This fall using a crossbow will (finally) be an option for all Missouri bowhunters. That’s all well and good, but what criteria should an individual bowhunter–be he or she a novice or an expert–use to decide whether or not to exercise that option?
Since I was “lucky” enough to have undergone a series of shoulder surgeries about 20 years ago, I’ve been able to amass a considerable body of experience bowhunting with crossbows. Some of that experience has been a pragmatic success in that the 25 deer and 10 turkeys I’ve killed so far are a rough statistical equivalent to my prior success rate per hour expended when I was able to shoot compound and recurve bows. More important, the past two decades have given me ample opportunity to learn how to separate the facts from the fallacies that continue to spew forth from both the proponents and opponents of this ancient form of archery.
For my money the most dangerous fallacy about crossbows is that they have a longer effective range than bows with vertical limbs. This is not and never has been the case. In Medieval times, the crossbow was an infantry weapon, and the longbow was the equivalent of modern day artillery. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this is the Battle of Agincourt, at the beginning of which a few thousand English archers armed with longbows launched over 400,000 arrows in less than 10 minutes, decimating a numerically superior force long before it could bring its weapons to bear.
It is true that, all other things being equal, an individual with prior experience with firearms and no prior archery experience could probably learn to shoot pie plate-sized groups out to 25 or 30 yards in less time with a crossbow than with a vertical bow. Beyond that distance, however, archery rapidly literally becomes archery, and the superiority of vertical bows over crossbows increases exponentially as distance to the target increases. In other words, if your goal is to hunt game at sensible distances, a crossbow can be a good choice. Conversely, if you’ve got a burning desire to reach out and touch a paper target, let alone intend a living animal, way on out there, buy the best compound bow you can afford and spend most of your free time practicing.
The biggest advantage offered by crossbows is the ability to aim and fire that all-important first shot with a minimum of movement. This advantage can be increased still more by learning to shoot off of either shoulder, which is easy to do if the bow is equipped with a parallax-free optic sight.
That’s all well and good if that first shot hits the mark, but what if it doesn’t? And to make matters worse, your intended target is still standing right in the middle of your shooting lane. That’s when you’ll know why I call the crossbow “archery’s version of the muzzleloader.” Most experienced bowhunters who shoot compounds or recurves can tell stories of second chances provided by their ability to quietly knock and draw another arrow in the presence of game–way back when I shot a recurve, I killed an exceptionally patient turkey with my third shot. That’s extremely unlikely to happen with a crossbow, even if it’s equipped with some type of mechanical cocking device.
Many–if not most–compound bow shooters won’t like the fact that all crossbows are relatively heavy and some are literally heavy. My TenPoint crossbow weighs a few ounces over nine pounds counting its sling, sight, quiver and six bolts. Admittedly, most of the newer crossbows are lighter, but it’s a rare one that weighs less than six pounds. In and of itself, weight isn’t a big factor for hunters who confine themselves to stands, but it gets noticeable in a hurry when still-hunting.
Finally, top quality crossbows made by top quality companies cost as much as firearms of similar quality. TenPoint crossbows, for example, were an industry benchmark 20 years ago and still are today, but most of their bows have four-figure price tags. By way of comparison, there are a lot of good quality compound bows on the market that cost between $400 and $600.
So what’s the bottom line? If I was still physically capable of shooting a compound bow, I probably — but not definitely — would. On the other hand, if it weren’t for crossbows, I’d no longer be a bowhunter. Besides, they’re a lot of fun to shoot.
Gerald Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org