When bow hunting isn’t anymore

Bow hunting has been on a slow march towards it own obsolescence.  The Garmin Xero bow sight is the best example yet of this trend, both in archery hunting and hunting generally.

The debate over this product has been heated, though not vociferous, and like any particular item the particulars are less important than their place in the overall trend.  Hunting bows have been getting better in the last decade,  developments in the same trend line of laser range finders, mechanical releases, compound bows, and bow sights of any kind.  Few would seriously assert that hunting with a bow is anything but easier than it was a quarter century ago.  Similar things can be said of hunting rifles, where amongst the dedicated the formerly long (or longish) 300 yard shot is commonplace, and shots twice that far are not uncommon.  Skilled, obsessed bowhunters (who like with firearms represent a very small percentage) can shoot with hunting-grade accuracy out to 80 yards, or more.

It is worth talking about both how this has happened, along with when and why it makes a difference.  Technology drives changes in mindset, which writ large creates paradigm shifts.  Today it is routine for newb sport climbers to lead 5.9 within a few weeks or months on the rock.  The same grade, when Royal Robbines first climbed and used it in 1952, was at the top of the difficulty scale.  Climbers today aren’t more talented than Royal Robbins, who (insofar as the question is even coherent) may have been an Adam Ondra level talent.  Climbers today are playing a different game, and trying to separate the technological side of this from the mental side is an exercise in futility.  That outliers, such as the 5.10 grade routes climbed in England and Germany as early as the first world war, are only recognizable as such in retrospect proves the rule.  If their contemporaries could not recognize these feats as so different, it was because they did not have the tools to do so.

There is a lot to be said that people see something to be as difficult it is precisely because they are told so.  When hunters are told that they can shoot deer at 50 yards, those interested enough to be paying attention often find out that they themselves can do exactly that.

As I found out in the past two year, when I started putting serious time into hunting deer, elk, and pronghorn on the ground with a longbow, not all 10 yard progressions are in hunting created equal.  Different animals, in different circumstances, have different comfort thresholds.  I’ve been able to get within 80 yards of many, many animals, and within 35 or so of a significant percentage of those, but closing down to the 20-25 I want for my stickbow decreased the odds of success enormously.  If things like faster, flatter shooting bows, or a sight like the Xero which makes aiming far out faster and easier, it seems probable that more bowhunters will experience greater odds of success.

In the western US, this is relevant.  Most states do not really count bowhunting mortality into their management plans, at least not relative to rifle hunters, and thus these hikers with sharp sticks get longer seasons, more tags in a given area, and often more favorable times of year (elk in the rut, or deer when they are still in velvet).  At some point bowhunting success will grow such that bow seasons will become more like rifle seasons. After all, success breeds success, and more people will probably start bowhunting if it becomes easier.  If these two tipping points happen close together, as I think they will, things in the bowhunting world may change, suddenly.  Might rifle hunting follow eventually?

In the eastern US, the opposite may happen.  Many states in the south and east have a hard time killing as many whitetail deer as they would like during hunting season, with some allowing a doe or more each day, every day on a months long season.  Habitat alteration, and private land which congregates deer away from heavily hunted areas, have put some areas of the US on the verge of making market hunting for wildlife legal for the first time in over a century.  With rifles not especially safe to use amongst dense human populations, more deadly and user-friendly bows are an attractive development.

Ethically both of these situations create a problem.  Hunters should obey the categorical imperative, both when it comes to avoiding excessive suffering by making a clean kill, and by playing their role in population management, which prevents especially drastic winter kills and outbreaks of disease.  Bow hunting generally is questionable in light of the former, while situationally it might be all but essential in light of the later.

Our town gives out region-specific mule deer doe permits, one per hunter for as many people as are interested, in order to knock back the urban and suburban population.  I did my part this past fall, shooting a fawn with a .44 magnum after failing to get within range (and hardly seeing any) during bow season.  That wasn’t enough, and the police have trapped and “disposed of” a couple hundred more deer this winter.  Which is the better fate?  And what do we want hunting to be, in America?

8 responses to “When bow hunting isn’t anymore”

  1. Great post. Whether gadgets will ever make bowhunting so much more successful than now is hard to say. Sights and cams might move a target from 20 years to 45 yards for J Random Hunter. Whether J Random Hunter could train enough to be able to reliably kill game at 80 yards is a different ballgame. To go to your climbing analogy, we know tech helped move the standard up to whatever standard we can expect today. Whether we will be able to move said standard any further is hard to predict. I will venture a guess for bow hunting: we are at plateau. People have stuff to do other than training, so current technology helps people get to 45 yards with reasonable ease, but the training time/opportunity for extremely consistent 80 yarders are few. Long shots also give more opportunity to the quarry to jump the string, and greater scope for poor shots: getting to 80 yards of a quarry might be simpler than getting to 20, but that does not mean that there are lots of chances for safe/ethical 80 yards shots. Honestly, I actually dislike even talking about this kind of skills, because too many yahoos out there will get ideas, have a go, maybe miss, maybe gut shoot a deer that will die painfully and be never retrieved.

