Best arrow for elk hunting [Gear Guide]

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What’s the best arrow for elk hunting? No other gear question is as important as this one. It’s not uncommon to only get one shot at an elk (if you’re lucky) and your arrow is the only piece of gear that actually does the work. It’s worth taking the time to pick a great elk arrow since it can make or break your hunt.

Elk are very different animals than deer: they’re far bigger, their hide and bones are tougher, and they’re strong enough to go long distances when wounded. To top it off, the mountainous environment they live in can lead to long shots, windy conditions, and difficult shot angles. The best arrow for elk hunting is built specifically for those requirements and so is this gear guide.

I go very deep in the details in these Gear Guides, so I put my recommendations and a summary up top. If you want to fully understand the “why” just keep reading!

How to pick the best arrow for elk hunting

The perfect elk arrow is deceptively simple: it’s accurate, penetrates like crazy, and is tough enough for the job. Here’s a summary of the key factors before we dive into each below:

  • Critical factors
    • Arrow weight
      • No other factor has as much influence on penetration, which is everything in elk hunting. Aim for 7-10 grains of weight per pound of draw weight on your bow
      • Heavier arrows make your bow more efficient, quiet your shot, are easier to tune, and retain energy far better down range
      • Unlike bullets, speed doesn’t kill and too much speed makes some broadheads inaccurate. Try to use the heaviest arrow that will get you around 260-280fps
    • Diameter
      • Small (.204/”5mm”) and micro (.165/”4mm”) diameter arrow shafts cut through the wind, penetrate better, are tougher/stronger, and have a better trajectory compared to standard diameter (.246/”6mm”) arrows.
      • The differences between micro and small diameter shafts are far smaller than small diameter vs standard diameter
    • Components (Inserts / outserts)
      • The weakest (and most inaccurate) part of most small/micro diameter arrows is the connection between the broadhead and the shaft. Good components (inserts, outserts, half outs, etc) are key to a tough, accurate arrow
      • Small diameter arrows (.204/”5mm”) are generally the best bang per buck and components are far less finicky than micro diameter arrows
      • Micro diameter outserts have to be aligned perfectly, so buy custom or build your own if you truly want “the best”
    • Spine consistency
      • This above all else leads to accurate arrows, especially with broadheads. You can’t test it without expensive machines (and nobody lists these specs) but make sure to do your research
      • Step one is choosing the right spine from a spine chart, but that’s true for any arrow
    • Broadheads
      • There’s so much here I’ll write another Gear Guide just for broadheads! That said, no arrow can overcome a poor broadhead choice
  • Less important
    • FOC
      • FOC helps with accuracy up to a point (pun intended) but it’s far less important than many believe (and extreme FOC has serious downsides)
      • Aim for 10-15% and you’ll see great results
    • Fletching
      • Matching the right amount of fletching surface area to your broadhead is important. How you do it (3 fletch, 4 fletch, long/short vanes) isn’t really.
      • Use a small fixed blade broadhead (< 1 ¼ inch) and you should be find with most commercial Bohning or AAE fletchings work fine
      • Helical/offset makes a big difference in stabilizing your arrow and is only available from custom builders or if you build your own arrows
      • The only way to know what works is to test options on your setup
    • Straightness
      • Straightness is correlated to good spine consistency but it’s not as critical. A +/- 0.003 straightness is plenty for most shooters.
      • You’ll only notice the benefits of +/- 0.001 tolerances from 80-100 yards (practicing) if you’re a fantastic shot
    • Weight tolerances
      • Unless you’re shooting past 60 yards (or practicing at 100), just make sure your arrows are within 5-10 grains of each other
      • At the extreme, I find 1 grain difference can mean 0.5-1” difference @ 100 yards
    • Quietness
      • Elk aren’t as twitchy as whitetail deer but it doesn’t hurt to try to keep the arrow as quiet as possible. The best way to do that is use solid (not vented) broadhead blades and to use quiet vanes
  • Not important
    • Nocks
      • Almost every manufacturer makes good nocks these days and you can easily swap nocks from one arrow to another (with the same ID)
      • What is important is how well a nock fits your bow’s nocking points and serving, but that’s another article
    • Colors
      • Elk are dichromatic which means they can’t see red/green. As long as your arrows are not blue you’ll be fine.

Phew! That’s just the summary believe it or not. If you follow that advice I’m confident you’ll end up with a phenomenal elk arrow. Want to understand why? Read on.

