November 01, 2022
By Will Brantley
If you have an opinion about bowhunting equipment, there is someone out there just waiting to tell you you’re wrong. Opinions about archery gear follow trends, but that doesn’t mean the requirements for bowhunting whitetails change much. Most of them are arrowed from treestands or ground blinds at 15 to 25 yards, often in low light. They’re nervous critters, prone to jumping the string and masters at stopping behind cover when you’re stuck at full draw. They’re also surprisingly tenacious, able to live and run a long time despite mortal wounds. And even fatally hit deer have a habit of scrambling across property lines and into thickets, where recovery becomes difficult.
All of that calls for simple, but specialized, equipment. Your bow needs to be quiet, pinpoint accurate, and easy to draw under any circumstance. It should be capable of punching two holes through the deer with an aggressive broadhead, too, even from sharp angles. Do you need a specific brand? No. Shoot as many bows as possible and then buy the one you like, because all the new ones are pretty good. But you can’t go wrong sticking to these criteria.
Early parallel limb designs made sub-31-inch bows possible, and they were all the rage around the turn of the millennium. By the twenty-teens, though, sentiments—or maybe marketing efforts—were swaying hunters back to longer axle-to-axle bows. Target shooters, after all, routinely wield 40-inch+ compounds, so 34- to 36-inch bows should help hunters shoot better, too. Right?
Maybe a little, but a big bow has drawbacks. I hunted with a couple different 35-inch honkers for a few seasons, and up in treestands or in ground blinds, they were simply in the way. I switched to a 28-inch bow in 2016, and marveled again at how handy it was—and it shot just fine. We now know that it’s not necessarily the total axle-to-axle length that matters most, but the riser length. Bow design has recently trended toward longer, sturdier risers paired with short, beefy limbs that combine the shooting advantages of a longer bow with the maneuverability of a short one. If you’re shopping for a new bow, don’t be afraid to choose one that’s 28 to 32 inches. It’ll shoot just fine.
“A slow hit is better than a fast miss.” That catch phrase implies fast bows are more difficult to shoot than slow ones, but it’s not true. “Speed bows” may have more demanding draw cycles, but that has little to do with how well they shoot. (Many people actually shoot a more-demanding draw cycle better.)
For bowhunting, speed is a good thing. It gives you a flatter arrow trajectory and also allows you to shoot a heavier arrow with more oomph. In today’s bows, I’m most interested in IBO ratings of around 340 feet per second (keeping in mind they won’t shoot that fast when set to real-world specs).
Contrary to the popular claim, I’ve not found that long brace heights (7 inches+) are inherently more forgiving to shoot, either. Extremely short brace heights tend to slap forearms, though, and that can be a problem when you’re bundled up in your favorite late-season coat. They add effort to the front of the draw cycle, too. For me, the brace height sweet spot on a whitetail bow is about 6 inches.
The rest of the draw cycle is especially dependent on personal preference. A solid back wall is always good, since it prevents you from overdrawing the bow, and these days, most bows have a good back wall, thanks to better cam designs along with limb and/or cable stops. Let-off and valley vary a little more, and those are especially important considerations for whitetail hunters.
When a shot doesn’t work out, I prefer to lower my bow and draw again, if possible. But bows with extremely high let-off (like 90%) and generous valleys can actually seem difficult to lower slowly without abrupt motions. As such, I prefer a shallower valley and 75 to 80% let-off. But other hunters prefer not to risk the extra motion, and instead wait at full draw until a better shot presents itself. Furthermore, they don’t like a shallow valley, which can make it feel as if the string is about to jump out of your hands. There are real differences bow to bow, and you won’t know them without shooting different models.
Today’s bows are so efficient that draw weight isn’t as important as it once was, especially for whitetails. I have a 28-inch draw length and I order my bows with 60-pound limbs. I keep them maxed out, whether I’m hunting or shooting targets. That’s plenty of weight, and it is still easy to pull after a three-month break. Life seems somehow simpler that way.
THE ARROW AND BROADHEAD
Before pocket-sized rangefinders, overdraw rests, and ultralight arrows were the in thing for flatter shooting. Today’s trend is the opposite: Heavy, high front-of-center (F.O.C.) arrows paired with compact, cut-on-contact broadheads for maximum penetration are the name of the game. That’s also extreme, since whitetails aren’t Cape buffalo. Choose your proper spine and go for shafts weighing in at 8 to 9 grains per inch. Paired with a 45-grain insert and 125-grain broadhead, my finished hunting arrows weigh around 450 grains, which is plenty heavy with a fairly high F.O.C., but fast enough to shoot one pin to around 25 yards.
Speaking of broadheads, fixed, replaceable 3-blades, boring as they may be, just work. I’ve tried a little of everything—from giant mechanicals to compact single-bevels—but for whitetails, I still settle on classics like the Wasp Havalon HV, Thunderhead, and Muzzy MX-3. They’re sharp out of the package, economical, fly well out of tuned bows, and leave great blood trails.
For precise aiming at distant targets, a fine single pin on an adjustable sight, paired with an accurate yardage tape, is the way to go. Many Western bowhunters prefer just such a setup. I’ve used those a good bit, too, but in the whitetail woods, I prefer a standard 3- to 5-pin sight with large fiber-optic pins. More fiber means more visibility. When sight shopping, go with the largest diameter available ( for many sights, that’s .019). Simple, rugged sights that can be adjusted without tools are a good thing. I pair them with a 1/8-inch aperture peep on the string, which isn’t the biggest one made, but it’s close. The idea is to maximize every second of legal light.
For a rest, I prefer a full-containment, cable-driven drop-away, and I particularly like the modern versions incorporating a dovetail mounting system directly to the riser. When hunting, I simply nock an arrow and flip the rest into the upward position. Such rests are quick to set up and tune, and I’ve never had a failure. That said, don’t let anyone shame you out of a capture rest—like a Whisker Biscuit—if that’s what you prefer. They’re handy and they work; I keep one in my kit as a just-in-case backup.
I keep my bow spartan. I hunted for years with a hip quiver before conceding that a bow-mounted quiver is more convenient but still, I take it off as soon as I’m in the tree. I don’t add stabilizers or back bars to my bow either. I can’t tell they make much difference inside 30 yards. My setup won’t win many tournaments, but it makes shooting close-range whitetails seem like second nature.
The Essentials Gear Box.
Our editors have hand-picked these essential pieces of gear to make you a more successful hunter when you hit the game trails this season.