Using a modern crossbow can open up a new world of hunting opportunity.
I was introduced to the world of modern crossbow hunting back in 2006 when my friend Rick Bednar, owner of TenPoint Crossbows, invited me on an Ohio whitetail hunt. What you have to understand is that Rick was not an “elitist” crossbow guy. In fact, in college Rick was three-time NCAA archery champion and qualified for the 1976 U.S. Olympic archery team (which boycotted the games for political reasons, so Rick never had a chance to compete at that level.) He was and is a very serious archer and bowhunter. Given his background, I figured if there was something to this crossbow stuff a hardcore archer like Bednar would show me.
Before we went hunting Rick taught me the ropes on how modern crossbows work and how to safely operate and shoot them (it’s not rocket science.) But what really got my attention was when Rick brought in a buck that first evening that gross-scored 174 SCI points. My, my, my, I thought, maybe there is something to this crossbow thing after all.
As the years have gone by, I’ve stayed a serious bowhunter who used compound bows almost exclusively. Part of it was my job, but part of it was a bit of snobbery, too. As long as I could hunt with my compounds successfully, I thought, why use a crossbow? And part of it was the fact that most states did not allow crossbows to be used during regular archery-only hunting seasons. Why handicap myself, I also thought, and hunt with a crossbow during a gun season?
In the 2020s, that has all changed. The crossbow segment is the fastest-growing portion of the bowhunting industry. “Hunting with crossbows has grown in popularity primarily because it offers hunting opportunities to a larger group of sportsmen,” said my friend Brady Arview, VP of Brand, Hunt, for Plano Synergy, parent company of SCI supporter Barnett Crossbows. “Initial growth was attributed to the use of crossbows by gun hunters to be able to extend their seasons into archery season, even if they are not proficient with, or have a physical problem that will not let them draw and shoot, a compound bow. Second, it allows more women and kids to hunt during the archery season. Third, it allows more hunters to hunt in urban areas that consist of smaller tracts of land that are easier to obtain than larger leased properties.”
The Crossbow Advantage
Besides the fact that they are really fun to both shoot and hunt with, there are three big reasons to consider crossbow hunting. First, it takes much less set-up and practice to consistently shoot a crossbow accurately than traditional or compound bows. With compounds, you have to have the bow fitted to you, select the proper arrow length and spine, set up the sight just right and spend a lot of time tuning it until the arrows fly perfectly. Then, you have to spend at least a day – and often several days – just getting it sighted-in. And then comes the practice time. To be proficient with a modern compound bow takes a tremendous time commitment. In the months leading up to bow seasons, I shoot a few arrows out of my compounds virtually every day just to get my shooting muscles in shape and my shooting form up to snuff. Also, with compounds there always seems to be something that needs to be tweaked to keep it working perfectly.
The best modern hunting crossbows come ready to go right out of the box, or with minimal set-up. The scope sight – yes, they are affixed with an optic, generally a low-power multi-stadia variable scope – that has been pre-sighted-in to match the included arrows, arrow point weight and arrow speed. Sure, you have to check the zero and occasionally make a small adjustment but compared to what it takes to get a compound bow ready to rock, it’s night and day.
Second, for a family of bowhunters, compound and traditional bows are fitted exactly to the individual. That means every hunter needs his or her own bow, arrows and accessories – something that can get very pricey very fast. But with very few exceptions, every family member can shoot the same crossbow. That means on family hunts, you can often switch who shoots and who observes with the same crossbow and accessories. It’s far less expensive and there is less stuff to pack. Together with another couple, my wife Cheryl and I took advantage of this this past spring when we went turkey hunting in Kansas. We had two crossbows between us and hunting in pairs we simply switched off between shooter and observer with the same crossbow. It worked out nicely.
Third and perhaps most importantly, crossbow hunting is now legal for all hunters during archery-only seasons in 29 states, primarily in southern and Midwestern whitetail country but also out West in Wyoming. They’re also legal in most other states with caveats (legal during gun seasons or for those who physically cannot draw and shoot a compound or traditional bow, for example.) Only one state, Oregon, for some strange reason, allows no crossbow hunting at any time. They’re also legal in many places outside the U.S. I know of several hunters who have taken game up to and including Cape buffalo in Africa with a crossbow.
