To be sure you don’t get stuck with a crossbow your unhappy with; you will have to give some thought to which one will suite your needs.
Crossbow Buyers Guide
If you’re new to crossbows, choosing the right one can be a tough decision. There are more makes, models, and sizes available than ever before. While modern crossbows often look and operate similarly there are some key differences you should take into consideration.
This crossbow buyers guide will outline the most important crossbow factors that you need to consider before making a decision.
The function and purpose of your crossbow is the number one factor you need to consider because it will help you focus on the crossbow you need, not want. While most modern crossbows can be used for big game hunting, fishing, or target practice. Choosing one that shines in a specific area will improve your effectiveness and overall enjoyment.
Hunting: the majority of crossbows designed today are for big game hunting, but even within the category there are a lot of choices. Think about some of these questions and related options to help you narrow down your choices.
- Where are you hunting?
- Pattern: If your blind or box stand hunting consider a strait black crossbow that will stay hidden in the shadows. Otherwise look for camouflage pattern that blends into your cover. Whether it’s open county, realtree, mossy oak or winters snow you will be able to find a crossbow that will blend right in.
- Weight: Are you strapping your crossbow to an ATV and driving to your stand? Or, are you hiking in a couple miles through rough back country terrain. Consider the weight of your crossbow when having to do either as crossbows are already heavier than vertical bows and can weigh you down if you pick something that isn’t suited to your needs.
- What are you crossbow hunting?
- Big Big Game: Most hunting crossbows have enough power to take down North American big game but if you’re hunting off continent you may want to consult your guides or upgrade to be on the safe side.
- Big Game: Speed and draw weight are important but almost every hunting crossbow already has plenty of it. After all, it only takes about 40 lbs to cut through a deer and the smallest crossbows come close to that. The big advantage for a North American hunter buying a faster crossbow is the flattened trajectory and increased range.
- Small Game: For small game you’re not limited to the heavier duty hunting bow and can branch out to lighter crossbows typically designed for target shooting or kids. It may seem ridiculous taking out a kids crossbow, but with their light weight, small frame and low draw poundage they are easy to maneuver as well as quicker to reload.
Target Shooting: Crossbow target shooting is becoming more popular and because of this we are starting to see more crossbows built for this purpose. These crossbows are generally no frills with a focus on light weight targeting shooting functionality. If you want a crossbow mostly for target shooting and backyard games stay clear of powerful hunting crossbows. Not only are they heavy to carry and cock, but they will break down your targets much faster.
Fishing: Crossbow fishing is catching on almost as fast as its vertical bow fishing cousin. The advantage with a crossbow is that you can go after larger aquatic life (alligators) with more precision and power than ever before.
All Purpose: If you looking for a fun, all around crossbow the key is striking a balance. You don’t want to purchase an extremely powerful crossbow as they’re hard on targets, difficult to cock, and heavier. Then again you don’t want a light weight target shooter that you don’t feel comfortable taking out for deer season either. Find something comfortable in the middle and look at some of the other factors in our guide to help you figure it out.
In the crossbow world there are two designs and sets of opinions on which is better but don’t get hung up on that. It’s not about choosing what crossbow is “the best”. It’s more important to try out a few crossbows, and pick one that is the best for you.
The recurve crossbow is the original crossbow design which has been around for centuries. The term itself “Re-Curve”, describes the shape of the crossbow limbs, as the tips face away from the shooter when uncocked. The modern design has been supercharged with the introduction of composite materials that now allow these crossbows to match the speeds of their compound competitors, minus the additional parts. It is this simplicity which makes these crossbows a favorite of hunters as they are made up of far fewer components than a compound crossbow.
The simplicity in design transfers to simplicity in use, which is why these are also popular with first-time shooters. They are larger and wider than compound crossbows but much easier to perform maintenance on (string changes are much easier). This simplicity comes at a price, since they struggle to match the power of compound models and can have a high price tag.
- Recurve crossbows require less maintenance because of fewer fragile parts.
- Basic design make in field maintenance quick and string replacement simple.
- Overall recurve crossbows are quieter when compared to the compound crossbows.
