The perception – and legality – of crossbow hunting has changed markedly over the past two decades. In 2002, for example, only three states nationwide permitted their use for deer hunting: Ohio, Arkansas and Wyoming. Today, crossbows are allowed without caveat during archery seasons in nine of 13 Midwestern states, and across much of the rest of the country.
Ohio has allowed crossbows during its archery season since 1976. It remained the Midwest’s lone ranger until 2009, when Michigan eliminated its restrictions. Various states tried partial openings based on age, season schedule or physical limitations soon after, but most eventually declared crossbows legitimate bowhunting gear: Indiana and Nebraska in 2011; Kansas in 2013; Wisconsin in 2014; Missouri in 2016; Illinois in 2017; and Kentucky in 2019.
The other four Midwestern states – Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota – forbid or restrict crossbows during archery season for most bowhunters. In fact, of the 37 states east of the Rocky Mountains, 29 (78 percent) allow crossbows during at least part of their archery deer seasons. That’s likely because baby boomers like using them, and harvest data show an increasingly clear fact: No matter how hard they try, crossbows will never grow up to be guns.
The Internal Revenue Service, for example, has long defined crossbows to be archery equipment, even though the bow itself mounts atop a gunstock and releases the arrow with a safety-equipped trigger system.
Why does the IRS care? Because it collects federal excise taxes from manufacturers every time they sell a gun or bow. The IRS then channels those revenues to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for conservation efforts nationwide, as required under the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act. Congress made most archery gear subject to the P-R Act in 1972, and the IRS has ever since required crossbow manufacturers to pay an 11 percent excise tax on their products.
Either way, even the most tricked-out crossbows can’t compete with centerfire long guns for stacking up deer. According to 2018 state-agency harvest data compiled by the Quality Deer Management Association, New Jersey is the only state in the nation where hunters using bows and crossbows registered more deer (57 percent of the total kill) than firearms hunters.
In the Midwest, bows and crossbows combine for 46 percent of Ohio’s total deer kill and 41 percent of Illinois’ totals. Kansas is next at 37 percent, followed by Indiana at 28 percent and Wisconsin at 26 percent. That combined-archery percentage jumped to 32.5 percent of the total deer harvest in Wisconsin after a subpar firearms season in 2019. Even so, crossbows accounted for only 18 percent of the Badger state’s 289,316 total deer harvest last fall and 22 percent of its total buck kill.
Room for Both
Meanwhile, even though crossbows are stable or climbing in popularity among bowhunters, they aren’t making other archery gear irrelevant. The QDMA’s analysis found that crossbow hunters in only three Midwestern states – Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin – took more deer in 2018 than did bowhunters using recurves, compounds and longbows.
Those reports don’t tell the whole story, of course. Wisconsin’s highest archery kill in the past decade was 94,267 in 2012, only slightly higher than the combined 94,084 archery/crossbow harvest in 2019. Crossbows became legal for all Wisconsin bowhunters in 2014. And even though Wisconsin’s crossbow hunters shot a record 30,004 bucks in 2019, that’s 35 percent below 2012’s archery kill of 45,988 bucks.
Still, no one should be surprised if or when their state’s crossbow hunters shoot more deer than “traditional” archers using compounds and other bows. C.J. Winand, a veteran biologist and longtime contributor to Bowhunter magazine, has studied crossbow trends the past decade. He notes two standard changes when states legalize crossbows, both occurring within three to seven years:
1. The crossbow harvest matches or exceeds the “vertical-bow” kill.
2. Crossbow versus vertical use levels off between 50-50 and 60-40 (crossbow-vertical), and then fluctuates annually.
Winand reports that within seven years of a state legalizing crossbows for archery season, roughly 51 percent of bowhunters choose them. But, many shoot both often, using compound bows early and crossbows in later seasons.
Mike Tonkovich, deer program administrator at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said it’s pointless to try “parsing out” differences between crossbow hunters and other bowhunters. Ohio has studied its bowhunters from every angle and concluded that bowhunters are bowhunters, no matter which bow they shoot.
The Ohio DNR, for instance, studied bowhunters’ shooting and wounding rates in 2014–2015, and found few differences between crossbows and compounds. Here are some of its findings by the numbers:
The average shooting distance for all bowhunters was 25 yards, but shots that hit the deer averaged 22.4 yards, almost 30 percent closer than shots that missed (31.1 yards). Accuracy decreased with distance for all bow types.
Most shots taken with compounds and crossbows were 20 to 24 yards; most shots taken with traditional gear (recurves/longbows) were 15 to 19 yards.
The average shooting distance for compound hits was 22.6 yards; the average for misses was 31.6 yards.
The average shooting distance for crossbow hits was 22.4 yards; the average for misses was 31.1 yards.
Compound bow archers released 1,015 shots and connected on 686, for 67.6 percent accuracy.
Crossbow archers released 719 shots and connected on 529, for 73.6 percent accuracy.
Crossbow archers recovered 60 percent of deer they shot at and didn’t recover 19 percent of deer they hit.
Compound archers recovered 56 percent of deer they shot at and didn’t recover 17.7 percent of deer they hit.
In other words, roughly 18 years into the United States’ crossbow awakening, researchers tend to keep finding more similarities than differences between bowhunters using compounds and those using crossbows when analyzing hunting data.
Crossbow Seasons in the Midwest
Crossbows can be used during the seasons for each Midwestern state listed below. Four of the region’s states limit crossbow use.
Illinois: Oct. 1 to Nov. 19; Nov. 23 to Dec. 2; Dec. 7 to Jan. 17, 2021
Indiana: Oct. 1 to Jan. 3, 2021
Kansas: Sept. 14 to Dec. 31
Kentucky: Sept. 19 to Jan. 18, 2021
Michigan: Oct. 1 to Nov. 14 (statewide); Dec. 1 to Jan. 1, 2021 (Lower Peninsula only)
Missouri: Sept. 15 to Nov. 13; Nov. 25 to Jan. 15, 2021
Nebraska: Sept. 1 to Dec. 31
Ohio: Sept. 26 to Feb. 7, 2021
Wisconsin: Sept. 12 to Jan. 3, 2021
Iowa: Allowed for disabled bowhunters and those age 70 and older (antlerless only). Crossbows are legal for residents during the late muzzleloader season.
Minnesota: Allowed for disabled archers and those age 60 and older. Allowed for those hunting under a regular firearms license during the firearms season.
North Dakota: Allowed for disabled archers with permit. Allowed during the regular firearm and muzzleloader deer seasons. Crossbows cannot have magnifying scopes (1X only) during the muzzleloading season.
South Dakota: Allowed for disabled bowhunters only.