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The Rise Of The Modern Crossbow

Nebraska’s popular archery spring wild turkey hunting season is in full swing, and seemingly a growing number of hunters have added another piece of legal archery equipment to their repertoire  — the modern crossbow.

A newer, mega-modern crossbow. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

The word — crossbow — can stir up a very heated debate in conventional bow hunting circles. Consider that a similar debate also took place when the compound bow was first introduced into the hunting scene many years ago.

Some folks will be quick to let you know that a crossbow or arbalest is a firearm. That is not the case.

As defined in Webster’s Dictionary, a firearm is “a weapon from which a projectile can be discharged by an explosion caused by igniting gunpowder.” The last time I checked, crossbows did not use gunpowder or any other exploding or propelling substance or electronics to fire a projectile. For the record, the new airbow on the market is a rifle-shaped gun, powered by compressed air that shoots an arrow and has no limbs, string, etc. thus not meeting the definition of a bow.

When looking up the definition of the word “bow” in the same dictionary you will find “a weapon for shooting arrows, consisting of an arch of flexible wood, plastic, metal, etc. bent by a limb or limbs with a taut string fastened at each end.” This definition certainly seems more applicable to modern crossbows, which use bowed limbs and taut string(s) to fire an arrow, don’t you think? Keep in mind that both crossbows and compound bows are powered by limbs, which are drawn and captured by a crossbow trigger or compound’s mechanical release.

From a historical perspective, in the late 1960s and early ’70s when compounds were introduced, no traditional archers considered them bows either.

Let me be the first to tell you that I thoroughly enjoy hunting with a crossbow and it’s not as easy as it may seem. The crossbow hunter must possess the same abilities, knowledge, woodcraft and nearly all of the same shooting skills as the conventional compound bow hunter.

In fact, a 150-pound crossbow is the ballistic equivalent to a 65-pound vertical compound bow, except the crossbow has slightly more down range energy. The forward movement and strength of the crossbow’s limbs, combined with the length of the power stroke, determine the ballistic performance of the short arrow (bolt or quarrel) it launches. Ballistic tests show that there is very little, if any, difference in the impact of broadhead-tipped arrows shot from a crossbow and compound bow.

An expandable broadhead used on a bolt for hunting wild turkeys. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

According to research done by Outdoor Life magazine several years ago, it turns out that, from a ballistics perspective, crossbows actually aren’t all that different from modern compound bows. Consider a middle-of-the-road crossbow (175-pound draw, 420-grain bolt pushing a 125-grain field tip) and a moderate compound (75-pound draw, 350-grain shaft tipped with a 125-grain field point).

The research shows, based on the bows described, the crossbow generates significantly more energy at the bow, about 115 foot-pounds compared to about 82 foot-pounds for the compound. Shaft velocity is comparable, at about 350 feet per second (fps) measured at the bow. At 10 yards, both shafts will drop about 1 inch. At 20 yards, both drop about 6 inches. And at 30 yards, the distance at which most deer are shot by bowhunters, the compound shaft drops about 17 inches from its zero; the crossbow bolt drops about 15 inches. At 40 yards, the compound drops about 30 inches, the crossbow about 26 inches.

In subsequent, more recent research with regard to kinetic energy, Outdoor Life reveals the average crossbow generated roughly 80 to 100 pounds of it. A crossbow developing 300 feet per second (fps) with a 420-grain bolt generated 86.78 foot-pounds of kinetic energy. A compound bow shooting a 350-grain arrow at 335 fps generated 87.24 pounds of kinetic energy.

Essentially, the results of Outdoor Life’s research indicate that the longer compound shaft tends to fly straighter at longer distances; the heavier crossbow bolt is typically quicker and tends to retain slightly more downrange energy than the compound arrow, but sheds its velocity at a faster rate.

The bolts of a modern crossbow in a quiver. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Any experienced, seasoned crossbow hunter will point out that there are many ways to make a bad shot with a crossbow.  Trust me, I have done it, fortunately only on the target shooting range.

Harvesting a wild turkey with a crossbow is also not an easy task.  I had a learning curve when I first picked up a crossbow for spring wild turkey hunting a few years back. I thought:  This will almost be like shooting a gun. WOW! I was wrong. You have to make sure you have a good rest on a solid object. You just can’t shoot it like a compound bow. If a gobbler is coming from right to left (I am right-handed), it is sometimes hard to get the bi-pod and crossbow swung around and situated. You’ll need to “aim small” for proper shot placement and have some things going in your favor when you’re turkey hunting with a crossbow.

A harvested gobbler, jake decoy and the legal hunting tool that took the gobbler – a modern crossbow are pictured. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

I would go so far as to say that the effective range of a crossbow for turkeys is right at or just slightly beyond that of a compound bow shot, even with a scope. Modern crossbows are available with bolt speeds anywhere from 265 to well over 400 fps. The common thinking by the average user is the faster the arrow speed the flatter and farther it can be shot, thereby increasing the distance that game like turkeys can be taken. But, regardless of a crossbow’s bolt speed, most average, recreational crossbow hunters are in agreement that any shot at live game over 40 yards is purely an unethical one. Hunters need to recognize their personal limitations, know their gear and how it performs.

That stated, the technological advances of crossbows though have been amazing, and an expanding number of hunters are opting to try the variants of this centuries-old weapon for a number of reasons.

