Our attempt to simplify the daunting task of shopping for a crossbow
Virginia Outdoors - A Resource for Virginia Anglers and Hunters
Crossbow Basics:  What to Look for in a Crossbow?
by J. Burkholder
Certainly the legalization of crossbows for deer hunting in the state of
Virginia in 2005 was a boon for the local crossbow industry, but it
presents difficult questions for many VA hunters.  Questions such as:  

What are the benefits of a crossbow?
What are the important features of a crossbow?
Should I buy a crossbow?
How much should I spend on a crossbow?

Although complete answers are not possible in this brief column, I
turned to Tony and Anthony - the father-son team who own and
operate Rangeland in Ruckersville, VA - to provide some basic insight
into these questions as I start the process of shopping for my own
crossbow.  One would be hard-pressed to find anyone walking the
earth who has spent more time shooting and servicing bows (traditional
and crossbows) than the guys at Rangeland.  Here is what they had to

The Benefits:
Anthony could not reiterate enough that crossbow ballistics are not
drastically different from a good, modern traditional bow.  He is certain
(as am I) that there are some tall tales circulating amongst VA hunters
about crossbows that shoot flat for 75 yards.  In truth, expect a 12-inch
drop at 40 yards and a 24-inch drop at 50 yards even for a fairly
high-end crossbow.  There is nothing magical about those numbers.  
Crossbow arrows (bolts) are heavier than standard arrows (425 grains
compared to around 350 grains), so given equal speed, the kinetic
energy (recall from physics that KE = 1/2 mass times velocity squared)
is higher on impact, which means more stopping power for the

However, there are two primary advantages of a crossbow over a
traditional bow: (1) the bow is cocked (drawn) in advance and (2) a
crossbow is much easier to shoot.  Advantage 1 means that as a deer
approaches, a hunter does not need to stand and draw a bow.  The
noise and movement associated with drawing a compound bow have
cost many hunters dearly (or should I say deerly?) over the years.  A
crossbow can simply be raised, aimed, and fired (ambidextrously, which
is a huge advantage) without much more noise or movement than firing
a rifle.  Advantage 2 means that crossbows are strongly recommended
for hunters who do not want to spend the time to shoot regularly in the
offseason to stay sharp for opening day.  
Remember that extended
range is not a reason to buy a crossbow!

The Features:
All crossbows feature very similar basic design - a horizontal bow that is
cocked in advance and fired with a simple trigger pull much like a rifle.  
Unlike compound bows, scopes are widely used for crossbows.  Red
dot scopes comprise over 70% of sales, but multi-reticle scopes
(scopes that have multiple crosshairs for different ranges) are also
available for those who prefer a more traditional view.  Cocking the bow
can be achieved by hand; however, using a crank or pull ropes is much
more common.  Of course, quiver and arrows (known as bolts) are also
needed.  The guys at Rangeland implored me not to skimp when
choosing bolts and to
use cut-on-contact broadheads NOT mechanical
.  The argument for mechanical broadheads is that they
shoot more like practice points, but Tony clearly felt that the archer is
better-served by putting in a little extra practice time with cut-on-contact
broadheads to maximize the effectiveness of today's high-energy
crossbows.  Common crossbow specifications are draw weight (often
150 to 175 lbs), arrow speed, and physical dimensions such as length,
width, and weight.  

How Much to Spend?:
Anthony and Tony stated that crossbows can essentially be separated
into three price categories as follows:

Low:  $250 - $400
Medium:  $450 - $900
High:  $1,000 - $2,000

Low-priced models will kill deer - no doubt about it - but expect fewer
extras, such as a scope, quiver, bolts, case, etc.  Any extras will likely
be low-quality.  Also expect to have to cock the crossbow by hand,
which takes strength and dexterity and can lead to uneven limb loading.
 Uneven loading wreaks havoc on accuracy.  Plastic parts are common
and the warranty may be minimal.  Moreover, expect rails that require
periodic lubrication to work properly.  The draw weight will likely not
exceed 150 lbs with advertised speeds of around 280 fps (true speeds
may be lower).  I personally would not pay extra strictly for heavier draw
weight - countless deer have been killed with 60 lb draw compound
bows - so by comparison crossbows have plenty of power.

Medium-priced models should come with a cocking assist mechanism,
such as a pull rope or lever that will ensure consistent and even limb
loading and correspondingly consistent accuracy.  Crossbows in this
category should also have teflon rails, which do not require lubrication.  
Also expect a lifetime warranty on most major parts, no plastic parts,
good-quality accessories such as a scope and bolts, and speed of over
300 fps.  In addition to the standard safety, an anti-dry-fire mechanism
may also exist to preclude the operator from firing without an arrow,
which can damage the crossbow.  

High-priced models can deliver speed on the order of 400 fps, plus
very high-end bolts with weight-forward technology for improved
accuracy, top-of-the-line optics, a simple cocking mechanism such as a
crank that requires very little effort to operate, and perhaps even a
de-cocking mechanism that obviates the need to carry a target and fire
the crossbow at the end of each outing (leaving the bow cocked
overnight will lead to limb damage and without the de-cocking
mechanism, firing the bow is the only option).  In addition, high-end
crossbows are often lighter and feature more compact limbs resulting in
uncocked bow widths as low as 22-24 inches.  Of course, more
compact and lighter weight makes the bow easier to carry on long hikes
and easier to handle on stand, thus addressing two of the most
common complaints regarding crossbows.  

Modern crossbows that fit within almost every budget may be used to
successfully kill whitetail deer in the hands of skilled archers.  
Fortunately, good marksmanship skills with a crossbow are relatively
easy to acquire compared to a compound bow.  Personally, I plan to
invest in a brand-name medium-priced crossbow in the near future.  I'll
choose a model with a good cocking-assist mechanism, quality red-dot
scope, teflon rails, and high-quality bolts with cut-on-contact
broadheads.  I simply do not make the long, arduous hikes needed to
justify the extra expense for a lighter weight, more compact high-end
unit.  Nor do I require a crank/winch cocking mechanism to minimize the
exertion required to cock the crossbow.  The good folks at Rangeland
have convinced me to forget about the mythical 70-yard shots that fill
the rumor mill and be happy to have a unit that I can shoot accurately
at 30-40 yards with a reasonable amount of preseason practice.  What
will you decide?

Still have questions?  Call or visit Rangeland on 29 North in
Ruckersville, VA.  Their phone number is 434-985-7684.
Copyright © 2007 Virginia Outdoors, LLC
Ruckersville, VA
(image from www.parkerbows.com)