The Crossbow: a Terrible SHTF Weapon Choice
Dr. John Woods 12.03.13
Editor’s Note: In honor of the recently aired mid-season finale of The Walking Dead, we bring you the following takedown of Daryl Dixon’s weapon of choice.
While many preppers are busy stockpiling hordes of rifles, shotguns, and handguns plus cases of ammunition for a looming doomsday scenario, others are thinking more broadly about other weapons options. Thanks to the success of AMC’s The Walking Dead, one of the options that has become popular with preppers is the crossbow.
On TWD, one of the main characters (Norman Reedus’s Daryl Dixon) uses a crossbow with quite an astonishing amount of lethal success. But is this even remotely realistic? Let’s take a look at this bolt (arrow) shooting implement to see its implications as a true SHTF tool.
Shooting a Crossbow
Until you have some experience shooting a crossbow at real targets, inanimate or alive, you may initially consider a crossbow difficult to wield and awkward in its handling. You would be right. Crossbows can be quite heavy, and some are unbalanced front to back. Many of the models offer pistol grip handles on the stock, which can make handling them a little easier. Some stock finishes are slicker than others, so they’re more difficult to grip well.
It takes some getting used to in order to shoot a crossbow well. Practice is paramount. There are vibration elements to shooting an crossbow that are unlike shooting a rifle or shotgun. It is not classic recoil per se, but a sort of harmonic vibe at the pull of the trigger. It can be slightly distracting to the inexperienced. Again, use and practice will eventually dissipate this issue, but you could also spend that practice time honing your pistol skills.
Cocking any crossbow might be considered an ordeal. It is not a speedy process, like nocking a traditional vertical bow and arrow. A special cocking rope has to be connected to the draw string via hooks, wrapped over a groove in the stock above the trigger mechanism (this gives you the leverage needed to pull the string into its fully cocked back position), and then the rope handles are pulled back as your foot rests in the fore end loop held down to the ground. The process is easier performed than described.
Some may be inclined, like Daryl, to hand cock their crossbow. After testing this out, I suspect it is a task most of us would only do one time. That is if we don’t half cut a finger off in the process. The string is not “sharp” per se, but it can be abrasive and will put a ton of pressure on your finger. Use the cocking method described in the owner’s manual with the crossbow you buy.
Once the string is cocked, then most crossbows will have a safety to engage. The bolt is placed into the shooting runway with the odd colored fletch down (did you notice the fletching is two different colors?). Then the crossbow is held like a long gun to be aimed and fired.
The trigger mechanism on a crossbow is sort of like that on a firearm in that there is a finger lever to squeeze to release the trigger and thus the string to push the bolt forward down the raceway and on to its target. I have not found that crossbow triggers are finely tuned releases like that on a good hunting or defense rifle, so the trigger feel is something one has to get used to with lots of practice. I definitely think it is a mechanism that can be mastered, but it takes work. Also I would not recommend trying to clean up or lighten a crossbow trigger. They just are not meant to be tinkered with lest something might get screwed up.
Most crossbows tend to be slightly front heavy. This translates into being somewhat more difficult to hold still for really accurate precise on target shooting. Once you practice with it, you will find you can make the balancing adjustments pretty well. If you were going to hunt with the crossbow, then I would recommend using a Primos Trigger Stick or some other bipod or tripod. There are many options for this accessory.
As a SHTF weapons option though, expediency will not likely permit the use of a shooting stick or a pod. You would have to spend a lot of time to practicing different off-hand shooting techniques. I find best the technique of holding my left arm/elbow close to my upper torso in order to provide support to holding a crossbow offhand. This hold forms a sort of triangle holding up the crossbow. Like I said, it takes some practice.
Range and Bolt Selection
At best a crossbow has its certain capabilities and its own set of limitations. You may note on The Walking Dead that Daryl shoots the zombies at an incredibly close range — often it seems to me thirty yards or less distance. We’ll excuse the argument here for a situation in allowing a SHTF adversary to get that close in the first place. Zombies do not wield their own weapons, so dispatching them becomes an easier task for a half decent shooter. This will not be the case in a real life SHTF scenario.
I have seen hunting videos recently where shooters fire a crossbow bolt up to 80-yards at deer sized game. That is folly in my humble opinion. More realistically, the crossbow is a 40-yard max tool, but more like a 30-yard cap is honest. And that is shooting a razor sharp broadhead, not a field point as Daryl uses on the TV episodes.