The deep dive: factors for the best arrow for elk hunting

Let’s dive deep on the key factors that make a great elk arrow… don’t say I didn’t warn you! If you’re looking to master all the concepts, this is the place.

Critical: Arrow weight

Most hunters come from a firearms background where speed and kinetic energy are touted as the most important projectile measurements. That couldn’t be more wrong for archery. At best, an extremely powerful bow (75lbs, 350IBO bow, 500gr arrow) will spit an arrow out with 100 ft/lbs of energy and a velocity of 300 feet per second. That’s half the energy and ¼ the speed of a .22 rimfire cartridge, which is better known for killing for squirrels, not elk!

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What matters in archery is not how “hard” the arrow hits but how far it penetrates through the animal. More penetration equals more cutting area, which ultimately leads to a quicker, more ethical kill. There’s a term for that retained energy: momentum. I’ll spare you the calculations (and all the arguments) but when it comes to creating more momentum, nothing beats adding weight to your arrow.

Heavy arrows also have some other benefits that make them a great choice:

  • They increase your bow’s effective IBO (speed)
    • What? Yes, bows are actually more efficient at transferring power when they have a heavier object to push against. That effectively boosts the bow’s speed, which is a big perk
  • Less noise
    • Since more of the bow’s energy goes into the arrow, that leaves less energy in the bow after the arrow departs to make vibrations (aka noise). A bow is far quieter when heavy arrows are used instead of lighter arrows
  • Easier to tune / more accurate
    • The heavier (and therefore slower) the arrow, the easier to tune a broadhead since there is less wind resistance. That means heavier arrows are often more accurate
  • Long range power
    • Heavy arrows lose relatively less speed and energy at long ranges compared to light arrows (think high ballistic coefficients [“BC”s] in bullets).

Awesome, so why not shoot the heaviest arrow possible? One word: trajectory. If an arrow goes too slow, it drops very quickly which can lead to less margin for error for range estimation. The difference isn’t as big as you think but it is something you need to pay. attention too. A common misconception is that you need a light arrow to shoot long distances. Actually that’s more about how high your peep is, but that’s another post.

So how heavy should you go? Here are two good general rules:

  • Try for 7-10 grains of arrow weight per pound of bow draw weight (GPP)
    • For example, a 480 grain arrow divided by a 60 lb bow = 8 grains per pound. If you have a very light draw (40lbs) aim for ~10 GPP. If you’ve got plenty of power (70lbs) it’s fine to be closer to 7 GPP.
  • Aim for 260-280 feet per second
    • This will likely take a bow speed calculator to estimate but that’s the “magical” range for most people when it comes to the tradeoff between weight and trajectory. It also happens to be about the max speed at which it’s easy to tune some fixed blade broadheads!

There are exceptions to every rule, so comment below if you have odd draw weights or draw lengths. As an example, my 2019 setup was a 549 grain arrow, 67lbs, 8.2 GPP and 258fps… it worked flawlessly on an elk and practicing out to 100+ yards.

Critical: Spine consistency

Before we dive in, this article assumes you know how to select the right arrow spine for your bow (hint: use the charts the arrow companies give you). That’s the baseline for getting an accurate arrow.

While most people have heard of spine (aka how stiff your arrow is), they don’t realize that spines can have wide tolerances even in the same batch of arrows! For example, three shafts labeled 300 spine might actually measure at 294, 306, and 315. To top it off, the spine of an individual arrow changes depending on how it’s rotated. Those inconsistencies can lead to inaccurate arrows and tuning headaches since you’re essentially trying to get two different arrows to act the same way.

While there are tuning methods to try to fix this (none of which works that well), the most important thing is to buy arrows with tight tolerances. That’s hard since most manufacturers don’t list a spine tolerance and spine testing machines cost hundreds of dollars. Straightness correlates to spine consistency but they don’t always run together. So how do you know? Research. You’ll have to trust me on this one: I’ve put in the time testing different arrows and it’s pretty obvious which ones work well.

