With more state wildlife agencies legalizing the use of crossbows for everyone during regular archery deer seasons, there's a lot more hunters heading afield during those seasons these days. Some die-hard bowhunters may not like it, but many hunters are drawn back to deer hunting because of the 350+ fps speeds and excellent kinetic energy that make putting a bolt through a deer's body significantly easier than an arrow from a traditional recurve or compound bow. However, contrary to popular belief among some hunters, crossbows are not an instant kill if your shot placement was off. Crossbow hunting still requires plenty of practice time at the range and a proper placement into a vital area to be the most effective.
Today we'll examine the best shots you can take while using one of these modern weapons. Because no one wants to deal with a wounded deer that's suffering. Properly placed, a crossbow will take down a whitetail or mule deer quickly and humanely nearly ever time.
What Is The Best Place to Shoot a Deer With a Crossbow?
Just like with a compound bow, rifle, or shotgun, the best angle is a broadside shot. The best place to aim on any deer is going to be the vital organs of either the heart or lungs. Shots to these parts of the chest cavity just behind the front leg are going to give you the best chance of a pass through and the usually the heaviest blood trail possible. Crossbow shots that hit either or both organs are also going to be the most ethical one you can take. Odds are the animal won't even know what hit it. The shock and sudden blood loss will cause the animal to expire as quickly and humanely as possible.
Most deer hunters agree that a completely broadside deer is the best shot possible because it exposes the largest part of the heart and lungs. Contrary to popular belief, you do need to worry about the shoulder blade with a crossbow just as you might with a compound. As powerful as crossbows are, a bolt that strikes the blade has a good chance of being a non-fatal hit. Some crossbow hunters prefer a quartering away shot to a broadside shot. Simply because it takes more of that front shoulder out of the equation.
My uncle got a complete pass-through of the lungs with his crossbow on a quartering away 9-pointer a few years back and the animal barely made it 20 yards before expiring. It made for a rather quick recovery as the buck was only yards from a field edge. With a quartering away shot, there's a slightly better chance you get both the heart and lungs for a nearly guaranteed kill shot.
There seems to be this huge misconception out there that makes many hunters think a crossbow is a near guaranteed kill no matter where you hit the animal. I've seen some hunters compare them to rifles which is just silly when you look at the speed and energy of a crossbow compared to a firearm. In any case, the best crossbow in the world isn't going to help if your shot is errant and blows completely through the animal just back from the lungs and high in "no man's land." Unless you get lucky and nick an artery or something, there's a chance the blood trail will be poor, and the deer will survive a shot like that.
It's a good idea to practice with an anatomical 3D target, and to make sure you practice the types of shot angles you intend on using in the field. If you're hunting from a ground blind, practice your shots at eye level. If you are hunting from a treestand, it's a good idea to do some practicing from up high, and to adjust your aim point accordingly. It really doesn't matter what type of weapon you are using to hunt deer. Practice is always going to make perfect.
While many big game hunters can get away with a quartering to shot with a rifle or shotgun, it's not advisable with a crossbow. We know that it has likely been done at some point, but unless that deer is about to bolt, it's best to wait for a better shot opportunity. Simply because even the fastest crossbows on Earth probably aren't going to provide the kinetic energy necessary to get good penetration at that tougher angle. There's also just a much smaller margin of error with a quartering to shot. There's a lot of bones in the way that are just waiting to deflect your bolt and send it out of the body or away from the vital organs.
The same goes for a head-on or walking directly away shot. Your odds of hitting the vitals from these angles is not good. You want to leave some room for error because weird things can and do happen. Maybe a slight breeze blows your bolt off course. Maybe you strike an unseen limb. If those things happen on a shot with an extremely narrow window, you are more likely to maim and cause pain for the deer than you are to ethically harvest it.
How Far Can You Shoot a Deer With a Crossbow?
We should talk a little about the effective range of a crossbow. Because there's a lot of wild talk on the Internet. There's a lot of rumors out there about crossbows being deadly out to 100 yards. It gets a little tiring to hear crossbows are "as deadly as a rifle." There is simply no comparison. Most rifle bullets are traveling at speeds between 1,300 and 2,500 fps depending on caliber and type of rifle. Most hit with thousands of foot pounds of energy behind them. Sometimes the shock alone is enough to drop the deer dead.
By comparison, most crossbows are going to be shooting in that 250-350 fps speed range, and they might hit with 30 to 60-foot pounds of energy at most. There is simply no comparison. Archery kills, no matter what form they take, are entirely dependent on the cutting ability of the broadhead to slice up vital organs and vital arteries. Although all bows do rely on energy to push said broadhead through the animal's body, and the longer the range, the more energy it loses. Which brings us to our next point.
We know that hunters have harvested deer at distances out to 100 yards with a crossbow before. Heck, we know it has been done with a compound bow before too. That doesn't mean it's a good idea. And it's likely not very ethical here. Energy loss becomes a big concern for getting a clean pass-through once you get to 50 yards or more. Most experts recommend keeping your shots inside of 50 yards at most. In fact, most will advise you keep it even closer than that, at not more than 35 to 40 yards. Even then, you should never head into the field with a crossbow you've only shot a few times and try to pull off a shot like that.
We know we're sounding like a broken record talking about practice at this point, but it's vital. It doesn't matter what weapon you use. Hunters should only shoot at ranges they have practiced and feel confident in taking the shot at. "Hail Mary" shots at distances you've never shot before can easily result in a wounded deer, and the loss of an expensive bolt or arrow. We advise starting at distances between 15 to 20 yards, and then working on longer ranges once you become efficient at those.
At the end of the day, a crossbow's effectiveness is like any hunting weapon. It's only as good as the person wielding it. That's why, if you put in the time and effort, a crossbow will fill your freezer season after season.
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READ MORE: BREAKING DOWN THE MISCONCEPTIONS AND HATRED OF CROSSBOW DEER HUNTING