It’s a heckuva problem to face if you love the sport of archery. Two bum shoulders before you reach the age of 30. Not a good diagnosis for a sport that relies heavily on strong back muscles, tone arms and especially, fit shoulders! But that’s exactly the dilemma I faced after a serious motorcycle wreck in the summer of 1996.
The accident left me with a broken left foot and a separated right shoulder plus plenty of scrapes and bruises. I left the hospital in a wheel chair with crutches across my lap. My left foot was in a blue cast, my right shoulder in a sling and my back was scraped up enough to resemble beef jerky. My doctor told me my anatomy was permanently altered and to take it easy, but he wasn’t a hunter and did not understand my need to hunt that fall.
Undaunted from my bad luck, that same summer I had a much-anticipated pronghorn hunt in New Mexico. My 70 pound compound was as useless as a boat anchor, but I found a solution in the way of a smooth-drawing 48 pound draw weight replacement bow. I still had to grit my teeth just to reach full draw once or twice, but slowly I worked up the strength to shoot ten or so arrows in a practice session. If a buck pronghorn would pose broadside at under 30 yards, I felt confident I could make the shot count.
Draw a comfortable weight. You’ll hold longer, steadier and still get the job done
On the fifth and last day of that hunt, after sitting every hour of daylight in ground blinds over water, I finally had a shooter buck come within range. A 14-inch buck with wide, flaring horns. At 25 yards my girlish 48 pound bow blasted a razor-sharp, 4-bladed broadhead completely through the speed goat’s chest. The prairie goat stumbled a few feet then made a dramatic flop backwards to the dusty New Mexico earth. An 80 pound bow could not have killed him any deader. I was thankful for a solid hit as my broken foot meant I was hobbled to crutches, and any sort of tracking job or sneak through the yuccas and sage for a follow-up shot would have been comical at best. Tagging that buck despite all the discomforts of my injuries was a defining moment for me both as a hunter and as a person. From then on I knew I could persevere and succeed even when it seemed unlikely.
A couple of years later I experienced more pain in my left shoulder (I shoot a bow left-handed) from bone spurs. Today, arthritis or an oncoming cold front can make pain shoot through both shoulders like a lightning bolt. Sometimes I feel like a 30-something bowhunter with a 60-year-old’s shoulders. But before you get out the tissues and weep for my hardships, there is good news. With today’s more efficient, better-built bows I really have no handicap at all. Armed with bows typically drawing about 60 pounds, sometimes a bit less and sometimes a tad more, I can shoot an arrow completely through a deer-sized animal consistently. A well-tuned bow that shoots arrows straight with no wobble, quality fixed-blade broadheads designed for improved penetration, and by carefully paying attention to body angles before releasing the arrow, I get the most performance from less poundage. On average my bowhunting rigs typically generate 50 to 60 foot pounds of kinetic energy, more than adequate for deer.
buck was shot in south TX at 32 yards. Tackle included a 57# Bowtech Liberty VFT bow, Easton Axis 400 tipped with a 100 grain Rocky Mt. Ironhead Broadhead – total arrow weight of 384 grains. The bow shot 235 fps. total kinetic energy was 47 foot-pounds. The shot was a pass through, proof that light poundage rigs with modest kinetic energy can be deadly on deer-sized game.
Coping with Sore Shoulders
Unlike a hard-hitting sport like football, a game for the young where 30-year-olds are considered veterans, archery and bowhunting are potential lifetime sports if you take care of your body. Archery is more like golf in the respect that 40, 50 and 60 year olds enjoy the sport just as much as the younger crowd. I plan to still be shooting a bow decades from now, so today I take precautions to ensure that will be the case. For starters, I exercise five days a week. It starts with running every day and weight training three of those days. I do specific weight exercises recommended by my doctor to strengthen my chest, back, shoulders and arms. In addition, I don’t shoot a bow as much as I did when I was younger. On average I shoot two days a week. I shoot fewer arrows in practice sessions, but with intense focus to get the most from my time on the range.
Bows and Gear
Another consideration for archers with sore shoulders considering a draw weight diet is the model of bow you shoot. Not every 60 pound bow is the same. Some designs have harsh, uncomfortable draw cycles or hard cams that are brutal on tender shoulders, even at lower draw weights. The best bows for sore-shoulder bowhunters are those with smoother-drawing cams or round wheels and usually higher let-off, say 70 to 80 percent. The right bow and cams are important to shoot less poundage comfortably, but so is the right arrow and broadhead. Over the past ten years since my accident I’ve experimented with dozens of different broadhead designs for deer-sized game. Predictably, the best penetrating broadheads are those designs with a modest cutting diameter, 1 1/8-inches or less, and fixed-blade designs drive deeper than do most mechanical designs. Stiff, skinny arrows seem to also penetrate best.
