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Death by Crossbow and Broadhead — Mechanical vs. Fixed Blade

The morning dawned a much colder one than expected, and as daybreak neared, I began to wonder if I had dressed accordingly. It had been daylight for only 15 minutes, and I was already starting to shiver. I caught a glimpse of a deer moving slowly in my direction through some thick brush at 30 yards, just before the deer was obscured by the brush, I could make out a large set of antlers. If it held course, the animal was going to walk right past me. I wasn’t cold anymore.

Instantly, I shouldered the crossbow and moved the safety to off. At 25 yards, my inner self screamed “shoot!” but the calmer part of me said to give the deer two more steps and wait until he extends his front leg.

At 23 yards, I unleashed the arrow and watched in disbelief as the lighted nock appeared to sail under the buck, then careen loudly off something to travel another 20 yards beyond. The buck immediately bolted, apparently unharmed, and with no intention of sticking around to see what all the commotion was about. I hung the crossbow on its hook then sat down in utter shock and disbelief at what had just transpired.

I replayed the shot over and over in my head. I could not believe I had missed the buck. There was no hollow thunking sound, no mule kick, just the loud crack of the arrow hitting something hard then careening through the woods. I never saw the arrow hit or miss the buck; I only saw the flash of the lighted nock beneath it. All of the sights, sounds, and actions of the event added up to a clear miss, but it was time to get down and investigate.

The arrow would tell the tale, and the lighted nock was still clearly visible, so I bypassed the area where the buck had been standing and walked directly to the arrow. Much to my surprise, it wasn’t the arrow, at least not the intact arrow—I was only the lighted nock.

So, I went back to the area where the buck was standing at the time of the shot. There was no visible indication of anything amiss where the buck had been standing other than a big root I hadn’t noticed from the stand. After investigating the protruding root, I could see where a fresh chip had been taken out of it. That had to be what the arrow had hit, causing the loud crack and the dislodging of the nock from the arrow. Nevertheless, I still could not find the arrow. Apparently, while my attention was focused on the lighted nock, the arrow deflected in another direction. I started moving slowly in the direction the buck had traveled. After only 10 yards, I found my first drop of blood. I let out a huge sigh of relief, flagged it, and returned to search for the arrow again.

This time, I was successful. The arrow was covered with blood, revealing a lethal hit. I located the heart-shot buck a short distance later, piled up in a small stream. The speed of the crossbow had made it difficult for me to see where the arrow had impacted. That was something I wasn’t prepared for that day (now many years ago), but it is something that has become all too commonplace with today’s high-speed arrow launchers.

Because of the excessive speeds that today’s crossbows are generating, broadhead flight characteristics, accuracy, and performance are paramount in getting the most from your setup.

Death by crossbow and broadhead is caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain. It sounds simple enough, but there are many ways to starve a deer’s brain of oxygen and some ways are faster than others. These means are known as “mechanisms of incapacitation,” such as “hemorrhaging” or “venting” of air. This is the basis for the area we target on an animal to produce the fastest means possible to starve the brain of oxygen and cause death.

The major difference between broadheads and bullets when it comes to shot placement is that the two function differently. Because of those differences, they are capable of different mechanisms to cause death. Different areas of the animal’s body can hold a different value, perfectly suiting one means but not the other. As an example, bullets have the ability to use tremendous amounts of energy. Upon impact, this energy is transferred to the animal, which causes catastrophic damage and shock, as in popular shot placements such as the shoulder or neck.

This shot placement uses heavy bone (the spine and sometimes scapula) to interrupt bullet travel and transfer a maximum amount of energy to the area. That maximum transfer of energy causes the animal’s central nervous system to disrupt in a fraction of a second, ad at such a level of disruption that the nervous system ceases to function in any way. With all the organs and muscles of the thoracic region (chest) incapacitated, the animal can no longer breathe, starving the brain of oxygen and death comes very quickly.

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The author opted to use a fixed blade broadhead on this tough Russian boar.

Bullets vs. Broadheads

However, things are a bit different for bullets, and when it comes to soft tissue, there is no heavy bone, as in a chest shot. In this case, bullets must rely on the expansion they get from entering the rib cage to produce a hydrodynamic effect that accelerates damage to tissue and fluids to cause catastrophic damage. This is a somewhat less efficient means of using bullet energy, and there is much less effect from shock, reducing central nervous system disruption. There is also a side effect from the energy transfer to tissue that initiates defense mechanisms in the animal body, causing coagulation and swelling.   If the damage to organs isn’t as severe as it needs to be, these defense mechanisms can reduce both hemorrhaging and venting, not to mention creating less blood on the ground, which is needed for trailing and recovery.

