Crossing Over: Crossbows Offer More Time Afield and Fun

Crossbow hunter in treestandHunters always are looking for more opportunity; any excuse to spend more time afield.

Some also seek added challenge. The crossbow provides a means to both ends.

With the dramatic liberalization of crossbow regulations across the nation, hunters looking to extend their seasons with a new weapon have another option beside muzzle- loaders or bows. And gun-hunters who have always wanted to experience the up-close-and-personal aspect of bowhunting without the extensive practice required to become proficient now have another option.

But before you race out to the local pro shop to pick up your new crossbow, you should know a few things. Because crossbows look like a hybrid between a bow and gun, some hunters might think crossbow hunting represents a middle ground between gun- and bowhunting. Quite the contrary. Crossbow hunting might require a bit less mastery of the weapon but still calls for all the woodsmanship required to be a bowhunter. For that, you’re on your own, but this article can help you get better acquainted with the horizontal bow.

What is a Crossbow?
When describing a crossbow to a novice, it’s perhaps best to first explain what it’s not rather than what it is. At first glance, it looks like a cross between a gun and bow. That and derisive terms such as crossgun probably account for much misunderstanding. It has a stock, trigger and often a scope, much like a rifle. But the closer you look at the working mechanisms, the more rapidly the weapons diverge.

Take away the parts that make a firearm a firearm and you’re left with a stock — nothing more than a piece of wood or synthetic mate- rial designed to be held with one end at the shoulder, the other facing your target. Many birders and wild- life photographers mount spotting scopes or cameras on gunstocks. It doesn’t make them guns.

Take a compound bow, turn it from vertical to horizontal, and lay it on the stock. Voila! You’ve just created a crossbow. You only have to devise some way to fire it. Most compound shooters use a trigger release to fire their bows. You could modify one to fit the stock and fire your crossbow, but why bother? A slightly modified firearm trigger assembly will do the same thing. Functionally, the only real difference between a crossbow and compound is that a crossbow is held at full draw mechanically rather than physically.

Taking care of the trigger and rail are two areas of concern if you're hunting in rain, snow or ice. Crossbows may rugged and powerful but like any machine, they still require care.

Taking care of the trigger and rail are two areas of concern if you’re hunting in rain, snow or ice. Crossbows may rugged and powerful but like any machine, they still require care.

Speaking of physics, a comparison of crossbow and compound bow statistics further illustrates their similarities. At first glance, crossbows appears to gain a slight advantage — about 10 feet per second in the middle range, nearly 40 fps comparing top-end examples. They also have an advantage in energy, largely because of the heavier arrows they can shoot. But that extra weight and energy come with a cost.

Looking at trajectory, you see the bows are much more similar. Though the table doesn’t show it, there is a subtle difference. At longer distances, the shorter, heavier crossbow arrow doesn’t stabilize as well. As a result, it will lose speed and kinetic energy faster.

Ultimately, it’s nearly a wash. Crossbows and compounds are designed for and most effective inside 40 yards. Beyond that range, it’s a matter of the proficiency and how comfortable and familiar the shooter is with their bow, compound or crossbow. Learn your effective range at the practice range, and stick by it in the field.

Getting Started
To someone who’s never used one, the crossbow might seem a bit intimidating, what with all those mechanical trappings. It shouldn’t and needn’t be. To shoot one, you simply draw, aim and fire, much as you would a compound bow, with a few slight variations.

You draw a compound simply by pulling on the string. With a draw weight more than twice that of a compound, only the stoutest hunter can do that with a crossbow.

Because of the crossbow’s shorter power stroke and lower efficiency of energy transfer, it needs the heavier draw weight to accelerate a similar weight arrow at the same speeds.

The simplest solution is to use a rope cocking device (typically supplied with the bow). Its pulley system will give you about a 50 percent mechanical advantage. Some bows have more sophisticated mechanisms. One even uses a CO2 cartridge to do all the work.

If you weren’t intimidated before, you might be when you realize your bow is holding nearly twice the draw weight of a compound (also necessary to achieve similar results). Fear not. Most bows have anti-dry-fire mechanisms so the bow can’t be fired without an arrow. They also have auto-engage safety mechanisms. As the name implies, the safety is automatically engaged when the bow is cocked.

