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Crossbows vs. Compounds: Comparing Apples to Apples

by Bob Humphrey   |  September 6th, 2012 15
Crossbow-vs-Compound

When comparing the ballistic performance of compound bows and crossbows, you can help keep the two types of weapons on equal footing and ensure an apples-to-apples evaluation by choosing models that fall into the same tier in terms of price and quality.

We’ve all heard the story of William Tell, and most remember the gist of the tale. As punishment for failing to bow in respect to the newly appointed Austrian Vogt, Albrecht Gessler, Tell was commanded to shoot an apple off his son’s head. Fortunately, his shot was true. But when the story is retold, tellers often err on one minor detail. Tell’s choice of weapon was a crossbow! It’s understandable how that detail might be overlooked — and at least in this case is of minor importance. But sometimes, the details do matter.

I recently came upon a series of figures distributed by the North American Bowhunting Coalition comparing the trajectory and kinetic energy of modern crossbows and modern compound bows. At first glance, the differences appear rather significant.

The trajectory of crossbows and compound bows was similar out to about 25 yards, and then they diverged dramatically. The crossbow bolt was only about four inches low at 50 yards while the compound’s arrow had dropped to 40 inches. At 70 yards, the crossbow bolt was 20 inches low, compared to 120 inches for the compound arrow. And at 100 yards, the crossbow bolt had dropped only 60 inches compared to 240 inches for the compound arrow.

The differences in kinetic energy were even more dramatic. The crossbow started at 190 foot-pounds, compared to 70 for the compound. At 100 yards, the crossbow bolt was still carrying 140 foot-pounds of energy, while the compound arrow was down to a mere 40 foot-pounds — an astounding difference.

Taken at face value, it certainly appears the crossbow has a clear advantage when it comes to trajectory and kinetic energy. When I went back and read the fine print, however, a slightly different picture began to emerge.

Interesting Choices
The “modern crossbow” used for this comparison was a PSE TAC 15 set at 170 pounds and shooting a 425-gain bolt at 425 feet per second. The “modern compound bow” was a Mathews Drenalin set at 60 pounds and shooting a 540-grain arrow at 241 fps.

Of particular interest was the testers’ choice to use AMO (Archery Manufacturing Organization) standards for the compound, which calls for a maximum draw weight of 60 pounds and a 540-grain arrow (18 grains per inch) rather than the more commonly used IBO (International Bowhunting Organization) standard of 70 pounds of draw weight and a 350-grain arrow. Ten more pounds of draw weight and 190 fewer grains of arrow weight make a significant difference in both trajectory and energy. Under IBO specs, that same Drenalin will shoot a 350-grain arrow at 320 fps (a 75 percent increase), with almost 80 foot-pounds of energy.

The reason, without going into too much detail, is that kinetic energy equals mass times velocity squared (K=mv2). Because the value for speed is exponential, any changes in speed have a much greater effect on energy than do changes in weight. By going to a lighter arrow, you gain more speed and flatter trajectory with relatively less energy loss.

You can see this concept clearly illustrated each month in Bowhunting’s High Grade Bow Reports. For example, if you turn to page 142 of the September 2012 issue, you will see that the 2012 Ross XD set at 29 inches and 65 pounds will shoot a 425-grain arrow 255 fps with 61.38 foot-pounds of kinetic energy. But going to a lighter, 375-grain arrow resulted in a speed of 268 fps, an increase of 5 percent, while kinetic energy decreased just 2.5 percent to 59.82 foot-pounds.

It’s also interesting that PSE’s TAC crossbow — which operates on an AR-style firearm platform — was chosen for this comparison. While the TAC could certainly be used for hunting, it stands in a class by itself even among modern crossbows.

