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Compounds vs. Crossbows

by Game & Fish Staff   |  May 24th, 2011 13

by Patrick Meitin

You’ve heard the chatter in Web forums and at bow shops. Myths and half-truths abound. Here are the real differences between these two awesome hunting tools.

Which is right for you?

Recently a couple of the mainstream bowhunting magazines began sprinkling occasional crossbow articles among the compound-bow content. Letters to the editors followed. They were split between two camps. On one side were those threatening subscription cancellations. On the other side, they openly applaud the move, welcoming new input on this relatively new development in hunting opportunity.

No one seems to sit the fence in this discussion.

One of the most common complaints is that crossbows are no different from a rifle.

Just for the record, I’ll provide you a modern, scoped crossbow; I’ll shoot one of my tricked-out compounds. We’ll step back 60 or 70 yards (or 100 if you prefer), and we’ll shoot bulls-eye’s for $20 a shot.

Odds are I’ll walk away richer.

The shorter arrows pushed by the crossbow’s abbreviated power stroke, simply cannot match the energy stored by longer arrows launched from compound bows via longer power strokes — even if the crossbow’s draw weight is four times that of the average compound. No, the crossbow’s not a firearm, despite what you’ve observed in Hollywood renditions of medieval warfare. From personal experience I’ve found maximum effective range of the two weapons is parallel — about 40 to 50 yards for the average hunter.

Interesting, how often this very information is also used as an indictment against crossbows by compound users. New crossbow owners, say the critics, expect rifle-like performance from their new weapons and attempt shots well outside an ethical range. The result of a long shot could mean wounded animals.

Now the my-weapon-is-morally-superior-to-yours is getting a bit threadbare.

The longbow man feels ethically apart from the recurve guy. The traditional bow gang looks down on the compound archer.

It’s all pretty silly, really. There is the concept that we actually need to stick together as hunters in politically dangerous times.

Still, there are a couple of sticking points associated with the modern crossbow and hunting.

First, since the weapon remains locked and loaded while hunting, there’s the real potential for accidental discharge absent a hand-drawn bow. Heeding the tenets preached in hunter’s safety classes is important.

To truly understand crossbow phobia you must understand this is most of all a debate between dedicated, life-long bowhunters versus those rifle hunters who recently turned “bowhunters” through the purchase of a crossbow.

The reluctance to allow crossbows into a regular bow season is likely the biggest contention regarding crossbows — especially in the West, where there are steep odds in limited lottery drawings.

No one is fighting crossbows in firearm season.

There is seldom an argument against allowing crossbow use during firearms seasons, must bowhunters just don’t want to share time in the woods with crossbow hunters during archery-only seasons. Hard-core bowhunters naturally see new recruits — taking advantage of better seasons rather than adopting real love for the sport — as a threat to their quality experience as much as competition for limited resources.

Finally, and perhaps a point most often overlooked regarding crossbows: They’re undeniably heavy and ungainly. Surveying a couple popular models, crossbow mass ranges from 9 to 10 pounds, opposed to 3 1/2 to 4 pounds for compounds in the same price class (bolt-action rifles falling somewhere in the middle). The industry responded with any manner of crossbow day- or backpacks to make schlepping them easier.

Handling a crossbow in a tree-stand or ground blind scenario is no problem. And in most portions of the nation — for the majority of American hunters who still hunt for relaxation and fun, not caught up in trophy mania sweeping the land — highly limited tags are simply not the rule. In many places conservation agencies have a difficult time getting hunters to kill enough deer.

In these instances the crossbow gives the average hunter more time afield. He gets more deer tagged, better fulfilling management objectives.

On the other side of the coin, there’s also a blaring positive in all of this many fail to see: The rifle hunter-turned-crossbow hunter is as likely as not to someday graduate to a compound bow, perhaps later traditional gear. The crossbow may bridge rifle hunting to bowhunting.

Like it or not, gaining a voice in today’s political forum means recruiting numbers of noisy voices.

Like anything else, both the compound and crossbow have gone high tech. Knocking the capabilities of one without accusing the other is highly hypocritical. The modern compound’s capable — equipped with the latest bowhunting accessories — of more repeatable accuracy and sheer range than most game managers likely had in mind when doling out special seasons.

The only real difference in contrast to the crossbow is the compound must still be hand drawn with your own muscle. This is a conspicuous move under the best of conditions. Yet given the unwieldy nature of the crossbow I’d give them equal billing in matters of inconvenience.

Crossbows are quickly becoming accepted in more states every season. For those who object, you’re likely facing a losing battle. There will be holdout states, no doubt, akin to states that still don’t allow use of mechanical broadheads. But in time crossbows will become part of the regular bowhunting scene.

