Crossbow Academy Pt 4: how to choose and use a crossbow scope

Learn about crossbow scopes, reticles, aiming techniques, magnification, recoil compatibility, and how to get what you need without overspending.

To an utter novice (or someone who’s never watched an action movie), the pattern visible inside a scope may look like a home assignment for geometry class. That pattern is, in fact, the scope’s reticle, and this blog will give newcomers to Steambow’s world of crossbows, and the crossbow-curious alike, an idea of how to use a reticle to best effect.

First, if you are reading this because you have a crossbow and want to use its scope for shooting, be sure to first read our blog on sighting in your aiming device. Without that step already accomplished, using a scope will not help you.

Understanding reticles

Let’s get back to talking reticles. At its most basic, a scope reticle is simply a single point to identify where you want your projectile (an arrow, in this case) to hit. Reticles can become immensely complex with many integrated features that can massively increase aiming effectiveness if you know how.

On a crossbow of any type, that is not absolutely necessary. Crossbow distances make such optical engineering useful but not a must-have. The thing with any archery equipment is that the projectile is heavy, slow, and doesn’t fly far relative to a firearm. That means that shooting will be done at short distances where holdovers can be easily estimated with practice. But it also means that an arrow drops to the ground far sooner, and multiple aiming points can be helpful.

Different scopes for different uses

For example, our most powerful crossbow offering is the Steambow Onyx fitted with the PowerUnit cocking system.

Standing and shooting that crossbow with the rail perfectly parallel to the ground, an arrow fired will probably hit dirt at a distance of around 60-70 meters. Do the same with a rifle; the bullet would drop to ground level after about 300 meters or more. Now consider what that means for a standard AR-6 Stinger II Survival (the only AR-6 Stinger II variant that can be fitted with a scope out of the box).

All that to say, while you can certainly use a multi-point reticle on a Survival, there are more straightforward options. That’s why most crossbow scopes have a limited range of aiming aids: it’s all you need. Their reticles are usually one of two types:

Crossbow scope reticles

The first reticle type you’ll likely find is a single vertical bar and 3 or 4 horizontal ones bisecting it at right angles, with the first on the midline and the others at regular intervals underneath. This design allows you to zero the scope using the first line at a set distance – and then practice, experimentation, or an arrow drop calculator will tell you which distances the other 3 or 4 lines correspond to as the arrow loses elevation through gravity. If you know how far your target is, you can choose the appropriate horizontal line as your point of aim. Some such scopes with multiple horizontal bars also have a dial where you can set your arrow speed, so that the hash marks then correspond to the indicated distance, for example 40, 50, and 60 meters. But, remember: as with any equipment, all those features will add to the costs.

The other type has a vertical line with a horizontal line that crosses at a right angle, splitting the field of view into quarters. The nice feature is that regular dots are marked on the reticle to the left and right of the center point and above and below. These give the shooter multiple aiming points to use up, down, and laterally. This style is commonly known as mil-dot: short for milliradian dot.

Other uses of the reticle

It can also function as an approximate range finder. Given that the gap between each dot is fixed in the reticle, that gap will represent a set number of centimeters on a target at, for example, 30 meters away. Conversely, this means that if you know roughly how big an object is in real terms, and you can see how many dots it covers in your scope, you can use both values to calculate an approximate distance to that target. Once you know the distance, you can adjust your aim to have a better chance of hitting it as intended.

Similarly, with experience, you can use the mil-dot system as a way of helping you counter the effects of crosswinds. With time, you’ll know how to use the dots to judge distance, compensate for air currents, and then use the dots on the X- and Y-axes to choose the best aiming point for the conditions you’re shooting under. Not quick to learn, but extremely satisfying to master and very versatile.

Which scopes to avoid

Here are some final considerations when choosing a scope for a crossbow. Magnification: why pay for something you will not need? Rifles shoot hundreds of meters. You need to be able to see your target with sufficient precision, so you need more magnification. Returning to crossbow distances: you don’t need magnification to rival the James Webb telescope to hit a Steambow target at 25 meters, so why spend on it? In fact, this is one reason why many crossbow scopes have no zoom feature at all but are fixed magnification instead: usually about four times magnification.

Another is recoil compatibility. Admittedly, this is more of an issue with full-size hunting crossbows, but the reality is that a crossbow being fired generates a lot of vibration. Rifles push back when they fire as a Newtonian reaction to the bullet being propelled forward. Crossbows can generate a huge amount of vibration in response to the limbs and string surging to their resting position at the front of the rail. Rifle scopes are not typically designed to deal with that stress, and internals can suffer.

Focused and ready to shoot

So there you have it; with the above, you know a little more about which scopes work for a crossbow, how you can use their reticles to compensate for the trajectory of the arrows, and how the shorter shooting distances make some features more valuable than others. Between that and the sighting procedure in the blog piece mentioned earlier, you have everything you need to get started and have lots of fun. And if you’re interested in the Survival, the Steambow scope, or maybe even the Onyx, browse our shop a bit.

Did you miss the first part? You can find it here: Crossbow Academy Pt 1: Crossbow parts and what they are for

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