How To Choose a Crossbow – Crossbow Source’s Beginner Guide

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Video crossbows for beginners

So you are interested in getting into archery and more specifically crossbow archery but you aren’t sure where to start…we have all been there and are happy to put together this guide for getting in to this exciting and fun sport. As this guide is geared toward beginners, we will discuss everything from selecting the right crossbow for you all the way to how to shoot it and even how to sight in the scope. Please read on and enjoy!

Selecting the right crossbow

There are literally hundreds of crossbows out there to choose from, so how do you know which is the best one for you? When you are looking at a crossbow, it is important to first ask yourself what you intend to do with it. Are you looking for something purely for target shooting? Are you looking for something to hunt with? If so, what size animals will you be looking to take and at what realistic ranges? Many modern crossbows are capable of taking down a deer out to ranges in excess of 60 yards, but that is also going to require a lot of time and effort on your part to become proficient enough with your crossbow to make shots at that range. More realistic ranges are typically going to be 30 to 40 yards, so keep that in mind when looking at your hunting opportunities. So what are the biggest factors you should look for in a crossbow and how will they affect your shooting?

What is better, a recurve or compound crossbow?

A lot of people wonder about the difference between a recurve crossbow and a compound crossbow and what the advantage and/or disadvantage of each is. Both have a place in the target as well as the hunting world and both have a dedicated cadre of shooters. Here is a breakdown of the pros and cons of each type.

Recurve Crossbows

The recurve crossbow is the most purist of the crossbows and is the type of crossbow that has been around for hundreds of years. It is often selected by archers for its simplicity and reliability. The recurve crossbow essentially has a simple bow and string with no cables or pulleys to adjust or to worry about failing at a critical moment. The trade off for this simplicity is that a recurve crossbow is typically going to be quite a bit wider from axle to axle (ATA), which is the measurement across the widest part of the bow section. The recurve will typically also have a higher draw weight with less overall speed than its compound counterpart.

Compound Crossbows

Compound crossbows are the most popular crossbow type largely due to their lower draw weights with higher arrow speeds. The addition of the cables and pulleys means that a compound crossbow can enjoy a narrower ATA, which makes it more portable and easier to shoot from a confined area such a deer blind. Those cables and pulleys also translate to additional moving parts, and as such, additional potential points of failure. This isn’t to say that modern compound crossbows are overly prone to such failures, merely that the possibility exists, and likely won’t happen at the most opportune moment!

Speed

We are constantly asked about the speed of a crossbow and usually are asked, “What is the fastest crossbow?” There are some truly fast crossbows out there with speed capabilities well in excess of 400 fps. The most important question to ask yourself is why do you need that much speed? If you plan to go hunt a T-Rex in Jurassic Park, we might understand that, but for simple target shooting or for most deer hunting, nothing near that is necessary.

A fact not understood by a lot of shooters is that too much speed can actually be detrimental to your shooting. A fast arrow is great in terms of hitting harder and shooting flatter (a flatter shooting projectile means there is less drop of the projectile over distance so knowing the exact range is not as critical as with a slower projectile). The drawback is that as you increase speed, you decrease the crossbow’s tolerance for any little mistake. A fast arrow is going to react more to a less than perfect draw as well as being less forgiving for any imperfections in the arrow or vanes.

It is also important to know what weight arrows are recommended and what weight total projectile (arrows and points) were used to calculate the claimed speed of a crossbow. Often times, a heavier arrow will slow your speed, but will actually carry more force to the target, especially at longer ranges. Just remember, that you want an arrow that is fast enough to get the job done, but not so fast that the overkill makes your shots more difficult.

Safety

A beginner archer should really be concerned about the safety aspects of a crossbow as there are a lot of things to learn, so integrated safety devices will help keep you from injuring yourself or damaging your new crossbow. The most important safety features are discussed below.

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Anti Dry Fire

A “dry fire” for a crossbow is when the crossbow is fired without an arrow in place. This is one of the single worst things you can do to a crossbow as it puts enormous stress of the limbs of the crossbow. The arrow provides resistance to the limbs when fired to allow them to release their energy in a controlled fashion, so firing without an arrow allows for a lot of energy to be released more rapidly than the limbs were designed for. Many modern crossbows feature a mechanism that will not allow the string to be released unless an arrow in place. This is called a “dry fire inhibitor”, or an “anti dry fire” device and is something you should definitely look for when selecting your crossbow.

Auto-Engaging Safety

Just about all crossbows on the market today will feature a mechanical safety that keeps the trigger from releasing the string when set. This functions much like the safety on a rifle and can be of many different designs. An auto-engaging safety is one that is automatically set during the action of drawing the bow string. This is a great feature for the beginner shooter as it is something you will not have to remember to set yourself and will keep the crossbow safe until you are ready to intentionally pull the trigger.

