My heart practically fell out of my chest when the bull's massive head and antlers popped into view only 12 steps away, but then quickly turned and disappeared below a cut in the terrain.
I thought the golden moment was surely gone, but when my friend, Ron Niziolek, let out a love-sick call from a lonely cow in estrus, it was simply too irresistible for the bull to ignore. The trotting-away bull slowed to a stop just at the edge of my effective range, craning his head back to give the area one last look.
Suddenly, and still holding the bow to anchor, I was facing the moment of truth all over again, now waiting for the bull's sharply quartering-away position to change somewhat. When the bull shifted a bit more broadside, the sight pin hovered magically in the anatomically correct spot, and the arrow flashed like a beam of light into the cloud of Wyoming sage.
The next thing I noticed were orange vanes barely protruding from the elk's side, mere inches from my aiming spot. The bull galloped out of view, but when Ron and I didn't see him appear on the next rise, we knew it was a done deal. The bull was down. I was stunned by the quickness of the event and how little I actually thought about the shot execution itself.
After replaying the scenario over and over in my mind, the main point of concern was the elk's body angle. It was borderline risky and sharp, yet something inside me said it was "okay." After all, I was using a powerful bow, a fairly heavy arrow, and most importantly, a proven and ultra-sturdy fixed-blade broadhead. Equipped with anything less, I believe doubt would've filled my mind, not confidence.
A Broadhead's Primary Job
A broadhead's sole purpose is to hit on target, remain intact, penetrate deep and slice a clean hole big enough to cause major damage to vital tissue and allow blood to flow out. All of these elements are paramount for a quick kill.
However, many of today's broadheads will fail horribly in delivering all four of these elements, especially in the stay-together, durability department. Nowadays, many broadhead engineers like to sidestep extreme toughness in order to achieve better aerodynamics or cheaper manufacturing costs, or even both. Don't be fooled into this Band-Aid approach. Without bombproof durability, a broadhead will fail to do its job.
To test a broadhead's durability, shoot several heads—not just one—into a very tough backstop. I prefer 1/8-inch-thick sheet metal. I also like to stump-shoot, as countless shots into firm dirt or sandy soil provide a wonderful gauge for broadhead durability. Heads that become easily mangled during these tests are not recommended for tackling deer-sized game.
Don't be fooled either by convincing advertising slogans, which claim that certain machining or manufacturing practices or one-piece ferrule designs make one brand superior to another. In my experience, these claims aren't always supported by legitimate, independent lab tests. Be sure to do your own testing, as I've seen some replaceable heads prove to be more durable than all-one-piece designs. There's a lot of manufacturing detail that goes into making a head tough, not just how many pieces of steel or alloy it is made out of.
Penetration On Angled Hits
Nobody is perfect, and despite the most extreme patience on a bowhunter's part, there are times when animals present less-than-ideal shooting angles, especially if they happen to "jump the string," which happens a lot. This leaves a difficult scenario to overcome, but with the right broadhead it can be handled. I've done extensive testing on targets (carpet and plywood) positioned at a sharp angle, and the results are clear: Nothing penetrates in a straight-line force better than a well-made, streamlined fixed head. Nothing.
With non-opening blades, the fixed head strikes without deployment, offering deep penetration on angled hits. The key is using a fixed-blade head with a somewhat-slender cutting nose and blades that don't sit at an abrupt angle. If so, the blades can actually strike the animal's ribs at exactly the same time as the nose, causing a ricochet or kick-out to occur.
One of the deadliest penetrating broadheads I've used is the Muzzy 4-Blade (below). It has a long-style Trocar tip, which on impact digs deep into hide and flesh, securing the broadhead's alignment and allowing the force of the arrow to stay centralized. Also, due to the broadhead's 1-inch cut (minimal for sure, but it makes up for it with a fourth cutting blade), long-aluminum ferrule and low-profile blades, it lessens the chance of same-time blade-and-nose impact for a potential kick-out.
With today's high-speed bows, you'll have to compromise somewhat with broadhead and blade length, choosing a slightly shorter, more compact head with less-sweeping blade angles in order to achieve better aerodynamics and ease of accuracy. But do so with care, always selecting the longest, most streamlined head that will shoot well from your setup. This will give you what you need to handle tough shooting situations, such as the one I had in Wyoming with the big elk.
Cutting Size: What's Big Enough?
Surely, penetration is crucial when it comes to broadhead performance, but so is cutting a large wound channel. This makes finding the best all-around head even trickier. On one hand, a small cut enhances penetration and aerodynamics; on the other, it lessens tissue damage.
The key, again, is finding the best middle ground. For me, this balance point means three-bladed heads with a cutting diameter of 1 1/16 - 1 3/16 inches. With four-bladed heads, I prefer 1 – 1 1/16 inches. Heads of this style and width seem to offer a great blend of penetration, accuracy and cutting ability.
