A case for crossbows: looking for a new, exciting path into the deer woods

CROSSBOW HUNTING IS CURRENTLY ONE OF THE fastest-growing sectors of the hunting fraternity, with more states accommodating the use of crossbows every year. Crossbow hunting is also one of the most controversial, and it’s burdened with misconceptions. Most of the misconceptions can be easily dealt with by a clear understanding of what a crossbow is and what a crossbow is not.

First and most important, a crossbow is not a firearm, nor does it have anything approximating the velocity or impact capability of a firearm, in spite of the fact that it’s a shoulder-fired device. A crossbow is purely an archery tool that fires an arrow (bolt) with the same range, power, trajectory characteristics, susceptibility to wind and killing power as a conventional compound bow. In fact, a typical deer-hunting crossbow weighs considerably more than a conventional bow (or hunting rifle) and is consequently more burdensome to carry, to maneuver quickly and hold on aim.

The only real difference between a crossbow and a conventional bow is that once cocked at full draw, a crossbow string requires no continuing muscle power to remain ready until the bolt is released by its trigger. This makes a crossbow particularly appropriate for youngsters, women and older hunters. To those who say that it’s much easier to take a deer with a crossbow than a conventional bow, I ask, “Have you done it? Have you tried it?”

For hunters who have never used a crossbow, leading crossbow manufacturers have developed a general guide to crossbow selection, based on the minimum recommended energy necessary to effectively take various types of game. These rules of thumb are exactly the same as for conventional bows (more detail and information on crossbow regulations can be found in the catalogs and on the websites of major crossbow manufacturers).

For heavy-bodied and dangerous game such as moose, grizzly bear or even Cape Buffalo, a peak draw weight of 175 to 200 pounds is recommended, delivering more than 80 ft-lbs of energy. Such crossbows require extreme cocking effort, and the use of a cocking aid is recommended for even the strongest hunters. For big game such as elk, caribou or black bear, a crossbow with a 175-pound peak draw weight will suffice, delivering 65 to 80 ft-lbs of energy with a more moderate cocking effort. For medium game such as deer, antelope or turkey, a crossbow with a 150-pound peak draw weight will deliver 40 to 65 ft-lbs of energy, with relatively comfortable cocking effort. Crossbows in all these categories are available with mechanical cocking devices, which are extremely beneficial to hunters with lesser upper-body strength.

Matching your equipment to the game is critical. Unlike a firearm, an arrow or bolt kills by hemorrhage, not shock, and you need as much penetration and cutting effectiveness as possible. Like conventional bows, crossbows have been successfully used on virtually every type of big game animal on the planet. But as a hunter, you must thoroughly understand a crossbow’s trajectory and limitations.

For the best penetration on heavy-boned animals, use a fixed-blade broadhead with a heavy bolt. When hunting smaller, thinner-skinned game, you can get improved accuracy and a flatter trajectory with an expandable broadhead. Making the selection of a correct bolt and broadhead combination is no different than for conventional bowhunting, or choosing the right hunting bullet. There are as many choices of crossbow bolts as conventional archery arrows, or hunting ammunition, and the same attention to choice, practice and experience is required.

It is also critical to know your quarry’s anatomy and look at it with a bowhunter’s eye. A newly sharp broadhead that passes through both lungs or penetrates the heart of a big game animal will put it down in seconds, same as a gun. But with a bow the only shooting angles that reliably deliver this result are broadside or quartering away. Front-side and quartering-to angles only set you up to hit one lung, and armor the heart, off-side lung and the rest of the thoracic cavity with bone. Avoid these shot angles.

The maximum recommended hunting shot range with a crossbow is forty yards. A modern hunting crossbow sighted in at twenty yards will impact its arrows approximately twenty inches low at forty yards, depending on their weight and flight characteristics. Optical and mechanical sights available for modern crossbows feature multi-range sighting points, typically set for twenty-yard, thirty-yard and forty-yard distances. A typical crossbow scope should have a parallax of approximately fifty yards. Each crossbow/bolt combination will vary. You need to shoot each aiming point at a known yardage to verify for your particular setup, and you need to practice shooting at unknown yardage and guessing yardage to your hunting target in the woods during the off season. A laser rangefinder is a vital tool for modern bowhunters of all kinds.

