Both bows and crossbows are amazing, powerful and accurate weapons that have been around for millennia. As technology has advanced, so has the accuracy and power of bows and crossbows, to the point that both – or either – are perfectly viable hunting tools for even the largest of game. In principle, both deliver a speeding projectile launched by the power of a tensed spring, but in practice, that’s where the similarity ends between the two weapons. Both have distinct advantages, disadvantages and personalities. While the title of this article may imply some sort of showdown, in fact bows do not compete with crossbows; they are both separate, distinct, and highly complementary. Let’s look at both.
The more ancient of the two weapons, the bow has been around for thousands of years. Today, it is best manifested in two separate designs – the standard bow, and the compound bow. Standard bows are as simple as bows can be – a piece of lumber held in tension by a bowstring. The user grasps the riser, knocks an arrow, and pulls the bowstring back towards his cheek. When the string is released, the energy stored within the bow shoots the arrow forward rapidly. Straight bows come in a variety of flavors ranging from English longbow designs to eastern recurve designs.
Primarily, the longbow and bows like it are capable of great range and power, but are unwieldy and have huge draw weights. Recurve bows by comparison use physics in their curved shape to provide high velocities while keeping the size of the bow and draw weight manageable. Modern technology has done much for conventional bows in the form of improved bowstring materials, stronger risers, and an overall price drop to the point that a non-compound bow is remarkably affordable.
The modern compound bow is a marvel of engineering that Isaac Newton himself would be proud of. Heavily utilizing physics to improve an ancient design, the compound bow is named such due to its use of cams within its bowstring configuration. The cams both create mechanical purchase and mechanical advantage to the point where a compound bow archer is able to fire off an arrow at heretofore unseen velocities without making the draw weight unmanageable. Simply put, even a modestly sized archer can now fire off a bow with a reasonable draw weight and remain competitive – or even exceed – the performance of a burly longbow archer. All in all, bows have advantages and disadvantages:
- On the low end, standard bows are inexpensive.
- An adult sized bow is powerful enough to take substantial game.
- Extremely silent compared to just about any other weapon.
- Decent rate of fire in the right hands.
- Must knock an arrow and draw the string every time you want to shoot, regardless of whether you discharge the arrow.
- High end compound bows can be wildly expensive.
- Large from a portability aspect.
The crossbow is also an ancient instrument, a play on the bow by placing it horizontally on a stock such that the user fires the weapon from the shoulder, much like a modern rifle. Crossbows have been feared weapons since their introduction; they can deliver remarkable accuracy and power in a compact package.
The crossbow has also evolved and utilized both recurve and compound mechanisms from conventional bows, and there is much variation in these weapons. One thing the crossbow needs to contend with is the width of the bow itself; a wide bow results in a bow that is easier to knock, but also one which is extremely ungainly in the horizontal position. Therefore, most crossbows use extremely narrow bows with heavy strings resulting in a bow that has far too much draw weight for the average person to pull. Mechanical advantages such as cranks are used to knock the crossbow, which lowers their rate of fire.
The fact that crossbows fire from the shoulder makes them immediately intuitive to the non-bow hunter to grasp, and crossbow manufacturers increase the appeal by adding things like firearm derived red dot sights to crossbows, making them a weapon one can pick up and shoot with very little training. Crossbows have the following pros and cons:
- Accurate even in relatively unskilled hands.
- You can knock a bolt, and carry the crossbow around all day with it ready to fire, which minimizes fatigue.
- Powerful – in some cases moreso than bows.
- Most states limit, restrict or ban hunting with crossbows.
- Slower rate of fire than a bow, depending on the cocking mechanism.
- Louder than a bow since the stock tends to shudder from the force of the bowstring when fired.
All in all, bows and crossbows are very different members of the same family, both with strong personalities. Either will serve as a fine hunting or defensive weapon, while both will prove to be hours of fun.