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Rifle Magazine
July - August 2003
Volume 1, Number 4
Number 4
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Elk photo by Gary Leppart
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A common theme echoing across bow-hunter land is that today, with reasonably priced laser rangefinders found from coast to coast, raw arrow speed is not an important factor in bow hunting. After all, with a single click of a finger you know the distance to the target, to the yard, eliminating the number one reason archers miss shots at game - misjudging the distance to the target.

Those who beat this drum like to remind bow hunters that they shoot better when they do not pull too much draw weight. They say that super-fast bows are the kind that shake, rattle and roll, vibrating screws and bolts loose and creating undue stress on bow parts while making entirely too much game-spooking noise. They also say that no matter how fast your bow, it can never overcome an animal’s lightning reflexes as it “jumps the string,” citing the relatively slow speed of a 300-fps arrow versus the speed of sound, which varies with conditions but is about 1,127 fps at 68 degrees Fahrenheit, though such claims do not take into consideration factors such as an animal’s reflex actions and ancillary noise, like wind or water, which can cover the sound of the shot.

I, on the other hand, like arrow speed - a lot - and believe it can make the difference under varied field conditions. However, I do not like arrow speed so much that I am willing to destroy my equipment, shooting form or performance characteristics of my bow-and-arrow setup just to wring out a few feet per second in additional arrow speed.

No Free Lunch

As is the case in all things in life, there is no free lunch when trying to wring maximum arrow speed from your hunting bow. Turning the poundage all the way up can increase noise, vibration and recoil - though elsewhere in this section is a discussion on how many modern-day products, both built into the bow and added on, can significantly reduce all these problems at no cost to performance. At maximum speed, bow tuning can be problematic. And there is no question that folks shooting the fastest bows they can handle - or at least think they can handle - will see imperfections in their shooting form become magnified that may not show up when shooting slower, “softer” bows. These shooting form mistakes can, in turn, be magnified under hunting conditions, when bow hunters find themselves twisted around sideways while kneeling down and shooting uphill at a bugling bull elk, or leaning down and shooting at a steep downhill angle from a tree stand.

Add to all this the fact that most of us do not have the chance to practice as much as we’d like, sometimes find ourselves hunting in less-than-ideal conditions (my musk ox hunt, where it was never warmer than 35 degrees below zero, is a case in point) and the buck fever that always precedes a shot at game, and one can quickly see why having a bow that is forgiving and friendly to our quirks and idiosyncrasies is most welcome.

Then there is the fact that it really is a tough thing to get a fixed- or replaceable-blade broadhead to fly perfectly at speeds over about 270 fps. Speeds approaching or exceeding this threshold demand a precise level of bow tuning most average archers never achieve - precisely matched arrow shafts and broadheads and picture-book shooting form to make tight groups possible at ranges beyond point blank. The use of low-profile mechanical broadheads can help somewhat, but they are not legal in all states nor are they the choice of most bow hunters.

Be that as it may, you still can shoot a faster arrow and retain acceptable bow-hunting accuracy. You just have to know what to do. Also, please keep in mind, when I discuss how to increase speed by doing this or that, when comparing bows that all the things we are not talking about - arrow weight, etc. - remain the same.

Efficiency in All Things

If you have not replaced your hunting bow in the past five years, you’ll find that today’s models are much more efficient tools than their big brothers. With the latest bows it might be possible for you to actually draw less poundage than before and still shoot an arrow that is just as fast, if not faster, than your old bow.

This is good. If you are already shooting in the 260- to 280-fps class and like what you see in terms of arrow flight, the lower poundage will reduce wear and tear on your shoulders, arms, back and hands. It will also make it easier for you to hold the bow at full draw for longer periods of time and make it easier to hold steady as you acquire the sight picture.

Also, some bow models are just designed to shoot a quicker shaft than others. In engineering terms, there are certain design characteristics that allow the bow to transfer more of its stored energy to the arrow at the shot than bows with a different design.

The most important design features in achieving more speed are cam design, riser design, brace height and the bow’s overall length. Let’s look at them in reverse order.

Generally speaking, bows with a shorter axle-to-axle length are faster than longer bows. The tradeoff here is the fact that short bows tend to be much touchier to nuances in shooting form. I learned this last fall, when I spent a lot of time shooting and hunting with some very short bows with a length between 30 and 31 inches. I found they were quite quick and shot like a house afire both on the range and in the field. The downside? Boy, oh boy, were they touchy in regard to shooting form. When my form was good, so was my shooting. When my form suffered even a little bit - in a tree stand or shooting from the knees - arrows tended to fly off-target.

Brace height is the distance between the riser and the bowstring. Generally speaking, the lower the brace height, the faster the bow - and the less forgiving the bow is to problems with shooter form. Conversely, the higher the brace height, the slower the bow but the more forgiving it is to shoot well. While all bows vary, if a hunting bow has a brace height over 8 inches, it is both unusual and very forgiving to shoot. Brace heights under 7 inches are touchy to shoot. Brace heights between 7 and 7 3/4 inches offer a good compromise between inherent bow speed and shootability.

A bow can have one of three basic riser designs - straight, deflex or reflex. With a reflex riser the grip is behind the point at which the limbs contact the riser. With a deflex riser the limbs contact the riser in front of the grips. A straight riser is just that - the limbs contact the riser in a straight line with the grip. In most cases, “speed” bows have reflexed risers and low brace heights, while more “forgiving” bows have a deflex riser and higher brace height.

