It was an early September morning when I went bowhunting elk with my dad. After parking the truck at our hunting spot, we immediately heard several bugling bulls. Each of us had a compound bow in hand, and we slowly and quietly moved alongside the field to within a threatening distance of the herd bull.
We anxiously waited for shooting light before bugling, but once it arrived, we had the herd bull’s attention. He wasted no time positioning himself between us and his harem. Keeping ourselves concealed just inside the bush line, we coaxed the bull to about 80 meters off while exchanging bugles.
Every so often, we could hear another bugle off in the distance. However, with our focus on the nearby herd bull, we paid it little attention. By crawling on my belly, I managed to work myself right up to the field edge while staying hidden in the tall, golden grass. My Dad was 30 meters downwind of me and about 10 meters from the field edge. I signaled to him that I was ready and that I had a clear shooting lane. (All I needed to do was just rise up to my knees and draw.)
Then, my dad echoed another bugle through the crisp morning air. Without hesitation, the herd bull growled back. Then, suddenly, the other distant bugle was amplified, resulting in a quality satellite bull being between us and the herd. He was coming fast, and straight toward my dad.
Meanwhile, I was pinned down as I watched the broadside of this bull investigate the new intruder—my dad. Because both bulls were scanning the bush line trying to find other elk, we had no chance to move. The lesser bull was within 20 meters now and getting closer with every step. He eventually veered toward me at 10 meters and passed by just two meters away. Even so, I while unable to draw undetected. Once that bull passed me, I tried to get to my knees to draw, but he sensed me and fled the area fast, unharmed. I have no doubt that I needed the advantage of a crossbow to shoot that elk.
Whether you hunt with a traditional bow, compound bow or crossbow, you need to be close enough to shoot an arrow into an animal. Compound bow cam technology gives bow hunters faster arrow speed and a flatter arrow trajectory. The tech is coupled with a longer holding time at full draw, which is a superb advantage over a more primitive ancestor. Crossbows offer five more distinct advantages over vertical bows: they let bow hunters head afield sooner and more often, hunt longer in colder temperatures and shoot tighter groups sooner.
Wear What You Want
Sitting still for long periods of time and allowing animals to come past you for ambush is one preferred method of bow hunting. Sitting still during the cooler late season requires additional clothing layers to keep warm, though. These extra layers create bulk in your clothing, which can interfere with bow strings and the shooting form of a vertical bow.
On the other hand, shooting a crossbow is like shouldering a rifle stock. There’s no chance it will interfere with the pre-drawn string. In addition, releasing a crossbow arrow is identical to squeezing the trigger on a rifle. Ideally, on cold Canadian fall days, warm mitts can be used (as long as you can slip your pointer finger through the mitt when the time comes to shoot).
Large, warm winter mitts are not easy to use with vertical bows, which use either a mechanical release or two to three fingers to release the bow. Sometimes, no matter how much clothing you wear, your body core eventually gets cold. That can affect a hunter’s muscle strength during the moment of truth, when muscle power is required to energize the bow—unless you’re using a crossbow.
Crossbows are spanned well before your body gets too cold. Another option is using a geared cocking cranking device, eliminating the need for strenuous effort altogether. Muscle cramping due to the cold is not an issue with crossbows, and neither is hunting clothing or choice of gloves or mitts.
Limitless Aim Time
The concept of bow hunting is to use stealth skills to get within close range of the living target. Often, big game animals have no idea the bow hunter is within striking distance, but just as often the hunter needs to energize (move) the bow at the correct time. Alerting the animal with your movement often results in a blown opportunity for a shot.
Compound bows have let-off technology that allows bow hunters to hold at full draw for whatever amount of time their body can endure—an advantage over traditional bows with no let-off. The design of a crossbow with its horizontal limbs mounted on top of the stock easily allows the use of shooting rests for increased stability and limitless aim time. Further, since crossbows are spanned in advance, a bow hunter need not worry about where and when to draw. He or she can simply follow the animal’s movements through the sight, continuously compensating for distance until a safe ethical shot is presented.
Having an energized bow before the animal enters the strike zone is a huge advantage when trying to make a shot in close quarters. Vertical bows do not have the ability to use a rest to stabilize the shot. Crossbows, on the other hand, with their gun-like stock, can rest just as easily on shooting sticks, packs, tree stand rails, branches, or anything else one might use as shooting rest.
