Crossbow vs Compound Bow – Which is Best for You?

Crossbow vs compound bow; these are two great archery options for hunters. But which one is best for you? Maybe both.

If you’re trying to decide between a crossbow and compound bow for your bow hunting rig, you've come to the right place. Unfortunately, the great debate between the two can make it hard to decipher which information is accurate, not to mention which weapon style a bowhunter should use.

Hunting with a compound bow is one of the most popular methods for taking game, and has been for many years now. With each passing year, the number of trucks at the trailheads in my areas seem to increase two-fold. 

Crossbows have also become increasingly popular over the years and continue to do so. If it is any indicator, 49 states now allow some form of crossbow use during regular hunting seasons. Yes, crossbows are now legal in Oregon during "any weapon" big game hunts!

All signs seem to point to the fact that bow hunting with crossbows is here to stay. While some states have been slow to accept crossbows into their archery seasons, it’s only a matter of time before they eventually relax restrictions.

Some states are more restricted than others, only allowing crossbows during "any weapon" hunts. Others, like Kansas, allow it during regular archery seasons. Hawaii probably has the most restricted use, only allowing crossbows by special permit for disabled persons.

Let's compare and contrast the differences in the major aspects of each weapon and see if we can sort some of this out. 

The Crossbow

compound crossbow

Developed before the 6th century B.C. by the Chinese, the crossbow has always been about expediting the archery learning curve and improving the shooter's accuracy.

The traditional bows of the day required years of training - often beginning as children - to become proficient archers. Consequently, trad bows were the hallmark of a superior warrior at the time. The top warriors made their own bows, choosing the best wood to make a bow and carefully carving it until it was the perfect killing machine.

It's hard not to wonder if the current crossbow vs bow debate raged on even back then.

Typically made of fiberglass and aluminum alloy, a crossbow is essentially a vertical bow flipped on its side and slapped on a "tiller" or rifle-like stock.

A cocking device is typically used to draw the string back, where it then locks into position. This relieves the shooter from holding 150 or more pounds of draw weight. Then, like a rifle, a trigger mechanism is pulled to fire the arrow or crossbow bolt.

Most crossbows are fitted with a scope for improved accuracy. Crossbows have rifle-like components, but that's where the comparisons end. Crossbows feature cams, strings, and arrows. They are not firearms.

Crossbows come in recurve, compound, and shorter pistol styles. They do require a certain amount of maintenance to keep them working an a safe accurate manner.

Recurve Crossbow

Recurve Crossbow

The recurve crossbow is similar to vertical recurve bows, in that the limbs curve away from the archer. Like recurve bows, a recurve crossbow doesn't use cams and cables.

Therefore, to create enough of a power stroke (draw), the limbs must be curved and be longer than that of a compound crossbow.

Recurve crossbows are usually slower than their compound counterparts, but are still very deadly.

Compound Crossbow

Compound Crossbow

Compound crossbows features cams and cables to create a powerful shooting crossbow in a more compact frame. It functions on the same principle as the compound bow, by creating a mechanical advantage.

Also like compound bows, compound crossbows comes in four different cam types: single, binary, hybrid, and twin cam.

Pistol Crossbow

Pistol Crossbow

The diminutive pistol crossbow is a short-range weapon usually intended for small game. It's just what it sounds like, a mini crossbow on a pistol grip.

Pistol crossbows can reach bolt speeds of over 200 fps and some states will allow the use of them for hunting deer. However, absolute care should be taken both in the shot and making sure the pistol crossbow is appropriately powered.

Always check your state game regulations before heading out to the field with one.

The Compound Bow

Diamond Archery Infinite Edge Pro Bow

Holless Wilbur Allen did a miraculous, innovative thing when he sawed off the ends of his recurve bow in the 1960s. Fitting his bow with several pulleys, he showed that an archer could draw back a bow with less effort due to "let off".

Let-off is what distinguishes a compound bow vs recurve bow and makes the compound bow more desirable.

After playing around with several designs, Allen eventually developed the early compound bow prototype. Then, after enlisting the help of bowmaker Tom Jennings, the two became the first to manufacture the compound bow. By 1975, they were producing over 60,000 compound bows a year.

Over the years, modern compound bows have become more streamlined and powerful. Despite these ever-improving vertical bows, one thing remains the same: idle wheels, cams, and cables give the archer a major mechanical advantage. These attributes help new archers shoot well in very little time.

The compound bow loosely resembles the traditional bow, but with some technological twists that have caused the bow to surge in popularity.

