Bowhunting Glossary: Terms and Definitions

If you're totally new to bowhunting and want to learn about the activity, the glossary below is a great place to start. By reading all the terms, you'll get a quick intro course to bowhunting, and learn about some of the tools, strategies, and philosophies involved. Bowhunting can be very overwhelming, but the terms and definitions below should help you piece things together.

Keep in mind, this isn't a glossary of archery terms—we've covered that elsewhere—this is just a glossary for bowhunting terms. There may be a few archery terms in here, but we only included archery terms that are related to bowhunting.

Finally, if you're new to the bowhunting community, welcome! Bowhunters are, for the most part, a cheerful and lively bunch, and we do our best to welcome new folks to the fold. If you're just learning the ropes, remember: nobody is a pro at first, and it takes time to learn—and to fully understand—the pastime. Be patient, keep learning, and enjoy the process!

3D Archery: A type of target practice where archers shoot at life-sized models of various game (like deer, hogs, or turkey). 3D archery is very popular with bowhunters, because it's great practice for the hunt. Unlike regular target archery, 3D targets are usually set up at unmarked distances, so that archers can practice estimating distances and aiming appropriately.

Ambush Hunting: There are many styles of hunting, and ambush hunting is one of them. It's usually a "sit-and-wait" strategy, wherein bowhunters conceal themselves, wait until game enters their view, and then shoot upon them. Ambush hunting is usually done from a tree stand (see definition below) or a ground blind (see definitely below), and it can take a little bit of patience. While it is common for hunters of all ages, it can be a great strategy for senior citizens or hunters with limited mobility.

Arrowhead: The sharp tip of an arrow. Bowhunters most often use an arrowhead called a broadhead (see definition below).

Axle-to-Axle Length: On a compound bow, the axle-to-axle length is the distance between a bow's cams (which are the circular or oval components at the end of the bow limbs, which allow it shoot arrows very fast). As a general rule of thumb, a compound bow with a shorter axle-to-axle length is good for hunting, whereas a bow with a longer axle-to-axle length is good for target shooting.

Baiting: A tactic to lure game to a specific location using food, decoys, or scents. In the hunting community, there is a lot of debate about whether baiting is ethical, and in some states the practice is not legal. 

Bed / Bedding Area: A location where deer rest. Deer usually choose bedding areas that are shrouded by thick woods and shrubs, that allow them the ability to see and/or smell predators and get away quickly. Bedding areas usually have a kidney bean shape, and they usually have dirt and grass and leaves that are compressed down into the ground.

Blind / Ground Blind: A tent-like structure that allows a hunter / bowhunter to sit and wait for game to wander by. Some ground blinds or portable and look a little bit like a pop-up tent; others are permanent and immovable. Most are decorated to blend into the environment, and they usually feature small windows or openings where the bowhunter can aim and shoot at game.

Blunt: An arrowhead that features a flat tip. Blunts are most commonly used for hunting small game or varmint, and deliver a great deal of impact, while doing little damage to the animal's flesh.

Bolt: The projectile used in a crossbow; also called a quarrel.

Bowyer: An Old English term for a man or woman who makes bows. Still used today.

Bracing: Stringing a bow.

Broadhead: An arrow tip that is very commonly used for bowhunting large game. Broadheads usually have three (but sometimes two and sometimes four) razor blades attached to the arrowhead, in order to make the arrow more lethal. Broadheads are designed to quickly and powerfully penetrate game, while also allowing the shot to leave a blood trail, so that hunters may then find the game that they've shot. Broadheads can get a little complicated, but there are two main types: mechanical broadheads, that have blades that extend when they hit game, and fixed-blade broadheads that are static, and do not move upon impact. We've written a series of posts about broadheads, that you can find here.

Broadside: Refers to when a deer is standing perpendicular to the bowhunter, so that the bowhunter can see the entire side of a deer's body. The benefit of a broadside shot is that you have a clear view of the deer's vital organs, and are more likely to make a quick, humane kill.

Buck: A male deer. Bucks have antlers at the tops of their heads, and then usually shed them after each mating season.

Bull: A male elk. Elk are somewhat similar to whitetail deer, but they're usually much bigger. A bull can also refer to a moose or a caribou.

Bump and Dump: A hunting strategy, wherein the hunter gets the buck out of his bedding area (ie, "bumps" him), sets up a tree stand above that bedding area, and then waits for the buck to come back.

Calling: Mimicking the noises that game make in order to attract them. There is an entire science to calling, and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of products that help hunters with their calling techniques.

