Archery Accuracy - It's a Snap!

There are only two secrets to archery accuracy.

1. Knowing the exact yardage
2. Putting your arrow on the X once you know the yardage.

The latter is largely a matter of developing a good shooting routine and practicing it over and over. Since gravity and wind drag are an archer's archenemy, the number one issue for most shooters is dealing with the unknown. Just how far is it to the target?

Author: Frank Ross

When Randy Ulmer decided to take a hiatus from the 3-D tournament circuit, his fellow competitors breathed a simultaneous sigh of relief. Besides his exceptional record book listings for big game, he has won every 3-D championship that has been offered and many of them several times. More than one archer has walked off of a 3-D course scratching his head and mumbling about shooting against "the yardage judging machine."

How does he do it?

For years, Ulmer mystified the world of 3-D archery by mentally calculating the distance to targets by imagining a 20-yard pole and flipping it over in his mind. "If you can judge your 20 and then your 40 and the target's four yards closer, you know it would be a 36-yard shot. Some people do it in 10-yard increments, but I've always preferred to do it in 20's because the most critical targets to judge are the ones that are furthest away. If you use five or 10 yard increments you multiply your errors. If you miss 10 yards by one yard and you have four of those, you're four yards off. If you misjudge a twenty by one yard, and the target is at 40 yards, you are only going to be off by two yards."

While that system put a lot of cash into his pocket, and trophies into the case, Ulmer has a better plan, but he cautions hunters not to rely on it so much that they lose the ability to "snap judge" targets.

"Relating to hunting, with the advent of laser range finders, I think the only time we have to actually judge yardage anymore is in quick situations. I always have a laser rangefinder with me. It seems like most bow hunters carry them now or have access to one, and the only time you have to judge yardage, off the cuff, is when you don't have time to use your laser range finder. In those situations, I think it is very important to know your effective quick judging distance. For me, anything at 40 yards or less, I can quickly judge and be accurate enough to take a deer," he said.

"So, rather than do it the old fashioned way, which used to be my most effective method, (judging in 20-yard increments, breaking that increment down and becoming really good at judging 20 yards), now what I try to do is snap judge. I practice judging anything 40 yards and under and test myself with a rangefinder. A lot of times you'll be in a tree stand and a deer will walk by or come running in and you won't have time to take down your laser rangefinder and range him, so you need to be able to snap judge."

"What I do is try to judge, not using any particular technique, I look at something and say that's 23 yards, and I check myself with the rangefinder. It's important to know how far you can do that accurately. Like I said for me, it's 40 yards. I can get to within 2 or 3 yards and that's close enough for a hunting situation. When I was shooting the Pro circuit, anyone who was serious about competing had to be able to judge to within a yard, and that's a lot tougher."

"For 3-D events that allow you to take a rangefinder, I always take carry one, but I don't use it until after I've made my shot. It forces me to judge the yardage and make the best shot, and then I use the rangefinder to verify or check myself, and basically calibrate or fine tune myself as I go along."

Factoring in the factors - what about body size?

"If you're familiar with the size of the animal you're hunting, like white-tailed deer, and you're very familiar with how big a big buck is, and what he looks like at 40 yards, you can use that in your equation. I've gotten into trouble on moose hunts, actually the last moose I killed I misjudged by about 10 yards, but fortunately moose are so big that the chest cavity is so huge. You look at a moose and assume that they are about the size of an elk, but they're not. They're about twice the size of an elk. So I shot real low on this one, but happened to catch him in the lower part of the chest and got him anyway. So yeah, I use the size of the animal for deer or elk that I'm very familiar with, but with animals like moose you'd better be looking at the ground to judge the yardage."

"I think you use a lot of different things, the lay of the land, the ground, the bushes. You know what a ponderosa pine tree trunk looks like. If you live in Arizona, you know what a jojoba bush looks like at a certain distance, and you know what the detail looks like at a certain distance. So you use a lot of different factors, and that's why I think it's important to practice. I like to carry a laser rangefinder around before hunting season, to snap judge targets and check myself. I carry one around all summer. But again, it's important to know your maximum distance, and if there's something beyond that you just need to take your time to use the rangefinder or just don't take the shot."

"When I'm hunting elk, all I shoot at is the McKinzie elk target. I have a travel trailer, and I break mine down and take it to camp and that's all I shoot at. I think that's real helpful, especially for someone from back East who's used to hunting whitetail, because an elk is a big critter and it's tough to judge them accurately because they are so big."

