Has Crossbow Innovation Finally Gone Too Far?
A double-barreled bow? 500-fps bolts? A digital range-finding scope? The top new crossbows from Excalibur, Ravin, and TenPoint have bowhunters asking if we’ve crossed a line. In truth, we crossed it a long time ago
Arguments between vertical-bow hunters and crossbow hunters over what qualifies as archery equipment have been going on for 20 years. (Maybe longer if you count the Medieval Ages, when legend has it Pope Urban II banned the unholy things from being used in combat.) But particularly in the past five years, during which time crossbow developments have accelerated at breakneck speed, some have asked, “Where is the line we’re unwilling to cross if we want to still call this bowhunting?”
Would it be a crossbow that shoots 500 feet per second? Or maybe one with a digital range-finding smart scope? What about an over-and-under two-shot repeater? In 2021, crossbow manufacturers may get their answer on what the public (and state agencies) are willing to accept, because we now have all of the above. Three radically innovative crossbows from three of the biggest players in the game all promise game-changing performance and capabilities.
- The Ravin R500 has an electronic cocking device and promises 500 fps speeds with a 400-grain bolt.
- The Excalibur TwinStrike is a truly manageable and practical 2-shot crossbow that’s scantly bigger than its single-shot predecessor.
- The TenPoint Vapor RS470 Xero is a 470-fps crossbow that we tested last year, but now paired with a Garmin XERO X1i digital range-finding smart scope that, with the press of a button, will range game to 250 yards and automatically provide an aiming point.
I’ve shot the Excalibur and the TenPoint, but I haven’t been able to get my hands on the Ravin yet. And I’ll be clear: Manufacturers either innovate and make good products for their market, or they go out of business. I don’t begrudge these companies one bit for making the products.
But it’s up to hunters and managers to decide how the products fit into hunting seasons, and in the case of crossbows, that’s an evolving question. The crossbow regs on the books now—even though they’re modern, as hunting regs go—were written when equipment like this did not exist. And so as the envelope is pushed, people are bound to ask questions. Just the other day a friend of mine, who owns a local sporting-goods store, sells some of these brands, and hunts with crossbows almost exclusively whispered to me on the side: “Sometimes we don’t know when to quit. These are going to get crossbows restricted.”
He may be right if there’s significant backlash against these particular models. They are no doubt flashy and impressive—but do they cross the line? Have we now reached a point in crossbow innovation where we we stop and say, “These are bowhunting tools, and those are not”?
I’m glad you asked, because I have an opinion on all of that.
Putting the Best New Crossbows in Context
Back in 2013, when I started reviewing crossbows for Field & Stream, it was still OK to ask things like, “Should we really be using these things during bow season?” Full inclusion of crossbows into archery seasons was becoming more common by then—but there were still embers glowing from the raging debates of the mid-2000s, and compound bow hunters still easily outnumbered crossbow hunters.
But the push to legalize crossbows for bowhunting continued, and it was largely spearheaded by crossbow manufacturers. The argument was frequently made that crossbows, like compound bows, were short-range tools that offered no significant advantage to bowhunters. But they were easier for new hunters—and aging hunters—to use, and therefore excluding them from bow seasons was counterproductive to hunter-recruitment efforts. In the face of steadily declining license sales (at least up until about April of 2020), nobody wanted that.
And so the push worked. Crossbows are now legal for use during the archery season in 28 states—and crossbow companies have sold a bunch of crossbows. In Ohio, one of the few states to differentiate crossbow vs. vertical-bow harvest data, crossbow hunters have begun to replace bowhunters in the same way that compound hunters once replaced recurve hunters. Crossbow hunters killed more than twice the deer that vertical bowhunters did in the 2019-20 season.
Still, the biological worries of full crossbow inclusion—over-harvest and timing of mature buck harvest—haven’t really happened on a scale that seems to concern wildlife managers. Wisconsin, which allowed full inclusion in 2014, published a study in 2019 that largely found crossbow inclusion to be a good thing that stabilized (and even increased) hunting license sales without negatively impacting the resource. Any drawbacks to crossbow inclusion were largely social. The study did, however, find that gun and archery hunters took fewer bucks, relative to their respective license sales, while crossbow hunters harvested more.
