The market for crossbows continues to grow, as state after state allows their use in archery deer seasons. But following years of evolution, it appears crossbow manufacturers have reached an innovation plateau. Submissions to this year’s crossbow test are not only strikingly similar to last year’s models, they are relative clones of one another, achieving comparable speeds and sporting similar features like cocking and anti-dry-fire mechanisms, and even identical after-market triggers.
This replication is understandable when you learn that a handful of companies manufacture bows for many of the brands that slap their names on them. Barnett, for instance, not only produces its flagship Ghost 420, but also made this year’s bows branded by Cabela’s and Browning. TenPoint’s ownership of Wicked Ridge and Horton is revealed in a number of similar features and functions on those bows.
That is not to say that there’s nothing new in the world of crossbows. Our testers were wowed by the radical Ravin R15, impressed by the innovations packed into the Killer Instinct SWAT and Mission MXB Charge, and pleased with the overall quality of bows in the TenPoint’s stable. It’s just that, when you are paying $1,150 (the average price of the 11 crossbows in this year’s test), you expect more than just decorative differentiations between rivals.
EDITOR'S CHOICE | RAVIN R15 | SCORE: 86.85
This remarkable crossbow established a number of firsts in our field: fastest, easiest to operate, most compact, loudest, and most expensive. But it also garnered an entirely subjective superlative: It was the most fun crossbow to shoot, and the consensus pick for our Editor’s Choice award.
The R15 is a Swiss watch of a crossbow, with finely tuned mechanics that mesh in sequence to deliver arrows accurately and powerfully. The mechanism also makes the Ravin extremely safe to operate.
Most crossbows are either troublesome or dangerous (and sometimes both) to cock. First, you risk a hernia pulling on a heavy cocking rope or—for cranking models—hope you don’t forget to bring a handle to turn an internal ratchet, taking care not to overcrank the works. In either case, you put your fingers in harm’s way to remove the cocking device from the taut string. The Ravin solves the problem with an ingenious (and safe) cocking system in which the entire trigger mechanism coasts down the rail on a flexible tape—it functions like a miniature tow rope—to engage the string at its very midpoint, ensuring a consistent draw cycle. Then an ambidextrous crank draws the trigger shuttle—and the string—to the cocked and locked position; an internal clutch prevents overcranking. Reverse the procedure to safely decock the bow.
Once you’ve loaded the Ravin with its proprietary arrows, the bow’s other assets come into play. Dimensionally, this is one of the most compact crossbows we’ve tested, measuring just 9 inches wide in the cocked position. But the narrow limbs don’t give up any velocity, thanks to innovative cams that rotate 340 degrees and spit out arrows at 457 feet per second, earning the Ravin the title of fastest bow in our test.
Speed generates vibration, though, and the Ravin produced a mighty amount of noise and hand shock. But the bow’s performance, as measured by consistent accuracy even at long ranges, is among the best we’ve ever evaluated, thanks to the excellent trigger and a “frictionless” power stroke in which the arrow floats over the rail. The bow’s ergonomics and best-in-class scope contribute to the accuracy.
We never imagined that we’d recommend a bow that costs more than $2,000, but the Ravin might just be the last crossbow you’ll ever buy.
BARNETT GHOST 420 | SCORE: 81
The fastest crossbow that Barnett has produced, the Ghost 420 is a delight to shoot, thanks to its long 15.4-inch power stroke and sweet balance achieved with a lightweight aluminum rail and “carbonlite” riser. The Ghost 420 features a great TriggerTech trigger—our sample broke at a consistent 3 pounds—one of the best scopes in the test, and a satiny finish in Mossy Oak’s cool new monochromatic Treestand pattern.
Our bow produced a scorching 445 feet per second—second-fastest in the field—and while the ergonomics and vibration-dampening features of the bow eat up a lot of energy, it’s still jarringly loud to shoot. Our test sample was delivered with a simple but effective cocking rope, but you can also get the Ghost 420 with Barnett’s crank-cocking system.
Cosmetically, you’ll notice lots of carbon fiber. Functionally, there’s not much difference from previous versions of the Ghost. But if you want a fast, stylish, reliable bow, the Barnett is an excellent choice.
TENPOINT CARBON PHANTOM RCX | SCORE: 79.2
TenPoint is as consistent as elemental carbon. Every year, the company introduces a flagship crossbow that’s equal to its predecessor in mechanics, shootability, and overall build. Problem for us testers is not proclaiming its quality but rather parsing differences from the previous years’ versions.
