I am a keen hunter and have been a crossbow enthusiast for the past five years.
Hunting or Shooting Practice?
First of all it's good to be clear about whether you want a crossbow for hunting or for shooting practice.
If you want a crossbow for hunting, this will affect the minimum performance requirements you need to look for.
You can look up the minimum requirements for each state online, but a good rule is making sure the crossbow has a minimum draw-weight of 75 lbs.
Broadheads for hunting
What's more, if you're going to hunt, you'll need broadheads.
Normally a bolt (a crossbow arrow) comes with a field-tip for a head. A field tip is a plain head which flies very precisely and is great for target practice.
A broadhead is a specially designed head for hunting animals, with the objective of doing as much damage as possible and leaving a blood trail which is easy to track once the game has been hit.
You can choose different broadheads according to the type of game you are hunting.
Understanding your Crossbow
Speed & Power
Many hunters are hooked on the concept of speed, and having the fastest arrow. Speed is measured in feet-per-seconds (FPS) for bolts. To get an idea, most commercially sold crossbows will fly anywhere between 200 and 450 FPS.
The fastest crossbow in the world right now flies at around 470 FPS.
Speed is not actually key to crossbows, aside from wanting to show off to your friends that you've got the fastest crossbow.
When it comes to hunting power is more important, as it determines whether the bolt will pass cleanly through a hunted animal and kill it ethically.
Bolt power is measured in foot-pounds of kinetic energy (FPKE). The top bows have somewhere around 180-200 FKPE, but anywhere from 100 FPKE upwards is more than sufficient to make it cleanly through game.
Size & Weight
Again, depending on your crossbow use, a well-proportioned crossbow is important.
If you're doing target practice you can afford to have a heavier, wider crossbow.
If you're going hunting, you need a crossbow that is lightweight and manoeuvrable in closed areas, such as forests and tree stands (where hunters hide and wait for game).
For a rough idea, the best proportioned crossbows are roughly 8 to 10 inches wide (when cocked), and come in at around 6 lbs in weight. I'd say that anywhere as much as 14 to 15 inches is decent, and as high as 7 to 8 lbs in weight.
Beginners tend to forget this essential aspect of hunting.
When trying to get closer to wild animals, or while waiting in a tree stand for them to approach, the last thing you want is a loud noise or the sound of metal on metal from the buckles of a tree harness.
Crossbows in particular can be very noisy when taking a shot. As the crossbow flies the strings vibrate. If you are shooting over longer distance, say at 30/40+ yards, a deer will hear the 'twang' of your bow string and start to run, before the crossbow arrives at its target.
This isn't necessarily enough time to get away (although over much greater distances it is), but it does raise questions about ethical killing and hitting a deer in the correct place to cause instance death and avoid prolonged agony.
When purchasing your crossbow, find one that has noise-dampeners on the strings, or buy them separately.
Power Stroke & Draw Weight
Power stroke is the distance that you have to pull the strings of your crossbow back to cock it. Cocking a bow can be really tough, and the longest power strokes are as much as 20 inches.
This is probably too big for most people to cock, and if you're not so tall or particularly strong, you'll find it extremely difficult.
If this is your case, look for a reduced power stroke between 10 and 15 inches.
Draw weight refers to the resistance when you are cocking the crossbow. If you think you'll struggle with higher draw weights, look for a crossbow which includes a cocking device, which will significantly reduce the required draw weight.
Durability & Warranty
Everyone wants a crossbow that will last them for many years. There are a couple of decisions which will affect your bows durability.
A recurve crossbow or a compound crossbow
Recurve crossbows are the more traditional crossbows where you draw against the string and the crossbow limbs bend to take the strain, and create force to fire the crossbow.
Recurve bows are typically more resilient. What's cool is you can also replace the strings (or practically any part) yourself if you wish to.
A compound bow is a newer design which is typically more powerful. It uses a system of pulleys and levers to generate power far greater than a recurve crossbow.
The drawback to this is that you can't change the parts yourself as you need specialist equipment. What's more, you'll have to change your strings more often due to the force they are regularly subjected to.
Whichever crossbow you decide to choose, make sure your new crossbow comes with a good warranty between two and five years. Some manufacturers even offer a lifetime warranty. This covers your back, whatever happens.
Crossbows have lots of additional accessories, from cocking devices, scopes and bow cases, to rail lube wax, bolts and field-tips.
If it's your first crossbow I suggest purchasing a 'package deal'. There are several excellent package deals available and they include everything you need to get started.
The more advanced hunter will prefer to buy all the parts separately and customise his or her crossbow how he or she prefers.
There are many things to take into account when buying a crossbow. Hopefully this article has shed some light on some of the major decisions to be made.
That said, you can't replace the benefit of going to a shop to try out crossbows and talking with a professional about a crossbow that will meet your specific needs.