Gradually, the message on crossbows during bow season—especially if you work in the hunting industry—has become, there is no debate at all. If you dare question them, you’re divisive, and shame on you.
There are a few holdouts, of course. The Pope & Young Club remains steadfast in their stance on crossbows. Animals taken with them do not count in their record books, because they only recognize trophies taken with a bow and arrow. Others in the archery industry feel the same way and have told me as much—but usually only when they’ve been drinking and pulled me to the side, because they don’t want to say it in public.
I’ve written about the crossbow controversy a few times, and I’ve caught more hell than praise every time. One time a reader even told me I was a danger to the future of hunting itself for writing this piece that dared to draw some distinction between crossbows and compounds as hunting tools.
But to everyone who’s been triggered by something I’ve written on crossbows, I’d say this: Not many people have shot, hunted with, and objectively tested crossbows more than I have. I’ve evaluated flagship crossbows, alongside flagship compound bows, from every major manufacturer since 2013 (that’s 80 or 90 crossbows at least), and I hunt with them every fall. I’ve been privy to the advances in crossbows in a way that few others have. At once, I’m in awe of those advances. I appreciate good product development when I see it.
But do I have a problem with categorically including them as bowhunting equipment, with no distinction whatsoever? Yes I do. I grew up a bowhunter, and that tradition is important to me. Plus, I really get a kick out of calling b.s. when I see it. Crossbows are great hunting tools that deserve long and generous seasons all their own, outside of firearms season. But they’re not bows, and anyone who tells you the experience of hunting with the two weapons is the same either hasn’t done much of it—or is trying to sell you a crossbow.
Have 2021′s Best New Crossbows Crossed a Line?
That brings us back to the 2021 Excalibur, Ravin, and TenPoint, which seem to at least have more people doing some critical thinking along the lines of, “If we allow these during bow season, why not arrow rifles and maybe muzzleloaders too?”
But we should’ve been asking more of those questions all along. What I found in 2013, between the slowest crossbow tested that year and the fastest compound, was that there was simply no comparison between the two tools. As hunting effectiveness went, the crossbow was superior in almost every way. The fastest compound I tested that year was, according to its IBO standards, a 340-fps. Hoyt. Real world, set to my specs with a roughly 400-grain hunting arrow, it might’ve broken 300 fps. Meanwhile the very slowest crossbow of the year was a 307-fps Mission that fired a bolt heavier than my hunting arrows. The physics of such things do not lie.
And then crossbows just got better and faster. In 2014, we tested an Excalibur Matrix Mega 405 that handily broke 400 feet per second on the chronograph. In 2016, the Scorpyd Ventilator Extreme clocked 430 fps. As crossbows continued to get faster, they also became so accurate that as part of our accuracy testing procedure, we began shooting all of our groups on paper targets with a single bolt, and then measuring the groups with a digital caliper. Otherwise, we learned, we’d break all our bolts after about two groups.
Meanwhile, outside of testing them, I was playing with these crossbows at long range because I suspected they might help me kill more critters out hunting. And I was right. One spring, Executive Editor Dave Hurteau and I fanned up two Nebraska gobblers and killed them with crossbows. Mine was at 48 yards—a shot that I wouldn’t try on a turkey on my best day with a vertical bow, much less from my belly, after crawling through the brush, while holding a turkey fan, with Hurteau arguing with me the whole way (because that’s what he does).
After more and more hunting experience, I didn’t necessarily think crossbow companies were being deceptive—but I did think they were underselling the capabilities of their products because it was to their advantage. Without a clear distinction between them and compound bows, more states were likely to include them in archery seasons.
Then Ravin hit the market in 2017 with a crossbow that didn’t look like anything else. Called the R15, it was easier to cock and shoot than the competition; it punched one-hole groups, and it clocked 434 fps. in a package that wasn’t remotely as bulky as competing bows with the same performance.