Camouflage / Camo: You know what camo is. You might be surprised, though, at how much "art" goes into camo—one type of camo does not fit all, and you need to match your camo exactly to the environment you'll be in. Good camo imitates the colors in a given environment, but also incorporates the shapes of the nature in that environment, including the living and dead plants and trees the hunter will hope to blend in with.

Conservation: The practice of preserving wildlife and wildlife habitats. Hunters and bowhunters and fishermen contribute extensively to conservation efforts, and conservation is a very important aspect of hunter education (see definition of "Hunter Education" below).

Cover Scent: An odor used by hunters and bowhunters to mask the scents that we as humans have. Scent coverage is an important part of bowhunting, as game of all sizes have an ability to smell that far exceeds our own.

Cow: A female elk or moose or caribou.

Crossbow: Whereas most bows are shot vertically, a crossbow is mounted on a piece of equipment named a stock and shot horizontally. Crossbows are able to shoot at incredibly high draw weights, and instead of shooting arrows, they shoot bolts (sometimes referred to as quarrels). Each state has specific rules about crossbow use, including crossbow use in hunting.

Decoys: A clone or look-alike used to lure game (very often deer or turkey) into a bowhunter's shooting distance.

Doe: Doe, a deer, a female deer—although a doe can also refer to females of other species, like a rabbit or a kangaroo.

Doe Trail: A trail left by deer, usually most used by does and fawns (although bucks usually also use these trails during a rut), and usually with sparse vegetation.

Dominant Buck: Usually the biggest deer in the given territory, a dominant buck is the one who establishes for himself the right to breed with all the does in the area. He establishes that right by battling the other deer in the area.

Downwind / Upwind: Refers to the orientation of the wind, and where the wind is taking your scent. Because animals will smell you (and run) when they get a hint of your scent, you don't want the wind carrying your scent to the game you're hunting. When you are heading downwind, the wind is at your back and blowing your scent forward in front of you—and that's why you don't want to hunt downwind: the wind is delivering your scent to the animal, and the animal will flee. Instead, you want to head upwind, so that the wind is moving past you, and carrying your scent away from the game you're hunting.

Driving: A hunting strategy, wherein a hunter gets an animal or group of animals to travel towards another hunter, who's ready to shoot at the game being driven.

Estrus / Estrous / Oestrus: The period of time when a doe is ready to mate (ie, when a doe is in heat). The estrous period for a dough is usually two to three days, and does usually breed within a 24-hour period. The hunting season for deer is based around estrous.

Fair Chase: A tenet of ethical hunting. Fair chase begins at following state and federal rules regarding hunting, but includes foregoing activities where quarry does not have a "fighting chance" (such as "canned hunting"). While many principles of fair chase are agreed upon in the hunting community, some (like food plots and usage of drones) are debated.

Fawn: A baby deer, usually less than one year old.

Feet per Second (FPS): A measure of the velocity of an arrow. Bows that feature a higher FPS usually shoot arrows with a flatter trajectory, and with more kinetic energy, which means that the arrow is more likely to penetrate quickly and kill game humanely. In the last decade or so, bowhunters have come to view FPS as a very important aspect of a bowhunting bow.

Field Dressing: A procedure wherein a bowhunter or hunter removes all the internal organs of a downed game. Field dressing an animal is incredibly important and must be completed immediately after a kill, in order to keep bacteria from growing on the animal and preserve the integrity of the meat. It also makes the animal easier to carry back to camp.

Fletching: The vanes or fins on the back of an arrow. In yesteryear, fletchings where made from animal feathers; bowhunters now typically use plastic vanes, which perform better under adverse weather conditions, and are a lot more durable.

Flu-Flu Arrow: An arrow created for short-distance shooting. The fletchings on a flu-flu arrow are typically made from long feathers which create drag and keep the arrow from travelling too far (and arrows that don't travel too far are easy to find). Flu-flu arrows are typically used for smaller game, and feature a blunt arrowhead, so as not to destroy the game it hits. Good for shooting birds.

Flushing: The art of getting animals out of concealed or obscured areas, usually by frightening or scaring them.

Food Plots: Areas of land that feature oats, clover, soybean, or other plants that game like to eat. The purpose of a food plot is to lure game into shooting distance. Food plots are not legal in every state (or there are very specific rules on what is—and what is not—a food plot), and many bowhunters/hunters consider food plots to be unethical.

Funnel (sometimes called a "Pinch Point"): An open area of woods that narrows into a small area of woods, that causes deer to channel into a single line. A funnel can create a great shooting opportunity.

