A Beginner's Guide to Hunting with a Crossbow

Cocking, Shooting, and Safety

If you can fire a rifle or a bow, you can easily learn to shoot a crossbow. But you should know a few things first.

Cocking You cock before you load an arrow, and you have to pull the string back with dead-even pressure on both sides of the barrel. Misaligning the string by as little as 1/8 inch can shift your arrow's point of impact by several inches. Cocking by hand requires no tools and is fast, but it's also the most difficult. A cocking rope is a lightweight, simple device that ensures consistent cocking and reduces the effort needed to pull back the string by half. But it works by doubling the distance you need to pull. If you're vertically challenged, a cocking rope may be more trouble than it's worth. There are also crank-operated cocking aids (such a device may come integral to the crossbow). They can be expensive, clumsy, loud, and slow, but a crank will let you cock the bow even if you couldn't beat Mary-Kate Olsen at arm wrestling.

Shooting To load the crossbow, place an arrow in the barrel. There is a channel in the barrel that the cock vane of the arrow will fit into. Crossbow arrows use either moon nocks or flat nocks, depending on the manufacturer. Confirm that the arrow is nocked securely. When it's time to shoot, all the principles of accuracy for a regular bow or a rifle come into play. But before you pull the trigger, make sure there are no obstacles in front of the limbs. You don't want to see what happens when one smacks against a tree trunk during a shot. And don't wrap your thumb over the forearm of a crossbow, or you'll never hitchhike left-handed again.

Uncocking You can leave your bow cocked all day (provided that you remove the arrow before walking or exiting a tree stand, of course), but you should uncock the bow at the end of the hunt. There is only one safe way to do it: Shoot the crossbow. Remove your hunting arrow from the barrel and replace it with a blunt-tipped arrow you've designated for this purpose (it doesn't even need vanes). Aim at a safe backstop like a target, berm, or soft piece of ground, and shoot. Every horror story you've heard about dry-firing a bow goes for crossbows, too. Don't do it. Ever.

HAND COCKING

[1] Place the crossbow stirrup on the ground and step through it.

[2] Grab the string on either side of the stock. If possible, place your thumbs alongside the barrel in order to guide the string.

[3] Keeping your arms straight, stand up, exerting even pressure on both sides. Pull the string back until it locks in place.

COCKING ROPE

[1] Place the stirrup on the ground. Put your foot through the stirrup and brace it firmly.

[2] Run the back of the strap over the butt of the crossbow.

[3] Attach the rope by its hooks to each side of the string.

[4] Grab the strap handles, and stand until the string locks in place.

GREAT HUNTERS

A REVIEW OF THREE TOP MODELS

[1] TENPOINT CROSSBOW PRO ELITE HP

The Mercedes of crossbows (reflected in the price), this model comes as a package with all kinds of features that make it safe and accurate: an integrated brace, a grip safety to protect your thumb, and a red-dot sight with three dots. Its 185-pound draw weight produces 333 fps (all velocities are approximate). You have your choice of two stock-mounted cocking aids: the Acudraw 50, an integral rope cocker; or the Acudraw crank-operated device. It comes assembled and bore sighted with field points, broadheads, and a hard case. $1,100; 330-628-9245; tenpointcrossbows.com

[2] EXCALIBUR EXOMAX

Excalibur eschews cables and cams and uses a traditional recurve design for durability and simplicity. A recurve crossbow is easier to disassemble and much easier to fix if you damage a string on a hunt. The recurve setup makes it tougher to cock this 225-pound bruiser, but the payoff is plenty of speed and power. It sends arrows downrange at a blistering 355 fps. $600; 800-463-1817; excaliburcrossbow.com

[3] HORTON LEGEND HD 175 RED DOT PACKAGE

Horton's Legend is one of the most popular crossbows out there, and with good reason. It's strong, accurate, fast, and a pretty good deal. It has a synthetic barrel, an aluminum riser, and a comfortable stock. Draw weight is 175 pounds, producing 305 fps. This package comes with a red-dot sight, riser pads, and arrows. $550; 800-551-7468; crossbow.com

ANATOMY OF A CROSSBOW

THEY AREN'T JUST COMPOUNDS TURNED SIDEWAYS. HERE'S WHAT TO LOOK FOR WHEN YOU SHOP

TenPoint Crossbow Pro Slider

Broadheads Mechanical broadheads fly best, but low-profile fixed blades work too; 100-grain heads are standard.

Limbs Split limbs, harmonic dampening, overengineered limb pockets--the buzzwords of compound design apply here as well.

Barrel This is the platform that guides the bolt to flight. In the barrel is a channel for the arrow's vane.

Sights Open sights are sufficient, but most high-end models now use scopes or red-dot sights.

Stock The forearm should be deep to keep your hand away from the flight deck. Make sure it's comfortable and your hand aligns naturally with the sight.

Stirrup To cock the bow, place this flat on the ground and step into it. It should be lightweight but rigid.

Draw Weight Higher weights get you more speed but are much tougher to cock. The best choice is something in the 175- to 185-pound range.

Arrows Commonly called bolts, aluminum or carbon ones are both appropriate. They typically measure 20 inches with shaft weights between 260 and 378 grains.

Safety Surely you know what this is for. Use it. Some models also have grip safeties to protect your thumb.

Draw Aid A crank-operated model works best if you can't draw a regular bow. Sometimes one comes preinstalled.

How Far Is Too Far? Most people consider 40 yards the maximum effective range for a crossbow that shoots over 300 fps, and many red-dot sights come with a 40-yard dot. But at that distance, any mistake in form is amplified, and it takes a while for a bolt to travel that far--enough time for a deer to move slightly and turn a perfect shot into a bad one. Have respect for the animal and keep shots to 30 yards and under. Just like with a compound, only take broadside shots.

There are many ballistics charts out there for various crossbow setups, but arrow trajectory is basically the same as with a fast compound. With most, if you sight in dead-on at 20 yards, you'll be 1 to 2 inches high at 15 yards and 2 to 3 inches low at 25 yards. Just hold dead-on up to 25 yards.

Crossbow U.S.A.

The combination of giant bucks and liberal crossbow seasons has made Ohio ground zero for the crossbow revolution. Last September, Amish hunter John Schmucker took a buck with a crossbow that scored 291 Boone and Crockett points. In 2004, Ohio crossbow hunter Brad Jerman killed a buck measuring 201 B&C that is the Ohio state typical-buck record.

But not all states allow crossbows. Here is a rough guide to regulations, but these laws change frequently. Always check with the state before you hunt.

NOW ON FIELDANDSTREAM.COM

THE CROSSBOW REVOLUTION See a photo gallery of monster bucks taken by crossbow hunters at fieldandstream.com/crossbowbucks Join David E. Petzal and Anthony Licata in a crossbow debate at fieldandstream.com/crossbowdebate

BOLT ACTION The same offhand form riflemen use is ideal for accurate crossbow shooting.