Broadheads are the opposite. Broadheads lack the energy levels needed to cause central nervous system disruption and incapacitate and cause death in the manner that bullets do.  It’s the broadhead’s sharpness and ability to create as little disturbance as possible that gives it its edge regarding soft tissue. There is a rather large area of the thoracic cavity (chest) that holds many small veins and major arteries along with vital organs. Even if the vital organ itself isn’t significantly damaged, the cutting of these veins and arteries and the lack of the body’s defense mechanisms allow allows a level of hemorrhaging that denies sufficient oxygen to the brain very quickly.

This area also contains branches of the bronchial tree that channel air to different regions of the lungs. Severing these creates massive venting of the lungs and distresses respiratory function by not allowing sufficient oxygen into the bloodstream.

This situation also creates a path for blood to enter the lungs and causes “dry land” drowning. That is when blood in the lungs blocks the path of air for gas exchange of oxygen in, and carbon dioxide out, again starving the brain of its much-needed source for life. So, you get several mechanisms of incapacitation working in concert, from the function of broadheads and their sharpness to making the broadhead more effective in the soft tissue of the chest. As bowhunters, we stick to targeting the soft tissue and organs of the chest because that is where we can cause the fastest incapacitation and death to the animal.

The problems most frequently encountered when shooting broadheads from today’s top-performing crossbows are erratic arrow flight and material breakdown/failure. When arrow speeds exceed 450 FPS and kinetic energy levels are approaching 300-foot pounds, a tremendous amount of force is being transferred through the arrow and into the broadhead. Being able to harness and control this power is mandatory if downrange accuracy is to be obtained. Achieving maximum broadhead performance should be everyone’s goal, and it begins with the quality of arrow flight.

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The author was field testing a new expandable on this bruin hunt.

Arrow Spine Quality

The first component of quality in arrow flight is the arrow spine. Even for crossbows, the spine is something that can vary quite a bit. Crossbows can shoot arrows at velocities ranging from the mid-300 FPS range to over 500 FPS. Length of the power stroke, cam geometry, and draw weight all contribute to these differing external velocities. When you apply different amounts of force to arrow shafts, that creates the need for different arrow spines. We are fortunate in the characteristic that crossbows don’t need to be fitted to an individual. This means that we don’t have to change draw length or poundage to suit an individual’s needs; the arrow spine that works for brand X and model of crossbow will likely work the same for everyone using that crossbow.

The best way to check the spine of your arrow is by shooting the arrow through paper. Now, shooting through paper with crossbows isn’t necessarily what you would consider a tuning process like it is with compounds. It’s more like a “good/not good” gauge. It can identify cam sync issues, but for the most part, you want to look for compatibility issues and not adjust the crossbow.

You can set up a paper frame in many ways by using a picture frame, by cutting the bottom out of a cardboard box, or by building a PVC frame. You want to be sure the paper is secure to the frame for the best results. Set the frame at a specified distance from the bow of 5 to 6 feet. Shoot from a bench rest, making sure the arrow clears the paper before hitting a backstop. This produces a tear in the paper that represents a snapshot of the arrow’s flight in that place in time. 

arrow
The best way to check your arrows spine is by shooting the arrow through paper.

The Snapshot Story

From this snapshot, we can determine component issues that are causing poor arrow flight and can visually inspect the paper and work to solve those issues. It’s important to know that an arrow’s worst flight will be in the first 5 to 10 yards. This is the area where fletching is fighting to take over and correct flight for downrange accuracy. The degree of more or less fletching will influence how much distance it takes to do that, but the better tuned the arrow is, the easier it is for the fletching to work. The greater the arrow’s overall accuracy, the less influence broadhead shape and the size will have.

The results the arrow spine typically produces when shot through paper show up as a high tear for a weak spine and a low tear for a stiff spine. High tears or a weak spine will cause a broadhead to plane lower than field points. A low tear or stiff spine will plane high. You can see how having the correct spine is the first step in solving these two issues.

In the case of nocks, most are compression fitted, and that helps alleviate many past issues. However, nocks still need to be set on a squared shaft. Variations in fit, such as a slightly loose nock, will give to one side of an unevenly cut shaft. Inserts will do the same on installation.

You will also have slight variations in machining tolerances, which give a variation in outside diameter and variations in wall thickness of the arrow shaft, giving variation to inside diameter and the space the glue/epoxy fills between them.

