Useful Crossbow Basics for Hunters and Target Shooters

Crossbows are becoming ever more popular with both hunters and target archers. There's little doubt that they are easier to use than a compound or a recurve bow. They shoot bolts with great precision at long distances. You can add scopes and hold them like a rifle, but they aren't without disadvantages. In this article we're going to introduce you to the different variants and aspects of the crossbow. Specifications, features, accessories, we'll touch on everything and by the end of our guide hopefully you'll understand more about the crossbow than you did before you read it!

Types of Crossbow

Recurve Crossbows

There are a few basics you need to know about a recurve crossbow. This is a simple design where the arms of the bow curve first towards the shooter and then back away from the shooter. The limbs must be longer than a compound bow, but the finished product is lighter. This allows for quicker target acquisition and a more accurate shot. The bow has fewer moving parts, so it requires less maintenance except for wear and tear on the string itself. However, string replacement is incredibly simple.

Recurve crossbow

Recurve crossbow

This bow is also very quiet, so hunting is ideal for a recurve crossbow…. The only real downside is that the ratio of arrow speed to draw weight is less. This makes it harder to draw, so if you are lacking shoulder strength then it may not be ideal.

Compound Crossbows

Unlike a standard compound bow, the strain of the weight is only eased when drawing the bow. Once it is cocked, any crossbow has zero draw weight. One advantage is that the bow is narrow so getting through heavy brush or aiming around tree branches is easier. One hotly debated subject is a split limb versus a single limb compound crossbow. The general consensus is that there is not much difference. If there is any difference, it is that the split limb may be a bit more accurate, lighter, and easier to tune over time.

Compound Crossbow

Compound Crossbow

As far as differences to the recurve, we already mentioned the weight difference when pulling the string. Other than that, the recurve is typically quieter and lighter. Over long periods of time the trigger mechanism is more likely to fail on a recurve, but the rest of a design is more reliable than a compound. If you have to change out the string, you will probably have to take a compound to a bow shop. You'll find a recurve more functional for most situations. If you simply need more power than your body can pull, then a compound might make sense. Otherwise, go recurve in my opinion.

Pistol Crossbows

I actually own one of these as well and absolutely love them. I bought my pistol crossbow before I got my full sized because it was cheaper, more portable, and a great deal of fun. They can be accurate up to about 30 yards, so they do not have the range of a real crossbow. In addition, the bolts are quite light so they are great for target practice but not great for hunting. I have had a bolt bounce off of a rabbit hide at 15 yards. They seem to be fine for squirrels and bullfrogs. I can tell you that my friends would rather shoot the pistol than the full sized. I think it is less intimidating for those that have never fired a crossbow before.

Pistol crossbow

Pistol crossbow

Understanding Crossbow Specifications

Draw Weight

This is the measurement of how much weight is required to draw the bow string back to a cocked position without an assistance device. To give you a comparison, a pistol crossbow normally has a draw weight of 50 lbs. For animals ranging from large rabbits up to whitetail deer, you want a draw weight of around 150 lbs. For dangerous animals that could charge you such as bears or moose you want a draw weight of about 200 lbs.

Anything more than 150 lbs. may be difficult to draw, so there are draw assistance products available to give you a mechanical advantage. The one I have works like a pulley system with your foot holding the bow front on the ground and two handles pulling back the drawstring. The legal requirement for draw weight on a compound bow varies by state, so please look up your local hunting regulations. Of course, any draw weight is fine for target shooting. If you are having difficulty with long range shots, upgrade to more draw weight for a faster arrow speed.

Let-off

One popular topic when discussing standard compound bows is let-off. This is the reduction in draw weight felt as you reach the end of your draw so you can hold the draw longer. For hunting with a standard bow, this is vital. However, with a compound bow all of the weight is held by your trigger mechanism. Once the bow is cocked, the draw weight does not matter. Therefore, let-off does not apply to crossbows.

Crossbow Width

For years it was thought that the distance between arm tips on a recurve or between axles on a compound bow would make a huge difference in accuracy. Recent tests show otherwise. While there is always room for improvement, it has been found recently that this variable barely matters at normal hunting or target distances.

Power Stroke

This aspect of a crossbow’s design is one of the most important and one of the least understood. Power stroke on a crossbow is the distance between the resting point of the bowstring and the fully drawn point of the bowstring. It is the equivalent of draw length on a conventional bow. To oversimplify this measurement, the longer the draw length the faster the arrow speed. This is most true with recurve crossbows. However, there are always other variables that affect arrow speed. It is a very complicated calculation, so looking at power stroke is just an easier way to compare bows.

Speed

There are two separate measurements to consider when looking at the performance speed of a bow. One is the arrow speed which is measured in Feet per Second (fps). This simply shows how fast the arrow is travelling, and it stays fairly consistent no matter what distance from which you fire. Arrow speeds typically range from 200 fps to 400 fps. The second measurement to consider is kinetic energy. This is measured in Foot Pounds of Kinetic Energy (fpke). Unlike arrow speed, this measurement shows the amount of energy transferred to your target from your arrow. Kinetic energy does decrease as your range gets further, so this must be considered. Kinetic energy normally ranges from about 30 fpke to 125 fpke.

