As with most weapons, the quality and selection of your ammunition is paramount, and this truism applies with particular force to arrows and “bolts” (i.e., crossbow arrows). Why? It’s because with arrows, there is just a lot of things going on, like spine stiffness, overall length, weight, tip shape, fletching etc. And for hunting arrows, additional considerations are necessary to ensure humane, efficient kills.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, at least just yet. It’s a good moment to establish precisely what goes into a modern arrow or crossbow bolt.
Anatomy of a Hunting Arrow
- Shaft – the backbone of the arrow, which is typically composed of carbon, graphite or aluminum materials or alloys;
- Nock – this is the notch that is located at the very back of the arrow and grasps the bowstring;
- Insert – a small, threaded piece that screws into the front of the shaft and into which the tip is fitted; they allow various types of tips to be used/changed quickly (e.g., hunting, target practice, fishing, etc.)
- Tip/Head – this is the arrowhead – the business end of the arrow, which can be one of a variety of types depending on the intended use;
- Fletching – these are the vanes or, traditionally, the “feathers” that are affixed toward the rear of the shaft. They are critical toward helping to stabilize arrow flight.
NOTE: When measuring an arrow, you should always conform to the generally-accepted method of measurement, which is to measure the arrow from the bottom of the cleft in the nock at the rear, all the way to the front of the shaft, including the insert. Do not measure or include the tip in the calculation!
Minimum Arrow Weight/Length & Safety
To the extent you’re interested in what’s the lightest hunting arrows you should use, that’s been answered by the International Bowhunting Organization (or “IBO”). They have strongly encouraged the use of a minimum weight for bowhunters generally – 5 grains per pound of draw weight. For example, a compound bow with a 70 pound draw should in theory be used with no less than an arrow weighing 350 grains.
This is not just good practice in our view, but is critical to keeping you safe and your bow in one piece. It is well-accepted that using very light arrows actually puts more, rather than less, stress on your rig. And when you stop to think about it, it makes perfect sense. Modern bows are little missile launchers that operate under lots of tension – and to keep their limbs from moving too fast for everyone’s good, they require a properly weighted projectile. Using a super light arrow is nearly equivalent to “dry firing,” which is just about the worst thing you can do to a bow, short of running it over with a bus. Have you ever swung to hit something with all of your might and missed? Can you feel your muscles and joints hyperextend? It’s similar – but much worse – with your bow. There are countless stories of dry firing causing catastrophic failure of bows, and don’t think for a second that the shrapnel caused can’t hurt you or bystanders. Likewise, using too short an arrow can get it stuck behind the rest, which could misfire the arrow or shatter it.
NOTE: You should always try to use an arrow that hangs at least 1 inch beyond the rest at full draw.
Moral of the story: there is a tremendous amount of energy loaded onto modern bows, make sure it is handled responsibly. Moral of the story, don’t ever dry fire your bow or use an under-sized arrow!!
Choosing The Right Arrow / Bolt For You
Let me start by saying that there are few clear rules here, and lots of differing opinions. Further, the myriad of variables that can affect how an arrow flies and what it’s useful for is something that veteran archers still struggle with. However, these are some of the more prominent factors to keep in mind when choosing arrows and crossbow bolts.
Err on the Side of Heavier Hunting Arrows
Velocity is important, but if you’re hunting within typical short-range distances (i.e., within 20 yards), then arrow drop is relatively minimal and can be easily accounted for anyway with a bit of range-finding. The more important variable at issue here is kinetic energy (“KE”) and particularly momentum. As we’ve explained before, momentum is probably the most critical factor for the bowhunter, as it is responsible for pushing an arrow through dense flesh once the hydrostatic shock associated with kinetic energy quickly dissipates.
In short, if you want a nice pass through shot, try to maximize momentum, rather than velocity or even KE. And to do that, you simply want to use a heavy arrow – albeit one that you can consistently shoot accurately. We suggest arrows in the neighborhood of 7 or 8 grains per pound of draw weight. Indeed, even hunters with rigs that may be considered on the margins as far as power, could theoretically take down quarry that they shouldn’t be able to (based purely on KE tables) if they simply opted for a heavy arrow setup.
Carbon vs. Aluminum Arrows
There are a variety of materials that are used for arrow shafts, including graphite and wood; however, carbon and aluminum shafts are some of the most popular choices. Carbon is getting a lot of attention from today’s bowhunters, which makes sense; it’s makes for a lightweight, strong and durable shaft that holds its straightness better than an aluminum arrow, which can bend – and remain bent – relatively easily. However, carbon shafts tend to be more expensive and many would prefer more, rather than less, weight for their arrow setups.
Arrow Spine Stiffness
An arrow can and should flex when shot, but too much or too little flexure can sacrifice accuracy. Obviously, there is a lot that goes into optimizing spine deflection, including the weight of the tip and length of the arrow (longer shafts flex more than shorter ones); thus, these optimums will vary from setup to setup. Nevertheless, all other things being equal, you will want a stiffer spine when using hot-rod bows, since the additional force they create upon launch tends to compress and bend arrow shafts rather easily. Ultimately, experimentation is key.
