In our eternal quest for new opportunities, lots of hunters are turning to crossbows. Where legal, they offer a unique challenge. This medieval weapon combines the restricted range of archery equipment with the added convenience of a rifle. I've been watching this trend for several years and finally, this past fall, I decided to give it a try myself.
With growing human populations, several states have already banned the use of high-powered rifles. Others have implemented special seasons for so-called primitive weapons. Game populations in general, and whitetails in particular, continue to thrive across North America and crossbow hunting is but another means by which they can be curtailed. Game management authorities recognize the need to control the deer numbers and the answer is often primitive weapons, therefore the growing popularity of the modern crossbow.
The root of many heated debates, this unique hunting tool falls smack dab in the middle of no man's land. Many bow hunting clubs and advocacy groups along with much of their membership passionately speak out against them, holding nothing back. Neither a bow nor a gun, a crossbow is indeed in a category all its own. Although debatable, some might even suggest that this weapon is the focus of more controversy within the hunting community than any other single topic. Many compound and traditional archers are adamantly opposed to them. Gun hunters can't figure out why they exist. The sad truth is that most of us don't know enough about them to offer an informed opinion... and yet we speak out against them.
A New Crossbow Advocate
For the record, I'm an avid archer and committed bow hunter. I hunt a lot with both a modern compound bow and a traditional recurve. I am passionate about bow hunting and just about everything related to it. It's taken me some time to get to where I stand on the crossbow issue. I've literally come full-circle. Where I was once adamantly opposed to them, I am now a full supporter of crossbow hunting. I guess that means I'm a convert. I recognize that some readers may chastise me for supporting crossbows, but the way I see it, it's much like anti-hunters protesting against my favorite pastime. Much of the backlash we hear can be traced to a lack of understanding. The old adage is true - we often fear what we do not know. Sadly, few of those who slander crossbows have ever hunted with one and yet they're willing to speak out against them - trust me, I speak from experience. At risk of falling into the same category, last fall I decided to try hunting with one myself and, I have to say I found it to be both challenging and enjoyable. I'm still a fan of conventional archery equipment, just as I am of rifle hunting, but crossbow hunting has now become a pastime that I'll enjoy annually. In my opinion they add a unique twist to my hunting and they are a ton of fun to shoot.
This past summer at an outdoor writers' convention I met Bill and Kathy Troubridge, owners of Excalibur Crossbows (www.excaliburcrossbows.com ). We spoke at length about the pros, cons and other issues related to this form of hunting. Much discussion ensued regarding the ethics, ease, and legalities of crossbows not to mention the much debated use of crossbows in archery-only seasons and select jurisdictions. An interesting thing happened. I found myself defending archery and bow hunting seasons. Aligning myself with many mainstream bow hunting clubs, I was inadvertently taking the same position. Conflicted to the point of confusion, I wanted more than ever to try harvesting an animal with a crossbow. Only then could I offer an informed opinion.
Accepting Bill's invitation to try one of their crossbows during the convention break-out day, I figured it was a chance of a lifetime. With a little coaching, before long I was shooting four-inch groups at 20 yards. Intrigued, but still admittedly skeptical, I soon became acquainted with their Phoenix model. In the past my observation had been that most crossbows were big and cumbersome. Excalibur's Phoenix is more compact and lightweight than most I'd seen. With 175 lbs. of pull, it produces velocities in excess of 305 fps with a powerstroke of only 14 ½ inches. Bottom line - I was so impressed, I now own one.
My First Crossbow Hunt
Like any rookie with the hunting and shooting sports, I was reluctant to hunt solely with my new crossbow. So, in turn, I decided to apply for a special doe permit in a northern management zone in Alberta. Drawing a management doe tag for mule deer my wife and I took this opportunity to hit the woods with crossbow in hand during an early rifle season in September. With over 20 years of experience as a bow hunter I found that every bit of my bow hunting skill was required to analyze ambush sites, set up a ground blind, judge distance accurately, and then ultimately place the shot to ensure a quick kill. What intrigued me most was how the arrow (bolt) penetrated and passed through the deer, much the same as it does with my archery equipment. What I determined is that a crossbow is just that - a cross between a gun and a bow, nothing more and nothing less. I was able to enjoy the stability of a gun but experience the challenge of launching a trajectory armed with a broadhead, one that had distinct limitations. I've often heard archers express their opinions to the effect that crossbows can shoot so much further than conventional bows. Let me say this - in my experience, my effective range with the crossbow is around 40 yards, very comparable to my effective range with my compound bow. For me, my first-ever crossbow kill was a success. Penetrating the deer through the heart at 30 yards, the deer still ran roughly 80 yards before collapsing.
Here's how it panned out. My wife Heather and I knew of a field that was feeding upwards of 50 mule deer. We knew where there was a dugout and a natural funnel that more or less forced the deer to a few different trials. With the idea of setting up a natural ground blind our hope was to intercept one of the does within bow range.
As luck would have it, upon arrival, we noticed four does grazing 500 yards across the field. In our experience the deer would feed their way across the open field or along the tree line and eventually make their way to the dugout. So we looked for a bottleneck of sorts and settled in to await their arrival. It was a perfect set-up. Nestling into the high grass, I leaned against a wooden fence post. Heather and I discussed where we thought the most likely place would be and both decided a small draw that would offer a maximum 50 yard shot was the spot that presented the highest odds.
We waited nearly an hour and were getting anxious. Heather couldn't wait any longer and decided to take a peak over the ridge. Just as she slowly stood up, she motioned that all four deer were only 40 yards out just over the crest of the knoll in front of us. With the crossbow securely resting on my knee, I remained motionless but Heather was stuck in a semi-crouch. Had she moved, the jig would have been up. The deer were moving fast and as if on cue, all four migrated into my shooting lane. First at 40, then 35 and finally 30 yards, I patiently waited until one of the does stood slightly quartering away with her chest fully exposed. Locking the crosshairs of the scope low on her chest I gently squeezed and launched the arrow (bolt) for a perfect pass through! The doe bolted and disappeared just inside the treeline where it collapsed instantly.
So where do I stand now? I am now a crossbow convert. I support crossbow hunting, not in archery-only seasons mind you, but certainly during general gun seasons and other special primitive weapon hunts. I now recognize the value and intrigue associated with this medieval weapon. It offers a different experience for hunters looking for a unique challenge. Either with open sites or armed with a scope, a crossbow can certainly be deadly under 50 yards and, much the same as a compound or even a traditional bow, in the hands of someone who knows how to use one, a crossbow can be effective at greater distances as well.
A Few More Considerations
If you're considering a crossbow to extend your own time in the woods, beware they can be cumbersome to carry and require due care and attention when drawing and releasing string tension. My most notable observation with the crossbow is the element of safety. As with any shooting equipment, safety is a priority. With the crossbow, any time you're on stand you want to have it cocked and, due to the sheer size of the crossbow, maneuvering it can be a challenge. Likely more due to its unfamiliarity, I find that I am hyper-sensitive to the need to exercise due diligence when it came to safe handling of the "loaded" crossbow.
My Excalibur crossbow is armed with a scope and, just the same as a rifle, it too requires sighting in. Prior to hunting, I had to adjust and tune the scope for broadheads. With a few adjustments it doesn't take long to get it shooting tight groups to 40 yards, a distance I feel comfortable with as a first-time crossbow hunter.
If you've ever considered hunting with a crossbow, don't wait another season. You might just be surprised at how much fun they really are! Don't knock it 'til you've tried it ... crossbows are a great alternative!
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his
outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com .
Member of OWAA & OWC.