It should also be mentioned that the grain of the arrow affects both the speed of the arrow and the kinetic energy delivered. Because of this, it is important that you use arrows of the same weight to compare bows on these measurements. Many tests on crossbows are conducted using 400 grain arrows. If you decide to use a heavier arrow, here is a chart that shows you how your arrow speed will be affected:

  • 425 grain arrows will fly at ~97.5 of initial speed
  • 450 grain arrows will fly at ~95% of initial speed
  • 475 grain arrows will fly at ~92.3% of initial speed
  • 500 grain arrows will fly at ~90% of initial speed
  • 525 grain arrows will fly at ~87.8% of initial speed
  • 550 grain arrows will fly at ~85.5% of initial speed
  • 575 grain arrows will fly at ~84% of initial speed
  • ​600 grain arrows will fly at ~82.5% of initial speed

As far as calculating kinetic energy, you can assume that the figure will drop by three to four percent for every 10 yards of additional distance to your target. Therefore, if you start with 100 fpke and then decide to shoot at a target that is 30 yards further you can expect closer to 90 fpke.

Any amount of arrow speed or kinetic energy is fine for target practice depending on your skill level. The further the distance and the lower the arrow speed, the more arc you will get to your arrow path. This can make shots more difficult, so it all depends on your preferences. Hunting is a different story. The size of your game determines how much kinetic energy you need for a clean kill.

  • Smaller game such as turkey or groundhogs you should have between 20 and 25 fpke
  • Medium sized game such as deer and antelope you will need between 30 and 40 fpke
  • Large game such as elk or black bears you will need between 45 and 60 fpke
  • Larger, more dangerous game such as grizzly bears or moose you will need between 65 and 75 fpke

Bolts/Arrows

The arrows used for a crossbow are called bolts, and they are definitely different than arrows for a conventional bow. These bolts are shorter and thicker than most conventional arrows. Most are between 14 inches and 20 inches long, but typically there is a particular length suggested for any given crossbow model. The most common length is probably a 20 inch bolt. You can get bolts with three inch fletchings or four inch fletchings depending on your preference. Most bolts are about 175 grain by themselves along with a 125 grain field point for a total of 400 grain.

Crossbow Bolts

Crossbow Bolts

I like to go a bit heavier on the point. You want your arrow to be heavier to the front so it flies more true. You can get bolts made of aluminum, but I prefer carbon fiber. Always be sure to sight in your crossbow using broad-heads before hunting. You will notice a huge difference in the flight of a bolt on a field point versus a broad-head.

Crossbow Weight / Mass

One of the challenges of using a crossbow is that the average crossbow weighs about two to three times the weight of a vertical compound or recurve bow. This can give you extra stability, but it can also wear out your arm if you have to keep the bow raised for any period of time. Some people like to use a rest such as a bi-pod or straight stick to handle some of the weight. When hunting there are times I use a rest and times that I do not. If I expect to take a shot over about 30 yards, I will likely use a rest. Otherwise I freehand my shot. This also depends on how exposed my movement will be. If I am up in a tree surrounded by foliage, I am not as worried. If I am on the ground leaning against a tree, I am more worried about my movement being spotted and keep my crossbow rested on a bi-pod.

A sling is a completely different story. This strap is designed to allow you to carry your crossbow over your shoulder as you hike. When I go hunting with my crossbow, I often have a long hike to get to my tree stand. To carry my crossbow in both hands tends to wear out my arms pretty quickly, and my hands are not free for anything else I need to do. By using a sling to put my crossbow over my shoulder, I take the weight off of my arms and keep my hands free. I always use my sling when hunting.

Stocks and Cheek Pieces

The stock is typically the heaviest part of a crossbow. They come in wood and plastic reinforced with steel. Heavier stocks often make the bow more reliable due to the extra stability added by the weight, but they are more cumbersome in the woods. Some stocks have cocking mechanisms built in to help draw back the string.

Skeletal stocks are available to give you the same strength but to significantly reduce the weight. One of the most difficult aspects of shooting with a crossbow is getting a consistent hold on the bow every time. A good stock length and cheek rest is vital to this. Because of that, custom cheek pieces and stock extensions are available.

Noise

Typically you will find that crossbows do create more noise than conventional bows. However, there are some variables that you can consider to reduce this noise. The issue is that the sound of your crossbow will always get to your target animal before your bolt. If it flinches before the bolt hits, this is called jumping the string and it can be very frustrating. First you must consider the type of crossbow. Recurves are typically quieter than compound bows.

