You can’t picture hunting without picturing a gun. They’re in the ads, they’re what hunters use in pop culture, and they just make sense as a practical hunting weapon. But heading into the wilderness with a bow on your back is a perfectly valid alternative, especially if you’re uncomfortable with owning a firearm. Many veteran hunters use both methods, while some have a strong preference for one weapon and will be happy to explain why over the course of a four hour PowerPoint presentation. But what’s best for a new hunter to start with? Well, let’s consider the following.
What Are You Planning To Hunt?
Hunting seasons and regulations, as explained here, can vary significantly for bow hunters and firearm hunters. Some land may be set aside for exclusive bow or rifle hunting, and the difficulty of getting a tag may change based on your weapon of choice. Most notably, bow hunters typically have a much longer season—for example, in Pennsylvania, deer can be hunted with firearms only between November 26 and December 8, while archers can hunt deer for the much longer periods of September 15 to November 24 and December 26 to January 26. Sometimes the seasons overlap, but often they don’t, for both safety purposes and practical ones (it’s difficult, and a little unnerving, to sneak up on a deer if gunshots are popping off around you).
It’s nice to have first dibs before the woods get crowded, and a longer season may fit into your personal schedule. But seasons that run early or late may have drawbacks—hot weather, cold weather, animals being reclusive because it’s not mating season. If you have a specific animal that you want to hunt in mind, check your local regulations and consider these factors. But perhaps the simplest reason that bow hunting season lasts much longer is because your odds of success are much lower, so on that note…
What Kind Of Experience Are You Looking For?
The biggest difference between a rifle and a bow is their effective range. A typical rifle can be effective from up to 300 yards, while a shotgun’s broad spread of pellets is designed to be effective on moving targets within 50 yards. A bow is also a close range weapon, but even a talented archer would struggle to hit, say, a duck that’s launching itself into the air. An archer needs to get close to their quarry and line up a perfect shot without alerting the animal to their presence. And that’s a challenge, especially if you’re new to the art of hunting.
Now, the unique challenge of the bow is also what attracts some people to it. There’s something, ahem, primal about carefully sneaking up on an animal and bringing it down with the same weapon that’s been used by humanity since time immemorial. It’s less satisfying, however, to watch your arrow flit harmlessly five feet above a deer that pauses to give you a judging look that says “Your great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather could have made that shot” before it bounds off into the woods, never to be seen again. If you’re hunting solely for the sake of the experience that might give you a great story, but if you’re hunting for the sake of putting some venison in your freezer you could very well walk away from bow season empty-handed and frustrated. You know yourself best, so judge your desires and potential reactions accordingly.
A rifle is simply easier. It offers more range, and more power. This may sound academic on the screen, but trust us—it’s significantly less difficult to get within 250 yards of an animal than it is to get within 50 yards. Now, easier doesn’t mean easy—there are no guarantees in hunting, especially if you’re sharing the woods with a score of riflemen all after the same animal that you are. But if you want to improve your odds of a successful hunt, a rifle is the weapon to start with. Even though firearm seasons are short, they’re often less of a time investment because you have to spend so much less time stalking your quarry.
How Can You Best Prepare?
You need to practice with your weapon before you head out on your first hunt. Most people find rifles easier to master, but if you don’t have a shooting range in your area that accommodates the lengths that hunters need to shoot (or if you don’t have a shooting range nearby at all), firearm practice might require a significant time investment. Archery ranges are rarer, but the short distance requirements mean that many people can practice in their own backyards (pending, of course, a careful examination of local laws). Check to see what services are available in your area, and how much they’ll cost you.
Also, keep in mind that archery is much more physically demanding than firearm shooting, requiring decent shoulder, chest and back strength. Many states actually have a minimum draw weight (the amount of force used to launch an arrow) regulations, like Colorado’s 35 pound minimum. That’s for both your benefit, and the animal’s—even if you manage to hit an animal with a weaker shot, it’s only going to limp off with a painful injury.
That leads us to the common question of ethics. An ethical hunt is a clean hunt—the animal is killed without suffering by a well-placed shot, and many new hunters wonder whether an arrow or a bullet is better for ethically harvesting an animal. Both methods are perfectly capable of making a clean shot, but bowhunters generally have to be much more selective in the shots they take to ensure that their hunt will be clean. That’s another reason why a bow hunt can require a significantly larger time investment compared to a firearm hunt.
Practice is key with both weapons, both for the sake of the animal and for your own sake—you don’t want to waste your time and money to trek into the wilderness only to discover that you have Elmer Fudd-esque aim. But the bow can have a tougher learning curve. That’s part of the fun for some, but a waste of time for others.
So What Should You Do?
There’s no right (or wrong) answer here. A rifle is generally the easiest way to jump into the hobby, while a bow offers a unique challenge that some find appealing. Throughout the course of reading this you probably found yourself leaning towards one of the two options, and hunting is all about trusting your instincts. Whatever you choose, just remember that your hunting journey is your own, so don’t let someone with a weird grudge shame you for your choice. Just enjoy mastering a new skill set, although don’t be surprised if you’re tempted to try the other method once you have a few seasons under your belt.