Game (also called "Quarry"): Any animal hunted for sport or food.

Glassing: Glassing is scanning terrain or a swath of land for game, using spotting scopes or binoculars. Used in a sentence: "These woods are too thick to glass any game," or "Glassing game is hard in woods that are so thick." Glassing is an important part of spot-and-stalk strategy of hunting (which we'll define below).

Grain: A unit of weight used for arrows and the parts of an arrow, like arrowheads, inserts, and nocks. One ounce = 480 grains. People get very confused by grains, and a full exploration of the topic is beyond this glossary, so we've written a long post about grains, that you can find here.

Ghillie Suit: An ornate camouflage suit a hunter / bowhunter uses to mimic his/her environment. A good ghillie suit can be very intricate, and can provide incredible blending-in capabilities.

Harvest: The act of killing (aka taking) an animal. Use of the term "harvesting" is a little scatter-shot, and not all hunters use it, as "harvesting" is technically a term used for crops.

Home Range: The area of land on which a deer lives most of its life. If food and water and bedding areas are plentiful, home ranges tend to be very small—usually only a few square miles.

Hunting Education: In order to attain a hunting license, each state requires hunters / bowhunters to complete a mandatory hunting education course. The topics of the course usually include safety fundamentals, hunting ethics, principles of conservation and wildlife management, and a discussion of the state's statutes and regulations regarding hunting.

Hunting License: A document / paper / electronic document that allows a hunter / bowhunter to hunt a specific animal during a specific time period in a specific state using a specific method. Hunting licenses are usually issued by state governments, and state governments usually have a specific department or agency that issues hunting licenses (for example, in Montana, an agency titled Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks handles hunting licenses).

Hunting Outfitter: A person or company who gets paid to provide hunters and bowhunters with hunting trips. Hunting outfitters may also provide hunting guides who help track and find game, hunting equipment, and transportation to and from hunting locations. "Hunting Outfitter" is not to be confused with regular "Outfitter," which is a company that sells a wide range of gear for outdoor activities, including hunting, camping, hiking, etc.

Instinctive Shooting (see "Traditional Archery" below): A method of aiming an arrow at game that utilizes hand-eye coordination instead of using a bow sight. Instinctive shooting is popular with traditional bowhunters, who learn to shoot and hit quarry based solely on their aiming skills. Because instinctive shooting is a learned skill—and very difficult if you're accustomed to using bow sights—you should only use instinctive shooting when hunting after you've gotten really, really good at it, because an unskilled instinctive shooter may wound an animal, instead of killing it.

Let-Off: On a compound bow, "let-off" is the reduction of draw weight when you're at full draw. Let-off is usually measured as a percent, so a bow with a draw weight of 100 pounds with an 80% let-off while have a draw weight of 20 pounds at full draw. Let-off is important to hunters, who may draw on an animal, and then need to hold the draw for a long time, in order to wait for the animal to expose its vital organs.

If that doesn't make sense to you, here's the longer explanation: When you pull on a compound bow, the bow's draw weight determines how difficult it is to draw the bow string back. A bow with a high draw weight will be difficult to pull back, and a bow with a lot draw weight will be easier to draw back. Most states require hunters to hunt with bows that have a specific draw weight (usually 40 pounds or more, although that varies from state-to-state), in order to ensure that arrows will fly fast enough to ensure a quick and ethical kill, instead of simply wounding the animal. When you pull a compound bow string back to full draw, you'll notice that it's much easier to hold the bow string back, and that's because of the let-off. Let-off is an important feature of bows, and it's something that bowhunters keep in mind when selecting a bow.

Overbowed: An archer who is using a bow that is too strong for him or her—that is, a bow with a draw weight that is too high—is overbowed. Being overbowed is a bad thing, and can result in missed shots, bad form, and even injury, as an archer can experience muscle tears when shooting a bow that's too heavy.

Pre-Rut: The first phase of the rut (and we'll define "rut" below, but very quickly, the "rut" is when bucks and does do most of their mating). Pre-rut is the period where deer are seeking a mate, and it's a great time to go hunting, because there's a lot of activity and movement from deer.

Processing: The A-to-Z process of skinning game, quartering it, and then removing all the meat from an animal. Many hunters / bowhunters bring their quarry to butchers for processing, but many learn to do it themselves.

Quarrel: The projectile used in a crossbow.

Quarry (also referred to as "Game"): Any animal hunted for sport or food. Used in a sentence: "Once you spot your quarry, you can begin to stalk it."

