Crossbow Shopping: What You Need To Know

By: Cindy Lavender

I work part time in the archery department of a large outdoors sporting good store and a lot of times I am approached by customers who want to know what to look for when purchasing a crossbow. Many people are familiar with crossbows but sometimes they’re not really sure what to look for when buying one.

The crossbow, with its medieval legend is very popular today and mistakenly known for being a combination of a bow and gun. Although it slightly resembles a gun because it is shouldered to be shot, it doesn’t come anywhere close to shooting projectiles (cross bolts) at the speeds you get with a firearm.

The crossbow may be designed with a gun stock and a pistol grip style trigger but on the other end you have the bow limbs, bow string and a foot stirrup. To pull the bowstring back you place your foot into the stirrup to steady the bow with the stock end upright while pulling the string back with your hands or a rope cocking device until the string locks into a full draw, ready-to-shoot position. Once the string is locked the safety should automatically activate into the “safety-on” position.

It takes a bit of muscle to draw back a 150 lbs crossbow but there are a couple of add-on’s that make it a lot easier: one is a rope cocking device that assists with pulling the string back. The other is a mechanical crank you install on the stock that attaches to the string and lets you crank back to full draw with minimal effort. Some models come with this crank already attached; otherwise it costs about $100 extra and then needs to be installed. (We’ll get into draw assists later).

If you intend to hunt with a crossbow, make sure you check with the state, federal and local laws and ordinances before you buy. Many states do not allow hunting with a crossbow unless you are disabled or over a certain age, typically 62. In some states there are also “axle-to-axle” limits. For example, until recently in Illinois, you could not hunt with a crossbow that was shorter than 24” from axle to axle. The state has since changes that law, so there is no A-T-A limit for crossbows in Illinois.

If you have a shoulder injury or a similar condition that inhibits you from using a regular bow during archery season you may be able to hunt using a crossbow even though you are under the age limit, provided the injury is a permanent disability. To receive this special crossbow hunting permit you’ll need to submit an application and have your doctor fill out paperwork verifying your disability.

When someone asks me which crossbow they should purchase, I always start by asking how much they want to spend. Crossbows start at or around $280 and go up to the $2,000 range. You can get a decent quality crossbow for around $600 – $800 that should last many hunting seasons.

A customer recently told me he purchased the least expensive model he could find and on a recent hunting trip to a colder climate the temperature change caused a crack in the limbs while drawing the string back. While this is not common, buying a higher quality crossbow that will cost you a little more money will more than likely avoid potential problems like this. The manufacturer did, however, replace the cracked limbs without charging the customer.

One thing you may not know about some crossbow models is that some makers recommend their crossbows be in the full-draw, cocked back position for no longer than four hours at a time. In other words, after four hours you will need to release the string. I doubt any of the newer models require this but it would be worthwhile to research it, especially if you plan to buy a used or older model crossbow. When storing or not using the crossbow you should never leave it in the full draw position.

There are two types of crossbows; a recurve, which is the original crossbow design and the compound crossbow. Both types are loud, as crossbows are just loud in general.

The recurve is lighter in overall weight but wider in limb measurement which may be more cumbersome in the field. A recurve crossbow is not as fast as a compound.

The compound crossbow is a bit heavier in weight but pound for pound, you will get more FPS with the compound’s axle-to-axle design. Even though the compound crossbow is shorter in limb width I think all crossbows are just cumbersome to handle to begin with. Both types are easier to pull with a rope cocking aid.

The draw assist can be a mechanism with a crank or handle that you attach to the bowstring and allows you to easily pull back the string by cranking the handle. Without a draw assist device a person would need to be able to pull the poundage of the bow with their own strength by hand, which at 150-175 pounds is a lot and not at all possible for some people.

The crank, in my opinion is a must-have feature, especially if you are hunting in a tree stand. If you did not have the crank you would have to pull the string back on the ground and then, unloaded of course, pull up a crossbow that is cocked. Not a good idea. With the crank, you can climb up into your tree stand, get situated and then load your crossbow.

As far as vibration dampeners or limb silencers, they work to a degree, however, as I said before, crossbows are noisier than standard hand held bows. You will make up for some of the noise with the speed at just over 300 fps and hopefully hit the deer before he is able to jump the string.

However, today’s vertical compound bows are already well-exceeding this speed. So, as far as hunting goes, unless you need to use a crossbow, I’d stick with the regular compound bow, because it’s much quieter overall.

I would say the maximum effective distance of a crossbow is 100 yards when the crossbow is steadied on a fixed object. A more realistic effective distance from my personal experience is 40 yards, give or take. For me, I’d feel confident taking a 40 to 50 yard shot at a deer. That effective distance for someone else may be farther. Determining the effective distance for your crossbow is learned by practicing and replicating your hunting situation.

The average crossbow weighs in around 7 lbs. A lighter crossbow will be easier to transport in the field however, additional weight also adds more stability in your shot. If you intend on hunting or shooting the crossbow while it is resting on a fixed object, such as a shooting stick – I highly recommend the VANGUARD Quest T-62 and DropDown — or shooting bar: http://www.vanguardworld.com/index.php/en/os/home.html

Another feature to consider is whether your crossbow comes with a multiline scope (the lines may be used for yardage markers) or a red-dot scope. With a red dot scope you can adjust the dot to one target at a specific distance and compensate for each shot from there. The type of scope you select is completely a matter of preference, although the multiline would give you more aiming references. With some crossbow packages, whatever scope comes with is the one you get.

We’ve covered the basics here, but there are so many manufacturer specific features available on crossbows that you will want to do your homework to find the best crossbow to fit your needs and wants. One of the more impressive features I’ve seen are Dry Fire Inhibitors patented, by Ten Point crossbows, which prevents a dry-fire from occurring when there is no arrow loaded.

The severe damage or injury high tension devices could cause if handled wrong is something I hope no one ever experiences. Many stores that sell crossbows will not have a facility to allow the customer to shoot a bow before purchasing, which makes it hard to determine if you actually want to buy one. If you do have the opportunity to try one before buying, I’d recommend it. Remember, these aren’t toys but powerful tools and weapons that deserve to be treated as all weapons, with care and safety in mind.