Steep Shots Simplified

You don't need a rangefinder to make that steep-angle shot on your next buck.

WITH ALL THE chatter about "shot angle" and the problems with shooting arrows from high tree stands, you probably think one of two things: Either you need a fancier rangefinder, or you need to become much more familiar with the Pythagorean theorem.

Well, you don't need to do either. Some of the buzz is just marketing hype. But there are some legitimate issues:

The Problem Suppose after you've climbed 30 feet into a tree stand, a buck shows up, sidehilling a steep downhill slope. A standard-model rangefinder will tell you that the actual distance to the buck is 30 yards. But gravity only influences an arrow's trajectory over the horizontal distance, which is much shorter. If you hold dead on with your 30-yard pin, you'll miss high. But even if you know better, how are you going to figure out the horizontal distance from your stand?

The Solution Several rangefinders give you both the actual distance and the horizontal distance (see below). They take the guesswork out of the trickiest shots, and if you have a few hundred bucks just lying around, by all means get one. But if not, don't worry.

Why? Because there's a simple fact that gets lost in the marketing hype: While our example does present a problem, it's a fairly rare problem. In the vast majority of bowhunting situations, shot angle has little to no effect on accuracy.

First, today's superfast bows shoot flat to 20 or 25 yards. Within that distance, gravity does not have a significant impact on arrow trajectory--no matter what the shot angle. And the vast majority of bucks are taken within 25 yards. Even for Pope and Young bucks, the average is around 21 yards. So put the first pin on the vitals and shoot. (Note that you may have to hold a little low on extremely short-range shots, but that's an issue of basic trajectory and has nothing to do with shot angle; the same is true at ground level.)

Second, even beyond 20 or 25 yards, you run into trouble only at very steep angles. If you climb 30 feet in relatively flat terrain, for example, the difference between the actual distance and the horizontal distance when the latter is 30 yards is only 1.6 yards--not enough to prevent a killing shot. And very few hunters climb 30 feet. At 20 feet high, even going out to 40 yards, the discrepancy is about half a yard.

In short, shot angle becomes a real factor only along steep terrain breaks, when your target is beyond 25 yards. That's not a typical shot for most of us--but it's one that's easy to practice. Find a steep hill. Put your stand on top and your target below, and start shooting. You'll find you need to aim a little low to hit your mark. Practice until you learn exactly how low, from 25 yards to your maximum range. Now you're ready for anything.

THESE FOUR RANGEFINDERS TELL YOU BOTH ACTUAL AND HORIZONTAL DISTANCE WITH THE PRESS OF A BUTTON

Bushnell Yardage Pro Scout 1000 Laser Rangefinder with ARC (Angle Range Compensation). $300-$320; 800-423-3537; bushnell.com

Nikon Archer's Choice with Incline/Decline Mode. $250; 800-645-6689; nikonsportoptics.com

Leupold RX-II (a) and RX-IV (b) Rangefinders with True Ballistic Range. $300-$320 for RX-II; $480-$500 for RX-IV; 800-538-7653; leupold.com