Quiver: A container that holds arrows. Quivers come in a range of shapes, from tubes to long pouches to open cannisters, and are held in different areas: quivers can be held at the hip or on the back, or even attached to the bow itself. As a general rule, target archers tend to use quivers that attach to their belts, whereas bowhunters tend to use quiver that attach to the bow itself, because they want to be able to grasp an arrow with as little movement as possible, so as not to spook their quarry.

Range Finder: A mechanical device, usually small and hand-held, that provides archers and bowhunters (and hunters of all stripes) with an accurate reading of how far away a target lies. Figuring out how far away your quarry stands is incredibly important, as distance is an important determinant when aiming. Figuring out how far away a target lies is referred to as "ranging."

Release / Release Aid: On compound bows, most archers don't use their fingers to draw the bow, and instead use a tool called a release aid that is held in the hand or wrapped around the wrist, and attaches to the bow string. The archer / bowhunter then uses the release aid to draw the bow string, instead of his or her fingers. Release aids can be powerful tools, and can provide a cleaner, more accurate shot, and there are multiple types of release aids available, but the most common are index finger release aids (where you use your index finger to pull a trigger and release an arrow), and thumb release aids (where you use your thumb to pull back on the trigger and release an arrow).

Rest (aka, an "Arrow Rest"): An instrument that is either part of the bow's riser or a separate piece attached to the bow's riser, that holds arrow and stabilizes it for a shot. There are different types of arrow rests available, but most bowhunters tend to use a whisker biscuit (an arrow rest that is circular in shape with synthetic strands or whiskers pointing to the middle of the rest, that encapsulate the arrow and hold it in place), or a drop-away arrow rest, which is in the shape of a "V" and holds the arrow in place. Both are good options for hunters, who tend to let off arrows at odd angles, and need an arrow rest that holds the arrow securely, without the arrow falling out of the rest. We've written a number of posts about arrow rests, so check them out if you'd like to learn more.

Rub: A tree or branch that's had its bark rubbed off by a buck. A buck will scrape its antlers against a tree or branch to leave its scent on the tree and to mark its territory, but also to strengthen its neck and remove its velvet (see "Velvet," below). Hunters use rubs to find good spots for harvesting deer.

Rut: The period when does enter their estrous cycle and bucks try to find them and mate with them. It's an especially active time for deer, and because of the increased activity, it's when hunters have their best shot at harvesting quarry—bucks are so busy running around trying to find a mate, they're a lot less cautious than usual, and that makes them easier to hunt. As a general rule of thumb, and depending on region, the rut begins around the end of September and can continue on through the months of winter. The period during which deer are most active is the peak of the rut—usually right in the middle of the rut—and in the United States, the average peak day usually falls on or around November 13. The rut cycle is split into phases, but the phases are a hefty topic beyond the scope of this definition. We've written plenty of posts about it if you're interested.

Sanctuary: "Home base" for deer. The sanctuary is an area where deer feel comfortable and safe, and it's usually where they make their bedding area. Hunters usually try to steer clear of a sanctuary—they want deer to feel relaxed and carefree there—but will map it and make note of it, as deer usually "commute" between a sanctuary and areas where they eat. Knowledge of a deer's path between a sanctuary and a food source can provide excellent hunting opportunity.

Scent Control: The practice of altering or eliminating your scent to mask yourself from game. Animals have an incredible sense of smell, and very often, they can smell a bowhunter coming from miles away. Scent control is a fundamentally important aspect of bowhunting, and there are plenty of scent control options that can cover or reduce your scent.

Scouting: Researching a hunting environment for signs of game life, such as tracks, trails, scat, markings, and so on. Scouting is usually done before a hunt, but sometimes "on the fly." There are plenty of tools that help bowhunters scout, including trail cameras, that record hours upon hours of activity in a certain area of land, and transmit that video via the web back to your laptop / smart phone / etc etc.

Season: A period of time wherein hunters are allowed to hunt specific species of animals.

Sight (also called a "Bow Sight"): An aiming tool used by archers and bowhunters to increase accuracy and effectiveness; similar to a scope on a rifle. Bow sights are usually installed onto a bow at the riser, right above the arrow rest. There are two main types of bow sights: fixed pin bow sights, which have multiple pins that a bowhunter will set for specific distances, and single pin bow sights, that a single pin which can be adjusted at any time to shoot at varying distances.

