Considering the Pros, Cons of Heavy or Light Arrows

Patrick Meitin with a doe he hunted and shot in Idaho with his traditional archery gear, which he enjoys and regularly hunts with.

Patrick Meitin with a doe he hunted and shot in Idaho with his traditional archery gear, which he enjoys and regularly hunts with.

Among topics bowhunters enjoy arguing about — mechanical vs. fixed-blade broadheads, ethics of baiting deer or taking long shots — arrow choice remains a hot-button issue.

By Patrick Meitin

I’m admittedly conservative in my equipment choices (if not the shots I’m willing to take), having cut my bowhunting teeth when compound bows remained suspect. I still seriously bowhunt with traditional bows, partly because — here I risk venturing into the realm of condesension, which certainly isn’t my intention or desire — I’ve drawn certain conclusions after 30-plus years bowhunting and guiding bowhunters, witnessing firsthand what works and what doesn’t.

I also may be considered tedious for regularly adjusting my equipment setup to meet conditions specific to particular regions or species. I’ve been taken to task for advocating heavy arrows (“Why don’t we all just revert back to longbows and wood arrows?” one guy spouted). I’ve been heckled for espousing light arrows for light-framed, long-range Coues whitetail, (“Recommending light target shafts for bowhunting is wrong, as they don’t carry the penetration potential or structural integrity needed for ethical bowhunting,” says another writer; despite careful qualifications).

In the interests of clearing the air (or maybe tossing fuel on the fire…) here are some pertinent thoughts regarding arrow choice.

Heavy Arrows
Pros: Heavy arrows (10 to 12 grains per inch, or 435-495 grains finished weight at 29 inches, 100-grain broadhead) — especially as directly pertaining to whitetail hunting — will always produce quieter shots than lighter arrows. Though modern compounds have become increasingly efficient (most relinquishing efficiency ratings in the upper 80 percentiles), some amount of energy’s lost to escape energies and shot noise. Heavy arrows simply absorb more of a bow’s available energy, resulting in fewer vibrations and quieter hunting bows.

In whitetail hunting, there’s no such thing as too quiet. Beating a whitetail’s ears (sound travels around 1,128 fps, the fastest bows supposedly 350 fps) is a much more effective way of preventing string jumping than beating his lightning-quick reflexes.

All factors remaining equal, heavy arrows always are more reliable, more durable, than lighter. More material, with additional layers of carbon material, equal more strength when subjected to abuse such as bone impacts or when shot into rocky ground or bounced off trees following misses. Finally, heavier shafts — all other factors remaining equal — always penetrate deeper than lighter ones. Objects in motion want to stay in motion, and better stay their course, in direct proportion to mass. This has nothing to do with kinetic energy (a poor measure of arrow performance on game) but momentum (which leans more heavily on mass than velocity).

Cons: Heavy arrows are undeniably slower than lighter ones when shot from an identical bow. This becomes a real-world liability when forced to shoot through obstacles like branches and other vegetation, as a more looping trajectory makes deflection more likely.  This looping trajectory also makes range judging more critical, as just a few yards misjudgment can mean larger margins of error, those gaps growing exponentially as range stretches.
Light Arrows
Pros: A light arrow (6.5 to 8.5 gpi, or about 330-390 grains finished, 29 inches. 100-grain head) is always faster than a heavier one, all other factors remaining equal. At least this is true initially, or for all practical purposes within the parameters we operate under in most whitetail-hunting scenarios (shots less than 50 yards; at longer ranges lighter objects shed mass more quickly, faster objects also subject to friction squared; just as a quick aside).

Speed, as we have learned, is directly related to trajectory. More speed spells flatter trajectory – less opportunity for encountering deflection, less critical range judging required at reasonable ranges while providing an increased margin for error.

Cons: Light arrows produce more shot noise and aren’t as durable, all other factors remaining equal. They’re the opposite of a heavier arrow in this respect. Lighter mass also means contact with small branches, twigs or stiff grass stems result in wider deflections. Lighter arrows are also more susceptible to cross-wind drift for the same reason.

In the end it shouldn’t be about one extreme or the other, but about compromises in direct relation to individual needs. It’s also important to maintain a bit of perspective in this business, recalling that today’s faster bows, combined with much heavier arrows, are still relinquishing velocities considered barn burners just a few years ago. Maintaining 2008 velocity while quieting every shot and gaining penetration and durability reliability sounds like a winning proposition to me.