High Deer Recovery Rates for Fixed-Blade and Mechanical Broadheads

February 24, 2014 By: Lindsay Thomas Jr.


Every year at the Southeast Deer Study Group meeting, a few research presentations stand out from the others and leave the audience murmuring long after the question-and-answer period has been cut off. QDMA member Andy Pedersen gave one such presentation on February 18 when he shared his study of the effectiveness of fixed-blade and mechanical broadheads.

Many hunters who have heard about his findings have a tendency to focus their discussion on which type of broadhead performed better, and by doing so they miss a more important point. So, I’m going to highlight that point first: The bowhunters in Andy’s study recovered 83 percent of the deer they hit (1,083 recovered out of 1,296 hit from 1989 to 2012). This is an extremely high rate, on par with data I have seen for rifle hunters, and far higher than the archery wounding rates you hear animal-rights groups pushing in their propaganda. It’s a rate that clearly says bowhunting is an extremely effective option in almost any situation, but especially when urban and suburban deer populations need to be managed. So, before you dig into the fine details, celebrate the big picture: Archers of all kinds, whether using crossbows or compound bows, whether using mechanical or fixed-blade broadheads, scored very high recovery rates on deer.

About the Study Area

Andy Pedersen is a retired senior engineer at Naval Support Facility Indian Head, a military installation on the Potomac River in Maryland, just south of Washington, D.C. The base is involved in explosives manufacturing and research, among other things, so the public is not allowed on site. Prior to 1989, sharpshooters were used to control the overpopulation of deer. In 1989, the base’s Natural Resources Office established a formal bowhunting program, open to military and civilian employees, to help maintain the deer population within the carrying capacity of the habitat. Andy helped get that program running. Hunters are required to pass the National Bowhunter Education Foundation’s Bowhunter Education Course and an annual pre-season shooting proficiency test (The test is relatively easy: Given five arrows, you must put three of them in kill zones in 3-D deer targets spaced from 10 to 25 yards, and if all three of your kill-zone arrows are in the 10-yard target, that’s okay).

Being in research and development, Andy has an interest in data analysis, so he lobbied for data-collection requirements. Hunters must file reports on whether they shoot at, hit, or recover a deer (The base defines “recovered” as found within 24 hours). The base’s Natural Resources Office collects biological data, such as live and dressed weights and jawbone age, from every deer killed.

The base is not large or heavily hunted. Two areas totaling 3,000 acres are open to hunting; on one of the areas, there is an earn-a-buck requirement, and bucks must net 130 inches Pope & Young. On the other area, there’s no earn-a-buck requirement, and bucks must have at least three points on one side. A total of 209 bowhunters have pursued deer on the base in the 24 seasons available for study.

What Andy Learned

Andy has sliced and diced those 24 seasons worth of bowhunting data to examine it from a number of angles. Here are some snapshots he presented at the Southeast Deer Study Group meeting.

Hunting Success: 135 of the 209 bowhunters recovered at least one deer, dragging out a total of 1,083 after putting in 35,011 hours of hunting effort. That’s one deer for every 32.5 hours in the stand. It’s also an average of about eight deer per successful bowhunter (Andy reported that several of their most skilled, long-term bowhunters have taken a lot more than eight deer in the years they’ve been hunting the base, including Andy).

Overall Recovery Rate: To get 1,083 deer, hunters reported hitting 1,296 deer from 1989 through 2012. That’s a very strong recovery rate of 83.6%.

Crossbows vs. Compounds: Separated by bow type, crossbow hunters had an 89 percent recovery rate compared to 83 percent for compound bows.

Shot Distance: Crossbow hunters reported an average shot distance of 19.7 yards, while compound bow hunters kept it closer, reporting 17.6 yards.

Mechanical vs. Fixed-Blade: Stratified by broadhead type (including both compound bows and crossbows), hunters using fixed-blade broadheads recovered 82 percent of their deer (874 recovered out of 1,066 hit). Hunters using mechanical broadheads recovered 91 percent of their deer (209 out of 230 hit). Note: Total numbers of deer are lower for mechanicals because they have only been approved for use on the base since 2007, although the majority of deer shot since then were shot with mechanicals. More on that shortly.