- Simple design makes them less susceptible to failure during inclement conditions or extreme weather
- Recurve crossbows are typically wider than compound crossbows.
- Draw weights are heavier because they lack pulley mechanism.
- If not cocked perfectly the unbalanced limb torque may reduce accuracy.
- Composite material are expensive so these bows may cost more initially
The face of the modern day crossbow, compounds have taken the technological gains from their vertical counterparts and flipped them on their side to better harness accuracy and power. A much newer design than the recurve these crossbows are very popular because of their compact, powerful mechanisms as well as their close relation to popular vertical bows.
There are two variations of the compound crossbow available, the standard draw and reverse draw models. Reverse draw crossbows are relatively new and features a design in which their limbs bend toward the leading edge of the bolt. By doing this these crossbows reduce brace height, which maximizes their power stroke and allows them to reach higher speeds without lengthening the entire crossbow. Aside from that reverse draw and standard draw, compounds feature similar performance characteristics. Not only are compound crossbows fast, cocking these crossbows is much easier with the cam based pulley system. This technology also allows these crossbows to be smaller, and easier to maneuver in tight quarters. However those same mechanisms which make the compound smaller also require more maintenance and make these crossbows more prone to failure.
- Mechanical design of the cams typically make these crossbows faster
- Design allows crossbow to be more compact and easier to maneuver
- Pulley system reduces draw weight, making cocking crossbow easier
- Popularity has lowered the cost of entry level models
- Complex mechanics require more maintenance
- Cams and related components increase the weight of compound crossbows
- Field repair is limited do to intricate mechanical system
- Lifetime cost of ownership will be higher due to additional maintenance requirements
- Overall compounds do tend to be noisier than recurve crossbows
Some people will try to tell you that the different crossbow designs offer varying levels of accuracy, but the number one cause of a bolt gone array is operator error.
When you improperly cock a crossbow off center, the limbs will not produce the same amount of torque upon firing. This imbalance will result in your bolt being pulled ever so slightly in different direction. Even if you can cock the crossbow by hand (a method popular by hunters to increase reloading times), using a rope cocking aid or crank will significantly improve alignment. Outside of this issue the other primary sources of inaccuracy will be in your bolts which will need to be tuned accordingly as well as your scope alignment. Crossbow scopes are essential for hunting as they can drastically improve the accuracy.
Modern crossbows can come with a variety of scopes
- Optical: They have a cross hair when looking through the scope
- Multi-Reticle: Cross hair with fine lines that give a better perspective of the range
- Single Red Dot: One dot to help with aiming
- Multi-Red Dot: Multiple red dots to help with aiming
Some scopes offer advanced accuracy features such as illuminated reticles and trajectory settings to match your crossbows speed. By utilizing quality optics, whether they’re included with your crossbow package or are an aftermarket addition a scope will vastly improve the accuracy, especially in hunting conditions which benefit from advanced features.
One of the negative side-effects of increased crossbow speed is the draw weight.
This is of course the weight in pounds, required to draw a crossbow string until it locks into cocking position. Unlike vertical bows which typically have draw weights maxing out around 70 pounds, modern crossbows can reach 290 pounds. Even though you don’t need to hold it for a shot you still need to ensure an even draw in order to maintain accuracy. Doing this by hand is extremely difficult so crossbow manufactures have long been utilizing cocking aids to assist shooters with the process. There are two primary types which most modern crossbows utilize.
Rope Cocking Device: This is the most popular method for cocking a crossbow because it is easy to use, compact, light and inexpensive. The rope cocking device reduces the workload of pulling the strings by 50 percent.
Crank Cocking Device: The crank based cocking device is the easiest way to cock a crossbow and is recommended for shooters that may struggle with heavy draw weights. They are, however, expensive, slower, noisier and heavier than rope cocking aids. Some crossbows have a crank that is attached, while others can be removed.
Both systems will do the job but unless you physically need to use a crank, we would recommend a rope cocking aid.
Crossbow buyers have the need for speed and crossbow makers know it.
It’s the first thing listed beside a crossbows name and the feature more crossbow buyers crave. In fact it’s so popular that it has started a crossbow cold war that will probably have compounds pushing the 500 FPS range within the next few years. The question really is, how important is speed to you?
