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Crossbows: The New Face of Bowhunting?

Crossbows now account for more deer kills than vertical bows in many top whitetail states.

Crossbows: The New Face of Bowhunting?

Cary Hansen of Alma, Wisc., took this 8-point buck grossing 164 1/8 inches while hunting with his crossbow last fall. (Shane Indrebo photo)

A diehard bowhunter, Scott Kerschner of Pennsylvania first started pursuing deer with stick and string in 1967. He has taken a buck every year since, with 75 percent of them coming during the archery season.

It wasn’t until about a dozen years ago, however, that Kerschner picked up a crossbow. The state had legalized them in 2009, and he purchased an Excalibur to introduce his two grandchildren, Haden and Connor, to the sport. Then, after developing shoulder troubles, he decided to hunt with the bow himself in 2011.

“I picked it up and took it out,” Kerschner said. “From that time on, I’ve used it every year, except for one year, and I’ve harvested my buck [each year] with the crossbow.”

At one time in the not-too-distant past, Kerschner would have needed a person with disabilities permit to use a crossbow in the Keystone State. Over the years, however, Pennsylvania loosened its crossbow regulations, making them legal for archery first in select Wildlife Management Units and then statewide. Of course, many other states have also legalized crossbows over the years and a notable trend has developed, with horizontal bows becoming the weapon of choice for many archery season participants.

What’s most surprising — perhaps even shocking to those who don’t follow the trends closely — is how much of the archery harvest crossbows are responsible for in some states. Whether you’re talking about Pennsylvania or Ohio, Michigan or Wisconsin, horizontal bows now account for a significant majority of the overall archery harvest.

Controversy Then Acceptance

No matter the state, the idea of introducing crossbows as a legal hunting implement was likely met with at least some opposition when first proposed. State bowhunting organizations and diehard vertical bowhunters argued that crossbows are too easy to operate and use, and require less practice time than using a compound, ultimately eliminating many of the challenges traditionally associated with bowhunting. Firearms hunters, on the other hand, expressed concern that including crossbows in archery season might lead to higher archery buck kills, leaving fewer antlered deer available for the gun hunters.

Ultimately, however, crossbows have become more and more prominent on the hunting landscape in recent years, with horizontal bows now allowed in many states’ regular archery seasons or as part of their own dedicated seasons. And, based on data from several state wildlife agencies, sooner or later they account for more of the deer harvest than compound bows do.

In 2020, National Deer Association (NDA) Chief Conservation Officer Kip Adams penned an NDA article that stated, “Of the 37 states east of the Rocky Mountains that are home to approximately 97 percent of whitetails in the United States, 30 (81 percent) allow crossbows to be used by all hunters during at least a portion of the archery season.” That’s an astounding statistic and one that’s likely to continue to grow. For example, since that time, Maine, one of the states that did not allow crossbow hunting, now permits them during its archery season.

In Michigan, where crossbows were allowed statewide starting in 2009, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reports roughly 67-69 percent of the archery harvest each year now comes via crossbows. And in Wisconsin, where the legislature legalized crossbows and established a horizontal bow season starting in 2014, there has been a rather rapid shift toward bowhunters hunting with crossbows. During 2014, the year of the state’s first crossbow season, 26,891 deer were killed by bolts, equating to 33 percent of the total archery take. This past season — eight years later — the crossbow percentage of the archery harvest was more than 61 percent.

In Virginia, where crossbows were legalized statewide in 2005, the Department of Wildlife Resources notes they accounted for 24 percent of the archery harvest the first year, but 56 percent of the harvest in 2022, a slower climb than in some states, but a shift toward crossbows leading to the majority of the harvest nonetheless.

Missouri first allowed crossbows statewide in 2016, and that year only 14,416 of the 48,461 deer taken during the archery season — 30 percent — were killed by crossbow hunters. Fast forward only five years to 2021 and crossbows had already overtaken vertical bows when it comes to the annual bow harvest. This past season, 51 percent of the harvest came via horizontal bows, with crossbow hunters downing 28,586 deer versus the 27,938 taken by vertical bowhunters.

