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An Ancient Weapon for Contemporary Hunters

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The crossbow is such an excellent and logical weapon that both ancient Chinese and Mediterranean civilizations developed it independently prior to the first century. Both early crossbows incorporated some means of drawing the bowstring to firing position and a trigger to release it. But the differences in the designs from those two cultures demonstrate that they weren’t e-mailing blueprints back and forth. The crossbow was an early and obvious answer to the question, “What should I shoot?”

The Modern Crossbow

Today, crossbows are an obvious answer to that same question. While some bow and rifle hunters once scorned crossbows, they have recently become more popular. This is due in part to relaxed hunting regulations in many states. But it’s also a product of awareness. Hunters have come to realize that crossbows are accurate, powerful, quiet, safe and economical. Offering the stability of a gun coupled with the aiming and trajectory challenges of bow hunting, the crossbow is enjoying a renaissance.

Among the crossbow’s advantages over a traditional bow is that it can be precocked before the game is in range. With a bow, drawing the string can make it difficult to steady the weapon and can spook the animal.

Because the crossbow can be precocked, safety considerations are paramount. Like rifles, crossbows are equipped with devices to help prevent accidental firing. But you have to be aware of how they function and employ them consistently.

The Recurve Crossbow

Today’s crossbow is the product of thousands of years of development. Recurve versions, which most closely resemble the medieval weapons, have a reverse curve at the end of each limb, and the string attaches directly to the limbs. Recurve crossbows are quiet when fired. That’s a plus. They’re also relatively light in comparison to a compound crossbow. Because the cocking string is simply looped over the ends of the limbs, it can be changed in the field if it breaks.


The Compound Crossbow

Many modern crossbows are of a compound design. The draw is shorter than that of a recurve, so a cam system is employed to maximize delivery velocity and enable substantial draw weights. Because compound crossbows generate quite a bit of vibration, they are noisier than recurves. Restringing a compound crossbow is a complicated affair due to the cam assemblies. It’s best not attempted in the field.

The Crossbow in Action

The projectiles that are fired by a crossbow, which are called bolts, are shorter than arrows yet heavier. Due to their weight, they hit with considerable force on impact. Bolts are generally available in lengths of 16–22 inches, and with aluminum or carbon shafts. Carbon bolts are costly, but they will retain more velocity downrange than their aluminum counterparts.

The most powerful crossbows have draw weights of about 200 pounds and can generate a delivery speed of over 350 feet per second. Entry level weapons might have a draw weight of about 120 pounds and a delivery speed of 225 feet per second. High-end crossbows are generally lighter and more compact than the less expensive weapons.

The most basic crossbows are usually cocked by hand, while somewhat more expensive models come with a cocking assist device. Cocking mechanisms are also available as accessories that can be mounted on a crossbow stock. Hand cocking can lead to uneven loading of the limbs, which will make accurate firing impossible.

While some crossbow hunters work with a basic sight, a quality scope is almost essential for long range shooting. The least expensive scopes are nothing more than a tube through which you can look and target your prey. More advanced scopes, including both those that use a red dot for sighting and those that employ crosshairs, provide a means of gauging range and adjusting for the effect of gravity. Both have to be calibrated on a target range to work correctly with your equipment. For this, you’ll want to use the type of broadhead with which you’ll be hunting.

The Crossbow in the Field

Crossbow hunting offers many of the challenges of bow hunting. While powerful crossbows can bring down a deer at distances somewhat beyond that of a bow, you still have to get close. That means you have to know your hunting ground and choose a site where deer are likely to graze. Once you’ve chosen a site, analyze the landscape and select an ambush position. To get close enough for a kill, which for all but the most proficient hunters is about 40 yards, you’ll need a blind or a treestand. Finally, you have to be patient. Shooting before the prey is in range is the most common cause of failure in the field.

Of course, you should be proficient with the weapon. Only a well-placed bolt will bring down your prey. As with any weapon, accuracy with a crossbow is a skill that has to be acquired. A steady hold and smooth release are essential and can only be developed with practice. Those skills are easier to master with a crossbow than with a conventional bow, but proficiency is difficult to attain with either. If you can’t place bolts tightly on target at 40 yards or so, you’re not likely to end up with meat in the freezer.

The Point at the Point of Impact


The difference between a quick and humane kill and a wounded animal on the run is often determined by the effectiveness of the broadhead on the end of the bolt. Because broadheads are available in a wide range of configurations and a variety of weights, choosing the right one for your hunt requires a bit of research.

First and foremost, the broadhead should be matched to the prey. You don’t want to try to bring down a grizzly bear with a broadhead designed for shooting carp. Big game  requires a broadhead that will produce maximum impact on entry and cut a large hole. That same broadhead will turn the carp into fish fertilizer.

Some experts recommend that novice crossbow hunters who aren’t yet capable of tuning their crossbow and sighting the device for accuracy should use expandable broadheads, which are sometimes called mechanical broadheads. Because the cutting blades remain retracted until impact, the bolt will fly straighter than one fitted with a fixed-blade broadhead. Expandable broadheads enable a higher flight speed, since they are aerodynamically cleaner than fixed-blade broadheads.

Fixed-blade broadheads require more tuning of your targeting equipment to ensure accuracy. You can’t simply switch from a field tip to a fixed-blade broadhead and expect to achieve the same accuracy in the field that you were getting on the target range. In other words, you have to devote some target time to firing fixed-blade broadheads and calibrating your scope if you expect to come home with game.

Weight is a consideration as well. A heavier broadhead won’t fly as fast as a lighter one, but it hits with a lot of force and can be very accurate. Many hunters are now using 125- or 150-grain broadheads when deer hunting, and they’re getting results.

Your broadhead blades should be sharpened after every shot when possible.  While you should practice with a broadhead, reserve one or two just for that purpose. Don’t dull or damage your field equipment on the range. When using expandable broadheads, make sure the blades move freely and are sharp and clean before using them a second time.

-Deer Abby

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