Let’s look at what speed does for you. First, it’s going to result in a flatter flight path to your target. This helps in hunting situations where bolt deflecting tree branches are hard to account for when steep trajectories come into play. Along with this additional speed comes additional range. Modern high speed crossbows advertise ranges out to 60 yards and plenty of target shooters reach 100 yards without difficulty. Speed is also power or kinetic energy that will be transferred to any animal. While it’s nothing compared to a rifle, additional energy will help if you catch bone.
Now why wouldn’t you want more speed? Well for one thing speed directly results in additional draw weight, physical weight and of course size. This size is going to reduce your maneuverability it tight situations such as blinds. Size will also result in a heavier crossbow that can make a steady aim difficult to sustain. Speed will also results in extra noise and recoil. If silencing your crossbow is a high priority then speed maybe your enemy.
Overall buying a high speed crossbow is a lot like buying a fast car. Sure everyone wants a Ferrari but if you’re planning on going off-road it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Also it is important to keep in mind that the manufactures advertised crossbow speed is probably not what you’re going to get. Those speeds are not standardized, and are recorded under perfect conditions with specifically weighted bolts. Hunters are never in perfect conditions and usually opt for a heavier bolt to improve their front of center balance.
Heavier bolts can also improve the longevity of your limbs because pushing that heavier bolt takes away energy that they would have to otherwise absorb on their own. The lighter the arrow the closer your crossbow comes to the disastrous tolerances of a dry fire. As a rule of thumb, I take off about 20 FPS from any advertised speed I see.
This gives you a better idea of what you’ll be shooting at and it will help you see through the advertising allure of a 400 FPS crossbow, that maybe only shooting 380 real world feet per second.
Crossbows have long had a reputation for being heavy and cumbersome but with new materials at our disposal crossbows are quickly becoming lighter, more compact hunting tools.
Like everything else this isn’t going to be true across all makes and models, as there are still significant differences in crossbow weight.Weight is important because the heaviness of a crossbow can negatively affect your accuracy if it’s not suited to your body type. I’ve never heard of a crossbow being too light but there are plenty of instances where people purchase a heavier model they have difficulty handling.
Modern crossbows will weigh between 6 and 8 pounds, but because they are front heavy it’s also about balancing that weight. Keep in mind what you’re using your crossbow for and how you will be shooting it. If you’re a big game hunter that uses a shooting stick or other type of rest to take your shot then don’t worry about weight. However, if your target shooting or hunt in situations where you take a lot of free hand shots, consider a lighter crossbow. You need to select a model that will allow you to hold it steady in various shooting positions.
Also keep in mind your own mobility. If you’re hiking deep into the bush or through mountainous terrain an extra pound here and there makes a big difference. It’s not always the biggest selling feature but the weight of a crossbow can be important, so keep it in mind when making a purchase.
Fit & Feel
Is the shooting position comfortable, does it feel balanced, do you prefer the grip of one crossbow over another?
There is really no way to figure this out by reading a brochure, review, or anything else. To determine if a crossbow fits your build, you need to physically hold it in your hands and shoot it if possible. By holding a crossbow you will know instantly if the balance feels right, if the stock fits you, if grips are comfortable, if its too heavy, and most importantly if it’s comfortable to hold in a shooting position.
Then if you’re able to shoot the bow you can get a feel for some of the other aspects such as trigger weight, recoil and noise. Crossbow triggers can vary in style and play. Most crossbow shooters don’t consider it, but a triggers poundage and creep can affect shooting accuracy. For example, a crossbow trigger that releases without any travel (no creep) can be dangerous. While on the other hand a crossbow trigger with too much creep makes it difficult for the shooter to squeeze steadily. Also consider trigger weight, as a light, hair trigger could be hazardous, while a heavy crossbow trigger will also be difficult to squeeze steadily.
The truth is not everyone has the ability to shoot a crossbow before you buy one but at the very least make sure you hold it. This alone will tell you whether or not that crossbow feels right to you.
