Growing up in suburban Massachusetts, I had never touched a bow or gun until I was in my early 20s. My knowledge of hunting weapons was extremely limited. When I became serious about learning how to hunt, I quickly discovered that I had to make a choice — was I going to learn to hunt with a gun or with a bow? Was one type of weapon going to be more effective for a new hunter like me?
Gun vs Bow Hunting: Do I Really Need to Choose?
If you talk with experienced hunters or read hunting forums, you’ll discover that many hunters use both gun and bow regularly. So you may be asking yourself, why do I even need to choose just one weapon? Couldn’t I just acquire a whole arsenal all at once? You could indeed, but it’s not what I’d recommend.
Becoming a competent, ethical hunter requires a lot of practice and a lot of trial-and-error. Focusing initially on a smaller set of skills means mastering those skills more quickly.
When we started hunting mule deer a couple years ago, I decided to focus on rifle hunting while Nick decided to focus on bowhunting. Between the two of us, we’ve encountered a wide range of hunting literature, gear, and experiences. In this post, I’ll highlight what we think to be the most important factors to consider when deciding between gun vs bow hunting.
For budget-conscious new hunters, there isn’t a big difference in cost of purchasing a new, mid-range gun or bow.
If you’re short on funds, basic ‘ready to hunt’ compound bow and rifles packages can be had for as low as $300. But be aware, sometimes a decent bow or rifle is packaged with lower end accessories. So while it may seem like a good deal at time, you may end up spending more money later upgrading your rifle scope, arrow rest, or bow sight. For a good beginner setup, $500-600 is probably a reasonable estimate for both compound bows and rifles. A shotgun setup could be cheaper than a rifle setup because there’s no scope involved.
If you consider previously owned bows, be conscious of wear. Strings and cams may need immediate replacing, which for most new bowhunters means taking the bow to an archery shop. Firearms accumulate wear more slowly than compound bows, which is why used guns retain so much of their value.
Compared to bows, guns have more recurring costs: bullets and shot. Shooting practice can get expensive if you want to visit the range frequently. By contrast, arrows can be used many, many times. If you’re careful, you should rarely need to replace arrows, broadheads, or field points. Arrow vanes are a common wear item but they are cheap and easy to replace. I’ve found regular archery practice to be much cheaper than regular rifle practice.
If there is a specific animal you want to hunt, the first step is determining which ‘methods of take’ — a term that refers to the type of weapon used — are legal to use on that animal. These regulations can vary state to state or even county to county.
Each weapon makes for a very different hunting experience. Rifles are a longer range weapon (usually ~50 to 300 yards for most hunters) while shotguns and bows are close range weapons (usually ~10 to 50 yards). Because they shoot a spread of pellets, shotguns are perfect for animals on the move. Rifles and bows, on the other hand, shoot a single projectile that needs to hit just the right place to kill the animal quickly and are thus best suited for stationary creatures.
Think about a quail that suddenly springs into the air from a nearby bush. In some states you’d be legally allowed to shoot your bow at that quail. But if your main goal is to bring home a meal, would that be your preferred method? Probably not. Unless you’re an extremely talented archer, hunting mobile small game with a bow is going to be very challenging and unsuccessful. You’re better off with a shotgun.
What about an animal with a large kill zone, like a deer you spot standing stationary at the edge of the woods? If you’re a well-practiced bowhunter, that deer could be a dream come true… if you happen to be hiding 30 yards away from it. Hunting big game with archery equipment is challenging primarily because of how close a hunter must get before she can take a shot. Stalking to within archery range of an elk or deer requires a lot of skill, practice, and good fortune. As a new bowhunter, you’ll become familiar with the frustration of watching ‘easy’ rifle shots pass you by.
The bottom line is that hunting with archery equipment is challenging, both technically and psychologically, particularly for small targets in motion. If you want to maximize your chances of filling the freezer in the first year or two, rifles and shotguns promote more frequent success than bows in most cases1.
Tags, Seasons, and Regulations
In case you haven’t discovered this fact yet, hunting regulations are complex. Where you can hunt, how difficult it is to obtain a tag, and how long your season will be can vary enormously between gun vs bow hunting.
