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Choosing a Whitetail Bow

PhotoBy Kyle Schwabenbauer

-- If you're like me, you are very attached to your hunting bow. Whether it's a new model less than a year old or an old warrior carrying the scars of countless deer seasons, bows become an integral part of our hunting persona. A quick glance at the decals proudly displayed on the windows of pickup trucks at the local archery shop attest to this fact. 

Given our loyal affection for our archery implements, it only stands to reason that when the time comes to replace our beloved bows, there can be a great deal of apprehension and an unwillingness to trust the shiny, new models hanging on the racks at the pro shop. This anxiety can be even greater if it's been years since your last bow purchase.

Indeed, there have been rapid advancements in archery technology over the last several years, not to mention the dramatic improvements to the bows of our father's generation. If you've been "out of the loop" regarding the latest archery technology, this article will attempt to explain the features available on new bows and give you some points to consider before bringing home your next whitetail bow.

The Need for Speed
One feature that's endlessly advertised regarding modern bows is speed. There are two speed rating systems commonly used to measure how fast a bow can potentially be, IBO and AMO.  The International Bowhunting Organization (IBO) is an organization that conducts archery tournaments across the country. In order to improve safety standards and establish a more equitable playing field, the IBO developed rules dictating ratios of draw weight to arrow weight.  As a result, speeds listed with an IBO rating have been produced using a draw weight of 70 pounds, draw length of 30 inches and an arrow that weighs 350 grains, which comes to five grains per pound of draw weight.

The Archery Manufacturer's Organization (AMO) is comprised of representatives from the archery industry and uses a slightly different set of standards for calculating speed ratings. AMO speeds are obtained using a draw weight of 60 pounds, draw length of 30 inches and an arrow that weighs 540 grains, which comes to nine grains per pound.

The bottom line when comparing these two ratings is that AMO speeds will always be lower because they are generated using a lower draw weight and heavier arrow than IBO speeds. Consequently, if you're trying to compare several bow models, it's important to use the same speed rating system in your evaluation.

Bow Length
One of the first characteristics of a new bow you'll need to consider is the size of the bow; specifically, its axle-to-axle length. There are many bows on the market today that are so short, they could almost be mistaken for youth bows by a person new to the sport. Manufacturers have realized that there are many advantages to short bows in the whitetail woods, including better mobility while stalking, reduced weight for long hikes and ease of movement in treestands.

As you might expect, there are also advantages to longer bows. These include increased stability and forgiveness while shooting, which leads to improved accuracy over longer distances.  Obviously, your shooting style will greatly influence whether you prefer a long or short bow.  However, remember that deer are arrowed at close range, and then consider how important traits like forgiveness and long-range accuracy are to you. It's also worth mentioning that whitetails are notorious for presenting difficult shot angles where the need to draw and aim quickly tips the advantage to a shorter, more maneuverable bow.

Draw Weight
Draw weight is also an important parameter to consider when purchasing a new bow and translates directly into the velocity and kinetic energy of your arrow. These are important values because they produce the ability to penetrate completely through a whitetail, which will result in a quick and humane harvest.

However, given the speed and efficiency of modern bows, you don't need maximum poundage to ethically harvest a whitetail.  Based on this fact, it is important not to get caught up in any macho rivalries with your hunting buddies.

A draw weight around 50 to 55 pounds, although less than what most archers pull, is more than adequate to get the job done when hunting deer. If you're capable of pulling much more weight, that's fine, too, but remember that several hours on stand in freezing temperatures with bulky clothing may not be as kind to your muscles as a summer day at the range in your t-shirt and shorts. 

A good rule of thumb when selecting a proper draw weight is to draw the bow back and hold it for 30-40 seconds. If you can do this without shaking, the poundage is suitable.  If not, it's time to drop the weight. 

Brace Height
Brace height describes the distance between the riser and the string of an undrawn bow.  This distance is inversely proportional to the distance that force is applied by the bow to the arrow during a shot, or what I like to refer to as the power stroke. Short brace heights (6-61/2 inches) result in longer power strokes and increased arrow speeds. However, this increased speed comes with a price because the arrow is in contact with the bow string for a longer period of time, which means it is more susceptible to hand torque, resulting from poor shooting form.

Longer brace heights (7-71/2 inches), although they produce a shorter power stroke, reduce the contact time the arrow has with the bow, and therefore, can result in a more forgiving and accurate bow. Increased distance between the bow's grip and string can also be beneficial when wearing heavy-sleeved hunting coats in colder weather. 

If you're still not sure which brace height is best for you, consider the amount of shooting you do each year and whether you've mastered good shooting form. If a few practice sessions are all you're able to squeeze in before the season, consider a brace height of at least 7 inches.  However, if you shoot in competitive leagues all summer and are meticulous about proper shooting technique, then you may want to explore bows that fall within the 6- to 61/2-inch range.          

Cams on modern bows often fall into two categories, soft and hard. Soft cams are more circular than hard cams and often have the appearance of round wheels. These cams feel very smooth while drawing the bow and usually produce moderate arrow speeds. A drawback to soft cams is the end of the draw cycle. What archers often refer to at full draw as "the wall," can feel spongy and undefined. This can lead to inconsistent anchor points and reduced accuracy.

Hard cams are more oblong and oval-shaped than soft cams and often result in more variable and erratic draw cycles that are capable of storing more energy and producing increased arrow speeds when compared to soft cams. Although these cams may feel slightly uncomfortable to archers during the draw cycle, they produce a very distinct and solid-feeling "wall" at full draw. This can be a big advantage when shooting at awkward angles out of a treestand or remaining at full draw for an extended period of time before your next wallhanger steps out from behind a tree.      

The Intangibles
This category includes things that are largely a matter of personal preference. One of these items is the bow's grip. To an archer, feel can be everything, and it's important to make sure your grip is comfortable. That being said, a soft or spongy grip provides more opportunity to introduce hand torque into the shot. A bow with a narrow grip comprised of a hard material will make tuning easier and improve your accuracy. Just be sure your grip is wide enough to allow the use of gloves during hunting season.

Bow noise is a characteristic that should be important to all deer hunters, but it's very difficult to make objective comparisons between bow models without the use of a decibel meter. Since these aren't available in most pro shops, the best you can do is to use your subjective ears. When comparing bows, make sure the setups are similar (stabilizers, string silencers and other sound-dampening devices) and that you shoot the same arrows. Arrow weight can have a dramatic effect on bow noise, with heavy arrows absorbing more vibration than light arrows, which results in a quieter shot.  

Try Before You Buy
Finally, the most important advice a prospective bow buyer should heed is to shoot as many bows as possible and never consider purchasing a bow until a few dozen arrows pass through it. 

Spending some time shooting a bow is the only way to determine whether or not it's comfortable and properly sized to match your individual requirements and shooting style. If your local store doesn't allow you to test new models, you're shopping in the wrong place. There are plenty of full-service pro shops that will be more than happy to take the time to work with you to meet your specific needs. 

Trust me, when you're in your treestand this season and the rut is in full swing, you'll be glad knowing your equipment is up to any challenge that may come your way.

Kyle Schwabenbauer is on the PA Sportsmen Portal Field Staff. Visit for more information.

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