What to Know About Low-Poundage Bowhunting

More efficient designs allow for lighter draw-weight bows in today's woods. (Russell Graves image)

The Tennessee rain finally relents, giving way to a cobweb haze at the base of a Cumberland Mountain foothill. Michelle shed her rain coat long ago, and as we stand behind the massive white oak, I can see water droplets trickling down her neck from under a blond ponytail. Some of that is from the humidity. But some of it is from fear of the two 300-pound hogs approaching us. Shielding ourselves behind the oak, their guttural grunts get progressively louder and closer. Soon we can hear air rushing through their nostrils as they sniff the ground for acorns. Michelle killed a button buck with her bow two weeks ago; it was the first time she’d ever drawn on an animal. But either of these pigs outweighs the little deer by more than 200 pounds.

I peek around the tree, and the hogs are within 15 yards and closing the distance. Pigs require specific arrow placement for a quick kill, and I want them close before Michelle tries a shot. But this is almost too close. A large pig, particularly a wounded large pig, is surprisingly quick and can land you in the hospital. I whisper for Michelle to shift toward the trail, which veers next to our tree, and get her release on the string. The first hog trots into view. My eyes are locked onto it so intently that I don’t notice Michelle drawing.

But a tiny arrow, tipped with bright pink vanes on one end and a 3-blade Muzzy on the other, smacks the pig just behind the shoulder.

Having some experience shooting pigs with a bow, I immediately think the worst. The hit is too high; not enough penetration — it’s gonna charge. I point my .44 magnum toward the hog, but it’s not charging. In fact, it runs 10 yards away from us, staggers and falls stone dead. The 24 1/2-inch arrow perforated both lungs and stopped just under the skin on the opposite side.

Today’s Little Bows

When I was in grade school, I wanted to bowhunt in a bad way. But a 40-pound draw weight was the legal minimum for deer hunting in my area (and it still is in many states). Try as I might, I was too scrawny to pull that until I was in my early teens. My first “hunting” bow, a 2-wheeled youth compound set at 40 pounds on the money, still lobbed aluminum shafts toward the target and was difficult to shoot consistently.

Things are different for young and/or beginning bowhunters these days. Better materials and advancements in limb and especially cam design have vastly improved the performance of short-draw, light draw-weight bows all the while making them easier to shoot. Michelle’s Hoyt Trykon Sport, the one she used to kill the hog, is set at 40 pounds and has a draw length of just 23 inches. It launches a 320-grain carbon arrow/broadhead at 198 fps and produces about 28 pounds of kinetic energy. That’s pretty light, but it’s obviously enough to bring down a big hog and a whitetail. Shot placement with a good broadhead is the key.

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“The stored energy difference between a modern cam and an older two-wheeled bow is substantial,” says Jeremy Eldredge, marketing manager for Hoyt. “The cam that is on the Trykon Sport is very efficient. It also offers a lot of flexibility in draw length and poundage, which can be important for a new archer. It has a very solid wall (break-over point), which makes it easier to shoot. Older bows with wheels had a ‘spongy’ wall, and this could make it difficult to maintain a consistent anchor point.”

Draw Weight or Energy?

Many state bowhunting regulations were written years ago, when recurves and less efficient compound bow designs dominated the deer woods. At that time, 40 pounds was often the draw-weight minimum published in state regulations, and that figure still stands in many places today. Perhaps it is an easy place to start and a good, round number to settle on as the ethical minimum for bowhunting. But is comparing a 40-pound recurve to a modern 35-pound compound a fair comparison? Which is easier for a new hunter to shoot? Where do draw length, arrow weight and broadhead design — all significant factors in penetration — factor in?

Obviously, some of these lines are blurred, and it’s one reason many states have done away with draw-weight minimums. That’s not to say shooting adequate poundage isn’t important when bowhunting — it is, but primarily because it’s a large factor in the amount of kinetic energy a bow and arrow setup can produce. But these days, due to advancements in archery technology, it’s possible to get enough kinetic energy to deliver a lethal hit on a big-game animal without relying exclusively on heavy draw weight provided, of course, the hunter can place the arrow in the right spot.

“Because shot placement is so important when bowhunting whitetails, it’s difficult to say what the minimum draw weight or kinetic energy should be,” says Mitch King, director of government relations for the Archery Trade Association. “It has more to do with hunter ethics than anything. If I take a 90-yard shot with my 70-pound compound at a deer, the odds of making an ethical hit aren’t good.

But, a skilled shooter with a 35-pound bow is very likely to kill a deer when shooting at it from 10 or 15 yards. We’ve (the ATA) had technical committees compare the performance of recurves and compounds, and we routinely find that even today’s very light compounds are outshooting the 40-pound recurves that were the benchmark minimum when many bowhunting regulations were set years ago.”

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So, in the big picture, things boil down to a case-by-case basis and two factors — the hunter doing the shooting and the critter being hunted. Shot placement is the most important part of bowhunting regardless of your setup, but it’s especially important with a lightweight setup. The story above proves that 28 pounds of energy behind a sharp, fixed-blade broadhead is “enough” to do the job within seconds on a hefty pig, a game animal with a reputation of being physically difficult to kill with a bow. But, if that hit had been a few inches forward, the shoulder blade likely would’ve changed the outcome.

On the flip side, the same setup may not be adequate if the arrow were to hit even a rib on a larger animal such as an elk or bear. So a good conclusion could be that 30 or so pounds of energy is a good minimum starting point for whitetails and similar-sized game at close range, provided the shooter can place the arrow with absolute precision. With cutting edge technology being delivered in youth and ladies bows by a variety of manufacturers, that opens the door to a lot of new potential bowhunters — and that’s kind of the idea, right?

Tips for Little Bows

Use a fixed-blade broadhead. There are many good mechanical broadheads on the market, but they use some kinetic energy as they’re expanding. Use a scalpel-sharp fixed-blade or cut-on-contact broadhead for maximum penetration.

Remember the weight. The arrow / broadhead weight factors heavily into the kinetic energy equation. Don’t downsize too much for the sake of speed.

Keep it close. Part of the fun of bowhunting is getting close to an animal. With a lightweight setup and new bowhunter, think 15 yards and broadside.

Editor’s Note: This Realtree Retro article was originally published in February of 2010. Low-poundage bow setups have gotten even better since then, but the principles of hunting with such a rig will never change. 

Are you a bowhunter wanting to learn how to accomplish your goals? Check out our stories, videos and hard-hitting how-to’s on bowhunting.

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