Before you make up your mind about crossbows, shoot one first. People have called me a self-righteous bowhunter. Maybe it's because if you told me that you just took a 170-class whitetail after a two-day stalk, I'll ask if you did it with a bow. So you can imagine what my opinion was on crossbows, which are growing in popularity while igniting a red-hot debate among sportsmen and wildlife managers about whether they're sporting and whether they should be legal for hunting. But then I shot one. As much as I expected to dislike this riflelike version of a bow, I couldn't put it down. I learned what thousands of hunters already know: Crossbows are a ton of fun. Although it was easier to shoot accurately than a compound bow, tight groups still took skill and work. Most important, I found that crossbows are 30-yard propositions that preserve that in-your-face immediacy that I love about bowhunting. My change of heart was also helped by the growing number of hunters I know who've wrecked their shoulders through a lifetime of pulling heavy bows. These guys can no longer draw a compound, but they still spend their weekends in the woods because they've switched to crossbows. Indeed, modern cocking aids have made crossbows an ideal way into hunting for kids and women. So am I a total convert? Not quite. I still think that by eliminating the need to draw in the presence of the animal, crossbows lose a characteristic that's essential to qualify for a bow-only season. But the fact that some states make them completely illegal for hunting is absurd. This fall, after I've hung up my compound, I'm going to leave my .270 in the safe and try to get my rifle-season buck with a crossbow. Before you judge, shoot a crossbow first. Here's everything you need to get started.