Crossbows have improved over the decades to become powerful but consistent weapons that beginner bowhunters can use successfully without needing a prohibitive amount of practice first. Plus, they often let you take advantage of the longer bowhunting seasons.
Whether you use a recurve, a crossbow or compound bow, there are ethical concerns. An inaccurate shot could severely injure an animal but not kill it, causing unnecessary suffering and potentially robbing another hunter of the game. That's why it's important to know the effective range of your crossbow.
A good starting point is to buy a crossbow that produces enough speed and kinetic energy.
Our favorite crossbows for beginners are made by Barnett Crossbows. You should buy the fastest crossbow that you can afford.
How Far Can A Crossbow Effectively Shoot?
The effective range for a crossbow is the same as most compound bows: 40 yards. This is the distance over which the majority of bowhunters can repeatedly make a successful lethal shot.
Much of this depends on accuracy. It's difficult to hit the kill zone the farther away the target is. Only experts will be able to regularly shoot accurately over 40 yards.
However, accuracy isn't the only thing. Bolts start slowing down as soon as they leave the crossbow, so the farther away the target, the slower the bolt. This means lower kinetic energy, so the bolt won't penetrate as deeply and will do less damage. In other words, it's less likely to kill the animal even if you make a perfectly accurate shot.
Also, the farther away a game animal is, the more likely that it will "jump the string".
Essentially, a deer can hear and react to the shot before the bolt reaches them.
How Far Can A Crossbow Shoot Accurately?
Accuracy with a crossbow largely depends on the shooter. With a lot of practice, someone can accurately shoot a crossbow hundreds of yards.
Nevertheless, many bowhunters specifically use crossbows to take advantage of the longer bowhunting seasons without having to spend a lot of time practicing on the range. Many people like that they can sight in their crossbow and hit the ground running.
In this case, for non-experts, the accurate range is 40 yards. If you're an absolute beginner who hasn't shot your crossbow anymore than what's necessary to sight it in, maybe stick to 20-30 yards.
How Far Can You Shoot A Deer With A Crossbow?
In general, the distance you can shoot a deer at with a crossbow is the same as the effective range: 40 yards. This is the distance at which most bowhunters with minimal experience can make a lethal shot that kills the animals quickly without causing undue suffering.
However, this range varies greatly depending on other factors. For instance, rough environmental situations like wind and rain decrease how far you can shoot a deer accurately.
More important is the angle of the deer and type of shot you're making. The 40-yard rule applies to broadside shots where you have a good view of the animal's entire flank. If you have a more difficult shot, though, like quartering away, that range will decrease. Don't take these shots at more than 20 yards.
Finally, the distance you can shoot a deer at depends on your position. The 40-yard effective range assumes you're shooting from a tree stand, which gives you a better view and easier shot. If you're still hunting from the ground, the shot may be more difficult due to obstacles in your way. For this reason, consider a shorter 20-30 yard range.
What Is The Maximum Crossbow Range For Target Shooting?
The maximum range for target shooting is much greater than that for bowhunting because, unless you're William Tell, there are no ethical concerns if you miss. Most experts cite a maximum target shooting range of around 200 yards, but this is purely subjective. This is just the distance at which an amateur could hope to shoot at a target and at least get close enough to have some fun.
The true maximum range is basically as far as the crossbow can shoot a bolt, which is well over 500 yards for the most powerful modern models. In fact, the record for the longest accurate crossbow shot is an impressive 680 yards. Does that mean you, too, could shoot a target nearly 700 yards away? Okay, probably not, but it could be fun to try.
How To Improve The Effective Range Of A Crossbow
Many new crossbow hunters are dismayed by the short effective range relative to their rifles. Even the fastest crossbows have limitations. Luckily, there are some ways to increase this range.
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Lots Of Practice
Like with anything else, you can shoot a crossbow better and more accurately if you practice. This can sound like a boring prospect, especially if you got into crossbows specifically so you wouldn't have to practice archery. However, there are a lot of ways to make practicing more fun and more productive:
- Practice with a friend: Crossbows are a lot of fun when you have a buddy or two around. You can make it a competition to see who can make the most accurate shot from the farthest distance. This will speed up your improvement. If you don't have any friends with crossbows, compete with yourself. Challenge yourself to get better and shoot more accurately from farther distances, and you'll improve your range more quickly.
- Practice from a hunting position: If you have year-round access to your tree stand, try practicing from the tree stand itself. This will give you a better idea of how far you can shoot accurately in the exact same conditions you'll be hunting in. Take shots from different angles with your target angled in different ways.
- Get a 3D target: A 3D target is a crossbow target designed to look like the animal you're hunting. Usually it has a marked target over the kill zone—the heart and lungs in the case of a whitetail deer. Shooting at a 3D target is a lot more fun, but more importantly, it lets you practice shots like the ones you'll actually be taking on the hunt. To get the most out of your 3D target, turn it at multiple angles to learn what range you have depending on the shot. Once you've mastered an angle at a distance, increase it by a little to practice at a longer range.
Like with all practice, the more time you put in, the more results you'll see. Just be sure you're going in with a positive attitude and are ready to have fun improving.
Use A High Quality Scope
One of the great things about crossbows is how consistently they shoot. This makes them more like rifles in that scopes can increase your accuracy immensely. With a correctly sighted-in crossbow, you can hit a target at 20 yards by aiming with the 20-yard pin just about every time.
