Last year the state approved what could arguably be the biggest change in fish and game regulations since the expanded archery season allowed hunters to take more than one deer a year in Maine. Beginning this year, all properly licensed hunters will be able to use crossbows for just about all game species, but not deer during any archery season. At first glance the crossbow might seem a bit intimidating to someone who has never used one. It needn’t be, but there are a few things you should know if you’re considering trying one out.
First, you cock a crossbow somewhat the same as a compound, by pulling back the bow string, with a couple major differences.
Because of the shorter limbs, string and power stroke, a crossbow needs roughly three times the draw weight of a compound in order to achieve similar performance, speed and trajectory.
Drawing 180 to 200 pounds can be done by hand, but it’s not easy or advisable. That’s why new bows typically come with a cocking device, which is little more than a cord with handles and pulleys designed to halve the draw weight. Some also have a crank or other pulling devices to further lessen the weight required to pull them back.
The other major difference is that once drawn back, the string becomes locked at full draw. Most bows have a safety device (some have several) and an anti dry-fire device so the bow cannot be fired until an arrow is properly loaded, the safety is disengaged and the trigger is pulled.
Crossbow arrows, sometimes called bolts, come in two lengths. The standard length for most bows is 20 inches, though some newer bows with longer barrels – also called rails – require longer, 22-inch arrows. Most bows come with at least three practice arrows so you should use the length that comes with the bow.
Your other choice is arrow material. Aluminum arrows are less expensive but once bent or damaged are unusable.
Carbon arrows are a tad more expensive but will hold up longer. Again, use the arrow weight (spine) and length that comes with your bow, or meets manufacturer’s recommendations.
You can tip the arrow with the same heads you would use on a compound bow. However, the faster speeds of a crossbow will exaggerate planing and deflection sometimes encountered with fixed-blade heads, making mechanical heads a better option. They will fly the same as the field points you use to sight in your bow.
Sighting is much the same as with a gun or a bow. Most crossbow hunters use some type of optic – a scope with multiple dots or crosshair reticle. Begin at close range, usually 20 yards, and adjust the top dot or crosshair for that range. Lower dots or crosshairs should then correspond to progressively longer ranges – 30, 40 and 50 yards.
It’s important to point out that the crossbow is a short-range weapon, with the same energy and trajectory, and effective at roughly the same range as a compound bow. You can shoot accurately to 50 yards and beyond, under ideal conditions, including having a solid shooting rest, but it’s not recommended unless you’re well practiced. It takes less practice to become proficient with a crossbow, but the more you practice, the better.
Crossbows also require a tad more maintenance. Because the bow string runs along the rail, you should lube the rail to reduce wear and wax the string about every 75 to 100 shots. New bows generally come with rail lube and string wax, or you can pick some up at your local pro shop. Check your arrows and nocks regularly for cracks or other defects and make sure your broadheads are on tightly.
Those are the basics. If you’re new to crossbows, don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions when purchasing one for the first time. Most pro shop staff are also happy to answer any follow-up questions you might have.
You could also seek out more experienced crossbow shooters, though they’ll be few and far between around these parts, at least for a few seasons.
Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: