Practical Bowhunting
with Dr. Mark Timney

What is Your OPTIMUM Range?

One of the big questions in bowhunting is "How far is too far?" At what range does a shot become unethical?

Almost everything I’ve ever read on this subject suggests we can find the answer to the "how far" question by determining our "effective shooting range." The articles typically describe effective range as being the distance at which an archer can consistently make a lethal shot on an animal. And while different methods have been devised for determining effective range, they all generally come down to seeing how well can you can shoot on a range given perfect conditions.

I have a problem with this. And if you’ve ever thought about it I’m sure you realize how overly simplistic this idea is.


Apples to Oranges!

The range is not the woods! You know the distance to the target on the range. You rarely know exactly how far a buck is. You’re fairly relaxed on the range, but when an animal shows up in the woods your heart starts pumping and adrenaline flows… making you anything but relaxed. And I could go on here, but you get my point.

But what about 3-D archery? Doesn’t that simulate hunting? Yes... a little. But it’s still not a simulation that can help you determine "how far is too far." 3-D does test your ranging abilities, but it’s still lacking targets that can move and react. And while 3-D does sometimes test your ‘nerve,’ it doesn’t reproduce the mental pressure that having an animal ‘in close’ does. How often do you shoot 3-D when you’re cold, or when it’s raining—common conditions in the field? It’s not the same.


Consider "Optimum Range"

There is more to the ‘how far’ question than effective range. I believe you must consider ‘optimum range’ instead. Let me define optimum range as the greatest distance at which you’re likely to accurately estimate the distance to the target, execute a shot properly, and still have the animal in the same position when the arrow arrives as it was when you shot.

If you think about this you’ll see how the concept of optimum range brings a number of other variables into play. In addition to shooting ability and yardage judging skills, we’re also talking about:


Putting it All Together

So how do you figure your optimum range? I don’t think there is a foolproof way of determining it. Still, as ethical bowhunters we must have a general idea of what our optimum range might be. So, what I going to do here is give you an idea of how I determine my optimum range.

First, I start by finding my INITIAL MAXIMUM range, the furthest distance at which I can put 80-percent of my arrows into the ‘ten ring’ of a 3-D target of the animal I am hunting. I do this by shooting at known distances. If I shoot an arrow outside the ‘eight ring’ I automatically disqualify myself from shooting at that range or beyond.

I measure my shooting ability in this manner because it relates it to the size of the kill-zone of the animal to be hunted. Yea, I know 3-D targets sometimes have poorly placed/sized kill zones; and, I know it doesn’t test my range judging ability--a critical component of accuracy while bowhunting—but there will be more on this later.

The range I come up with at this stage ONLY reveals the distance at which I might shoot at certain animals under ideal conditions. But I don’t stop here. I believe there are RANGE REDUCTION (RR) FACTORS that have to be applied to the INITIAL MAXIMUM to reflect conditions in the field.

The Range Reduction Factors I consider were presented before. They include: whether an animal is alert or not, as well as its general, overall behavior; my mental and physical condition at the time of the shot; general field conditions; and, how certain I am of the shot's distance.

Since I normally do a rough calculation of my Range Reduction Factors in my head, I’ve had to put together the following charts for you to view so you can see what I’m thinking. What I’ll do here is consider the Range Reduction Factors for a situation during a hunt and show how they impact my Initial Maximum Range. This should provide you with a general idea of what my optimum range might be for a particular animal under a specific set of conditions.

These charts ARE NOT designed to give you an idea of what your optimum range MIGHT BE. I’m not proposing that you take what I’ve written here as gospel. I just want you to think about your own optimum range given some of these variables.


Laid-Back Animals

(Type 1)

Wary Animals

(Type 2)

Jumpy Animals

(Type 3)


Mountain Goats

Mountain Lion (in tree)





Wild Pigs

Bear (all types)



Whitetail & Mule Deer

Mountain Lion (on ground)

No RR Consideration

RR= -10%

RR= -20%


Certain of Range

Uncertain of Range

No RR Consideration

Animal is less than 25 yards away- RR= Consider Size of Kill Zone

Animal is 25 to 35 yards away- RR= Consider Not Shooting

Animal is more than 35 yards away- RR= Don’t Shoot



Animal On Full Alert (Possibility of No Shot)

No RR Consideration

Type 1 Animal RR= -20%

Type 2 Animal RR= -30%

Type 3 Animal RR= -40%



Excited/Little Uncomfortable

Buck Fever/Miserable

No RR Consideration

RR= -25%

RR= -50% or Don’t Shoot



(perfect conditions)


(breezy, slight rain, etc.)


(windy, heavy rain, low light, etc.)