Also, due to the “rainbow” trajectory associated with any type of archery tool, it’s a really good idea to establish clear and open shooting lanes from your treestands and ground blinds. It’s really unpleasant to release a perfectly aimed shot at a clear-view trophy and have your arrow clip a twig on a branch you never considered because it was hanging just above your line-of-sight. Been there, done that.

There are nearly as many different crossbow designs and different features available today as there are conventional bows or firearms, at all draw-weight and energy levels. Recurve-style crossbows allow for easier string changes but are noisier, wider and more cumbersome, and more difficult to cock, as well as more critical to cock evenly. Compound crossbows require slightly more effort to service but are more compact in design, deliver more energy per inch of power stroke and are up to 15 percent more efficient. Cocking is typically easier due to the shorter overall length as well as the built-in “let off” in draw weight, making it less critical to cock evenly due to the working characteristics of the cams.

Typical recurve and compound crossbow designs have the cocking mechanism positioned directly above the trigger with direct contact with the trigger and its safety mechanisms. “Bull-pup” crossbow designs shorten overall bow length while maintaining the power stroke. The cocking mechanism on a bull-pup style is typically behind the trigger and connected by a trigger linkage.

The best of today’s hunting crossbows are phenomenally accurate, within their range. When I first got my Illinois crossbow permit, I ordered a TenPoint Crossbow Technologies ProElite package equipped with matched arrows and accessories and a pre-zeroed 3X scope sight. I took it out of the hardcase, studied the instructions, cranked the mechanical draw mechanism, loaded a bolt and benchrested it at a thirty-yard target. X-ring. I removed the bolt from the target and repeated the shot. Same exact hole. Good thing I removed the first arrow.


According to opponents, crossbows have no place in the field.

STATE-TO-STATE LAWS REGARDING crossbow hunting vary more than any other type of hunting, and crossbows are the only type of hunting tool to be limited to disabled hunters by many of those states. As crossbow technology has improved rapidly during the past decade (much as has muzzleloading and slug-gun technology), pressure has increased on state governments to allow expanded crossbow use during archery seasons. This pressure has been met with vocal opposition. Oddly, and indeed tragically, much of this opposition has come from within the bowhunting community itself. There are two main arguments, both flawed.


First is the argument that hunting with a crossbow is too easy; it’s equivalent to hunting with a firearm and takes the inherent challenge out of what archery season is “supposed to be all about.” Poppycock. An arrow launched from a crossbow has exactly the same flight characteristics and effectiveness (or lack thereof) as an arrow launched from a conventional bow. And in spite of its triggered release, a crossbow has its own unique handling and operating characteristics which make its use every bit as challenging–and difficult–as a conventional bow. The idea that crossbows should be limited only to those who are physically unable to use conventional bows is insulting. I’ve hunted with a crossbow. It ain’t easy. It ain’t a gun, it’s archery.

Second, and to my experience a more pervasive line of opposition, is based on a sense of proprietorship by the existing traditional bowhunting community, who does not want to see its exclusivity in the lengthy bow seasons afforded in most states to be encroached upon by newcomers. This proprietorship typically manifests itself in spurious arguments against the effects of “over-pressure of too many hunters on ever-shrinking hunting lands.” I disagree. The best way to keep hunting land from shrinking, and in fact to get the federal and state governments to open more land for hunting, is to show that there are increasing numbers of voting Americans who want it. We can’t keep adding “special” seasons; the calendar only has so many months. So the more hunters, the better. Period.

Conventional bowhunters who are trying to bar crossbows from existing archery seasons are much like those who are trying to bar modern muzzleloader technology from existing muzzleloader seasons. They are less interested in promoting hunting than they are in protecting their own turf.

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