Crossbow technology is advancing at an astounding pace. With several models boasting bolt speeds over 500 feet per second, these weapons have become especially popular with bowhunters wanting to make the most of the extended archery season. However, if you want to use this speed and power effectively, you need to understand appropriate shot placement based on your crossbow's ability and its limitations.
Why Use A Crossbow?
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Most deer hunters who opt to use crossbows do so because they combine two key advantages: enough speed and power to hunt effectively with minimal shooting practice and legality during archery season. In many states, the archery season is considerably longer than the gun season, but this otherwise requires hours on the range learning to shoot a compound or traditional bow accurately enough to take a quarry. However, if crossbows are legal during your state's archery season (or there's a special crossbow season), this is a convenient alternative because many modern crossbows can shoot accurately at 40-60 yards. You just have to sight in the scope.
It's also worth noting that a crossbow is an effective hunting method in general. The most powerful crossbows available shoot bolts about 25 percent faster than the fastest compound bows and more than twice as fast as most recurve bows. Plus, the horizontal orientation and trigger system makes aiming and shooting much easier.
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Whether you simply want to enjoy a longer hunting season or want to harvest more venison this year, a crossbow is an ideal method of take.
Broadside Is Best
A broadside shot is when the deer is turned perpendicular to your line of sight so that the entire side of its body is visible. This is by far the best shot placement with a crossbow—or any bow for that matter—because it gives you the biggest target. Additionally, with a broadside shot, the vital organs such as the heart, lungs and liver are positioned without much overlap, so you have a wider margin for error, and your bolt has to pass through the least amount of tissue to cause fatal damage.
When a deer is positioned for a broadside shot, the killzone, which consists of the heart and lungs, sits just below the point of the deer's shoulder blade. This is roughly two-thirds down the side of the deer from the top of its back just above and behind its front leg. Imagine two large lungs sitting on top of that front leg and aim for the center of them.
With a crossbow that's correctly sighted in, you're almost guaranteed to kill the animal as long as you are within an appropriate range. Even if the bolt doesn't go straight through the heart, it would take some serious work to miss the lungs and liver altogether.
Quartering Away Is Next Best
A deer that's "quartering away" is walking or facing away from you at a quarter turn. In other words, it's turned 45 degrees from your line of sight, so its body is oriented diagonally.
This angle shrinks the killzone and therefore your target, but it's still the next best shot after the broadside shot, especially for crossbows. This is because you still have a good margin of error for hitting vital organs behind the heart and lungs like the liver.
Like with the broadside shot, you should aim for the point right behind the deer's front shoulder blade. If you can't fully see this point, you shouldn't take the shot. A good rule of thumb is to aim for the opposite shoulder. That may put your aim point well back on the entrance side, but the exit will take your bolt through the lungs.
The bolt may hit the deers intestine or stomach, but it will also hit vital organs as it travels through on an angle.
Quartering Toward Is Questionable
When a deer is "quartering toward," it's turned at a 45-degree angle to your line of sight just like with quartering away, except that it's facing towards you. Even though the angle is the same, this is a much tougher shot to make and one you should only take if your quarry is at close range and angled closer to broadside.
The issue here is the shoulder bone, which is in the way of the vital organs. Even the most powerful crossbow withe the best broadhead won't penetrate through the shoulder bone of a mature buck.
When a deer is turned this way, a shot at its flank won't hit the killzone. Rather, it will hit behind it and only graze a lung or hit the spine. The deer won't drop but will run a good distance before bedding down to die. If the shot is really misplaced, you may not kill the animal at all.
Instead, you should aim just above the deer's sternum perpendicular to its line of sight. This makes it more likely your bolt will hit the heart or both lungs. Of course, there is quite a bit of bone and soft tissue in this area, and it's quite a small target. You need a powerful and accurate crossbow.
This is a very risky shot that we do not recommend taking
Do Not Take A Head Shot
If you've been playing a lot of zombie video games, you may think the head shot is the clear way to kill a deer. In reality, though, you should never try to shoot a deer in the head with a crossbow or any other bow. There are a few reasons for this.
First of all, deer have pretty small brains meaning that your target is much smaller than it seems. You can't just hit it anywhere in the head. Imagine you hit it in the nose. You'd injure it severely and cause unnecessary pain all without killing it.
Plus, deer are pretty hard headed. Nature has given them thick skulls for good reason, and even the most powerful crossbows may not be able to penetrate them. You'll just give the animal a new piercing that hurts quite a bit.
Do Not Take A Shot At A Deer Going Directly Away From You
We would hope this doesn't need to be said, but just in case, you should not shoot a deer in the behind with a crossbow. When a deer is walking directly away from you, a shot sometimes referred to as "straight away," the killzone isn't visible as a target. You won't hit any immediately vital organs at all.
You're likely to damage the animal's intestines, but a gut-shot deer can take over a day to die a painful death. That usually requires leaving your tree stand and coming back the next day to search for your deer in a difficult tracking process.
However, you're just as likely to hit the thick muscles of the rump and not kill the deer at all. Now the poor animal has a bolt sticking out of its behind for the rest of its life and all the pain and hobbling that comes with it.
In other words, straight away is not an ethical shot to take with a crossbow.
Don’t Overestimate The Killing Power Of A Crossbow
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Crossbows have become so powerful and accurate these days that many bowhunters have started to think they can take the same shots they would with a rifle. However, this just isn't the case. Crossbows are powerful, sure, but they simply can't match the penetrative force of a firearm.
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Consider the TenPoint Nitro 505 crossbow, currently the fastest model on the market. With bolt speeds up to 505 fps, the Nitro 505 produces 227 foot-pounds of kinetic energy. You have a good chance of hitting a broadside deer right in the killzone from up to 60 yards, and the bolt will certainly punch through ribs and thick cartilage.
Now compare that to a rifle shooting a standard hunting cartridge like the .30-06. This bullet can travel at speeds upwards of 3,500 fps, over three times the speed of sound, and leave the muzzle with 3,000 foot-pounds of kinetic energy. Even at 100 yards, the .30-06 retains 1,800 foot-pounds of kinetic energy, about eight times that of the Nitro 505.
So yeah, you might be able to take a headshot or straight away shot with a rifle, but that does not remotely mean that you can do so with a crossbow. A crossbow is a lethal weapon, but its bolts cannot travel through the entire body of a deer and maintain a straight, penetrative trajectory the way a rifle bullet can. Respect the power of your crossbow while still accepting its limitations.
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Although crossbows are more powerful and accurate than vertical bows, they still don't come close to the lethal potential of firearms. This makes them more effective than vertical bows and easier to shoot without extensive practice, but the types of shots you can take are still more or less the same.
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You should mainly look for the broadside shot where the deer's killzone is fully visible. Quartering away is also good. We recommend caution with quartering towards, and you should avoid headshots and straight away shots altogether. With the right shot placement, you'll find your crossbow to be an ideal method of Harvesting deer.
The easiest way to practice hitting the best place to shoot a deer with a crossbow is to get a lifesize 3D crossbow target, which will allow you to work on only taking appropriate shots.
If you are just starting out, please spend some time learning how to shoot a crossbow accurately. You owe that to the deer that you are hunting. Our goal as bow hunters is a quick, humane kill, so that the deer does not suffer.