What You Should Know To Start Crossbow Hunting

Crossbow hunting allows you to bring wild protein to your freezer without the aid of a shotgun. Here's what you need to know to get started.

by Mark Chesnut
PHOTO: andras_csontos/Shutterstock

With the societal upheaval the COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted on the world, Americans are learning that a self-sufficient lifestyle is more important now than ever before.

Just look at what we learned about the meat supply. When things go wrong and grocery stores are overrun with panic shoppers, finding any meat to purchase to augment the protein in your diet can become quite difficult. And if you find meat available at a local grocery store, being able to afford it is a completely different problem when prices have risen dramatically.

Of course, the fact that you are reading Hobby Farms is already proof that you understand the concept of self-sufficiency. And it’s likely that many readers raise their own vegetables, meat chickens, layer hens and maybe even sheep or goats in an attempt to avoid reliance on the easily toppled supply chain for the provisions they need to survive and thrive.

Many owners of small tracts of land have a healthy, tasty supply of protein right in their backyards if they can only figure out how to utilize it.

Of course, I’m talking about white-tailed deer. It’s the most popular big-game animal in the U.S. While many people hunt deer for sport, some do it solely for the healthy protein deer provide through their lean, tasty flesh.

But some people live in areas where a municipality or other government entity has outlawed shooting guns. In those types of areas, many are forced to try to keep deer from eating their gardens and flowers, while not able to utilize them as a food source.

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The solution to the problem is the age-old crossbow.

Crossbows Then & Now

Crossbows are more sophisticated and seem more modern than compound bows used by deer hunters today. But they are, in fact, quite ancient.

According to historians, the crossbow was invented in China during the Zhou Dynasty around the year 700 B.C. and was used for hunting meat and waging war. Some historical records indicate that the crossbow was such an advanced weapon for the time that around 200 B.C. a law was passed preventing people from taking crossbows out of China for fear that enemies would be able to copy the weapon.

Simply put, a crossbow is a horizontally mounted bow on top of a riflelike stock. It has a mechanism for drawing the string to stretch the bow and holding the string in place.

A trigger, much like that in a modern firearm, releases the string and propels the arrow toward the intended target, sometimes at extremely fast speeds.

Modern crossbows are true marvels of technology. They are available in either recurve or compound—which uses pulleys to make it easier to load and shoot faster—configurations. Most come with a rope or some kind of internal mechanism to make them easy to cock even for smaller hunters without a lot of upper body strength.

Carbon arrows are made with very tight tolerances so are very consistent in their accuracy. And modern hunting points (broadheads) are extremely lethal. Many companies make broadheads exclusively for crossbow hunting.

When I got my first crossbow about seven years ago, I was worried that it might be difficult to shoot accurately while hunting. My 13-year-old daughter quickly proved me wrong. She shot her first three arrows in a group about 2 inches in diameter from a rest at 20 yards.

Trust me: If you can accurately shoot a scoped rifle, you can be perfectly lethal with a crossbow out to about 50 yards if you have a decent rest.

Read more: Can hunting and farming work together? We take a look at the question here.

Gearing Up

To get started, you’ll need at least a crossbow, some arrows—or bolts, as many call them—and some good hunting broadheads (tips).

Other handy items include:

  • a scope (for accuracy at longer distances)
  • a quiver for storing arrows
  • a sling for carrying your crossbow over your shoulder if you plan to hike long distances with it.

If you plan to hunt from the ground, some kind of shooting rest is recommended for improved accuracy. You can get a decent bow on a budget (see “On a Budget,” below) or shoot for the stars and drop $2,000 or more.

Rifles typically kill deer by shock due to the high-energy impact that crushes tissue and bone. But archery equipment is lethal by a different means. Broadhead-tipped arrows hit with much less force and rely on cutting vital organs and arteries to kill the animal by hemorrhage.

Consequently, a well-placed shot is extremely important for crossbow hunters. We’ll explore that a little more in a minute.

A Tree Stand

Most deer killed with archery equipment are taken from a tree stand set within easy shooting distance—about 30 yards—of a well-used deer trail or food source. Good tree stands can be bought on a budget, or you can spend several hundred dollars on one.

I like ladder stands best as they are easy to hang and easy to climb into and out of safely. If you are going to hunt from a tree stand, use a safety harness. Falls are the deadliest kinds of hunting accidents.

If you know deer are coming to feed on your vegetable garden or flowers, you already know how they approach and exit the area. Set up a tree stand on the trail leading in and out. Or make plans to hide on the ground nearby and ambush your deer while it is feeding.

Read more: Is hunting animals not your thing? Try hunting for mushrooms and purslane!

Further Notes

Don’t flinch at the thought of shooting a doe, by the way. Most states allow harvest of antlerless deer and even encourage it.

My home state of Oklahoma further liberalizes antlerless deer harvest nearly every year. Wildlife managers still can’t get as many does harvested as they would like in order to ensure a healthy herd.

If you don’t know deers’ exact schedule from living on their home turf, remember that the species is most active at dawn and dusk. If you’re going to hunt them in the morning, set up well before sunrise and be ready. In the evening, be prepared to stay in your stand until dark.

