The Best Arrows for Elk Hunting – 3 Things to Look For

What is the ideal arrow to use when hunting elk?  Or is there such a thing?

Close-up of the Gold Tip Kinetic XT arrow shaft

Do you need an “elk arrow”?

First, let me clarify that there are plenty of arrows on the market that are adequate for hunting elk.  If you are an experienced bowhunter that is just beginning to hunt elk, then you may not need to change anything about your current arrow setup.  But if want to move beyond what is simply “adequate”, and find the most effective arrow setup for elk hunting, then it is likely that you can improve upon the arrows that you have been hunting with.

The constants

Before we talk about selecting a specific arrow for elk hunting, let’s first reiterate what makes a great arrow for any archery or bowhunting pursuit.  Regardless of the type of shooting you’re doing, all arrows should be tough, straight, consistent in weight, and properly spined for your bow setup.

I can’t stress that last point enough!  Proper spine is extremely critical, especially when shooting broadheads.  Basic spine charts consider draw weight and arrow length, but there’s more to it than that!  You should also consider your draw length, your bow’s cam design, and the weight of the broadhead that you are going to be using.  If you don’t start with proper spine, you’ll never get your broadhead-tipped arrows to fly well!

Spine is roughly how an stiff an arrow shaft is

What makes an arrow good, or bad, for elk hunting?

The first consideration for elk hunting is realizing the overall size and bone mass of the animal.  Elk are extremely large animals, with sizeable ribs, shoulder bones, and a large body cavity.  If a bowhunter wants to ensure a clean kill, and hopefully a pass-through shot, then their arrow must deliver high amounts of energy and penetration.  Your arrows may zip through the ribcage of a whitetail with ease, but elk are literally a completely different animal!

The next consideration is arrow flight.  Bowhunters that are new to Western big game hunting should consider perfecting their skills and equipment, so that they can comfortably, consistently, and confidently extend their range to at least 40, and more preferably 50+ yards.  A good elk hunting arrow can’t just fly “good enough” with broadheads at 20 or 30 yards – rather, it should fly “spot on” at 50 yards, or more.  Ideally this arrow will also resist drifts from cross-winds, which are common in the mountains, and other Western terrain.

Three characteristics of great elk hunting arrows…

Weight

There’s a lot of debate regarding what constitutes sufficient mass arrow weight for elk, but suffice to say, more is typically better!  Of course there’s an extreme, where the arrow becomes so heavy that it ceases to travel with adequate velocity, but most don’t come close to reaching that level.  Many bowhunters are quick to calculate kinetic energy, but momentum is also worth keeping an eye on.

The ArcheryReport.com has published a great article on Kinetic Energy and Momentum, including the results of their testing, which proved that, “kinetic energy and the momentum both rise as the arrow weight is increased. For the arrow weights tested, the kinetic energy tends to be leveling off but still gaining slowly, while the momentum is climbing almost steadily but is beginning to level slightly. Of all the testing done to date, I have not found any cases where the kinetic energy will decrease with increasing arrow weight. There is most likely a point where the arrow is so heavy that the bow cannot efficiently propel the arrow forward, but it is somewhere beyond 1450 grains for the bows tested.”

Graph of arrow weight, kinetic energy, and momentum

Either way you look at it, beefing up the weight of your arrows is a good idea for big game, such as elk.  And, as an added benefit, shooting heavier arrows can significantly quiet your bow down.  My current arrow setup weighs 465 grains, and they still fly with plenty of speed and hit really hard, even at longer distances.

Light and fast is not the name of the game when it comes to achieve penetration on elk! Sure, like all things in bowhunting, you can find someone with a story that claims otherwise, but talk to pretty much any veteran bowhunter that regularly hunts elk, and they’ll tell you that they want some weight behind their broadheads.

Front of Center

We just discussed why mass arrow weight is a good idea, but where we distribute that weight throughout the length of the shaft is important.  Great long range arrow flight comes from proper balance, or should I say imbalance of the arrow.

“FOC” stands for “Front of Center”, which is a way to measure where the arrow’s balancing point is, compared to the center point of the arrow shaft’s length.  The arrow should balance (weight) in front of the center (length) of the arrow shaft.

How to calculate Front of Center

A common FOC recommendation is 7-10%, but for hunting setups I have had better luck with a FOC of 10-15%.  After a lot of experimenting I settled on an arrow setup that has a FOC of 13%.

FOC isn’t a characteristic of the arrow itself, but your arrow and component selection – specifically your shaft length, shaft GPI (“grains per inch” weight), insert, nock, vane, wrap and broadhead choice – will determine your FOC.  Therefore, it is important to consider your target FOC when you are selecting an arrow shaft.  For example, I used to shoot Easton FMJs, which are great shafts, but for my broadhead choice and arrow length, it is difficult to get the FOC that I was looking for, while keeping the spine and total arrow weight that I needed.

A higher FOC helps me shoot groups like this

Diameter

There has been, over the past several years, a trend to make hunting shafts smaller in diameter.  Overall, this is a great thing – especially for elk hunters!  Smaller diameter shafts aid in penetration and resist wind drift, especially on longer shots.