Moreover, the Ravin launched with an absolutely unapologetic marketing campaign that showed two shooters, side-by-side on a bench rest shooting at a 100-yard target. One was using a scoped rifle, and the other was using an R15, and both were landing hits in the bullseye, bullets and arrows. Ravin’s tagline in print ads was, “Meet Your Next Rifle.”
It wasn’t that previous crossbows weren’t capable of the same thing. Ravin’s crossbow was really good—but it finished runner-up the following year to TenPoint, and the two brands have been neck-and-neck in our tests since (though to be fair, Ravin has won more of them).
What Ravin got right was having the balls to actually say what their crossbow could do, and then selling that message to their customers. They don’t hide it, quantify it, or apologize for it. And I’ve heard stories of 100-yard kills in the field every fall since Ravin hit the market.
Not that I condone that nonsense. But in an industry that glorifies long-range everything, it’s hard to convince people who’ve just shelled out $2,500 on a crossbow that the 100-yard reticle mark in their scope is only for shooting balloons.
The Newest Crossbows Are Just a Little More of the Same
While I’ve certainly noticed the buzz around the new 2021 crossbows, they haven’t surprised me, and I’m not convinced that they represent a radical new performance standard. Five hundred feet per second from the R500 is indeed crazy fast, but it’s only 30 fps faster than the TenPoint Vapor RS470, which we tested a year ago. I can’t tell you the drop on that at 100 yards, but according to a ballistics table by the North American Crossbow Federation, a 450-fps bolt drops 71 inches at that distance. I know I’ve shot slower crossbows at 100 yards, and it’s not really a big challenge with a good rest. In fact, if you pair your scope with your rangefinder and spend time practicing, just about anyone can shoot good groups at 100 yards with a decent crossbow. It’s not the extra speed that makes all the difference.
On the other hand, a 500 fps crossbow is roughly 170 fps faster than the fastest hunting compound bow we tested last year(at IBO specs), and it produces more than double the kinetic energy. So, there’s that.
The TenPoint Vapor RS470 XERO with the added Garmin XERO X1i rangefinding scope is way cool—and the bow itself is more than capable of tight 100-yard groups (it finished runner-up in last year’s test). But my 45 minutes of experience with the smart scope setup showed there to be a learning curve, with more buttons and features than I’d personally care to mess with in the field (and a reticle that was tough to see in bright sun). I’m not discounting it because I didn’t get to use it long enough to call it a real evaluation, but I don’t think it’s the system every crossbow hunter will gravitate to, either. Master that scope, and it certainly provides an advantage, but it’s the crossbow, more than the scope, that I’d compare to a vertical bow. You can, after all, get a Garmin XERO A1 range-finding sight for your compound if you’re so inclined.
The Excalibur TwinStrike is at once the simplest of the designs but also, in my opinion, the one that actually provides the biggest practical advantage to hunters: a rapid follow-up shot. I thought a crossbow with two sets of limbs, two strings, and two triggers with string catches would be comically cumbersome. But instead, because of the recurve design, it looks rather like a sleek, split-limb compound up front. It’s wider axle-to-axle than either the TenPoint or Ravin, of course, but it’s also a good bit lighter than either of those. It doesn’t offer near the speed (360 fps advertised) as the other two, nor the power due to the light, 350-grain bolts. But again, if you’ve hunted much with a crossbow, you know that lack of power, even from the “puny” ones, isn’t an issue. And in a delightfully ironic twist, when I compared the in-the-field hunting effectiveness of compound bows to crossbows in 2013, the speed of the follow-up shot was the only category in which the compound bow had an advantage. I even used an Excalibur crossbow for that test. You can see it right there in the picture, along with the magnificent sideburns I was once capable of growing. Two shots in one second kinda put that category to bed now.
All said, each of these crossbows are expensive—the Excalibur is $2,000, the Ravin is $3,350, and the TenPoint is $4,050. That alone limits how many of them will find their way to the deer woods and make a real impact. But do they offer a significant advantage over a compound bow, as the original argument for their inclusion was framed? Do they cross the line of what can reasonably be deemed archery equipment? Of course they do. But there’s not much use hand wringing over it, because we already crossed that line years ago.