Backyard archery competitions with my brother were always intense. In the early 2000s, my brother, Josh, and I were sporting the latest Ben Pearson bows shooting circles around my dad’s Fred Bear compound that had a wooden riser. Our carbon arrows were the latest new fangled technology coupled with sleek vanes that made my dad’s Easton arrows look like fragile clanky tubes topped with frizzy feathers.
Our competitions got fierce, to the point we would put 2 liter coke bottles on end and see who could shoot through the opening first. Our Delta Mckenzie deer target was missing antlers, eyes, and had a tail riddled with holes because we thought we were trick shot artists.
One day I thought there was something wrong with me. I couldn’t float my pin on the target and I started to punch the trigger as soon as my pin was anywhere near where I wanted to shoot. My shot consistency started to get worse as my groups opened up.
I had been suffering with target panic for the first time in my life, and I didn’t even know it. I remembered having a similar issue a few years back when I was shooting a PSE Nova and the problem almost immediately went away when I upgraded to my Ben Pearson Diamondback. I brushed off those problems as being just the old bow technology not being up to par with what the latest equipment had to offer, but now I know it had to be something more.
Drive By Shooting
The more I shot, the worse my consistency got. Sure, I could still hit a pie plate and hold my own competitively, but I didn’t have the confidence I once had and this would continue to plague me for the next few years. I started college that year and the amount of time I would get to shoot started to decrease the next few years. Every time I would pick up my bow, I found I was still struggling with target panic. I got pretty good at remedying the situation by timing my release. I would bring my pin from the top down, and then sometimes from the bottom up, and touch off the release just as I entered the bullseye. I knew not to slap the release and to follow through, but I also knew something wasn’t right. As time went on, I began practicing less and less and started to develop a disinterest in archery shooting. I stopped competing with my brother as I couldn’t hold my own anymore, and let’s be honest, losing isn’t any fun.
In 2011 my brother Josh would go on to win a National Collegiate Archery Championship bringing light to Liberty University’s new archery program that he helped found in 2008.
This was the same year that I started Cervicide and while truly passionate about archery hunting, I lost a lot of interest in target shooting. After all it was the thrill of hunting that brought me into archery, not just shooting my bow.
One day I was doing some reading on google and found an article about shooting blind bail. The article went on to explain how target panic affects a lot of archers. I realized then that I wasn’t alone.
I immediately went down to the basement of my Iowa townhouse and started shooting arrows at my target. I setup the target just 10 feet in front of me and drew back my bow, and then closed my eyes. The first shot I flinched terribly, and it reminded me of how bad I was plagued with this problem.
After several shots I began to settle down and I could start to visualize through the shot. I did this several times a week and finally went outside to shoot at 20 yards.
When I drew back the first time, I brought the pin down over the bullseye and to my disbelief I was holding it there, without flinching!
The Target Panic Cure
Was I finally cured of my target panic? For the first time in years, I felt like I was in control of my bow, and shooting became fun. Within a few weeks I started getting back to my old habits. Going back into my basement and shooting blind bail would once again help with this but it wasn’t fully cured. I tried switching to a TRU Ball thumb release. This helped some, but I couldn’t get fully used to it, having shot a wrist style release my whole life. It temporarily made a difference, but once I got used to the new release it distracted my focus enough that I began doing ‘drive by’ shots not able to hold my pin over the target area.
Looking back, the next few years I would avoid 3D shoots and shooting with friends in general. I found my shooting would get even worse with the added pressure of other archers around me and this made me less confident. One year while on the 3D course at the PA Bowhunters Festival I began adjusting my sites on the trail, I was convinced that they had gotten bumped, as my accuracy was all over the place. In reality the site was fine, it was my lack of confidence that lead me to believe it was the bows fault.
My lack of practicing began to compound into bigger problems, leading into the 2018 archery season. I had been practicing so little the last 12 months that I hit an all time low. I wounded 2 big bucks that year which could have been eliminated with more practice. I later took my rifle up that season and sent three 7MM rounds downrange the day I finally tagged out in PA. The first round was lethal but I wanted to ensure not to wound a third buck.
Target panic is something that plagues a lot of archers, in my opinion there are a few ways to deal with it.
The first is to embrace it. Covering up the fact that you struggle with it does not make anything better, in my case it made things worse by masking it. Writing this article wasn’t easy, as I had to admit to my own shortcomings to do so. My intent is to help other archers identify that they are not alone, and not to let target panic manifest into a bigger problem.
The next step is to go through your gear, if you’re doubting your equipment then upgrade it. If you’re second guessing your setup then you’re already setting yourself up for failure. You can try different release aids, such as a back tension, but in my opinion blind bail shooting is the best fix. Keep in mind while on the 3D course a back tension release may make sense but it isn’t all too practical for hunting applications. Swapping out releases will also affect your anchor point and ultimately affect your shot placement.
Blind Bail for Target Panic
When you shoot blind bail you’re removing any visual stimulus from affecting the kinetic chain of the actual shot. Through repetition the shot becomes autonomous. Once you start shooting with your eyes open you are able to reset yourself from the poor habits associated with target panic and drive by shooting. You’ll know you have an extreme case of target panic if you are unable to do a 10 count holding your pin on the bullseye without punching the trigger.
The last step may be the most obvious, but that is practice. I’ve always liked the saying that practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect. You need to correct the underlying issues before repeatedly practicing, otherwise you’re more likely to magnify the problems. This is often how ‘drive by shooting’ habits happen which will leave you with typical pie plate accuracy at best.
Target Panic tips from my brother Josh McKinney include:
Start out with some blind shooting at close distances, imagining your target. Really helps at just feeling your bow. When you do this, let your finger sit on your trigger for some time before shooting. Even count to 10 before shooting.
Tips when starting to shoot with eyes open.
Step 1. With eyes open, draw the bow. Hold bow on target without shooting. Let down.
Step 2. Same as step 1 but put finger on trigger, hold for 10 seconds. Take finger off trigger. Let down (Do not shoot)
Get comfortable holding your bow, even with finger on trigger, without shooting. Plan not to shoot.
Also, make sure when you are target shooting that you are shooting the target you plan to shoot. So if there are 5 targets on a bag, pick one out, get to that one, and then shoot.
Last but not least. Practice. Just keep shooting. Consistency is key! You must be comfortable with your set up. If you don’t like something, change it. Most (not all) people that have this issue is due to lack of shooting. If you shoot a million times where it becomes second nature, you won’t be able to panic because you’ve done it too many times
Overcoming Target Panic
Aside from being a trick shot artist or competitively target shooting, as a hunter you have a moral obligation to make an ethical shot on an animal. If you’re plagued with target panic, follow the above tips to ensure you have the confidence and competence to make an ethical shot. Even if you do not have full blown target panic and you are taking drive by shots, I would suggest addressing it sooner than later. I personally have opted to use a crossbow for this 2019 season as all of the states I hunt in allow it and I have not put sufficient repetition in this summer with my Darton bow. Until I spend enough time practicing with my compound setup, I do not feel it is ethical for me to use other archery equipment. That being said the crossbow/compound bow debate can be left for a future article.