Crossbow hunting has always been something of a hot topic, but the debate has calmed down a bit in recent years as more states have relaxed their previously stringent rules on using them during regular archery seasons. Now record numbers of people are taking a shot at the earlier seasons they'd never before participated in. We suspect this is why many state wildlife agencies are legalizing them for big game hunting without any restrictions. Hunters numbers are at an all-time historic low, which means getting more people hunting is always a good thing.
At the same time, though, we hear far too often from a large portion of deer hunters that "crossbows are too easy," followed by an exaggerated claim of how much more successful they'd be with the help of a crossbow. Every once in a while, you'll even hear them compared to rifles. Such hyperbole could lead the average person to believe hunting with a crossbow isn't challenging enough to deserve any respect should it successfully take down a deer. But is that really the case?
I've always thought people generally have the wrong idea about crossbows for two reasons. The first is their design. You've got a butt stock, pistol grip and fore grip—all things people associate with firearms. A whole lot of people then get the wrong idea that these things shoot just like a firearm.
The second contribution to the generally negative stigma attached to crossbows is the restrictions that were once placed on them. For instance, here in Michigan, the use of crossbows used to be reserved only for hunters who could prove a certain element of disability that inhibited their ability to draw a recurve or compound bow. Most hunters seemed fine with those hunting regulations and crossbows, until non-disabled hunters wanted to start using them.
In any case, similarities to firearms and associations with disabled hunters seem to have many people believing anyone using a crossbow is taking the easy way out. I'd ask these people, "Have you ever actually hunted before?" I've personally never had an easy hunt with any weapon, but I digress.
Is it easier?
Could a new crossbow hunter be successful with a crossbow more quickly than they would be with a traditional vertical bow? Well, crossbows do have a huge advantage over vertical bows in terms of speed. Many high-end compound bows are now capable of 300 feet per second, but some of the new crossbows, particularly the reverse-limb bows, are flirting with 500 feet per second, although most are going to fall in that 350-400 fps speed range.
Still, that's a huge advantage in the deer woods, as it increases both your range and accuracy. The heavier draw weights mean you've got more foot pounds of energy behind the bolt, meaning they hit harder than traditional arrows and penetrate deeper. There could be an argument made with these high-speed crossbows that a bolt that's flying too fast may cut down on the effectiveness of the broadhead. Typically it's blood loss from the cutting of the blades that kills the deer or other game animal, not the energy behind it.
From my experience, I would say that crossbows are more effective in humanely killing a deer than other forms of archery equipment, but that doesn't necessarily mean a beginner is going to have an easy time with one.
Advantages and disadvantages for newer hunters
For a newer hunter, the biggest advantage is being able to simply shoulder and sight down on the animal without a lot of complicated draw movements. Just pick your spot, aim and squeeze the trigger. Beginner hunters can make things even easier on themselves with the use of shooting sticks or a shooting rail in their treestand. But, just because you have a crossbow does not equal an automatic kill. Heck, even a firearm doesn't guarantee it. I got picked off by a buck in my treestand this year as I was raising my shotgun. So, I've always considered this part of the argument to be pretty weak.
I will acknowledge that learning the movements, stances, and knowing when to draw and when to release with a compound bow does make it harder to kill a deer. It can take years for some people to learn the proper shooting techniques needed to be accurate with a compound. Almost anyone can learn to shoot a rifle or shotgun in an afternoon, and it's not much different with a crossbow.
The increase in range doesn't help a new hunter but so much. Sure, it's been proven time and again that crossbows can be effective out to 100 yards, but I'm of the firm belief that much of the accuracy depends on the experience of the shooter. I don't feel most newer hunters would be able to make that shot on their first deer, nor do I think many seasoned hunters are ever making those shots. You're looking to keep your shot inside of 50 yards, which isn't all that different from a compound bow.
X-factors determine everything
It's all the little things that determine how quickly a beginner is able to harvest a deer, regardless of what method they choose. For instance, is the new hunter familiar with the outdoors, or did they grow up in a hunting family? Are they being mentored by someone with experience, or are they learning on their own? Are they a stone-cold rookie who is the first in their family to even consider heading afield? Has the beginner already harvested a deer with a different weapon like a shotgun or rifle? So many variables play far more significant of a role than what weapon they choose to take with them.
Most rookies are going to learn through a painful series of trials and errors. It typically takes a long time to figure out how to hunt deer effectively, and most hunters will spend most of their first few seasons just hoping to see a deer.
Realistically, a lot is also going to ride on the quality of hunting area. A new hunter sitting in prime habitat on private property in central Iowa is likely going to harvest a deer with a crossbow quicker than someone sharing space on public land in Texas. When talking about how long it takes someone to take their first deer, everyone is different. My dad hunted for almost 15 years before he finally bagged his first buck with a shotgun. On the flip side, I shot my first deer three years into my hunting career.
Almost everyone knows at least one hunter at each end of the spectrum.
If there are any rookie hunters reading this, maybe you're still wanting me to give you a timeline on how long it should take to kill a deer with a crossbow. All I can say is hunting is like most things in life in that you get out of it what you put into it.
If you don't practice and prepare, expect to be skunked for a few seasons. But if you put in the practice time, learn everything you can about deer before entering the woods and make smart decisions on things like stand placements and hunting the wind, there's no reason you can't harvest your first deer with a crossbow this year.
Good luck to all the new hunters out there!
READ MORE: MICHIGAN DEER HUNTING SEASON OUTLOOK
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