Crossbow Basics for Bowhunters

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Crossbows are powerful, easy to use, reasonably accurate out of the box and convenient for people with limited upper body strength, shoulder injuries or little time to practice. They’ve become extremely popular in recent years, but some people are still unsure of them, or if they should use one. This article discusses crossbow regulations, nomenclature, the shooting process and safety requirements to help newcomers determine if a crossbow is a good option for them.

Are they legal?

Crossbow regulations vary by state and are everchanging. As of 2020, crossbows are legal to use during archery seasons in 28 states and many other states allow them with certain restrictions. For example, some states only allow physically challenged hunters to use them, while other states only allow private landowners to use them. Some states also have speed caps on crossbow usage, while others have minimum bolt length requirements. 

Before you buy a crossbow and start hunting, check your local and state regulations regarding approved crossbow equipment. If you’re unsure of the laws — or which license to buy — call your state wildlife agency and talk to a representative.

How do they work?

  • The Parts: A crossbow is a cross between a bow and a rifle. It has bow parts, including limbs, risers, cams and a bowstring; and rifle parts, like a stock, trigger and scope. Unlike a bow or gun, most crossbows have a rail (where the arrow sits) and a stirrup (the metal frame at the front of the crossbow that allows the archer to use a foot to secure the crossbow during cocking). A crossbow’s arrow is called a bolt. A crossbow is sometimes referred to as a horizontal bow because its riser and limbs parallel the ground. In contrast, the parts of a recurve, longbow or compound bow run perpendicular to the ground, making them vertical bows. Crossbow technology is changing rapidly, which affects the construction and parts of the crossbow.
  • The Process: Users must cock a crossbow by putting their foot in the stirrup and pulling the string back with a rope-and-hook or crank-style cocking device. Most crossbows are difficult to cock by hand. Once the string clicks into place behind the arrow-retention spring, the safety on most crossbows will automatically engage. Regardless, all users should check to see if the safety is on before loading a bolt. The odd-colored bolt fletch should point down and slide through the groove in the rail until the modified nock rests against the string. Crossbow users should place their nondominant hand at the center of the foregrip and their trigger hand on the grip, keeping their fingers below the crossbow rail and away from the trigger until they’re ready to shoot. Once facing a safe direction, they can shoulder the crossbow, place their cheek against the stock to aim and then carefully disengage the safety. The user should slowly squeeze the trigger until the crossbow fires. 
  • Staying Safe: Bowhunting accidents are rare, but it’s easier to make a mistake with a crossbow than it is with a recurve, longbow or compound bow. Crossbow users should never walk with or transport a cocked and loaded bow, nor should any part of their grip hand be on the rail or barrel of the crossbow. They must keep their finger off the trigger until they’re ready to shoot and only shoot the bow with a bolt. Firing the bow without the bolt, aka dry-firing the bow, will damage the bow and potentially injure the archer.  Modern crossbows have anti dry-fire devices to help archers prevent accidents so it’s best to look for that feature before buying. Users must always point the crossbow in a safe direction and follow all the rules outlined in the owner’s manual. 

What else should I know?

  • Price: Crossbows range in price from $300 to $4,000-plus. The high-end options are usually quieter, lighter, faster, more durable and have better cocking accessories. They typically have better optics and warranties too. Most new crossbows include accessories, such as a scope and bolts.
  • Shot Distance: Some crossbow manufacturers advertise a 100-yard shooting distance. Although the weapon might be capable of shooting long distances, most crossbow companies advise bowhunters to shoot 40 yards or less at animals. Closer shots are more ethical and help ensure a quick, humane kill
  • Practice: Some crossbows come with open sights, but most come with some type of optic. Most crossbows are fairly accurate right out of the box, but that doesn’t mean you should forgo practicing. All crossbow users must practice shooting to become comfortable and confident with their equipment. Crossbow bolts and broadheads come in a variety of weights, which can change your point of impact. Always practice with the equipment you’ll be using to hunt. Adjust your sight as necessary until you’re hitting your target consistently. Accuracy matters, and it takes practice to become proficient. 

Should I use one?

Each bow type has its pros and cons and offers the user a unique recreational experience. All hunters should ask themselves the three questions outlined in Bowhunting 360’s article “Traditional Bow, Compound or Crossbow: What’s Best for You?” to determine which bow is best for them. 

If you find yourself with limited practice time or struggle to pull back a vertical bow, you might lean toward using a crossbow. Whatever you decide, remember that you can change bows or bow types in the future. 


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