Long-Range Savvy: If You Want to Build Confidence and Stretch Your Effective Range, Follow These Bits of Wisdom
Posted on April 3, 2014
Taking shots beyond the 40-yard mark require lots of pre-season practice, polished shooting form and tuned-up gear.
Big antler tips flashed abruptly downrange, a big mule deer browsing in the privacy of a thick aspen grove. You nock an arrow and tiptoe ahead, hoping to close the distance to a comfortable “under 40 yards.” Suddenly, the deer begins to walk your way, and the thought of getting a shot begins intensifying with every step. This is it… you think to yourself. It’s going to happen.
Inch by inch, the deer comes closer, but then he unexpectedly shifts direction, feeding uphill now and further and further away. Moments later, he stands perfectly broadside at 51 yards, his chest completely unobscured by branches and brush, tempting an immediate shot opportunity. But, with three sight pins on your bow and little practice done beyond 40 yards, you do the right thing and wait… hoping the deer will somehow move closer or give you a chance to sneak in.
Thirty minutes later, the deer feeds over a rise, and you quickly move from behind to take in the yardage. In your mind, it’s perfect — a classic, quick peek-over-the-hill shot opportunity is only seconds away.
But it doesn’t happen. Suddenly a mild gust of wind hits the back of your neck and an oversize velvet-clad rack is seen bounding away, heading for parts unknown. You’re devastated. It was the last day of a 10-day out-of-state bowhunt, and it was the only close call you had. Another chance would have to wait until next year.
The above illustration is a common one. Certainly, it’s not a bad thing to hunt hard and not get a shot, as bowhunting isn’t just about killing game — it’s about enduring the adventure and learning more and more every time we’re in the woods.
But filling your tag is great icing on the cake and completes all the hard work, planning and gear preparations you’ve made all year long. It’s clearly the objective and when you fulfill the mission, a powerful, satisfying inner feeling is what emits.
For that reason, being the best, most competent shooter you can be is something every bowhunter should consider because it will help create more shooting opportunities and more filled tags.
And that’s what this article is all about — developing greater shooting competence. By no means am I advocating taking super-long shots or “arrow flinging” at precious big-game animals. No way. What I’m advocating is an ethical, step-by-step plan for stretching your sure-kill range by another 5, 10 or 15 yards — powerful medicine that will allow you to capitalize on certain shots in the field and fill your tag.
In the end, you’ll come away as a more confident, more fulfilled bowhunter, especially on a trip where you get one crack, and that one crack may require stretching the distance a little.
Continually Challenge Yourself
The first step to improving our shot range is to learn to up the practice ante as much as possible. We must challenge ourselves constantly and never become stale.
This means we must step away from ordinary, same ol’ backyard shooting practice. We must force ourselves to shoot in the areas we are the weakest. So, if this means uphill, downhill, sitting down, from your knees and so forth, then that’s what we must do. And of course, we must practice at longer distances.
Don’t get me wrong: regular stand-up-in-the-backyard shooting works great for sighting-in your bow and keeping shooting muscles tone, but it no way does it represent effective, “downrange” hunting practice. You must train the way you hunt. This means if you hunt from a tree stand or ground blind, then practice from one. If you stalk hunt, then shoot from your knees. To gain more effect, you should even wear hunting clothes and boots from time to time. You get the picture.
Another important key is to conduct practice only when you’re feeling physically fresh and mentally strong. This way you can program your mind and your body to duplicate this “feeling” even when shooting under pressure. By doing this, you have a better chance of shooting more accurately when adrenaline is flowing and upsetting your thought process.
So, practice can’t be about just having fun anymore. It’s about reinforcing good habits only. You must focus on each and every shot, the same way every time. It’s mentally draining but it will pay off big time when that big buck steps into view.
Double Practice Distances
Do you seldom practice beyond a distance that you think you’ll shoot a deer from? If not, you’re doing little to challenge your ability. In fact, the further out you practice, the more restful your mind becomes about “regular distance” hunting shots, eventually making them seem like chip shots.
Personally, I “double” the distance when practicing. Meaning, if my maximum sure-kill shooting range on game is 40 yards, then I shoot out to 80 yards. It works, and there’s nothing harmful or unethical about shooting foam targets at extreme distances.
When using this technique, be sure to slowly introduce more shooting distance. If not, you’ll tend to “over psyche” the mind, causing concentration or aiming problems as targets become perceivably smaller at longer distances. This has a tendency to break down shooting form, creating problems like punching the release, aiming poorly, discontinuing your follow-through and so on.