When a broadhead enters an animal and begins cutting a path through hide, flesh, and bone, the “hole” created by the broadhead can begin to try to seal itself as the broadhead passes through.  Smaller diameter shafts have less surface area and can “follow” the broadhead through the animal with less friction, which means the arrow shaft retains more momentum and can out-penetrate larger diameter shafts.  Not only does this make sense “in theory”, it has been proven in reality.

The smaller surface area of thinner arrow shafts also help the arrow “cut” through the wind and make the shaft less susceptible to wind drift.  The larger the sail on a ship, the more wind it will “catch”, and the more it will be steered – the same goes for arrows.  (And moving back to my point about arrow weight, a heavier arrow will also resist cross-wind drift, because the momentum of the shaft cannot be altered off-course as easily as a lighter shaft.)

The Verdict

I don’t think arrow weight, FOC, and arrow diameter are as critical to whitetail hunters that are taking 20-30yard shots on smaller game, but for someone that is hunting elk, and is considering the possibility of longer shots, these characteristics of arrows can make a huge difference.

My personal opinion is that if I release an arrow on an elk, I want to know that I’ve done everything I can to ensure an accurate shot that has sufficient energy and penetration to cleanly kill an animal that I respect so dearly.  So to answer the question that I raised in the beginning – “Yes,” for me, there is such a thing as an “ideal elk arrow.”

Solid Broadhead at full-draw

 

The Author

Mark Huelsing is a regular guy with an irregular passion for bowhunting and the outdoors. Learn more about Sole Adventure or get in touch with Mark...

Email  |  Facebook  |  Twitter

 
  • huntography

    Truly epic post Mark!

    Momentum, like you mentioned, is something most folks overlook. I’d rather have a heavier arrow and arrowdhead that has less fps than a lighter head and arrow that has a higher fps. You want that momentum to keep that arrow going!

    Here’s my Elk set Up for this year:

    Bow: Bowtech Insanity CPXL 70lbs
    Arrow: Easton Axis
    Spine: 300
    Weight: 500 gr
    Speed: 294 fps
    Kinetic energy: 95.99
    Arrowhead – Srickland’s Archery – The Helix 125 gr
    Vanes – Blazer right helical
    Sight: Montana Black Gold Ambush w/ 6in Dovetail
    Rest: Arizona Archery DOA

    My Rinehart 18-1 is getting destroyed as a result of my new setup. And I’m not complaining.

    I’m confident that if/when I get my shot on my first bull elk this fall, that I should get a pass thru and a massive wound channel with the 125 gr Helix and setup above.

    Good luck Mark ;)

    Rudy

    • SoleAdventure

      Thanks, Rudy! You’ve got a killer setup going. 500 grains and 294 fps…that’s momentum!

      • OldMoBoy

        Normally I would be concerned with that Helix, but you have a bit of momentum/energy to spare. Anything that causes more tissue damage like that broad head will bleed energy and make a pass thru less likely.

  • Kevin Jones

    Good read! I always get a sick feeling in my stomach when people tell me they hit an elk with their bow and arrow but they didn’t get much penetration and lost the blood trail… I don’t feel it is ethical unless you are hunting with proper gear which will give you that momentum, speed, and everything else you are talking about. Great read Mark.

    • http://www.archeryretail.com/ William

      I am agree this lines.

  • Tyler Dominguez

    I spoke with two hunters last year on the mountain that lost their elk. Both were using mechanical heads and both swore they made good shots. This will be the first year for me using a compound, and Marks articles have been a huge help and very educational. This article in particular has just reaffirmed what traditional guys know because we shoot at much slower fps, we need weight and kinetic energy. Thanks again Mark. It

    • SoleAdventure

      Thank you, Tyler! Us compound guys have a lot that we can learn from you trad guys. ;-)

    • OldMoBoy

      Very good point you make Tyler. Elk + Mechanicals = Lost. With elk it’s about penetration, less about damage. Look at the broad head Mark is using. That style or a razor trick type cut on contact is the way to go IMHO.

  • http://www.chasingthehunt.com/ ChasingtheHunt

    Mark, great job. I am thinking maybe I should reconsider what I am currently shooting based on this article.

    I just went to a local archery shop here and they set me up with the Easton Axis arrows. Here is my setup:

    Bow: PSE Hammer 64lbs (335 IBO, never chronoed my setup)
    Arrow: Easton Axis
    Spine: 400 (9 GPI)
    Broadhead: Undecided
    Vanes: Blazer
    Rest: QAD Ultra Rest HDX

    What are your thoughts?

    • SoleAdventure

      I’m missing a few key numbers to know everything about your arrow setup. For example, what length are they cut to? Calculate your total weight and go from there. The Axis are a good shaft in general, but what do they weigh with your setup. If you need to boost the weight you can shoot a 125g broadhead or add insert weight (which will also increase FOC), but make sure that your spine will still be stiff enough if you try that. It’s a balancing act…