12 Tips to Choosing Your First Crossbow

Not sure which features are most important when shopping for your first crossbow? Class is in session!

12 Tips to Choosing Your First Crossbow

The author (above) recommends that every shot from a crossbow should be taken with the aid of a shooting rest, preferably a tripod.

My home state of Minnesota recently joined the growing list of states allowing crossbows during the general archery deer season, without restrictions of age or physical limitations. Minnesota likely won’t be the last state to make this change.

If you don’t currently own a crossbow, but are looking to buy one, then here are 12 tips on making a smart purchase.

1. Price

I might as well confront the elephant in the room right off the bat. As you probably know, crossbows vary tremendously in price. Do you need to spend $1,500 or more to get a solid performer? No.

Sure, high-dollar crossbows offer outstanding performance, but you can purchase a reliable crossbow package (bow, scope, quiver and a few arrows) that will stack arrows on the target and kill whitetails with ease for one-third that price. Set a budget and stick to it. Don’t allow a smooth-talking sales person at an outdoor retailer convince you that a value-priced bow will let you down. I’ve shot and hunted with a wide variety of crossbows (in Wisconsin, mostly) and promise you that hunters can get dependable performance and outstanding accuracy from package bows in the $500 range.

2. Reverse Draw vs. Conventional Draw

I know that all the hype today is for reverse-draw crossbows, but frankly, I think the advantages are overstated. Are they a little faster? Yes. A little more compact? Yes. Balance a little better? Yes. Do any of these items equate into greater accuracy when the bow is shot off a tripod? No. Conventional-draw crossbows are much easier on the wallet, and their strings last longer, too, because the angles aren’t so severe.

3. Draw Weight

The draw weight is the force required to cock the crossbow; most of today’s popular crossbows feature draw weights of 150 to 200 pounds. Some bows have a crank system, while others have a rope cocker. A crank system makes it possible for anyone to cock a crossbow while a rope cocker does require some strength; a rope cocker generally reduces the draw weight by 50 percent. Note: Some small-framed shooters who have the strength to pull the rope cocker can still struggle to cock a crossbow because they are too short.

A higher draw weight generally results in greater arrow speed, but it also makes the crossbow harder to cock with a rope system.

4. Arrow Speed and Kinetic Energy/Momentum

The purpose of this column isn’t to get into the weeds regarding arrow speed and kinetic energy/momentum as it relates to killing whitetails and other big game. I’m discussing it here because when you shop for a crossbow, the specs will list arrow speed, and many manufactures will use arrow speed in their marketing campaigns. In fact, many bow models are named after the speed rating of their bow.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking you must buy the Dinosaur Destroyer 600 (i.e. arrow speed of 600 fps) to kill a whitetail at reasonable ranges. From experience I can tell you that any crossbow sold today for the purpose of hunting is more than enough to quickly and effectively kill whitetails at reasonable ranges. What do I mean by “reasonable ranges?” Again, that’s a topic for another column, but know this: I don’t shoot at whitetails beyond 30 yards, and if you limit your range to the same, you’ll experience a very high percentage of short, heavy blood trails.

Is a fast crossbow inherently more accurate? No. In fact, some of the best-shooting (read most-accurate) crossbows I’ve tested had middle-of-the-road arrow speeds.

Before buying your first crossbow, visit a local pro shop and test drive several models. Does the stock fit you? Do you like the trigger?
Before buying your first crossbow, visit a local pro shop and test drive several models. Does the stock fit you? Do you like the trigger?

5. Axle-to-Axle Width

Like arrow speed, I recommend you don’t worry too much about axle-to-axle width. Sure, a narrow axle-to-axle crossbow is advantageous for maneuverability in tight spaces, such as ground blinds or hang-on portable stands placed in a cluster of trees. Most of the time, however, an ambush spot (including a pop-up blind) will accommodate a crossbow of average axle-to-axle width. By “average,” I mean crossbows measuring about 20 inches wide when uncocked and 15 inches when ready to fire.

6. Length, Weight and Balance

Lighter and shorter crossbows are easier to carry in the field, but once you reach your destination, you’ll likely be using a shooting rest of some sort, so overall weight isn’t critical. I recommend you always use a shooting rest for best accuracy.

The same is true for balance. When holding a crossbow freehand, some models certainly balance better than others, but again, you should always be using a shooting rest, so balance doesn’t really matter.

One feature I really like is an adjustable length butt stock. This makes it possible for more than one shooter to customize the fit of a crossbow; i.e. share a crossbow. It also allows you to adjust the butt stock length from early season (thin clothes) to late season (bulky clothes) to ensure you have the right eye relief for your scope.

7. Foregrip Shape

This might strike you as an odd subcategory. As I said, in my opinion you should always use a shooting rest when firing your crossbow, so to me it’s important that your crossbow fits well into the head of a monopod, bipod or tripod. I’ve used some crossbows that featured a funky curved foregrip that supposedly made it more comfortable to hold freehand, but it was cumbersome for shooting off my tripod. The crossbows that fit best on a tripod have a foregrip that is uniform in thickness and generally flat.

It’s a good idea to test how well a crossbow’s foregrip fits your favorite tripod before making the purchase.
It’s a good idea to test how well a crossbow’s foregrip fits your favorite tripod before making the purchase.

8. Trigger

In general, the higher priced crossbows have the best triggers, but I’ve seen exceptions. I’ve used value-priced bows with really good triggers, and high-priced bows with marginal triggers. Visit a pro shop and shoot several crossbows and you’ll see what I mean.

Now, a marginal trigger isn’t the end of the world, thanks to your tripod. With a bit of practice, you can get the feel of any trigger; believe me, I’ve hunted with some that were really bad. You need to learn when the trigger “breaks,” meaning when it fires the bow. Even if a trigger has a lot of travel/creep, you can learn it and shoot the bow very accurately with the aid of a tripod. FYI: It would be impossible to accurately shoot a crossbow freehand if it had a poor trigger.

9. Scope

Most crossbow packages come with a scope, often a fixed 3- or 4-power. Some scopes feature an illuminated reticle. The lighted crosshairs (or dots) can be beneficial during low light, but understand that unless the scope is high quality, the entire scope view can take on the colored hue, making it difficult to pick a spot on an animal. On these inexpensive scopes, I recommend leaving off the illumination.

10. Noise

If you have experience shooting a compound bow but not a crossbow, you’ll be surprised by a crossbow’s sound at the shot. It’s loud! Noise-reducing features such as limb dampeners or string suppressors help to some degree, but not enough to prevent a whitetail or any big game animal from hearing it fire. This is another reason why I think it’s much better to shoot a deer at 20 yards than 60 yards; assuming both deer hear the sound and react to it (drop low to begin running; i.e. jump the string), the closer deer will move less, and hopefully your arrow with still impact the deer’s lungs.

11. Warranty

Check the warranty offered by the manufacturer and the availability of customer support. A good warranty can provide peace of mind and protection against potential defects. Note: Warranties won’t cover cables and strings, which need to be replaced when they show signs of wear.

12. Try Before You Buy

If possible, visit a local sporting goods store or archery shop to test different crossbows. This hands-on experience will help you get a feel for the crossbow's ease of cocking, the trigger and scope, and how well its foregrip fits in a tripod. Tip: Bring a hunting stool and tripod for your testing and insist on using them.

Photos by Dave Maas


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