Inserts can also suffer from facing issues. There is a space of about .005 between the shaft of a broadhead and the inside diameter of the insert. This will vary due to machining. If the facing is off or slanted when you tighten the broadhead down, it will compress and slide to the lower side. You can have a perfectly straight broadhead and this can cause it to become greatly out of alignment from the shaft. Just .001 out at the rear of a head can make a considerable difference at the tip. Therefore, starting with a properly spined arrow having squared ends, quality nocks and inserts added will save you a lot of headaches when it comes to obtaining great broadhead flight.

spinner
An arrow spinner is the best device for identifying overall straightness and component alignment.

Manage Straightness

The final step in perfecting arrow flight is to identify or manage the overall straightness and alignment of the components of an arrow. An arrow spinner is the best device for identifying these issues. Commercial ones run from $50 to $100. You can also make them yourself in a variety of ways if you have the scrap lying around and some handy skills.

Their use is pretty self-explanatory. Make sure the base is solid and spin the completed arrow on it and watch for wobble. There should be no deviation and the arrow should spin true. Poor arrow flight is the number one cause of poor penetration and damage to broadheads.

Once you master managing the variables of arrow flight, you’ll find you can shoot just about any broadhead accurately. As that goal is achieved, it’s then time to move on to broadhead performance.

Now that it is 100% certain that your arrows are built and spined properly for crossbows, it’s time to get down to the business of picking the perfect broadhead to fit individual needs.

There are a variety of quality broadheads available on the market. They come in an assortment of shapes, styles and sizes. To be honest, I have no idea how we’ve gotten to the point of having so many broadheads available to choose. A good broadhead needs to be made of quality material with a minimum 1-inch cutting width, be extremely sharp, and fly exactly the same every time it leaves the bow. That’s it! I’m not certain how many times we can reinvent the wheel, but if the comparison is to broadheads, apparently it is endless.

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The author carried fixed blade broadheads in his quiver to Africa.

Two Obstacles

The two biggest problems to overcome with crossbows and pinpoint broadhead accuracy are very fast arrow speeds and extreme foot-pounds of kinetic energy. When you send an arrow downrange at 500 FPS, broadhead aerodynamics and their structural integrity come into play with every shot. Just swapping from one broadhead to another to obtain better arrow flight isn’t a fix. The exposed surface area of broadheads gives them the ability to steer an arrow in flight. The size of the head or the amount of surface area will determine just how much of a variation exists. For this reason, mechanical broadheads, with their lower profile ferrules and enclosed blades, are the favorite of many crossbow users. But are they the best broadhead choice?

Which Broadhead Type?

I have no personal motivation to suggest or recommend one broadhead type over another, but what I do have is nearly 50 years of bowhunting experience, along with a decade of pre-market product consulting.

I have very strong opinions regarding what a broadhead should or shouldn’t do, along with how it should perform regardless of the animal being targeted. Anyone who has spent a moderate amount of time on any archery forum has surely been subjected to the great broadhead debate. The problem with this scenario is that most people just recommend the type of broadhead that they use, even if they kill only one or two animals a year with it. In my opinion, you’re not putting a broadhead to the test unless you’ve put in extensive range time with it, and you’ve used it to kill a multitude of animals from different parts of the world. Plus, to give one style of broadhead favor over another, you have to give each broadhead a legitimate comparison, which is a very expensive and time-consuming undertaking.

Having just wrapped up 30 days of broadhead testing with today’s fastest, most powerful crossbows, I offer my personal opinions concerning the styles of broadheads that I think benefit most crossbow hunters.

First, I find zero benefits to shooting a two-blade broadhead, whether single bevel or mechanical. Arrow penetration is not a concern for crossbow hunters. Therefore, instead of a 2 or 3-inch slice through an animal, I much prefer a smaller wound channel with more damage caused within it from the additional blade(s). A three-blade broadhead will cause significant damage and a four-blade broadhead will cause maximum damage.

Blades Damage

I’ve always subscribed to the theory that if an animal is killed with a broadhead, it did its job, and I was good with disposing of it. What I’m not okay with are blades that are being bent or damaged after one or two shots into a foam target. This is unacceptable!  I’ve seen it happen with both mechanical and fixed blade broadheads. If a broadhead can’t stand up to foam, how is it going to stand up against hide, tissue and bone?

This situation also eliminates all mechanical broadheads from the equation. I know this will rub a lot of successful mechanical broadhead users the wrong way, but it doesn’t change the fact that in no way, shape or form are mechanical broadheads as durable as fixed blade broadheads. I’ve carried mechanical broadheads all around the world and have killed dozens of animals with them. However, my conclusion is they are not built to endure the stress put upon them by today’s powerful crossbows. The one positive they do bring to the table (better arrow flight) can be achieved just as easily with fixed blade broadheads, if you start with a properly tuned arrow and components as I’ve laid out.

damage
Mechanical broadhead carnage from a single season.

