(AND WHY YOU MIGHT WANT TO OWN A CROSSBOW)
Give or take a millennium or two, the bow & arrow is believed to be 65,000 years old. It independently arose in multiple cultures worldwide as a simple and, one might suppose, self-evident invention. The crossbow is relatively new, having been around for only some 2600 years. It was an advancement with three distinct advantages over its predecessor– it could shoot an arrow at a significantly greater speed than the simple bow; it required less physical strength to do so; and it could be more accurately aimed.
Of course, firearms in turn have long since made crossbows largely- but not completely- obsolete. A perfectly good deer rifle, decent scope included, can currently be had for as little as $450. Such a rifle might not be very pretty, but it will reliably hit thumb-tacks at fifty yards and harvest any critter roaming the wilds of North America out to a quarter-mile. For a little more money you could buy a Remington 870 pump shotgun for birds and self-defense and throw in an interchangeable scoped barrel for big game shooting. Or you could buy a low-end AR-15-type semi-automatic rifle with which you could fend off a whole car full of evil attackers.
So why would you ever buy a crossbow? A few good reasons spring to mind–
Maybe your criminal and/or medical background precludes you from legally purchasing a firearm, even if only to protect yourself and your family. (No judgment here.)
OR… You are physically disabled, but you still want to hunt with archery.
OR… You want to take advantage of a special crossbow season in your state.
OR… You aren’t comfortable sharing your personal information on Form 4473, which is part of the legally-required background check for purchasing a firearm. (Again, no judgment.)
OR… You own a rifle but you want to practice rifle-like shooting in your suburban backyard.
OR… You are utterly fascinated with medieval weaponry. (OK… maybe a little judgment.)
In each of these cases, a crossbow might be a wise purchase. The good news is that rapidly-evolving crossbow technology has fostered dazzling gains in velocity, accuracy, and reliability. The bad news, however, is that quality crossbows are now WAY more expensive than quality rifles. Furthermore, today’s cutting-edge crossbow model might be obsolete in just two years and correspondingly difficult to re-sell. For better or worse, we live in a time of great excitement and breathtaking change in the universe of crossbows. But before we venture deep into the particulars, it might be useful and/or interesting to trace the development of archery from its dawn to the present and also examine the physics of launching arrows downfield.
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With tree branches readily available in nearly every civilization north of Antarctica, the invention of the bow & arrow only required, really, the invention of string that was very strong and resistant to stretching. (Linen, hemp, and animal parts such as sinew and animal intestinal lining were commonly used.) The bow itself had to be of sturdy yet springy wood; the arrows needed to be of stiffer wood than the bow, with feathers for aerodynamic stability and a sharp, blade-like tip. All of this was possible without metal, which didn’t come along until relatively recently in archery’s timeline.
Connecting a string to both ends of a longer stick forms a mechanical spring, a means of storing and then releasing energy… and forming a spring brings us to the blackboard of British polymath Robert Hooke (1635-1703) who came up with, of course, Hooke’s Law:
The force (in pounds) stored by a spring is directly proportional to the distance
it is either stretched or compressed away from its rest position.
So, the farther back you pull a bow string, the more force is required to get it there AND hold it there. For example, let’s say you have a bow that requires 80 lbs. for full draw… that means it takes half that force (40 lbs.) to draw it halfway. HOWEVER– in one of those counterintuitive quirks of mathematics that drives a lot of perfectly bright pupils toward the Humanities, the aforementioned bow at full, 80-lb draw will impart not double but FOUR TIMES the energy upon the arrow as it would if drawn only halfway. And it follows that the arrow fired from full draw will travel four times as fast.
There are obviously some physical limitations to how heavy a draw weight a human, even a very strong one, can manage. However, with the advent of metal around 3000 B.C. came the possibility of machine parts both smaller and stronger than their wooden forbears. This meant that a powerful bow— too stiff, even, for a human to cock unaided by additional leverage— could be mounted on a stock and held at full draw until fired by a strong and reliable release mechanism. Ergo, the crossbow. (One might note that the shoulder-mounted firearm is a copy of the crossbow, not vice-versa.) With the addition of mechanical cocking devices, weapon-makers were constrained only by their imaginations and the strength of the components themselves in building ever-bigger and more powerful crossbows, as evidenced by this monstrous conception from the brow of da Vinci. (Yes, that is a full-grown human near the rear wheels.)
But the advent of crossbows didn’t put the bow & arrow out of business. Despite its comparative lack of power, the more ancient weapon maintained several advantages, particularly in military applications. It was lighter, cheaper and easier to make, and enjoyed a faster rate of fire… great for multitudes of troops, even better for men on horseback.
