October 06, 2018
By Brad Fenson
Hunting with a crossbow is exciting, but you must know your effective range to take and make ethical shots.
My heart rate doubled when I saw two sets of antlers coming toward me in the creek bottom. The prairie deer had stark-white bone growing from their heads, making the beams and points stand out like a neon sign. Seconds later, the bucks disappeared into a long, thick shelterbelt.
The duo created quite a stir in the woods, as does, fawns and small bucks darted through the tangle of limbs. The rut was starting, and the biggest buck was obviously in charge, as all the other deer took note of his presence. I watched the buck chasing a doe about 400-yards down the treeline.
My tranquil setting returned to normal, as deer slowly filtered out of the trees to feed.
I was startled when the target buck showed up directly in front of me, along the fence. I quickly ranged him at 72 yards and watched intently through my scope as he turned broadside, jumped the fence, and cut the distance to 65 yards. I had made the shot dozens of times earlier that day at targets but didn’t dare pull the trigger on a live animal, as there is just too much that can go wrong in a split second.
Reverse draw crossbows are incredibly narrow, and subsequently incredibly maneuverable, making difficult shots much easier.
KNOW YOUR EFFECTIVE RANGE
The buck never stayed in one place for long, and as the sun set, I watched him chase another doe through the trees. With shadows getting long, the buck returned to the green sprouts of rye growing in the field I was watching and slowly fed toward me.The nice 10-point buck was now just 35 yards in front of me but almost head-on. I patiently waited, and minutes later the buck was quartering away, head down feeding, at 46 yards. The breeze rustling through the trees meant the buck never heard my crossbow launch an arrow in its direction, passing clean through the vitals. The buck ran 45 yards and fell into the long grass on the edge of the trees.
Ethical hunters must know their effective range to make principled shots in the field. However, very few archers know their effective range, choosing their shots while in the field on a whim.
There is a significant difference between how far you can shoot an arrow out of a crossbow and what is an ethical shot at a live animal.
The “effective range” should be defined by what your arrow will do in the millisecond it is released from the string of your bow until it finds the target.
Crossbow enthusiasts are bombarded with advertisements, and marketing campaigns focused on the speed of a bow. Have you ever noticed nobody ever mentions the speed of an arrow beyond 50 yards? What about arrow trajectory? Do you think a headline stating, “with a new crossbow, your arrow only drops 100 inches at 100 yards” would sell crossbows?
The truth of the matter is that crossbows are limited in range for hunting no matter how fast they spit an arrow off the rail, and there are several ways you can see and determine the effective range for yourself.
I’ve always been adamant about only shooting at an animal at a range I’ve shot at a target. Nothing makes me cringe more than hearing someone tell me they shot at a critter at a distance they’ve never ground-truthed with their bow. Even worse, some hunters rely on the predetermined range crosshairs in their scope to chance a shot, without ever verifying if the crosshair is accurate.
A STARTING POINT
Set up your target at 20 yards and sight in the main crosshair on your scope. When you have it dialed in to shoot a 1-inch group or less, move your target to 30 yards. Before you mess with another crosshair, shoot your 20-yard-justified crosshair and see what happens to your arrow. The information you gain can help you in the field when hunting, knowing the exact drop in arrow trajectory from 20 to 30 yards.
Repeat the exercise at 40 and 50 yards.
Now, go back and try your scope’s predetermined range crosshair to see if you can shoot as accurately as you did at 20 yards. The calibration of scopes is rarely dead-on accurate, so tweaking with the speed setting on the scope may be required.When you shoot your 40- and 50-yard distances with the appropriate crosshair in your scope, see if your arrow’s point of impact is on target, or if you consistently hit high or low. The farther you try to shoot, the more the inaccuracy of the scope shows up on target.
If your arrows are hitting the bull’s eye at 20 yards, but are off target at longer ranges, try zeroing your scope at a longer range. Use your third crosshair, designed to send your arrow into the target with accuracy at 40 yards and tweak it until it is dead-on. Now work backward, and you’ll often find the 20- and 30-yard crosshairs line up better. Trajectory over distance increases, so using a 40-yard target to dial in your crossbow can help get you ready for hunting.
