Crossbow vs Compound Bow: Our Thoughts


crossbow vs compound bow - does the crossbow provide an unfair advatage?This is a very touchy subject for a lot of folks, and there are many that would consider crossbows to be so different from traditional vertical bow hunting that they believe crossbow hunters should be banned prohibited from hunting during the “bow” season. Clearly, we are not going to change the minds of many people that hold such an extreme view.

However, as unbiased spectators of this archery divide, we felt the need to chime in. So here are our impressions on the (6) typical complaints that invariably come up in such debates, along with our verdicts as to their validity.

1) Hunting with a Crossbow is Just Too Easy

Well, there is some truth to this. Unquestionably, the horizontal orientation of the bow and its attachment to a rifle stock does make it a far easier weapon to get started with. Even if you’ve only shot an air rifle before using a crossbow, after a few hours of practicing with a crossbow and getting your sights all sorted out, you should be doing pretty well at hitting targets consistently, albeit at close range. At bottom, it’s a point and shoot-type weapon after all. You just can’t compare it to learning how to find your mark with a vertical compound bow, or getting used to drawing and holding your arrow while stalking quarry.

Having said all that though, it’s a far cry from saying that one can easily master hunting with a crossbow; putting arrows into targets and hunting effectiveness are different “animals” altogether. Crossbows are relatively heavy and clunky weapons and, while the hold and manner of shooting is comparatively intuitive, reaching the point where you can consistently nail your quarry in the field is most definitely not easy! Furthermore, it is well-accepted that slow loading and noisy report associated with crossbows make them primarily one-shot weapons as far as game is concerned. In comparison, someone proficient with a vertical bow can normally get off subsequent arrows – in the event the opportunity arises of course.

Finally, so much of hunting with either weapon entails getting close enough to game get a good shot that it really does start to become a wash. And as discussed more below, since the effective range of both weapons are comparable, the overriding variable in successful hunting with either is simply positioning yourself to get that clean shot; in other words, it’s all about good old fashioned bowhunting know-how.

Our Verdict: hunting with crossbows is definitely more newbie friendly and has a kinder learning curve, but to be an effective game hunter requires another level of skill and experience in the field that is roughly comparable to traditional bow hunters.

2) Crossbows are More Powerful Than Vertical Bows

As with most discussions concerning power, this question often gets hopelessly muddled by folks on forums. However, the truth is pretty plain – crossbows are, on average, slightly more powerful (in terms of kinetic energy, velocity and momentum) than modern compound bows, and considerably more powerful than your typical recurve bow.

Crossbows are on average more powerful than compound bows and recurve bows.Yes, I know you probably heard somewhere (including seemingly reputable sources) that compound bows are actually more powerful than crossbows because they have a longer powerstroke, but this is inaccurate. A longer powerstroke only makes them more efficient at utilizing energy inputs, not more powerful in an absolute sense, which is what we are talking about. Crossbows make up for their shorter powerstrokes with much stiffer limbs that can load up more stored energy; this more than mitigates their shorter stroke relative to vertical bows.

Indeed, when kinetic energy (measured in ft-lbs) is compared between crossbows and compound bows, this separation is obvious. Crossbows, on average, generate between 70 and 100 ft-pounds of energy (measured point blank). Compare this to the typical range of 60-80 ft-lbs delivered by compound bows, and 25-45 ft-pounds produced by most recurve bows. Thus, at the end of the day, harping on draw lengths just doesn’t matter at all – crossbows have the edge in power, period.

And if you’re still not convinced, it’s reality check time. No matter how efficient and how long your powerstroke, all bows are limited by the simple relationship: power in = power out. The energy that propels an arrow (or bolt) can only come from you, unlike a bullet from a firearm that uses combustion to fuel its flight. Crossbows typically have draw weights of around 150 pounds or more – that is more than double that of an compound bow (which is around 50-70 pounds). Indeed, as mentioned above, because of their shorter limbs and shorter power stroke, crossbows compensate by being very stiff, and it’s this rigidity that allows them to store more energy in their limbs – energy that must be first generated by the user.

Moral of the story: there is no free lunch when it comes to bow power, even crossbows. You have to work much harder to cock them, so it is patently obvious that you should consequently benefit from the proportionally greater power that they return.

Our Verdict: crossbows are on average slightly more powerful than compound bows, and ubstantially more powerful than recurve/long bows.

3) Crossbows Lose (“Shed”) More Velocity Than Compound Bows

This I really don’t get. We actually read this in a “leading” magazine some time ago. The article indicated, in somewhat paradoxical fashion, that a heavier crossbow bolt traveling faster than a lighter arrow shot from a compound bow still “sheds” velocity faster than the slower arrow. Huh?

This is pure nonsense. First off, deceleration of a bolt or arrow has nothing to do with the weapon it’s fired from – it’s simply a matter of mass, velocity and drag. And, all other things being roughly equal, as between two arrows (with similar shape) that are initially shot at the same velocity, the heavier arrow will always retain more velocity (and kinetic energy) compared to the lighter arrow. Thus, it is odd to claim that a heavier crossbow bolt that is also traveling faster than a lighter arrow can somehow decelerate more quickly than the arrow! This is not rocket science folks!

Our Verdict: there is no truth to this; crossbows bolts and arrows retain similar velocities that depend primarily on their mass, velocity and drag, it is irrelevant from what type of weapon they are shot from. Like any other comparison of projectiles, differences in deceleration beyond such a mass/velocity relationship will vary cases by case, based on other factors such as the drag caused by fletching, tip-configuration, etc.

4) Crossbows are Easier to Shoot Lying Down

While an experienced recurve or longbow hunter can also fire from just about any position with some cantering, it is definitely a lot easier for someone to do this with a crossbow. Not only are crossbows made for essentially bench-rest shooting, but because they can be cocked and loaded beforehand, so you don’t need to draw and hold the bowstring (which can be quite challenging) while game animals are coming into range.

Our Verdict: for shooting from a prostrate and/or highly concealed position, a crossbow is a much easier weapon to use, especially for newcomers to the sport.

Crossbows are very good for shooting from stealthy positions.5) Crossbows are More Stealthy

As discussed above – from the perspective of being able to take sniper-like shots, yes. However, a crossbow is a very heavy and unwieldy piece of technology compared to a modern compound bow. As such, don’t kid yourself into thinking that you can do much (or any) maneuvering once your quarry is within range. In fact, despite their relative compactness, crossbows are very awkward and generally far noisier than compound bows when fired, and this louder report ensures that your quarry (if not disabled by the first shot) will not be hanging around while you try to reload!

Our Verdict: true, from the standpoint of facilitating a one-shot ambush, but false to the extent any follow-up shots are desired.

6) Crossbows are Comparatively Longer-Range Weapons

On the margins, the typically greater kinetic energy and velocity delivered by a crossbow vs compound bows can theoretically add some yardage to your effective range. But the difference is probably fairly minimal.

In general, hunting bows and crossbows are not very accurate beyond 40 yards.To be fair, it is true that the effective hunting range for bows of all kinds is most limited by velocity. Unlike bullets, which travel so fast that gravity has scant time to begin pulling them down, the comparatively slow travel of an arrow or bolt (even when fired from the fastest rigs) make them highly vulnerable to the earth’s gravitational pull. And the greater the amount of time an arrow or bolt remains in flight, the more its trajectory will drop. It’s for this reason that target shooters choose lightweight arrows and tips – they understand that velocity is much more important than kinetic energy (i.e., hitting/impact power) when trying to maximize accuracy and keep a flat trajectory. Besides, they don’t need to kill their targets!

Nevertheless, practically speaking, the slightly greater velocities of crossbows are not that significant to put them on another level in terms of hunting range. The difference, for example, between a compound bow that reaches 320 fps, and a crossbow that can reach 360 fps (with similar arrows), is pretty trivial – they are both pathetically slow relative to a bullet. Therefore, at most, the more powerful crossbow is likely to support a flatter trajectory out a bit further…but what are we talking about here…5 or 10 yards? And a flat trajectory is not even the most important factor in shot placement. There’s no question that as between these same two rigs, the shooter that is more experienced with their setup and rangefinding will be the most lethal at, let’s say, 40 yards. A bit more power and velocity can’t make up for skill!

Whatever you do, never forget that all bows and crossbows are still short-range weapons compared to even small-caliber conventional firearms. And as such, you need technique and practice to push their boundaries – if you deem it wise to push them at all. Most hunters would do well to stay within 30 yards, regardless of how powerful their rig may be.

Our Verdict: crossbows’ greater power may support slightly flatter trajectories, but they are overall no better for long-range hunting than compound bows are. Moreover, the limiting factor in terms of any bowhunter’s effective range will depend mostly on skill and technique.

Conclusion?

Without a doubt, the crossbow offers some distinct advantages, including being easier to get started with and being particularly convenient for bench-rest type shooting while concealed from a seated or prostrate position. However, as far as power, range and its ultimate effectiveness as a hunting weapon, the two are in our opinion comparable – with the overriding variable being the skill and technique of the user. From this perspective, I don’t think you can honestly say that the crossbow has such an inherent technical advantage that it should be banned from use during the bowhunting season.


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About Jeff Grimes

I've been been an outdoorsman for most of my life, and am tired of all the marketing hype out there surrounding archery - especially when it comes to buying good gear at a reasonable price. Here, I cut through the fluff and take you through the best value options in each category to help you get the most performance for your dollar!

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