Much like how crossbows eclipsed the traditional bow in ancient times, the compound bow has also made it much easier to shoot an arrow accurately without holding as much draw weight.

Light, fast, and deadly, compound bows now have an incredible range of adjustability. With draw weights that run from 5 to 70 lbs and draw lengths that adjust between 13 and 31 inches, you could literally buy one as a kid and still use it years later as an adult.

Care must be taken to avoid accidentally dry firing a bow or crossbow, which can damage the bow and can be dangerous to the archer.

Also, a compound bow will require much more tuning to get it shooting accurately than will a crossbow.

Arrow Speeds and Kinetic Energy

Arrow Speed Chronograph

Crossbows are the clear winner in the speed department with blazing speeds of over 450 fps (feet per second).

Even though compound bows have a longer draw length (power stroke), most tap out at arrow speeds of about 350 fps. Often, those speeds are advertised IBO (International Bowhunters Association) speeds based on a 70-pound draw weight, 30-inch draw length, and a 350-grain arrow.

The actual arrow speed coming from your bow could be as low as 280 to 290 fps depending on the individual archer's draw length and draw weight.

Crossbows achieve higher speeds by combining lighter broadheads and bolts, stiffer limbs, and higher draw weight. Due to the shorter power stroke of crossbows, the draw weight is considerably higher than compound bows - usually falling between 80 and 290 lbs in order to compensate.

Other advances like reverse draw cams help increase a crossbow's power stroke.

So, what's the deal with speed and our obsession with it? The greater your crossbow bolt or arrow speed, the flatter the arrow's trajectory. This matters because of arrow drop over distance, especially distances over 50 yards.

As Bob Humphrey from Game and Fish Magazine points out, "With a flat trajectory, you will have a better chance of predicting arrow drop at distance and a better chance of making a good shot."

To illustrate this point, Humphrey says, "if you shoot a 400-grain arrow from two bows sighted for 20 yards, one shooting 300 fps and the other at 350 fps, you will see about a 2-inch difference in point of impact at 30 yards. But at 50 yards there's a difference in drop of more than 8 inches."

But speed isn't the end of the story. There's also the matter of kinetic energy. Measured in foot-pounds of kinetic energy (fpke), kinetic energy is the amount of force that determines how far your arrow will penetrate a target or a game animal's flesh.

When you draw your bow or cock your crossbow, you are storing potential energy (PE) in the weapon's limbs. When you release the arrow that energy is then converted to kinetic energy, which is transferred to the arrow nock, shaft and point, and sends it at your target.

There is a valid argument that KE is more important than speed. Because arrows kill by cutting and creating massive hemorrhaging, you want enough force to drive the arrow through your prey.

It is also safe to say that crossbows can generate more kinetic energy than compound bows.

It is preferable to have a complete pass-through. It is not because it is more lethal, but because a pass-through helps with tracking and fast recoveries.

Easton Archery suggests setting up your hunting rig for different shaft and broadhead weight configurations to achieve the following:

  • Small game, rabbits, groundhogs: 25+ foot-pounds
  • Medium game, deer, antelope: 25-41 foot-pound
  • Large game, elk, black bear, wild boar: 42-65 foot-pounds
  • Toughest game, cape buffalo, grizzly bear: 65+ foot-pounds

Crossbow vs Compound Bow Range

crossbow range

Image Credit: TripAdvisor.com

An arrow can be shot out of a crossbow or compound bow over long distances, even over several hundred yards. But, more than likely, it will not be very accurate.

When we talk about range, what we are really talking about is a bow's effective range - the distance a bow can deliver a lethal arrow.

Compound bows on average have an effective range of about 60-100 yards. That's without the aiming proficiency of the shooter. Depending on the archer’s accuracy, this is further reduced to an average range of 30-40 yards.

Crossbows can still be lethal on deer at over 100 yards, but the ethical range of a crossbow is 50 yards or less.

However, just because you could, doesn't mean you should.

Despite the ability of the actual equipment, the ultimate determining factors are the shooter’s effective range and how much deadly force the arrow or bolt can still deliver at distance.

As the crossbow manufacturer Ten Point mentions on their website, "As a hunter, if you are only comfortable shooting at 20 yards, a crossbow will not automatically enable you to shoot at 80 yards."

Good ethical benchmarks for maximum range on both weapons is about 50 yards. Of course, this is dependent on the skill and accuracy of the archer. Many hunters find their effective range is increased by 20 yards or more with a crossbow.

Aiming and Shooting

Aiming a Crossbow

One of the crossbow advantages is that it is equipped with a scope and considering the crossbow's ability to hold its own draw weight once cocked, it is much easier to shoot a crossbow accurately.

