Most compound bowhunters and a few traditional archers still feel threatened by the increasing popularity of modern crossbows. Despite their firearms-like appearance, crossbows are no more deadly or effective than any recurve or cam-driven bow at ranges under 40 yards. Beyond that distance, an arrow is an arrow, and crossbows are no more efficient at delivering a shaft to the target in high winds, rain, snow or thick brush than any other stick-and-string configuration.
As crossbows gain in popularity for deer hunting, and more states allow their use during the traditional early and late archery seasons, more gun hunters are buying crossbows in an effort to extend their hunting season. The familiar feel of a crossbow’s butt stock and scope will certainly appeal to firearms-trained hunters. But they quickly find that there are no guarantees when it comes to whitetail deer hunting with a crossbow.
Other than the stock, trigger and scope, there is no comparison between firearms and crossbows. In most cases, crossbows are awkward, unwieldy and cumbersome (especially when still-hunting or stalking), and their maximum effective range is just 1/10 that of a rifle. But a crossbow will give hunters more opportunities to be in the field, and that alone is worth the price of a new horizontal bow.
Modern crossbows are deadly efficient at close range, in open cover where clean shots to 40 yards are the norm. Unlike rifle bullets, crossbow arrows are easily deflected and are not meant to penetrate heavy brush or foliage. If you can’t see your deer through the crossbow scope, you will not hit it!
The only sensible path to crossbow hunting success is practice.
Most crossbow scopes have three or more wire reticles or lighted dots (green or red in most cases), so that the crossbow may be sighted in at three distances determined by the shooter. Most hunters start out at 20 yards with the top reticle or dot, and then add 10 yards per line or dot out to 40, 50 or 60 yards. In wooded settings, for example, 40 yards is a good maximum setting, and in fact that reticle or dot may never be used due to thick brush and other obstructions. When hunting in pastures, food plots or cut crop fields, the distance may be increased to 50 or 60 yards but only when there is no wind, rain or snow to affect the arrow’s flight.
I have tested crossbows under a wide variety of conditions over the last 15 years and have discovered that, as with all archery tackle, distance breeds misfortune. Even at arrow speeds of 400 fps, accuracy falls off significantly after 40 yards, especially in inclement weather. Rain and snow will drive an arrow a foot or more off a 40-yard target, and gusty winds produce even worse effects. No harm is done by an errant arrow when target shooting, but the risk factor is too high when the intended target is a live deer.
WAIT, AND WAIT SOME MORE
It may be difficult for a lifelong firearms hunter to learn at first, but patience is the crossbow hunter’s biggest virtue. Let the target animal get closer and wait for it to present an unobstructed broadside shot before sending the arrow on its way. A solid, confident shot at close range is worth 100 poorly placed arrows. In questionable situations, it’s more prudent to hold off for a better shot or let the animal walk away. A perfect shot taken tomorrow is far better than wounding and losing a deer today.
Anyone new to the sport will discover that there is much to learn about crossbows and crossbow hunting. Many of the myths and misunderstandings about crossbows can be dispelled with just one trip to the range.
CARE FOR YOUR CROSSBOW
When purchasing a crossbow, don’t be tempted to buy the most expensive model you can find. I have been reviewing and testing all makes and models of crossbows for over 15 years and have found that all of them will shoot very tight groups out to 40 yards. In fact, once a crossbow is sighted in, it is best to shoot just one arrow at separate targets to avoid “Robin Hoods” (arrows splitting the previously fired shaft). Beyond that the biggest difference is in the quality of the materials, accessory features and factory warranty.
You can expect to get two or three years of good hunting and shooting out of even the most inexpensive models. At that point the crossbow will need string and cable maintenance and retuning, as does any crossbow that is used frequently.
Bottom line: Take care of your crossbow and it will take care of you!
Always be sure to assemble and use your new crossbow as suggested in the owner’s manual. If you buy a used crossbow, contact the manufacturer and ask for the appropriate manual. If you handle the crossbow per the manufacturer’s recommendations, you can expect to enjoy several years of accurate and dependable shooting.
Hunting with a crossbow does not automatically guarantee that you will see or kill more deer. Despite the many great advances in crossbow technology in the last 20 years, it’s still a short-range tool with a practical maximum range of 40 yards.
Yes, crossbows can send an arrow downrange and hit a target at 80 yards and more, just as any recurve or compound bow can do, but under normal whitetail hunting conditions opportunities over 40 yards are few and far between. The least bit of wind, brush or leaves can deflect an arrow completely off target. If the animal moves just one step while the arrow is en route, the risk of wounding and losing the deer is substantially increased.