It is often said that success is where opportunity meets preparation. Serious hunters work hard to create that opportunity, and if they want to be successful they must work just as hard at being prepared. That includes being proficient with their weapon of choice.
Newcomers to the crossbow might think it's fairly simple to pick up and learn to shoot well. But as with any type of archery, there are specific techniques you need to learn and hone to make an accurate and ethical shot. To find out more about those techniques, I spoke with Plano-Synergy's Mark Beck, who has not only designed crossbows but won shooting championships using them.
An engineer by trade, Beck started designing crossbows back in 2007 and has worked with numerous archery companies, including Barnett. Today he is the lead engineer for all arrows and components at BloodSport.
Without a doubt, Beck's passion is archery, and it's an avocation at which he has excelled. Beck has won multiple national and state titles with both vertical bows and crossbows, plus IBO World and ASA Classic championships with a crossbow.He's also a certified Level 2 USA Archery coach, assistant archery coach at his local high school and teaches archery to wounded combat veterans.
First and foremost, however, Beck is a hunter. "I actually got into competitive shooting to make myself a better hunter," he said. So, he knows of what he speaks. And when it comes to better shooting, he doesn't distinguish between the two.
"Let's take the word 'competition' out of it and just go with accuracy," he said. "Whether I'm trying to shoot the center out of a bull's-eye or put meat on the table, it's all important."
Compound shooters know how important "fit" is, but many folks probably don't realize it's also important with crossbows.
"Don't buy a bow that doesn't fit, because you're not gonna shoot it well," Beck said. "When I talk to my students, or anyone who may ask a question in passing, I tell them it's like a shoe; if it doesn't fit, you're just going to be in pain."
So, how do you know if a crossbow fits? First, you need to know that on a conventional crossbow, there is a certain amount of cantilevered weight on the front end.
"When you pull the bow up into a shooting position, if it feels as though the front end is pulling down too much, it's too big," Beck explained. "You'll feel like you have to push the holding arm, your forward arm, forward, and it's uncomfortable to hold level. If it fits, it's going to feel balanced."
He also suggested reverse-draw bows, such as Barnett's Vengeance 2, as a way to achieve better fit.
"The reverse draw can help the smaller archer pick up some speed just because the balance point has shifted between the supporting shoulder and hand," he said.
"If the bow fits, your stance almost becomes effortless," Beck said. Besides, hunting conditions often dictate your position, which is quite often sitting.
However, he did address "shouldering." If you don't have a rest such as a shooting rail or sticks, he recommends putting the elbow of your supporting arm against your rib cage or on a knee.
"That way," he continued, "you can inhale or exhale to lift or lower it. I prefer to do that more so than bend my waist or my spine."
Another thing Beck recommends is supporting the front stock with an open hand. Vertical bow shooters already understand why. Tightly gripping the riser results in torquing the bow. Much the same applies to crossbows.
Next, I asked about proper eye relief.
"I shoulder the bow with eyes closed to achieve a comfortable stance, open my eyes and then have someone move the scope fore and aft," Beck said. "That way I have no opinion about where my eyes should be and returning to proper form is automatic and repeatable, on the range and in the field. It feels natural. It happens faster, and I'm more confident in my shot."
In terms of draw weight, Beck said it really comes down to how much weight the user is comfortable pulling.
"If the poundage is too heavy, you're going to struggle with it before the string gets into the trigger box and hits the latch, particularly in those last few inches," he said. "If it's too much of a struggle, you're going to fatigue yourself, which will affect your shooting later on."
Beck pointed out another drawback when pulling too much weight with a rope cocking aid. Unless you're ambidextrous, you have a strong hand and a weak hand.
"When you draw, your strong hand will remain stronger than your weak hand, and you'll unintentionally cock the bow off-center. As a right-handed shooter, if I overload the right bank and have the left weakened I will shoot to the left."
Proper arrow selection is also key to how well you shoot. When matching the arrow to the bow, Beck looks at speed ratings as a starting point.
"When you consider ratings on bows like the Ghost 415, that's done with a 400-grain arrow. If you go to a 425-grain arrow, you gain a lot more energy but you're only losing about 10 feet per second of speed, which is negligible inside 30 yards."
Beck makes it very clear which side of the speed versus energy fence he sits on.
"The arrow's job is to get the broadhead to the target and provide the force to push it through," he said. "You want two holes — an entry so the arrow can do its job and an exit for a blood trail so you can do your job."
Beck added that heavier arrows, especially when they're tip heavy, also drift less in the wind. Arrow length is also a consideration.
"Never shoot something below recommended length," Beck advised. "If the bow comes with 22-inch arrows, don't shoot 20s."