For most hunters cost will be a major factor in making a decision. To get the best crossbow bang for your buck, consider these factors:
Maintenance – More Parts + Low Quality = Higher Cost of Ownership
- Compound crossbows require a lot of maintenance compared to recurve crossbows and this cost can add up over the lifetime of a crossbow
- Low cost crossbows may seem like an irresistible deal but consider additional costs associated cheap components. After all that time and money you put into hunting, saving a couple hundred on a lower quality crossbow could be disastrous if it fails in the field.
- Don’t just consider the crossbow but consider the package it comes with. Purchasing accessories alone can be expensive and buying a package upfront maybe a quick way to save long term.
- Make sure your crossbow will be compatible with the accessories you want or already have. Otherwise you may be stuck buying additional accessories that you didn’t plan for.
- A crossbow warranty is worth its weight in gold. Not only will this tell you a lot about the manufacturer, but it will tell you a lot about the products they deliver. A company offering a great warranty isn’t going to be selling low quality crossbows as they would be out of business.
There is no sure fire way to know how reliable your crossbow is going to be, but you can consider some key factors and do a little research to give you an idea of how reliable it may be.
Design: Less parts and better quality are linked directly to crossbow reliability. Recurve crossbows are always going to be tops when it comes to lack of moving parts and are generally more reliable simply because of their straight forward design. That isn’t to say a compound crossbow can’t be reliable but they have to be built with quality components which are maintained properly.
Brand: Talk with local ranges, archery stores, look into forums and even check sites like Cabelas for details on model reliability. Also, look at the manufactures long term reputation for quality, customer service, and even consider the length of warranty as it indicates the companies’ confidence in their product. Manufactures such as Excalibur offer a lifetime warranty on their crossbows. While you will pay a little more upfront, you’re investing in piece of mind. Now if you intend on upgrading every year this shouldn’t be a major factor as most manufactures offer basic warranties that should cover you.
Model: Even the most reputable crossbow companies will make select lower grade parts for budget models in order to be competitive. Keep this in mind if you’re looking at the crossbows in person and decide whether these parts may affect the performance of the crossbow for you.
Just remember that crossbows, like any mechanical device will wear down and break after a certain amount of usage unless properly maintained. If you’re only hunting a couple times per year then you probably won’t be wearing down your bows’ mechanical system, however, if you’re target shooting every weekend or hunting a lot(especially in backcountry where maintenance isn’t an option), a bows reliability should be strongly considered. Even if you’re not, reliability goes hand in hand with the safety of your crossbow which should be looked at seriously.
Crossbows for whatever reason don’t garner the same level of respect as a rifle, or vertical bow, but they should.
Their straight forward design shouldn’t be disrespected as these weapons can do a great deal of damage when mishandled. When researching a new crossbow, safety features should be on the list of considerations. Luckily, modern crossbows have come a long way and can be found offering a variety of safety features:
- Safety Switch which is standard but should be looked at in case of poor design
- Anti dry fire mechanisms that will prevent your bow from dry firing. These will save you from potential harm and save your crossbow from a disastrous outcome.
- Finger Guards offer your hand a buffer and protection from a crossbow’s string when released
If you use a crossbow you will have to come to terms with the fact that your crossbow is going to make noise.
They will never be as quite as a vertical bow (at least not anytime soon) but you can look into some quieter models and accessories to dampen the sound. Here are a couple of things to consider if noise is a factor in your decision.
- Compound crossbows are typically louder than recurve crossbows. That is a generalized statement and you really need to try them out in person to know what models are quieter than others. If this isn’t possible check online forums or even reach out to companies who make dampening devices for advice on what they have found.
- The sudden stop of all those added forces required for higher speeds will result in a louder noise. If silence is high on your list consider a slower bow that by nature should be quieter.
- Noise dampening devices vary in effectiveness and quality. Make sure the crossbow you’re looking at will be compatible with the noise dampening system you want to use. (Noise dampening devices can reduce the speed and you may want to compensate by choosing a faster crossbow upfront)
With all of these different crossbow factors, options and accessories to consider just remember that the most important element to consider is yourself and what you are using the crossbow for. By focusing on that you’ll be able to select a crossbow that will deliver maximum effectiveness and fun to whatever activity you use it for.