By Patrick Meitin
Many archers seem to believe that personal equipment preferences, or even abilities, apply to everyone. Some modern archers, for instance, are able to stack arrows tightly at 40, 50 or even 60 yards. But chastising others for an inability—or unwillingness—to make such shots is just silly. On the other hand, too many bowhunters seem to embrace the ethics of mediocrity, insisting no one be allowed to attempt shots beyond some arbitrary range, say, 30 yards. Bring up the subject of draw weight and egos really begin to kick in. Heavy draw weight is wielded like a badge of honor, even among some women. Those able to pull an inordinate amount of draw weight commonly taunt those pulling much less. The national average—based on overall bow sales numbers—is 65 pounds. Anyone pulling less draw weight than this, at a minimum, are often teased unmercifully, labeled girly-men or wimps or less flattering monikers. Again, this is just silly.
I’m as guilty as anyone. I’ve been shooting bows since childhood, so started building bow-specific muscles early in life. I can pull just about any bow you might hand me, including African dangerous-game poundage, if required. I once spent an entire summer shooting 3D with 98 pounds in preparation for a Zimbabwe Cape buffalo hunt—pulling arrows providing more of a workout than pulling the bowstring! For everyday bowhunting, including sitting on cold whitetail stands, I typically pull 70 pounds, which sometimes allows me to take advantage of less-than-ideal shot angles.
Several years ago I got a real taste of low-poundage capabilities after a boneheaded treestand fall and subsequent shoulder surgery and months of rehab. That accident meant I had to essentially start from the beginning in terms of draw weight. So for the entirety of the 2016 bow season I shot only 53 pounds and 400-spine carbon arrows. This admittedly resulted in passing at least one shot on a bull elk in September, due mostly to lack of confidence in my equipment.
On deer—which the vast majority of us pursue—it had much less bearing on success. Before the season started, tuning my bow and auditioning various options, I determined a 3-blade fixed, chisel-point broadhead gave me the cleanest arrow flight and tightest groups from the thin, heavy-for-spine arrows I was shooting. I’d watched my petite wife kill a couple whitetails and a bear with a 48#@25” compound, but still I felt limited by the lower draw weight. I would have preferred a cut-on-contact broadhead, but couldn’t argue with the accuracy of the 3-blade design.
Ultimately, I needn’t have worried. Early in September, taking a slightly quartering-to shot on a mature, 250-pound non-typical whitetail buck, my arrow passed completely through and dropped to the ground on the opposite side. In late October, bowhunting Illinois with a group of hunting editors and required to shoot a sponsor’s lighter arrow and popular 2-inch-wide mechanical broadhead, that anxiety returned. I generally recommend avoiding aggressive mechanical broadheads while shooting limited energy, so was forced to ignore my own advice. But then I literally dropped a 200-pound buck in his tracks with an unintentional spine shot, and then with a panicked follow-up shot blasted through the leading edge of his shoulder blade and lodged on a rib on the opposite side. In Texas that December I took another mature buck and a couple sturdy wild hogs with that “wimpy” bow, using 4-edged replaceable-blade broadheads. All shots resulted in pass-through penetration.
I’ve long understood my views regarding terminal tackle are decidedly conservative, having cut my bowhunting teeth on recurve bows. But there’s no such thing as too much penetration and I always think in terms of worst-case scenarios anyway (like encountering heavy bone). Having a world-class surgeon and being a good boy and obsessively doing my rehab, I eventually returned to my former abilities. But 2016 served as a real eye opener.
Through the Bow Reports I conduct for Inside Archery, shooting 12 different arrows through a chronograph and fired from a Hooter Shooter shooting machine to provide consistent results, I regularly witness 70#@30” bows spinning out kinetic energy suitable to cleanly kill African Cape buffalo. The 98 pounds of draw weight I used to generate enough energy to kill my Zim Cape buffalo in 2002 is now available from a 70-pound compound. The modern compound bow now generates much more energy from much less draw weight.
There are also other factors. As compounds have become ever faster, carbon arrows have also grown in weight and durability. We no longer need to shoot feathery arrows to generate blazing speed. Carbon arrows are also growing thinner, on average, meaning they are subjected to less friction during pass-though penetration. Combine all of these factors and you just don’t need to shoot a lot of draw weight to cleanly harvest big-game animals—particularly deer-sized game.
So how much draw weight is too much? If you cause those around you to duck and dodge because you sweep all points of the compass while fighting into anchor, you’re undoubtedly shooting too much draw weight. If it hurts to pull your bow after several hours on a cold stand, you’re likely shooting too much draw weight. In fact, if you cannot pull your bow straight back, slowly and smoothly, you’re shooting too much draw weight.
Try this: sit flat on the ground, 20 yards in front of a target, with legs spread before you. Place your 20-yard pin on a single spot and pull your bow straight back, slowly and smoothly, while holding your pin on that aiming point through the entire draw cycle. If you cannot keep your pin centered, or if the draw cycle becomes a struggle at any point, you’re shooting too much draw weight. This is especially true in the context of taking shots at whitetail deer after sitting for hours on a cold stand.
Shooting reasonable draw weight allows you to hit full draw without producing all the attention-grabbing gyrations of a police officer directing traffic at a busy intersection. This results in shots at calmer, unsuspecting animals and less string jumping. Less draw weight also results in steadier aiming and shot follow-through, producing tighter groups and helping you extend your maximum effective range. Let common sense dictate the proper draw weight for you, not ego or peer pressure, as modern compounds provide all the energy you could possibly need for big-game success, even if only pulling 45 or 50 pounds.