Outdoor Articles

The Crossbow Debate

by Pursue The Outdoors on March 10th, 2007 in Bow Hunting

Ask any archer about crossbows and their inclusion into the “archery” family and you will most certainly get a vivid response expressing their disgust or enthusiasm for the controversial topic. Many bowhunters are advocates to the use of crossbows (sometimes referred to as “X-Guns”) and feel that they are closer to a firearm than a bow due to their characteristic string locking mechanism, gun stock design and ability to use telescopic scopes. On the other hand, crossbow supporters debate that crossbows still have a string that must be drawn, still shoot an arrow (called a bolt), are sometimes even less accurate than new compound bow designs and even shoot at roughly the same speeds as high end compound bows.

In reality, there are many differences in the engineering of traditional, compound and crossbow designs. Traditional, or “stick” bows, use a single string attached to a one piece wood riser and limbs. Some long bows and recurves, however, are made with the limbs and riser being separate pieces of wood. This method is used to create the specific pull weight of the bow string. Traditional bows can use wood, aluminum or carbon shafts and a variety of points and vanes.

In comparison, compound bows are different in that they use a cam and pulley system. For instance, single cam bows use a simple pulley system to create stored energy when drawn to hurl the arrow at a faster rate of speed than most traditional bows. The cam system also allows for the archer to enjoy a more relaxed and longer hold on full draw due to the “let-off” or amount of energy that is taken from the string and stored in the limbs (usually 65 to 80 percent). Due to the force that an arrow is released from a compound bow, these designs are only able to shoot aluminum or carbon arrow shafts with a variety of points and vanes similar to that of a traditional bow.

Crossbows are similar to the compound bow design with a few exceptions. First, a crossbow when fully drawn uses a locking mechanism to hold the string in place. This releases the “archer”, or “shooter” if you prefer, to allow the bow to distribute 100 percent of the stored energy in the limbs, effectively allowing the bow to do the work of holding the string for long periods of time. Second, crossbows use a stock very similar to that of a firearm instead of the normal riser design used in traditional and compound bows. Crossbows, due to their design, are also able to use a bolt, which is a smaller sub-species of the arrow, and telescopic sights similar to the version found on firearms. Most argue that crossbows are much less accurate than traditional or compound bows but I am hesitant to say this is due to design more than the abilities of the “archer/shooter”.


State and national bowhunting organizations are beginning to lobby strongly against the inclusion of crossbows in the archery-only season. In August of 2005, the NABC (North American Bowhunting Coalition) and 32 other interested organizations released a formal letter stating their position on the crossbow topic:

“A major issue addressed by the summit attendees was the use of crossbows during archery-only hunting seasons. It was immediately apparent that the attendees were unified as being strongly opposed to the use of crossbows in any bowhunting season. State and provincial representatives unanimously agreed that crossbows are not bows and should not be allowed in archery-only seasons.”

It’s apparent that many active archers and hunters alike have serious opinions on the crossbow topic. Since we have highlighted the differences and similarities of traditional, compound and crossbow designs, let’s look at the exact reasoning behind the statements released by the NABC:

“A hunting bow is recognized as a compound, recurve or longbow that is hand-drawn and that has no mechanical device to enable the hunter to lock the bow at full or partial draw. Crossbows, on the other hand, are locked at full draw by a trigger, utilize a rifle-like stock, have rigidly controlled internal ballistics, can readily be shot from a rest and typically use a telescopic sight. A crossbow’s characteristics are so vastly different from those of conventional bows that summit attendees agreed that crossbows would negatively impact bowhunting seasons if allowed in archery-only seasons.”

Naturally, these opinions do not express the thoughts and feelings of every archer or hunter. Horizontal Bowhunter (http://www.horizontalbowhunter.com), which states itself to be “The Official Magazine of the American Crossbow Federation”, has this to say about the crossbow debate in their Frequently Asked Questions section of their website:

MYTH: Because it is not hand-drawn and released, the crossbow is more closely compared to a firearm than a vertical bow.

FACT: Opponents to the crossbow often quote an apples and oranges comparison when voicing this smokescreen. The vertical archer, if they are a sportsman/bowhunter, prior to ever going into the field hunting spends hours and hours working on the physical conditioning required by drawing, aiming and shooting their chosen tool — nothing mystical, just physical work. Once the season starts, the act of drawing, aiming and shooting (especially with high let-off compounds utilizing a triggered release aid) is no more difficult for a vertical bowhunter than a crossbow hunter. Movement is required by both (one to draw back the other to raise the crossbow into a shooting position) to obtain the target at an average of less than twenty yards. Both hunters must be accomplished woodsmen to get that close to a whitetail and still mask those necessary movements.

MYTH: Crossbows are too easy to shoot.

FACT: Experienced rifle shooters can expect to quickly achieve tight arrow groups on targets up to forty yards (the effective hunting range of a crossbow). Is that bad? Isn’t accurate shot placement the goal of all ethical hunting? Does the difficulty of shooting a bow accurately deter people from participating in bowhunting? However, to be successful, a crossbow hunter must master all skills and tactics common to bowhunting.

So back to the debate at hand: Is a crossbow actually a bow? Should they be included in the archery-only hunting seasons? Are they really that different from traditional and compound bow designs?

That is a debate that will more than likely be the topic of discussion around many state and national hunting organizations for years to come. In my opinion, crossbows are no less dangerous or easier to shoot than traditional or compound bows. However, crossbows are certainly engineered in a very different manner than that of the design typically considered to be in the “archery” family. I believe that an archery or hunting enthusiast should support whatever method they feel the most comfortable with and have the most fun shooting.

Remember, the goal of the archery and hunting industry is to promote a) legal and ethical tactics, b) a place for recreational activities for women, children and men alike regardless of physical abilities or preferences in equipment and c) to promote the sport of hunting and shooting with a unified voice. If this can be accomplished, the overall achievements and gains will far outweigh the losses due to allowing crossbows to actually be considered a bow.

2 Responses to “The Crossbow Debate”

  1. Cecil Says:

    Crossbow are for lazy hunters and poachers. They have NO place in archery seasons. Rifle seasons only!

  2. Jack Says:

    I am a disabled Gulf War Veteran. My crossbow allows me to enjoy and promote a sport that I could not otherwise participate in. I am not a lazy hunter nor am I a poacher. I am a ethical outdoor-loving sportsman who chooses to overcome his physical disability while enjoying a sport he is passionate about. I am thankful that I live in a country that allows me the freedom to hunt with a crossbow as I very much dislike hunting with any type of firearm.

    As far as the statement that, “Too many buck would be killed” well… I hardly think this is possible when I live in a state that only allows one buck to be taken per year.

    Additionally I see no significant difference in accuracy between bow and crossbows. If your argument is that crossbows are more accurate then I would suggest that they would then be the more humane tool to use to harvest your prey.

    Let’s look at this issue from the other end. Should I petition to outlaw longbows because they are less powerful and less accurate than compound bows? Which weapon offers the greatest advantage or opportunity for the more accurate and humane kill?

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