There are three basic compound bow wheel designs. Each offers advantages and disadvantages for the bow hunter. Round wheels are smooth to draw, very quiet and inherently accurate - and you rarely see them on hunting bows anymore. That’s because round wheels are the slowest of the three basic designs, one reason they’ve fallen out of favor with today’s bow hunters. “Soft” or “energy” cams feature as part of their design a roundish wheel and part an egg-shaped cam. This design produces a smoothness and reliability comparable to a round wheel but also provides increased arrow speed. Soft cams are quite popular with today’s bow hunters. Hard cams are egg-shaped eccentrics that store the most energy of all the basic designs and thus produce the fastest arrow flight. Hard cams tend to be a bit noisy and are the most difficult design to consistently shoot well.

As a note, single-cam bows generally use a hard or modified hard cam on the lower limb and a round “idler” wheel on the top limb. These bows have taken the market by storm and have become the biggest seller of all time. They combine the speed of a two-cam bow featuring hard cams with the smooth “shootability” of the same two-cam bow with soft cams.

Draw Longer, Shoot Faster

No doubt about it, if you increase your draw length, you will shoot a faster arrow. However, in most cases this is not a great idea. That’s because most bow hunters already shoot bows with a draw length that is anywhere from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches too long for them. Draw lengths that are too long make it difficult to consistently anchor the bow in the same place shot after shot. This will decrease consistent accuracy.

In bow hunting, we have a saying: “Draw shorter, shoot better.” The extra few feet per second in arrow speed you might pick up from going to a longer draw length will rarely be worth it.

Lighter Is Faster

There is a trend in bow hunting to try and achieve higher velocity by shooting lighter arrow shafts. No doubt, this will increase raw arrow speed at the shot, though a lighter shaft will decelerate more quickly downrange than a heavier arrow. (That’s physics for you.)

Again, there is a tradeoff to be made. First, remember that many of today’s arrow shafts are lighter overall than shafts of a few years ago while retaining the same spine characteristics. Using an Easton Super-Lite shaft instead of a standard aluminum arrow of the same spine will save a lot of weight and increase arrow speed. Switching from aluminum arrows to carbon shafts will also significantly decrease shaft weight and thus produce quicker flight. You can also use a lighter broadhead, use light feathers instead of relatively heavier plastic vanes and use carbon inserts instead of aluminum ones to gain a few grains of weight here and there.

However, be careful. Arrows that are too light may not have enough kinetic energy and, just as important, momentum to penetrate as deeply as you need them to. This is generally not a problem on deer-sized game but can be trouble on thickly muscled animals like elk, bears and moose. Before changing broadhead size, make sure you have enough weight-forward balance to keep your shafts driving straight and true downrange.

The Bottom Line

So, after all this you’re still confused? Okay, here’s the bottom line. If you want to shoot a faster arrow, buy a new, more efficient bow, turn the draw weight up to the max, choose the lightest arrow shaft/ broadhead combination that results in the proper spine for the bow’s draw length/draw weight/cam design combination and shoot the longest draw length you can handle.

Do all this, and you will soon find that you are shooting a bow with a draw weight that’s too heavy for you to pull without “cheating,” arrows that are too light for deep penetration on game and a draw length that makes accuracy iffy at best.

So here’s my advice. For most all bow hunting that I do - and every year I bow hunt game from the tundra of Alaska and mountains of the West, where shots can be “way out there” and the game big, tough and sometimes nasty, to the whitetail woods of the upper Midwest, East and Deep South - I shoot the same setup. In 2002 I took game cleanly at distances ranging between 10 and 55 yards with most shots at animals coming between 20 and 35 yards.

For a couple years I tried using two different bow-and-arrow setups, one a real speed burner for western hunting, the other a much softer, low-poundage bow for the trees. I didn’t like it. Now I shoot one bow setup for everything. I know how the bow feels, the arrow trajectory at various distances and thus where to put the pins at the moment of truth. It is easy to tune, shoots laser-beam broadhead-tipped arrows and is very accurate and forgiving - with the emphasis on forgiving.

How fast is it? The 34-inch Mathews Legacy one-cam bow I used all of 2002 is set at 70 pounds, shoots 441-grain 28 1/2-inch Beman 340 ICS Hunter carbon shafts and 125-grain replaceable-blade broadheads through my chronograph at 263 fps. I’ve found that my own “comfort zone” when it comes to speed is somewhere between 250 and 270 fps. These are bows I can shoot well under a variety of hunting conditions using an arrow shaft I have shot completely through big-bodied animals like elk, moose and grizzly bears. When I had a speed burner setup that sizzled out there at 300 fps, I was great on the target range but could not get the consistent accuracy I wanted under hunting conditions.

That’s the secret. You need to find your own comfort zone when it comes to what kind of arrow speed Ð and the kind of bow-and-arrow setup you need to achieve it - you can shoot with consistent accuracy, then stick with it. For some real “speed freaks,” a bow shooting 263 fps is a real dog. But then I think back to the early 1990s, when I drew 80 pounds and shot a 39-inch energy-wheel bow with fingers and big Easton 2317 XX75s that weighed over 600 grains at 220 fps - and thought I was smoking ‘em out there.

Today I’ve achieved a faster arrow speed by taking advantage of the new technology. I have not sacrificed my shooting and have reduced wear and tear on the body. Most important, I have confidence in my setup and know that when a shot opportunity arises within my own personal maximum effective shooting range, I can place the arrow where it needs to go. That’s increasing arrow speed the right way.

Handloading Beyond The Basics
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