Unique Problems

Although they’ve come a long way since the ’80s, mechanical broadheads come with their own unique host of problems as well. There’s a reason that there are so many horror stories out there about mechanical broadhead failures. It’s because they’re true. Through trial, error, and failure, mechanical broadheads have been forced to evolve. They didn’t all start out as banded, double-banded, collared, or rear-deploying broadheads. These were improvements made over time to eliminate the failures.

Now that we have crossbows cracking the 500 FPS mark, who’s to say when some of the former problems that occurred with mechanical broadheads are going to raise their ugly heads again?  I sure don’t want it to be when I’m staring down a trophy animal. And what about practice broadheads? The fact that so many mechanical broadhead manufacturers include practice broadheads in their packaging should be the obvious tell-tale sign you need about their durability.

Animal Travel

Another idiosyncrasy that I discovered while dedicating two full seasons to the use of mechanical broadheads is the distance animals traveled after being shot with them. I’d say that 90% of the time, every animal shot with a mechanical broadhead traveled twice the distance of those shot with fixed blade broadheads. Better blood trails were achieved with mechanical broadheads in comparison to fixed blade broadheads, but the animals always went further after being hit.

In my opinion, when hit, the animals feel a mechanical broadhead much more than a fixed blade broadhead. When I shoot an animal with a fixed blade broadhead, it oftentimes has no idea what’s happened or that it’s even hit. There may be one or two jumps, and then as it starts to walk away, it falls over. When shot with a mechanical, the animals always seem to act as though they’ve been hit with a cattle prod. I don’t believe they die any faster with either type of broadhead, but I believe their survival instinct to flee the area immediately is more prevalent when shot with a mechanical broadhead.

broadhead
When a mechanical broadhead deflected we literally had no idea where the arrow would end up.

The final factor that steers me away from using mechanical broadheads came to light during our “brush shooting” testing.

Obviously, the goal for all of us is to take clear shots at unsuspecting game, but we also know that in the real world, sometimes things go astray. During our range time comparing the effects that twigs and brush have on both types of broadheads, the mechanical broadheads always had higher deflection rates. Fixed blade broadheads also deflected, but often the deflection was minimal, and the arrow would still hit well within the vitals. When a mechanical broadhead deflected, we had no idea where the arrow would end up. Sometimes the deflection was minimal. Other times, if one or more blades deployed, it would send the arrow several feet off target.

Picking the Best Blades

It’s important that we keep the findings from our testing real because there’s too much at stake to try to be politically correct. It’s my opinion that there are just as many sub-par fixed blade broadheads on the market as there are mechanical broadheads. One of my biggest pet peeves is the term “aircraft-grade aluminum.” Some marketing genius back in the day decided that sounded a lot better than “junk”—and that was right. However, the end product is the same. I don’t want an aluminum broadhead in my quiver.

I think that the best-constructed fixed-blade broadheads on the market are those machined from a single piece of steel. These types of broadheads are intimidating to some because they are expensive, and they come with no pre-sharpened replaceable blades. I get that, but their superior performance outweighs their cost. Once you get the hang of sharpening them, you’ll be set for life.

blade
The best constructed fixed blade broadheads on the market are those machined from a single piece of steel.

There are multiple styles and sizes of fixed blade broadheads on the market from Trocar tipped to cut on contact. Our testing revealed few performance deviations from the different types of tips, but my personal preference is the cut-on-contact tip. I can drive it through just as much bone and brick as the other styles, and I’m getting maximum energy transfer immediately at the point of impact. Hands down, these solid one-piece broadheads outperformed every other type of broadhead that we tested. I’m not saying that every other fixed blade broadhead on the market was bad, but this style of broadhead rose to the top in all categories.

To obtain maximum performance from an arrow/broadhead combination out of today’s crossbows, I want a minimum total weight of 600 grains and a minimum cutting diameter of one inch. Staying at or above this weight, I can load up the arrows FOC and drive it with minimal effect through wind, rain, small twigs, and most any animal in the world.  These findings won’t be popular with most crossbow hunters because it doesn’t fit the industry narrative of what many of the marketing agencies want to promote, but the proof is in the testing. Regardless of the advancements in crossbow technology, death by crossbow and broadhead isn’t overly complicated. Let’s keep it that way.

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