Fletching refers to the features or other “fins” affixed to the back of the arrow or crossbow bolt. Far from providing mere decoration, fletching is very important for maintaining arrow flight stability, and in some case imparting rotation to help correct for minor flight irregularities.
But what type and size fletching is needed? The question deserves attention since even slight changes to an arrow’s fletching can have a dramatic impact on accuracy.
1) Synthetic Vanes or Feathers?
The first decision that must be made is whether to go with traditional features or vanes (typically made of plastic). There are some factors in particular that should go into the calculus:
- Weight – if you are looking to keep your arrows very light weight, such as in competitive target shooting, feathers are the best choice as they are much lighter for their size;
- Performance – again, if maintaining accuracy is the most important consideration, feathers are again the better option. Mother Nature has imparted on feathers an optimal, textured surface area that helps them claw into the wind (ever so slightly) so that they better stabilize flight. There are now textured vanes that try to do the same thing, but they still don’t come close to matching the performance of feathers;
- Durability – the edge here clearly goes to vanes. Plastic is, among other things, extremely durable and resistant to moisture and crumpling. Consequently, if you don’t like to baby your arrows, then vanes are probably the better choice. Of course, you can oil feathers to help them repel moisture, but they still bend and break more easily than plastic vanes, so keep that in mind;
- Expense – here’s the big one; quality vanes are far cheaper than quality feathers. So if you do a lot of shooting and plan on burning up some arrows in the process, vanes are much kinder to your bottom line at the end of a season. Indeed, in terms of overall cost-effectiveness, vanes are very tough to beat.
2) Which Fletching Configuration?
Once you’ve picked out the type of fetching you’d like to use, it’s time to decide how it should be arranged around the shaft – again, this matters!
Straight fletching – this fetching is much like a rudder on a plane, except that it’s fixed to fly straight. Notably, this type of configuration provides no arrow rotation at all, so the arrow won’t spin in flight (at least not due to the fetching, that is). As explained below, rotation can be a good thing for hunters and help correct moderate arrow wobble, which is often unavoidable. But, the upside of the lack of any rotation is that drag is minimized – so if speed is what you need, straight fletching should help scrape some extra fps out of your rig.
A good choice for target shooters using lightweight tips at shorter ranges.
Helical fletching– on the other end of the spectrum is helical-oriented fletching. This spiral arrangement of the vanes provides maximum rotation and, hence, offers the best stability in flight, especially for downrange accuracy. This is also the best configuration to use with heavy broadheads, as they can often require significant correction in flight.
Unfortunately, this (like most things in life) comes with a cost, and that is quite a bit of drag, which in turn can significantly drop arrow velocities to the point of sacrificing accuracy. Also, the fetching may get caught up a bit as it passes through the rest. For some older design, this can be quite severe.
Offset fletching – given the disadvantages of using either straight or helical fetching, most bowhunters opt for the middle ground – offset fletching. The offset configuration really does provide a nice balance by imparting some rotation to the arrow for better stability (particular at longer distances), without creating the heavy drag associated with a helical arrangement. Thus, it is normally the type of choice for broadhead users.
TIP: when selecting offset (or helical) fetching, do yourself a favor and select right-rotating (as opposed to left-rotating) fletching to prevent the arrow rotation from unscrewing your tip after it hits the target!
3) Proper Fletching Size
As you’d expect, the greater surface area that comes with larger fletching is great for adding stability, but generates a lot more drag and can thus slow your arrows down considerably. On the other hand, small fletching doesn’t provide much surface for grabbing the wind, and therefore doesn’t do much to straighten out the invariable flight-bobble in most arrows.
Again, however, bowhunters have typically found a practical middle ground – fetching in the 4-inch range. This seems to keep arrows stable enough in flight, without too much velocity loss. For target shooters, in contrast, less is more – try a 2-inch fetching to keep your arrows fast, light and flying as flat as possible.
A Word About Broadheads
Arrowheads are literally the “cutting edge” of archery (sorry, had to), so the types and varieties that are available are nearly infinite and continue to evolve. Having said that, as far as the bowhunter is concerned, the broadhead tip is still the best hunting arrow for taking down medium to large game. And while broadheads are themselves highly varied, they generally fall into one of two camps:
1) Fixed-Blade Broadheads
As you can guess by their name, these tips (which can be razor sharp) are meant for cutting and penetration. This is the gold-standard for bowhunters, and is the best choice for must users. Again, opt for a heavier head to get more power and penetration from your rig.
2) Mechanical Broadheads
These are tips that, in flight, are very streamlined and aerodynamic, but which contain inside them blade-like projections that swing outwards upon making contact with their intended target. While these are great in concept, and can make a very dramatic entry wound, be careful. Mechanical broadheads require lots of kinetic energy to deploy the cutting blades – energy that arguably is better spent further arrow penetration. As such, many will find that mechanical broadheads are relatively poor at getting clean pass-through shots or heavy penetration when hunting larger game.