They have been around for 2,500 years with their own peculiar vocabulary: tiller, prod, lath, bolt, quarre and are seemingly everywhere these days, at least on the television and silver screen: shooting zombies, fighting post-apocalyptic revolutions, or killing your lordly father who hates you for being a dwarf.
You also see them more and more in the hands of hunters.
Lots of reasons for that–the added challenge, aging bowhunters needing something easier to hold and shoot, the booming populations of urban and suburban wildlife creating hunting opportunities for short-ranged silent weapons.
The crossbow is, in fact, now legal for hunting in archery seasons in some states, Wyoming included.
Crossbows, referred to by those in the know as “xbows,” incite controversy across the hunting community. They were once considered some kind of infernal device–the late-11th century, Pope Urban II banned crossbows in all wars between Christians (shooting Moors with them was just fine, however). In an era of battle axes and boiling oil, the crossbow was hardly inhumane.
The primary objection was that it was too easy for a peasant to learn to shoot and with it he could pierce the armor and kill a trained knight, the flower of chivalry.
This was too much power in the hands of serfs; it might give them notions.
A lot of hunters, especially conventional archers, view the crossbow similarly today, as a weapon without honor and would be pleased if it was outlawed.
Because that’s not likely to happen, we’re just going to have to get used to seeing the crossbow in the field. We might even want to learn some basics about it.
I know nothing about the xbow (which doesn’t always preclude my holding forth on a subject); but luckily, I have a good friend, Charles Spiller, who lives and hunts in the Eastern Sierra Nevadas of California with a disability permit that lets him hunt with a crossbow during archery season.
When I asked him for a crossbow primer, he was glad to oblige.
The differences between crossbows and conventional archery tackle are fewer than might be imagined. As with a more traditional bow, range is, according to Spiller, critical. Beyond 40 yards, a miscalculation of only two or three yards could mean a drop in the trajectory, resulting in a wounded animal versus a clean kill. So Charley recommends a rangefinder.
He also notes that extreme angles, either up or down, as from a tree stand to the ground, affect the trajectory of an arrow, or “bolt” in a crossbow.
This issue of trajectory comes into play as well in the decision of whether to go with open sights or a scope dedicated to the crossbow. In Charley’s case, he shoots with a low-power scope with four different elevation lines on the reticle, each sighted in to a different yardage.
He zeroes the top line at 30 yards, then sees where the other three hit–in his case they work out to have points of impact of 40, 55, and 65 yards. (Spiller suggests practicing against a hill or mound of soft dirt, to recover the arrows.)
As far as crossbow style, Spiller notes that there are either modern compounds with cables and wheels, or the more orthodox recurve. He owns one of each (there is also the newest design, the “reverse draw,” but Charley isn’t familiar with that one).
The trade off is that the recurve offers lighter weight and easier maintenance, but lower speed than a compound.
Speed-wise, Spiller wants his bolt to fly at 250 to 350 feet per second, requiring a draw weight of between 150 and 190 pounds of pull, which is why the bow needs a cocking device, either a rope pulley or crank.
He recommends shopping for a crossbow package that includes a bow quiver, three to four arrows, cocking device and multi-reticle scope. Expect to pay between $500 to $600.
For brands, Spiller can’t think of a bad one. Some, though, may cost two to three times the prices listed above and he can’t say what your getting for the extra dough.
Once you get your xbow, practice, practice, practice.
Spiller says to get a large block target for training, and shooting with broadheads before the season. And with that, I should start getting ready for the fall, before the new Pope bans crossbows again.
Tom McIntyre is a contributing editor to Sports Afield and Field & Stream magazine.