One minute my buddy Jeff and I were trudging up a steep slope in the rugged California mountains, the next we were watching deer flush from the thick understory like a covey of quail.
Our panicky hearts grew with excitement as five does and one buck suddenly stopped to gawk about 40 yards away. My friend was shooting a barebow setup and preferred closer-in shooting, so he gave me the firm whisper to shoot. I quickly pulled up my bow, drew, and snapped the sight pin on the buck’s chest. I didn’t squeeze the release’s trigger — I believe I smashed it. The arrow clattered against brush and rocks — a clean miss. I grew disgusted with myself but persistently followed the trotting deer up and over the steep terrain.
About an hour later, after tiptoeing around, I spotted the same buck bedded on a gnarly hillside. The distance was at the edge of my effective range, but it felt right. I drew horizontal to my feet and rotated my torso slowly while bending at the waist. My sight pin eased on target this time, and I picked a small spot on the deer’s ribcage — visually burning a hole on where I wanted the arrow to go. I began visualizing how I wanted the broadhead to impact the deer and where it should exit. Suddenly, I had tunnel vision, and then the arrow was off. The arrow struck with a solid thud. The deer bolted but then spun and rolled to the ground. I sent a second arrow to finish the job. It was an amazing, memorable experience that really begs the question: How did I miss so badly the first time around, but then connect so well on the second attempt?
In the days following this bowhunting event, I reflected on the outcomes. It was clear that I never really aimed on the first shooting attempt. Whereas on the second shot, that’s all I did.
When you think about it, aiming could be the most important aspect in bowhunting. As the old cliché puts it, “If you aim small, you’ll miss small.” Unfortunately, even this saying can be misleading, and it doesn’t explain the most effective way to aim at the target. Let me explain.
Any archer knows, especially beginners, that where the sight pin goes, the arrow usually follows, given your shooting form is consistent. Once this thought is imbedded in your mind, you begin the idea of forcing the pin to stay in the bull’s-eye. As you do this over and over, something weird begins to take shape.
Instead of improving your accuracy, it usually makes it worse. Why? Because you’re trying to force something to not move, but it always will, no matter what you do. And the more you fight it, the more you’ll begin to sense stress and anxiety creeping into the shot — not focus and relaxation, which is what you want.
The following three-step system has made a world of difference in my shooting game, and it works well whether you’re shooting at targets or game.
Step 1: Develop A Concentrated Aim
There are basically two ways to aim: You can focus on the target, or on the sight pin. There is no right or wrong way to do it. However, after experimenting and analyzing the differences, I’m much keener on directing all my attention to the target. This makes the most sense to me, since the sight pin will naturally move around but the target will move very little, if at all. This allows aiming to be more intensely focused and less distracting — just what you want.
Archery is a mental game, and aiming is a vital part of it. However, much of this mental game stems from conditioning your subconscious mind in the right way. Through constant, repetitive shooting, our mind is learning how to shoot, how to follow through, and how to visualize an accurate shot. However, aiming is not a part of the subconscious process. It is the one and only thing the conscious mind is in control of, while the rest of the shooting process is done in the background by the subconscious. To understand this phenomenon, let’s break down the shot into some basic parts.
Before drawing and shooting, you should set your stance, nock the arrow, and then draw the bow. Once you hit full draw, acquire the target and begin to aim. After shooting hundreds of arrows, all of these steps become second nature, of course, and you can do all of it without thinking about it anymore. Basically, your subconscious mind runs the show here and sets everything up.
Once you hit anchor, your conscious mind needs to be directed, or it will wander uncontrollably. You must direct it to focus on where to aim and how to maintain this focus until the arrow is gone. In other words, it has one job: Aim intently at the spot, while the sight pin naturally moves. The rest of the shot mechanics — your hand on the grip, the tightness in your back muscles, the slight pressure of the bowstring and release hand against your jaw, and the myriad other things going on as you hold the bow to shoot — all belong to the subconscious mind and your deep-seated muscle memory.
The more you trust your subconscious while immersing the conscious mind on aiming, the more relaxed and focused you’ll be until the shot breaks. That’s exactly what happened with my second shooting attempt at that buck. I was engrossed in the aim, and the shot just happened.
As you begin the cycle of trusting your shooting form, you’ll actually find comfort in the sight’s natural movement. There will be less anxiety, if any at all, and it’ll track more easily in the center.
Step 2: Breathe Consistently
Breathing consistently prior to drawing the bow impacts your ability to aim well. For best results, establish a specific breathing rhythm during the draw and shooting process. Most expert archers recommend that you take a deep breath while drawing, settle into anchor, then let out a bit of air before aiming and executing the shot. I prefer to let out nearly three-fourths of the air from my lungs as I settle into aiming. However, some archers like to exhale as they draw, and then hold a full breath during the aim. Experiment to see what works best for you.
Keep in mind, there is a point of aiming for too long, too. This is where comfort begins to diminish, and your shooting form breaks down. You want to avoid this. Once you begin aiming, the shot should go in about four to eight seconds. Some tournament archers will hold for 10 to 12 seconds before firing the arrow, but this is usually done in a more controlled setting, not out hunting.
If at any time during practice you’ve held for too long and your aiming focus breaks down, you should let down and start the shot process all over again. This will reinforce good shooting mechanics, keeping the subconscious focused on learning the right way. You never want to force anything in archery. Instead, embrace fluidness and comfort. With these elements in place, consistent arrow placement simply happens.
Step 3: Establish Eye Dominance
You can aim and breathe well, and stay strong during the shot, but if you don’t establish a consistent sight picture of the target, you may hit off the mark from one shot to the next. This has to do with eye dominance.
Ideally, you should shoot with both eyes open. This allows for a brighter, more natural sight picture and increased depth perception. You’ll perform better in lowlight bowhunting conditions, too, and catch more of the arrow’s flight and/or impact — all big pluses in the deer woods.
However, both eyes open only works for archers with a dominant “shooting eye,” the one that centers the peep’s aperture with the pin. If both of your eyes are fairly equal in dominance, or your non-shooting eye is more dominant than your shooting eye, then you’ll have to close the non-shooting eye when aiming and executing the shot. This will ensure a consistent line of sight and repeatable accuracy.
Aiming is an integral part of shooting a bow. Your focus belongs not on the sight pin’s movement and where you “think” the arrow will go, but solely on the spot where you “want” the arrow to strike. As you approach the shot this way, you’ll begin to embrace the sight’s natural movement, sometimes ignoring it altogether. This will invite a new realm of control and relaxation to the shot, boosting your enjoyment, confidence, and ability as a bowhunter — a winning combination for sure.