Crossbows vs Compound Bows

Novices interested in bow hunting or experienced rifle hunters wishing to switch to archery are often undecided about crossbows vs. compound bows. There are advantages and disadvantages to each type, and only a careful examination of the archer’s personal preferences and hunting styles can determine which is best for each individual.

Compound bows are vertically held bows that use pulleys and cables to make it easier to draw the string. The bow itself is much more rigid than longbows of old. While the rigidity allows the arrow to be launched with a higher rate of force, the bow is too stiff to be drawn by just a string. Compound bows attach the string directly to the pulleys, allowing the string to be drawn more easily. The force then is transferred to the bow, which gives the archer more time to hold it in the drawn position and therefore more time to aim.

Crossbows have been in use for thousands of years in various incarnations. Most modern crossbows are actually compound crossbows, utilizing a cable and pulley system similar to compound vertical bows to make them easier to draw. They have a shorter draw length than a vertical bow and typically require less practice for beginners. Scopes, similar to rifle sights, can be attached to a crossbow to increase accuracy. They are excellent for stealth hunting, since they are kept loaded and ready to fire, requiring only raising them and aiming them at the target.

On the negative side, crossbows shoot a bolt that, while heavier than an arrow, is also shorter, and which loses accuracy as distance increases. The rate of fire is usually less with a crossbow than with a vertical bow. They are also more difficult to maneuver in a stand, and their weight can make them hard to fire accurately when the front end is not supported.

Contrary to popular belief, the striking force of a bolt launched from a crossbow is not greater than the force of an arrow launched from a vertical bow with a comparable draw weight. This has to do with the shorter power stroke of the crossbow, which is usually at least 10 inches less than a vertical bow. The power stroke is the term used to describe the kinetic energy of the projectile at launch. Kinetic energy is what determines how fast the arrow or bolt will fly, how far it will travel, and with how much force it will strike the target. With a crossbow, the shorter power stroke means that the bolt has 40% less distance to store energy for its flight.

To be an extremely accurate shooter over long distances, both compound bows and crossbows require practice. However, a novice can spend an hour or two on the range and at the end of that time have the basics mastered and be able to place bolts accurately at distances of 20 – 40 yards. Crossbows are fired in a more or less straight line, eliminating any need to adjust trajectory for distance, which also makes it easier for a beginner to learn to shoot a crossbow than a vertical bow.

When crossbows and compound bows with comparable draw weights are evaluated, there is little difference between them in terms of stopping power and accuracy at distances of approximately 65 yards or less. Compound bows, whether vertical or crossbows, can at times be difficult to repair in the field, so this is not a factor that needs to be considered when deciding between them. Therefore, the choice between a crossbow and a compound bow should be tailored to an individual’s preferences without the necessity of “over-analyzing” which is best.