Forward Grip Design

The forward grip is the part of the crossbow located under the rail where your stabilizing hand is going to go. In a typical rifle design, this grip is simply a piece of wood or plastic where you can hold the rifle when shooting, without much concern for the safety of that hand as the bullet is contained inside the barrel. On a crossbow, while the arrow is contained somewhat within the rail, the bow string is not and slides rapidly down the rail when the crossbow is fired. If a finger or thumb from the forward shooting hand is up a bit too high and gets in the way of that string, at best the shot is going to be ruined, but most likely there is also going to be a significant injury to that hand.

To minimize this possibility, you should look for a crossbow that has a forward grip design with ‘wings’ that stick out to the side and run the length of the grip. These wings will help keep your fingers well below the string path and make for one less thing you need to focus on when learning to shoot.

Once your crossbow arrives

Typically, beginner crossbows will come as a combo, often with included arrows and other accessories. Keep in mind that just about every crossbow you order is going to require some level of assembly.

Assembly

Knowing that your crossbow is going to arrive in a big box, but is still going to need to be assembled is an important thing to understand. Don’t worry, assembly isn’t really a big deal at all. Typically, the bow section is going to come fully assembled, and in the case of a compound bow is going to be fully strung as well. The assembly will usually consist of mating the bow section to the barrel/stock assembly, mounting the scope and possibly adding a few accessories, such as a grip or quiver mount. The required tools are usually included and the instructions aren’t hard to follow.

Be sure when mounting your scope that you place it in the proper orientation. First look through it so you know the back and the front to ensure you don’t put it on backwards. Also, as you mount the scope, if it is an illuminated scope, there will be three round dials (one for the illumination settings) and/or round covers (two for the windage and elevation scope adjustments) at the midpoint of the scope. Simply place the middle cap in the up position and mount the scope. If the scope is not illuminated, there will only be two round caps for windage and elevation adjustments. One will be pointed straight up and the other straight to the right side of the crossbow. It is important to ensure your scope is mounted straight up and down and with the adjustments in the proper position or you will not be able to sight in your scope properly.

Arrow selection

If your crossbow didn’t come with arrows, you will need to select a good set of arrows to go with it. Most shooters use aluminum or carbon arrows but the carbon are the most popular. Be sure when selecting your arrows that you know what the recommended shaft length is for your crossbow as getting one that is too short can present a danger for shooting and might not weigh enough for your crossbow to shoot without the risk of dry fire.

Target selection

A crossbow is a much more powerful archery tool than a traditional vertical bow. The arrows are fired at much faster speeds and can often penetrate a standard archery target. Even with a good crossbow target, the arrows can often bury themselves so deeply that an arrow pulling tool might be required to remove them.

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We have tested several different targets in our target selection guide to offer you some convenient recommendations: Best Crossbow Targets

Shooting your crossbow

So now you have everything assembled and the proper equipment ready to go so it is finally time to shoot your new crossbow. Before you shoot the crossbow, it is very important that you understand a few of the most important aspects of safely shooting.

For starters, never cock your crossbow until you are ready to shoot and most definitely never load it until it is time to fire. Keep in mind that once you are more experienced, this will not apply to hunting situations where you will want the crossbow cocked and loaded once you are safely situated in your hunting location. Be sure you never point your crossbow at something that you don’t intend to shoot and never EVER touch the trigger until you are lined up with your target and ready to fire. Lastly, always be completely sure of what you are shooting at and also know what is BEYOND your target. A crossbow arrow carries a lot of energy and can easily pass through an animal or you might miss the target…either way, be sure you know what is beyond your target and that conditions are safe to shoot.

How to aim

Just about all modern crossbows come with some sort of scope, or are set up with a rail to mount one. When you look through the scope you will either see a vertical line intersecting a horizontal line in the center of the scope. This is called the crosshairs. In the most simplistic version of shooting, you place the crosshairs where you intend the arrow to hit and squeeze the trigger. This will work assuming the scope is sighted in and the distance for the sighting in is the distance you are shooting (more on that below). There might also be a dot in the center of the scope which will be used in the same way.

Many scopes also have additional horizontal lines below the main crosshairs. These are used to shoot at targets further away, with each horizontal line creating a new crosshair where it intersects the vertical line. The lower the crosshair in the scope, the further away the target it is meant for. You will typically need to sight in the scope at say 30 yards, and then see how far away your specific crossbow/arrow/scope combination impacts at each crosshair to know the yardage it should be used for.

How to draw

Drawing a crossbow requires quite a bit more force than drawing a standard vertical bow. Most crossbows have draw weights in the range of 150 to 180 pounds with some having draw weights in excess of 200 pounds. It is critical that you draw the bow string in a uniform fashion every time such that your shots will be reproducible. The easiest way to accomplish this is through the use of a rope cocking aid. This is a device that is designed to hook to the bow string on either side of the rail and loops across the back of the crossbow.

