It does not matter what method of hunting you use, ethical shooting distance is always a topic of debate.
With a rifle, some hunters are comfortable taking big game out past a thousand yards; but other hunters contend that long-range shooting at animals does not even count as hunting.
Archery hunters have similar dialogues about how far is too far, and that discussion spills over into crossbow hunting.
Ultimately, the distance limitations are going to be put in place by the individual, so the debate and dialogue are important to have, even if it is an inner-dialogue.
As is true with most things, listening to the opinions of others and collecting facts on the subject is a good way to arrive at your own decisions.
This article will go over some of the factors you should consider as you decide just how far you are comfortable shooting game with a crossbow.
2 Things That Determine Your Crossbow Range
1. Crossbow momentum
It is important to understand the physics behind shooting an animal with a crossbow. The basic idea is you need your projectile to have enough momentum at the time of impact to do lethal damage to the animal.
For rifle hunting, many people talk about kinetic energy, which is an important factor in shot distance. However, for crossbows, momentum is a bigger factor than kinetic energy.
This is important to understand because while both kinetic energy and momentum are products of the mass and velocity of a projectile, they are calculated differently.
Kinetic energy increases exponentially with speed, while momentum increases linearly with both speed and mass.
This is relevant to crossbow hunting because it means speed is not a decisively more important factor in your setup than the mass of your arrow (a crossbow arrow was historically called a “bolt” but most hunters say arrow now).
2. Shooter accuracy
Assuming the arrow has enough momentum to penetrate, shot placement is the next most important factor in humanely killing a game animal.
Whether variance happens because of shooter error or crossbow quality, the farther you shoot, the farther off target your arrow will impact.
One way to increase the momentum of your arrow is to buy a super-fast shooting crossbow. However, keep in mind that over any amount of distance your arrow is going to slow down, and momentum will drop with it.
Also, a faster-moving arrow is also going to have a higher drag force working on it (slowing it down at a faster rate).
Still, initial arrow speed is going to play a part in how far you can ethically shoot at an animal. In general, crossbows that shoot much faster also cost a little more money.
The other factor in momentum is going to be the weight of the arrow. You can alter the weight of the arrow by using heavier shafts and heavier broadheads.
There are two benefits of increasing momentum by shooting heavier arrows:
- The mass of the arrow is constant, so you know you will still have that component of momentum at the time of impact.
- A heavier arrow will have more inertia, and the drag force will not slow the arrow down as rapidly as a lighter arrow.
At the risk of getting too scientific, momentum also has a directional component to it, so a crosswind can play a big part in changing the momentum of the arrow.
That is worth mentioning here because a heavier arrow will also be less impacted by a crosswind.
The biggest factor in accuracy is going to be the shooter’s abilities. It does not matter how nice of a crossbow you purchase if you do not practice to become efficient with it.
However, the quality of your crossbow can influence accuracy. In most cases, a well built and tuned crossbow with quality components and a quality crossbow optic is going to shoot more accurately (and be easier to shoot accurately) than a budget-priced crossbow.
In theory, a fast shooting crossbow will also be more accurate because the arrow leaves the crossbow quicker and has less time to be influenced by the movement of the shooter.
A final factor in accuracy will be the wind. Whether it is a bullet or an arrow, experienced shooters know that wind can wreak havoc on accuracy.
Because wind is going to vary with each situation, this is one factor that could cause big changes in your acceptable distance decision from one scenario to the next.
Maximum Crossbow Shooting Distances
If you are shooting in perfect conditions like an indoor range, you may find that your crossbow is very accurate all the way out to 100 yards or more.
However, when you add in all the variables of a hunting scenario, the effective hunting range of a crossbow is going to be quite a bit closer than that.
Consider that the farther the arrow has to travel, the more impacted by drag and crosswind it will be. That means that by the time it reaches the animal it will be going slower and could be off target.
With a very long flight time and a projectile going slower than the speed of sound, the animal also has more time to react and move before the arrow arrives.
They could jump, duck or move forward, all of which could result in the arrow missing or hitting the animal someplace other than where you were aiming.
Most hunters also experience some adrenaline, excitement or nerves, which all tend to make a person a little less stable than during practice scenarios.
As mentioned initially, range limitations vary by hunter, so it is difficult to put out a broad-brush figure that everyone will agree on. However, many hunters seem to settle on a maximum shot distance of about 50 yards.
Some hunters say 10 or 20 yards farther and others prefer to keep it inside of 40 yards. However, it is safe to say if you are talking about 60-yard shots you are in a small group of hunters on the long end of the spectrum.
Determining Your Own Max Distance
Odds are that your shooting ability is going to be a bigger limiting factor than momentum when it comes to how far you should shoot.
A heavy crossbow arrow will probably have enough momentum to achieve lethal penetration out past the distance most shooters will be accurate.
Spend time shooting from likely hunting positions at targets out to 40 yards and see how consistently you hit in a kill zone sized area.
Some people will do this in a place where they can hike a hill before taking their shots or jog a little before stopping and shooting. This gives you an idea of how accurate you are with an accelerated heart rate.
If you are consistent out to 30 yards but your group starts to balloon at 40, limit yourself to 30 yards until your shooting skills improve. After some practice, you may end up extending your limit to 40 yards or beyond.
Whatever your established limit, keep in mind that it may not be applicable in all scenarios. Be mindful of the wind as a factor that might cause you to not take a longer shot on a given day.
For most hunters, a wounded animal that takes a long time to recover or is not recovered at all is a nightmare and a worst-case scenario. Once you release your arrow, you cannot take it back.
That is why it is important to know your skill limitations as well as the limitations of your crossbow before taking a shot at a low-percentage range.
Taking shots that you are comfortable making and are within a range where the animal has less chance to react will provide best results and help you experience success instead of heartache.