A Broader Look
Digging a little deeper, I found another crossbow vs. compound bow analysis from several years ago that compared a handful of top models from both categories. The very fastest crossbow in that comparison shot a 425-grain bolt at 405 fps and generated 155 foot-pounds of energy, while the rest produced bolt speeds that ranged from 320-350 fps and kinetic energy that ranged from 95-132 foot-pounds. When compared to five of the fastest compounds, generating arrows speeds from 314-366 fps and kinetic energy from 77-97 foot-pounds, the ranges of the crossbows and compound bows actually overlapped.

But, like I said, that was several years ago, and as we all know, shooting technology keeps advancing. So, just to ensure I didn’t miss anything, I also examined several more recent comparisons, as well as manufacturer’s specifications collected for our annual crossbow roundup. Not surprisingly, the ranges and averages were similar and overlapping. Generally speaking, crossbows hold an edge over compound bows of roughly 30 fps of speed and 30 foot-pounds of kinetic energy. However, that disparity seems less important when you observe nearly the same difference exists among different models in each category. In other words, the fastest compound bow on the market has roughly the same speed and energy advantages over its slower compound competitors as a top-of-the-line crossbow has over a compound of equal quality.

In one of the comparisons I looked at, the fastest crossbow on the list had a trajectory advantage of just 12 inches at 50 yards over the fastest compound on the list. When you consider a deer’s reaction time, the additional noise of a crossbow and the fact that most shots at deer (compound or crossbow) are taken at less than 25 yards, differences in long-range trajectory — anything over 50 yards — become less important.

Several points can be taken from these comparisons. In terms of efficiency, the crossbow does have an advantage, ranging from slight to significant, depending on whose figures you care to use. But since the overriding goal of any hunter should be to make a clean, efficient kill, it only makes sense to choose the most efficient weapon, whether crossbow or compound, and the trend in both categories is clearly in the direction of faster, lighter models that generate more than enough power to take down even the biggest of big game.

Perhaps the most important takeaway is that if you are going to compare crossbows to compound bows, you’ve got to be fair. Comparing the fastest, most technologically advanced crossbow on the market to an average compound bow further restricted by a subjective testing standard (AMO) is not comparing apples to apples — something legendary crossbowman William Tell is quite familiar with.

  • Derik

    "But since the overriding goal of any hunter should be to make a clean, efficient kill, it only makes sense to choose the most efficient weapon, whether crossbow or compound…"
    If making this arguement, why not add in a scoped rifle?
    Crossbows are not bows. While you can compare the arrow flight statistics, the major differences are 1) What it takes to shoot each accurately, and 2) the fundamentals of drawing a bow versus aiming a gun/crossbow.

    • Randall

      The facts are as follows:
      1) Both bows and crossbows use either an “arrow” or a “bolt” which are almost identical in nature except for length.
      2) Both bows and crossbows are powered from the energy that is stored in the limbs and delivered with a string.
      3) Neither archery nor crossbows use explosive powders to power the projectiles.
      4) By definition, both bows and crossbows share and meet the same criteria as the other.
      I understand that there are advantages with holding a crossbow as compared to holding a bow, and I understand that shooting a bow takes more physical effort than shooting a crossbow. I also understand the complaints of all of my brother and sister archers whom do not agree with looking through a “rifle scope”. However; nobody complains about all of the major advantages that modern compounds provide to the user, that include but are not limited to, weight of the bow, the percentages of let-off that modern compounds provide, sighting apparatus, speeds of the arrow, and noise reduction. Let’s face it. Modern compounds make it easy shoot accurately with very little practice also. So, maybe we should concentrate on our similarities rather than our differences unless we all prefer to shoot with a traditional recurve that does not have any sights, wheels/cams, arrow rests etc. Cmon people, quit complaining!!!

