Broadheads for Bears: Seeking to Settle the Debate
Bernie Barringer 06.19.14
Choosing the right broadhead for bears is a touchy subject. Opinions range from “anything that will work for deer will work for bear” to outfitters that will not allow expandable broadheads in their camp. Here’s a voice of reason.
I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation. Two guys standing in the local archery shop, each with a package of broadheads in their hand, insisting that their opinion of the best broadhead was right and the other’s was wrong.
I’ll bet you can guess which broadhead was in the hands of one guy—yes, an expandable that opens up to a 1-1/2-inch cut. We’ll call him Bob. The other fellow, we’ll call him Bill, was making some very valid points about what he saw as the negative side of mechanical/expandable broadheads.
Bill was adamant that the most important factor in recovering a bear shot with an arrow was an exit wound. Bears have lots of fat and thick fur, which can make for a very difficult blood trail if you do not have an exit wound low on the bear’s body to allow plenty of blood to escape the body cavity. Bill was rightly contending that you should maximize your blood trail in order to increase the odds of finding your bear.
“Mechanical broadheads,” Bill stated, “lose so much of their kinetic energy in opening the blades that a pass-through is less likely. A pass-through is the most important factor in finding your bear.” Right again, Bill.
But here is where Bob played his trump card. “My bow is shooting 300 feet per second,” he said. “I have plenty of kinetic energy to open those wide blades, cut a wide furrow, and still drive that arrow all the way through the bear.”
Who is ultimately right in this issue? The debate rages on. Some bear hunting outfitters won’t allow expandable broadheads in their camp. They have had many bad experiences with them. Mechanical broadheads are illegal in some states. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Let me explain.
I have shot bears with both expandables and fixed-blade broadheads. Both have killed bears just as dead, but there are some things to consider on both sides of the argument. Bill is absolutely right that if you have an exit wound, especially one without an arrow shaft still in it, your chances of finding a nice easy blood trail that leads to your bear go way up. Driving an arrow all the way through the bear definitely increases your chances of making that bear into a rug.
How important is a wide wound path? Well, the more tissue you cut, the more an animal will bleed out if that tissue is a vital organ (lungs, heart, or liver). The wider the wound path, the better your chances of slicing a major artery. There is a point of diminishing returns of course, or we would all be shooting six-inch-wide broadheads. But wait, a wider broadhead is more likely to hit a bone; it is less likely to get through the ribs cleanly. The blades will catch a lot of wind in flight, and wide blades will plane out in flight causing decreased accuracy. So there is a trade-off at some point, and it seems like most hunters and broadhead manufacturers have settled on about a 1-1/4-inch cutting diameter as the perfect size. Then along came the expandables that open up to as much as two inches when they contact skin. Now you have the advantage of minimal wind resistance and planing, plus you have a wider wound channel. Sounds like the perfect solution, until we look at the powerful issue of kinetic energy (KE).
Humor me for just a second while I give you a quick science lesson, in case you forgot what you learned about kinetic energy in 9th grade. Here are a couple statements to jog your memory.
“An object in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force.” That outside force can be gravity, air resistance, or any object it runs directly into, like the side of a bear. Here’s another: “The energy of a body or system with respect to the motion of the body or the particles in the system.” That’s the definition of kinetic energy. You can easily figure your KE with this formula: ½ mass times velocity squared. Don’t panic, it’s really quite easy.
The mass is the weight of your arrow with the broadhead attached. Half that, then multiply it by the speed of your arrow times itself. Go to your archery shop and have your bow chronographed with a hunting arrow to get your speed. Have them weigh your arrow, and complete the simple formula. You have your kinetic energy (measured in terms of foot-pounds). Ask them to compare it to what others are shooting. As a general rule, you should not be shooting expandables at bears if your KE is less than 75 foot-pounds of energy.
Here’s the deal. If you are shooting a bow that has an IBO speed rating of say 330 feet per second, which would be most of the newer parallel-limb bows on the market shooting about 70 pounds at 30 inches draw length. Your actual chronographed speed with a hunting arrow is going to be probably a little under 300. You probably aren’t shooting a 30-inch draw length, and if you are only shooting a compound bow set at 50 pounds or more, a recurve or a longbow, you can disqualify yourself from shooting bears with a mechanical broadhead right now. I’ll tell you straight up front that if you aren’t shooting 60 to 70 pounds with a fairly fast bow, you shouldn’t be shooting expandables—you don’t have the kinetic energy and you are asking for trouble. A heavier arrow will help some, but the heavier you go, the more your arrow speed is reduced. If you are dead set on shooting expandables, you should be bulking up to shoot a heavier bow weight.
Times are changing, and with today’s faster bows and more reliable mechanical broadheads, it is becoming more widely accepted to use these expanding contraptions on bears. Two of them that are seeing high acceptance rates are the Rage and the Ulmer Edge. The jury is still out on some others. Broadheads with blades that open from the front and then pivot backwards will probably never see wide acceptance for bear hunting because of the massive amount of kinetic energy they use to open.
There is one more caveat that is an important part of this discussion. Mechanical broadheads leave little margin for error. If you drive an expandable right through the rib cage with a high-speed bow, your broadhead will probably be buried in the dirt on the opposite side of the bear. But, if you hit bone, the arrow slows down significantly, and may not pass through. Trophy Taker, the maker of the Ulmer Edge, has attempted to address this issue by making the blades with a pivot that allows the blade to slide by bones and then straighten out. This is a new concept and needs more testing to judge its reliability and effectiveness. I have shot four bears with the Ulmer Edge so far, three of which went down quickly and easily, the other of which we found the next morning 300 yards away. In that case, the broadhead had centered the leg bone just below the scapula, smashing it, and the broadhead had only penetrated one lung. That one was my fault for shooting a bear with his front leg back instead of forward.
The bottom line is this: expandables are finding more acceptance among bear hunters, but they should only be shot out of the right setup, and you are asking for trouble if your shot is a little off. If everything is right and the shot is perfect, your bear is going down fast. If not, you are probably in for a long, sleepless night.
Follow Bernie’s bowhunting adventures on his blog, bowhuntingroad.com.