State legislature could redefine 'bow' to include crossbows

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Sleek, efficient and accurate at short ranges, the new high-tech sporting arms being sold at big chain sporting goods stores aren't your medieval ancestor's crossbows.

Most retailing at about $450 and up, crossbows are so prevalent in stores you might think they're commonly used during Pennsylvania's statewide archery deer season, which began yesterday.

In fact, the crossbow is legal in just about every hunting season except archery. Regulations regarding its use, the ethical debate about its employment during archery seasons, and even the legal definition of "bow" involve more hair splitting than was ever attributed to William Tell.


Post-Gazette Poll:
Crossbows

Do you support Pennsylvania House Bill 2653, which would redefine the legal definition of "bow" and permit the statewide use of crossbows during archery seasons? Cast your vote at post-gazette.com/sports/huntingfishing.


Crossbows are legal in Pennsylvania during all big game rifle and muzzleloader seasons, including turkey seasons. They're legal to use for deer in special-regulations areas surrounding Pittsburgh and Philadelphia where the use of rifles is banned, and during special archery deer seasons in those Wildlife Management Units. They're legal during archery deer seasons for disabled hunters with special permits, and they're legal across the state line in Ohio.

Many archers have long opposed the crossbow in archery seasons on ethical and resource management grounds, while others continue to regard it as a technical innovation in sporting arms no different than the advent of the compound bow or in-line muzzleloader.

What's changed in 2008 is Pennsylvania House Bill 2653, which if passed would redefine the legal definition of "bow" to include hand-held devices that can be loaded with an arrow, locked in place and cocked. That change in the language of Title 34, the state Game and Wildlife Code, would shift crossbow regulation from a game management issue to a legislative directive and permit crossbow use during archery deer seasons. There is no vote pending on the bill.

There's another change on the horizon. When members of the Pennsylvania Game Commission gather for their quarterly meeting Oct. 23-24 at the Holiday Inn Meadowlands, 340 Racetrack Road in Washington, Pa., they'll vote on an agenda item that would make crossbows legal during all hunting seasons -- big and small game -- except archery deer seasons. Crossbows would continue to be legal in the 2B, 5C and 5D archery seasons.

Prior to 2000, only hunters with disabled person permits could use crossbows in Pennsylvania. Legislation was passed that year removing the crossbow from the list of prohibited sporting arms. In 2001 the Game Commission regulated crossbows in some hunting situations, and in 2004 the agency further liberalized its use.

Members of United Bowhunters of Pennsylvania have been trying to keep crossbows out of the woods during archery seasons for years.

"We feel very strongly that it is not archery equipment," said spokesman Ed Wentzler. "The legislature has no business making wildlife management decisions -- that's a regulatory issue."

It isn't the sporting arm itself that's bad, Wentzler said, and he has no problem with crossbow use by the disabled, during rifle seasons or even during archery seasons in high-density deer areas such as 2B, which includes most of Allegheny County.

"But with its increased accuracy up to 60 or 80 yards, the potential is there for the deer harvest to skyrocket during the wrong time of year," he said. "It's happened in other states [where crossbows were legalized]. Every sport has its ethical lines. Crossbows just cross that line for archers."

The Pennsylvania State Archery Association is less certain. Because of the continuing controversy, the group doesn't have an official position on crossbow use.

"Some members use it, some don't," said spokesman Greg Schoen. "Personally I feel there are disadvantages to the crossbow, just like regular bows. I don't think that it gives you as much of an advantage as everybody thinks. If they legalize them [for use in archery seasons], I have no problem with that."

Daniel James Hendricks, publisher of the Minnesota-based Horizontal Bowhunter Magazine, said claims of the crossbow's deadly accuracy are often overblown.

"Because of the longer power stoke, vertical bows store more kinetic energy than crossbows," he said. "[The bolt] comes off the [crossbow] strings like gangbusters, but it loses energy quickly. Striking power is probably identical [to traditional bows] out to about 30 yards. After that the arrow from a crossbow drops faster than from a compound bow."

The big advantages of the crossbow, he said, is that it's easier to draw and easier to master.

While there's some circumstantial evidence that the crossbow has had a negative impact on Pennsylvania deer populations, no formal study has been done in this state. It remains speculative, said commission spokesman Jerry Feaser, that crossbow use during the pre-rut would necessarily result in overly high deer harvests.

"The legislature has always had the authority to determine what is a lawful hunting device," he said, "and the change in Title 34, if passed, would redefine the crossbow as a legal archery implement. But we would still have the ability to manage harvests by adjustments to season lengths and bag limits."

West Newton archer Walt Farneth bought his crossbow when his arm was injured. Fortunately the arm healed in time for archery season and he's never used his new toy during a hunt.

"I'd use it in a heartbeat," he said. "If it were made legal [for use in archery seasons] then there wouldn't be an ethical issue. If I don't use it in the near future, I'd probably use it when I get older and can't draw my bow."

Crossbow debate poll

Do you support Pennsylvania House Bill 2653, which would redefine the legal definition of "bow" and permit the statewide use of crossbows during archery seasons? Cast your vote at post-gazette.com/sports/huntingfishing.


John Hayes can be reached at jhayes@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1991.


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