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Broadhead Science: Steel Drum Testing

Sponsored by: Whitetail University, Bear Archery, Dries Visser Safaris, ATSKO, Swhacker Broadheads,

By: bowhunting biologist Wade Nolan

Why shoot broadhead tipped arrows into a steel drum? I shoot broadheads into drums because it tells an important story. In industry, there is a term called destructive testing where we measure the failure point of a device or component. That failure is used as a reference point to improve design. I have been conducting failure tests for broadheads since the late 80′s. Back then, like now, there are a lot of broadhead manufacturers that must have been absent on the day destructive testing was discussed in their engineering class. Broadhead failures abound when they encounter steel drums.

Steel Drum in place, the Hooter Shooter ready.

I was amazed by the repeated failure of a number of very popular heads on this test. Don’t get ahead of me here. I realize we don’t shoot steel drums while out whitetailing but I find it telling and alarming if a broadhead can’t stay together when penetrating a thin sheet of cold rolled steel. The similarity between thin rolled steel and an elk shoulder blade is real. Most mechanical heads have an especially difficult time with steel drums.

During my testing I discovered that some fixed blade heads do much better when slicing through steel. Then again, I have seen many fixed broadheads loose blades due to brittle steel or poor blade seating. It’s all engineering.

Since the advent of Computer Aided Design (CAD) programs, a manufacturer really has no excuse for designing a broadhead that looses blades when shot into normal substrates like tissue and bone.

Wade checks inside and out of the steel drum after impact.

A CAD testing program called Finite Element Analysis can determine where the weak points are in the metal when it is under stress. FEA uses very complex math to calculate the failure points. The weak points show up on the screen as hot spots. The idea is that the engineer can then revisit his design and fix the deficiencies. That’s provided the broadhead was engineered and not sketched out on a napkin in some restaurant.

Back to the Lab
I’m the guy who wants to see the science and that requirement took me to the shooting lab. I set up a 55-gallon steel drum with an average thickness of .9mm. The bow was a PSE EVO set at 60#. I launched my carbon arrows out of a Hooter Shooter at 16 yards. Then I began to launch broadhead tipped arrows for the camera. For testing I used the mechanical broadheads that you shoot when whitetailing. You’ll probably recognize the broadheads. The slow-motion camera was set up so I could see into the drum as well as get a glimpse of the arrows approach at 4000 fps..

Here is what my team found. First, we shot the 2-inch Swhacker mechanical. The trocar chisel tip cut through the steel drum and then the bone chisel blades followed, slicing through the cold rolled steel leaving a one inch linear cut in the drum. Upon entry, the big 2-inch cutting blades deployed with virgin sharpness and then the arrow rocketed into the far side of the drum puncturing it up to the deployed blades.

Today's best selling mechanical broadhead after one steel drum shot.

This sequential blade opening is an important feature because on an animal you would get a one inch + entry and then razor sharp blades swing open, due to the dependable activated fulcrum design, and are available to slice internal organs. Because the sacrificial bone chisels have done their job the big blades are now wide open and serve as the main cutters. It’s a two step design. First cut through the hide and bone, then deploy the big swords… in a word, devastating!

The Swhacker mechanical performed as expected. Due to the long load-bearing surface of the blades, parallel to the ferrule, the big cutting blades hold up under extreme stress. This is a result of design, testing and engineering. In fact, we never had a Swhacker cutting blade failure across 5 days to extreme testing. Not so for the other guys.

The Swhacker after penetrating the steel drum.

I must admit that this first failure surprised me the most. The wide spread marketing had me convinced that this one would be a great performer. This first competing broadhead boasts a shock absorbing system but it appears the broadhead blades went into shock instead. I don’t know about you, but losing blades is a reality that makes me keep shopping for a broadhead I can rely on. This head may not lose blades on a whitetail but it did on the first shot into the steel drum during our testing.