Of course, this relies on having a high-quality scope. This means looks at a few important features:
- Reticles: The reticles are the crosshairs on the scope that associate with a certain distance. For instance, a scope may have four different lines going from 20 yards to 60 yards in 10-yard increments. A scope with more reticles, going up to, say, 100 yards can help you shoot at a longer range. Additionally, smaller increments will help you be more accurate over a given range.
- Magnification: A magnified scope can help you increase your effective range by a lot since you can see your target more clearly and easily place the crosshairs on the kill zone. Magnification can be hard for beginners, though, so make sure you already have a good grasp on crossbow shooting.
- Illumination: Illumination is not absolutely necessary for a scope, but it will help you increase your range. Illuminated scopes light up the reticles so you can see them more easily. This helps you aim better in dim light, but it also just helps you aim better overall since you can clearly see if the reticle is lined up with the target.
As a side note, when looking for a scope, it's important not to just consider the objective "quality," but whether it's appropriate for your specific crossbow. For instance, most scopes have a specific speed rating. Their reticles will only line up correctly if you're shooting at the speed they're designed for. Check that whatever scope you get is compatible with your crossbow, which will allow you to sight it in quickly and accurately.
Click here for our top picks for crossbow scopes.
Keep Your Crossbow Properly Maintained
Crossbows can be surprisingly consistent and, with the right scope, shoot accurately over long distances. However, for the crossbow to stay consistent, you need to keep it maintained and working properly. Essential crossbow maintenance includes:
- Waxing the string and cables: You should apply wax to your bowstring and cables if you have a compound crossbow pretty frequently, especially if you've been hunting in extreme weather conditions. This ensures that the bowstring guides the bolt consistently and that there are no irregularities in the cables that might cause the shot to go off course.
- Lubricating the rail: Excessive friction in your crossbow rail could slow down the bolt and make it drop faster than you expect and that your scope is calibrated for. This makes your shot inaccurate. Plus, it could change the arrow's trajectory. Lubricating the rail is easy. Just apply a drop or two of rail lube to it and spread it along its length with your finger. The bowstring will do the rest the next time you fire it.
- Tightening nuts and bolts: Like any machine, the nuts and bolts holding together your crossbow are likely to loosen over time. You should tighten these every few weeks and regularly check to make sure none are loose or damaged, in which case they should be replaced. Loose components could lead to vibrations which throw off the trajectory of your bolt.
- Clean away dust and debris: Regularly use a can of pressurized air or soft rag to remove grime and debris from the crossbow. Otherwise, it may interfere with the path of the arrow. Also make sure to clean your scope lens with a cleaning wipe so that you can aim correctly.
- Uncock your crossbow after every hunt. Never leave your crossbow cocked for long periods of time.
A well-maintained crossbow shoots accurately and consistently. This lets you practice with a uniform shot and slowly increase your range.
Choose The Right Crossbow Bolts
Getting the right bolts can increase your range. Part of this is just getting the best quality while part of it is getting a bolt that's appropriate for your specific crossbow model. Here's what you should consider:
- Fletching: For an arrow to travel straight, giving it better accuracy over a longer range, it needs to spin. The bolts that spin the best have offset or helical fletching vanes.
- Weight forward of center: Your bolts should have their weight forward of center. This gives them better penetration, so you can make a kill shot from a longer distance.
- Grains: The weight of your arrow, measured in grains, greatly affects accuracy. A lighter bolt will travel much farther, giving you a longer range. However, it will have less kinetic energy, and therefore penetrate less. You have to find the right balance.
- Length: Shorter bolts weigh less and therefore fly faster and farther. However, they have to be long enough to fit in your crossbow. They should be longer than the specified power stroke of your model.
- Material: Bolts can be made of many materials such as aluminum, fiberglass and carbon fiber. Carbon fiber is usually the most expensive, but it's also considered the best. It has the ideal strength to weight ratio, letting it fly fast and straight while still penetrating deeply.
When it comes to bolts, you frankly get what you pay for. Budget bolts will decrease your effective range while high-quality bolts often increase it.
Choose The Right Broadhead
The type of broadhead you choose will also greatly affect your range. You have two choices: fixed blade and mechanical.
A fixed-blade broadhead has blades that splay out from the central ferrule and do not move. They have excellent penetrative and lethal power, but they change the bolt's trajectory by a lot compared to field points.
A mechanical broadhead holds its blades within its ferrule until it strikes its target. This makes it shoot much more similarly to field points, but it also makes it prone to malfunction. It may open too soon, in which case it'll ruin your accuracy, or it will fail to open altogether and not penetrate enough to kill the animal. Even when a mechanical broadhead does deploy correctly, it usually doesn't have the same penetrative power as a fixed-blade broadhead.
For these reasons, we usually recommend fixed-blade broadheads if you're looking to increase your range. Although you have to be sure to sight in your crossbow correctly for the broadheads, doing so will give you more consistent accuracy at long ranges.
If you do decide to get a mechanical broadhead, it should be a high-quality model. Read broadhead reviews to make sure it isn't prone to malfunction.
The great thing about all types of crossbows is that they're consistent and accurate. Up to 40 yards, you can still make ethical shots with little practice, letting you take advantage of the longer bowhunting season if it includes crossbows in your state. However, it is possible to increase that range if you're willing to practice, take care of your crossbow, and invest in high-quality accessories, bolts and broadheads.
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