher, however, the broadheads most likely to fail are the mechanicals. When he recovers fixed-blade broadheads, including replaceable-blade models, they’re usually intact. This doesn’t, of course, prove that those broadheads never fail. And if he recovers fewer fixed-blade broadheads, it could mean fewer hunters use them. Or, it could mean more pass-throughs. We don’t know.

      Analyzing this question logically, let’s also point out one other fact that should be obvious but isn’t: We’ve said the broadheads failed because one of their blades is broken, damaged, or missing. If it ends up in your steak or the butcher’s finger, that’s a definite fail. On the other hand, it didn’t fail to kill the deer. Let’s remember that butchers are finding these “failed” blades inside dead deer. So they did work.

      In one archery forum, someone commenting on this post speculated that going to a butcher shop might skew our results even further. He figured that more experienced or more responsible bowhunters are less likely to patronize butcher shops and more likely to process their own venison. (I believe he actually stated it less diplomatically.) Now, it happens that I co-authored Gut It. Cut It. Cook It., a book explaining in great detail how to butcher your own deer. (Disclaimer: I did the writing and photography, but my co-author was the actual expert.) So I’m all for people learning how to butcher their own deer. But I wouldn’t want to make any unfair blanket statements about people who pay to have it done for them.

      One thing we do know, as I mentioned in the original post, is that this and many other shops around the country feel the need to ask three very pointed questions on their check-in forms: Did you use a mechanical broadhead? If so, did you recover it intact? And if not, could you please indicate on the diagram where the arrow hit your deer? There must be some reason they want to know the answer to these questions.

      That’s all I know. I’m not yet a bowhunter, I’m not an expert on this particular subject, and I was only repeating what this guy told me. He seemed to know what he was talking about. But so do you. And I think you’re definitely onto something when you write that shot placement is way more important than which broadhead someone is using. The same is true when hunting with a rifle; shot placement is far more important than which caliber you’ve chosen, and a larger caliber can never make up for poor shot placement.

      Speaking of comparisons between bullets and broadheads… One thing I’m really coming to appreciate is the lethality and effectiveness of modern bowhunting equipment in general. This fall, as part of my research for Deerland, I went along on some urban bowhunts in Duluth, Minnesota. These bowhunters can’t afford to be trailing deer for half a mile. They need to put them down for good, right within that city block. They’re very careful about which shots they take, and most of those deer don’t make it more than 20 or 30 yards.

      It’s one thing to read about quick and humane kills, and another to actually see the size of these small hunting zones within the city. There’s not much room for error. I was impressed. So as much as we might argue among ourselves about the details, I think the effectiveness of modern bowhunting equipment is a broader story that needs to get out more to the general public.

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