Separating truth from fiction about antlers

Whether you read an article about big game hunting in an outdoor magazine, watch a deer or elk hunting video on the Internet, or share stories about hunting while sitting around a fall campfire, at some point the discussion will focus on antlers. Personally, I prefer the antler stories told around the campfire, but you always need to keep in mind that antlers are like the fish that got away: They grow a little bigger each time their story is told.

Look through family photo albums at pictures of hunts gone by, even those that are old enough to be in black and white, and you will note that antlers play a prominent role in how the photograph is arranged. If there are three mule deer bucks in a photo, and one has larger antlers than the others, you can be guaranteed the buck with large antlers is front and center.

One of the good things about the old black-and-white pictures is you can believe what you see, most of the time anyway. In today’s world you can never be quite sure. How many times have you seen a photo of a large bull elk or a muley buck posted online, along with the discussion of whether the photograph was worked over by a Photoshop expert to make the antlers look bigger?

Come to think of it, I know someone who is quite a wildlife photographer and a digital editing guru. I just might have to take a closer look at his latest big deer photographs. And what about those ducks? Was it really a full limit of birds, or did he copy and paste? Hmmm … Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Of course, some tricks to making antlers look bigger were developed long before digital cameras and editing software. The most common being the old sit-as-far-back-as-you-can pose. This is accomplished by assuming a position as far behind the antlers as possible while extending your arms completely forward, thus making the antlers you are holding appear bigger and you smaller. This works with fish, too! Well, that is what I have been told.

Antlers play such a big role in the hunting community that we have even developed a specialized vocabulary to use in our discussion about them. That vocabulary even has regional differences. For instance, in the eastern states, a buck that has antlers with four points on one side and five on the other is called a nine-point buck. By western count, he is a four-by-five. Of course, when telling the story we would round that up and call him a five-point buck just out of courtesy to our listeners. Wouldn’t want to bog them down with the insignificant details.

Other terms in our antler vocabulary include drop tine, cactus buck, willow horn, forked horn, spike, base, mass, eye guard and spread, among others. This year a creative storyteller might describe his smallish two-by-three as a heavy-horned three-point with lots of mass. Next year he might add in that the buck had good bases and long eye guards, just to make sure his listeners knew it was worth talking about. Now, what to do about the antler spread?

There was a time when you could simply tell the story about the nice four-point muley or six-point bull elk you saw while on one of your outdoor forays. You might say something like, “I saw a really nice six-by at the edge of the meadow just before dark. His antlers reached so far back he could scratch his rump with them.” But a story like that goes only so far around some campfires today. To sound credible, the storyteller might add, “I am sure he would score 3783/8. He had good bases and carried his mass way out on his main beams. And his G-4s were pushing two feet.”

Now, did I tell you about the last buck I got? I have pictures.

Freelance writer Doug Nielsen is a conservation educator for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. His “In the Outdoors” column, published Thursday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, is not affiliated with or endorsed by the NDOW. Any opinions he states in his column are his own. He can be reached at

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