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.
The primary disadvantage of compounds is the extra weight from the various mechanisms that define a compound bow. While various manufacturers offer models with carbon stocks to decrease the weight, compound crossbows tend to be front-heavy, making them difficult to shoulder for longer periods. That's not a problem at the range, but it might be if a hunter is waiting for a buck to offer a perfect shot.
"I'd compare it to holding a vertical bow at full draw for a few minutes," says John Urban. "After a while, your arms start to give and you can't hold as steady."
A standard compound crossbow can weigh 10 pounds or more, although Barnett's Ghost 400, which is made with a carbon riser, weighs just 7.8 pounds. Other manufacturers are building bows with carbon stocks, as well. There are various devices, monopods and body braces, for instance, that help reduce the physical strain, but both can be somewhat cumbersome.
They also have more moving parts, which can prove problematic when things go wrong in the field. Try restringing a compound crossbow without a bow press.
One of the most innovative and unique styles of crossbows to hit the market in recent years is the reverse-draw crossbow. As its name implies, the limbs are actually backwards on the stock and rest behind the scope and in front of the shooter's face, making it look like the bow is pointing toward the shooter. It is, but the arrow points forward, of course, and the limbs and string are actually remarkably similar to a standard compound crossbow.
"There really isn't much difference, other than the bow itself is reversed on the riser," says Stephen Graham of Horton Archery.
But if they are so similar to a compound, what's the benefit? Plenty, says Graham. The primary advantage, he notes, is better balance. Because the limbs are attached farther back on the bow between the foregrip and the butt, the weight is evenly distributed to both hands. That not only helps accuracy, it helps hunters hold the bow longer when they can't take a shot right away.
Reverse-draw crossbows are also considerably narrower than standard compounds. Horton's Havoc, for example, is under 11 inches wide at full draw, compared to its Team Realtree, a standard compound crossbow that is more than 19 inches wide at full draw. A few inches may not seem like a big deal, but it can be when you are walking through thick cover to get to and from your stand. Wider limbs can also prove cumbersome when shooting from a ground blind.
One of the biggest advantages, adds Graham, is the reduced noise.
"The shorter limbs help reduce overall noise," he says. "In fact, that's the No. 1 one comment we get from our customers who try one of our reverse draws for the first time. There's no question that hunters like that feature."
They like that feature so much, the company's two reverse-draw models are their biggest selling crossbows. Demand for them is strong, says Graham.
Although "new" and "innovative" are often keywords for "more expensive," that's not the case with most reverse draw crossbows. Horton's Havoc model, for example, is $699, a price that includes everything a hunter needs to get into the woods without buying the necessary accessories. It comes equipped with a bore-sighted scope, a quiver, three arrows and a cocking sled.
The only disadvantage of a reverse-draw crossbow is the same disadvantage of a standard compound crossbow: It's a little heavier than a recurve, and it has more moving parts and thus could be more prone to problems after repeated use.
Crossbows prices are all over the place, with the least expensive models selling for around $300 and the most expensive running well over a thousand dollars. John Urban gladly paid a steep price for his, not only because he wanted a model with features he found important, but also because he heard great things about TenPoint's outstanding customer service. All of the major crossbow manufacturers back up their products with good warranties and customer service, so what you choose may depend entirely on what you can afford.
"Get the best you can buy," advises Urban. "I don't think I really had a dollar amount in mind when I first started looking at crossbows, so I wasn't swayed by the higher cost of the TenPoint crossbows. I know I was willing to pay a little more to get a high-quality bow."
He didn't buy the company's most expensive model, the Carbon Fusion, which retails for around a whopping $2,000, but for some hunters, cost isn't a barrier to their purchasing decisions. For most hunters, however, it is. The good news is that a high-quality package will run in the neighborhood of $600 or $700, about the same price as a high-quality vertical compound bow kit. Recurve compounds tend to be the least expensive, but even they can cost upwards of $600.
The final cost of any crossbow will usually depend on the various features and accessories it includes. You can buy a bare bow and then add accessories as you can afford them or as you need them, or you can buy a kit bow. Many manufacturers offer kits that come ready to shoot, complete with scope, quiver and even enough arrows to get started. You may have to assemble it, but it's an easy process that can take just a few minutes.
No matter what type of crossbow you choose, you'll be glad you took the plunge. They are a great alternative to vertical bows and allow anyone the opportunity to spend more time in the woods.