Fast forward to the 20th century. After several years of strenuous lobbying by archery enthusiasts, special bowhunting seasons for deer began in the 1930’s. Its practitioners were looked upon as somewhat strange by their rifle-toting brethren in red plaid… kind of like fly-fishermen or orchid breeders… purists with way too much patience who insisted on doing things the hard way. Indeed, bowhunting had three built-in challenges. The limited lethality of arrows beyond a fairly short distance– say, 30 yards– meant that bowhunters needed to be extremely stealthy to get close enough for an effective (and ethical) shot. The design of the standard bow, barely changed for many centuries, meant that a bowhunter might have to hold motionless at full draw for a minute or more as his nearby quarry slowly meandered out from behind a tree. And perhaps worst of all, the low velocity of arrows relative to the speed of sound meant that a deer could hear a bowhunter’s shot and then, with its lightning reflexes, jump out of the arrow’s path before it arrived. (This is known as “jumping the string,” which may involve ducking low as well as jumping high.) In order to address these concerns, particularly the latter, archer/inventor Holless Wilbur Allen applied in 1966 to patent an “archery bow with draw force multiplying attachments,” a.k.a. The compound bow.
I’ve occasionally quipped that if the Native Americans had developed compound bows prior to the European invasion, we’d all be buying our morning lattés with seashells instead of dead Presidents. That’s because the compound bow, with its intricate ecosystem of off-center pulleys, solved a fundamental consequence of Hooke’s Law— When drawing a compound bow, the point of maximum force is reached PRIOR to full draw, and so relatively little force is required of the archer to hold it at the ready-to-shoot position. For a 200-lb compound bow, that might mean it can be held at full draw with as little as 20 lbs., a 90% reduction in force known as “let-off.” It also meant that bows could have higher maximum draw weights and shoot arrows correspondingly faster.
And, quite naturally, it also meant that it was only a matter of time before someone came up with the compound crossbow.
The information superhighway is uncharacteristically barren of information about who first married the newly-invented compound bow to the ancient crossbow. I’m guessing that this is because the Horton Manufacturing Company– America’s oldest crossbow manufacturer, went out of business in 2013 and its assets were scooped up by a competitor. If they weren’t the first to offer a compound crossbow, they were certainly close, as evidenced by this photo of one of their earliest models–
Horton IS generally credited with the first major improvement in crossbow design– the “reverse draw” configuration, which, all else being equal, is generally narrower, heavier, better balanced, and has a longer power stroke than its standard-draw counterparts. Each configuration has its devotees.
The next great innovation came to market in 2016 with what the Ravin Crossbows company dubbed “Heli-coil® Technology” and with it immediately jumped to the front of the crossbow-manufacturing pack. Not to be so brazenly outdone by an upstart, the longer-established Tenpoint Crossbows company came up with a somewhat similar action, and the Great Crossbow Arms Race was on. Ravin’s present flagship model is the 300-lb. draw weight, electrically-cocking R500E for $3749 MSRP, while Tenpoint counters with its reverse-draw NITRO 505 equipped with an automatic range-finding scope for a $4649 MSRP. Both claim to shoot at 500 feet per second… roughly half the speed of sound and fully double the performance of a regular (non-compound) bow.
If you want the very best and have no problem parting with that kind of dough for something that will be old news in two years, your search is over. However, if you’d prefer to spend considerably less than that, read on.
With what seems like a particularly prudent business model, Tenpoint Crossbows offers a line of less expensive equipment under their “Wicked Ridge” label. Their low-end “Blackhawk” shoots at 360 feet per second for 400 bucks, and an even grand gets you their reverse-draw, pseudo-heli-coil “Fury” with a 410 fps delivery.
Meanwhile, EXCALIBUR CROSSBOWS has eschewed the reverse-limb/pseudo-heli-coil arms race and focused instead on steadily improving the ancient recurve design. I own one, and it is rock-solid as well as the embodiment of simplicity itself. And I must say I bought it under slightly odd circumstances– In one of those Internet dark alleys upon which we occasionally stumble, an aftermarket seller was offering his own versions of EXCALIBUR crossbows with the full knowledge of the actual company, from whom he purchased the components to build them himself. His prices were fabulously low; in a related story, he is now nowhere to be found. But you might want to check eBay for other such aftermarket sellers. Meanwhile, you can get a great basic recurve from EXCALIBUR through normal channels for under $1000. Also, because of its inherent sturdiness and simplicity, EXCALIBUR is the only brand of crossbow I would confidently purchase used.
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There is much, much more to know about archery in general and specifically crossbows than I cared to include in such a brief essay. If you are planning to purchase a bow or a crossbow, I highly recommend discussing your needs and desires with an archery professional. You may or may not find a knowledgeable professional in your nearest big box hunting store; it is truly hit or miss. A better bet would be to find a dedicated archery store that can offer expertise in such particulars and important variables such as draw weight, draw length, and arrows (type, weight, and length.)
Lancaster Archery in (Lancaster, Pennsylvania) and A1 Archery in (Lenertz, Wisconsin) are two that I have personally visited, and I recommend checking them out online and maybe contacting them for recommendations.