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Propellant Profiles
Rifle Magazine
May - June 2004
Volume 2, Number 3
ISSN: 0
Number 9
On the cover...
Cover Photos Donald M. Jones
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Back in the “good old days” of hunting with a compound bow, bow technology was such that you really had to pull a lot of draw weight to shoot any sort of fast arrow. In those days (I am talking about the mid-1980s to early 1990s), it was not uncommon for the average bow hunter to shoot a bow with a let-off of between 50 and 60 percent, use an aluminum arrow as thick as a tree trunk tipped with a broadhead that together weighed between 550 and 650 grains, and pull 75 to 80 pounds of draw weight. If so, their raw arrow speed was a “blistering” 220 to 230 fps.

To wring all the performance possible out of that bow, you had to shoot the longest power stroke possible. That means you had to shoot a bow with the longest draw length you could pull and hold. (The longer the draw length, the more energy the bow can store and transfer to the shaft, creating a faster arrow.) Remember, these were the days when finding top-quality shooting instruction was almost impossible. Most folks learned to shoot by the seat of their pants.

I remember those days all too well. As a fledgling archer, I too tried to learn to shoot on my own. I did know enough to make sure my bow-and-arrow setup was properly tuned, so at least my shafts were leaving the bow straight. But the result was such poor shooting technique it took many years to eliminate most of the bad habits. One of the worst was shooting a bow with a draw length that was too long for me.

It was a macho thing, I guess. After years of slaying dragons with a rifle, I thought that becoming a bow hunter who occasionally “killed something” made me a superior woodsman to the legions of gun hunters out there. Also, being young and strong, I tried pulling 80 pounds, which was way too much draw weight for me, but darned if I was going to pull anything less! I also “guesstimated” my draw length at 30 inches, which was way too long. Again, the MF (Macho Factor) took over. Like pulling too much weight, I thought that telling people I shoot a 30-inch arrow made me more of a “real” bow hunter.

We all shot fingers in those days, and in reality, instead of employing proper shooting form, the too-long draw forced me to cock my head awkwardly, making a consistent anchor point almost impossible to achieve. When trying to shoot from the unnatural positions bow hunters find themselves in – kneeling and shooting under and around brush at elk, mule deer and wild hogs, or swaddled in heavy winter clothes when seated in a tree stand – I could hardly keep the bowstring off my clothing. That I ever hit anything seems like a miracle to me today.

It took me years to learn that when it comes to shooting an accurate arrow – especially under actual hunting conditions – a shorter draw length is the key to happiness.

The Most Important Measurement

“The number one problem I see when people buy a new bow is not setting the draw weight too high – that’s the number two problem, though – it’s setting their draw length incorrectly,” said Derek Phillips, field staff coordinator for Mathews Archery and one of the country’s top competitive 3-D shooters and bow hunters. “You never see it set too short; it’s always too long. And that’s a formula for mediocre shooting.”

There are many reasons for this. For one, unless you are an experienced archer, you don’t really know how to determine your exact draw length. Also, in this age of the “speed is everything” mentality, even novice archers know the longer the draw length, the longer the bow’s power stroke, which adds a few feet per second to their raw arrow speed. However, as Randy Ulmer, one of the nation’s very best bow shots and bow hunters, told me one time, “A slow hit is better than a fast miss anytime.” A negligible gain in arrow speed is never worth throwing off your shooting form.

Determining Draw Length

The Archery Trade Association (ATA) defines draw length as “the distance at full draw from the nocking point to a point 1 3/4 inches beyond the pivot point of the grip.” This is your “ATA draw length.” For bow hunting a good rule of thumb is to set the bow’s draw length slightly on the short side, generally by 1/4 to 1/2 inch.

First, though, you must measure your true draw length. The best way to do this is to pull a light draw weight bow to full draw with an extra-long arrow on the bowstring, anchor it using the same anchor point you’ll use when shooting and have a friend mark the shaft at the midpoint of the bow handle, where the arrow rest hole has been drilled. (Archery pro shops have a special arrow for this purpose.) Measure the shaft from that mark to the string groove on the arrow’s nock, add 1 3/4 inches, and that’s your draw length as specified by industry standards. And remember, draw length is not arrow length; depending on the type of arrow rest you’re using, you’ll shoot arrows that are a bit longer or shorter than your true draw length.

Draw length will vary according to whether or not you shoot with a release aid or your fingers and can change slightly depending on the type and model bow you’re shooting. You’ll also find that your draw length may change over time, as you become more comfortable shooting compound bows in general. Most, but not all, modern compound bows come with cams that permit variable draw length settings, making it easy to set the bow to your exact measurements. On those that do not, you have to use a specific cam for a specific draw length.

Why Set It Short?

If all you did was shoot at targets with a relatively low poundage bow while standing on level ground in a short-sleeve T-shirt in nice weather, setting your draw length exactly right would be the ticket. Bow hunters rarely have that luxury though. More commonly we shoot relatively heavy draw weights from contorted body angles while wrapped in layers of bulky clothing.

Bow hunters realize the importance, and difficulty, of keeping the bowstring off puffed-out jacket sleeves, collars and shirt and coat fronts. The problem is exacerbated when shooting from a sitting position or at an extreme downward angle, as we often do from a tree stand or from your knees or around a corner, as we often do when spot-and-stalk hunting. Throw in the fact that when game approaches and the adrenaline starts flowing, many bow hunters have a tendency to put a choke hold on their riser, which causes the forearm to rotate inward toward the bowstring, ad-ding accuracy-destroying torque and increasing the chance for string-to-clothing contact at the shot. A draw length a smidgen short will help alleviate these problems while also helping maintain a consistent shot-to-shot anchor point.

It will pay big dividends over the long haul to visit your local archery pro shop, have your draw length measured by a professional, then set your own hunting bow accordingly. You’d think that 1/2 inch difference wouldn’t be significant, but trust me on this one. When you begin to draw shorter, you’ll definitely shoot better.

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