Crossbow Hunting Whitetails

Crossbow Hunting Whitetails
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

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.


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.


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.


In my experience, ground or box blinds are extremely effective for crossbow deer hunters. Blinds allow the hunter to sit comfortably and move frequently without being detected, and they make multi-directional shooting opportunities under all conditions, including wind, rain, snow and heat, possible. Blinds also tend to contain human scent, allowing deer to approach well within shooting range without being alerted by an errant breeze.

On one recent Texas hunt, for example, it was so hot in my blind that I stripped down to shorts during the middle of the day. Despite the heat, I was able to shoot several wild hogs, a javelina and, on the last day of the trip, a 150-class buck that ran out of the cactus just as the noontime temperature hit 100 degrees!

Crossbow blinds should be large, with openings at least 8 inches in height on all sides to allow for the height of the crossbow scope over the limbs, barrel and stock.

The blind hunter should consider using shooting sticks, a monopod or thigh-pod to minimize attention-getting movement when whitetails are in range. At the first sign of deer approaching, raise the crossbow and get into a loose shooting position until the trophy can be assessed and the decision to shoot is made. At that point, slowly take aim, flip off the safety and take the shot.

Most commercial ground blinds are camo-colored or black on the inside. When hunting out of a homemade box blind, be sure to paint the inside walls dark brown or black so that a deer looking in won't detect movement or your silhouette against the lighter wall behind you.

Range estimation at dawn and dusk can be difficult, especially when a blind is set up along a field edge or food plot. A mistake in range estimation of just 10 yards can result in a miss or a wounded animal, so it's important to place range markers at 20, 30 and 40 yards. These can be as subtle as a pile of leaves, a twist of grass or a fallen tree branch. Use a rangefinder to verify the yardage and then place your markers accordingly. Wait quietly inside the blind with your crossbow at the ready till your target steps into your pre-determined kill zone.


Despite their rifle-like design, crossbows are just vehicles for launching arrows. The maximum effective range of a crossbow under hunting conditions is just 40 yards, though these implements are capable of sending an arrow in flight some 500 yards or more. Such extremes do not make the rule, however. Sight in for 20, 30 and 40 yards using the standard supplied reticle or dot scope, and then let experience and prudence guide your decisions on taking longer shots.

Crossbows have been used to kill elephants, Cape buffalo, grizzlies, and brown and polar bears. In Ohio last year, some 50,000 whitetails were tagged by crossbow hunters, so there is no question that a crossbow arrow will kill a deer.

However, arrow placement is the key to a successful hunt. The perennial odds-on favorite shot is midway up the body and directly behind the shoulder. An arrow driving a razor-edged broadhead into the chest area from any angle will damage lungs, heart and liver and put the animal down very quickly. Blood sign will be copious, and death normally occurs within seconds.

Crossbow hunters should keep in mind that arrows are not magic wands and broadheads are not bullets. Shots aimed at the neck, shoulders, spine or head are likely to wound rather than kill the animal, although many deer hit by errant broadheads will die later, and sometimes miles away, due to blood loss, infection or shock. Coyotes and other scavengers will take care of the rest.

Despite manufacturers' claims of the "bone-crushing" capabilities of their arrows or broadheads, crushing bone should not be foremost in the crossbow hunter's mind. The larger bones in a whitetail's neck, shoulders and legs can easily deflect a broadhead, and when an arrow penetrates only to the bone the animal may be badly injured but will most likely escape and be lost.

Crossbow arrows are as efficient as we can make them, but there is always room for error. The wise crossbowhunter will avoid risky trick shots at the head, neck, spine or shoulder, and go for the proven money shot, halfway up and directly behind the shoulder. A sturdy broadhead will slice through or between the ribs and penetrate the heart-lung area with ease, most often producing a through-and-through shot that will leave the bloody arrow lying in the leaves 5 or 10 yards past the deer. The blood-covered arrow will tell the hunter he's made a good hit, and with a large exit and entrance wound, there should be blood sign galore leading directly to your trophy.

Nothing is more discouraging for the hunter than finding minimal blood on the arrow, a few specks of blood in the trail and then nothing after 30 or 40 yards. It's the hunter's responsibility to follow up on every shot he makes, spending hours if necessary to recover the animal. I have been in on too many marathon deer tracking episodes where the blood trail fizzled out and the poorly hit animal was never recovered. I highly recommend the behind-the-shoulder shot for every hunter, crossbows included.

In a nutshell, the keys to a successful crossbow hunt are:

1) Scout your hunting area in late summer.

2) Set up your stands or blinds for crossbow shooting with well-defined shooting lanes and pre-set range markers.

3) Keep your shots to 40 yards or less.

Wait for the odds-on heart-lung shot, and put that first arrow where it will do the most good. The rest is gravy!

Following these simple rules last year, I made five one-shot kills on deer in three states using my crossbow. The longest tracking job was less than 50 yards.

Several deer presented questionable shots that I knew would not end well, and so I let them walk. Compared to wounding and losing a deer, passed shots are much easier to live with, and I can always go back and try again next season!

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