Critical: Shaft Diameter

Major arrow manufacturers offer roughly three different diameters of arrows for hunting purposes:

  • Standard diameter
    • Inner diameter (ID) of .246” / “6mm”
  • Small diameter
    • ID of .204” / “5mm”
  • Micro diameter
    • ID of .165 / “4mm”

While plenty of elk have been killed with standard diameter arrows, small and micro diameter arrows offer some pretty distinct advantages:

  • Wind resistance
    • Smaller diameter means less surface area for the wind to drag on, so these arrows are less effected by the wind than normal
  • Increased penetration
    • The critical factor here is that the shaft diameter is smaller than the hole punched by the broadhead. That means the surface of the shaft doesn’t drag along the edge of the hole which means more retained energy. While that’s less critical in meat (blood acts as a lubricant) it really makes a difference in holes punched through bone
  • Strength and durability
    • To get the same stiffness out of an arrow (aka spine) you have to use roughly the same amount of material. If you make the diameter of the shaft smaller that means that its walls are much thicker. That thickness means durability and strength when you need it most
  • Better trajectory
    • Less wind resistance also means less arrow drop over distance. This isn’t that big of a deal since it’s a matter of inches, but it’s nice to have
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The downsides of smaller diameter shafts are that they tend to cost more and the components can be much weaker and difficult to align (more on that in the next section). Practically speaking the pros outweigh the cons but ultimately that’s up to you.

Overall I tend to recommend a small diameter arrow to most people since they’re a great blend of cost and efficiency. You’ll notice a big difference between a standard and small diameter shaft but you won’t notice as much difference between a small and micro option.

Critical: Components (Inserts & Outserts)

The insert of an arrow is the metal component that connects the shaft and to the screw-in the point or broadhead. They’re critical because you could build the best arrow for elk hunting on the planet and it would be worthless if your inserts were misaligned or broke easily. That’s especially true for smaller diameter arrows since more of the insert has to move “out” of the inside of the arrow as it gets smaller. Each different diameter comes with a slightly different type of insert:

  • Standard diameter
    • Standard insert: all of the point other than the tip is entirely inside the shaft
  • Small diameter
    • Half outs: Half of the point is outside the shaft and only the point threads are inside
      • Note: some exceptions to this like easton HIT inserts, outserts, or micro diameter style combos
  • Micro diameter
    • Outserts: The entire point and its threads are outside the arrow shaft and only part of the outsert overlaps with the outside/inside of the shaft. These can be one or two pieces

The traditional weakness of micro diameter arrows (and to some extent, small diameter arrows too) is the insert/outsert system. They have a bad habit of bending, breaking, or just pulling out the arrow. That’s a tragedy if it happens when you shoot an elk and really annoying even when it happens at the range. The best arrow for elk hunting have extremely strong components, so do your research.

No matter how precise the components, you’ll still have to mark + align outserts (by rotating them) before you glue them into the arrow. Otherwise you’ll have a straight arrow shaft that still has a wobbly point! Not good. That’s another reason I recommend small diameter vs micro diameter arrows, especially if you’re not building your own. Mass produced micro diameter arrows often ship with misaligned outserts.

Critical: Broadhead selection

I’ll be creating an entirely different gear guide just for broadheads but it’s important to know that broadheads also influence your arrow choices. For example, if you use a smaller broadhead (or mechanical) you can use smaller fletchings as well. You don’t need broadheads wider than 1 1/4″ for elk, so avoid those and your arrow should be easy to tune.

Less important: FOC

FOC (Front of Center) is definitely the marketing word of the decade in archery and it seems like everyone has a strong opinion here. I fall in the middle: It’s important, but not nearly as important as people make it out to be. FOC is simply a measure of how much of the arrow’s weight is in the front half of the arrow. Here’s a great article by Easton if you really want to calculate yours.

Proponents claim that FOC makes arrows more accurate and penetrate far better. Most of this hinges off the research of Dr. Ed Ashby who used a traditional bow which typically uses extremely heavy arrows at short ranges. Ashby’s disciples argue for FOCs in the 20%+ range. However, there’s a few reasons I don’t recommend that: it hurts long range trajectory, can actually hurt penetration in wind (the arrow flies “crooked” with fletching blown to the side), and it can be very difficult, expensive, and time consuming to find the right spine with so much point weight.

This section could be a book in itself (yup, they exist). I experimented a ton with FOC and concluded that I had great results with “standard” 125gr points on arrows that ended up in the 10-15% FOC range. Not surprisingly, I’m not alone here: Easton recommends that range and so do big names like John Dudley/Aron Snyder (who have a great podcast on FOC here if you really want to go deep). If you’re using a 100-125gr point and a heavier insert (~50gr) you’re already in that range.