My suggestion is to shoot from one distance for two weeks, then add 5 yards. Shoot at this distance for another two weeks, then add another 5 yards. Do this over and over until you reach your “double” distance. Again, smart practice is all about discipline, so be willing to work hard and patiently at it. If not, you’ll find yourself stumbling, shooting with bad habits.
Instill Shooting Comfort
So far, all this slow-introduction stuff has been about programming our subconscious mind — the part of the brain that controls 90-percent of the actual bow shot, while our little brain, the conscious one, focuses solely on one thing — either aiming or pulling through the shot with back tension.
What this means is that we need to feed our subconscious mind exactly what it requires to perform well — which is working in harmony and collecting positive, encouraging thoughts. Negative thinking will only cause it to stagger and perform poorly.
Here are a few tips to keep the subconscious mind calm and working at its peak, so you can shoot better.
Positive Encouragement: We all have tough shooting days where we can’t seem to do anything right. Try not to dwell on these moments. Instead, focus heavily on the areas where you are strong. This type of thinking feeds the mind positive messages, increasing confidence.
Pick a Spot: My friend Derek Phillips, a pro-level shooter and pro-staff manager for Mathews Archery, likes to visualize a yellow or orange golf ball right where he wants the arrow to strike the animal, so he can focus his aim intensely on that spot. This gives the shot real purpose, he says.
Insist on picking a spot every time you shoot during regular practice, whether you pick out a dime-size discoloration on a paper target or imagine a golf ball in the middle of a 3-D’s vital zone. This will reinforce this habit and make it automatic come crunch time.
Imagine the Perfect Shot: Most pro athletes like to execute something perfectly in their minds before actually doing it. They do this because it’s proven to help their performance.
Such mental imagery works because your subconscious mind can’t distinguish the difference between real or vividly imagined events. You can picture yourself shooting perfectly and accurately and, in the process, your mind actually thinks you are shooting but you’re not. If all your subconscious mind knows is perfection, then that’s all it can do. How cool is that?
Shoot Better Gear
Now that you know how to increase your mental toughness, the next step is working on your shooting form and equipment.
I won’t got into great detail on shooting form as it would simply take up too much space, but practicing good form is critical for shooting well, especially at longer distances.
The keys behind good form are proper bow fit, relaxed shooting posture, using an effective shot sequence, performing a “surprise” release and maintaining good follow-through until the arrow strikes the target.
Of most important are a relaxed bow-hand grip, a smooth release, and an exceptional follow-through. If you don’t have these, you won’t shoot consistently beyond the 40-yard mark.
Make Your Bow More Accurate
Setting up an accurate bow is easy compared to the hard work involved with programming your mind and body to shoot well, so make it fun.
Here are five steps you can do to make your bow deadlier.
1. Tune the Bow: This means taking it to the archery shop and making sure the cam system is synchronized (cams roll over at the same time). Or, if it’s a single-cam, make sure that the power cam is rotated in the optimum position for level nock travel. This change can make a huge difference in shot repeatability and forgiveness.
Once this is done, and you have all your next steps in place, the bow should then be paper tuned to ensure straight arrow flight.
2. Choose a More Precise Arrow: Spend the extra few bucks on a set of high-grade carbon arrows, as it will increase shooting consistency, particularly with broadheads.
3. Accuracy Test Different Broadheads and Vanes: I test shoot all new broadheads and/or fletching combinations at 50 or 60 yards. Shot testing done further downrange makes it easier to identify accuracy issues, so you can cull out what doesn’t work well.
4. Use a Forgiving Arrow Rest: The initial arrow launch is where flight disruption begins. Minimize oscillations in the arrow at this juncture and the bow will shoot more accurately. This is done by using an arrow rest that dampens the shaft somewhat during the take-off. I prefer a fast-dropping fall-away rest (one that stays up for nearly the entire launch cycle) that also uses a flexible launcher arm to dampen this slight arrow movement. I use the Arizona Archery Pro Drop rest with the Whale Tail “feeler gauge” blade.
5. Use a Better Release: Besides your other hand on the grip, the release is your main connection to the bow. Why not make it the best it can be? In doing so, you’ll need a comfortable model that doesn’t have a sloppy, creepy trigger mechanism that tells you to “get ready” because the shot is about to break! When this happens, shot anticipation begins and your mind will start flinching before the shot. This progresses to punching the trigger madly — a bad cycle to have and to break.
