Weapon choice: Deciding what weapon to use on your next hunt

Weighing out muzzleloader powder

Weighing out muzzleloader powder charges. Photo credits unless otherwise stated: Brady Miller

It’s that time of year where everyone’s choosing what over-the-counter (OTC) hunts they might add to their fall calendar or maybe even researching for hunts for future years. With this comes a ton of other choices: Which unit? Which animal? Which weapon? Luckily, there are several states that offer up those choices to the hunter when it comes to over the counter tags.

While all of those questions are necessary considerations, which weapon you choose may be one of the most important. There are many factors to consider when choosing which weapon to use. If you are new to hunting or have been hunting for 50 years, it’s never too early or too late to try something new and accept a new challenge with a different weapon. Also, picking up a primitive weapon is not only fun, but it could increase the opportunity to hunt more as primitive weapon tags are normally easier to draw than rifle tags.

A few words of wisdom

Before we get into the specific weapon choices, here are a few words of wisdom to consider:

Stack the deck

If you're new to hunting, stack the deck in your favor as much as possible. What I mean is put in for hunts that offer you a good combination of having a good chance of being drawn plus a good chance of finding your prey while using a weapon that gives you the best opportunity for a kill. An example of this would be putting in for a cow elk hunt in a decent unit and using a muzzleloader or rifle in order to extend your effective range. If you live in a state with over-the-counter options, this can help make your decision a little easier even though OTC hunts can offer their own set of challenges.

Look for a challenge

If you've been hunting for a long time and have enjoyed repeated success, consider choosing a different weapon for the sake of a new challenge in order to keep things fresh and challenging. If you have grown accustomed to hunting with a rifle, try using a muzzleloader or a bow. One of the things that makes hunting so enjoyable is the fact that it is a challenge. Increase the challenge if you are up for it.

Never be embarrassed about your weapon choice

Do not feel embarrassed about using one weapon compared to another. There is absolutely zero shame in hunting with a rifle compared to a bow. Use a weapon that you can use both comfortably and confidently.

Practice, practice, practice

Importance of archery practice all year

Importance of archery practice all year. Photo credit: Chris Neville

No matter what weapon you use, you must practice. If you don't practice, you will likely end up wounding an animal and causing unnecessary suffering (or missing altogether). Become proficient with your weapon to the point that loading and firing is second nature. Practice to the point that the process of becoming ready and firing happen without thinking about it. The reality is that when you are aiming at an animal, thinking about every single thing is the last thing you want; you need to be able to focus on delivering a perfect shot, not on all of the steps of getting there. Practice so that you can devote your attention to making the shot in the heat of the moment.

Stop trying to be a "purist"

There is no such thing as a purist when it comes to hunting. A bowhunter who claims to be a purist and looks down on others for using firearms all the while using a modern compound bow and modern carbon arrows is a hypocrite, not a purist. Instead of using your specific weapon choice as a means of being arrogant, use it as a way of connecting with and encouraging others, even those who choose differently than you.


Target practice with Browning Hells Canyon Pro rifle

Range time with a Browning X-Bolt Pro in 6.5 Creedmoor. Photo credit: Brady Miller

Why hunt with a rifle?

A rifle will increase your effective range (at least out to whatever range you practice). Also, modern hunting bullets offer great penetration and lead to large exit wounds, which increases your chances of finding your animal in the event you have to track a blood trail.


A rifle can cost anywhere from $300 to over $1,000 and ammunition will run $20 to $60 for 20 rounds. Additionally, you have to consider a rifle scope if your rifle did not come with one. All in all, a rifle can easily cost over $1,000.


A rifle might extend your range, but you have to be able to manage recoil and practice proper trigger mechanics. The slightest mistake in form can mean missing by 3’ at 200 yards. Also, rifle seasons often take place later in the year when animals are harder to find and the weather is more uncomfortable.

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Compound bow

Archery range practice with Mathews Vertix bow

Why hunt with a compound bow?