OK, I lied. There is one other major difference between compounds and crossbows. You draw a compound with the arrow in place. You draw a crossbow empty and then load your arrow. Load it so the cock vane (the odd-colored one) goes into the groove in the shoot- ing rail. Then slide it back until the nock makes contact with the string. Again, the anti-dry-fire safeties on most bows will not let them be fired unless the nock contacts the string. They also have an arrow retention spring that will hold the arrow in place when it’s loaded.

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Firing the crossbow, like a compound if you use a release aid, is simply a matter of pulling the trigger, with one minor exception. First, you must disengage the safety.

Just as with a rifle or bow, you aim and simultaneously apply pressure until the weapon fires. Don’t pluck or jerk the trigger. Apply a smooth, steady pull, and try to follow through. Keep your sights on the target through the shot.

If you’re a rifle shooter, you’ll probably find this much easier, primarily because the felt recoil is negligible. There will be a little shock and noise, but the lack of any appreciable recoil will significantly reduce your likelihood of flinching at the shot, producing a more accurate result.

Practice makes perfect for learning about your crossbow and becoming comfortable and proficient with it.

Practice makes perfect for learning about your crossbow and becoming comfortable and proficient with it.

It’s worth mentioning that rifle shooters shouldn’t expect quite the same performance from a crossbow trigger as they’re used to. A rifle trigger mechanism only has to hold 5 or 6 to as little as 2 or 3 pounds. Traditionally, a crossbow trigger mechanism had to hold the full draw weight, requiring a much stouter and stiffer assembly. However, crossbow makers have made considerable advances in that regard and now claim to have holding weights similar to those of a rifle.

In addition to stocks and triggers, crossbows are similar to rifles in terms of sight options. You can choose mechanical sights, such as a peep or post, but most hunters use some type of scope. And because it’s a close-range weapon, you don’t need strong magnification.

The two most common types use dots or cross-hair reticles. In either case, the reticles represent your point of aim at a specific distance. Most are calibrated so when you sight the top dot or cross-hair in at 20 yards, successively descending reticles should correspond to 30, 40 and 50 yards. Also, like a rifle but unlike a bow, when sighted in, a crossbow can be used by any shooter without further adjustment.

Now that you’re comfortable with your crossbow and have it sighted in appropriately it’s time to go afield. Again, there are a few basics to know, most of which are common sense.

Young hunters can enjoy the benefits of crossbows and begin a lifetime of hunting.

Young hunters can enjoy the benefits of crossbows and begin a lifetime of hunting.

First, don’t transport your bow in the cocked position. Carry it in uncocked. Then cock and load when you’re ready to hunt. If you hunt from a tree stand, it’s best to cock the bow on the ground before you climb. This prevents struggling in an awkward or unbalanced position up in the tree. Pull it up, and then load your arrow.

If you fire your bow, you can simply lower it down and carry it out. But if the hunt passes with- out opportunity, remove the arrow and carefully lower your bow to the ground. Then, load and fire a discharge arrow safely into soft ground. You can carry an extra arrow with a field tip, or simply swap out a broadhead for a field tip before discharging the bow.

Speaking of arrows (the most correct term is arrow, not bolt), most bows come with the proper size and spine for that model. If yours does not, or you want to purchase more, consult your local dealer for advice. At best, the wrong arrows won’t perform well. At worst, it could result in costly repairs.

Crossbows are fairly heavy, which can make shooting them off- hand a bit challenging. One solution is a shooting rail. Another is a mono-pod or shooting sticks. Just make sure nothing interferes with the path of the string or touches the limbs. This is particularly important if you’re hunting from a ground blind or shooting house.

Like any tool, crossbows require some basic maintenance that will minimize or eliminate the need for repairs. Check strings and cables for wear regularly, and replace as needed. That will happen less often if you keep them clean and lubricated. Wax your strings and oil the rail and serving about every 75 to 100 shots. Your bow absorbs a fair amount of energy with every shot, so check all screws and bolts regularly.

In the final analysis, crossbows alone won’t make you a better hunter. But because they’re a close- range weapon, you will have to teach yourself to become a better hunter. They might make you more successful, too, because they give you a reason and a means to spend more time afield, creating more potential opportunity.


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