By almost every measure, the 2012 bowhunting season is shaping up to be one of the best in history. Deer populations are surging. Thanks to extended seasons that stretch up to 120 days in some states, there are more bowhunters than ever buying licenses from state fish and game departments desperate for funds.
But there’s something smelly in the woods this fall, and it’s not bear scat. It’s crossbows. The point-and-shoot weapon is enjoying its first surge in popularity since Agincourt. Five years ago, crossbows accounted for only about 2% of bow sales, says Jay McAninch, president of the Archery Trade Association. Today they’ve crept up to about 10%.
That’s a problem for many traditional bowhunters who consider crossbows cheating. “It takes away the draw, which is the single hardest thing to do in bow hunting,” said Kim Womer, 52, a lifelong traditional bowhunter from Corning, N.Y.
Mr. Womer is talking about that moment when the prey is within range and the hunter has to raise the bow, draw the string back and release the arrow—without spooking the animal. “To a lot of guys like me, crossbows are no different than guns,” he says.
That may be true, but it’s also true that in many ways there is not much difference between the compound bows that most hunters now use—which rely on a series of pulleys to put more force behind the arrow but make it easier to draw the string back—and crossbows. Both shoot arrows at about 300 feet per second. Nowadays both come equipped with laser sights and other targeting aids, and both have an effective range of about 60 yards. The big difference is that a crossbow is cocked, with an arrow in the guide, and remains ready to go until the hunter aims and fires by pulling a trigger.
Therein lies the rub for many traditional bow hunters. “I think they’re OK for older people and kids who don’t have the strength to pull a compound bow, but other than that I don’t like them,” says Pam White.
Ms. White, her husband, Jon, and about 20 other traditional bowhunters shoot in Mr. Womer’s invitation-only group, the Raghorn Archery Club, which shoots on Wednesday nights from May to October near Corning. On a recent evening, they fretted about the crossbow over Crock-Pots of elk stew and venison chili, all made with meats from their past kills. “You might as well hunt with a gun,” said Mr. White, sounding the familiar complaint.
While members of the group think crossbows are bad, most agree with Ms. White that the weapon is acceptable if it allows children or old folks to enjoy shooting arrows. What’s interesting is that is the same argument being made by Chuck Matasic, president of Kodabow, a maker of crossbows in West Chester, Pa.
“Crossbows are great for kids who, like it or not, need the instant gratification they get from videogames,” says Mr. Matasic, who hunts with both types of bows. “A crossbow is just easier for kids to shoot and hit the target.”
Crossbows also could be an important retention tool for older adults who tend to give up bow hunting around age 50, he says, because they lose the strength to pull the string well enough to aim well.
In the middle of the controversy roiling the bowhunting world is Ted Nugent, the rock guitarist and avid outdoorsman who has an opinion on almost everything but is agnostic when it comes to crossbows. “I understand the argument of the traditionalists,” says Mr. Nugent, who hunts with both a compound bow and a crossbow. “But anything that gets kids off the couch and out in the woods is all right with me.”
Despite all the gnashing of teeth, there’s evidence that the crossbow is starting to gain acceptance among traditional bowhunters. One of their number admits, in an interview conducted on condition of anonymity, that he recently drove 100 miles each way to a sporting-goods store to buy a top-of-the-line Kodabow crossbow.
“I couldn’t risk anyone seeing me,” he says, as if he’d been skulking after Viagra or heroin. “If my bowhunting buddies found out I was using one, they’d never speak to me again.”
But he does like his new crossbow. “Because it’s more accurate and easier to use, a crossbow may help cut down on the number of animals that are just wounded by novice hunters,” he says. “Nobody wants to see the animal suffer. We all want a humane kill.”
Clearly, he’s not the only convert.
“Two years ago, I’ll bet we didn’t sell a bow a day,” says Kodabow’s Mr. Matasic. “Now, we’re selling several bows a day.” It’s enough to make a traditionalist quiver.
Mr. Yost is a writer in Chicago.