By Bob Robb
When I first started shooting modern crossbows, I had no idea what to expect. Like many, they confused me. I had seen them on TV, but without ever handling one, I wasn’t sure about a lot of things. How do you load one? How do you pull the string back? What’s the trigger like? Do they kick, like a rifle? Are they noisy? Are they accurate? How far away can you accurately shoot one? Do they have enough power to kill a deer?
Was I in for a surprise! Modern crossbows are fast, accurate, and plenty powerful enough to cleanly take the largest big-game animals in North America. They are also a pleasure to shoot.
And crossbow use is growing rapidly. At this year’s Archery Trade Association (ATA) trade show, ATA President and CEO Jay McAninch told me that there was more display space allocated at this year’s show to crossbows and related accessories than any other single category. Crossbows are a big reason why bowhunting is in a growth mode.
As of December 2015, it was legal to use a crossbow during an archery-only season in 25 states, and during a portion of archery season in three other states; a handful of others are considering making crossbows legal during bow-only seasons as well. Florida allows their use in archery season on private land. Wisconsin made it legal during bow season in 2014, but the state will review that after three years. In the rest of the states save one, crossbows are legal for hunters with physical impairments, over a certain age, or during firearms seasons. Only Oregon bans crossbow hunting completely.
Ready to get on the bandwagon? To get the most out of your crossbow, you first need to understand the basics. Here are 13 tips to make you a crossbow-shooting machine.
1. Buy The Best Crossbow You Can Afford
There’s a big difference between an el cheapo, bargain-basement crossbow and a top-of-the-line model. Sure, the bargain model costs a lot less, but it will not be built as well and will not be as accurate or reliable, and sooner or later it will fail you when the moment of truth arrives. You can buy crossbow packages that include everything you need to get out shooting and hunting — crossbow, a few arrows and arrow points, a scope sight, cocking device and quiver — from anywhere between about $800 to $1,500. Industry icon Barnett, the original pioneer of the modern-day crossbow, has been continually developing this weapon for nearly 60 years. They offer models tailored for virtually every size, skill level and style of hunter, as well as a complete line of accessories.
2. Use Enough Draw Weight
The principle specification that distinguishes a hunting crossbow from a target model is draw weight. Fortunately, most states have taken the guesswork out of determining what is sufficient by establishing a regulatory minimum. Most of the better hunting crossbows are in the 150 to 175 pounds draw weight range, with a few topping out over 200 pounds.
3. Shoot A Fast Enough Arrow
How fast is fast enough? I like my crossbows to shoot a hunting-weight arrow with an initial velocity of at least 300 feet per second (fps.) That will give your arrow enough kinetic energy (K.E.) to cleanly take any big-game animal, and it will reduce arrow trajectory at longer ranges, which makes accurate shooting easier. Some crossbows are beginning to push the 400 fps envelope, so look for improvements in this number across the board in coming years.
4. Use A Scope Sight
Though some crossbows still come with open sights, you will be much better served using some sort of scope sight. For magnification, you can choose from just about anything between zero power and 5X. Inside the scope is the reticle, defined as some configuration of horizontal and vertical crosshairs — though for crossbows, it also includes any object projected or suspended across the field of view. Choices begin with a simple, single red dot or crosshair. With them you sight in for a fixed distance, typically 20 yards, then have to compensate for longer shots by holding higher. Multi-reticle scopes are the most popular, particularly those with three to four dots or horizontal crosshairs. The top one is sighted in for 20 yards and the next two are fixed at intervals that will be dead-on at 30, 40 and 50 yards, respectively, on most bows.
5. Use Quality Arrows
Unless your arrows (sometimes called “bolts”) fly like laser beams, you’ll never be able to precisely hit your target. Cheap arrows manufactured to sloppy tolerances will fly like a knuckleball. That’s why you should use only the very best arrows, designed specifically for crossbow shooting, like those from Bloodsport. Make sure they have a nock designed for crossbows, not compound bows, are cut to the proper length and have the proper fletches. Both carbon and aluminum arrows work well, but by far the most rugged and high-tech are made from carbon.
6. Use Quality Broadheads
Both replaceable-blade and mechanical broadhead designs work well for crossbow hunters, with the mechanical design becoming more and more popular each year. The most common weight for a hunting broadhead is 100 grains, with 125 grains a distant second.
