So you are interested in archery but you've decided to focus on one type of weapon for now. Deciding whether you should pick a bow or crossbow can be an easy or a very tough decision, depending on a number of factors that are relevant to you and you only.
If you browse the Internet, you would stumble upon many articles that compare the two. Most of them are either outdated or biased towards one side of the dilemma.
If a study on crossbows is written 5-10 years or more ago, it is most likely outdated and not quite relevant. Why? Because crossbow technology has evolved at a very rapid rate in recent years and what was a valid point 10 years ago, now is part of history.
Note that when I mention bows I'll be referring to compound bows as they are much more popular.
The first thing that is usually taken into account when comparing bows and crossbows is the arrow speed, measured in feet per second (fps).
In 2010, crossbows launched arrows at around 300-350 fps; not much quicker than a compound bow. And in 2020 the average fps of modern compound crossbows has jumped to 360-450 or even more. And this is a quite conservative estimation.
One thing is clear - crossbows these days shoot faster projectiles.
But what about the...
Many shooters argue that bows have an edge in hunting scenarios because they can use heavier arrows and thus deliver more kinetic energy at the target.
Let's get a bit more technical then...
Kinetic energy is defined by:
Crossbows already have a (statistical) advantage in arrow speed. But crossbow manufacturers sell them with recommendations for a specific arrow weight that suits the particular model and it is not very wise to deviate too much from it. For example, if your crossbow is made to use 350-grain arrows, you wouldn't want to load it with arrows that are much heavier (or lighter) than that.
A crossbow is a more complex device and requires more care and responsibility from its owners if it is to perform optimally and last long. You can't load it with anything and expect it to function optimally every time.
But in the bow world, you can experiment with arrow weight much more freely. Want to try a 600 grain or heavier arrow? Not a problem if it still flies at sufficient speed and doesn't affect your accuracy too much. It would fly slower, but it would result in an increased momentum after it hits the target.
And in practice, momentum defines the amount of damage the arrow would cause. It is the amount of energy retained after the arrow tip touches the target so it directly affects the penetration.
Momentum is mostly affected by the weight of the projectile.
So you should aim to maximize the momentum of your shots when hunting, but not at the cost of greatly reduced speed. Because reduced speed means the projectile would drop at an increased rate which is likely to affect accuracy. Spend some time experimenting and find the sweet spot for yourself!
By the way, some authors include the longer power stroke (or draw length) of bows as a contributing factor to a higher momentum, but that statement falls under the pseudo-science category. The power stroke length, together with the draw weight (and arrow weight, of course), is what determines the initial velocity of the projectile. If you are into this sort of technical details, you can read more about the role of the power stroke on GameAndFishMag.com.
Yes, bows typically have longer draw length (power stroke), but crossbows utilize much higher poundage. These are trade-offs that ultimately lead to similar end results.
Phew, that got complicated! Here's the TLDR version:
Power-wise, compound bows have a slight edge for hunting, but only if you are strong enough to draw 60-70 lbs and use heavy arrows!
Crossbows have a much higher draw weight and require much more physical effort to pull back than compound bows.
Bows typically feature draw weights up to 70 lbs. A shooter must be quite strong to pull back and hold such poundage. Smaller-framed male bowmen, women, and youth in most cases would have to limit themselves to 40-55 lbs or less. And lower draw weight means lower arrow speed.
Compare that to 200 lbs or even 300 lbs draw weight in some crossbows! That sounds enormous, doesn't it? But the mechanics of pulling back the string of a crossbow is quite different - you can use the strength of your entire body: both arms, leg and back muscles. And drawing a bow relies almost exclusively on upper-body strength.
But here is the thing - you don't have to cock a crossbow with your bare hands. It is even something that most crossbow manufacturers advise against as it can damage certain components of the weapon.
These days crossbows are cocked by using either a cocking rope or a crank device. A rope reduces the needed effort by 50%, and a crank cocker makes the process many times easier so even young children can do it. Because who can't manage 9-15 lbs?
The need to draw and hold the string while aiming is what makes bows not accessible to everyone. While almost everyone can play and practice target-shooting with a bow when it comes to hunting the need for more poundage and the increased responsibility calls for at least a decent level of fitness and proficiency.
Not everybody's arm, shoulder, and back muscles are in great shape. If you are of older age or just feel pain when practicing with a bow, you probably should refrain from using one for hunting. That is a strain on the body that might even worsen your physical condition, especially the shoulder joints.
On a crossbow, you just draw the string till the trigger mechanism locks it in place and it stays ready for as long as you wish. Well, within certain recommended periods of time.
It is clear that crossbows are quite a bit heavier - roughly 75%-125% more than compound bows. Which makes them not as convenient for carrying on a hike.
Their shape makes things even worse as there aren't that many ways to hold a crossbow elegantly, especially if they are cocked (don't place your hands in front of the string!). Bows are way more lightweight and easy to carry, even on long walks through the woods.
But here is when crossbow innovations strike back - many models utilize some sort of "loc" system that allows them to be easily taken apart, put in a backpack, and transported this way. Assembling such a crossbow is just as easy and doesn't require extra tools.
Shooting a crossbow offhand (without a rest of some sort) is also cumbersome because in addition to their overall weight, many crossbows tend to be quite front-heavy. That makes aiming tiresome and ineffective.
Luckily, you probably won't have to shoot it offhand. Actually, almost nobody does that if the goal is to kill an animal and not just hurt it.
At the same time, more and more manufacturers these days put emphasis on designing crossbow models with good balance that makes for a much more pleasant holding and aiming experience.
Crossbows shine when they are used while laying on a rest - be it a monopod (shooting stick), bipod, or a tripod. Of course, you are free to rest it on whatever stable object is around. Your knee would probably do if there's nothing better.
So let's be real - you won't be stalking quarry with a crossbow. You will be either sitting, hidden in a ground blind, or high up on a tree, sitting in a tree stand and waiting.... Or will you?
Both crossbows and bows are extremely accurate within a certain range, provided they are in good working condition. What is that range? It depends on the model and the arrow weight + speed and the abilities of the shooter to compensate for the arrow drop, but 50 yards is a good base. Beyond that, too many factors enter the equation.
You may find some statements that compound bows are more accurate because pro archers get better scores using them compared to when shooting crossbows. In my opinion, this doesn't make much sense. When was the last time you heard about crossbow tournaments and professional crossbow shooters?
This leads us to the second big obstacle in front of becoming a good bowhunter: you need to practice it. A lot! Regularly.
With a compound bow, accuracy doesn't come easy. You would need to put the work and the time.
Crossbows are much more approachable in this regard. Most of the time you would have it rested on something. All you have to do is aim carefully though the scope and pull the trigger. How hard is that?
From a practical point of view, crossbows are a more appropriate choice for busy people who don't have the time or the desire to practice on a daily (or at least weekly) basis but still want to enjoy the hobby.
Crossbows are still not first-class citizens as weapons for hunting in some states in the USA. However, the hunting regulations are updated constantly and crossbows are getting acknowledged as valid archery equipment for hunting because there aren't many objective points left towards that fact.
Especially in 2020, when crossbows have already reached the performance (accuracy and lethality) of bows and greatly surpassed them in some aspects like accessibility to elderly or injured hunters.
I hope this comparison would serve as a solid base for your decision. Whether you would invest in a crossbow or a bow is a very personal choice. And picking one or the other is not like entering a cult - you can enjoy both (like I do) as they have their unique strengths and provide different experiences and set you for different adventures...