    To me the greater success we might be seeing with bows is just due to higher quarry density — more critters mean more chances to meet them, and meet them within range. That seems to be the main driver of any apparent increase in success.

    1. Absolutely agree (from at times painful personal experience) that critter density is the big driver of bowhunter success. You need lots of encounters if you screw up a lot of stalks and miss occasionally. That said, I would all but guarantee that if the Xero proves the first of many that it will make bowhunting more popular, especially if it paves the way for magnified versions to be legal, at least east of the 100th meridian. Whether this sort of thing will ever be legal for bow seasons in the west is a bigger question. It is already explicitly not legal in CO, ID, MT, WA, and CA (others too, perhaps). Those first three are not coincidentally the places with liberal archery seasons, especially for elk, and if rumors have any truth to them the places most like to already be on the cusp of restricting said seasons.

      1. Keeping in mind that (1) I do not use bows and (2) I did not know of the existence of the Xero until this post, let me ask: if some magical entity sets the pins of a bow to be dead on at X distance, with Y arrow and Z pull weight etc, is that enough or does J Random Archer need enough practice to use said info? knowing where the arrow will go is fine and dandy, but keeping it on target might be a different matter. I am a poor shot (with a rifle), so if someone were to set everything up to hit a target at 1000 yards, there is no guarantee I’d not screw that up. I see the Xero makes aiming faster and more precise — that is a time saver and a crutch, but is it a game changer for anybody but novices? I just offer the question.

        1. Good questions; my best answers having not used it:

          There is no substitute for being able to hold your weapon steady, with either a gun or bow. But the Xero ranges on the fly, will provide a more precise, less complex aiming point (rather than gapping between 40 and 50 yard pins, for instance). Compare iron sights to a reflex sight on a rifle, with the added auto-ranging ability.

      2. Magnified bow sights already exist, and the need for a clarifying lens in the peep makes them relatively impractical because they are prone to fog.

        Despite all the advances in technology, It doesn’t appear that hunter success rates have increased to a level have reduced opportunity. Outside of game farms and blind luck, you cannot cheat effort.

  2. Fish and game will eventually restrict the use of some of these technologies while hunting game animals like deer and elk I don’t see the harm when it comes to hogs and predators. Thanks

  3. I agree with many of your observations, but disagree with the fundamental premise expressed in the title.

    Firstly, I notice in the picture above that the owner of the longbow is using what appears to be Easton XX75 (or similar) aluminum arrows and manufactured fletching. These arrows will be straight to within a couple hundredths of an inch, will not warp or absorb moisture, and probably have a threaded insert to accept a precision-manufactured broadhead. Furthermore, the weights of these arrows are probably within a few grains of each other and they are all spined consistently (so that a certain weight will bend each of them the same amount along a certain length of the shaft). The nocks, also, appear to be made of a modern polymer. My guess is that the string material used on the bow is also modern, reducing stretch over time.

    Secondly, the animal in the picture appears to be a young doe and will be delicious eating. However, being able to harvest either a buck or a doe increases the odds of success by at least 50% – and probably a lot more.

    I don’t view the use of the above modern technologies nor the harvest of a doe as reducing the accomplishment in taking an animal with a rudimentary weapon, but I do view there use as illustrative of the core issue: Choosing an appropriate level of self-restraint.

    In my view, choosing to use space age arrows with a stone age bow is no different than choosing to use a Garmin Xero with a modern compound bow (I hunt with a compound but have not with a Xero). In both cases, the hunter is accepting the limitations of a particular class of weapon and making personal choices designed to improve his chances in the field within his accepted boundaries.

    It might be true that a compound vs a longbow increases one’s effective range from 25 yards to 50 (a 100% increase) but it might also be true that using arrows of precisely-consistent weight, spine, and straightness might increase one’s effective range by the same percentage.

    Even when hunting with a gun, one can choose to use a scope or not, use a rest or not, or use a muzzle loader instead of a modern rifle. Few would argue that choosing to hunt with a weapon that is accurate to a half mile is no longer gun hunting even though such an effective range would have been unheard of until relatively recently.

    The choice of weapon class is but one consideration of many (location, hunting method, public/private land, size/sex of animal) that factors into a broader equation the sum of which is merely to meet an animal in a contest that is fair but winnable.

    For primitive peoples, winning this contest (and thus surviving) required spending their whole lives in the pursuit. Given the weapon classes they had at their disposal, open season could be posted for any game animal across North America without worry of over-harvesting.

    For a beginning hunter there may be no weapon class which will equate to success. For a very experienced one (I am in the middle of the spectrum), the choice of weapon class is but one means of self-restraint designed to level the playing field.

    The result of this and other forms of self-limitation is an increased appreciation for the animal and its environment – which is a win for both the person and the animals pursued.

    So yes, bowhunting with a range finding sight is still bowhunting just as gun hunting with a scope is still gun hunting. But choosing to forego a technology in order to gain a deeper understanding of an animal’s habitat is a commendable choice.

    1. I don’t disagree with any of the above but it’s all largely besides the point from a management perspective. If bows get to a certain level of field efficacy they’ll be legislated differently.

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