Four Great (And Inexpensive) Entry-Level Crossbows

Just a few years ago, crossbow use was largely limited to hunters with physical disabilities. No more. State game agencies, needing a way to control burgeoning deer populations, recognized the crossbow as an additional tool to do so. The result is that crossbows are legal for deer in many states, and manufacturers have responded by developing crossbows that are as high-tech as their compound-bow cousins. We asked four experienced bowhunters to take these entry-level crossbows into the deer woods last fall to see which shot its bolt the best. RATINGS:
★★★★★ - Lightning Bolt
★★★★ - Laser Beam
★★★ - Basic Bow
★★ - Slingshot
★ - Rubber Band
Carbon Express Covert CX1
$500
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
The Lowdown: Testers said the CX1 delivered the best combination of speed, accuracy, and reliability. Jervis loved the adjustable fore-end, which "allows you to fit the crossbow to your own build." He was also impressed by the crossbow's weight and balance: "Everything about the CX1 felt good." Spiller agreed that the fore-end was a "standout feature" and said the pistol grip made it easy for him to maneuver the bow while still-hunting. Ricco praised the bow's dry-fire safety, which prevents it from firing without a bolt in place. Magaziner noted that it fit his hands comfortably, and its narrow profile made it easy to carry in the woods.
Hits: "Easy to cock." --Ricco
Misses: "Trigger is too heavy." --Magaziner
Barnett Penetrator
$500
★ ★ ★ ★ ½
The Lowdown: Overall, the Penetrator also impressed the panel. "It is compact, comfortable, fast, and accurate," said Magaziner. Jervis added, "The bolts hit like a hammer." Spiller, however, felt that the foot stirrup, designed to help anchor the bow during cocking, places the limb pockets and riser too close to the ground, which risks fouling the mechanisms with mud or snow. Although the bow "balanced well in a shooting position," he said he was unable to keep it from slipping off his shoulder when carried on a sling. The big issue for Jervis was the provided scope: "It wouldn't take adjustments reliably nor hold zero."
Hits: "Very quiet when shot." --Ricco
Misses: "I worry about the durability of the plastic bolt retainer." --Magaziner
Wicked Ridge Invader
$550
★ ★ ★ ★
The Lowdown: Every tester praised the Invader's integrated Acu52 self-­retracting rope-cocking system. It made this the easiest-cocking bow while eliminating any worry about leaving the cocking rope at home. In addition, Spiller liked the "nice, light, and crisp" trigger. Jervis liked the trigger's performance, too, but didn't care for its open-style guard. Magaziner praised the bow's accuracy and the forward hand grip, which keeps a shooter's hand well away from the rails. But he felt that the price point was too high for what the bow offered. Both he and Ricco said it was the loudest of the bunch, not only while firing a bolt, but during cocking as well.
Hits: "Great feel and balance." --Jervis
Misses: "The safety was hard to find." --Spiller
Excalibur Axiom SMF
$500
★ ★ ★ ½
The Lowdown: The only recurve here, the Excalibur scored well on simplicity, durability, ease of maintenance, and accuracy. But after that, opinions split. Spiller said the bow is very light and easy to carry but, being the widest, could create problems in thick cover. He did note some hunters would find the bow easier to use because they wouldn't have to deal with cams or cables. To Jervis, the bow's "greatest strength was accuracy," but it was loud, "increasing the chance of a buck jumping the string." He liked "the ability to string it virtually on the fly." Magaziner, however, found it difficult to string and was concerned about the lack of an automatic safety.
Hits: "Easy to maintain." --Spiller
Misses: "A bit cumbersome in the field." --Jervis

The Test Panel

Kriston Jervis
Age: 36
Hunting Area: Kentucky
Days Hunter Per Year: 20

Bill Magaziner
Age: 63
Hunting Area: Colorado
Days Hunter Per Year: 25

John Ricco
Age: 72
Hunting Area: Pennsylvania
Days Hunter Per Year: 50

Charles Spiller
Age: 59
Hunting Area: California
Days Hunter Per Year: 35