  • Derik

    It is very easy to learn, or teach someone to shoot a crossbow accurately. A crossbow can be quite lethal at a longer distance using the aid of a rest and range compensating aiming. With its flatter trajectory and ease to shoot, it is unfair to compare a crossbow to a bow.
    When archery hunting, no matter how good of an archer you may be, the mass of movement needed to draw, hold, and aim a bow without alerting the target is one of the most critical pieces to success. With a crossbow, this is not the case as drawing and holding are taken out of the equation. In many situations, a crossbow (like a rifle) can be cocked and aimed ahead of time at a likely area for game and would require only slight adjustments (movement) in order to shoot.

    As many states archery seasons are under pressure from crossbow manufacturers or their representatives in the media to include crossbows in the general archery season, please do not lump the two together. Please do not add fuel to the fire of introducing them into the archery season by comparing only performance criteria where the results should be closer, but the crossbow is admittedly still superior.

    • Dave

      Amen Brother. Couldn't said it any better. Not that I'm against crossbows, I just don't feel they should be in the archery seasons. They should have there own season or stay in the regular firearms season. Only one exception to those that are physically disabled or impaired could hunt crossbows in the regular archery season.

  • Kurt

    I would have to whole-heartedly agree with Derik! Crossbows are not bows! If you are talking about a weapon with a stock, butt, scope, trigger, and safety then it has a LOT more in common with a rifle than it does with a bow. The only similarity to a bow in my opinion is the type of projectile that is fired and the aforementioned trajectory and speed of the projectile. But like Derik said, if you want the most efficient killing machine available, use a gun. However, imho you can't call it archery if you don't have to draw and hold. I have no problem with crossbows for disabled people or for use during firearms seasons, but to include them in archery seasons is a mistake.

  • John ODonnell

    There is this constant banter regarding "crossbows" and the comparison to vertical bows. Stop. Enough. They are not archery equipment and do not belong in archery only seasons. Crossbows are carried "cocked. That is stored energy and of course does not require the skill that is required to know when to draw, draw and hold a drawn arrow on your target (big or small game). The question should be do you have the determination,commitment and perserverance to become and remain proficent with a vertcal (archery equipment) bow. If not you are welcome to hunter the BIG GAME season with the rest of the firearm hunters. Archery season is a great thing and we are proud and fortunate to those who worked to get it for us and it was not thier intention or ours to give it up to the ATA and those that now want in.

  • Scott

    Really!! I have just turned 50 and have bow hunted as long as I could hold one. When it gets to September, my hunting buddies and I start to get all worked up. The bows and targets come out and we fine tune our craft. We, like every other ethical hunter want to make to best possible shot. This insures our game does not suffer and we recover our kill. After 3 shoulder surgeries, I can no longer shot my compound bow with the confidence I have always had. For this reason, my surgeon has signed a letter allowing me to hunt with a crossbow. It is required in MA. I don't agree with the traditionalists that think that crossbows don't belong in bow season.

  • Robert

    I have commented on this "age-old" argument of crossbows being allowed in archery-only seasons before, saying that crossbows are for invalids and poachers. I am approaching the "invalid" stage as age and old hockey shoulder injuries take their toll but have not conceded yet. Cold weather advantages for the crossbow were not mentioned and I have experienced the disappointment of sitting too long and too cold without doing isometric exercises to keep muscles warm then trying to draw the bow back at the crucial moment only to struggle to get to full draw. I like Scott's post where a Doctors letter is required to qualify in the "invalid" category. Here in Ontario crossbows are given no-restriction entry to the archery season.

    My main complaint is the use of scopes. I don't want to be sneaking around in full camo and have some yahoo who bought a crossbow yesterday letting fly at 80 yards just because they can see something through a scope. Crossbows should be restricted to iron sights only.

    • Derik

      I live in Colorado, I like the rules regarding Crossbow hunting exactly the way they are.
      Crossbows are legal to use for every big game species Colorado offers during the rifle season.
      Crossbows can be used during the archery season with a doctors permission.

  • richard deakins

    Rick Iagree partially to all above coments, except, why should i give-up bow hunting [which i have been doing since the 1950's] when i can continue enjoying by simply start using a crossbow, I still have to practice like any other ethical hunter should do.

