Trigger Happy: Get to the Heart of the Crossbow

The trigger is arguably the key component to the crossbow.

The trigger is arguably the key component to the crossbow.

Question: What is the heart of a crossbow?

The limbs? After all, they are an essential part of the bow, where torque is built during cocking and stored until release. And that torque is what directly affects arrow speed and energy. Then there is the barrel, retention spring and flight groove that hold the arrow in place and in perfect alignment with the string for consistent accuracy.

By Al Raychard

How about the cams on compound models? They make cocking easy at the break, greatly accelerate speed within a shorter draw distance and have allowed for the development of faster, narrow and lighter crossbows.

How about the arrow? Available in different lengths, weights and materials, using one not compatible with a particular bow can make a major difference in delivery speed, energy and accuracy. And, what would a crossbow be without them?

How about the latch that captures and holds the string in place until released by the trigger mechanism? Oops, there’s a hint. “Until released by the trigger mechanism.”

TENPOINT triggerEach of these mentioned components plus several others are vital parts of the whole, and each depends and relies on the others to make a crossbow work. But none is as vital as the trigger mechanism. When all components are considered, and despite being a short-range hunting tool, today’s modern crossbows are only as good as their triggers.

That’s a rather bold statement considering today’s high-tech crossbows, but if you have done any amount of shooting or hunt- ing with a firearm then you understand on some level how the amount of creep and crispness of the trigger break can affect accuracy. The same is true with a crossbow.

Just like with high-quality rifles, the best crossbows have little or smooth, consistent and somewhat light slack, or take-up in the trigger, and a crisp break point. Having too much creep increases the possibility of premature or delayed release, especially in colder hunting situations with gloved fin- gers, and varying the break point by as little as a pound one way or the other can make the difference between making a good shot or not.

Keep in mind, the two major differences between a firearm trigger mechanism and those in a crossbow is that firearm triggers release a hammer or pin to actually “fire” the primer; a crossbow trigger releases the string. One is a firing mechanism, the other is a release mechanism, but the principals and preference for minimal creep and a crisp break are the same.

The other difference is a crossbow trigger is under high stress from the bow’s cocked draw weight, often for long periods, so safety comes into play as well. Therefore it is desirable that crossbow triggers be designed for optimum creep and a crisp, smooth release but must be extremely rugged and reliable.

Safety is Job One
And safety is a primary concern given the pull weights of modern crossbows, which is why every crossbow has an integrated safety device and every state where crossbows are legal hunting tools requires a mechanical safety mechanism in working condition. In 1996, TenPoint Crossbow Technologies took safety to new heights when it introduced its patented Dry Fire-Inhibitor (DFI), which prevents dry firing when no arrow is on the flight deck.

A good thing to remember is that when- ever you fire a gun or release an arrow, be it vertical or horizontal in design, time is against you. Regardless of how far away that white-tailed buck is, your eyes have to tell the brain to shoot, the brain has to tell the finger to pull the trigger, the finger has to react and the trigger mechanism has to do its job. From the start of the process, when the brain gives the signal to release an arrow to actual release, it all should happen in milliseconds, but if there’s too much creep or the break isn’t fast or crisp enough or is too stiff precious time is wasted. Flinching can occur and accuracy can be affected.

Simple by Design
Trigger mechanisms are really rather simple in design. Basically, the trigger finger connects to an internal sear which connects to a safety slide and string catch, which releases up or down when the trigger is pulled, depending on the brand. Most high-grade trigger systems, such as those in TenPoint, Wicked Ridge and newer Horton crossbows open up. Opening upward keeps the string in place on the string bridge and perfectly in line with the nock, even when the trigger is pulled, providing a smoother, more precise and consistent release, whereas a string might actually prematurely jump the catch as it moves down, resulting in accuracy problems.

TENPOINT  hunterBut for internal parts that’s about it. Due to high stress, safety factors and friction involved, what matters is what those parts are made of and how well they work as a team. Keep in mind, a 180-pound compound crossbow might break to roughly 100 pounds when fully cocked but that is 100 pounds stressing the string catch and sear, and a 170-pound recurve counterpart is putting its full 170 pounds on the system.

The bottom line is that higher-quality crossbow makers don’t skimp on their triggers. They realize the vital role they play in overall perfor- mance, and while some manufacturers have made great improve- ments in their triggers of late, others are still using less expensive and inferior materials, such as low cost sheet metal, low grade steel or even plastic.

