The Great Crossbow Debate

By Justin ZarrApril 16, 2012

LAST UPDATED: May 8th, 2015

Over the past several years, few topics have stirred more controversy in the bowhunting community than that of the legalization of crossbows.  From coast to coast, State wildlife agencies are weighing their options and proposing legislation that expands the use of crossbows during hunting seasons.  However, that new legislation is often met by fierce opposition from individuals as well as both national and State bowhunting organizations.  My question is, why all the hate?

Crossbows Aren’t Really Bows

Possibly the most common argument against the legalization of crossbows into archery seasons is that they, in fact, aren’t really bows at all.  Many anti-crossbow advocates claim that due to the nature of their appearance, in that they have a stock and trigger mechanism and are not drawn and held by hand, that crossbows are more like a firearm than a traditional bow.  I must admit, this particular argument has always given me reason to laugh.  I suppose the inclusion of the word “bow” in the word “crossbow” isn’t quite good enough for some people, so let’s delve a bit deeper.

As defined in Webster’s Dictionary, a firearm is “a weapon from which a projectile can be discharged by an explosion caused by igniting gunpowder”.  The last time I checked, crossbows did not use gunpowder or any other exploding substance to fire a projectile.

When looking up the definition of the word “bow” in the same Dictionary you will find “a weapon for shooting arrows, consisting of an arch of flexible wood, plastic, metal, etc bent by a string fastened at each end”.  This definition certainly seems more applicable to modern crossbows, which use bowed limbs and a string to fire an arrow, don’t you think?

String and arrow?  Check.  Gunpowder?  Negative.

Many State and local bowhunting organizations who are opposed to crossbow use often define the word “bow” for their own internal purposes.  In doing so, many clearly state that a bow is only a bow when it is hand drawn and hand held.  Despite how these groups seek to define the word for their own agendas, the definition of this word in the English language poses no restrictions on the method by which the string is drawn or held.

Historic crossbows, dating back as far as 400 B.C. look about as much like today’s modern crossbows as modern compounds look like historic longbows.

Another comparison made between crossbows and firearms is their effective hunting range.  Many anti-crossbow advocates claim that modern crossbows can be used to shoot 200 or even 300 yards.  Clearly these people are misinformed.  In fact, most modern crossbows have an effective hunting range of 30-40 yards for most shooters, which is about the same as a modern compound bow.

Remember, we’re talking about bow HUNTING here.  While the method by which the arrow is fired may differ, it does not detract from the fact that you need to put yourself within shooting distance of your quarry before you can be successful.  While a crossbow can make the execution of the shot easier, it is by no means a guarantee of success.  There are plenty of crossbow hunters out there who have eaten tag soup and can attest to that.

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

Moving on from the bow versus firearm debate, the next most common arguments against crossbows all seem to originate from two things; fear and selfishness.  A quick search on the Internet for articles and comments about crossbows and crossbow hunting turns up a myriad of unfounded fears and accusations.  Fear that allowing crossbows in archery seasons will ruin our bowhunting heritage, shorten our seasons, destroy our wildlife populations, and cause our woods to be overrun by unsafe hunters.  It seems to me that the only thing we should be afraid of is our own ignorance.

Let us first take a look at some of the numbers behind the great crossbow debate.  When discussing the expansion of crossbow hunting, many of those who are opposed often rely on potential figures rather than actual numbers.  In my opinion, this is not only irresponsible but also only works when you are attempting to gain supporters through fear and ignorance.  Consider Pennsylvania as an example.

In 2009 crossbows were made legal for use during all archery seasons in the Keystone State.  Prior to this legislation passing, there was much controversy over the potential effects to the State’s deer population and harvest numbers.  Representatives of the United Bowhunters of Pennsylvania went on record saying they expected as many as 200,000 new bowhunters to enter the woods over the next three seasons should the new crossbow legislation pass.  This, as intended, sent thousands of bowhunters across the state into an uproar and threw gasoline on the proverbial fire.

Crossbows?  Not in OUR archery season!

A year later, after the smoke had cleared and hunting seasons had ended, Pennsylvania issued a report that there was indeed an increase in archery license sales in the 2009 season.  However, the increase was just over 15,000 new license sales, not 200,000.  In fact, 2009 archery license sales in Pennsylvania were only 401 more than nearly a decade earlier in 2001.  In 2010 archery license sales increased by just over 3,000 and in 2011 archery license sales rose by another 8,277 units.  These past three years of increases have stimulated Pensylvania’s archery license sales, which had been in decline prior to the legalization of crossbows.  To date, there has been a 9.75% increase in the amount of licenses sold since the crossbow legislation was passed.  This increase is a far cry from the 74% growth predicted by the UBP.

The Pope & Young Club, one of the oldest and most well respect bowhunting groups in the world, has taken a clear stance against crossbow use in archery seasons.  According to their website: “the Pope and Young Club considers the use of crossbows during bowhunting seasons to be a serious threat to the future of bowhunting.”   Apparently their view on crossbows is as antiquated and backwards as their scoring system. 