As you decide which weapon you’d like to use, be sure to check whether certain parts of your state are designated archery-only. If you’re hoping to make connections with local landowners, be aware that some will only allow bowhunting on their property.
For big game, check whether rifle and archery tags available over the counter (e.g., available on first come first serve basis) or through a lottery system. Over the counter tags are where many new hunters need to start, because newbies haven’t yet built up ‘points’ that would increase their chances of getting a tag in a competitive lottery.
And be sure to look at season dates. If you wield a bow, how many days will you be able to hunt compared to rifle hunters? Archers are typically granted a longer season. Also pay attention to how much of the archery season overlaps with the general hunting season. Some bowhunters dislike sharing the woods with rifle hunters because they feel too disadvantaged competing with long range weapons. And while hunting accidents are rare, many bowhunters feel uneasy sneaking around the woods in full camouflage when rifles are going off nearby.
In addition to having more time in the field, bowhunters may also benefit from an archery season that precedes the general season. It’s like having ‘first dibs’, gaining access to the animals before they have been disturbed by the ruckus of firearms. Early archery season has some drawbacks, though. For those in southern latitudes, early season weather can be very hot, presenting a logistical challenge for backcountry hunters needing to keep their meat cool.
For deer, elk, and other ungulate hunters, another potential drawback of an early archery season is that it can be further away from the rutting period. The rut refers to the time when animals are preparing to mate. Typically, males who are reclusive during other parts of the year will appear during the rut and behave more carelessly, leading to more sightings and more shot opportunities for hunters2. A late archery season may pick up on the tail end of the rut. But for those in northern latitudes, late season hunting can be bitterly cold.
Overall, check your state and local hunting regulations and estimate which method of take will allow you to hunt where you want, when you want, and for the longest amount of time. Holding all else equal, something like tag availability or season dates could tip the scales in favor of firearm hunting or bow hunting.
Learning to Shoot
There’s much more to hunting than being a good shot, but shooting your weapon accurately and consistency is a critical skill. When it comes to learning, is a gun going to be easier than a bow?
As to physical technique, many people report they were able to become skilled more quickly with a shotgun or rifle than with a bow. There are likely a couple factors at play here. When precision is necessary, rifle hunters find a way to steady their gun, either by sitting down, laying down, or using an external support (e.g., bipod, shooting sticks, or a nearby tree). Bows, on the other hand, are primarily shot from a standing position without any external bracing or way to steady the weapon. Minor deviations in archery form can have a major impact on accuracy and consistency, too.
Moreover, compared to sliding a bolt and pulling a trigger, archery is quite physically demanding. In order to create enough force to launch a deadly arrow, bow strings have to be under a lot of tension (measured in pounds of draw weight). A heavier draw weight roughly translates to a more forceful arrow, but comes at the cost of being very difficult for the user to pull back. From a practical standpoint, many states have set minimum legal draw weights for bowhunters3. From an ethical standpoint, hunters’ recommendations usually fall in the 35 to 55 pound range as a minimum for deer sized game. If chest, shoulder, and back strength is not your forte, expect that it could take many months to develop muscles needed to comfortably pull a sufficient draw weight.
As with most activities, the more you practice shooting the faster you’ll learn. The fewer barriers there are to practicing, the more you’ll do it, and the better you’ll become. So ask yourself, how easy will it be for me to practice shooting my new hunting weapon?
With firearms, take into consideration that not all communities have a shooting range with target distances relevant to rifle hunters (targets of at least 100, preferably 200+ yards are invaluable). In addition, not all ranges can accommodate shotgun shooters. Unless you own a large tract of land, shooting firearms at home is probably out of the question. Good firearms practice could require a lot of travel and money depending on where you live.
With archery, on the other hand, all you need is a backyard (or large garage) and a backstop. Since most bowhunters don’t shoot beyond 50 yards, archery practice requires relatively little space. As long as there aren’t HOA, city, or regional restrictions on the use of archery equipment in your yard (here are some tips to help you figure this out), regular archery practice will be easy and cheap. If you have to go to a distant archery range, the convenience of practicing with guns vs bows is probably equal.
