Before getting to the point of firing that first arrow (bolt) at a deer with a crossbow, there are some realities to face because crossbows are not guns or bows, but a sort of combination with a few advantages and a number of limitations. How these limitations are overcome will determine the success of a crossbow hunt.
Crossbows have two significant advantages. The first is that less strength is needed to cock crossbows with heavy draw weights than bows of similar weights provided that a string or wind-up cocking device is used with the crossbow. The second significant advantage is that you can shoot from a rest and hold a crossbow on target indefinitely without tiring the arm. Both of the above contribute to the crossbow's most significant advantage -- the ability to make very precise hits on close-range game.
Crossbows are short-range tools and potential shooting stands must be within 40 yards, and preferably half that distance, of where the deer, or other game, is expected to travel. Former gun hunters have more problems correctly positioning a stand than archery hunters. At crossbow range, wind direction, scent control, quiet approach routes and movement in the stand take on great importance. If a crossbow teaches nothing else, it will be the need to overcome these problems. Knowing the precise range to the game animal is also vital. Optical rangefinders should be a part of your crossbow hunting kit as errors in range estimation are the most common reasons for missing shots on game.
Lightweight Arrows (bolts)
Crossbow arrows (bolts) use either 100-grain or 125-grain fixed or mechanical broadheads. Either will work on deer, but I believe that fixed points perform better on heavily-furred animals such as bear, buffalo and the like.
If these light broadheads strike heavy bone, they will often fail to penetrate into the vitals of an animal. Arrow placement must be precise. This requirement for high-precision shooting makes it imperative that the only shots to be taken are at undisturbed animals that are well within the crossbow's and shooter's effective range.
Also key is to use only super-sharp broadheads and spin test each point to ensure there is no arrow wobble in flight. Install the broadhead on an arrow and spin the arrow. If a wobble is detected, the arrow will not fly true. Try the broadhead on another shaft and repeat the process until a good broadhead/shaft match is made. If all the arrows wobble, mark this broadhead to use only for shots at very close range.
Right-handed crossbow owners who use face-the-tree position treestands have shot angles that are restricted to a 45-degree arc on the left side of their stands. Any other position puts them in contact with the tree or requires them to shoot from their other shoulder. Typical archers' stands, or face-away-from-the-tree rifle stands, are much more adaptable for crossbow use. Gun stands, although they may restrict the shot angle, also allow the use of the shooting rail to steady your aim.
When blood trailing deer, and particularly bear and hogs, have another arrow in the crossbow with the crossbow cocked and safety on. On potentially dangerous game this is a very tense time as even a second hit on a bear or boar with a crossbow arrow may not result in a charge-stopping shot. This is all the more reason to make sure that the first shot is deadly.
Hunting Heavy Cover
Crossbows tend to hang up on everything. Trying to coax a crossbow through a brier patch or cane thicket is real work. The best approach is to grab the crossbow by a limb, hold it over the back and plow through. Of course, this makes it impossible to quickly and safety shoot the crossbow. If you must pass through heavy cover, remove the arrow from your bow, put it in a secure quiver and slip a heavy rubber band around the shafts to prevent them from slipping out until you are through the thick stuff.
Like arrows fired from vertical bows, crossbow arrows will veer wildly off target if they strike a twig or vine. Not only must there not be any line-of-sight obstructions, but also remember that the crossbow arrow follows an arc-like path with the height of the arc increasing at longer range. Shooting lanes for crossbows must be much more open than those used for rifle hunting.
As few treestands have a platform that are large enough to use to safely cock a crossbow by placing a foot in the cocking stirrup, the crossbow should be cocked on the ground and hoisted up to the stand. Only load the crossbow after you have positioned yourself, trimmed obstructing branches and are ready to start watching for game. The arrow is always removed before lowering the crossbow to the ground. As always, take extreme care that no part of the crossbow limbs or string can touch or impact against any part of the stand, tree or clothing when the crossbow is fired.
Uncocking The Crossbow
The recommended method of uncocking many crossbows is to put a target point on an arrow and shoot it into soft ground. Because no one can see a rock or root just beneath the surface this is an easy way to damage arrows. If you have a bad arrow, put it in your quiver and use it exclusively for this purpose. A better solution is to throw an inexpensive bag-type archery target in the back of the truck and uncock your crossbow by shooting the target.
For a fine selection of crossbows, click here.