Pennsylvania: A Closer Look

In the Keystone State, where crossbows were initially legal only for persons with disabilities, then for firearms seasons and finally for archery seasons, the growth in their acceptance in recent years has been nothing short of amazing.

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Since becoming legal statewide for archery hunting 14 years ago, horizontal bows have accounted for a larger and larger portion of the archery kill with each passing year. The first year that crossbows were allowed during the archery deer season, only 33 percent of the harvest was taken with horizontal bows. But by the 2018-19 season, one decade later, they were already accounting for 63 percent of the archery harvest. Today, that number is approaching 70 percent.

Demko-Crossbow-Data-Store2-1200x800.jpg
In Pennsylvania, more and more hunters are using crossbows in the archery season, with crossbows now accounting for nearly 70 percent of the state’s overall archery harvest.

Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) Deer and Elk Section Supervisor David Stainbrook notes that the PGC’s hunter surveys, which are conducted every few years, show that the increase in hunters toting crossbows lines up with the growth in crossbow harvest over the years. Results from the 2013 survey noted approximately 50 percent of those who said they archery hunted reported that they used a crossbow, and that year about 51 percent of the archery deer harvest was taken via crossbows.

“In the 2016 season, we see that 61 percent reported that they use a crossbow and 59 percent of the harvest was with a crossbow,” Stainbrook said. “Our most recent survey was of 2019 hunters and there, 68 percent of hunters in archery season reported that they used a crossbow and 65 percent of the harvest was with the crossbow.”

Will the Trend Continue?

So, in the states where they are permitted during the archery season, is the growth in crossbow use a trend that will level off over time? The answer is likely ‘yes,’ since not every bowhunter will embrace or want to hunt with a crossbow. But, even in states such as Ohio, which was one of the first states in the country to allow crossbow hunting, there’s still an upward trend.

“It’s still creeping (up),” said Ohio DNR Division of Wildlife Deer Program Administrator Mike Tonkovich.

Demko-Crossbow-Data-Chart2-1200x800.jpg
In 1989, Ohio’s crossbow deer harvest exceeded its vertical bow harvest for the first time. Since then, the number of deer taken by crossbows continues to grow, with the horizontal bow harvest accounting for more than 70 percent of the overall archery harvest the past two years. (Courtesy of Ohio Department of Natural Resources)

Due to its long history of crossbow hunting, at a time when crossbows weren’t nearly as popular or widely available as they are today, the Buckeye State is somewhat unique in its trajectory. According to Tonkovich, 27 deer were taken by approximately 600 crossbow hunters in the state’s first crossbow season in 1976, a three-week hunt that ran concurrent with the final three weeks of the archery season. The state continued to expand crossbow hunting opportunities over the years until they were made legal statewide in 1982, but it wasn’t until 1989 that the crossbow harvest finally exceeded that of the vertical bow take.

“It was like 55/45 and it remained that way for quite some time, and then it slowly started inching up,” Tonkovich said. “Of course, it’s now very much separated. I think 71 percent of the (archery) harvest in the 2021 season was taken by crossbow hunters.”

In Wisconsin, which has a much shorter history of statewide crossbow use, the crossbow percentage of the archery harvest is still on the rise. DNR Bureau of Wildlife Management Wildlife Surveys and Harvest Assessment Specialist Brian Dhuey said he does expect it to level off at some point, but there has also been a growing shift toward archery in general over the years.

Demko-Crossbow-Data-Chart1-1200x800.jpg
Data from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources indicates that archery hunters tend to prefer vertical bows earlier in their hunting careers while crossbows become more common as hunters age. (Courtesy of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources)

“It does not surprise me that rate has continued to grow,” said Dhuey, who combs through and analyzes thousands of data points annually in his role with the DNR.

Both Wisconsin and Pennsylvania officials noted another trend they’ve seen over time: the percentage of the total statewide buck kill attributed to firearms hunters has been slowly declining, while the percentage of the total antlered deer take coming from the archery season has been increasing, with crossbows somewhat accelerating that long-term trend in recent years. While the total number of bucks killed by archery gear in those states is still far fewer than that taken by firearms hunters, the shift is noticeable and likely influenced by a variety of factors.