As proof, for the first time in Wisconsin, hunters using crossbows last fall killed more deer than those using vertical bows. Crossbows, like compound bows, are also a useful tool for the management of white-tailed deer populations, most notably in suburban and urban areas where the concerns of human-wildlife conflict, damage to property and the environment are quite high.

In Nebraska last year, crossbow hunters harvested 22 percent of all deer taken on a statewide archery deer hunting permit.

Lightweight, ultra-narrow, more conveniently shaped then ever, super accurate out-of-the-box with precision construction and magnification, today’s crossbows reflect tremendous versatility and easy use in the field for turkeys, deer and other game, whether in a portable ground blind or on a spot and stalk in the woods.

Jim Druliner of Omaha, NE poses with a nice gobbler he shot with a crossbow during the 2018 Nebraska archery spring wild turkey hunting season in Dawson County. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Many avid crossbow hunters will inform you that one particular advantage of the crossbow is that you do not have the added movement of raising higher and drawing back a vertically-based compound, recurve, stick or longbow. No drawing motion exists. You can simply crank or pull the string, pre-cock and load a bolt with a broad head in the crossbow once in your blind or at your hunting spot. With the drawing motion excluded, the prone shooting position becomes possible with crossbow hunting opening up a barrage of new ambushing locations such as grassy fields.

In terms of accessories, shooting sticks (bi-pod or tripod) that a hunter already has most likely can be utilized or a mono-pod system can even be integrated to the stock of some crossbows. Certain crossbows even have adjustable stocks. Modern crossbows are also outfitted with safety and anti-dry fire devices.

Yet another advantage of the crossbow comes in the form of a compactness and reduced width of the limbs. The newer crossbows have sleek designs which allow for minimal movement. These modern crossbows are not cumbersome in blinds and are quite maneuverable with your back against a large tree. And, of course, they are quieter than a shotgun blast. Should a hunter miss their target while shooting the crossbow, there’s a reasonable chance that the other game in the area did not hear the shot and reloading is a strong possibility.

I have found that crossbows allow for nice, comfortable shots with three points of contact established with no difficulty. Assisted stability without the use of muscles allows for longer holding times on target. Without muscle fatigue a factor, tighter shooting groups will result.

Bulky clothing interferes with strings and form on that of compound or traditional bow. With a crossbow, bulky clothing or gloves/mitts are not an issue. Also, since a crossbow is pre-loaded before a hunter gets cold, muscles are not required to energize the bow.

Ranging in price from about $400 for a simple entry-level model to as much as $2,600 for a precision-engineered, high-performance model, the modern crossbow is being enjoyed by a growing number of turkey and deer hunters. Believe it or not, there are mini in-line vertical crossbows on the market with 150-pound draw weights.

First, with the assistance of that easy-pull device or a crank, you can cock your crossbow with little effort. This allows small-framed individuals, especially kids, plus physically challenged and older hunters with permanent shoulder, joint or upper body disorders, an opportunity to be in the field during an archery hunting season in Nebraska that they otherwise may not have been afforded.

Hunters, such as myself, who have difficulty pulling back a compound bow due to some aged shoulder issues can continue to hunt during these archery seasons, thanks to the modern crossbow.

Your blogger harvested two male wild turkeys on the opening day of Nebraska’s 2018 archery spring wild turkey hunting season with a crossbow in Dawson County. The jake on the left appears to be a Merriam’s hybrid with white on the tips of its tail feathers, while the gobbler on the right appears to be an Eastern hybrid. Photo by Jim Druliner of Omaha, NE.

With its historical flair from the Middle Ages, the modern crossbow is now enabling youth to hunt the archery turkey hunting seasons in Nebraska at a much younger age. At least with a crossbow, a shot can be steadied with the assistance of a rest. Additionally, some youngsters may not participate in a hunt because they’re scared of the recoil and loud bang of a gun or are unable to pull back and hold a compound bow. The crossbow eliminates these problems because of an easy-loading device, cocking apparatus and a much calmer fire.

What’s more is that crossbow shooters can become proficient out to 40 yards within minutes of trying one, without the rigid practice regime of vertical bow shooting. With shooting rests and pre-calibrated scopes, accurate shots at 20 yards are quickly setup and executed.

As we are seeing, crossbows are, in effect, introducing more and more kids to the wonderful outdoor lifestyle of hunting and keeping them there, while other folks are benefiting as well.

In order to secure the future of hunting and wildlife management for generations to come, we must simply get more hunters in the woods, and, in my opinion, the modern crossbow is one of those hunting tools that can do just that!

Get law/regulation information on the usage of crossbows for hunting in Nebraska here.

The padded backpack case, modern crossbow and target block are shown here. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

About greg wagner

A native of Gretna, NE, a graduate of Gretna High School and Bellevue University, Greg Wagner currently serves as the Public Information Officer and Manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's Service Center in Omaha. On a weekly basis, Wagner can be heard on a number of radio stations, seen on local television in Omaha, and on social media sites, creatively conveying natural resource conservation messages as well as promoting outdoor activities and destinations in Nebraska. Wagner, whose career at Game and Parks began in 1979, walks, talks, lives, breathes and blogs about Nebraska’s outdoors. He grew up in rural Gretna, building forts in the woods, hunting, fishing, collecting leaves, and generally thriving on constant outdoor activity. One of the primary goals of his blog is to get people, especially young ones, to have fun and spend time outside!

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