No RR Consideration

RR= -35%

RR= -50% or Don’t Shoot


An Example of How it Works

Let’s calculate my Optimum Range. I have a Maximum Initial Range of 50 yards when I hunt whitetails with a compound. (I have to do this all over again when I hunt with a recurve.) So, looking on the BEHAVIOR CHART for the whitetail Range Reduction Factor (a Type 3 animal), I reduce the range by 20%. This suggests that the longest distance I should shoot at a whitetail is forty yards under absolutely perfect conditions. This would be when I’m certain of the range to the animal, the deer is not alert, I’m perfectly calm, and the field conditions are excellent.

Now, what about if I’m not sure about how far away the deer is? Look at the Yardage Estimation Chart. Here I have to determine if I should even consider the shot in the first place. If I know the range, I’m fine, But if I don’t?

If the deer is less than 25 yards away, I’m probably only going to be off by +/- a few yards on my range estimation. No big deal given the size of a whitetail’s kill zone. So, I can attempt a shot within this range even if I’m not sure of the distance. But, if the animal is between 25 and 35 yards then I have to consider not shooting at all. Even a fast compound sends an arrow in an arc, and that means a possibility of a high or low hit if the animal is out there a little. If I’m not sure of the range and the animal is beyond 35 yards then I won’t shoot.

For other animals, such as turkeys, I have to reconsider whether or not to attempt close shots if I’m uncertain of the range. We’re only talking a kill zone about the size of a baseball in this case. A few yards off on the range estimation and the arrow will go too high or low on a bird.

As you can see, the Yardage Estimation Range Reduction Factors can completely negate my optimum range in some situations. Because of this, I have to consider it before I look at the other Range Reduction Variables.

I’m going to talk about the other variables one at a time for now. Later I’ll discuss how they might interact with one another. And, for the purpose of simplicity, I’m going to assume that I’m fairly confident of the range to the animal in all of the following situations.

Let’s look at the ALERTNESS CHART first. If the whitetail is relaxed, there’s no reduction in optimum range. But if the deer is on alert, then I employ a Range Reduction Factor of –40 percent. This is because the whitetail is a Type 3 (Jumpy) animal. So, my Initial Maximum Range (40 yards) on an alert whitetail is reduced by 40 percent, meaning I will only shoot out to 24 yards. However, I might also consider not taking a shot at the animal if I believe it might move before the arrow gets there.

Now, if I’m a very chilled from sitting out in the elements then I have look at the Hunter Mental/Physical chart. Here, my being miserable results in a range reduction of fifty percent. My forty yard range on a whitetail is now at twenty yards. And, once again, I may decide not to take a shot.

Continuing on to the Field Conditions chart… If I’m in the middle of a heavy rain my Initial Maximum Range also drops fifty percent, down to twenty yards. And, once again, that’s if I shoot at all. Nothing ruins a blood trail worse than a heavy rain.


Dealing with Multiple RRs at Once.

Now, what if some of these factors come into play at once? Let’s say I know the range to the whitetail, but it’s alert (-40%), I’m a little uncomfortable (-25%), and there’s some wind (-35%). That all adds up to a 100% Range Reduction. Does that mean the deer has to be sitting in my lap for me to shoot? Not necessarily.

Let me explain. Taking a shot at an alert deer has dropped my range from an initial maximum of forty yards to twenty-four yards. What I do now is reduce the other range reduction variables on the new optimum ranges rather than the initial yardage. So… 25% of 24 yards is 6 yards. Subtract that from 24 and I’m down to an 18 yard shot. Now, I reduce 18 yards by 35% because of the wind. This reduction finally results in my only taking a shot at 12 yards or less in this situation…. if I shoot at all.

And, we’ve only been discussing situations where I’ve been sure of the range. Not being confident of the range to the animal changes things considerably. And, there are other interactions between the Range Reduction Variables that I can’t account for here. The numbers might say I have a shot, but in reality I might not ever take one.


Final Thoughts

Obviously, it’s easy to fudge these numbers and make them say what you want. I’ve tried to work this whole thing out numerically by putting together information from a number of veteran bowhunters. Unfortunately, this is an extremely complex subject, and it’s not something that’s easily quantifiable. I had to do it, though, so that I could explain my thought processes to you.

I do hope that what I’ve done will, at the very least, give you an idea of some of the things to consider when you ask "how far is too far?" And, I do hope you’ll stick within your optimum range (whatever that is). I know how strong the urge to ‘launch one’ at an animal can be. I’ve shot past my own optimum range once in the past. Fortunately, it didn’t resulted in a kill. But, I realize that was partly luck. And that’s not what bowhunting is about. I’m not going to shoot past my optimum range in the future. I hope you won’t either.

And while we’re on this subject, let me conclude by paraphrasing the words of another writer to remind you of what I think our sport is really all about:

An archer wants to see how far away from the target he can get and still hit it. A bowhunter wants to see how close he can get to his target before he shoots.

Kinda’ changes the whole question of "how far" around a bit, doesn’t it? Good Hunting!!!