“There has been some amount of increase in the pointy sticks taking a proportion of the buck harvest for a long period of time,” said Dhuey, speaking of his state. “It’s amazing, you can almost see the exact point in time when compound bows came onto the market and became available…What crossbows did has probably accelerated that change.”

Not the Same Everywhere

While many states show crossbows making up a larger percentage of the archery harvest over time, it’s notable that the Southeastern states do not necessarily follow that trend, at least not at the same rate as many Northeastern and Midwestern states. However, in these states, the archery harvest tends to make up a smaller percentage of the overall deer harvest each year.

In North Carolina, crossbows have been legal since 2010, yet they still trail vertical bows when it comes to how much they contribute to the deer harvest. During North Carolina’s 2021-22 deer season, for example, vertical bowhunters accounted for 10 percent of the statewide total deer take, while crossbow hunters took 8 percent.

In Louisiana, the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries reports the crossbow harvest accounted for anywhere from 29-37 percent of the total archery deer harvest annually from 2017-18 to 2021-22, with the total archery harvest representing only 5-10 percent of the total deer kill in the state, depending on the year.

“Archery harvest in the Southeastern U.S. is less than other regions primarily because of the firearm hunting opportunities,” Adams said. “The average firearms season in the Southeast is 81 days as opposed to 30 days in the Northeast, 24 days in the West and 14 days in the Midwest.”

Impact on Deer Harvest & Population

When it comes to the crossbow’s impact on deer harvests and whitetail populations, the wildlife personnel and biologists we spoke with said they have not seen any major concerns or problems in their states since crossbows were legalized. In fact, there have been few, if any, changes to most states’ archery seasons and deer management practices after the crossbow has come onto the scene.

“What we are seeing so far is within our management ability,” Stainbrook said of his state. “We’re not seeing any red flags based on the current level of harvest and we are monitoring the types of things that if that were to become problematic, we could make changes.”

Dhuey noted Wisconsin has separate but concurrent crossbow and regular archery seasons, with the DNR having the ability to make tweaks, if needed, to the horizontal bow season. In the Badger State, hunters can legally take one buck in the firearms season and another one in the archery or crossbow season, with the proper deer authorizations.

“We didn’t see any large change,” Dhuey said, “in particular in the antlered portion of the harvest, (which) is what everyone was concerned about. Yes, it has gone up since crossbows became legal for everyone, but not particularly a lot.”

In Georgia, where crossbows were legalized for all hunters in 2002, there was a five-year period when the state DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division separated the crossbow harvest from the regular archery harvest, but it no longer tracks those individual stats.

“On average, (only) about 20 percent of the total archery harvest (at that time) was from crossbows, said State Deer Biologist Charlie Killmaster, “but there were no discernible increases in the total archery harvest.”

Success Rates

As for success rates of vertical bowhunters versus crossbow hunters, although many states don’t track this information, available data tends to show that crossbow hunters do have higher rates of success when it comes to harvesting deer than their counterparts. In its 2019 report, “Evaluation of Crossbow Use and Season Structure,” the Wisconsin DNR surveyed wildlife agency personnel in 19 states where crossbows were legal and found that three of those states — Maryland, Missouri and Ohio — did indeed show higher success rates for those who used crossbows. That mirrored the Badger State’s own data.

“Michigan too had shown that crossbow hunters were more successful than archery hunters during the early years of their crossbow season establishment,” the report stated.

Depending on the state and the year, the difference in success rates between vertical bow and crossbow hunters ranged anywhere from 2-10 percent. For example, Wisconsin reported crossbow hunters enjoyed a 9 percent higher success rate from 2016-2018, while Ohio’s rates fluctuated greatly depending on the year. In fact, during one year for which there was data, 2012-13, vertical bowhunters actually exhibited a higher success rate (21 percent) than their horizontal bow counterparts (19 percent).

Pennsylvania hunters, on the other hand, seem to be pretty evenly split in how they do, according to Stainbrook.

“I’ve had questions in the past [like], ‘Well, if crossbows are so much more effective, your success rate is going to be higher with them,’” Stainbrook said. “What we see is that success rates seem to be pretty similar across both vertical bowhunters and crossbow hunters.”

