The Antler Cult: Trophy Hunting In America

While I was in Germany I visited the castle, Burg Reichenstien. It is famous for its collection of antlers. And when I say antlers, I am talking about every wall in every room was decorated with them. There are literally thousands of antlers in this castle and the bigger the rack the greater the place of prominence it was given. It was very impressive to look at. Hundreds of years of trophies are memorialized in this castle. The fact that all those antlers were saved is not surprising; antlers have always been symbols of status. Not just in modern times, but all throughout history.

In early societies large antlers meant lots of meat and more material to make tools. For those reasons they were highly sought after. The problem is that animals with larger racks are hard to kill because they are older and wiser. They have learned how to stay alive, so it took a more skillful hunter to kill them. Hunters that were able to consistently kill these larger animals would gain status in the tribe.

Today hunters still crave antlers, and they are still status symbols. Social media blows up any time a deer with a large rack is posted. Just this last deer season, a new world record buck was killed in Tennessee. The pictures spread like wildfire. Every outdoor news and blog site tried to cash in on the occasion by posting any information they could. Big antlers are a big deal.

The love of antlers has motivated hunters to work hard to increase the health of the herd. The Boone and Crocket Club developed their scoring system and record book not as a bragging board, but as a barometer that measures the health of a wild animal population. If hunters are consistently taking record book quality animals, it points to a healthy population.

There are many people that want to paint hunters that only chase after large antlers as egotistical. They are very mistaken, because for a majority of those hunters, it is not about ego. It is about the challenge. Large deer take more skill to kill. Those hunters want to match wits with an old and crafty buck that has learned how to stay alive. The older the buck, the harder it is to kill. I know hunters that have hunted the same deer for years. They get to know the deer, learn its ways, and only when the time is right they sneak in for the kill.


Organizations like the Quality Deer Management Association have used the motivation of killing deer with bigger antlers to make the overall deer herd healthier. They show hunters how to provide deer with a better habitat and how to implement sustainable harvest practices to keep the herd balanced. All of this produces bigger, healthier deer with bigger antlers.

Being able to consistently kill large antlered deer is not easy. It takes time and patience to develop the woodsmanship required to be a good hunter. Years of experience are usually required.

But like everything there is a darker side to this big buck cult. The love of antlers has also led to people finding ways to shortcut the hard work. Deer farming and the selling of farm raised bucks to fenced- in hunting preserves has gained in popularity over the last couple of decades. There people pay to kill deer with extra large racks, the bigger the rack the bigger the price. But what are they really paying for, the deer or the promenade that goes with it?

The people that run these operations will tell you they are selling an experience. That might be partly true, but you start looking at price points you can see what you are paying for. Let’s start at the low end, a 150 inch whitetail will set you back $3500, a 160 inch one $4500. Is the experience for ten inches of horn really worth $1000? Those prices are the low end of the spectrum. Some of the largest farm raised bucks have been given $30,000 price tags. What is the person who pays that much money for a deer really buying? The answer is obvious – they are buying the supposed status that a large rack will bring.

It is like buying a fake Rolex at a flea market. You may be able to impress some people, but show it to someone who knows about watches and you will get called out. High fence deer are fun to look at, but in reality they are just livestock posing as wildlife.

Humans have had a love affair with antlers for most of history. They have been used as a measuring stick to judge a hunter’s skill and have a way of bestowing status. But if all you want is the status that comes with them, you are missing the greatest part about hunting, which is the challenge and satisfaction of matching wits with a mature animal that is the master of its environment, who knows how to stay alive, and you coming out victorious.