Crossbows usually weigh about double their vertical cousins, which makes them difficult to hold steady freehand. Vertical bows create an equilibrium balance, with one arm pulling and the other pushing. Crossbows, since they are mechanically held, do not have a balance issue and the form required to shoot it is similar to that for shooting a rifle. With a crossbow, there is additional stability because you don’t have to use muscles for longer holding times on a target. Without muscle fatigue factoring into the equation, tighter shooting groups at farther distances can result during practice.
No drawing motion is required for crossbow hunters while the animal is in the effective range. After spanning, crossbows are ready to fire. An arrow takes flight by squeezing the trigger, which mechanically releases the string. Moving a finger and following an animal’s approach are extremely small and slow movements that are easily disguised when an animal is in close range.
Because of minimal movement, a hunter does not need to decide when to draw—another huge benefit. Hunters can simply follow a target’s movements within the sight until it enters a clear shooting lane.
Vertical bow hunters can often sit for hours in cold temperatures and then find themselves unable to draw their bow. Crossbow hunters don’t have this issue because the crossbow is loaded and ready, just like a rifle, from the moment hunters set foot in the field. They can sit all day in sub-zero temperatures (just ensuring that their trigger finger still works) without worrying about drawing the bow back when an animal arrives. With mechanical assistance, crossbows remain cocked and ready to fire immediately. Depending on where you keep the bow, a crossbow hunter’s biggest movement can be just grabbing the weapon itself and shouldering it.
With no need for a drawing motion and the crossbow loaded and ready, taking a prone shooting position becomes a reality, and that opens an array of new ambushing techniques. The prone position has huge advantages for many big species that are chased with arrows. As the steadiest of all the shooting positions (and the one from which the fundamentals of shooting are best learned), the prone position helps with shot accuracy. A prone position is usually not suitable when hunting in tall grass though, because when the bow hunter is that low, the line of sight to the animal can be obscured. Tall grass can also alter the arrow’s flight path even with the slightest contact.
Two As a Team
A popular and exciting bow hunt for antelope involves two hunters working as a team. One acts as the shooter while the other moves the decoy, keeping both hunters covered and ranging incoming antelope to assist the shooter. With a crossbow, however, the shooter can lie in short grass underneath the decoy and be ready to shoot without the assistance of a partner. That enables a single-man bow hunt apart from what is otherwise usually a two-man operation.
Ambushing or decoying animals in wide-open swaths of crop fields is another tactic available to crossbow hunters. Crop fields are usually much longer than the effective shooting range of any bow hunter, so choosing where to set up an ambush is like shooting craps in Las Vegas—mostly luck. Decoying elk, moose, and deer in open fields can be tricky at best. If they do come to investigate your fake intruder, you can bet they will come at high alert and will flee at the first hint of danger.
Again, the prone position really disguises the hunter’s profile and allows remaining out of sight from incoming prey while calmly waiting for an ethical shot.
Besides the prone position and its many advantages discussed above, the sitting position is almost as stable, but it gives the bow hunter a better view of the field. Whether you use a bipod with it or simply rest your elbow on your knees, the sitting position allows the bow hunter to conceal himself in low vegetation with a steady rest and wait for a shot without having to move when the animal is in close range.
Another position available to crossbow hunters is sitting in a tree stand, resting the stock on a shooting rest or safety railing. Those using vertical bows don’t usually use tree stands because those accessories can interfere with the drawing motion. In the case of a crossbow, the hunter has the advantage of motionless, limitless aiming and firing from a seated position.
If you are short on time or don’t want the regimented practice regime of a typical vertical-bow hunter, crossbows are accurate right out of the box. Crossbow shooters can become proficient out to 50 meters within minutes of trying one because the action is just like shooting a rifle. With shooting rests and pre-calibrated scopes, accurate shots ranging out to 60 meters are possible on Day One with a crossbow. That’s something nobody would recommend to a rookie vertical bow hunter. Crossbows hold arrows securely and release them along the rail, providing stability and direction from the initial launch.
Crossbows have many advantages over vertical bows. These include: the ability to hold and aim without getting muscle fatigue; dressing appropriately for cooler days without worrying about clothing interfering when the string is released; sitting motionless with an arrow ready to fly and being able to track a prey’s every step; and finally, no aggressive practice schedule is required for proficient shooting.
Every bow hunter has different goals. Some hunters love the challenge; some love the simplicity, and some love the chase. Every bow hunter gets to choose their weapon. For those who want all these advantages, try a crossbow.