Keeping Hunters in the Sport

From the hunter recruitment and retention perspectives, one of the positives of legalizing crossbows is that there are signs they are not only helping to introduce kids to the sport of hunting and bowhunting at an earlier age, they may also be allowing more hunters to participate in archery seasons longer, perhaps helping to delay slight declines in hunting license sales that have been going on for years.

According to Dhuey, DNR data in his state shows that there’s about a 12-year difference in the mean age of a vertical bow hunter (39) versus that of a crossbow hunter (51).

“The thing that crossbows seem to do really well is not necessarily the ‘recruit’ portion of the R3…but it’s definitely the other two Rs, ‘retention’ and ‘reactivation.’ I think crossbows are a very good tool for that, and I think what it also does is it also appears to make hunters more likely to harvest deer later into their careers as well,” Dhuey said. “There’s some evidence showing that hunters are more successful later on in their careers than they have been before because of crossbows.

“This Baby Boom wave of hunters is crashing to the shore all over the nation and everywhere there are fewer and fewer of them; they’re aging out of hunting, and there’s been this big decline in overall hunter numbers…Hopefully, we’re thinking that will level off and we’ll get to a normal distribution of hunters. But I think that while that is occurring, crossbows are very good tool for keeping that wave from crashing to the shore quite (so) quickly.”

Demko-Crossbow-Data-Hero-1200x800.jpg
After decades of hunting with a compound bow, Scott Kerschner of Pennsylvania switched to crossbow hunting due to shoulder issues and ended up taking his largest buck ever – a 13-pointer that grossed more than 153 inches — using an Excalibur crossbow.

In the Keystone State, hunting license sales have been declining since the 1980s. However, when you look at archery permit sales, they’ve actually bucked the trend, going up in the years since crossbows were legalized. Part of this may be because of a growing interest in archery, but more likely it’s due to people who previously only hunted with a firearm purchasing a crossbow to participate in the state’s archery season.

In 2010, according to PGC data, 925,029 total resident and nonresident hunting licenses were sold and 289,414 archery permits were purchased. But, by 2020, total license sales had dropped to 857,914, yet 372,619 archery permits were sold. That’s a 28 percent increase in archery permit sales in just one decade, during a time when hunter numbers in general were on the decline.

“We don’t know if that allowance of crossbows has led to brand-new deer hunters altogether — we don’t have that kind of question [on our hunter surveys] — but it does appear that it has been able to expand their opportunity,” Stainbrook said. “We don’t know if those hunters would have stopped hunting — there are a lot of unknowns in there — but we do know that it may enable some of those hunters to switch over to take advantage of the archery season.”

Impact on the Industry

As crossbow hunting’s popularity continues to grow, there’s no doubt crossbow companies are selling more crossbows, but it’s certainly not doom and gloom for the vertical bow industry. In fact, many of the major bow companies have started manufacturing crossbows or purchased an existing crossbow line to add to their portfolios to meet the changing interests of hunters. Among these are Mathews Archery, which launched Mission Crossbows; PSE Archery, Bear Archery and Xpedition Archery, which all produce crossbow lines; FeraDyne Outdoors, which offers Rocky Mountain and Axe Crossbows; and Pure Archery Group, which owns both Bowtech Archery and Excalibur Crossbow.

Looking at 2022 survey data from the Archery Trade Association (ATA), archery retailers report that they sell far more compounds on average than crossbows. In quarters 2, 3 and 4 of 2022, according to the ATA’s Retail Business Tracker Survey, respondents reported that compound bows made up the majority of their bow sales, with crossbows a distant second — only 16-24 percent of sales, depending on the quarter — followed by target and recurve bows.

Demko-Crossbow-Data-Store-1200x800.jpg
Lancaster Archery Supply in Pennsylvania sells thousands of bows and crossbows annually, though compounds still outsell horizontal bows by a significant margin.

Lancaster Archery Supply, which sells thousands of vertical and horizontal bows each year, confirms these findings. The Pennsylvania-based company not only has a large retail store and pro shop but sells bows and crossbows online to customers across the country and around the world.

