Cross­bows dur­ing archery sea­son help re­cruit new bowhunters, right? These days, some are hav­ing sec­ond thoughts

Field and Stream - - CONTENTS - By Will Brant­ley

Al­low­ing cross­bows dur­ing bow sea­sons at­tracts new hunters, right? Ac­tu­ally… By Will Brant­ley

LOOK­ING AT THE NUM­bers, the com­pound bow busi­ness is in trou­ble. Pro shops are clos­ing, and bowhunter num­bers are fall­ing. The rea­sons are no doubt com­plex (the steep price of the equip­ment, for ex­am­ple, hasn’t helped), but there’s been a big, un­de­ni­able change in the bow woods over the past decade: Cross­bows have surged in pop­u­lar­ity.

In 1979, Pre­ci­sion Shoot­ing Equip­ment (PSE) in­tro­duced the Cross­fire, the first com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful com­pound cross­bow built for modern sports­men. It was cham­pi­oned by PSE founder and bowhunt­ing icon Pete She­p­ley as a tool that could help re­cruit new hunters.

“Pete re­ally took a lot of heat over cross­bows,” says Blake Shelby, cur­rent ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent for PSE. “But we pushed to get them le­gal­ized, hop­ing they’d get more peo­ple into archery.”

That hasn’t ex­actly worked out. PSE con­tin­ues to make and sell cross­bows, but Shelby says the cross­bow boom has ac­tu­ally proven bad for busi­ness, and he wor­ries that their full in­clu­sion into archery sea­sons is threat­en­ing the tra­di­tion of bowhunt­ing al­to­gether.


Hunter par­tic­i­pa­tion num­bers have been drop­ping since 1982. That seemed to be a good ar­gu­ment in fa­vor of al­low­ing full in­clu­sion of cross­bows into archery sea­sons. Ver­ti­cal-bow groups pitched a fit, of course. They warned that the woods would be­come too crowded dur­ing bow sea­son, har­vest rates would sky­rocket, and the tra­di­tion of bowhunt­ing would be eroded. The Pope and Young Club

re­fused then—and re­fuses still—to ac­cept an­i­mals taken with a cross­bow into its record books.

But in the big pic­ture, the op­po­si­tion lost the fight—and lost it so com­pletely that, these days, com­plain­ing about cross­bows is likely to get you la­beled a purist who is out to di­vide hunters. Twenty-seven states now al­low full in­clu­sion of cross­bows dur­ing archery sea­son, largely based on the premise that these eas­ier-to-shoot tools would re­cruit enough new bowhunters to re­verse the trend of fall­ing over­all par­tic­i­pa­tion.

Yet that doesn’t seem to be hap­pen­ing. Ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent (2016) out­door re­cre­ation sur­vey con­ducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice, hunter num­bers fell by 16 per­cent from 2011, and the over­all hunt­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion rate is the low­est it’s been in 25 years. The to­tal num­ber of bowhunters de­clined 19 per­cent in the same time pe­riod—and Shelby be­lieves the to­tal has fallen even more since 2016.

What does seem to be hap­pen­ing are some of the very things the purists warned of. In some cases, archery sea­sons are be­com­ing more crowded and har­vests are get­ting big­ger. Con­sider Ohio, which is a good case study be- cause it has had full cross­bow in­clu­sion for 34 years now. Ac­cord­ing to the 2017 Deer Sur­vey con­ducted by the Ohio Depart­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources, 76 per­cent of gun hunters now also bowhunt. Back in 1981, be­fore full cross­bow in­clu­sion, that num­ber was 30 per­cent. A decade ago in Ohio, the archery har­vest made up just 25 per­cent of the state’s to­tal deer take. Last year, at 45 per­cent, it ex­ceeded the gun har­vest—and 61 per­cent of those an­i­mals were taken with a cross­bow. Yet for the sev­enth con­sec­u­tive sea­son, over­all li­cense sales have de­clined in the state.

Na­tion­wide sales trends seem to re­flect the same, ac­cord­ing to hunter panel sur­veys con­ducted by South­wick As­so­ciates. In 2014, cross­bows con­sti­tuted 28 per­cent of all new bows sold, while com­pound bows made up 72 per­cent. In 2017, com­pounds were down to 53 per­cent, while cross­bows were up to 47 per­cent. No doubt, gun hunters are pick­ing up cross­bows—but it seems that for­mer ver­ti­cal-bow hunters are switch­ing too.

“I be­lieve the in­dus­try is on the cusp of los­ing some of our best [bow] man­u­fac­tur­ers,” Shelby says. “We’ve had to eat a lit­tle crow. Cross­bows are not the sav­iors we thought they would be. If we had to go back and do it over again, es­pe­cially on the topic of [ad­vo­cat­ing] full in­clu­sion, we would han­dle it dif­fer­ently.”