He qualifies that if your bow manual recommends a 20-inch arrow, you can get away with 22.
"I shoot 22s out of everything. I just feel more confident in longer length," he said. "You get better spine reaction, and an extra two inches sticking off the end of the bow isn't hurting anything."
Most crossbow hunters will probably lean toward mechanical heads for their simplicity.
"They provide a benefit, particularly for those folks who might just be getting into crossbows," Beck said. "When you shoot an expandable, you don't have to worry much about tuning."
He cautions that you need to be sure the mechanical head is rated for your bow's speed. Faster speeds and more energy being transferred from bow to arrow could result in broadheads malfunctioning, the most common problem being opening prematurely. Beck's solution is simply to shoot fixed heads.
"I like their cut-on-contact capabilities, and they are worry free," he said.
He does acknowledge they may need a little tuning. If you find yourself undecided, Beck suggested BloodSport's Gravedigger Hybrid, which he calls "the best of both worlds!"
Another area that's equally applicable to crossbows and compounds is trigger control.
"I recommend shooters set their trigger just before or on the first joint," Beck said, "not on the tip of the finger. First, you're pulling weight is a little heavier than with a rifle, and you need more grip. Second, you don't get into hair trigger syndrome."
Breath control also comes into play when pulling the trigger.
"I like to take a deep breath and let it half out, regardless of what I'm shooting — compound, rifle or crossbow," Beck said. "I know I still have half the capacity left in my lungs if I need to hold. And you should try to relax when shooting. Try to slow your heartbeat."
Even after you pull the trigger, your job isn't done. Just as with compounds, follow-through is critical.
"I try to hold my stance until the arrow hits the target," he told me. "When shooting 20 yards or more, if you don't move your head, jerk or change stance, that bow will come back and re-center and you will see your arrow hit the target. You might not see it when shooting shorter distances, because the bow will jump, but once you train yourself to look through the scope to see where you hit, the urge to peek goes away."
In the end, it really doesn't matter whether you're a rifle hunter looking for a first step into archery or a compound or traditional archer merely curious about horizontal bows. You can apply many of the same principles of fit, form and follow-through to crossbows.
And if you ultimately decide crossbows are not for you, you can apply all of these principles to your preferred weapon.
Whatever you shoot, follow Mark Beck's shooting tips and remember that practice makes perfect.
Rifle hunters will feel right at home behind Browning's all-new OneSixTwo ($1,400), featuring TriggerTech's crisp, 3-pound trigger system with Frictionless Release Technology. The OneSixTwo also has two anti-dry fire mechanisms. The rig cannot be moved off safe unless an arrow is loaded, nor can it be fired if it is loaded improperly. The Crank Cocking Device turns a 145-pound draw weight into just 17 pounds. Other notable features include a 14.625-inch power stroke, 122 foot-pounds of kinetic energy, 370 fps speed rating and a mass weight of 7.2 pounds. Comes with a travel case, scope, quiver and three bolts.
Barnett's Ghost 415 Revenant ($1,199) delivers plenty of power, boasting an arrow speed rating of 415 feet per second, 153 foot-pounds of kinetic energy and Carbon Riser Technology that reduces riser weight by 43 percent. Other highlights include a CNC-machined aluminum flight track, bristle arrow retainer, pass — through foregrip and composite laminated limbs. Draw weight is 185 pounds and mass weight is 7 pounds and power stroke is 15.375 inches. With purchase, you get a 1.5-5x32 illuminated scope, rope-cocking device, three-arrow quiver, Talon crossbow sling and three 22-inch Headhunter arrows.
Barnett's Vengeance 2 ($999) features Reverse-Draw Technology and an adjustable pistol grip. Specs include a mass weight of 7.9 pounds, a draw weight of 145 pounds, an 18-inch power stroke and the ability to send its projectiles downrange at 380 feet per second. Additionally, there are 128 foot-pounds of kinetic energy, an overall length of 33.75 inches, an overall width of 23.25 inches and an 18-inch axle-to-axle width. Carbon Riser Technology keeps front-end weight down and improves overall balance. Includes a premium illuminated scope and rope-cocking device.
Barnett's affordable and feature-rich Whitetail Hunter ($449) will be right at home in your favorite treestand or ground blind thanks to an 18.25-inch width and 34.25-inch length. The Whitetail Hunter has a 12.5-inch power stroke and propels bolts at 340 feet per second with 103 foot-pounds of kinetic energy. Other features include a 6.2-pound mass weight, CNC-machined Picatinny Rail, bristle arrow retainer, lightweight composite stock, adjustable butt pad and pass-through foregrip. Includes a premium 4x32 scope, rope-cocking device, three-arrow quiver and three 20-inch Headhunter arrows.