What is the Maximum Ethical Distance for a Shot When Bowhunting?

Arrow groups in 10 ring target

When I started bowhunting in the late ’80s, distance to the animal didn’t really matter. I did not know much about bowhunting and as long as I aimed at the animal and it did not move, it would live a long healthy life. I started shooting at a local range in Los Angles that was primarily a shotgun park and a few bales of straw thrown on the back of the property that served as an archery range. I looked to the hunters who frequented the range admiring pictures of their trophies and their tales of stealth and skill.

Arrow groups in 10 ring target
Is shooting skill alone enough? Should a bowhunter take a shot at any distance he or she can consistently group arrows with the kill zone?

On the range they shot (flung really) arrows at soda cans 100 yards away. I flung arrows at 100 yards and couldn’t keep them on the large dirt berm. Eventually though, my shooting improved to the point where I could keep four or five out of six on a paper plate at 20 yards, so I figured that was a safe distance to claim as my ethical hunting range.

A couple of years and a few misses later, I decided I needed something more and joined Pasadena Roving Archers. PRA was a stone’s throw from the Rose Bowl Stadium in the Lower Arroyo. The range was rich with knowledge and history. The photos of Babe Bitzenburger, Jim Dougherty, Tom Jennings and Howard Hill—just to name a few—covered the walls. Best of all, they were all photos of them when they were simply local archers shooting at the local range; long before their consideration for induction into the Archery Hall of Fame.

However, it was not the history that helped my shooting, it was the local knowledge. Most of the shooters were target shooters not hunters and the National Field Archery Association (NFAA) course had me regularly shooting out 80 yards. It wasn’t long before my shooting drastically improved. I could keep six out of six arrows on the paper plate at 60 yards and needed to redefine my maximum ethical shooting range.

Does a stable platform and concealed position from a crossbow affect the distance you are will to shoot?

I read up on the subject and started with the legends of course. I read accounts of Fred Bear, Howard Hill and Ben Pearson taking phenomenally long shots with primitive bows. I read of shots where he pulled the string three-quarters of the way back and lobbed the arrow just over the rise to hit a sheep. There were 200-yard shots at javelina and Ben Pearson’s 70-yard shot on a running polar bear. Howard Hill was well-known for the statement, “If you want to kill something you have to put some wood in the air.” Well, those were all extraordinary feats and I am far from a bowhunting legend—even in my own mind. I set what I thought was a reasonable distance of 40 yards as a maximum for an upcoming blacktail deer hunt. I was proud when I passed a 44-yard shot and regretted let not letting one fly for years as well. Then, a few years later, I found myself in a blind in Illinois. It was the last morning, my bags packed and a plane ticket on my bunk.

Not long after sunrise, a beautiful 10-point emerged from the treeline and began feeding along the narrow strip of the cut. He wandered between 50 and 55 yards from my hide. My heart was beating out of my chest and the adrenaline coursing my veins was off the charts. I was on the ground in a blind and had a firm footing for a shot. The laser rangefinder ensured the range, and I knew I could make the 55-yard shot all day long—so I drew and let one fly.

How about prairie dogs? What is the maximum ethical range on a varmint you are attempting to erradicate?

Releasing the shot I felt as if the arrow was leaving the bow in slow motion. However, my hand was moving even slower and could not reach out and grab the arrow midflight. The last thought as I released was an alarm. The buck was taking a step. The arrow flew true and hit its mark. Unfortunately, in the time it took the arrow to travel the distance the buck had moved and I hit him square in the rump.

I would like to say I learned my lesson from that experience, but I have killed deer at greater distances for one reason or another. There was a buck wounded by another hunter, and I was helping track him. The buck was mortally wounded, but still up and moving faster than we could get on him. Suddenly, my hunting partner’s bow exploded with a broken cable. I drew, floated the pin and dropped the buck at about 75 yards. Ethical? I’m not sure to this day.

There were obviously extenuating circumstances with the mortally wounded buck, but I still took a lot of flack over the shot. I know several archers who used to hunt the islands off California for wild boar and regularly took shots of 100 yards without giving it a second thought. This leads me to the question. What is your longest shot? Does the species or skill of the archer make a difference? The average records book whitetail is shot at about 17 yards, but the average muley is in the 30s. What about elk, hogs or varmints such as coyotes?

What are you thoughts about the maximum ethical range of bowshot? Tell us in the comment section.

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Comments (4)

  1. In this old man’s opinion it is called H U N T I N G not KILLING the animal you are shooting at has no recourse but to move or die . If you can’t do the math have someone do it for you ! Take the speed of your arrow convert it to feet per second , than ask yourself how quickly the prey can move ? You than have your answer to the question “WHAT IS MY MAXIMUM DISTANCE YOU CAN SHOOT” . remember it is called HUNTING not KILLING

  2. I took a bow hunting course and we were taught not to shot past 30 yards so as not to wound an animal and not be able to recover it.

  3. It is hard to pass up a great shot because of distance.But out of respect for the suffering of a wounded animal I will.So much to consider between you and the animal before you shoot.I would regather return and try again. I love the hunt much more than the kill.

  4. My youngest Son bow hunts, sometimes all season long, and he has a 50 yard limit with a bow. He’s one of these archers who can consistently put 5 arrows in a 3″ circle at 50 yards and he’s the first to tell you that it’s not about how far & accurate you can shoot. As this article points out, it’s also about how far the deer can move between your release and when the arrow hits the target.

    And BTW, the 75 yard shot at the mortally wounded buck was ethical. He was already running and you may not have had another shot.

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