Are Crossbows Killing Whitetail Hunting?

Crossbows have become the subject of many heated debates among avid archery hunters, where do you stand?

Are Crossbows Killing Whitetail Hunting?

Photo from Excalibur Crossbows Media Room. Assassin 420TD.

The crossbow controversy has been the talk of the archery industry for several years now. As crossbows became high tech and their use during archery-only seasons across America more common — today they’re legal during archery-only seasons in 30 states, and only Oregon bans their use completely — the naysayers started in with the negative vibes. On top of the usual cynical comments — “A crossbow is not a real bow, it’s more like a rifle;” “If you don’t have to draw the bow back, you have a huge advantage;” “You can shoot a deer so much farther with a crossbow than a compound bow” and so on — there was the “success rates will grow so fast during the bow season that we’ll kill too many deer” cry.

Technical and performance comparisons aside, is it true that the whitetail deer harvest has shot through the roof since the crossbow has become legal during archery-only seasons in so many states? Let’s take a close look.

National Deer Association Data

The National Deer Association published an article by Kip Adams in September, 2020 that took a close look at actual harvest data. Adams focused on the 37 states east of the Rocky Mountains that are home to about 97 percent of the U.S. whitetail population. In these states, 30 permit crossbow use by all hunters during at least a portion of the whitetail season.

According to Adams, in 2002, the percentage of the total national whitetail harvest taken with archery equipment (bows and crossbows) was 15 percent, increasing to 21 percent by 2012. During the 2018-19 season, it increased slightly to 23 percent. The question is, of the one-third total annual whitetail harvest taken by archery gear, what percentage of it was taken by crossbows?

This data is a bit hard to compile, as five of the 30 states in question do not separate crossbow vs. vertical bow harvest. However, in 11 (that’s 44%) of the 25 states that do separate the harvest numbers, the crossbow harvest now exceeds the vertical bow harvest. Despite the fact that all states in the Southeast allow crossbows, vertical bow harvest still dominates there. It's a flip-flop in the Northeast, where 10 states allow crossbows, and crossbow harvest exceeds vertical bows in eight (80%.) In the Midwest, nine states allow crossbows, but vertical bows still account for more deer taken in six of them (67%.)

The Wisconsin Study

The Wisconsin DNR surveyed 19 states about their allowing crossbow use, who their crossbow hunters were, and what effects, if any, the addition of crossbow hunters had on their state’s deer herds. Key points include:

·      Most states that allow crossbow use allow it statewide for all of bow season.

·      States that did not allow crossbow use for all bowhunters restricted their use because of concerns over crowding, overharvest or appropriate weapon classification.

·      Opponents of crossbows have commonly been the states’ organizations representing vertical bowhunting.

·      No state interviewed that allowed crossbow use has shortened its season or restricted crossbow use from the original law.

·      Crossbow use typically increased over the initial year, then leveled off in the future.

·      Few states measure weapon-specific success rates. States that did showed higher success rates for crossbow users than vertical-bow users.

·      Most states haven’t determined if the addition of crossbows had any influence on their states’ overall deer license sales.

·      The addition of crossbows showed little impact on established seasons/traditions or hunters’ willingness to bag deer.

·      Crossbows did not cause any change in total deer harvest.

·      The addition of crossbows did not have any measurable biological impact on the states’ deer herds.

·      In the states that measured deer wounding and/or hit rates, there was little difference between vertical-bow and crossbow users.


Adams’ article noted that it’s important that none of the 19 interviewed states that allow crossbows have shortened their seasons or restricted crossbow use from the original laws permitting their use. In fact, some have actually expanded the use of crossbows. Perhaps most important is the fact that crossbow hunting has not produced any measurable biological impacts on deer herds. In fact, Maryland and Indiana mentioned crossbow use had a positive impact, since it allowed hunters to control deer numbers in areas where gun hunting is restricted.

Two big criticisms of crossbow use are they allow longer shots and have much higher hunter success rates. However, the survey found no significant difference in the reported maximum ranges for crossbow and compound bowhunters. On the other hand, Maryland, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin data shows crossbow hunters are more successful than vertical bow hunters, though the difference is less than 10% more successful in all cases. For example, in Ohio from 2012 to 2019, bow success rates averaged 21%, while crossbow success rates ranged from 19 to 28%; in Wisconsin from 2014 to 2018, bow success rates averaged 23%, while crossbow success rates ranged from 30 to 33%. Despite the higher success rates, crossbow use showed little impact on established seasons or hunters’ willingness to shoot deer.

My take? I’ve been a hard-core compound bowhunter for 40 years, and I’ve done some crossbow hunting the past five seasons. One huge difference is the fact that a compound shooter must practice a lot, while accurate crossbow shooting takes much less practice. And having to draw the compound back vs. simply aiming a cocked crossbow is a huge advantage. That being said, I welcome crossbow hunters into the deer woods during archery-only seasons.

What’s your take on crossbow use during archery-only seasons? Have crossbows become an important part of your business? Drop me a note at — I’d love to hear from you.


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