I quit drinking eight years ago. Since then, I’ve discovered a special kind of hell that occurs when someone is hammered and tries to have a deep conversation with me. This only gets worse when that someone is a stranger and the topic is bowhunting.
This past turkey season, while eating a burger in a little bar and restaurant in southwestern Wisconsin, I found myself trapped in that scenario. At one point, our uninvited bar friend told my hunting partner and I a story about a 180-class buck that he (of course) shot perfectly.
The buck shrugged off the hit, and the tale ended with a predictable statement about how he will never shoot those POS broadheads again.
It is true that broadheads can and do fail—just not as often as we claim.
Failure Realities I spent 10 years of my life as the equipment editor for a bowhunting magazine, where my primary role involved testing gear. With that gig came almost unlimited free broadheads, and I shot a lot of them. Some were so obviously gimmicky or junk, but most were built to perform.
In that decade, and in my years bowhunting before and since, I can count on two fingers the times I think a broadhead actually did fail me while deer hunting. The first was when I shot a young doe on public land in the Twin Cities while tucked into a natural ground blind.
I watched in absolute confusion as my arrow bounced off her side. Closer inspection revealed a crazy amount of hair jammed into the grooves of the mechanical tip’s blades. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I have a strong suspicion a better broadhead would have delivered different results.
Another time, I shot a great buck in mid-September on an organic vegetable farm. My arrow barely penetrated. Thinking I'd hit the shoulder blade, I got the binos on him as he took off. I could clearly see my arrow, due to its lighted nock, and watched as it whipped straight up into the air and tumbled end over end to the ground. When I picked up the arrow, I could hear the threaded part of ferrule rattling in the insert. The head had sheared clean off, which shouldn’t happen even on the most jarring shoulder hit.
Bad Flight If you’re keeping score, that’s one mechanical and one fixed-blade failure. I write that because it’s common to assume expandable heads are the only candidates for an in-field meltdown, but that’s not always true. No one knows this better than Jace Bauserman, who has tested more archery gear than almost anyone, including yours truly.
“With modern, well-built heads, there is zero reason a mechanical should fail if you have a good setup,” Bauserman said. “Where people get into trouble is when they believe the manufacturer hype that whatever heads they choose will fly just like a field point.”
This is a big problem because bowhunters tend to believe that they only have to tune fixed-blade heads. When you change from field points to any kind of broadhead, you’re inviting new flight characteristics. If your bow isn’t shooting perfect bullet holes, you create an opportunity to make a poor shot and may assume the broadhead failed because it didn’t hit where it was supposed to.
Knowing this, “every broadhead has to earn a place in my quiver,” Bauserman said. He means that at the far end of his effective range, whether he’s shooting mechanicals or fixed, his groups need to be field-point accurate and tight.
But, buying $45 packs of broadheads just to shoot them into foam isn’t for everyone. So, how can you best avoid broadhead failures if you’re not willing to burn through some cash to practice with real heads?
Bad Materials Assessing the potential for poor performance often involves just looking at different broadheads. For example, there is a sweet spot as far as blade design and cutting diameter. Too much sweeping or curving with the blades and it is best to pass. Thin blades that look flimsy, probably are. Cutting diameters that stretch beyond 2 inches are getting into dangerous territory for mechanicals, and 1.5 inches is about it for fixed heads. Bigger isn’t always better, especially if you like your bucks to have exit holes when they run away.
Another consideration is materials. The difference between a broadhead that costs $7 and one that costs $15 is almost always related to materials, and bargain shopping broadheads is a bad idea. While cheapies may look just like their expensive counterparts, they aren’t built like them. Cheap metal is often soft or overly brittle, and neither are qualities you want in your broadheads.
Bad Design There’s also the question of overall design. With fixed blades, we pretty much know what they should be shaped like because we’ve been fine-tuning their designs since we started knapping them out of flint, chert, or obsidian. Mechanicals are a different story. The more complicated they get, the more possibilities there are for failure—and it’s not always when they impact an animal that crash and burn occurs.
According to Bauserman, the actual failures he’s witnessed have always happened during flight. “I had two broadheads in row that opened up while I was antelope hunting, due probably to wore-out O-rings,” he said. The longer shots on the prairie allow hunters to see arrow flight in a way that isn’t as common in the whitetail woods.
If this happens during a 25-yard shot on a deer, you might just think you shanked it, even if it was actually due to an altered point-of-impact due to premature blade deployment. Just like with fixed heads, simple is often a great attribute for mechanicals as well.
With all of this scary, cautionary stuff out of the way, I’ll reiterate what I think is the reality of broadhead failures—they are rare and becoming rarer by the year as designs get better. They can (and do) happen, but most of the time when we think a broadhead failed us, something else actually happened.
It’s still prudent to choose our broadheads wisely, make sure they are shooting well, and analyze how they perform when we actually do settle our pins on a buck’s ribs. Do that, and you’ll realize how unlikely broadhead failures actually are.
Feature image via Captured Creative.