Crossbows are limited in range for hunting no matter how fast they spit an arrow off the rail, and there are several ways you can see and determine the effective range for yourself.
How accurate do your arrows fly at different distances? If your three-shot group continues to grow with the distance shot, it will help define your limitations for an ethical shot. If you can’t keep an arrow in a baseball-sized area on the target, please don’t think you are ready to hunt.
Nothing tightens a three-shot group at any distance better than practice. The more you shoot, and tweak your speed setting on your scopes, the better you’ll be dialed in at any distance.
WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?
Shooting accurately beyond 50 yards means you are ready to hunt, and it may even lead you to believe you could harvest an animal at long range. There are a few exercises you can do to clearly show the limitations of a crossbow and the heavy arrows they shoot.
While hunting axis deer in Texas, I had a 43-yard shot at a nice buck standing broadside. Just as I squeezed the trigger, the buck took a step forward, causing my arrow to be 12 inches off the mark. Instead of being tucked in close behind the shoulder blade, my arrow stuck the animal just in front of the hindquarters. Luckily, my broadhead severed the renal artery leading to the kidney, and the animal only went 70 yards.
If I had the same circumstances happen at 60 or 70 yards my hunt would’ve ended in disaster. A 50-yard shot is the breaking point for speed and impact of an arrow under ideal conditions. Add a little movement, or environmental factors, and anything beyond 50 yards becomes heartache.
The debate over an ethical hunting distance shot will always exist, but there are a few things you can do to show the limitations and improve your success rate. Who doesn’t have a smart phone these days? Nothing shows the arch of an arrow over its flight better than a video, or even better, slow-motion video. Have someone video your arrow flight to target over your shoulder so you can see the trajectory.
Then, have the same video shot from a side angle, where your camera operator is safe from potential hazard. The side angle of an arrow in flight may astonish most crossbow enthusiasts. While some shooters can shoot an archery target consistently and successfully at 100 yards or more with modern crossbows, when you see the trajectory, and how the arrow slows in flight, you’ll quickly understand why 50 yards is a great benchmark to set for maximum distance for hunting.
A crossbow shooting a 448-grain arrow at 450 fps (a scorching fast crossbow) will drop 69.5 inches at 100 yards. That is almost 6 feet of arrow drop. A whole lot can go wrong when the path of an arrow has close to 70 inches of drop. The speed at 100 yards is what can cause problems. If your target animal takes a single step, your arrow could miss it cleanly or worse; you could wound it.
Putting a 3D deer decoy on a track would be a fantastic way to see what happens when an animal takes a step as you fire your crossbow. The decoy could start and stop without notice and you could try to shoot it in the vitals at various ranges. The engineering is more than most of us want to tackle, so take an empty soda bottle and fill it half full of water. Tie it to a branch or tether over your target and let it swing back and forth like a pendulum. Try to shoot the moving target at 20, 30, 40 and 50 yards (make sure you have a suitable arrow backstop behind the moving bottle). The information you gain will be invaluable to your decision-making process on how far to ethically shoot at an animal.
The bottle does not have to be moving fast to prove a point. A little movement means your arrow is not on the mark. In an ideal world, a stationary target is what we dream of, but one that jumps the string, takes a step or two, or moves without notice can quickly spell disaster. And, don’t forget that your heart rate will increase drastically when you have a deer centered in your scope, and you can easily pull the shot, or be a little off mark, and your hunt will be ruined by an imperfect arrow hit.
Hunting out of ground blinds or treestands can quickly go sour when you consider arrow trajectory. An arrow shot through the blind material will never find its mark, and when you are looking at targets beyond 50 yards, what you see in the scope isn’t necessarily what your arrow is pointing at off the rail — up close. Shoot targets out of your blind and stand, so you understand arrow trajectory and the issues associated with your limbs or arrows sticking something unexpected.
BE THE BEST YOU CAN BE
Bowhunting isn’t about pushing your equipment to its maximum potential; it’s more about honing individual skills to get close and harvest an animal in a way that makes you proud. If you want to shoot an animal at 100 yards, perhaps you should wait till the firearms season? Crossbows are an exciting and challenging way to hunt. It is your responsibility to become very familiar with your equipment and know your effective range, so you can make the most of your time in the field.