Elk NetworkAre modern bow sights worth it?

Gear 101 | August 23, 2017

With today’s bowsights costing north of two Benjamins, are they worth it? 

Modern bow-aiming systems are sturdy and seemingly simple, yet very high-tech. Archers have never had it so good. Not many years ago, a top-notch bowsight consisted of one or two rows of brass or stainless-steel aiming pins that were crudely adjusted by loosening one or two nuts. Pins were often vulnerable to damage because there was no protective guard around them. The good news was that such sights seldom retailed for more than $30. The bad news was, they did not yield the best results.

Most modern, multi-pin bowsights offer four important design improvements. You will pay for these, with a majority of retail prices ranging between $100 and $300. But the investment is worth it, because your accuracy on targets and elk will dramatically improve.

The Round Design

First, the design standard today is a perfectly round synthetic or metal guard that protects internal sight pins from impact in all directions. You can drag such sights through the brush or bang them against rocks and trees without fear of bending or breaking the aiming reticules.

In addition to durability, a round pin guard has another practical application when used with a bowstring peep. Older bowsight designs required an archer to drop or “slip” the anchor to his face as he aimed with increasingly lower (longer-distance) sight pins. This allowed him to center the chosen aiming pin in the peep on the bowstring. Anchor-slipping was a difficult and inexact procedure.

By comparison, modern archers visually center the entire round bowsight guard in the round string peep hole. No matter what the shooting distance, this ensures a consistent and more accurate anchor to your face with the bowstring hand. Target groups tend to be tighter, and shots at elk are more precise.

Fiber Optic Pins

A second sight advantage today is the fiber-optic bowsight pin. Plastic aiming beads are available in red, orange, yellow, green and other brilliant colors. These are attached to elongated, light-gathering strands that naturally concentrate existing light in the bead. Low-light aiming is easy and completely passive, without the use of electronics. Pins literally glow near dawn and dusk.

The most common diameter of modern bowsight beads is .019” (19 thousandths of an inch). This is a perfect size for precise aiming at targets and big game at moderate distance. For archers endowed with excellent eyesight, some manufacturers offer .010” aiming pins. For those with less-than-perfect vision, .029” pins are also sold. A few high-tech bowsights combine two or three pin diameters for ideal aiming at shorter or longer range. For example, one popular 6-pin sight has .029” pins for 20 and 30 yards, .019” pins for 40 and 50 yards, and .010” pins for 60 and 70 yards. The farther away and the smaller your target appears, the smaller the aiming bead to match.

Leveling Bubble

A third modern improvement also typical of high-quality bowsights is a leveling bubble, usually attached in the bottom of the round pin guard. This ensures that the bow and bowsight array are perfectly vertical (plumb) at the instant you release the arrow.

Those who don’t understand archery might think it’s easy to hold a bow perfectly upright as you shoot. But ups, downs and sidehills typical of elk habitat can throw a shooter’s sense of vertical completely out of whack. For example, it is a natural tendency to cant your upper bow limb away from a sidehill slope. This optical illusion moves your bowsight pins away from the slope and directs your arrow closer to the slope. The farther the shooting distance, the more your arrow will impact to left or right of where you aim. At 40 or 50 yards, you might miss an elk’s 15-inch vital chest zone entirely. A bowsight leveling bubble prevents this distressing occurrence.

Windage and Elevation Adjustment

Finally, most well-designed modern bowsights feature precise, micro-adjustment of pins for elevation and windage. You turn a knurled knob or slide a beveled bar along a calibrated scale. Sighting in your bow is fast and easy compared to the “bad old days.”

Technology Advancements

A few multi-pin bowsights take high-tech to an even higher level. For example, the IQ Sight has a patented Retina Lock dot that ensures consistent aiming and bow positioning from shot to shot. If you anchor too high or too low along your face, or twist (torque) the handle of your bow as you aim, the dot will wander away from dead-center. This is a great teaching tool to improve your bow-shooting form, and a quick check when you actually aim at an elk. A tiny anchoring or torquing mistake can throw off your shot up to 12 inches at 40 yards—enough to miss or cripple an elk.

One manufacturer combines a digital, electronic laser rangefinder with a multiple-pin bowsight. Both bolt to the bow in one compact unit. Like many modern laser rangefinders, this one corrects aiming distance for upward or downward shooting angles. However, bow-mounted electronics are not legal in many states, and record clubs like the Pope and Young do not regard the use of bow-attached laser rangefinders as fair chase hunting. To reduce bow bulk and conform with state and record-book rules, I prefer a separate, belt-carried rangefinder.

Single Pin Sliders

Multi-pin bowsights are most popular with elk archers, but single-pin models also have their fans. Such sights include the HHA Ultra, Trophy Ridge Drive Slider, and TruGlo Range Rover. One hybrid version is the G5 Optix XR, which features three fixed pins plus one floating, adjustable pin for ranges beyond 40 yards.

Bowsights with a moveable pin have one main advantage. They provide exact, dead-on aiming once you determine the distance and move the reticule to match. Single-pin sights prevent confusion about which pin to use in the heat of the action. You simply adjust the sight up or down with the press of a lever or the spin of a dial. A distance scale at the rear of the sight lets you adjust in an instant.

The down sides of single-pin adjustment are two-fold. First, adjusting a sight takes extra seconds you might not always have in fast-moving elk situations. Second, you might not be able to re-adjust as you aim if an elk suddenly moves closer or farther away.

By comparison, a bowsight with fixed multiple pins is always sighted-in for every distance. No muss, no fuss.

Most bowhunters sight-in their pins for even distances like 20, 30 and 40 yards. The majority of modern models are sold with four or five sight pins, but some have up to seven. Extra pins are available if you wish to install more.

Once you become accustomed to aiming high or low at odd ranges like 23, 36 or 42 yards, you can become deadly with a fixed, multi-pin sight. But if an array of pins is confusing to your eye, by all means try a single-pin sight. Both work well in practiced hands.

Pendulum Sights

One other type of bowsight deserves mention here. A pendulum sight has one aiming pin that swings up or down for different shooting angles. When properly adjusted, such a sight can be deadly from zero to 30 or 35 yards without the need for multiple pins, single-pin adjustment or even a laser rangefinder. The bowsight does it all as you aim dead-on at various shooting angles.

Two things are key to using a pendulum bowsight. First, you must hunt from a tree stand at a consistent height like 20 or 25 feet. Second, you must sit over level ground. The pendulum principle breaks down unless you adjust your sight for a fixed tree stand height, and it also fails miserably above sloping or humpy terrain. For watching waterholes, elk wallows or feeding fields above flat valleys or plateaus, a pendulum sight can be deadly. But uses are limited or impossible in many types of elk terrain.

Modern bow-aiming systems allow an elk hunter to shoot more accurately than ever at longer sure-kill range. But bowhunting is still a difficult sport. Only consistent shooting practice will let you take full advantage of fiber-optic sight pins, round pin guards, leveling bubbles, Retina-Lock technology and other nifty aiming aids.