Broadhead Type for Compound Bows: Looking only at compound bow users, those using mechanical broadheads recovered 143 of 161 deer for an 89 percent recovery rate; those using fixed blades recovered 821 out of 1,001 deer for an 82 percent recovery rate.

Broadhead Type for Crossbows: Looking only at crossbows, those using mechanical broadheads recovered 66 out of 69 deer for a whopping 96 percent recovery rate; those using fixed blades recovered 53 out of 65 deer for an 82 percent recovery rate.

Looking at these last three comparisons involving mechanical vs. fixed-blade, it brings up a question that was asked by the audience at the Southeast Deer Study Group meeting. These comparisons involve deer killed with mechanical broadheads only from 2007 on, but with fixed-blade broadheads going back all the way to 1989. Is that fair? Could it be that the efficiency and accuracy of compound bows and crossbows are higher since 2007, after mechanical broadheads were allowed on the hunts? Andy, being an admitted data geek, had anticipated that question. He separated fixed-blade recovery rates into pre- and post-mechanical eras. There was no statistically significant difference. Recovery rates with fixed-blade broadheads shot from compound bows were 82.2 percent from 1989 to 2006 and 81.0 percent from 2007 to 2012. For crossbows: 81.7 percent in the early years, 80.0 percent more recently.

Another question people often raise about Andy’s data: How does he know hunters aren’t declining to report deer they hit and failed to recover? There are several reasons why he believes this probably never happens. First, permission to hunt this base is highly exclusive and desirable, and you can lose it if you don’t follow the rules. Also, because of base safety and security requirements, hunters are not allowed to move from their designated stand sites without notifying the “hunt captain.” So, to blood-trail a deer you almost always have to alert others you are doing so. Finally, hunters almost always ask for help with blood-trailing because recovery is so important. If it’s a doe, you want the credit for earn-a-buck. If it’s a buck, it’s a nice one because of the antler requirements. Given the rules, the incentives, and the close nature of the base and hunting communities, Andy said it would be very difficult to hit and lose a deer on base without anyone else knowing it.

Hits and Misses: Here’s one more interesting item based on shots that did not hit their targets. Crossbow users got a slightly higher accuracy score than compound users, hitting their target 94.5 percent of the time compared to 89.9 percent for compounds. The comparison was almost exactly the same for broadhead type. Mechanical users were slightly higher, hitting the deer 94.3 percent of the time compared to 89.4 percent for fixed-blade.

Don’t Miss the Target

I know that some hard-core archers are going to thoroughly examine and debate these numbers, but I would urge them to recall my earlier summary: The differences in performance between bow types and broadhead types are small.

All types of bows and broadheads are capable of producing extremely high recovery rates, but you cannot overlook the education and proficiency requirements for these hunters, and that they reported an average shot distance of less than 20 yards. The hunters on this base are clearly selective and careful about their shots, which contributed to the high recovery rates. Regardless of equipment, we all share a responsibility to practice regularly and choose the right shots. The choices you make before the arrow is released are just as important as the clinical physics of broadhead performance.

In the hands of informed, proficient and selective archers, bows are more than sufficient to the task of managing deer herds in suburban areas, small military bases, and anywhere else deer herds require management but where firearms are not a practical solution. Andy’s data can be used to help secure new hunting opportunities for archers of all types – no matter what equipment they prefer – wherever there are deer that need hunters, and archers who need a place to hunt.

About Lindsay Thomas Jr.:

Lindsay Thomas Jr. is the editor of Quality Whitetails magazine, the journal of the National Deer Association, and he is NDA's Chief Communications Officer. He has been a member of the staff since 2003. Prior to that, Lindsay was an editor at a Georgia hunting and fishing news magazine for nine years. Throughout his career as an editor, he has written and published numerous articles on deer management and hunting. He earned his journalism degree at the University of Georgia.

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