A compound bow is an acceptable weapon for every archery season in America. If you want to hunt during some of the best times of the year (i.e., the rut), you will likely have to hunt with a bow. A compound bow gives you the added challenge of using a bow while offering the best combination of speed and ease of shooting.


A ready-to-shoot setup (bow, sights, rest) can run anywhere from $400 to $1,200 depending on your budget. Arrows will run another $50 to $100 for six. The good thing with arrows is that you don't have to buy new ones every time you go shooting (like bullets). However, when you do have to replace them, they can be expensive.


A bow will obviously reduce your effective range to anywhere from 20 to 60 yards; however, for many, this is a worthwhile trade-off since it allows them to hunt in the prime window of the entire year during the ruts of their respective prey.

Traditional bow

Getting into traditional archery

Photo credit: Stefan Wilson

Why hunt with a traditional bow?

If you like the idea of hunting the way your ancestors did, then this might be for you. Or, perhaps, you have enjoyed regular success with a modern compound and want the added challenge of less speed, increased holding weight, and no sights. Or, maybe, you cannot afford a modern compound but still want to bowhunt because of the great seasons it offers. Whatever your reason, there are good reasons to hunt with a traditional bow. You can check out a two part series on how to get into traditional archery here: Part One and Part Two.


Good traditional bows range from $200 to $500 and arrows will cost about $50. With few accessories to worry about, this is by far the most affordable option.


A traditional bow is much slower than a compound so speed and effective range are going to be diminished. Also, you hold every pound of the draw weight while at full draw, which can be tricky when your quarry is in sight.


Loading muzzleloader bullet

Why hunt with a muzzleloader?

Muzzleloader hunts come before rifle hunts in most states, which means that you have a couple of weeks to hunt before the woods get flooded with hunters. Another reason many like using a muzzleloader is the added challenge of having only one shot (unless you get lucky and the elk or deer hang around long enough for you to reload).


Modern inline muzzleloaders can be purchased for $250 to $900. Also, muzzleloader scopes are generally low priced. A decent muzzleloader setup costs about $500 to $600.


One shot means everything has to be perfect; the opportunities to get a second shot with a muzzleloader are few and far between. Another drawback is the fact that you have to purchase your powder, sabots, and primers separately and it can get pricey if you shoot a lot.

If you want help to set up a muzzleloader for restrictive muzzleloader law states, check out these articles: Extending the range on your open sight muzzleloader and Increased accuracy from an open sight muzzleloader. For more information on muzzleloader laws in each state, check out this article here.


Why hunt with a crossbow?

If you have a physical impairment that prevents you from being able to draw a vertical bow, a crossbow gives you the opportunity to archery hunt again. Many states allow the use of a crossbow for any archery hunt with a signed form from a doctor declaring your impairment. Other states have begun to pass legislation to allow anyone to use crossbows, which allows hunters to take advantage of the increased speed and modern optics. Either way, it is a great time to start hunting with a crossbow.


The sky's the limit for a crossbow setup. You can get a ready to shoot setup for as little as $300.


There is limited use in seasons if not mobility impaired. Also, crossbows are heavy and awkward to carry and the cocking process can be cumbersome. It takes time to reload for a second shot.

Which weapons are acceptable for which seasons?

You will want to check your specific state regulations to ensure that you are using the correct legal sporting arm for your respective season. These regulations can differ from state to state (for example, the use of crossbows is prohibited in some states, allowed for all seasons in some states, and reserved for mobility impaired hunters in others). It’s always a good idea to double-check your state regulations to make sure you are doing things the legal, ethical way.

In conclusion

There are quite a few options for various seasons and hunts. Check with your state's game and fish department to see which weapons you can use with what hunts. No matter which one you choose, make sure that you enjoy it as well as learn from it. Changing up the weapon you use can make you a much better hunter if you will use it as a learning opportunity. Embrace the challenge and try something new this coming year if possible.

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