Despite the addition of 15,000 more archery hunters in the 2009 season, overall harvest numbers in Pennsylvania fell by nearly 27,000 total deer that year.  In 2010 the total deer harvest climbed back to 316,000, which was still shy of 2008’s pre-crossbow number of 335,000 and well below Pennsylvania’s peak deer harvest of 517,000 whitetails in 2002.  Clearly, the legalization of crossbows during archery season has had little to no effect on overall deer harvest across the State. 

Not to single out Pennsylvania as the only state to provide evidence that crossbows don’t cause massive spikes in hunter participation or harvest numbers, let’s take a look at Ohio.  The Buckeye state has allowed crossbows as a legal weapon for hunting since 1976.  Surely more than three decades of data should be able to give us an insight into the true effect of crossbows in archery seasons, no?

Going back to 2005, crossbow hunters accounted for 16% of Ohio’s whitetail deer harvest that fall.  During the same year, traditional bow hunters (those using “vertical” bows) accounted for just over 12% of the total harvest.   In 2010 crossbow hunters had grown to account for 18% of Ohio’s deer harvest, while vertical bowhunters accounted for just over 17%.  What this means for those of you keeping score at home, is that over a 6 year period from 2005 to 2010 the crossbow harvest of Ohio whitetails grew by just over 2 %, while the vertical bow harvest grew by more than 5%.  While there is no doubt that both segments are continuing to grow each year, the number of deer being harvested with vertical bows is actually growing at a faster pace than those taken with crossbows. 

Despite the legal use of crossbows during archery season in Ohio their whitetail population is flourishing.  In 2009 more than 260,000 whitetails were harvested in Ohio which was a new all-time record, set 33 years after the legalization of crossbows.  Although the recorded whitetail harvest has dropped to just 219,000 whitetails from the 2011/2012 season, most people attribute this to new regulations which no longer require you to check your deer in at a check station, but instead provide the option to do it over the phone or online.
As the saying goes, the numbers don’t lie.  In states where crossbows are 100% legal during archery season, we have seen no evidence of a drop in overall deer numbers or an unmanageable increase in hunter numbers.  So why all the worry?

Each year Ohio produces a considerable number of trophy whitetails
such as this, despite the legalized use of crossbows in archery season
for over 30 years.

Unfortunately hunters are a selfish lot; especially bowhunters.  Despite our extended seasons and liberal bag limits, it never seems to be good enough to satisfy our needs.  We want more deer to hunt, bigger deer to hunt, and more land all to ourselves to do it on.  In my opinion, these are three of the primary reasons people oppose crossbow hunting, but are too afraid to admit.  After all, it’s easier to spread false claims and fear monger than it is to admit you’re selfish person, isn’t it?

Let’s take a look at the hypocrisy around the fear of too many hunters in the woods.   Many groups, like the UBP, fear that there will be an increase in the amount of crossbow hunters in the woods during “their” archery season.  This of course increases hunter pressure on the whitetail population and decreases the amount of land per hunter, making it more difficult to harvest an animal.  None of this has anything to do with proper management of the whitetail population or concern for the health of the herd as a whole, but rather concern for the individual’s own chances for success. 

Where it becomes hypocritical is when many of these anti-crossbow advocates claim to be worried about the alleged decline of hunters and future of hunting as a whole.  Their goals and mission statements are to help fight anti-hunting and grow the sport of bowhunting – so long as you conform to their rules and their way of thinking.  If you don’t, well then I guess growing hunter numbers isn’t really that important after all.

The Eye of the Beholder

The final topic I want to cover, and one that I feel very passionate about, is the claim that crossbows diminish the experience and heritage of bowhunting.  I’ve found that this particular topic is often most difficult to debate, as there are no facts or figures to support either side.  However, that fact in itself should be enough to prove how ignorant this belief is.

Everyone hunts for their own reasons.  Whether you take to the woods with a longbow, compound, crossbow, rifle or shotgun, you do so for your own reasons.  Some do it for the solitude of a cold morning in a treestand, while others do it for the camaraderie of deer camp.  Some do it for the thrill and challenge of stalking their quarry at eye level, while others do it to put meat on the table for their family.  Whatever our reasons are for hunting, they are ours alone.  Nobody can tell us how to feel or what type of experience we should have depending on the weapon in our hand.  Those who seek to tell us that the quality of our experiences should be dictated by their beliefs are sadly misguided.

While my weapon of choice remains the compund bow, my love for hunting and the outdoors extends far beyond the weapon I carry into the field.

For me, my experience is directly related to the sense of pride and accomplishment I feel after harvesting an animal with archery equipment.  My bow is an extension of who I am as a hunter and I will hunt with a compound bow so long as I am physically able.  That is who I am, and those are my ideals.  I do not force them on others, nor do I judge those who don’t share them with me.  Instead, I offer my support and encouragement to any hunter who enters the woods, regardless of which manner weapon they chose.

I strongly encourage everyone that reads this who does not support the use of crossbows during archery seasons to reconsider their beliefs.  We may all choose different paths, but in the end they all lead to the same place.

Justin Zarr
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Justin has been bowhunting for more than 25 years, harvesting a number of P&Y whitetails in his home state of Illinois during that time.  He co-hosts the popular bowhunting show 'Bowhunt or Die' and is a frequent guest on numerous hunting podcast.  Justin lives in the NW suburbs of Chicago with his wife and 3 children.
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