Also, be cognizant of the wind direction, as deer will spook if they smell you. If the wind is blowing directly from your stand to where you expect the deer to be, wait for another day with a favorable wind.

Note that it’s important to study your local hunting regulations concerning licenses, tags and orange clothing requirements. All state laws are different. Be sure you know how to stay legal before going after your deer.

Harvest & Butchering

When the moment of truth arrives and a relaxed deer is within your range is no time to begin considering where to place your arrow. You should have bought your crossbow well before this point and sighted it in using your hunting points.

After that, you need several practice sessions at various ranges before you’re ready to go hunting.

Crossbow arrows are heavy and slow compared to a bullet. Gravity will affect them much more and much more quickly than bullets. Consequently, knowing whether a deer is 15 or 35 yards from you is crucial.

If you’re not great at estimating distances, a laser rangefinder is a great investment that will quickly pay off with venison in the freezer.

On Shooting

The best shot to take on most deer is a slightly quartering away or broadside shot. Those angles reveal the vital areas the best.

Try to place your arrow right behind the front leg about halfway up the body. A shot that hits there will almost certainly penetrate both lungs and quite possibly the top of the heart.

When hit there, the deer will typically run away very quickly. But it will bed down within about 100 yards and quickly bleed out.


Deer don’t die immediately, so hunters who shoot one with a crossbow should wait before trailing them. For a deer hit right through the lung and heart area, wait at least 30 minutes before taking up the trail.

If a deer might have been hit more marginally and not right through the vitals, you should wait longer.

For best results in trailing a crossbow-hit deer, once your wait time is over, go to the last place you saw the deer before it disappeared over the hill or into the woods. Mark that spot and look for blood drops.

Once you find a blood trail, follow it. Occasionally mark your path with a small piece of toilet paper or marking tape. That way, if you lose the trail, you can look back along your markers to get the general direction of travel.

crossbow hunting hunter hunt
Mark Chesnut


Once you’ve recovered your deer, the work begins.

The first order of business is rid it of all of its internal organs. In a nutshell, you slice its belly from stem to stern and remove everything. This includes the heart, lungs, liver, intestines and anything else you find in there.

Do this as soon as possible to ensure the meat stays fresh and delicious.

While many people send their deer to a processor for butchering, it’s really not very hard. I’ve butchered dozens and dozens of deer over the past 30 years and have found the easiest way is taking them apart muscle by muscle.

It would take too long to describe the exact method here. But if you’re uncomfortable with your first time gutting and/or butchering and don’t have an experienced hunter to show you, an internet search will reveal more videos on these topics than you’ll ever have time to watch.

Cooking Tips

There are  plenty of venison cooking videos available online, so I won’t get into a bunch of recipes here.

However, there’s one important thing to remember. Most deer have very little fat, so it’s much better to cook steaks and other cuts a little than a lot. Once you get them much more done than medium rare, you’ll start getting tougher steaks.

Don’t let that easily harvested, tasty protein in the form of a deer or two eat up your garden and avoid residing in your freezer. If shooting a firearm is prohibited or not advised in your area, try crossbow hunting.

Every time you sit down to a grilled backstrap dinner, you’ll wonder why you waited so long to get started.

Sidebar: On a Budget

Buying a crossbow for hunting your own venison doesn’t have to be an expensive endeavor.

Sure there are some high-end bows that can set you back well north of $2,000. Ravin is a great example, with its powerful, accurate R29X crossbow carrying an MSRP of $2,624.99. If you have that kind of money to spend, it’s worth every penny.

At the other end of the spectrum, it’s possible to get a very good crossbow for deer hunting and stay in the $500 range. TenPoint is a well-known company that produces outstanding crossbows. Its budget line—Wicked Ridge—exhibits the same quality at a reasonable price.

Do a little shopping around and you should be able to find the company’s Invader crossbow with scope and quiver for right around $500. That setup will almost certainly meet your needs for years to come.

Sidebar: Of Broadheads & Such

Choosing broadheads for hunting is a highly personal decision.

In a nutshell there are two types of broadheads: fixed and mechanical.

  • Fixed broadheads look like the typical kind of arrow points you would see in magazines and catalogs. They generally have three or four razor-sharp blades and a cutting area of about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. They typically fly nice and straight if they are tuned well to your crossbow.
  • Mechanicals fold down into a package about the size of a normal practice or field point. But when they hit a deer, they open up two or three cutting blades, often to a very large cutting diameter of 2 1/2 inches or more.

One warning: If you choose to use a mechanical broadhead, get a model designed for crossbow use. Some mechanicals made for compound bows might open up in flight when shot out of a crossbow. This results in an inaccurate shot.

This article appeared in Living Off the Grid, a 2020 specialty publication produced by the editors and writers of Hobby Farms magazine. Living Off the Grid includes stories on permaculture, growing plants without seeds and long-term produce storage. You can purchase this volume, Hobby Farms back issues as well as special editions such asBest of Hobby Farms and Urban Farm by following this link.

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