By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Since the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board voted to make crossbows legal for hunting in Alabama in 2004, the crossbow phenomenon took a while to get rolling. However, in recent years, that segment of the archery business has been on fire.

Evidence of that came recently at the Buckmasters Expo in Montgomery, where everything even remotely connected with outdoors recreation was on display, including crossbows.

One of the manufacturers known for its compound bows, Mathews Inc., recently entered the crossbow market, which has been dominated by companies like Barnett, Horton, TenPoint, Excalibur and Darton.

Joel Maxfield with Mathews admitted the company was a little late on the crossbow scene. Mathews has only been making crossbows for 2 1/2 years.

“With all the states making crossbows legal, it’s just opened the door to so many new people,” Maxfield said. “Whether it’s firearms hunters transferring over into archery season, or older hunters who can continue to hunt with a crossbow, it’s a growing market. It’s growing extremely fast.”

Maxfield said although crossbows may look a little bit intimidating because they store a great deal of energy at full draw, the latest crossbows are extremely safe. Maxfield said almost everybody who shot some of the older crossbows has a story about having some fingertips stung when the bolt was released because their hands were above the rail.

“The modern crossbows have safety plates to keep that from happening,” he said. “They’re a lot safer. They’re very efficient. They’re extremely accurate, and extremely easy to use.”

Maxfield said modern crossbows are also much improved balance-wise, which makes for an easier shot.

“Older crossbows were extremely front-heavy, which made them hard to hold up and shoot,” he said. “We tried to create crossbows with nice balance and that are easy to aim. And it’s not as cumbersome to carry into the woods. It’s only 6.3 pounds, so it’s not a big piece of equipment. It’s just more convenient to use.”

At one time in the archery world, 300 feet per second (fps) was the magic number everybody was shooting for. Now 300 fps is commonplace in archery equipment. In the crossbow world, the speeds range from 300 fps to an astounding 400 fps.

Maxfield, however, doesn’t suggest that newcomers to the sport rush out and buy the fastest crossbow available.

“We make crossbows that shoot 320, 340, 360 and 400 feet per second,” he said. “The convenience of the 320 and the Dagger (340 fps) is amazing. They cock easier. And there’s plenty of kinetic energy at 320 feet per second with a 400-grain arrow (bolt). That’s similar to a very strong compound bow.”

Despite the accuracy and speed of modern crossbows, Maxfield warns that target animals, like the white-tailed deer, can still make evasive maneuvers if the hunter doesn’t use good judgment.

“Even 400 feet per second really isn’t that fast,” he said. “A .22 bullet is 1,200 feet per second. So the crossbow is not like a gun, but it still makes noise. When you create noise when you shoot a projectile, even at 400 feet per second, an animal does have time to react. There is an effective range out there that is less than what the accuracy of the crossbow might allow. You might be able to shoot pretty accurately at 80 yards to 100 yards with a crossbow. It’s fairly amazing. But as a responsible hunter, you need to keep in mind that the animal might have time to react. Although 400 feet per second sounds really fast, it’s really not that fast in the grand scheme of things.”

Jackie Bushman, Buckmasters founder and CEO, said he had a learning curve when he first picked up a crossbow a few years ago.

“It’s not as easy as people might think,” Bushman said. “I thought, aww, this will be like shooting a rifle. No, no, no, no, no. You’ve got to make sure you get a good rest. We’re hunting out of ladder stands. You just can’t stand up and shoot it like a bow. If the deer is coming from left to right (Bushman is left-handed), it’s hard to get the crossbow around. You’ve got to have a lot of things working for you when you’re hunting with a crossbow.

“And 40 yards is as far as I’m going to shoot. With the noise, deer can jump. Folks who think it’s a slam-dunk, it’s not. But it’s a lot of fun. I’ve taken three deer with a crossbow. It’s available to just about anybody now, so it’s opened some opportunities for people who might not otherwise be able to hunt.”

Bushman said as long as crossbows are sanctioned by the states’ game and fish agencies, hunters might as well take advantage.

“If those guys across the country say it’s cool, I say go for it,” Bushman said. “I love seeing the interest in crossbows. It’s almost like muzzleloaders and watching that industry grow.”

For those who would rather stick with bullets instead of bolts and arrows, there is a little good news from the ammunition industry.

Wade Stepler, a manufacturers’ representative associated with Federal Ammunition, said the industry has made inroads in the past year in better meeting the public’s demand for ammunition.

“We are catching up fast,” Stepler said. “The pistol ammunitions of .45, .40 S&W and 9mm are becoming more and more available. The deer-hunting ammunition is catching up as well.”

With squirrel season fast approaching, the big question is the availability of .22 long rifle ammunition, which has been in high demand with almost no inventory for the past three years.

“What about .22?” Stepler said. “That’s the million-dollar question. First off, the .22s are the most time-consuming product we have. Because it’s a rimfire, the primer has to go in the bottom of the casing. Then it has to sit for 36 hours for the primer to cure so you’re not putting powder on top of a wet primer. Also, that brass ingot has got to be formed five different times to be formed into a .22 long rifle casing. It’s our most time-consuming product to make, but we’re catching up slowly. We’re getting there.

“I don’t think we’re going to get caught up this year, but I can see us getting caught up in either the first or second quarter of next year. One of the VPs with Federal told me that if you look at the supply and demand curve of .22 long rifle over the last 30 years, for the first 25 years, you’ll see basically a straight, flat line. It never went up or down much at all. About five years ago, demand started to climb. About three years ago, that demand line went straight up, and it hasn’t come down yet. Federal went from running one 10-hour shift per day to running 22 hours per day. They have to have two hours a day to maintain the machines. Another machine was brought online last year. We’re now producing between 18 million and 20 million rounds per day in three facilities.”

“We’re going to fill the Civic Center up with everything for the turkey hunter, just like Buckmasters does for the deer hunter,” said Salter, a two-time World Champion turkey caller from Evergreen, Ala.

PHOTOS: (By David Rainer) Joel Maxfield of Mathews Inc., shows off one of the crossbows that was on display at the Buckmasters Expo in the Montgomery Civic Center recently. Hunting with crossbows has opened an opportunity for those who aren’t able to use regular archery equipment. In ammunition news, the supply and demand for .22 long rifle ammo appears to be leveling out with numerous cans of ammo still on the shelf at the Expo. Last year, those shelves were bare not long after the Expo opened.

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