First, place the crossbow pointed down at the ground and place your foot in the foot stirrup (the piece that sticks out from the end of the crossbow to place your foot in when pointed down). Hook the hooks on the rope cocker on each side of the rail and grab the handles on the end of each side of the rope cocker in the respective hand on that side. Then you simply pull straight up on the handles evenly with both hands until you feel the string engage in the firing mechanism. A swift solid pull straight up along the rail will make for the easiest cocking. Then ensure the safety is on and remove the rope cocker.

How to fire

Once the crossbow is cocked, you will need to place an arrow on the rail. You do so by grasping the arrow near the point (about four inches back from the tip) and slide it down into place on the rail and all the way back until it makes contact with the bow string. It is important when you do this to make sure the one of the vanes (usually the one that is the odd color relative to the other two vanes) is pointed straight down in the slot of the rail such that the arrow rests on the rail and not the vanes. It is also important to ensure that the groove in the nock of the arrow is horizontal such that the bow string seats into the groove (keep in mind that if your arrows that come with the crossbow have flat nocks, there will be no groove in the nock). It is very important that the arrow is loaded with the odd color vane straight down and that the arrow is fully seated back against the string. Once the arrow is in place, you simply aim at your target, click the safety to the “off” position and squeeze the trigger. There will usually be a bit of a slap sound from the string when you fire but very little recoil will be felt.

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How to sight in

Once you are comfortable with how to look through your scope and understand how everything works you will want to sight in your crossbow. To do so, you will need to unscrew the caps on the top and right side of the scope. Removing these caps will expose the dials to allow you to adjust your scope to zero it in. You should first fire your crossbow into a target about 20 yards away to ensure your scope is close enough that you will be able to hit your target at 30 yards. If it is way off, simply use the dials to adjust where the aim point is. As you look at the dial on the right side, it will typically have a letter “L” and an arrow. That means if you click the dial in that direction, you will be moving your aim point to the left, and if you go the opposite direction of the arrow, you will be moving your aim point to the right. So if your arrow is several inches to the right of the bullseye, you will want to move the dial in the direction of the arrow to adjust your aim point to the left. The same method is applied with the top dial except it will usually have an “UP” and an arrow which means if you move the dial in the direction of the arrow, you will bring your aim point up and vice versa. Once you get familiar with how the dials move the aim point of the scope, you will be able to zero your scope in with ease.

Below are some of the most frequently asked questions we receive from new shooters:

Are there right and left handed crossbows? No. Crossbows do not eject any type of spent casing like a rifle does so you can shoot it either way. You might have to move mountings for a quiver if it attaches along the side of the crossbow, but other than that there is no right or left.

Can I change the string on my crossbow? Yes, but you will need to have the proper tools. It is easiest to accomplish changing a string with a bow press which essentially allows you to remove any tension from the limbs for easy changing of the string. Quite often this will require an archery pro shop, although we have used a portable bow press that worked quite well.

Here is a link to that review for more information: Night Hawk Bow Press

What is the absolute furthest I can hunt with my crossbow? Modern crossbows are capable of launching an arrow literally hundreds of yards, although without much accuracy. A very accomplished shooter might be able to hunt at ranges out to 80 yards, but that is a VERY accomplished shooter. Most beginner shooters should keep within 30 to 40 yards until they have enough range time to ensure accuracy at greater distances.

Are crossbows legal to hunt with everywhere? More and more states are adopting laws allowing the use of crossbows for hunting during archery season by all hunters, regardless of whether they have a disability. We would recommend you check with your local and state regulations to know the laws pertaining to crossbows in your area.

What’s the difference in a crossbow arrow and a crossbow bolt? You may see quite often the use of the terms crossbow “arrow” and “bolt” used interchangeably. This is actually incorrect. The true crossbow bolt which was used for so many hundreds of years is a front heavy projectile with no stabilizing fins or vanes. The modern projectiles used with crossbows that have vanes or fletching are crossbow arrows, just like a regular arrow only a bit shorter to fit the crossbow requirements.

What kind of hunting points should I use? You can use any type of broadhead that is legal in your area, but most crossbow shooters prefer mechanical broadheads over fixed broadheads. This is primarily due to the extreme speeds of crossbow arrows. Having the fixed broadhead can affect your accuracy while a mechanical broadhead will fly more like a field point.

Can I cock it by hand? The short answer is “yes” if you have the strength to pull it back. Cocking by hand is not recommended, however as the string may not seat perfectly leading to variability in shot placement. A rope cocking aid is always recommended as it makes it easier to cock by reducing the felt draw weight by around 50%, and it also allows you to ensure the string is centered for each shot.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>