Bow Sight Buyer's Guide

Author: Frank Ross

Selecting a bow sight that you’re happy with, long after the hunt, begins by matching your personal preferences and the way you like to hunt with the right piece of gear.

The thing about innovation is that designs, which appear perfectly sensible to one, may seem totally harebrained to another. Many years ago, as a teenager, I began shooting a traditional longbow. When compound bows became popular, I made the transition with a bow that had a sight with four brass-pins. As age and failing eyes have crept up slowly, I’ve tried a number of other sights to overcome the difficulty of seeing those dull-colored pins at peak times when game activity is highest and light levels at their lowest. I’ve tried illuminated sights and several of the newer designs with brightly colored plastic pins, several versions with fiber optics and red dot sights as well. What I’ve found is that they all have strengths and weaknesses, and even though most have more good points than bad, being happy with a sight is more about deciding what works best for you and the way you like to hunt.

Today, the selection of sights available to bowhunters is quite diverse, reflecting the individual nature of the sport. Although all sights are designed with the same intent, to increase accuracy and ease of use even under low-light conditions, the one prerequisite that is sometimes overlooked is - where do you hunt?

As a general rule, shooters east of the Mississippi tend to have fewer pins due to denser forest and undergrowth that limit the amount of distance they can shoot, while western bowhunters have to deal with greater distances and much more open terrain, especially when hunting mule deer or antelope. If the longest shot you’ll be making is 30 yards, do you really need four pins?

Although most new designs have reduced fragile elements, you’re still dealing with fairly small points and thin material dictated by the need for pinpoint accuracy. If you tend to be rough on gear or hunt in heavy brush, consider the importance of durability and make sure you have replacement pins. In addition to pins and durability, you should also consider the important issues of low-light usability, and ease of set-up and use as well as simplicity of use under pressure.

Options for low light
The first innovation to hit the bow site market was basically a miniature flashlight, used to illuminate pins when light levels are low. While it is a simple, effective tool, these illuminators do require batteries and need to be turned on and off. Forgetting to turn them off is a common problem, resulting in dead batteries that are undetected until the need arises again. Fiber optics gather light and transmit it to the tip of the fiber, creating a bright point of light without batteries under marginal conditions and provide an even brighter illumination in full daylight. Another option to consider is Tritium; a radioactive element added to paint that gathers light in the same manner as the luminous dial of a watch. You can even opt for a combination of Tritium and fiber optics if you can’t decide which one you like best. The brightest fiber optic sights use long lengths of fiber wrapped around the sight numerous times, to increase their light gathering ability.

Ease of use
Having a sight that is easy to adjust is an important issue. Sights have to adjust vertically as well as horizontally, in addition to the individual pins that need to be adjusted. After adjustment, these moveable parts need to be retightened. Look for lock screws that are easy to access and large enough to stand up to the pressure necessary to stay tight under repeated vibration. Having a selection of properly sized wrenches to tighten all bolts and screws is a good idea. If a loose fastener is detected before it has moved there is no harm. Left un-tightened, it will only work loose eventually.

Another handy feature on many sights is the addition of a level to keep your bow aligned vertically. To me, this is an advantage to use during practice, but not many shooters will remember to look at a level when they’re lining up on a big buck. However, if you use it routinely during practice, you should develop the habit of shooting properly and by the time hunting season arrives you’ll be in the groove.

I don’t care how many hunts you’ve been on, when a big buck steps into view, your brain does some weird things. Adrenalin causes us to go into overdrive with the hands and underdrive with the brain and sometimes a bowhunter will forget which pin they have set for which yardage or simply release an arrow looking at the pin they use most when practicing. Single pin sights eliminate the possibility of confusion during the moment of truth, but there are a few caveats to evaluate.

