John Urban isn’t sure if he’ll ever go back to his compound bow after buying a crossbow four years ago. Sidelined by a shoulder injury, the 56-year-old Pennsylvania resident was struggling to take more than a dozen shots at the range with his compound, so he and a friend visited a local bow shop and started looking at crossbows.
“I wanted to continue to be able to bow hunt, but I just couldn’t with my compound,” he says. “Besides, I’m 56 and I’m not getting any younger, so a crossbow seemed like a good option for me.”
He’s not alone. The crossbow market is one of the few niches in hunting that is seeing an upward trend, particularly among hunters like Urban. What used to be a season for the young, fit and agile has evolved into one that allows almost anybody the opportunity to spend time in the early autumn woods. Crossbows are here to stay.
But the inclusion of crossbows in dozens of states has not only brought traditional archery equipment makers into the market, it’s also led to an explosion of choices. Not only do hunters have three different styles to choose from, they have many more options, features and even manufacturers to consider. Which one is right for you?
TRY BEFORE YOU BUY
What you buy is somewhat less important than how you buy it. Virtually every crossbow on the market will shoot well enough to kill a deer, and all of the top brands offer high-quality, reliable and safe products. Some do have more features, and others may be more accurate, but they all accomplish the same purpose: to send an arrow down range with enough speed to kill a deer. Making the shot is up to you, of course. Any crossbow will shoot with reasonable accuracy at closer ranges. Some shoot better at longer ranges, but these days, the only noticeable difference in accuracy will be a result of the shooter, not the bow.
That doesn’t mean you can grab the first model off the shelf at your local bow shop and spend the rest of your bow hunting career with it. As Urban learned during his buying process, choosing the “right” crossbow can boil down to what feels right in your hands.
“There was definitely a different feel to each one. One or two just didn’t feel right when I picked them up at the bow shop, but the one I ended up buying not only had a couple of features that I really liked, it just felt good when I held it and shot it,” says Urban, who has been a dedicated crossbow hunter for four years now.
Before he had set foot in his local bow shop, he asked various friends who already had them and he read opinions posted on various Internet forums. With that basic information, he set out on a buying process that took him straight to a local bow shop that he’s done business with for years. In fact, he strongly recommends dealing with a smaller shop, or at least one with a skilled and knowledgeable sales staff. Also make sure they have an on-site range where you can try various models before you settle on one.
That’s exactly what he did. Urban shot several bows before he settled on a TenPoint Phantom, a high-end crossbow equipped with a scope, drawing mechanism and a quiver. You may not opt for a top-of-the-line bow. You do, however, need to know what you are looking at when you browse through the various models in a catalog or at your local bow shop.
“The guy at the bow shop was more than willing to let me shoot a few before I bought one. That was really important because there’s a lot more to buying one than just picking it up off the rack and holding it,” he says. “The TenPoint just felt right and I really liked the way it shot.”
Along with holding it and shooting it, Urban examined and tested the various features, including the scope and the cocking devices that come attached on some models. Although every crossbow comes with a cocking rope, Urban was sold on the stock-mounted cocking device that was attached to his bow, a compound crossbow that is just one of three basic styles.
Technology has improved dramatically in the past few years. But the basic designs haven’t.
Recurve crossbows rely on a simple yet effective recurve bow mounted on a stock and offer a number of advantages. The most obvious, and an important one, is the overall ease of use. Compound crossbows are easy to use as well, but they have more moving parts, and thus more things to break. That’s not to say compound crossbows are prone to fall apart, but, well, things happen. And when they do, fixing a compound bow requires a trip to the repair shop. Even basic maintenance such as changing the string requires a bow press and at least some working knowledge of compound bow disassembly and reassembly. You can restring a recurve crossbow in the field if you have an extra string.
Despite their relative simplicity, recurves are not less expensive than other types of crossbows. Some models retail for around $500, while others cost a little more and a few somewhat less. And because many recurves have lower draw weights, they aren’t quite as fast as a typical compound crossbow. It’s not out of the question to obtain arrow speeds of up to 340 feet per second, but that means you’ll be sacrificing downrange energy by using a lighter arrow. Some manufacturers, including Excalibur, do offer high draw-weight crossbows. Their Equinox model, for example, has a draw weight of 225 pounds, 40 pounds more than Barnett’s Carbon Ghost 400. The Equinox shoots a 350-grain, 20-inch arrow at an impressive 350 feet per second.
The slower ones are certainly fast enough to get the job done, but there is a trade-off between using a lighter arrow and a heavier one to get more speed.
Recurves are somewhat less noisy than compounds, which can be a concern for many hunters. Most manufacturers are adding dampening devices to limbs and risers, but there’s no question that even the quietest compound crossbows have a noticeable twang when they shoot. However, the noise shouldn’t affect hunting success. Even a slower crossbow, one that shoots 275 feet per second, for instance, is plenty fast to kill a deer.
“The noise is much more amplified because you are holding the bow against your head and right next to your ear,” said Phil Bednar of TenPoint crossbows. “They are certainly louder than a traditional compound bow, but they really aren’t as loud as they seem, at least not in a hunting situation.”
Just as compound vertical bows are the most popular style, there’s no question that compound crossbows are the top choice among crossbow hunters. They outsell all other crossbows by a wide margin. Some of that could be a result of image: Vertical compounds have long had a reputation for shooting faster, flatter and more accurately than recurve bows. That’s certainly open to debate, but as a group, compounds do tend to have faster speeds than recurves, and that speed can help with accuracy.