How To Test Your Broadheads

DIY Bowhunting Ballsitics: by Kirk Deeter Selecting a bowhunting broadhead is a highly subjective matter. For example, you might prefer broadheads with a large cutting diameter for whitetails from a treestand, while I might lean toward a broadhead that packs more penetration punch for shooting elk on a flatter trajectory. Of course, factors like cost and durability also matter to most hunters. And that's all before we start considering biases toward fixed, versus mechanical, versus replaceable, versus three- or four-blade options... I recently completed an admittedly non-scientific broadhead ballistics test for Field & Stream's Bowhunting Handbook, focused on one category: replaceable four-blade broadheads. For kicks, I also shot some mechanical and fixed-blade heads to gain some comparative perspective. If you want to conduct your own field testing and draw your own conclusions, it's easy to do, and worth the effort as you fine tune your setup for the season ahead. Here's a behind-the-scenes look at how I did the test that dialed me in on what I'll be using this fall.Kirk Deeter
Truth be told, if you took most of the production broadheads on the market today and shot them with a fully-automated shooter into a target, the flight dynamics, in terms of accuracy, would be very similar. Still, for whatever reason, most archers develop a "feel" and comfort level with certain broadheads. The first step in your test is finding a broadhead that you shoot comfortably into a broadhead-specific foam target at a range of your choice, say 20 yards. Once you have a comfort level established, you can kick it up a notch by shooting through a thin layer of aluminum foil stretched over the target surface. This will give you a clear picture of not only the advertised cut diameters of your broadheads, but also the cut patterns they make as they penetrate the target.Kirk Deeter
You want your test to involve a number of consistent factors: Distance, arrow velocity, and the media through which you shoot should all be "standardized" as much as possible. Set up a shooting station where you'll make most of your shots, and try to conduct the tests within the same time frame, when factors like wind, heat and humidity are relatively constant.Kirk Deeter
A great test for measuring the penetrability of one broadhead versus another is to shoot them into a stack of meat trays - the kind your grocery uses to package hamburger or chicken. If you ask your grocery store, they'll likely give you a stack of 40 or so. The foam used in these meat trays isn't designed to pinch down and stop a broadhead, but nor will it "blow up" and shatter like Styrofoam. Use duct tape to pack a stack together, and set your target up at your 20-yard shooting distance with a foam broadhead target behind it as a safety stopper.Kirk Deeter
The meat tray test is a beautifully simplistic means for comparing the penetration punch of one broadhead versus another. Using the same bow, at the same distance, from the same position, with the same arrow shafts, you can tell the difference within a few shots: Broadhead A busts through 25 trays, while broadhead B punches through 21, and so forth. Take a few comparative shots to be fair, and figure a margin of error of a couple trays. Eventually, however, the cream will rise. In my test, I used a Cabela's Interceptor XP bow, with a 60-pound draw weight and 28-inch draw length, at 20 yards from a treestand (elevated) angle, using Carbon Express Maxima Hunter 350-grain shafts, and Beman 340-grain shafts.Kirk Deeter
The Watermelon Test: If you're interested in seeing the cut pattern a broadhead makes after it penetrates a semi-hard skin, then passes through a mostly liquid core (like game), shoot through a watermelon lengthwise, then split it open to see the graphic illustration of what that broadhead really does after impact.Kirk Deeter
Of course, on warm late-summer days, the watermelon test is also popular with your "lab assistant" when it's time to "take five."Kirk Deeter
Ballistics gel is what the FBI and other law enforcement agencies use to study the characteristics of bullets, rifles, and handguns. Granted, professional quality, lab-ready ballistics gel is expensive, but you can cook up your own at home in a few hours by following one of many recipes readily available on the Internet. The most important consideration is to use the same recipe for your broadhead tests, at the same temperature, and same basic consistency meant to simulate the body cavity of a deer, elk, or other game species. I cooked up my gel in the kitchen lab using only water and Knox gelatin (also from the grocery store). The wife wasn't thrilled about it, but there wasn't any smell, the mess was minimized, and it was actually easy to clean up...and apply to my testing targets.Kirk Deeter
After you've cooked up and cooled some ballistics gel, it's worth testing a small batch. I set up a target of gel in a plastic cup, and shot a BB gun into it, varying the pump pressure to ensure different levels of penetration. As advertised, the lightest shots penetrated less, and the stronger shots, penetrated more.Kirk Deeter
The "Game Can:" I tried to create ballistics gel-based targets that would also replicate some of the factors we hunters face when making a shot on wild game. So I took coffee cans, filled them with gel mix, and set them in the refrigerator overnight. To spice things up, I cut swatches of moistened elk hide (any old leather might do) and form-fit them over the openings of the cans, so that I'd have authentic skin/fur layers covering the gel at the point of broadhead impact. In doing so, I created targets that had three basic elements that would challenge the broadheads: A hide layer, a realistic ballistics gel interior, and the bottom shells of the metal cans, that might also replicate hard bone surfaces. Now, shooting into the center of the can from 20 yards is, in and of itself, an honest facsimile of shooting into the vitals of an animal from a treestand. And these targets also proved to be good differentiators in assessing the key aspects of the broadheads I tested: Cut patterns through skin, penetration through gel, and penetration through the hard exit surface.Kirk Deeter
On analysis (once I made a fair shot), I simply had to measure the total exit length of the arrow shafts, assess both the entry and exit "wound" patterns, and then gauge the condition of the broadhead after the shot (damaged, dull, bent, etc.) to get a pretty good idea of how each broadhead performed in terms of cut, penetration, and durability.Kirk Deeter
The last test I conjured up wasn't anything revolutionary: I simply wanted to see what the broadheads would do when I punched them through a consistent, hard surface. To do that, I shot them through 1/2-inch plywood at the same distance of 20 yards. I figured this would replicate a bone shot, and give me a good picture of what the broadheads did, both going in, and coming out. I measured entry and exit patterns, and assessed the conditions of the broadheads after I shot them.Kirk Deeter
A more realistic bone shot scenario involves an angle. So I set another plywood target at a notable angle from my shooting station, and plowed the broadheads through that. This was a real differentiator, as some heads managed to plug cleanly through the plywood, while others bent and sometimes even deflected as they passed through the target.Kirk Deeter
In the end, I had a good assessment of various broadhead options. I keyed in on the ones that I felt most comfortable shooting. Then I got a clear picture of the cut patterns they made as they entered my target. I had an honest comparison of which broadheads penetrated deepest in a consistent target medium. I played the "wildcard" and got a feel for accuracy, cut, penetration, and punch, by shooting through those "game cans." And then I declared a war of attrition to see which broadhead survived the plywood shots.Kirk Deeter
In doing so, I found my own personal favorite in terms of cut, penetration, durability (and price). I'll be the first to admit that my favorite might not be yours, for various reasons. And, sure, I killed a lot of expensive broadheads by putting them through the paces. Hopefully, my investment will steer you in the right direction, and you can check out the results in the September issue of Field & Stream. But you don't have to take my word for it. Some simple broadhead testing, that you can do yourself, will answer your own questions. It's worth taking the time to dabble with this. After all, you tune your bow. You hone your shooting. Why not have some fun, make your own test, and answer your own questions so you're confident you have the ideal broadhead on the end of your arrow when the season's in full swing?Kirk Deeter