Field points or broadheads can make the debate interesting. In everyday use, field points are for practice, and cutting edge broadhead points are for damaging tissue. I certainly think it would be uncomfortable if not immediately terminal to be shot with an X-bow field point especially in a critical area like the heart, lungs, neck, eye or ear socket. There is little doubt of the damage a Muzzy or Rage broadhead would do to human flesh.
While a razor broadhead has tremendous killing capabilities, it is highly likely to be destroyed at the shot. Under SHTF conditions, one has to constantly consider resupply of consumables like arrows and points. Know that broadheads are not like buying a box of ammo with 20 rounds in the box. A set of three of these razor points can easily cost $40 or more. That is a high cost per kill.
As a sidebar here, now the argument for using a less lethal field point is that the bolt/arrow can be more easily extracted from the host target often without appreciable damage to the shaft or point. That is assuming one does not hit bone or skull for example. If your bolt stocks are not great, then recovery of the bolt/point is crucial.
The (not so) Silent Killer
One of the most highly touted advantages of the crossbow for preppers is its relative silent deployment and use. Many preppers either live in states where they can’t purchase suppressors for their guns or they can’t afford such items, so the crossbow is seen as a real option for ambush opportunities and situations where you don’t want the whole neighborhood to know that you just dispatched an intruder. But a crossbow user must always be aware of the outer edges of the bow limbs and cams as so to not knock into things around them that might make noise, so it’s not the best option for low-light situations in cramped quarters.
Then there’s fact that, unless you really score a direct hit on the target’s heart or lungs, the target is likely to make a ton of noise after being hit. And if that target is armed with a gun, they could very well stay alive long enough to get off a few shots in your direction. Now you’ve given away your location and your hostile intent to a wounded and very angry aggressor whose sole purpose in life is now taking you with them to the hereafter.
A prepper who’s concerned about getting in a silent kill in a SHTF scenario would be far, far better off buying a small-caliber pistol and then downloading and printing out one of the many online tutorials for how to make a homebrew silencer. This is a much cheaper, easier, deadlier, and more reliable way to score silent kills in a without-rule-of-law (WROL) scenario.
Note: Do not, under any circumstances, print out instructions for a homebrew silencer and then also acquire the materials to make such an item. If you’re caught with the materials and plans for making a silencer, then you can be charged with “constructive possession” and put away for a long time. The materials for making such things are readily available, and will readily available for a long time even in a SHTF situation. So there is absolutely no need to put yourself at risk of a constructive possession charge. Indeed, if I personally were to download such instructions, I’d clear my house of every item on that list if possible, just to be on the safe side.
The Crossbow vs. the .22LR
So what is the consequential impact (pun intended) of a crossbow bolt in theory? Ponder this: Most crossbows today send a bolt flying at from 300-400 feet per second velocity. By comparison, a .22 Long Rifle flies out the muzzle at 1200-1400 feet per second. A 40 grain .22 bullet produces roughly 130-170 foot pounds of killing energy.
Though a field point usually weighs 100 grains and a typical crossbow bolt broadhead weighs 100-125 grains, because of the low velocity they can produce less terminal energy than a .22 LR round.
You have probably commonly seen hunting shows depicting arrows sailing right through a deer. It is unlikely that a field point would do so unless only soft tissue was penetrated. Translate all of that into a SHTF event where a human might be the target. What it means in terms of electing to use a crossbow for a SHTF defensive weapon is to aim for areas of the target where penetration would be realistically anticipated. If the threat is wearing a heavy coat or armor, then good luck with that.
So if you’re determined to use a crossbow post-SHTF, then you’d better start stocking up on those expensive broadheads, as the killing impact of a broadhead is in the cutting capability of the blades not necessarily the force of the impact.
Unlike the Hollywood scenes on TWD, the SHTF adversaries will not be zombies. They will also very likely be armed as well or better than you. One has to consider long and hard just how efficient and effective a crossbow could be under these circumstances. I have a crossbow now, but it won’t replace my AR-15 or my 1911.
So, can a crossbow be considered a viable option as a SHTF survival weapon? It’s probably better than a rolled up newspaper, but if you’re considering the crossbow for a long-term survival situation then you should seriously look elsewhere. Under most situations during a SHTF it should be thought of as a one-shot affair, so if you choose to use it then you had better make that shot count.