Sure, crossbows are heavier and can be hard to hold steady. But they don't require perfecting form and the tons of practice that shooting a compound bow requires.

Most crossbow scopes feature a fixed 4x magnification with graduated reticles that have aiming points for multiple distances.

You range your target, shoulder the crossbow, put the corresponding dot on the target, and pull the trigger.

Compound bow sights also have multiple aiming points for different distances. But with a compound bow, you have to range your target, go through the shot sequence, choose the corresponding dot, and then hold the draw weight (albeit reduced draw weight due to “let off”) until you are ready to shoot.

If it's a live animal, the archer can get fatigued while holding in the draw-back position. That can reduce accuracy.

Crossbow vs Compound Bow for Hunting

compound bow hunter

Both crossbows and compound bows are efficient short-range killers. Either one will serve you well on a deer or other big game hunt.

With that in mind, each type of bow has pros and cons that you'll want to consider.

If you'll be hunting from a ground blind or tree stand, either a crossbow or a compound bow is a great choice. You won't have to hold either one all day either like you would if hunting on foot. Since crossbows weigh 6-7 lbs on average, that's a good thing.

In fact, crossbow hunting from a ground blind may be more ideal since you only have to shoulder the crossbow and fire. However, with a compound bow, you have to draw, which takes room and can be a little more awkward depending on the size of the blind.

Consider one important aspect if you’re planning to hunt from a tree stand with a crossbow. That is, you may only be able to get one shot off.

In the event of a miss, you may not get an opportunity for a follow-up shot. One reason is the time it takes to load another bolt.

Perhaps the more important reason - cocking a crossbow in a treestand is not recommended. Bowhunter-Ed suggests only cocking your crossbow in an elevated stand if it doesn't require you to lean over to cock it with a cocking rope.

Another downside to crossbows is that you have to learn how to uncock a crossbow, because they have to be decocked after every hunt.

One of the compound bow advantages is that it only weighs a few pounds. Therefore, it is the logical choice for those who spend the hunting season on foot and don't want to carry more weight than they have to.

Running and gunning, spot and stalk, or still-hunting when you are several miles in the backcountry is easier with a lighter weapon. But it's very much a matter of personal preference . If you don't mind carrying additional weight, a crossbow will suit you perfectly.

A crossbow is an excellent choice for youth hunters, elderly hunters, or those who simply can't pull a bow back anymore. Life's wear-and-tear catches up with all of us eventually, and we can get to a point where it's just not feasible to hunt bow season with a compound bow anymore.

Crossbows are also disability friendly, allowing disabled hunters to participate in hunting season.

In these cases, a crossbow can be the better choice for archery equipment - possibly the only choice. Not to mention, crossbows are an easy pathway for new hunting recruits. This is an essential consideration in these times of short attention spans and declining hunter numbers.

Click here for a guide to the best broadheads for deer and other large game animals.

Conclusion

Here’s the deal. Both compound bows and crossbows are wicked-fun archery equipment. If you are lucky enough to live in a state that allows both within the general archery hunting season, that’s a big bonus. You can alternate between hunting with each one.

Crossbows have the advantage of speed, range, and ease of use. You can pull it out of the box and start putting accurate shots on target in no time at all.

A compound bow is lighter, shoots quieter, and is quicker on follow-up shots. A budding archer will spend considerable time learning to shoot with proper form.

Both are ancient weapons with modern innovations in materials and mechanics. It’s a great time to be a bowhunter!

Crossbows get a lot of flack but are an important option for getting youngsters into the outdoors, getting aging hunters back into hunting, and assisting disabled hunters in filling their freezers.

There are also some great beginner compound bows that make it easy for new archers to get into the sport.

Get a good archery target and spend some time target shooting with a compound bow and crossbow to see which is the best fit for you. Sometimes it is just a matter of how one or the other feels that makes the difference. You’ll know. And if nothing else, there is always the option to hunt with both. As they say, variety is the spice of life.

Whether you decide on a crossbow or compound bow, be sure to get a good bow case to protect your investment.

Debates be damned. Is there really a reason to choose when you can enjoy both bow styles?

Happy hunting!

See Also: Can A Felon Own A Bow?

Photo of author

Shawn Lentz

Shawn Lentz is a freelance outdoor writer, avid bowhunter, and fish hatchery specialist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. He regularly writes for online and print publications such as deerhuntingguide.net, Wide Open Spaces, Fair Chase Magazine, Stone Road Media, and more. For more info go to www.shawn-lentz.com

Leave a Comment