From there you can make some adjustments to reduce noise. You can add sound dampening mechanisms to any crossbow, and some actually come with one already installed. Silencers can be added to the string itself to dampen noise. These are normally a small rubber piece that absorbs the vibration. Finally, one of the loudest noises your crossbow can make is when you flip off the safety. Be careful to use both your thumb and forefinger to pinch the switch and slowly move it forward to keep it as quiet as possible.

Cocking/ Decocking

There are three primary ways that archers cock their crossbows. One is to grab the string with both hands and muscle it back into a cocked position. This can require a great amount of strength, and it can cause inconsistent cocking that reduces accuracy. Most crossbows also come with a rope cocking device. This is basically a pulley system that cuts the amount of force needed to cock your bow by 50%. If your crossbow did not come with one, they are inexpensive and fit in your pocket. This method of cocking eliminates the risk of inconsistent cocking, and I use mine every time.

The newest method for cocking is a crank or lever system. This method gives you an even greater mechanical advantage as you only have to crank a lever to draw your string. However, the system is a big more bulky and costs quite a bit more. It is ideal for anybody that has a physical disability restricting their strength. As for decocking your crossbow, I have always been told to just fire the arrow into a target. You can get target specifically designed to be light and portable and used as something to discharge your crossbow into. Trying to ease the bow string back down is just too risky. If you dry fire a crossbow it can snap the bowstring or break one of the arms.

Sights

There are three primary options for sights on a crossbow. You have the old single pin system used on conventional bows. However, most crossbows currently come with a scope of some kind. Reflex sights are also an option, but normally have to be installed aftermarket. The pin system and reflex sights are designed for close range shots, and reflex sights are ideal for fast target acquisition on moving targets. I personally do not take many moving shots, so a scope is best for me.

Crossbow with sight

Crossbow with sight

When it comes to optics, the philosophy I have always heard is that you want to spend as much as you can reasonably afford. A good optic can give you the confidence to take shots you would normally let pass, and a bad optic can make you second guess even the most simple shot. Read your product reviews and pay attention to your magnification. You will not be taking shots at 100 yards plus, so you do not need a nine power scope. I use a four power scope and it works just fine.

Triggers

The trigger on a crossbow is unique in design versus firearms, and is one of the most appealing aspects of a crossbow. It is much easier to get a smooth release by pulling the trigger of a crossbow versus releasing a conventional bow string. However, not all triggers are created equal. Like a trigger on a firearm, crossbow triggers have specific weights. This is the measure of how much pressure is required to trip the trigger and send your arrow flying. If the weight is too light, you might accidentally fire your arrow too soon. If the trigger is too heavy, you might tend to jerk the trigger which could throw off your shot.

Most modern crossbows have a safety built into the mechanism to help prevent an early discharge.

Cost

As is with any type of bow, you can spend a great deal or you can spend a small amount. I am still using the very first full sized crossbow I ever purchased, and I bought it for just under $200. I have had to buy some replacement parts, but I do not mind making repairs. It has done just fine for deer season. If I were to step up to larger game such as elk or black bear, I would likely upgrade my crossbow in advance. In fact, I am considering a black bear hunt this fall and may do exactly that.

You can easily spend over $1,000 for the highest quality crossbows, but do not feel the need to spend that much. My little starter crossbow has served me just fine.

Maintenance and Storage

Caring for your crossbow is absolutely vital if you want it to last. I do suggest a case for your crossbow as the slightest bump on an arm, cam, or scope can throw everything offline. On compound crossbows bows, you may want to have them tuned periodically to ensure they remain accurate.

However, waxing your bow string is the most important practice for crossbows. The bowstring rubs along the frame of the bow every time it is fired. This puts a great deal of strain on the string. You should wax the whole string including the eyelets every five times the crossbow is fired. In addition, you should have a spare string handy and be prepared to replace the string every 50 to 100 times it is fired. Your string may hold up longer than that, but you still want to be prepared. I also purchased a tool for my recurve that allows me to easily replace the string myself.

Accessories

A quiver is one accessory you may want to consider for your crossbow. I have one that attaches to the bow, but I find that it adds to the weight so I rarely use it. Instead I have a hip quiver that works just fine. In fact, my crossbow is so accurate that often I only take two or three arrows with me when I go hunting. I have yet to take a second shot at a deer.

Another accessory in which you may want to invest would be lighted knocks for your bolts. This allows you to see the flight path of your arrow so you can tell where the arrow hits or does not hit the target.

As discussed before, a good scope and noise dampening devices are a good idea along with a sling to help you carry the weight. You will need a case and bowstring wax to keep the crossbow in good shape.

I like to use mechanical broad-heads for hunting because they fly more similar to a field tip. Stationary broad-heads are often wildly inconsistent on crossbows.

Finally, when hunting because of the weight I purchased a hook to screw into the tree next to my stand so I can hang up my bow until a deer comes along.

About the Author David James

Hi there! I'm Dave, the founder of targetcrazy.com. I'm a passionate bowman and a fan of all target sports in general. I created this site to share my knowledge with you and help you make more informed choices! Please let me know what you think of my work, comment, like, rant, speak up!

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