This year’s Carbon Phantom RCX is, once again, a solid shooter. The bones of this bow will be familiar to TenPoint fans: AcuDraw cocking system, RangeMaster scope, split limbs, and carbon-fiber rail. But the Carbon Phantom’s 16-inch power stroke is one of the longest in TenPoint’s history, and it helps dissipate the recoil of the shot, helping the bow earn a high “shootability” score from our panel. It also promotes speed. Our test model clocked an average of 370 feet per second.
Other new—or newish—features include a closed trigger guard and a stock that adjusts for comb height and length of pull. Testers complained about the creepiness of the trigger, but universally raved about the shootability and handling of the TenPoint.
|Weight (lb., with scope)||8.4||8.9||10.1|
|Power Stroke (in.)||12.75||15.4||15.5|
|Widths (cocked/uncocked, in.)||9.1/13.75||18.75/22.5||15.75/20.75|
|Trigger Pull||2 lb. 10 oz.||2 lb. 13 oz.||3 lb. 6 oz.|
|Kinetic Energy at Release (Joules)||268.7||252.4||189.2|
|Vibration (Meters per SecondX4X2X5X)/Score||32.44/8.1||34.19/7.9||34.55/7.9|
HORTON VORTEC RDX | SCORE: 79.2
Reverse-limb crossbows have been around for a few years, and while there’s nothing particularly innovative about this Horton, the configuration delivered the smoothest and one of the quietest power strokes in this year’s field.
Like other bows from the TenPoint family of brands, the Horton had a good trigger and a very good scope with holdover references that can be tuned to arrow speed. Its cocking device, the crank-operated AcuDraw, was the smoothest and most hassle-free of its peers.
At just over 10 pounds, the Horton tied with the TenPoint for heftiest bow in the test, but evaluators liked the Vortec’s cushiony power stroke and, at just 14 inches wide when cocked, its versatility that would be home in a ground blind or a tight treestand platform.
MISSION MXB CHARGE | SCORE: 78.35
If you’re looking for a bow you intend to shoot in a ground blind, consider this smooth and quiet Mission.
When we first cocked the MXB Charge, we felt like an elephant balancing (awkwardly) on a volleyball. The cocking stirrups are simply too narrow for comfortable cocking from a standing position. One of the testers actually tipped over while trying to cock the device.
But then we took the Charge into the tight quarters of a pop-up blind, and the brilliance of the cocking mechanism was revealed to testers. From a sitting position, put your feet inside the limbs of the Charge and pull to cock the bow. It’s a simple and smart design.
Other attributes include an adjustable stock that can be snugged into the shoulder’s shoulder, a top-notch Hawke optic, and a cable slide that promotes consistent draw dynamics. We clocked an average speed of 440 fps from the MXB Charge.
KILLER INSTINCT SWAT | SCORE: 73
One of the most innovative crossbows in this year’s test, the Killer Instinct features posterior “wings” that compress the string, effectively extending the power stroke of the bow without lengthening its overall dimensions. Other innovations: a “double-barrel” rail system that conceals the arrow—our team questioned whether this makes the bow more or less safe—and enables a relatively friction-free flight path for the string.
The string-compression system generates decent speed for what can be classified as a compact bow; our sample pushed arrows at about 350 fps. But the design, in which the arrow release is about 8 inches aft of the trigger, results in a very heavy trigger. Our sample broke at just under 6 pounds.
Pluses include a very comfortable AR-type pistol grip and rubberized wings that promote good cheek contact with the stock. Minuses include proprietary arrows and a clunky cocking indicator that left testers unsure whether the bow was loaded or not.
|Weight (lb., with scope)||10.1||8.4||9.3|
|Power Stroke (in.)||15.5||12.75||17.5|
|Widths (cocked/uncocked, in.)||14/19.25||18.5/19.75||18.5/21.5|
|Trigger Pull||3 lb. 7 oz.||4 lb. 9 oz.||5 lb. 10 oz.|
|Kinetic Energy at Release (Joules)||164.9||189.2||206.7|
|Vibration (Meters per SecondX13X2X14X)/Score||14.99/10||20.64/9.4||21.64/9.3|
STRYKER KATANA 360 | SCORE: 72.85
A solid, no-nonsense bow, the Katana 360 was the quietest and one of the smoothest crossbows in this year’s field. Besides a cocking-rope hiccup—it was slightly too long for those testers with short arms—we had very few quibbles with the bow’s straightforward operation. The split limbs fired arrows at 350 fps, just under its advertised speed, and we were pleased with its accuracy and consistency as well as the bow’s balance. The trigger broke at about 3-1/2 pounds.