How Much Draw Weight is Too Much?
One common mistake of new archers is pulling as much poundage as they possibly can. That’s fine if you can handle it in every hunting situation, but the truth is most folks don’t consider those worst case scenarios when they crank up their bow weight during summer practice sessions. Try sitting in a treestand for eight hours in freezing temperatures, then try to draw your high-poundage rig slow and smooth without a buck spotting you. Hold it at full draw for over a minute waiting for that same buck to offer the best angle. If you shoot too much draw weight your muscles will quiver and your back will ache. You might not even get to full draw. If you do, once you trip the shot your accuracy will usually suffer significantly.
Hunting at high elevations in thin air, conditions you might experience when chasing high country elk or timberline mule deer, also leads to body fatigue. That upper body strength you took for granted at sea level to draw 70-plus pounds may not exist after a week of living in a tent on granola and trail mix and hiking with a heavy pack on your back. In my experience, it is more important to be able to draw a bow smooth with no game spooking movement in every conceivable hunting scenario than it is to shoot excess poundage.
So how do you know if you are shooting too much weight? When you draw the bow, your bow arm should go forward as easily as if you were reaching your hand out to shake someone’s hand. The drawing arm should NOT resemble the harsh movement like you were jerking the cord to start a lawn mower. If you have to point your bow towards the sky to reach your anchor, it’s too heavy. You should be able to sit in a chair and draw the bow smoothly out in front of you, hold it at full draw for a half a minute and still execute the same pin-point accuracy you deliver when standing and shooting more quickly. If in doubt, crank the weight down a few pounds. Less really is more from today’s high performance bows.
Light Poundage Success
Even though it has been ten years since my motorcycle wreck, I still fight pain in my shoulder and foot. In fact, both shoulders are less than perfect. Modest draw weight bows are the best choice because of my aches and pains, but over the years I’ve learned less draw weight is really no handicap at all.
In the fall of 2005 I carried a rig similar in poundage and kinetic energy to what I’ve used for many years. My bow was a 34-inch axle-to-axle BowTech Allegiance set on 60 pounds. My hip quiver was loaded with six perfect Easton A/C Super Slim size 340 shafts tipped with wicked little 100 grain Rocky Mountain Turbo broadheads. This rig generated 59 foot pounds of kinetic energy, more than enough for deer-sized game and larger.
My first lucky arrow of the fall season came in early October. A mature 10-point whitetail that I’d watched for two seasons gave me a 20 yard shot in the last blinks of daylight. Slowly I eased my softy rig to full power, aimed carefully then released. My arrow blasted through the buck so quickly I wasn’t for sure if it was a hit or a miss. It was a hit and the buck barely made it 70 yards before he crumbled. That same month I blasted another skinny arrow through the chest of a mature mulie buck at 20 yards. Again, the arrow whistled through thick hide and stout rib bones as if it was only soft foam. My lightweight rig was delivering macho poundage-type results.
Another buck down by drawing softly
The months of November and December saw more of the same. I can’t remember a fall season when I had quite so many shot opportunities. Bucks, does, pigs and javelina all presented tempting targets. There was the ancient old 18-point non-typical whitetail I thumped slightly quartering to me at 17 yards. A wicked little three-bladed Rocky Mountain Turbo punched completely through the near-side shoulder blade and penetrated both lungs. The old buck crow-hopped 50 yards and dropped. Shots at hogs and javelinas were what I’ve come to expect from light weight rigs when broadside angles are taken. More pass-throughs and short recoveries. Even my longest shot attempt of the fall season, a 42 yard poke at a wary doe in Illinois, was a pass through slightly back in the chest. Following that ample bloodtrail meandering down a steep slope through ankle deep oak leaves was a vivid reminder that less draw weight produces the same thing as heavier ones: dead animals.
Between early October and late December I shot seven deer, three hogs and two javelinas. I say this not to boast, but to prove a point on the effectiveness of modest draw weight bows. Shot distances ranged from 15 yards out to 42 yards. Animal weights ranged from 50 pound javelinas to 220 pound bucks. Of those 12 shots, ten were pass throughs. The two shots that did not penetrate completely included a doe shot through the spine and the old non-typical buck shot through the front shoulder blade.
Drawing a bow softly can kill animals just as dead as something heavier, but with added benefits. The most obvious is less strain and fatigue on your body. You’ll also appreciate being able to anchor with confidence on a bugling bull at 9,000 feet after five days on rations and minimal oxygen. You’ll appreciate the less is more philosophy the same way when a deep-freeze whitetail wanders by through crunching snow and you feel like a popsicle. And when you have to hold and hold waiting for a buck to clear one last tree, less draw weight will be an asset. Take high percentage shots at broadside and slightly quartering away angles and less draw weight can kill deer just as dead as something heavier.