Shooting a crossbow accurately is no accident

How to maintain and equip your crossbow to keep it performing well.
Shooting a crossbow accurately is no accident

Among the many misconceptions about crossbows is that they are always and inherently on target. After shooting several thousand arrows per year over the last 15 years, I’ve come to realize that, just like rifles, shotguns and handguns, crossbows need constant tweaking if you want to maintain the highest levels of accuracy year-round.

The first thing I learned about crossbows when I got into this game back in 1995 was that, out of the box, they are as accurate as any modern firearm — when they are at peak performance. In fact, I discovered that I could not shoot more than two or three arrows at the same target (at 20, 30, 40 or even 60 yards) without risking a “Robin Hood” — splitting one arrow with the next shot. I enjoyed this kind of accuracy with every crossbow I used, from the low-end, basic models to the highest-priced units. When the shine wears off, however, it’s time to take action.

A few seasons ago, a friend and I were on a winter hunt in Ohio. I’d shot two does (legal in that zone) and was holding out for a nice buck. My friend was having trouble hitting the target even at 20 yards, and after three discouraging misses, we headed to the range to find out what was wrong.

A crossbow is, after all, a machine, and machines must be maintained. To begin with, we tightened all screws and bolts, including all stock, bow and sight screws. Next, we checked his bowstring to be sure it was centered — and found it was not. The easiest way to monitor this is to mark the string where it crosses the rail. Using a black permanent marker, carefully mark the string on both sides of the rail. When the bow is cocked, the marks will show you if the string is uneven, which can cause the arrow to fly off-center.

It’s also important to apply the string and rail lube provided by your crossbow’s manufacturer. Most manufacturers recommend lubing after three or four shots. The bottom line is, if you see your arrows flying off the mark, first check the string alignment and lubrication points before moving on to cables, limbs or sights.

Sights And Scopes

Most crossbows are supplied with basic open sights, which are generally worthless in most cases. The best standard sight is a 4X scope with a series of vertical crosshairs that allow the shooter to sight in at 20, 30, 40 and 60 yards. Properly mounted, tightened and maintained, these scopes will allow any shooter to plunk his arrows into a coffee cup at the designated range — but only if all details of the shooting process are attended to as previously noted.

One point to consider is that most crossbow scope mounts also serve as open sight bases, which can be adjusted by turning an elevation knob on the side of the receiver. These can be toyed with or bumped inadvertently, so put a dab of White-Out or some permanent marker on them once your bow is on target. One click either way amounts to 10 yards of error, and that’s more than enough to miss your buck this season. My friend’s sights had actually been moved two clicks, which largely accounted for his misses.

Because crossbows have so many moving parts, accuracy can literally change daily. To avoid surprise misses, I sight my crossbow in at home, and then check it again after a long drive to my hunting spot. I carry a small Block target in my vehicle all season, and whenever I stop for a hunt — whether for a few hours or a week — I shoot a few arrows just to be sure. This is especially important when traveling hundreds of miles. Even the gentle jostling of highway driving can affect your bow’s accuracy, so it’s important to test-fire a few arrows upon arrival at camp. Also, it is wise to shoot your crossbow daily, even in camp, to ensure that it’s on target. Hunting via horseback, mountain bike, ATV or even on foot can affect crossbow accuracy. Load your quiver with hunting arrows, but keep a field point in your pocket so you can test-fire your bow once you reach your destination.

When shooting a crossbow over a stand rail, blind ledge or other hard surface, be sure to have your hand, your hat or some other soft, cushioning material under the forearm. Like a firearm, a crossbow will shoot off target (high, usually) if the hard forearm is allowed to bounce off another hard surface.

Time For A Tune-Up

Sooner or later your crossbow will begin to shoot erratically, and this simply means it’s time for a tune-up. When you see that your bow is suddenly shooting off the mark despite your best efforts to correct the problem, take action. Older crossbows (those with more than two years of regular shooting behind them) should be returned to the factory during the off-season for string replacement as well as cam and cable adjustments. Over time the original string will stretch, which affects speed and accuracy. Most manufacturers will make these adjustments free of charge or for a nominal fee, but the process takes time, so get it done during the summer months. Send your bow in (usually just the limb/cam/string assembly) for routine tune-ups at intervals suggested by the manufacturer or as noted in your owner’s manual.

This might seem like a lot of tweaking, but crossbows are not “set ’em and forget ’em” implements. Crossbow accuracy depends on all working parts being functional and properly set. As with all machines, diligent maintenance is the key. The price for sloth is simple and direct — you will miss your target, or worse, injure and lose the game animal you’ve invested so much time and effort into.

Arrows And Sighting-In

Once the arrow leaves the crossbow rail, the success of your hunt depends on how it performs downrange. To save aggravation, buy the best arrows you can afford, buy all the arrows you can afford — I like to keep at least two dozen on hand — and buy the best broadheads you can afford. “Best” means consistent in shape, taper, weight and construction. All of your arrows should be made of the same material (wood, aluminum or graphite) have the same fletching (feathers or plastic, as long as they are consistent from arrow to arrow), the same fittings (nocks and inserts), and the same broadheads.

I have killed big game all over North America with a variety of broadheads, and any type will do the job. The key is consistent broadhead weight. I go so far as to weigh each broadhead on the same grain scale I use when reloading firearms. Place all the same weight broadheads in one pile and work up your hunting arrows from the biggest pile. You can shave a grain or two off a broadhead by sharpening it or grinding down the threads (one thread at a time) and then re-weighing the piece. The goal is to come up with five or 10 same-weight broadheads, which will give you all the same-weight, accurate-shooting arrows you’ll need for any deer hunt.

At peak accuracy, your crossbow is likely to be so accurate that you won’t be able to shoot more than two arrows at the same bull’s-eye. My at-home Block target has five three-inch circles. Once my crossbow is sighted in, I shoot one arrow at each circle. In fact, to avoid fletching damage by cross-over arrows, I start shooting at the top circle and work my way down to the bottom.

Keep in mind that it might take a dozen shots or so to zero your crossbow’s sights. Take your time! Make sure your string marks line up, your sights are properly adjusted and your bowstring and rail are properly lubricated.

This is a lot to think about, but that’s what it takes to achieve dependable crossbow accuracy. Cut corners or go the cheap route and your accuracy (and success) will certainly suffer.


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