Crossbow Hunting: The Basics

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Picking a crossbow as your weapon for hunting sets you for a very exciting but challenging experience. It is a powerful and deadly weapon but you need to be close to your quarry and your shots must be accurate if you want to succeed.

Crossbow Hunting Regulations

The first thing you'd need to do if you enjoy the idea of going on a hunting trip with this kind of weapon is to check what the law in your area, state, or province, says about that. Crossbows are legal to use for hunting in most states in the USA and in most provinces in Canada, but you need to get informed about the details and all specific conditions.

In some places, the lawful usage of crossbows is limited to mobility-impaired hunters and in others, you'd see that your crossbow must have a draw weight over a certain value or even a minimum stock length.

The minimums are expected to drop out as they don't make much sense in the context of the current crossbow technology, but it is something you need to know before ordering a new crossbow.

There are even locations where crossbows are an illegal hunting weapon. At the time of writing (September 2020) this is the case in Oregon (USA) and the Yukon Territories (Canada).

If they are allowed, you'd need to check if you can use it during the archery or the firearm or the muzzleloader seasons.

Choosing a Crossbow for Hunting

You do not need the latest, the fastest, or the most expensive model in order to enjoy hunting with a crossbow. Whitetail deer is the most common game for archers in the USA and any crossbow that can lob a 400-grain arrow at over 300 feet per second is perfectly adequate if that is the specie you're planning to hunt. Luckily, even the lower-end crossbows on the market today provide 320-330 or more FPS arrow speed.

If you are tempted at going for larger or tougher animals like black bear, elk, or moose, you should look for something more powerful.

Arrow Speed

A note of caution, though - speed (FPS) tends to be the most marketable feature of modern crossbows and it may come with sacrifices in areas that aren't that obvious, like unbearably high draw weight or arrows that are too short/light. And those FPS's that are cited are almost always reached by shooting the lightest possible arrows.

But arrow speed is undeniably important in hunting scenarios as it would make aiming a bit easier due to the flatter arrow trajectory and would allow you to extend the effective range of the weapon with a few extra feet.

Arrow Weight

Arrow weight directly affects the kinetic energy that is delivered downrange and especially the momentum of the projectile. Higher momentum = higher penetration and damage.

So lighter arrows - under 375-400 grains, are not ideal for hunting. High speed would compensate low weight to some extent, but generally speaking, a heavier arrow would do more damage than a faster one.

Crossbow Optics

When choosing a crossbow for hunting, check what type of optics it is equipped with. You need to be as accurate as possible and at different ranges at that. So a red dot sight is not likely to help you much in that regard. If it is not offered with a quality scope with multiple reticles and magnification, you may need to plan the purchase of one separately.

Recurve or Compound

If you are on the market for a new hunting crossbow, one of the first decisions you'd have to make is if you prefer a recurve or a compound crossbow. Compound crossbows shoot faster (in general) but need more care.

Side note: if crossbow hunting is a new hobby for you and your budget is limited, it is probably a better idea to not spend all of it on a crossbow. Don't forget to get a good rangefinder as well - it is a mandatory tool for a bow or crossbow hunter. And some broadhead tips, of course.

Crossbow Arrow Tips

When practicing, you would stick to the regular field point tips, but when hunting you'd equip your arrows with broadhead tips that are made to cut through flesh (and even bone).

Broadheads have either fixed or mechanical blades.

Fixed broadheads have a more predictable behavior but they catch air easily due to the increased surface area and that can affect accuracy negatively.

Mechanical blades deliver better ballistic performance as their blades open only at the moment of reaching the target, but they tend to deliver less consistent results, especially when penetrating the target at a weird angle or when hitting a bone. They can also deploy prematurely if the arrow is shot through the mesh window of a ground blind.

Methods for Hunting with a Crossbow

The three common ways to approach hunting with archery equipment are:

  • From a ground blind
  • From a tree stand
  • Stalking

If you are a beginner, a ground blind would increase your chances for success immensely. It is the most accessible and the most relaxing way to harvest game with a crossbow.

Hunting from a tree stand is a bit more demanding and even scary for some, but has the potential to be a more exciting option for spending a few hours outdoors.

Now, stalking is definitely the most challenging experience of the three, even more with a short-range weapon like a crossbow. But if coming home with some venison is not a priority for you, feel free to embark on such adventure - it would bring you plenty of thrills and unforgettable moments. On top of that, it is an incredible exercise that would put your physical endurance and your patience to the test!

Stay Scent-Free When Hunting with a Crossbow

Even if you are out of animals' sight - hidden in the shadows of a ground blind or up on a tree stand, they still can smell you, become suspicious and move out of range.

This is why it is important to be as scent-free as possible when hunting. And that is particularly relevant when you are armed with a crossbow because it is crucial to get as little distance between you and the animal as possible before it becomes sensible to even think about taking a shot.

There are a number of product types on the market like scent-free laundry detergents that remove the scents from your clothes so it's probably a good idea to use something like that to wash your hunting clothes and all that extra gear like a backpack, gloves, mask, etc. Naturally, you would use it in place of regular detergents that usually add some kind of artificial scent that smells good to people but is likely to ruin your hunt.

After you've taken care of your clothes, you'd want to take a shower just before going out. And make sure to use a scent-free body wash. The towel you'd use afterward should be scent-free as well. This means you would want to only wash it with the same scent-free laundry detergent that you use with your hunting gear.

Where to Aim with a Crossbow

You need to be extremely accurate in order to kill the game in a quick and ethical manner. That's why the main target is the vital organs - heart and lungs. This is valid for virtually all game animals in North America - whitetail deer, elk, wild boar, etc.

elk vital organs diagram

Large mammals have more or less identical anatomy but you need to avoid hitting the shoulder bone or the shoulder blade as arrows from even the most powerful crossbow cannot penetrate or shatter them.

Regarding turkey - the location of the heart and the lungs, in particular, might surprise you so make sure to do some research before going on a hunt.

turkey vital organs diagram

Also, as a beginner, make sure to take only broadside shots.

How Far do Deer Run After Being Shot With a Crossbow?

If the arrow passed through its vital area (lungs and heart), the animal would flinch and run away. There might be a blood trail to follow or not but you should be able to find it within a 100-yards diameter. Usually much closer than that - between a couple to 50 yards.

When Not to Take a Shot with a Crossbow

Hunting with any sort of archery equipment is more challenging than using a firearm and you carry the great responsibility to do your best in order to harvest the animals in an as effective and humane way as possible.

If the circumstances are not perfect, you probably shouldn't take that shot. If your arrow misses the vitals, that would be a hurt animal that you are not likely to recover.

So when to refrain from squeezing the trigger?

  • When the animal is more than 40 yards away. If you are just starting, try to restrict your shots to 30 yards or less. With experience and especially if you are equipped with a powerful modern crossbow, you can extend to 50 yards.
  • When there's an environmental factor, like wind or rain, that is likely to affect your accuracy.
  • When the deer or other animal is not standing broadside to you.
  • When it is not stationary.
  • When it is alert. A spooked deer is likely to "jump the string" and your arrow will probably miss the vital area or even fly over the animal.
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