Fast bows that shoot an arrow with a relatively flat trajectory can usually set up one pin that will work for distances from 10 to 30-35 yards, with only slight adjustments up or down for variances from the optimal setting. You’ll find single pins that are oriented from different positions of the sight frame, vertical inline and multiple pins that are spread vertically. If you don't have the luxury of shooting a fast bow, or need more options beyond 35 yards, you'll need either an adjustable site or more pins. Multiple pin sights are configured in one of several ways. Again, the decision on which way to go depends on what works best for you. Both are equally accurate, and the main difference is the sight pattern. With vertical inline pins you basically see a series of bright points, stacked on top of each other. The other option is a series of vertical pins on the side of the sight, staggered at various distances determined by your setup process. With either design, you still have to remember which pin you have set for which distance and use the proper one that corresponds to your yardage estimate.

Adjustable sights
Moveable sights have a lever that moves the sight pin up and down; to correspond with the exact estimated distance of your target. The virtues of adjustability eliminate the need for multiple pins. This sight is particularly useful for targeting game in between standard increments of 10, 20, 30 and 40 yards. Ease of adjustment is an advantage when an animal is moving toward or away from you at an angle. For example, you see a buck and quickly estimate his range at 33 yards, set your sight and get ready to draw. Just as you start to raise your bow the buck starts walking slowly out of your shooting lane and doesn’t reach another opening until he’s cleared a 10-yard stand of brush. Instead of having to hold high or in between pins, you can quickly slide to the exact distance of 23 yards, and hold dead on. Some sights even allow you to make the adjustment at full draw.

Pendulum sights are designed to automatically compensate for elevated angles from treestands. Bow sights with this mechanism swing to pre-calibrated adjustments that allow you to use a single pin and shoot without having to mentally correct for the degree of downward angle you are shooting.

Peep/no peep
A peep sight provides a small aperture on your bowstring to look through and align your sight pin(s) for the correct distance. Since this establishes your anchor point, it's an important part of your shooting package. Peeps come in various sizes and are sometimes aligned by a rubber cord attached to the bow frame.

Peep sights with small apertures are difficult to use during low light situations. You can improve a peep's usability by using a larger aperture, but that isn't a cure-all. Larger peeps increase the margin of error. A new concept is to use an even larger peep with a sight that has a circular frame and align the circle with the peep.

Eliminating the peep altogether might be a better concept for you, especially if you wear glasses. If peeps are a pain for you, another concept that’s worth considering is electronic enhancement or Hind Sight’s Extreme or CrossFire. Both Hind Sight models feature a rear-mounted sight and an adjustable front sight. You might also consider using a kisser button, which allows you to have a consistent anchor point without using a peep.

Laser, Holographic and Red Dot Sights
Before considering an electronic bow sight, check you local regulations. Some states restrict the use of electronic or laser bow sights.

Electronic sights that project a laser beam to the target are quite effective in low light situations, but during bright daylight and you could be hamstrung. This problem is also magnified as distance increases and the beam's brightness diminishes. A more practical approach is red dot sights that project the beam of light back toward the shooter. With the shielded sight lens, and variable intensities of the beam, red dots are far more versatile and effective.

Holographic sights are also immune to the difficulties of bright light. This new concept delivers remarkable and repeatable accuracy, instant alignment confirmation and superior low-light visibility - all in one sight. It's really an ingenious device that shows you when you're misaligned or peeking. A hologram of a reticle pattern is recorded on a heads-up display window and when the two rings are aligned you're ready to release.

Since electronic sights have no pins to bend or break off, are highly durable, eliminate peep problems and are extremely easy to use - they solve a lot of problems. When I consider the number of sights that have collected in my box of bow goodies, the cost is about the same, or even less.

Finding the perfect bow sight for the area you hunt and techniques you prefer may take some experimentation but that’s part of the fun of shooting a bow. It’s a primeval sport with high-tech doodads that are designed to improve your ability to perform in the field, and it’s always interesting to try new concepts while searching for archery’s Utopia. Just keep in mind that there is no substitute, either mechanical or electrical, for practice. This is especially important when you have a new sight. Practice is by far the best investment you can make toward attaining that trophy buck you seek.