Equip­ment evolves and the mar­ket changes. So what if cross­bows re­place ver­ti­cal bows?

Of course, there’s a tra­di­tion to pro­tect. But more tan­gi­bly, the tim­ing and struc-

ture of hunt­ing sea­sons in most states are heav­ily in­flu­enced by the equip­ment used. Archery sea­sons tend to be long and oc­cur dur­ing the best times of the year— the early sea­son, the rut—be­cause bowhunt­ing is in­her­ently more dif­fi­cult.

Cross­bows make it much eas­ier. The per­for­mance gap be­tween ver­ti­cal bows and cross­bows is wide—and get­ting wider. Some cross­bow com­pa­nies now tout 100-yard ac­cu­racy in their mar­ket­ing.

To be fair, com­pound bows are way bet­ter than the re­curves that they re­placed. But with a com­pound, the fun­da­men­tal bowhunt­ing skills of draw­ing and main­tain­ing shoot­ing form un­der pres­sure are pre­served. I’ve seen good 100-yard groups from a com­pound— but they’re at­tain­able by such a small group of ex­pert archers that they bor­der on trick shots.

On the other hand, hav­ing tested just about ev­ery new flag­ship cross­bow to hit the mar­ket in the past six years, I can tell you that they’re pretty much all ca­pa­ble of 100-yard ac­cu­racy in the hands of any­one with some ri­fle ex­pe­ri­ence and a rangefinder.

“When dis­cus­sions of full in­clu­sion first came up, cross­bows weren’t that good,” Shelby says. “Now many of them have speeds in ex­cess of 400 feet per sec­ond, and with a good scope, they’re ac­cu­rate to 100 yards. Of course, there’s a lot of drop at that dis­tance, and the ar­gu­ment can be made that it’s not an eth­i­cal shot. But cross­bows are ca­pa­ble. They have other ad­van­tages. You can use a rest, hunt from a box blind—things you just can­not do with a reg­u­lar bow. In­side 100 yards, they’re very much like a gun.”

As to the tim­ing of the har­vest, both the Michi­gan and Wis­con­sin DNRs have data that shows more bucks are be­ing taken ear­lier in the sea­son than ever be­fore—and in both states, as in Ohio, more hunters are us­ing cross­bows than ver­ti­cal bows.

Think no one no­tices? Last win­ter in Wy­oming, which was one of the few West­ern states to al­low full in­clu­sion, a panel of bi­ol­o­gists and game war­dens with the Game and Fish Depart­ment rec­om­mended in a re­port to the com­mis­sion that cross­bows be lim­ited to firearms sea­sons only. A quote from the re­port read: “If archery suc­cess con­tin­ues to rise due to ad­vances in equip­ment, op­por­tu­nity pro­vided by those sea­sons will have to be re­duced, or more strin­gent lim­i­ta­tions put on le­gal gear.” Ul­ti­mately, after sev­eral rounds of de­bate, the com­mis­sion voted to keep cross­bow use le­gal dur­ing archery sea­son. Still, that the is­sue was raised at all is telling.


In their own right, cross­bows are an ex­cel­lent hunt­ing tool with many ap­pli­ca­tions. One big rea­son for the de­cline in over­all hunter num­bers, for ex­am­ple, is that baby boomers are re­tir­ing from the woods. More boomers use cross­bows than any other age group (see side­bar), and with­out them the at­tri­tion rate could’ve been higher. It’s a good ar­gu­ment for keep­ing cross­bows avail­able for se­nior hunters through­out archery sea­son (which sev­eral states with­out full in­clu­sion do al­low).

It should also be rec­og­nized that while they’re not ver­ti­cal bows, cross­bows aren’t guns ei­ther. I en­joy hunt­ing with them at times my­self ev­ery fall. Rel­e­gat­ing them to firearms sea­sons only is too re­stric­tive. Of the states that cur­rently al­low cross­bow hunt­ing, two—Ken­tucky and New York—pro­vide cross­bow hunters with sev­eral weeks of ex­tra time with­out over­lap­ping through­out the en­tire archery sea­son. I’m at a loss as to why more states don’t fol­low such a model and of­fer spe­cial cross­bow sea­sons—and that in­cludes the hand­ful of states that still only al­low them to be used dur­ing gun sea­sons.

I’m as tired of hunter in­fight­ing as any­one. But I also think the tra­di­tion of bowhunt­ing should be pro­tected. I think it’s OK to ac­knowl­edge the per­for­mance dif­fer­ence be­tween a cross­bow and a ver­ti­cal bow. And I think it would be nice to be able to say those things with­out be­ing os­tra­cized as a “bow snob.”

Full Draw A cross­bow sits cocked and ready on a rainy-day hunt.

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