Sign: Clues that an animal has been to a location. Sign can include rubs, scrapes, beds, trails, tracks, scat, and so on. Learning to read signs makes hunting a lot easier, and a lot more interesting and enjoyable.

Silencer (also referred to as a "String Silencer"): You might imagine that a bow is pretty quiet—especially compared to a rifle—but that's not the case, and some can be downright loud, and scare away any game in your area. String silencers are tools that you attach to your bow string (or sometimes to the bow itself) to reduce vibration from the bow string and the bow. There are multiple variations, and they have great names: a cat whiskers silencer has many strands of plaster or rubber that gobble up some of that vibration; beaver balls are small like round things that look like cat toys and reduce some of the sound on a string.

Spot and Stalk Hunting: A hunting strategy wherein you spot an animal at near distance or far, and then stalk it. Sounds easy; is actually pretty challenging! Most often, hunters will get to high ground over a broad landscape to see large game and then stalk it, but practicing spot and stalk on smaller game in a smaller area can be a fantastic way to build your skill set.

Stabilizer: A long rod or tube attached to the riser of a bow, used to eat up some of the vibration from a bow, and make it easier to hold and shoot accurately. Stabilizers for target bows tend to be very long, but stabilizers for hunting bows tend to be shorter, as a long stabilizer would be very difficult to drag through the woods.

Stalking: The slow, methodical, and hopefully silent, pursuit of game. The goal of stalking is to get you close enough to your quarry so that you can hit it squarely and provide a humane kill. Stalking usually involves moving towards an animal in a diagonal line, instead of stalking in a straight line towards it—stalking in a straight line towards an animal is pretty aggressive, and increases that chances that animal will bound off. Good stalking can involve more standing still that moving.

Still Hunting: The slow and steady movement through hunting terrain to locate game. Take a few quiet steps, stop and look around, listen for movement or vocalizations, repeat, repeat, repeat. The idea is to spot game before it spots you, and that can be very difficult. There's a lot of (albeit slow) movement in still hunting, but it gets its name from the hunter’s periods of motionless standing, sitting, or squatting. The elements—sunlight, weather, movement of wind—are all very important when still hunting, and what may seem like a very simply form of hunting can be very challenging.

Tags (sometimes called a "Field Tag"): Tags are usually issued with a hunting license, and they're basically a permission slip to hunt a type of animal. They're very common for animals of the "big game" variety (like elk, moose, and deer), and they serve as proof that you hunted the animal legally.

Taxidermy: The practice of preserving and mounting part or all of an animal. A fella or lady who performs taxidermy services is called a taxidermist.

Tracking: Using signs to follow and find animals.

Traditional Bowhunting (see "Instinctive Shooting," above): Many—and we'll venture to say most—bowhunters use a lot of high-tech tools to hunt game, including bow sights, bow releases, stabilizers, and so on. Traditional bowhunters forego all that equipment, and use recurve bows, unadorned with any of those high-tech gadgets. Traditional bowhunters are fiercely dedicated to the pastime and they maintain tried-and-true bowhunting traditions. Traditional archery and bowhunter is sometimes referred to as "trad."

Tree Stand: Platforms that hunters / bowhunters set up in trees in order to shoot at game from an elevated standpoint. Tree stands provide the bowhunter with an increased view of a hunting area, allow for near motionless observance, and can create a clearer, more open shot for the bowhunter. It can be difficult to shoot a bow from a tree stand, so set up is important, as is safety—falling from a tree stand can result in injury, or even death. There are a couple different varieties of tree stands, and they can be open-open or enclosed.

Trophy Hunting: The practice of hunting wild game, usually big game and exotic animals, for pleasure. Trophy has very vocal opponents and proponents, and even opponents and proponents within the hunting community.

Upwind: See "Downwind," above; we define "Upwind" there.

Venison: Meat from a deer.

Vitals: The chest cavity of game, that includes the heart and lungs. When bowhunters discuss an "ethical shot," they're usually referring to one that hits the vitals of an animal, so as to ensure a quick kill, rather than one that drags out, in which the animal experiences pain.

Whitetails: A reddish, sometimes grey-ish, North American deer that has white on its tail and stomach. Whitetail are commonly hunted because they frequently have very high populations, are often considered a pest (and hunting them culls their numbers to safe levels, especially in areas where many humans reside), and they have a great deal of meat that can be utilized after a kill.

...and that about does it for our glossary! Hopefully it helps, and hopefully it provides a "beginner guide" if you're new to bowhunting. If there are any terms you'd like us to add, hop on over to our "Contact" page and drop us a line, and happy hunting!