Crossbows have always been controversial. Nobles have outlawed their ownership; provinces and states have restricted or forbid their use; bowhunting organizations have decried them as unsporting. So what is it about this hunting tool that induces such strong opinions? Why do some bowhunters sneer at the very mention of the word?
I'd suggest that the problem is borne of misinformation. Tales and myths of crossbow performance abound; most perpetuated by people who have never handled a crossbow in field conditions.
I'm a long-time bowhunter; at one time or another I have hunted with a fiberglass longbow, an Osage flat bow that I built, and a compound bow. I love every one of those tools for its unique charm and will continue to shoot and hunt with each. But late last fall, I added a crossbow to the mix. In the time between then and now I've learned what it can and cannot do.
Here are a few myths that need dispelling.
Myth: Practice is not needed
One of the biggest gripes I hear about crossbows is that anyone can use them and be proficient with very little practice. Well, yes, and no. Anyone new to crossbows can master straight twenty-yard shots in fairly short order. But with peep sights, mechanical releases, flat-trajectories, good instruction and properly matched equipment, a new compound bow shooter can do the same.
But the truth is, if you are going to consistently hit your mark with either under field conditions, you need to practice regularly. With a crossbow that means you need to practice until the bow's trajectory, trigger pull, and sight picture become second nature.
This is important because field conditions might require that you shoot from awkward angles, thread arrows through thickets, or shoot game at unknown distances. Each of these things is only achievable if you have the confidence and know-how brought on by solid practice.
Sure, there is a much shallower learning curve than with other archery equipment but, to me, this argument teeters on a very slippery slope. After all, an instinctive longbow hunter might say the same about a compound shooter whose bow is equipped with all the latest accessories.
The simple fact is whether you are using a rifle, shotgun, bow, or slingshot, true proficiency is only earned with practice. A crossbow is no different and anyone who thinks otherwise is in for a rude awakening. Good crossbow hunters are just as meticulous and devoted to practice as good bow hunters.
Myth: Crossbows are long-range weapons
Another oft-repeated myth is that crossbows are capable of kills at incredible distances. In a perfect world, that might be true. But out in the field that's highly unlikely.
Sure, a crossbowman who practices and tunes his gear can put on an impressive show of marksmanship at 60, 70, and 80 yards, but, then again, so can a skilled archer. Would either think it right to take those lengthy shots at game? In most cases, the answer is no.
The vast majority of crossbow hunters limit their shots to thirty yards when hunting deer-sized animals. That's because they realize the limitations of their weapon. They know that even the fastest crossbow won't launch a bolt quick enough to justify shooting beyond those ranges. If a deer decides to take a step forward, change its facing, or if it ducks at the sound of the shot, they know that the result could be a missed or wounded animal - something no hunter wants.
Crossbows are noisier than other archery equipment too. This is also a limiting factor since a deer is much more likely to jump the string on a longer crossbow shot than they might on a silenced compound bow.
Like most hunters, crossbow users also understand that the further the shot, the more exaggerated the effects of wind, trajectory, and flaws in shooting form. And, like good bowhunters everywhere, they know that longer hits are more likely to result in lost animals.
Yet, even if they ignored all this, long shots, are often impractical in deer country where overhanging limbs, thickets, and branches often conspire to reduce effective range. In open fields, range estimation, which is just as critical for crossbow hunters, is difficult too.
The truth is that crossbows are a short-range hunting tool.
Myth: crossbow hunting is not bow hunting
Of all the prejudices against crossbows, this one is perhaps the most ridiculous. After all, a crossbow shoots an arrow powered by a bow and a string. Moreover, success depends heavily on correct range estimation and knowing the arrow's trajectory. The only difference is the method of aiming.
Even the most stubborn will have to admit that the hunting tactics are virtually identical to those that other bow hunter's use. Wind direction, scouting, stand placement camouflage, patterning the animal, effective range, calling, and broadhead placement are all the same. So is the waiting time after a shot, and the method of blood trailing.
In fact, there's not one thing I can think of that differs except for the hunting itself. And, if some shooters resent it for being easier to master, they ought to compare their bows to the basic stick and string of our fore bearers. If you've got sights, compound wheels or cams, glass limbs, stabilizers, plastic-vaned aluminum or carbon arrows, sights of any kind, mechanical release, overdraw, or any of the thousand gadgets placed on a modern bow, maybe you ought to give that argument a break too.
Myth: Crossbows are nothing but guns with strings
Here's another beauty that I hear on occasion. Yes, a crossbow has a trigger, stock, and sight but that's as far as the resemblance goes. In every other way, a crossbow is an archery tool whose history predates the firearm. It launches its bolts by means of a limb and string, and its range, power, and arrow speed are nowhere near even the slowest firearm's. It kills differently too, by causing blood loss rather than shock. And, if any firearm had the looping, short-ranged trajectory of a crossbow, its manufacturer would be embarrassed. Mine, a high-quality, state-of-the-art unit, requires me to aim approximately 20 inches high at 40 yards. Even the fastest crossbows drop at least 10 inches at that range.
In short, a crossbow has its own unique characteristics and a performance that is absolutely in keeping with archery equipment.
Myth: The crossbow is a poacher's weapon
This thought is uttered occasionally when all other arguments fall by the wayside. Fortunately, a little common sense is all that's needed to dispel it.
First, poachers are opportunists. They don't stalk game; they drive back roads looking for it. It's not worth their while to put in the hours that legal hunters enjoy. They want to shoot, collect game, and leave the scene of the crime quickly. A crossbow, or any archery equipment for that matter, is not conducive to this. You can't operate them from out of a truck very easily. Nor do kills happen quickly or at long ranges as they might with a well-placed rifle shot. An arrow-shot game animal needs trailing and a waiting period before that - two things that poachers try to avoid. Long blood trails leave a lot of evidence too.
Unfortunately, these pathetic criminals will always roam the landscape - and as long as they do, the rifle will be their weapon of choice.
Myth: Legions of crossbowmen will decimate the deer herd
In my home province of Ontario, crossbows were first allowed in the one-week bow season in the early 1960s. Back then hunters were allowed only one deer tag. Deer were scarcer back then.
Today, Ontario's bow hunters have a 3-month season and are allowed multiple tags in many areas - up to six in a few zones. Our deer herd has never been healthier despite the fact that approximately 55 per cent of Ontario's bowhunter's use crossbows.
Studies show that the success rate between bowhunters and crossbowmen vary by approximately one to two percent in jurisdictions where they have been allowed.
If you examine the issue objectively, you might conclude, as I have, that crossbow hunting is simply another form of bowhunting. It is no more or less efficient, just different. A crossbow will not make up for poor bowhunting skills; nor will it provide its user with unfair advantage.
Furthermore, in jurisdictions where they are permitted, they provide a new and exciting opportunity for more people to enjoy the thrills that accompany a bow hunt.
These are things all hunters should applaud. And that, my friends, is no myth.
Steve Galea is a full-time outdoors writer who lives in central Ontario, Canada. He divides his time afield between hunting big game, chasing ducks, geese, and upland game, and fly fishing the lakes and rivers around his home. An award-winning columnist, his work is featured in several community newsapers as well as leading outdoors magazines.