Like its predecessor in the Katana line (the 385), the 360 features a decocking capability that allows users to decompress the string without firing an arrow. With a little practice, it’s an easy, safe, and quiet operation and it should extend the lifetime of the string.
WICKED RIDGE INVADER | SCORE: 71.2
With a retail price of $649, this was the least expensive bow in this year’s field, costing less than half of some of the crossbows in the test. Does that mean those other bows are twice as good as this solid, straightforward shooter from Wicked Ridge? No.
This is a bare-bones crossbow, much in the style of previous generations of Wicked Ridge. But it doesn’t feel Spartan. You get the AcuDraw cranking system patented by parent company TenPoint, and you get a very good TenPoint scope. The rest of the bow is pretty standard: split limbs and conventional cams, a 13.5-inch power stroke that delivers arrows at about 315 feet per second, and a good trigger.
Those features add up to a good value on a dependable crossbow. Is it worthy of our Great Buy award? We didn’t think so. This is still a fairly pricey hunting implement, but it says more about the rising prices of its competitors that a $700 crossbow can seem like a bargain.
CABELA’S FINALITY 390 | SCORE: 67.1
Once we got this big, powerful bow cocked, it was a delight to shoot, turning in one of the quietest scores in the field while firing arrows at near its advertised velocity of 390 fps. The crossbow shares many features from its manufacturer, Barnett, including an excellent TriggerTech trigger, laminated split limbs, Picatinny rails to mount accessories, and a comfortable rubberized grip.
But about that cocking…
The Finality features an integrated cocking system in which a double-hooked slide captures the string. When the ambidextrous crank is turned, force-multiplying pulleys draw the bowstring to the cocked position. So far, so good. But the cord connected to the cranking mechanism is too easy to get crossed, which then binds the crank. With plenty of time and practice, this is a workable system, but we worry that when cocking this bow in the dark, or in the tight quarters of a ground blind or treestand, it’s easy to gum up the works with a nasty birdsnest of line.
|Weight (lb., with scope)||9.8||9.3||9|
|Power Stroke (in.)||11.4||13.5||13.75|
|Widths (cocked/uncocked, in.)||20/24.1||16/24||19/22.5|
|Trigger Pull||3 lb. 6 oz.||1 lb. 10 oz.||3 lb. 4 oz.|
|Kinetic Energy at Release (Joules)||154.4||145.3||215.5|
|Vibration (Meters per SecondX22X2X23X)/Score||19.23/9.5||27.84/8.6||33.46/8|
BROWNING ONESEVENONE | SCORE: 63.7
If this crossbow looks familiar, it is. Made by Barnett, it’s very similar in appearance and performance to the Cabela’s Finality. It also shares many features with the Barnett Ghost 420, the parent company’s flagship crossbow.
One point of differentiation is the cocking system. The Browning features a smart indexed slide that rides down the rail, ensuring that the string, which is cocked with a pull rope, is drawn evenly and consistently every time in order to maximize accuracy. The OneSevenOne was one of the quietest crossbows in the field, but it turned in the worst vibration score in the test.
You may note that the Browning earned zero points for speed. That’s not because the crossbow can’t shoot; it’s because we couldn’t get a velocity score at our objective testing facility. The cocking rope pulled through the handle, probably because of an undersized knot. We later replaced the cocking mechanism and managed to get an unofficial velocity reading—386 fps on average—with a chronograph.
EXCALIBER MICRO SUPPRESSOR | SCORE: 60.85
The only recurve-limbed crossbow in this year’s test, the Excalibur is remarkably quiet, thanks to a platoon of vibration- and noise-dampening bumpers. And it’s fun to shoot; the short length (31 ½ inches), relatively light weight (8.3 pounds), and relatively compact limbs (21 inches cocked) make it worthy as a blind bow or for walk-about hunting.
It is a bear to cock, however, and the trigger, which broke at over 4 pounds, is fairly heavy for a crossbow. The Suppressor shoots Excalibur’s proprietary arrows, called Quills, which are shorter and lighter than most standard crossbow arrows.
Still, it’s an accurate set-up and a simple and solid bow, though we thought it was overpriced.
|Weight (lb., with scope)||8.6||8.2|
|Power Stroke (in.)||15||10.2|
|Widths (cocked/uncocked, in.)||20/22||21/24.88|
|Trigger Pull||2 lb. 15 oz.||4 lb. 4 oz.|
|Kinetic Energy at Release (Joules)||—**||182.7|
|Speed (FPS)/Score||—/0 **||377.9/6.7|
|Vibration (Meters per SecondX30X2X31X)/Score||45.75/5||23.86/9|
**could not test velocity or calculate kinetic energy due to cocking string failure