One of my favorite fixed-blade heads is the G5 Striker 100 (below). It's superbly accurate, amazingly sharp and deadly penetrating, plus it cuts a decent-sized 1 1/8-inch hole—in my opinion this head is the perfect all-around compromise for today's fast bows.
There are vast amounts of fixed heads on the market, and I urge you to experiment heavily. Looks can be deceiving when you try to find what will fly best, in terms of shape and cutting width, so do your own testing to determine what really works.
When A Pass-Through Fails
Two holes are better than one. Why? More blood flows from two than just one, thus giving you an easier blood trail to follow and quicker recovery.
But, what if you don't get a pass-through? What if the arrow wedges in the animal's cavity, or worse, in secondary vital tissue, where only one hole is cut? Although less blood will fall to the ground in this scenario, a sturdy fixed-blade broadhead will remain intact, cutting and dismantling every blood vessel in its path to increase blood loss and tissue damage.
On the flip side, flimsy, poorly made broadheads are likely to become deformed or folded into mushrooms of steel, quickly ruining their ability to cut and do further damage. Also, at this point, the arrow often slides back out of the wound channel, as if a field point was attached to it, doing nothing to keep the channel "open" or to do more damage.
For this reason, a strong broadhead, one with thick, non-expanding, non-snapping blades will save the day, cutting with every step, lunge or brush against tree branches the animal makes.
Sharpness And Accuracy
Beyond toughness and penetrating ability, a broadhead must be super sharp so it cuts nearly friction free. This creates clean cuts through blood vessels for more blood loss and flow.
Fortunately, thanks to fierce manufacturing competition and consumer demand, ready-to-hunt sharpness is something most broadheads have nowadays, unlike 10 years ago. To verify legitimate sharpness, simply slide a blade across paper and see if it cuts. If it doesn't cut with ease, then it's too dull for hunting.
Heads that have proven to be superbly sharp out of the package are the G5 Striker; Slick Trick Standard, Magnum and Razor Trick; Wasp Hammer, Bullet and Boss Series; Muzzy models; New Archery Thunderhead Razor and Nitron Series; Helix arrowhead; and Innerloc models.
Accuracy is crucial for obvious reasons and this is where most bowhunters run into a jam with fixed heads. Stationary cutting blades mean greater surface area and this gives the fixed head its notorious "steerage" effect and poor accuracy.
However, this need not concern you when using a well-tuned bow, properly spined and matched arrows, and fixed heads sized appropriately for the setup's arrow speed. When these are in check, you can expect fixed heads to fly like darts—really, with no less accuracy than your trusty field points.
Steps For Better Accuracy
The recipe for success starts by paper-tuning your bow. This is done by shooting an arrow through a taut piece of paper from 6 feet away (using a field point). The goal is a clean "bullet hole" tear with neat fletching slits, essentially the footprint of the arrow. A large tear, up or down, or side to side, identifies erratic arrow flight, which must be fixed.
To do this, simply make adjustments to your nock height and/or fall-away arrow rest until you achieve a clean, almost-perfect tear. If poor tears persist, then spray the rear of the arrow with foot powder to verify vane clearance with the rest. A slight smear in the white dust on the arrow reveals contact with the rest—a deal breaker for straight, accurate arrow flight.
Once arrow flight is tuned, the next step is shooting arrow groups downrange, using three broadheads and three field points. Shoot as far as you feel comfortable, say 30, 40 or 50 yards.
If broadheads fail to group into tight clusters, similar to your field points, then consider a different broadhead, perhaps one that's more compact in shape.
If broadheads happen to group well but hit in a different spot than field points, try these adjustments to the arrow's nock height and/or the arrow rest in hopes of bringing the two groups together.
For low broadhead impact, lower your nock height. For high impact, raise the nock height. For left impact, move the arrow rest to the right. For right impact, move the arrow rest to the left. Be sure to make very small 1/32-inch adjustments at a time before shooting another group and verifying the results. (Note: Field points are more forgiving and more tolerable of slight tuning changes, whereas broadheads are not. This applies to both paper-tuning and point-of-impact. Many times a slight change to the nock height or arrow rest won't affect field point impact at all.)
If these adjustments fail to improve things, then simply consider sighting-in with broadheads. If this does not satisfy you, then continue trouble-shooting by doing the following:
1. Have the bow's cam system and limb alignment inspected at full draw. Sometimes improved wheel synchronization and limb-tip load will eliminate poor broadhead impact.
2. Experiment with different arrow vanes, ones that create more drag and better arrow steerage. You can also play with a slightly different arrow FOC (front of center). Oftentimes, more FOC results in better broadhead impact. This is done easily by using heavier inserts or broadheads, or choosing lighter fletching.
When it comes to bowhunting, details definitely do count. This is why broadhead choice ranks as a huge concern. It's the main tool behind a clean, humane kill. Choose the wrong one and all your effort as a bowhunter could add up to nothing. Choose the right one and you'll fill your freezer. That's the greatness behind a rugged, accurate, fixed-blade broadhead. It simply won't let you down.