7. Take A Rest
A crossbow is somewhat heavy and clunky, making it almost impossible to accurately shoot without using some sort of rest. That can be everything from using standard rifle shooting positions like kneeling and sitting, to using a set of shooting sticks or monopod, to using a shooting rail in a treestand or shooting house. I never, ever turn an arrow loose from my crossbows without taking a rest of some kind. When using a rest, try padding the crossbow’s forearm with something soft — your hand, a rolled-up jacket, a day pack, something — which will help absorb recoil and make precise sighting easier than if you shoot off a hard surface.
8. Learn Arrow Trajectory
Even arrows fired from the fastest crossbows travel downrange in a large parabolic arc. Your crosshairs are set to hit dead-on at specific distances, but often you’ll be shooting at an animal between these distances. When you practice you’ll soon learn where you have to place your crosshairs relative to the animal to hit the “tweener” ranges.
9. Use A Rangefinder
With the click of a button, a modern laser rangefinder can instantaneously give you the exact distance from you to the target — a critical bit of information in accurate shooting when you are lobbing an arrow at the target. The best laser rangefinders are as reliable as the sunrise and cost somewhere between $250 and $400.
10. Get A ‘Feel’ For The Trigger
Every crossbow has a trigger unique unto itself. You need to shoot your crossbow enough so that you know exactly when the trigger will send the arrow on its way. Shoot both with and without gloves so you know how both feel (it will be different).
11. Practice In The Field
The old axiom “practice makes perfect” certainly applies to shooting your crossbow. Once you get it set up and sighted in, spend some time shooting off a bench rest. Use these sessions to precisely set your sights and get a feel for the trigger.
However, you then need to move away from the bench and practice taking shots that simulate actual hunting conditions. Shoot from the kneeling and sitting positions. Climb into your treestand or ground blind and take shots at the same angles and distances you anticipate you’ll be taking during hunting season. Learn to use your shooting sticks or monopod quickly, quietly and efficiently.
12. Maintain String, Rail, Trigger
A crossbow is a machine, which means it will need regular maintenance if it is to keep on ticking like a fine Swiss watch. That means you should always check the string and cables for wear. This is very important on a crossbow because you have direct string-to-rail contact, which creates friction and abrasion, with every shot. At the first sign of fraying or abnormal wear, replace them. You can reduce the need for replacement with regular maintenance. Keep the string, cables and center serving clean and well maintained after each practice session, and especially after each trip to the field. Make sure you lubricate the center serving, and the rails should also be regularly lubed per the manufacturer’s instructions.
13. Get Training
If you’ve not shot a crossbow before, getting some instruction is a great idea. You can find several very informative and useful training videos at Barnett’s media center.
3 Don’t Do’s!
There are some real mistakes that can cost you accuracy and/or lead to injury if you are not careful when shooting a crossbow. Here are the three most common:
1. Watch Fingers & Thumb
Many shooters used to shooting rifles have a tendency to stick the fingers of the hand that holds the rifle’s forearm straight up in the air when they cradle the rifle. If you do this with a crossbow, you risk placing your digits in the path of a bowstring that is rocketing down the rail and will slice the fingers and/or thumb to the bone. Most crossbows have a protective shelf that makes this difficult to do, but still, always be aware of where fingers are at all times.
2. Don’t Shoot Off-Hand
Even the very best rifle shooters only shoot off-hand as a last resort. You’ll be much better off learning to shoot quickly from the kneeling and sitting positions, and when using shooting sticks or a rail for a rock-solid rest.
3. Don’t Shoot Outside Your Own MESR
Many years ago, I coined a phrase for bowhunters, Maximum Effective Shooting Range, or MESR. Your MESR is the maximum distance you can consistently place a hunting arrow into the bull’s-eye. For some crossbow hunters that’s 20 yards; for others it is 60 yards. For most of us, it is somewhere in between.
You will learn your own MESR as you practice. At some point, you just won’t be plunking that arrow into the bull’s-eye on a regular basis. When that happens, it’s time to back off a few yards until you are once again placing at least 90 percent of your shots into the center of the target. At the same time, you should try to push the envelope and stretch your MESR in small (say, 5-yard) increments. But once I get into the field and I know my own MESR is, say, 40 yards, I will not take a shot at a game animal any further than that.