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 COCKING, SHOOTING, & 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. 3 AWESOME CROSSBOWS 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 **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.