I don’t see this as the end of the sport as we know it. Those of us who’ve been around awhile no doubt recall when compounds were the red herring of the sport, another technical advancement touted as the end of bowhunting as we knew it.

But somehow survived.

  • Old Broken Soldier


    Great article, but one point you failed to mention in favor of crossbows is how they allow hunters with physical limitations increased access to hunting deer. I'm a Soldier with over 28 years of active service, and due to all the wear and tear on my body over the course of my career, my shoulders just can't take the strain of pulling and holding a bow at full draw anymore. I recently purchased a crossbow and look forward to getting back into the woods in the hopes of "arrowing" a deer to fill my tag, and as you said the range of a crossbow is parallel to that of a compound or recurve bow. The challenge is the same whether you use a bolt or an arrow.

    • paul h downs

      Rock on you can still enjoy the sport but no sights over stock n scope isnt the same but still an enjoyable sport no matter how you do it as long as your hunting!

  • Sean

    Another advantage of the crossbow is the learning curve on. Maybe because I shot a bow for years but when I tried my buddy's crossbow, I found little to no curve on getting proficient with it. I will stick with my bow though.

  • Dan

    I want to try crossbow hunting, and am all in favor for more states, especially at home in the West, allowing them besides rifle season. Ultimately, what I am looking for, is more time in the field but spread out! It can be very hard to try and hunt 3 species each fall, when all the rifle seasons are so close together. I'm not a fortunate person who can take a month of work off over a 2-3 month period. If crossbows were allowed for archery season, I could more easily hunt antelope, elk and deer each year without having to rush or shorten my time in the field. It also spreads the costs of transportation, food, processing and so forth, over an easier to swallow time frame.

  • Larry

    I believe you would get more senior's back into the field hunting if they could use crossbows. I am in favor of lowering the senior age from 65 to 55 in our state (Wisconsin).

    • Lloyd

      Larry is right. I've been a bowhunter for over 30 years. About two years ago (at age 59) I developed bursitis in my right shoulder. I still try to shoot the compound now and then but it is just impossible. The pain lasts for a week. I'm very lucky that here in Arkansas crossbows are allowed during archery season.

  • James

    Oklahoma legalized the use of crossbows for all hunters last year, and instead of filling the woods with people, there are just a lot of crossbows on craigslist and in the pawn shops.

    I've been a lifetime rifle hunter, but bought a crossbow and took two bucks with it last year. This year I'll be hunting with my crossbow, but also with my new compound bow and hopefully my new recurve too. It's really opened a lot of doors up for me.

  • KingStan

    Im sorry but i own and have used both compound and crossbow and the crossbow shoots further faster and starighter, and wiht a scope u definitely have more of an advantage. I have nothing against using a crossbow but not during bow season. Unless u are unable to pull back a compound. Its like the crossbow hunter hunting with the gun hunters, the crossbow hunters have an advantage over the bow hunters and its hard enough hutning with a bow as it is. Its always the crossbow hunters that say theres no difference because they want to be able to share the season with the bow hunters. But it is not true there is a big difference.

  • KingStan

    Plus they have already pushed us further back into the summer and have taken 2 weeks from our hunting season over the years to give the rut to crossbow, muzzleloading and gun hunters. something tells me those in charge arent bow hunters, not true bowhunters. And I also use a recurve.

  • http://Game&Fish Bighook

    There really isn't but one reason Crossbows are now legal to use in archery season in Oklahoma. The wildlife department wants to sell more deer tags and licenses. That is all it is!

  • Jim O'Connor

    I'm in Ohio, And I'm glad we've had crossbow legalized. I'm 63 and hunted deer with a recurve long before there was a gun season here. But with my arthrists the way they is, It's a challenge just getting back in the woods. And having my crossbow scoped gives me a better chance on a nice deer in a shorter time

  • Al Bishop

    This is simular to the debate when compound bows first came out. About how they were so much more accurate, easier to shoot and more powerful. The truth is the cross bow is still a bow, with a mechanical release. Now the argument can be made about compounders who use a "release" vs fingers/tab, I know it made me more acurrate. A late friend who suffered from parkinson's was able to continue hunting because of the cross bow adendum in my state for handicap hunters. His range for taking deer was no greater than the rest of us in the camp and he was still subject to the same stick and wind gremlins as the rest of us. I don't own a cross bow but suspect I will as I lose strength with age.

  • dave

    I bought a crossbow after shooting and hunting with a bow all my life. I started taking my son hunting with me and kids DO NOT SITE STILL. It is very hard to sit on the ground, without a blind and get a shot off with a bow. With a crossbow, it is much easier taking my son and sitting on the ground and or moving to keep him patient.

    On the subject of shooting…there is NO DOUBT a new Compound is much more accurate at longer distances. I have shot a compound in tournaments up to 80 yards. I would never try that with my crossbow. I know it would be possible.

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