Antlers. What is it about them that so fascinates us? I’m not sure, but I’m also not alone in recognizing the phenomenon.

In fact, a friend of mine, Dave Samuel (and more significantly, his publisher), decided it was a worthy enough subject for an entire book, “Whitetail Racks,” which he recently co-authored with Bob Zaiglin.

The pair are a dynamic duo of deer experts. For 30 years Samuel was a professor of wildlife management at West Virginia University. He’s been an outdoor writer for 38 years, and is perhaps best known as conservation editor and whitetail columnist for Bowhunter magazine. Zaiglin is coordinator of the wildlife management program at Southwest Texas Junior College, runs a wildlife consulting firm and is the southern field editor for Deer and Deer Hunting magazine.

Both, like millions of others, are enamored of antlers.

Being a scientist myself, I feel there has to be an explanation. For humans to have evolved this seemingly innate adoration of antlers requires some selective advantage, yet I can think of none. The ancients depicted large-racked bucks in cave wall drawings. And even though antlerless females might provide equal or better nutrition, Native Americans sought out the biggest bucks and adorned themselves and their lodges with their antlers during ceremonial events.

Perhaps taking the oldest, strongest and wariest deer in the wood was a symbol of one’s fitness as a hunter, and therefore a provider.

Why do deer even have antlers? We don’t know for certain, though biologists offer several likely explanations. The book’s authors discuss and dispel many of the common misconceptions — temperature control and self-defense — and discuss some of the more likely reasons, principally fighting and display during the breeding season.

That makes sense when you consider antlers are indeed used for both purposes. Furthermore, they turn to hard bone just before the breeding season, and fall off shortly after, when they’re no longer needed.

Upon explaining why, Samuel and Zaiglin then devote a chapter to how antlers grow. Short of tumors, they’re the fastest growing tissue in the animal kingdom. It’s astounding to think that a whitetail buck grows an entirely new set of antlers each year, especially when you see what’s possible given proper nutrition and a chance to reach maturity.

A typical version consists of two main beams, with a series of points (most commonly three) projecting upward from each. They are often remarkably symmetrical, one side being roughly a mirror image of the other. In fact, the most common antler scoring system awards points for this symmetry; and the authors obligingly provide not one, but two chapters on measuring deer antlers.

Antlers can, however, vary from this typical configuration in almost every conceivable way. Here again, the authors devote an entire chapter to explain the hows and whys of nontypical antlers, including everything from genetics to injury. This, like every chapter, is liberally illustrated with fantastic color photography (there are more than 250 photos in all).

Yes, we hunters adore antlers, and as is the American way, bigger is better. The authors indulge this emphasis on big antlers, devoting a considerable portion of the text to what I’ll call antler management.

For instance, one chapter explains what’s been learned from years of research on spike bucks, and whether they should be culled or allowed to mature. The ensuing chapter goes into even more detail on the hows and whys of culling any bucks.

Recognizing their significance, Samuel and Zaiglin devote three chapters to antler restrictions, something that very well may be the future of white-tailed deer management and hunting.

The idea of antler restrictions — requiring that bucks meet certain minimum criteria before they can be harvested — was born out of the quality deer management (QDM) philosophy. The ultimate goal of QDM is to produce not necessarily a trophy buck, but a quality buck. That, in turn, involves managing the deer population to keep it in balance with existing habitat conditions, while also working toward a more balanced age and sex ratio.

This is accomplished through protection of young bucks combined with an adequate harvest of female deer. You can argue whether it’s the intent, or merely a positive side effect, but the ultimate result is bigger antlers.

There are even a couple chapters to help you find antlers, both on and off deer. One shows the distribution of trophy bucks based on records from the Boone & Crockett (any weapons) and Pope & Young (bow only) clubs. Another offers tips on hunting shed antlers.

“Whitetail Racks” covers its title subject more thoroughly than any other volume ever has. Front to back, it’s a comprehensive look at white-tailed deer antlers. Whether poring from cover to cover or merely perusing the pictures, antler addicts will find it well worth the investment of time and money. 

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer, Registered Maine Guide and a certified wildlife biologist who provides consultation to private landowners interested in improving wildlife habitat. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]