Many archery-only seasons in the U.S. occur during breeding seasons, leaving out the firearms hunters. This is, of course, when the trophy-class bucks and bulls are most vulnerable. Want to take advantage of them without the time commitment required to be a proficient compound bow hunter? Pick up a crossbow and go hunting. I saw this firsthand on a bow hunt for elk in Wyoming in 2019, where I shot a bull with my compound and watched two other Midwesterners take bulls with their crossbows. Those two would never have had the opportunity unless they were able to hunt with their horizontal bows. This, to me, is a very big reason for dyed-in-the-wool firearms hunters to look at the crossbow.
Lastly, when cocked the crossbow hunter does not have to draw and hold the bowstring at full draw like you do with a compound bow. This is a huge advantage. The crossbow’s forearm can also be rested on shooting sticks, the windowsill of a shooting house, or locked into the body or shot from the prone position the same way you would a rifle, making it a much more accurate weapon. And make no mistake – crossbows are so accurate that when practicing, you don’t want to shoot at the same target spot at most reasonable distances or you will hit and wreck the previous arrow. For example, with two of my crossbows, shooting either off a bench or prone, I can routinely place my arrow inside coffee cup lid at 100 yards – and well inside an inch at under 50 yards.
Crossbows Are Not Firearms
Though they look and are fired more like a rifle than a vertical bow, there the similarity ends. Crossbows may have an optic sight, crisp trigger and safety, but their projectiles perform like what they are – short, heavy arrows fired at a relatively slow speed. For example, one of 2020’s hottest new crossbows, the Barnett Hyperflight EVO 420, sends its 22-inch-long arrow off at 420 feet per second (fps.) That’s a fast arrow from any crossbow. The arcing trajectory means that at a distance of 50 yards, if you misjudge the range by a mere +/- 3 yards, you’ll shoot over or under a whitetail deer’s chest. Also, even a light breeze will push the arrow measurably sideways. Taken together, that means that long-range hunting – and here we mean shooting at anything past 60 yards, if that – is iffy for even the most accomplished shooter. It’s also imperative that crossbow hunters, like other bowhunters, use a laser rangefinder so they know the exact distance to the target.
Like with compound bows, a crossbow’s bowstring must be routinely maintained. Frequently waxing the string and checking for nicks is important. Also important is lubricating the rail, that flat surface over which the bowstring races at the shot. It’s a high friction area that will quickly destroy the string if you don’t use a slick lube every 5 to 10 shots.
Cocking the string is done in one of two ways. First, you first place the bow vertically with the bow’s front end on the ground, secure it with your foot, then draw the string back. The most common method is to use a rope cocker, in which you use your shoulder muscles to physically draw the string back until it’s “cocked and locked.” However, some high-end crossbows employ a built-in cranking device that allows you to easily draw the string by cranking a handle. This is easy and consistent.
I have found that there are three disadvantages to hunting with a crossbow compared to using a compound bow. Essentially, a crossbow is a single-shot weapon. The amount of time, noise and movement involved in cocking the string and loading another arrow makes a rapid second shot all but impossible. A crossbow is also heavy, bulky and unwieldy. Packing one in mountain country, maneuvering one for a shot that’s not right in front of you while sitting in a tree stand, or shooting accurately without some sort of rest are a pain in the petunias. There’s just no such thing as a quick shot. I did spend a lot of time in 2019 practice shooting from a tree stand to see what was possible, and was pleasantly surprised to find that I could lock my position well enough without using a shooting stick to be able to shoot very accurately out to 50 yards or so. And while a few newer crossbows have a de-cocking feature that allows you to let the string down without firing the bow (TenPoint’s ACUslide Cocking and Decocking System, Stryker Crossbow’s Decocking Feature, and Mission Crossbow’s Benchmark Fire Control technology are three examples), most require that, at the end of the day, to de-cock the bow you have to replace your broadhead-tipped arrow with one with a field point attached, then shoot it either into the ground or a target back at camp or your vehicle.
Finally, top-end modern crossbows are not inexpensive. The best packages, which include a scope sight, cocking device and a handful of arrows, can cost a little north of two grand. Of course there are many more inexpensive models to choose from, too; you can purchase a really good package for half that. When considering cost, I try and remember this – a top-end crossbow will last decades; the only thing you’ll probably have to replace is the bowstring and buy some more arrows.
Crossbow hunting can open up a new world of opportunity not just for older and disabled sportsmen, but for dyed-in-the-wool firearms hunters, too. They’re also a lot of fun to play with on the range and seem to draw the attention of nonhunters and shooters. That just might be one more way to begin to pique their interest about the world of hunting. There’s no down side to any of that!–Bob Robb