    • Derik

      Nobody said you have to give it up. You have paid your dues. Either use the crossbow in the rifle season, or get a doctors' note showing a disability and you can then use a crossbow during the archery season.

      The counter argument for me personally, is why should I have to share the limited number of archery tags available to those with crossbows who are not willing to put in the time and effort to practice and use a bow? Those with medical conditions who are willing to get a doctor to sign off so they do not have to give up the hunting experience and hunting camp the love are in the minority.

      I had a hard fall last year during elk season and tore up my shoulder. I was able to fill my tag through shear will when I was presented with a shot. Immediately after season I met with an orthopaedic surgeon, scheduled surgery, and began the painful road to recovery. At 8 weeks out I began using my daughters bow at 15 pounds as one of my many therapy tools and eventually worked my way back up to shooting where I was before the fall.
      It never occured to me to consider going with a crossbow, but it was a long road to get back where I wanted to be. I hope it is an option for you.

  • http://twitter.com/EdwardJordan9 @EdwardJordan9

    Remember when hunters that first started using compound bows were bad mouthed for having an unfair advantage in not holding the full poundage of a bow? Or the bows were to short? Please remember crossbows were around before compound bows. Anti hunters love it when sportsmen disagree.

  • Bullfrog1

    "Crossbows are not bows"? Compounds are not bows either! Only recurves are bows (so say the specialists). Let's cut down muzzle loaders too; in-line vs. flintlock. Primitive weapons? Or is anything with gun powder is "modern". Either we hunt with spear, recurve bow, or tomahawk, or the weapon is not primitive. Or maybe, in an effort to please everyone with goofy views out there, we should have a season for rifle, one for musket, another for in-line muzzle, another for cap and ball pistol, then modern handgun, another for spear, then recurve…. whew! Then for crosssbow, then compound, and recurve. What about guys holding a knife between their teeth, and jumping out of trees on top of prey? Primitive enough?
    C'mon, you guys. Hunting is for fun; stop nitpicking everything just to show how smart and thoughtful you think you are.
    This well-written article was enlightening and informative, and clearly written by an excellent writer, and you nitpickers can only think of bellyaching and sneering your way through life. Just read the article, and let everyone choose how to enjoy themselves.

  • Donnie

    Crossbows…dangerous! Would you carry a cocked revolver in your pocket? Well, to me a cocked crossbow is about the same thing! The older community is using a crossbow as a fix all hunting tool. With the effectiveness of today's modern archery gear (that means compound bows not crossbows) there is no reason for an older person NOT to be able to use a compound bow at a lower poundage and kill deer.

    My 8 year old son killed a deer with 27 pound draw weight and used light arrows with cut on contact broadheads. At 11 years old and a 42 lb draw he killed a big mature buck. The arrow completely passed through and ended up 20 yards on the other side of the buck. So I'm hear to say an older person if they desire can shoot a compound bow and kill deer with it! My wife blows through every thing she shoots with 50 lbs…unless she spine shoots one.

    One of the first question I get asked when showing a crossbow to people is "How far can I shoot at a deer with a crossbow?" My comment is I would stay within the same distance as a vertical bow. As with any bow at long distances if the deer takes a step it will be a gut shot or a wounding shot.
    The second question is "How hard is it to pull back?" Then the statements of shoulder injuries, surgeries, etc come to play as well as how they use to shoot a bow but it has been years. Well, it isn't as easy as a compound bow, even with a cocking rope!

    It is obvious that most people looking at crossbows are not wanting to take the time to learn how to shoot a vertical bow or relearn what they once have done.

    Willian Tell may have used a crossbow, but "Robin Hood" didn't and he split arrows… :)

    • Chris Davis

      lol,is that your take….let me ask you if your right handed can you safely shhot a bow left handed.maybe there are things beyond a “upper limb disability” to justify crossbow use,ill let you figuire this one out on your own

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