The vast majority of hunters are acutely concerned with minimizing animal suffering. So, does either a gun or a bow ensure a quicker, cleaner kill?
Chris Eberhart from Hunting Wild Food has a wonderful article comparing the methods by which bullets and broadheads kill. I highly recommend it. One key point is this: both guns and bows are perfectly capable of effective, ethical kills as long as shot placement is good. And both guns and bows are perfectly capable of inflicting wounds that can cause the animal a slow, painful death if shot placement is poor. A double-lung shot or a heart shot — the gold standard of shot placement — will kill an animal very quickly regardless of the weapon.
Bowhunters seem to incur extra risk, however, of injuring an animal in a way that is non-lethal or leads to a non-recoverable death4. While bullets shatter bone, broadheads do not. A shoulder blade hit with a rifle will down an animal immediately. The animal might escape from that same shot with a bow. And because arrows travel more slowly and with less force than a bullet, they are also more susceptible to deflection from something as minor as a leaf or tiny twig, which could lead to a poor hit. Finally, bowhunters are much less likely to get a follow up shot if the first is less than ideal. The animal could easily run out of bow range before the hunter is ready to launch a second arrow.
It is critically important for all hunters to learn which shots are safe to take and which should be avoided. Bowhunters will need to hold back on shots that a rifle hunter would feel comfortable with. In my opinion, as long as the limits of the weapon are respected, neither bow or firearm hunting can be labeled as more or less ethical.
In weighing all the above factors, there is no one-size-fits-all-answer. Ultimately, the gun vs bow hunting decision should reflect your personal preference. Becoming a hunter shouldn’t mean doing things you dislike or things you aren’t ready for. Your relationship with hunting should be your own — one that fits with your values, your style, and your goals.
Do you favor ease of harvesting meat above all else? Do you want a greater chance of success in your first few years? Do guns seem more enjoyable to shoot? Are you primarily interested in bird hunting? Or do you know a great rifle or shotgun hunter who has offered to mentor you? If so, learn to hunt with firearms to start.
Are you the type of person that’s attracted to challenge and willing to be extra patient? Do you find value in more ‘primitive’ styles of hunting? Do you have a lot of time to spend in the wild and want a reason to hone your stalking skills? Or does the idea of using or owning a gun make you uncomfortable? Then get yourself a bow and start practicing!
From personal experience, focusing solely on rifle hunting helped me to take a mule deer buck in open country during my second season. I learned a lot about ballistics and shooting technique and now I have the privilege of eating venison once a week. If I had pursued bowhunting instead, my freezer would likely be empty. Nick ultimately chose bowhunting for the extended season it provided. Since we typically hunt as a pair, he served a support role for me during rifle season and I served a support role for him during archery season. While he hasn’t taken a deer with his bow yet, his stalking skills have become far superior to mine. And he experienced some incredible moments with desert muleys this fall, up close and personal. We have two distinct, but complementary skill sets. And I can’t say that either one is better than the other.
- Environmental factors can create exceptions to the rule. For example, if you meet a landowner with an abundance of deer on their property, but they’re only comfortable allowing bow hunters on their land (not an uncommon position, by the way), you might have a greater chance of harvesting a deer with a bow on their land than you would with a rifle in public woods crowded with hunters. Sometimes it pays to be a bow hunter. ↩
- Keep in mind — rutting behavior begins at different times in different regions. It can also vary a bit year-to-year due to weather and available nutrition. The moon also might have something to do with it. Even the best predictions are just that — predictions. Check with a local wildlife biologist to get an estimate of the rutting period for your region. ↩
- For example, Wisconsin requires 30 pounds draw weight, Colorado asks for 35 pounds, and Oregon demands a draw weight of 40 for deer and 50 for elk. These numbers apply to long bows, recurve bows, and compound bows. ↩
- By this I mean that the animal runs so far away with very little blood trail and takes so long to die that a hunter is unable to ever find the animal he or she shot. ↩