Judging a Target’s Distance

Arrows in flight don’t have flat trajectories, so accuracy requires knowing the distance to your target. Laser rangefinders make it easy to judge distances precisely, but it’s still important to accurately estimate distances without a rangefinder.

Bowhunting, for instance,takes place in dynamic settings. Some situations don’t allow enough time to use rangefinders. If you can quickly judge the actual distance to animals, you can capitalize on more shooting opportunities. It’s also a handy skill if you’re interested in 3D archery competitions because most divisions don’t allow laser rangefinders.

Let’s discuss some techniques for judging distance.

Recall Judging

Practice on targets that will closely replicate what you normally hunt in the woods. Photo Credit: Outdoor Life

“Recall judging” is looking at a target or animal and using your depth perception to judge the distance. It sounds simple, but it takes lots of practice. The target’s size also plays a role while practicing because you learn what specific targets look like at various distances. For example, large animals tend to look closer, and smaller animals tend to look farther.

If you’re preparing to bowhunt, it helps to have a 3D target similar in size to the animals you hunt. If you’re preparing for a 3D tournament, practice on different size 3D targets, such as elk, deer and turkey. Attending 3D tournaments or practicing on 3D courses quickly hones your recall-judging skills.

Ground Judging

Another distance-judging method uses the ground between you and the animal to gauge the yardage. This process depends on the individual and situation. You’ll develop your own process through experience.

To start, find the distance you’re most confident in judging. For most people it’s 20 yards. Once you find your 20-yard point, you can judge the distance from there to the target, or work in 20-yard increments until reaching the target.

To practice ground judging, place cones or arrows at set increments – such as every 10 yards – between you and the target to help visualize distances on the ground. You’ll notice that 10 yards at close range look different than 10 yards at a distance. Burn that image into your mind, and you’ll master ground judging over time.

Half Distance

Use a rangefinder to help your judgement. Photo Credit: ATA

Another distance-judging technique involves finding the halfway point, judging the distance to it, and doubling your estimate. This method also requires practice, and trial and error. A rangefinder is useful for checking your guesses and calibrating your mind. Take your rangefinder with you everywhere, especially on hikes. Judge the distances to trees, rocks or logs, and then verify the yardage with your rangefinder to see how close you were.

Pin Gapping

If you don’t have a rangefinder, your sight pins work just as well. Photo Credit: ATA

Your bow’s sight pins can be used as a makeshift rangefinder. The basic idea is to bracket an animal with the gaps between your pins to determine the distance. It takes a little experimentation to find the distances that equate to your pin gaps. If you place your 30-yard pin on a deer’s back, for example, and the 40-yard pin at its belly line, you know it’s 50 yards away. Pin gapping is illegal in most competitions, but works great for bowhunting.

Your rangefinder will cover most bowhunting situations, but judging distances accurately provides an important backup system. Practice these skills regularly. One of the best and most fun ways to practice is through 3D archery shoots. It lets you also practice your shooting and shot placement while getting some exercise. Contact your local archery shop to find a nearby 3D tournament.


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