My grandfather took me on a hunting and fishing adventure to Alaska when I was a teenager and that trip changed my life more than any other single event. In 2019, I sought to do the same with my grandson, Zachary. At just 13 years old, he’d done well on his hunter safety course and showed he could shoot the Excalibur crossbow accurately. Zachery had never hunted before and some might say that taking him on an African plains game safari was too much too soon, yet here he was, an aging impala ram in his sights standing broadside at 30 yards and his finger on the trigger. The moment of truth had arrived.
I wanted to coach him through the process but knew I had to remain still and silent. Peeking through a tiny curtain opening, I saw the lighted nock of the arrow zip to the vitals like a laser beam and the animal crashed 75 yards away. In two weeks of intense action and practice, young Zach had become a competent hunter, able to evaluate a hunting situation and succeed, thanks to the simplicity of shooting a crossbow.
The horizontal bow made the entrance into the hunting world fun and exciting for Zach. He learned and mastered the shooting process and absorbed African game knowledge like a sponge. Hunting from a ground blind, we watched hundreds of game animals interact, each providing an opportunity to discuss shot angle, distance, aiming point and other critical factors. Zach had practiced using a rest and shooting with both eyes open and had honed his NRA shooting fundamentals, including aiming, breath control, hold control, trigger control and following through after the shot.
A camouflaged hunter sights through a scope on his crossbow. Take advantage of as many seasons as you can by adding bow hunting to your skill set. (Image by Mark Van Dam, 2017, WindigoImages.com
From Deer to Turkeys and Beyond If you only hunt deer with a rifle, you’re sampling just one slice of the adventure. The world of whitetails, for example, is like a giant pizza with a multitude of toppings that include summer scouting, early season hunting, an immersion in fall colors, the onset of the rut and a chance to know your hunting area intimately by the time rifle season opens. Crossbows are the perfect transition from center-fire rifle hunting to the challenging, close-range action of bowhunting. Crossbows also are a great way to introduce youngsters or newbies to the world of shooting and hunting. New hunters quickly can become proficient with guidance and they can practice in their back yard, basement or garage. You don’t need hearing protection and today’s bows have many built-in safety features. Crossbow hunters also enjoy extended hunting seasons, making for more days in the hunting woods. Crossbows are the perfect transition from center-fire rifle hunting to the challenging, close-range action of bowhunting.
If you’ve never hunted early-season whitetails when antlers are fresh from velvet and bucks feed in predictable patterns, or watched a scrape line develop past your favorite stand as the rut approaches, or taken the western challenge of bugling elk, decoying antelope or scouting monster muley bucks in bachelor groups, you are missing tremendous excitement and magazine-style hunting adventures. Mastering a traditional or compound bow takes dedication and moderate athletic ability, yet the advent of crossbows in archery seasons makes bowhunting attainable for those ages 8 to 80, tall or short, male or female, and are ideal for those who may not have the physical strength to draw a compound bow. If you can hunt with a rifle, you can hunt with a crossbow. As you immerse yourself in the adventure, you’ll soon learn why the typical 40-yard maximum range is a blessing rather than a handicap.
Of course, many deer hunters also chase spring gobblers. Only a few states allow rifles for spring turkey hunting, yet you can use the same crossbow for toms as you did for deer. If you’ve never tried spring turkey hunting, a crossbow and a ground blind makes it fun and easy to learn.
My father and I learned to use a ground blind and decoys through experimentation and the process allowed him to pursue his wild turkey passion into his 90’s. My favorite hunting partner has passed, yet I keep our tradition alive each spring on the same small farm we hunted for decades. This particular property is timbered and choked with briars and underbrush. I counter that situation by popping a ground blind in a small secluded field. I set out decoys, call sparingly and wait for toms to react.
Hunting this way, I don’t worry about ticks, mosquitoes, poison ivy, snakes or the other nuisances that mobile hunters face. Because there is no “bang” associated with the ambush, turkeys ultimately return—sometimes the next day.
By utilizing a pop-up blind, spring turkey hunting with a crossbow can be a terrific way to expand your hunting opportunities. (Image by videographer Chris Giles for WindigoImages.com.)
Many recurves and modern compound bows deliver 60 to 70 foot-pounds of energy. A modern crossbow, however, produces even more kinetic energy, well beyond 100 foot-pounds. Center-fire rifle users will enjoy some of the similarities crossbows have with hunting rifles, like a safety near the trigger, a trigger, a forend to hold and aim the device, a stock that fits the shoulder like a hunting piece and, most importantly, a scope that functions much like a familiar hunting optic. Doug Mongon, my local pro-shop archery tuner says a hunter can walk into his shop and he’ll have the person shooting a crossbow comfortably in about 10 minutes.
Testing your compatibility with a crossbow is as easy as visiting a local pro-shop or sporting goods store. Unlike with a firearm, you can usually shoot several models right in the store. If you buy one, you do not need to go through an FFL (Federal Firearms License) holder or waiting period so you can take it right home and start practicing. Many national brands have support videos and information online, and it’s important to read the owner’s manual thoroughly for peak performance.
Deep snow doesn't stop this crossbow hunter on a whitetail deer hunt in Canada. (Image by Mark van Dam 2017 for WindigoImages.com.)
Mongon sells and repairs hundreds of crossbows each year and sees the “need for repetition” to be the biggest challenge for gun-to-broadhead newbies. Archers know that arrows, broadheads, nocking points, release methods, etc., must be the same for consistent performance, yet these may be unfamiliar terms to rifle hunters. In a nutshell, here are a few of Mongon’s pointers he passes along to all new customers:
Always use the same cocking device, usually a rope, so that the arrow seats consistently each time.
Use the same bolts (arrows) for practice and hunting.
Select nocks (flat or crescent) recommended by the manufacturer, although Mongon prefers flat nocks.
Always check for tightness before each hunt or practice session. The significant amount of stored energy creates vibration that can cause bolts to loosen quickly.
Shoot at various distances to become accustomed to multiple aiming spots in the scope. Also, practicing at 40 yards tends to increase one’s skill level at shorter distances.
Practice shooting in scenarios you may encounter when hunting, such as shooting offhand or from a window in a blind, so you are confident of a perfect shot every time.
Finally, as you embrace all the opportunities available through crossbow hunting, consider reading about and watching YouTube videos on the subject. Also, check online for crossbow hunting support groups such as the North American Crossbow Federation. Follow your bow company’s comments online to get tips on gear and hunting strategies. Most of all, shoot and practice frequently. Crossbows are flat-out fun.