This next head is our industries most aggressively marketed mechanical. A number of celebrities shoot this one on TV. I’ve always wondered why they shoot a particular head. Is it because the broadhead is an exceptional performer or because that broadhead company wrote a big check to the TV host? You’ll have to figure that one out for yourself. This broadhead did great under our testing. It was in perfect shape prior to getting to the barrel.

The steel barrel test demolished the competition but the Swhacker came through intact.

Upon impact you can see blades flying everywhere in the slow motion footage. I felt bad for this broadhead so we re-shot it 3 times and each time blade failure was the result. Sometimes they broke off before penetrating the steel drum and imbedded in the barrel’s exterior. Other times the blades broke off during penetration as if they were made of glass.

These test heads were taken directly out of the manufacturer’s pack that we purchased at a bow shop. The marketing said that they open on impact by using some complex design… but exploding on impact is what the barrel test revealed. My guess is these broadheads are probably not designed to shoot through tough substrates, like a steel drum.

We shot other mechanical broadheads as well. It’s likely some of these are the mechanical broadheads in your quiver. Four popular mechanical heads lost most or all of their blades upon impact. At times, the air adjacent to the barrel was full of tiny spinning and ricocheting silver blades. The slow-motion footage is impressive. Go to  www.bowtube.com for the Steel Drum Test to view the slow motion testing…the unbiased Broadhead Science. Your next buck may be in the balance.

If you’d like to try a couple of packs of the new Swhacker Broadheads you can get an unbelievable deal by going to www.hankparker.com


Share Your Comments or Opinion Below, Thanks
  • Dean

    Here is my take on the steel barrel test. I like the concept of constructing a condition where the broadhead is tested to its breaking point. Although correct in theory, it fails to be a viable gauge of a broadheads reliability in actual field conditions. Let me explain.

    Wade conducted the same exact same test back in 2007, where the focus(and promotion) was on the performance of the Grim Reaper broadheads. Back then, the Grim Reaper performed the same, if not better, than the Swhaker. No failure with the head opened or closed occurred. Unfortunately, some of the broad heads used, while very popular, will fail this test miserably because of the inherent mechanics used to deploy the head. Take the Rage for instance. The head is rear deploying with the base of the blades protruding out at the front. The static nature of the steel barrel will not allow the blades to deploy, thereby creating a condition that only permit’s the broadhead to destruct.( the blades have nowhere to go). In fairness, I would have liked to see what the Rage did after deployment and then hitting the barrel. Was any broadhead from NAP tested?. They are very popular as well. If not, why? Also, what was the basis for selecting the broad heads to be tested? Was it popularity or another criteria? I think it is important for the readers to know this. In any test, shouldn’t that be spelled out? Namely, why THAT product??

    Lets go back to the Grim Reaper barrel test of 2007. By the way, you can see the same series of tests performed by Wade on the Grim Reaper web site. While the Grim Reaper performed without fail on that test, the Grim Reaper SS that Wade used on this test, failed by loosing one blade. While the other tests showed what occurred at the entrance, we were not shown that on the Grim Reaper. I also liked the sound effect of the blown blade. I’m a little curious as to the two different results.

    Wouldn’t it have been fair to shoot the same type of broadhead three times to get a better gauge(or average) of their performance? I did observe what appeared to be at least a dozen or more holes in the barrel. What happened during those test shots? Where is that film? It begs more questions.

    Lastly, name the test the “Swhacker test,” or something other than a title that by its very name implies impartiality. Webster’s defines science as ” a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths SYSTEMATICALLY ARRANGED and showing the operation of general laws.

    I know I’m being critical, but fair(I hope) in my assessment of these tests, that in the future will provide more transparency.

  • Dean

    After re-reading the article, it was noted that the Rage’s were shot three time- Mea Culpa on my part for not picking that up the first time.

  • http://www.bowhunting.net Rich Walton

    Thanks for all the input Dean. It’s appreciated and I’m sure well received by Wade.

  • Sean Nolin

    Sounds really biased how much did swhacker pay to have this article published?


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