An increasing numbers of firearms hunters are adding weeks to their annual deer hunting by picking up crossbows and moving into archery seasons. The design of its stock, trigger, and sights are all familiar. Crossbow hunting is currently one of the fastest-growing sectors of the hunting market, with more states accommodating crossbow hunter every year.
But crossbow hunting is also burdened with misconceptions, among the public, firearms hunters and conventional vertical-bow hunters. Most of these misconceptions can be readily resolved by a clear understanding of what a crossbow is, and what a crossbow is not.
First and most important, a crossbow is NOT a firearm, nor does it have anything close to the velocity or impact capability of a firearm. A crossbow is purely an archery tool that fires an arrow with the same range, power, trajectory characteristics, susceptibility to wind, and killing power as a conventional bow. At the same time, crossbows are not particularly easier to hunt with than a conventional bow. Most fully equipped deer-hunting crossbows weigh considerably more than a typical compound bow (or hunting rifle, for that matter), and are consequently more burdensome to carry and maneuver quickly.
In fact, the only real difference between a crossbow and a conventional bow is that once cocked at full draw, a crossbow string requires no continuing muscle power to remain ready until the arrow is released by its trigger. This is what makes a crossbow particularly appropriate for youngsters, women, and growing numbers of older hunters with age-related reduction in upper body strength.
RELATED PHOTO GALLERY: World-Class Crossbow Bucks
To those who say it's much easier to take a deer with a crossbow than a conventional bow just because it has a shoulder stock and trigger, I ask, "Have you tried it?"
Another misconception, particularly common among firearms hunters contemplating a crossbow as a choice for moving into the archery season, is that only the most powerful models are appropriate for deer hunting. Not true.
MANY WEIGHT CHOICES
Crossbows are available in a wide range of velocity and penetration capabilities, the same as the caliber and cartridge choices offered to hunters using firearms. A general guide to crossbow selection, based on the minimum recommended energy necessary to effectively take various types of game, is actually the same scale as for conventional compound bows.
For heavy-bodied and dangerous game, such as moose, grizzly bear, or even Cape buffalo, a peak draw weight of 175 to 200 pounds delivering more than 80 feet-pound of energy is recommended. A beefy crossbow like that is difficult to cock, and even the strongest hunters often use a cocking aid. For big game such as elk, caribou, or black bear, a crossbow with a 175-pound peak draw weight will suffice. It should deliver 65-80 foot-pounds of energy with a more moderate cocking effort.
For medium game such as deer, antelope, or turkey, a crossbow with a 150-pound peak-draw weight will deliver 40-65 foot-pounds of energy, with relatively comfortable cocking effort. Crossbows in all these categories are available with mechanical cocking devices, which are extremely beneficial to hunters with lesser or diminished arm and shoulder strength.
MATCH GEAR TO GAME
Both with firearms and with archery tools, it is critical to match your equipment to the game. Unlike a firearm, an arrow kills purely by hemorrhage, not by bone-breaking shock. They therefore require vital organ penetration and cutting effectiveness. Like conventional bows, crossbows have been successful at taking virtually every type of big game animal on the planet. Still, the hunter must thoroughly understand his crossbow's trajectory and limitations. Again, the rules are the same as for other archers.
For best penetration on heavy boned animals, a fixed-blade broadhead with a heavy arrow is best. When hunting smaller, thinner-skinned game, you can get improved accuracy and a flatter trajectory with an expandable broadhead. Making the selection of a correct arrow and broadhead combination is no different than for conventional bowhunting, or choosing the right hunting bullet with a specific caliber firearm.
There are as many choices of crossbow arrows as conventional archery arrows or hunting ammunition. The same attention to choice, practice, and experience is required of the ethical hunter.
It's also critical for a firearms hunter moving into the archery world to know his quarry's anatomy and look at it with the eye of a bowhunter instead of a rifleman. A newly sharpened broadhead that passes through both lungs or penetrates the hearts of a big game animal will put it down in seconds, same as a gun. But with a bow the only shooting angles that will reliably deliver this result are broadside or quartering away. Frontside and quartering approach angles only set you up to hit one lung, and armor the heart, off-side lung, and the rest of the thoracic cavity with bone. Avoid this shot.
Crossbows are shoulder-fired, have a trigger and scope sight. But that doesn't mean they can reach out to rifle distances. The maximum recommended hunting shot range with a crossbow is 40 yards. A modern hunting crossbow zeroed at 20 yards will impact its arrows approximately 20 inches low at 40 yards, depending on their weight and flight characteristics. Most optical and mechanical sights available for modern crossbows feature multi-range sighting points, typically set for 20-yard, 30-yard, and 40-yard distances. Each crossbow and arrow combination will vary. Shoot each sighting point at a known yardage to verify your particular setup. Practice shooting at unknown yardages, and practice marking yardages to targets in the woods during the off season. A laser rangefinder is a vital tool for modern hunters of all kinds.
Plus, due to the "rainbow" trajectory associated with any type of archery tool, it's a really good idea to establish clear and open shooting lanes from your tree stands and ground blinds. It's really disconcerting to release a perfectly aimed shot at a clear-view trophy, and have your arrow clip a twig on a branch you never considered because it was hanging just above your line-of-sight. Been there, done that.
And please, never think that a crossbow (or any archery tool, for that matter) is inherently "safer" than a firearm just because it isn't a gun. You need to be just as safety-conscious with a crossbow as with your rifle -- perhaps even more so, when it's still new and unfamiliar in your hands. That's why all crossbows have manual safeties, and many even have grip safeties.
RELATED READ: 11 Must-Know Crossbow Safety Tips
Don't allow your hands near the rail in front of the cocked bowstring. And remember that when you fire a crossbow, the arms jump out wider -- which will give you an unpleasant surprise if you didn't allow clearance for a tree branch or your blind's window.
There are nearly as many crossbows and feature-packages available today as there are conventional bows or firearms. The best are phenomenally accurate and effective within their range. When I first got my Illinois crossbow permit, I ordered a TenPoint Crossbow Technologies ProElite package that came equipped with matched arrows and all accessories and a pre-mounted, pre-zeroed 3X three-reticle scope sight. I took it out of the hardcase, studied the instructions, cranked the mechanical draw mechanism, loaded an arrow, and benchrested it at a 30-yard sighting target.
I removed the arrow from the target and repeated the shot. Same exact hole. Out-of-the-box.