Less important: Fletching

Speaking of hype, everyone has seen four fletch arrows and the natural assumption is that they’re “better” than three fletch arrows. I’d argue that neither is necessarily better than the other and it totally depends on your setup. Here’s why:

The whole point of fletching is to create enough drag to stabilize the arrow. Too little drag and the arrow won’t stabilize. Too much and the arrow will slow down quickly. The art is matching the right amount of drag of the fletchings with the drag from the broadhead (which destabilizes the arrow). Three big fletches might present more surface area (and therefore more drag) than four small fletches. See my point? The only real advantage of four fletch is more clearance and more points to nock tune your arrow. Don’t know what that means? You probably don’t need it. The only way to truly know is to test multiple options on your exact bow/arrow combo.

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One thing that does make a big difference in accuracy is the helical or offset of the vanes. That means the vanes are slightly “bent” like a propeller which causes the arrow to spin in flight. Like a football, an arrow is much more accurate if it rotates as it flies. People fight about helical vs offset but honestly you’ll see great results with both. Unfortunately most factory made arrows don’t come with helical or offset so you’ll have to pony up for a custom arrows or build your own set if you want those advantages.

Choose a relatively small (1 ¼” or smaller) fixed blade broadhead and almost any 3x/4x pattern with standard Bohning Blazer or AAE Max Stealth vanes (or equivalent) should be fine. It’s well worth building your own arrows to get some helical twist but it won’t make or break your arrow.

Less important: Straightness

Most manufacturers sell multiple grades of the same arrow with different straightness ratings such as +/- .001”, +/-.003, +/.006. To put all that in perspective, the average human hair is 0.002” to 0.004” thick. While that’s not much difference in straightness, there is certainly a big difference in cost: for example, Gold Tip Hunter shafts sell at $190 for “Hunter Pro”, $160 for “Hunter XT”, and $110 for “Hunter” shafts.

But is it worth it? It’s important to know that arrows of different grades are actually made the exact same way and with the exact same materials. Arrows are made by wrapping carbon cloth around a metal mandrel like rolling a carpet around a pole. That results in long rods that are cut down to arrow length. Those rods are then sorted by straightness and sold by grade. So yes, they’re exactly the same other than their rated straightness.

Long story short, this all comes back to what’s the best for you. I do recommend +/-.003 or better arrows for hunting with fixed blades because I’ve seen some atrocious arrows in the +/-.006 class (read: There is an ATA/ASTM standard for measuring arrows, but I definitely know of a few manufacturers that “invent their own standard”). If you’re taking shots under 60 yards (which 95% of hunters do) you won’t notice a difference between 0.003 and 0.001. You might notice a small difference at 80-100 yards if you’re a phenomenal shot, but hopefully your just practicing at those ranges anyway.

One benefit to making your own arrows is that you can cut arrows from both ends so they are straighter. Arrows with bad tolerances tend to curve more at the end of the shaft and look more like a J than a /. All you have to do is spin the arrow, mark the end to cut, and voila, you’ve made a .006 or .003 arrow into a .001. More on this in my guide to building arrows (coming soon).

Less important: Weight tolerances

Like straightness, most manufacturers have different weight tolerances that generally vary from +/-0.5gr to +/-2gr and are paired with straightness grades. For example, if you buy the high end arrows you’ll get +/- .001 straightness and +/- 0.5 grains (or something close). Weight tolerances also are largely unnoticeable for hunting under 60 yards. A 10 grain difference is only good for about an inch or so at that range. Don’t worry about it too much.

If you do practice out to 100 yards (which I often do, even though I’d never shoot an animal that far) you will start to notice a big difference as trajectory really drops off. I’ve noticed ~0.5”-1” drop per grain of weight at that range which is significant. So if you’re going to be shooting hardcore target archery in practice or competitions, go for a higher grade. The most important thing here is sorting and matching components in the build process, but again, stay tuned.

Less important: Quietness

A lot of whitetail hunters are used to animals “jumping the string” and moving before an arrow has time to impact its intended target. Elk are nowhere near as jumpy as whitetails but every now and then you can get a situation where one is fully alert. One way to overcome this is to quiet your bow but it turns out that arrows also make a lot of noise traveling through the air. Don’t believe me? Stand behind a target downrange sometime (yes, it’s incredibly dangerous and not recommended).

For 90% of elk situations, you don’t have to worry about arrow noise. However, if you’re obsessed about building the very best arrow for hunting elk, you have two options. First, make sure your broadhead blades are solid, not vented. Second, test different fletchings to see which is quietest (I’ve had good results with AAE Max Stealth vanes). The only way to know is to shoot several options side by side.

Wrapping up

If you made it this far I congratulate you! Building the ultimate elk arrow will make you a far more effective hunter. Have questions about your individual setup? Drop a comment below or reply to my newsletter and I’ll do my best to help out.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>