For over a decade, I’ve been immersing myself in the art of bowhunting. From misty dawns in tree stands to studying the flight of arrows, my experiences have shown me the subtle nuances and stark realities of the hunt. Here’s a distillation of what I’ve learned about optimizing our shots in the wild.
For most bowhunters, you should shoot your bow about 20 yards from a tree stand. This is the ideal distance inside a general range of five to 40 yards. As you move away from this ideal, whether farther or shorter distances, an accurate shot becomes more difficult, and beyond 40 yards, it’s so difficult that you shouldn’t even take the shot.
Of course, this is just a general rule, and it depends on many factors, including the environment, the bow, and you as an archer. It’s best to understand how these factors affect the shot and why 20 yards is ideal so you can adapt to your specific hunting situation and make the best decisions in the moment.
5 Factors Limiting Shooting Distance
1. Bow Power and FPS
The faster your bow shoots the arrow, the farther it can travel before dropping due to gravity. Consider a powerful compound bow shooting at 350 fps versus a recurve bow shooting at 200 fps. If your target is 20 yards away, the arrow from the compound bow will reach it in about a fifth of a second, but the one from the recurve will reach it in a third of a second.
This extra time makes a big difference. The arrow from the compound bow will only drop about 5.5 inches, while the arrow from the recurve will drop over 17 inches. That’s only going to get more dramatic the farther away the target is.
For this reason, I never take shots with my recurve bow over 20 yards. If you’re using a powerful compound bow shooting 350 fps or over, you can consider shots of 30 or 40 yards. Some compound bow scopes have reticles for 50 yards, but I would refrain from this shot unless you’re highly experienced and it’s a clear broadside shot.
Like gravity, wind throws arrows off their trajectories. Because it depends on the angle and speed of the wind as well as your arrow’s size and weight, it’s impossible to make exact calculations. You need to use your instincts in the field.
However, regardless of the wind’s intensity, the farther the target, the more it will throw off the arrow. I recommend that in winds over 10 mph, you decrease your maximum distance, 30 yards for a powerful compound bow. If winds get really strong, over 20 mph, consider canceling your hunt, especially with a traditional bow.
Visibility varies greatly depending on humidity, dust, etc. At distances of 20 to 40 yards, it doesn’t matter much unless there is thick fog or dust that makes it really difficult to see. Basically, don’t shoot at anything you can’t see clearly.
This is one of the reasons tree stands allow you to shoot farther than you would over flat ground. They improve visibility and let you see over obstacles.
4. Your Scope
Your scope—or lack thereof—also makes a difference in how far you can shoot because it greatly increases your accuracy. For example, high-quality compound-bow scopes often have multiple reticles for 10, 20, 30, 40, and even 50 yards. If you sight the scope correctly, you may be able to shoot up to 50 yards when you otherwise wouldn’t be able to.
5. The Human Factor
You also have to be honest with yourself about how far you can shoot. Shooting a recurve or longbow accurately is hard, and you should put in at least 20 hours of practice on the range until you can hit a target at 20 yards accurately before you hit the tree stand. Compound bows, especially those with scopes, are easier to shoot accurately from the get-go, but you should still hit the range a few times and stick to 20 yards until you’ve honed your skills.
What Happens If You Shoot Too Far?
You miss. Shooting too far, over 20 yards with a traditional bow and over 40 yards with a compound bow, makes it difficult to account for all the various factors like gravity, wind, and visibility.
The problem is you’re still likely to hit the deer, just not in the kill zone. This could painfully injure the animal and ultimately lead to its death, just days after it’s run too far for you to ever find it. Not only does this cause unnecessary suffering for the animal, but it also means neither you nor any other hunter can harvest it.
What Happens If You Shoot Too Close?
You miss. Shooting too close is not as big of a deal as shooting too far, but if the deer is closer than five yards—and you don’t scare it off—here’s what’s likely to happen. While you may hit the deer where you were aiming, the steep downward angle may cause it to travel all the way through the deer before reaching the heart. Shooting from these angles requires experience and adjustments for angles, so don’t take them unless you’ve practiced shooting from an elevated position.
Here is a summary of the factors that affect shooting distance and accuracy:
- Bow Power and FPS: The speed of the bow, exemplified by the difference between a compound bow (shooting at 350 fps) and a recurve bow (200 fps), impacts arrow drop and, thereby, the effective shooting range. I personally refrain from taking shots over 20 yards with a recurve bow due to significant arrow drop.
- Wind and Visibility: Wind and visibility can skew an arrow’s path. Based on my experience, I advise reducing maximum distance in strong winds (above 10 mph) and caution against shooting in poor visibility conditions like fog or dust.
- The Scope’s Impact: A high-quality scope can enhance accuracy and potentially extend the shooting range. With the right equipment and sighting, distances up to 50 yards could be feasible, though with caution.
- The Human Factor: You will want to practice self-awareness in assessing your shooting range. You should hone this through extensive practice — at least 20 hours for traditional bows at 20 yards range — before actual hunting scenarios. Skill and experience are crucial in making effective shots.
- Risks of Shooting Too Far or Too Close: Miscalculating shots is not a good thing, from an ethical perspective. Shots taken too far can lead to wounding and suffering of the animal, without a successful harvest. Conversely, shots taken too close might not achieve a quick, humane kill due to the steep angle of the shot.
I hope this has been helpful. Thanks for reading!
For more, check out How to Bowhunt From a Tree Stand | All You Need to Know.
Christian grew up in the Ozarks where he spent much of his childhood on his grandparents’ homestead learning about guns, hunting, and the great outdoors.
An avid traditional bowhunter, much of his writing covers this and other similar topics, but he also covers just about everything from history and economics to motorcycles.
See more of his work at ChristianMonson.com.