Up hill and down hill shots can be a challenge

"There are a couple of components to that. Seems like things always appear further away than they are when you're shooting from an elevated position, or if you're shooting straight up hill. That can get you a couple of different ways. If you're shooting up at an animal, you need to shoot the actual distance to the target, corrected for the angle. A rangefinder might read 45 yards, but the actual distance is 38. If you misjudge the distance and compensate for the distance incorrectly, you're going to miss it completely."

"Another key element is to maintain a relaxed form, and the same geometry between your body and your bow arm. Do your bending down or up, at the waist."

"No matter where you live, unless you live in Florida, you can always find some hills to practice on. The easiest way to do it, with the least energy expended, is to find a 3-D shoot and get in it. If you can hook up with somebody that is a really good shot, you can pick up a lot of pointers. Most of the guys out there are willing to help. You just have to put your pride aside and ask for help."

Tunnel vision

A particularly difficult situation for some hunters is the visual illusion of a tunnel, created by shadows or brush on the ground, and overhanging branches that enclose a target. "I don't know why that's tough, other than the fact that usually in those situations you can't see the ground, and most people rely heavily on seeing the ground for their ranging. When you get a tunnel effect, you have to rely solely on the size of the animal and how much texture you can see on the animal and that makes it very difficult," he said.

Dealing with shadows

"There are a lot of different environmental conditions that fool you. If you're standing in a shadow and shooting into sunlight, that's actually one of my favorite ways to shoot because you can usually see real good definition on the animal. It's actually fairly easy to judge distance because there's no sun on your face or your sighting system and the animal's well lit. What's more difficult for me is when I'm in the sun and the animal is in the shadow. What happens in that situation is usually the animal will seem much further away because you can't see any texture on the animal. There's an optical illusion because the more texture you can see, the closer they tend to look. When you can't see any texture, it tends to look further away."

Judging across swales and draws

"Again, the animal tends to look further away. I'm not sure, but I think the reason is that when you look down the ravine you can see a lot more ground than you could if it were flat ground between you and the animal. You can see all the way down on your side, and all the way back up."

"These are all situations that everyone perceives differently. You can tell them how I perceive it, but everyone has to go out and practice with different conditions, and see how they have to deal with each situation. The more you do it the easier it gets, and there's just no substitute for practice."

Factoring the drop - An inch per yard?

"The drop depends on arrow speed and distance, and it varies greater from the beginning to the end of the flight. At close distance, with an arrow speed of 280fps (feet per second), an arrow will drop about 3/4 of an inch per yard between 30 and 40 yards. Between 40 and 50 it's about 1 1/4 inches per yard. And those are averages. It also depends on your fletching and the coefficiency of drag for your arrow. An arrow with feathers will obviously have a lot more downrange deterioration than an arrow with vanes. With bigger vanes or a greater degree of offset (helical), you will experience more decay downrange. So there are a lot of factors, but you could say that, on average, an arrow drops an inch per yard. But you really don't have to calculate that much if you judge your yardage right, and if your bow is properly sighted in. That's the key, to judge your yardage right."

If you don't practice, sooner or later you'll regret it.

"Laser range finders are a great tool, but you still have to practice. I would say that well over half the time that I have to shoot an animal, I don't have time to use my laser rangefinder. People have quit practicing, and judging yardage. There are just so many instances when the deer is walking toward you, or you can't afford the movement or simply just don't have the time, or there's brush in between you and the animal and the rangefinder picks up the brush; there are just a lot of times when you have to make the shot using dead reckoning for your judgement. The best way to do that is to go out to a 3-D tournament and get in some practice. The easiest way to do it is to carry a laser rangefinder with you throughout the summer. You'd be surprised how fast you can get good at it."

You may never get to be as good at judging yardage as "the machine" but then again, you just might. One thing is for certain. If you don't spend some time preparing for the fall, your chances of returning home with a big grin are slim. Now is the time to get out and take that first step toward a successful fall archery season. With a good laser rangefinder and a little practice, you'll find that success is a "snap."

Editor's Note:

Randy Ulmer was inducted into the National Bowhunter Hall of Fame in 1999, in recognition of his achievements in both range and field, as well as his willingness to help other archers improve upon their abilities.

He is a three time #1 Ranked Pro, IBO World Champion, FITA World Champion, ASA World Champion, three time APA Shooter of the Year, three time IBO Triple Crown Champion, two time NABH Champion and NABH Shooter of the Year.