Test shoot as many releases as you can at a well-stocked archery shop, and then go with the one that keeps you aiming until the shot just happens.
If you seem to have a knack for hammering the trigger, even with a top-shelf index-finger release, then I’d highly recommend a thumb or back-tension release. These are harder to shoot incorrectly. Keep shooting this style of release for as long as it takes to build up solid shot control. Then and only then should you consider switching back to an index-finger release.
Building Confidence and Testing Skill
As you work on shooting distance, form and equipment, you should check your progress from time to time by conducting a simple accuracy test. This is done by shooting at an 8-inch-diameter paper plate (the same size of a deer’s vital zone) or a 3-D target with a similar vital zone. Shoot using five broadhead-tipped arrows. The furthest you can place all five arrows on the plate should be considered your maximum sure-kill shooting range. I prefer to shoot several groups over a period of several days just to make sure my group sizes don’t vary much.
However, tests like these mean very little unless you possess the right amount of confidence to take long, real-life bowhunting shots. To be honest, it means everything in the world. You should always “listen” to what your mind says about what shot is right or wrong.
Basically, if you don’t feel good about a particular shot, then you must let down, regardless of whether the distance is close or far. Think of confidence as your eternal traffic light – if your mind says “green,” then shoot. If it says “red,” then don’t. If you feel “yellow,” then things are simply too murky to justify an ethical attempt, so be sure to hold off as well.
Unfortunately, confidence is one of those hard-to-come-by components. It must be earned through smart, disciplined shooting practice; by using mental-strengthening techniques; and by gaining actual hunting experience in the deer woods. More confidence also comes by using more accurate shooting gear.
All four of these factors are the areas to improve upon when wanting to enhance your long-range potential. Follow the tips outlined in this article, and I’m quite certain you’ll be punching more deer tags in the years to come.
And remember, always listen to that small voice inside that tells when to shoot or when not to. Be sure you’re 99 percent confident in every shot you take in order to avoid a poor hit and wounding an animal. This is our main concern as ethical, responsible bowhunters.
One key to shooting better at longer range is to maintain a relaxed bow hand. Any slight variance in how you grip the bow will drastically affect your point of impact downrange, especially beyond the 40-yard mark.
On each and every shot, train yourself to “feel” the grip and to position your hand the same way each and every time. Also, once you hit full draw and just before you begin aiming, send the message to your hand to “relax,” keeping the fingers limp and positioned in whatever manner feels most natural and relaxed. I also like to gauge where the pressure point of the bow is on my palm. Get a sense for where it should be and do all you can to maintain that sensation on every shot. Performing these steps over and over will help them become more habitual and more repeatable for consistent long-range shooting. –J.B.
One thing I’ve noticed after lots of experimenting with gear and long-range shooting is that increasing your point weight or front of center (FOC) can help improve consistency, especially if you happen to hunt out west where windy conditions prevail.
The reason why FOC helps is that it lessens the degree to which the wind can force the arrow off aim, despite the back end of the arrow fishtailing or wagging to one side.
Ideal front-of-center (FOC) weight is anything 10 percent or more forward, with 15 percent being about maximum. To calculate your arrow’s FOC, visit www.bowonlyoutdoors.com/tech.html. Then input your arrow’s specs in the “FOC Calculator.”
Some archers experience much better accuracy using 125-grain heads versus 100 grains for this exact reason. You can also thread in a small screw to the rear of the arrow insert to add a bit of weight, or use a heavier aftermarket version. –J.B.
“My suggestion is to shoot from one distance for two weeks, then add 5 yards.”
“You must train the way you hunt. This means, if you hunt from a tree stand or ground blind, then practice from one.”
Participating in 3-D shoots is a great way to prepare for “pressure shots” on game. The more you familiarize yourself with high-stakes shooting, the better you’ll do during the moment of truth.
The author’s favorite kind of hunting is western deer in the mountains, which is oftentimes extremely challenging and calls for long-than-normal bowhunting shots. Thanks to serious year-round practice and refining his equipment, he was able to arrow both of these bucks beyond the 40-yard mark.
The author’s good friend Ron Way stalked this late-season Arizona mule deer in some rugged country. He had only one kind of shot to take – a long one – but his dedication to the sport and long hours on the range made the attempt an ethical, one-shot kill.
Story and Photos by Joe Bell