Built to Precise Tolerances
The better systems, such as those in TenPoint, Wicked Ridge and newer Horton crossbows, start out with metal injection steel moldings that are machined to precise tolerances that allow the various components to work in perfect unison. Since about 2010, the TenPoint family has gone a step further by embedding micro-nickel plating on the trigger finger, sear, safety slide and string catch that provide a smooth, consistent and lubricated surface and a smooth, crisp trigger pull. As noted earlier, it is the level of smoothness or break when the trigger is pulled that can contribute to accuracy issues. In addition, the process provides excellent corrosion protection. Equally as important, TenPoint’s systems are extremely reliable and rugged, designed to last the lifetime of the bow with nominal maintenance.

One of the biggest complaints about crossbow triggers among users who know triggers or are ac- customed to high-quality systems in firearms is they have too much creep or they don’t break fast enough, often both. But how much of each is too little or too much? And how much is right, consider- ing a crossbow’s inherent design and stress points? Every user is different with different preferences so manufacturers seem to have settled on a middle grown after taking all aspects, including safety, into consideration.

Let’s keep in mind crossbows are by and large made for hunting, and hunting triggers typically have slightly more creep and higher break points than target triggers. With that said, creep varies between makers, but most top-shelf manufacturers have managed to reduce sear separation
to a minimum while maintaining safety. A good case in point is the offerings from TenPoint and family, where creep is barely noticeable and pull weighs range from 3 to 31⁄2 pounds, which seems to be about the norm with many manufacturers. Combined you have one of the cleanest and crisp trigger releases in the industry, perhaps as close to zero creep as is available in a commercially available crossbow.

While too much creep is never a good thing and can be a mental dis- traction in some situations, it is interesting how much emphasis some put on creep in a hunting crossbow. This hunter has used crossbows for well over a decade now and cannot recall a time or situation where a delay in shot sequence due to creep resulted in a misplaced shot or was a factor in not taking home game once the trigger was pulled. The mind is so focused on the target 30 or 35 yards away and putting the arrow in the boiler room, or should be, the amount of play or delay before the break never factors in. When you’re ready to release the arrow it just happens.

Besides, if spending so much time with various crossbows at the range and in hunting situations has taught me anything, compensating for whatever over-creep a particular trigger system might have is possible with practice, practice and more practice, particularly during the several weeks before opening day of hunting season and ideally whenever spare time allows.

Practice Ensures Familiarity
In fact, practice is always a good idea even if a trigger mechanism is perfect in the mind of the shooter. Spending time at the range develops and maintains good shooting fundamentals and keeps the lines of communication between the brain and trigger finger open. Practice also maintains and embeds into the brain a familiarity with the trigger mechanism so when the time comes to let loose nothing comes unexpected or as a surprise.

With all things considered, today’s trigger mechanisms that come as standard systems in top-name crossbows are far better and safer than ever before. They might not satisfy the ultimate desires of every discerning trigger aficionado that takes to the woods and they probably never will, but most are pretty darn good and get the job done extremely well.

And they are also easy to maintain. Over time dust, debris and moisture have a way of collecting within the assembly, making them harder to pull or even fail. If the trigger seems stiff, sticks or is not as crisp and smooth as when new it is time for a cleaning.

This is best and easily done by spraying through the string latch with a can of compressed air, similar to that used on computer keyboards. If necessary a cleaning solution intended for firearms sprayed directly into the trigger housing through the string latch can also be used. These solvents are specifically formulated to flush dust and moisture, evaporate quickly and are non-corrosive. Spraying enough solvent to visibly see the flushing process is generally best, followed by a spraying of compressed air.

If severe moisture is ever a problem in the system, WD-40 can be used, followed by a flushing with compressed air. Once thoroughly clean, a drop of light gun oil should follow on each side of the trigger safety latch and one drop on the trigger latch. Work the oil in by operating the safety latch. TenPoint also recommends a drop on the DFI.

But before you do anything, checking your owner’s manual or with the manufacturer is advised. Some crossbow trigger assemblies are encased in a dry trigger box, meaning they require no lubrication. Lubricating them could actually cause them to malfunction.

Al Raychard is a longtime crossbow hunter and contributor to Deer & Deer Hunting.