“Over the past 4-5 years, we still sell more compounds each year than we do crossbows,” said Lancaster Archery Supply spokesman P.J. Reilly. “We certainly sell more crossbows now than we did 10-15 years ago, but compounds continue to be dominant in our annual sales. That is directly tied to buying patterns. People who shoot crossbows might buy one every 5-10 years or more. Compound bow shooters buy more frequently and are more likely to have multiple bows.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say most compound bow shooters buy new bows every 2-3 years, but I can say there are a lot of bowhunters who do buy new bows that frequently. Also, we see compound bow shooters buy multiple bows so they can have a backup bow, or so they can have separate bows for hunting and for 3-D or other target shooting. We don’t really see that kind of buying from crossbow shooters.”

Bows vs. Crossbows

There will, of course, always be healthy debate among bowhunters about whether crossbows have created an uneven playing field thanks to their inherent advantages and continued developments in crossbow technologies. Simply put, a horizontal bow is easier to set up and shoot than a vertical bow. Plus, with the proper practice, a person using a crossbow can take aim on deer or other game at longer distances than with a compound, especially when using one of the flat-shooting, hard-hitting scoped models that propel bolts well over 400 fps.

So, does that mean a big crossbow-killed buck is any less of a trophy than if that same deer was taken using a compound bow? Well, that all depends on who you ask.

On one hand, some compound hunters might argue that all else being equal, taking a shot at a big buck with a crossbow is easier because there is less movement required and less potential for human error. On the other hand, ask any horizontal bowhunter who has done all the hard work leading up to downing a 160- or 170-class buck, and he or she will likely disagree. When you think about it, that hunter still needed to do almost everything the vertical bowhunter must do to take down a trophy, from scouting and/or establishing food plots, to setting blinds or stands in the right spot and paying attention to the wind, all in an effort to get that wild animal close enough for a safe, ethical shot.

If a hunter does take an impressive whitetail with the crossbow, it’s worth noting he or she can’t have it officially scored by the Pope and Young Club, since the organization does not accept crossbow-killed animals for its records. The club’s official position on crossbows states, “For the purpose of the Pope and Young Club, a bow shall be defined as a longbow, recurve bow or compound bow that is hand-held and hand-drawn, and that has no mechanical device to enable the hunter to lock the bow at full or partial draw. Other than the energy stored by the drawn bow, no device to propel the arrow will be permitted. Consequently, the Pope and Young Club does not consider the crossbow to be a hunting bow and will not accept any trophies collected by crossbow hunters.”

Pope and Young Executive Director Jason Rounsaville said Pope and Young has been approached in the past about the idea of adding crossbows or a crossbow category, adding that “we do not envision a time where we would allow entries for crossbows, firearms, muzzleloaders or other weapon types.”

For crossbow hunters who do want to have their bucks officially measured for the books, scoring options include the Boone and Crockett Club (minimum entry requirements are 160 for a typical whitetail buck and 185 for a non-typical) or the new Bolt & Quarrel Club, which is establishing a records program for animals taken across North America with horizontal bows. Minimum whitetail scores for the Bolt & Quarrel records are 125 for a typical whitetail and 140 for a non-typical. Paul Burnside, founder of Bolt & Quarrel, said the organization is working on its first record book now and hopes to publish it by the end of 2023.

The Future

No matter whether you love crossbows, hate them, or don’t have an opinion one way or the other, one thing is certain — there’s no going back. In all likelihood, crossbow use will continue to expand, with horizontal bows accounting for an increasingly larger percentage of archery deer harvests across the country.

In Ohio, even though crossbows have been part of the hunting landscape for several decades, their impact is still growing. Citing the state’s 2022 annual deer program summary, Tonkovich pointed out a record 95,303 deer were harvested during the 2021-22 archery season and, as noted earlier in this article, 71 percent of them were taken with a crossbow.

“The next point [says] the number of licensed hunters has declined 19 percent over the last decade here in Ohio,” Tonkovich said. “We could have ended the conversation right there with those two points. Do we even need to have this conversation on crossbows when we’re dealing with a decline in hunting numbers across the country?

“I guess, in my opinion, the answer is ‘no.’ We cannot do without the crossbow hunter, to be quite frank.”




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