The Bow Test: Our Picks for the Best New Bows and Crossbows of the Year
The dual Crosscentric Cam on the VXR 28 contributed to yet another sweet-shooting flagship from Mathews. (Jeff Wilson/)
What does a bowhunter really need? Is it a compound with a comfortable draw cycle that you can hold back awhile because the bull you were about to shoot stopped behind an aspen? Or is it the fastest crossbow available, because there’s a good chance the buck you’re after will step out at 60 yards this evening and you’ll be waiting for him in a shooting house?
After budget considerations, buying a new compound or crossbow usually depends on your hunting style and personal preference. But if you compare enough bows using the same objective criteria, you will discover that some are just better than others. And if you compare enough of them over time, you’ll see trends ebb and flow.
Our annual test of new bows is one unencumbered by sponsorship deals or advertising arrangements. Our only goal is to tell it like it is, so you can make the best decision for your bow season. Here’s a look at the 2020 winners, as well as the trends happening right now with bowhunting equipment. To find the full list and reviews of the bows and crossbows we tested, go to outdoorlife.com/bowtest20.
Best Compound Bows of 2020
Editor’s Choice: Mathews VXR 28
The Mathews VXR 28. (Jeff Wilson/)326.7 fps28 inches axle-to-axle80–85 percent let-off6-inch brace height$1,099
The company once synonymous with SoloCam bows has been riding a five-year wave of dual-cam success. The Crosscentric Cam debuted on the 2016 Halon and has shown up on the Halon 32, Triax, and Vertix bows. The bow sports buss-cable yokes affixed inside the limbs, creating that signature beefy, caged riser. But because the limbs are beyond parallel, the overall axle-to-axle length is compact. The early Halons were scorchers on the chronograph, but the recent iterations have been as notable for their quietness and lack of vibration as their speed. Though they’re still plenty quick. The series is so good, its bows have won or taken second place in all of our tests since 2016. We like to see innovation—but sometimes things just work and you shouldn’t mess with them. When it comes to the VXR 28, Mathews only messed with a few things, and those adjustments were improvements.
This bow scored at the top of the pack in six of our eight test categories: draw cycle, noise, vibration, fit and finish, handling, and value. After it placed so near the top in both speed and accuracy/forgiveness, there was no catching it.
How does this compare to last year’s Vertix? It’s slower, but that was the trend this year. It’s a tad lighter, thanks to a slightly redesigned, more skeletonized six-bridge riser. The VXR 28 is quieter and vibrated less. We shot it a bit better too. The bow has other improvements, including a new module system that lets you make the usual draw length changes, but also peak-weight changes in 5-pound increments, while keeping the limbs bottomed out. (Some bowhunters think bottomed-out limbs shoot better, and I’m one of them.)
Additional features include an improved grip, the new Silent Connect System for a bow sling and pull rope, and repositioned 3D dampeners. The draw cycle was flawless: smooth to the end, with a solid back wall. The bow had an 82.5 percent efficiency rating, the second highest of the test. All those considerations left us with a rig that wasn’t altogether surprising, but a winner nonetheless.
Bells and Whistles
Engineers have maxed out compound design (thanks, physics), so bows are starting to look and perform the same. Now manufacturers are focusing on adjustability. (Jeff Wilson/)
Our bow test has always been about performance, and the reality is, compound bows are at the peak of what’s possible.
“From an efficiency perspective, you’re putting in a certain amount of energy when you’re pulling a bow that you can’t get back out of it,” says Patrick Harrell, a professional engineer and senior associate at Stress Engineering, an Ohio-based company that is our annual partner in this test. Efficiency reflects how much energy from the draw is transferred to the arrow; the more efficient a bow, the better. “If we could get 90 percent efficiency out of a car, we’d be getting hundreds of miles per gallon. Bow manufacturers are paying premiums on technology to get the 1 or 2 percent efficiency that’s left. It’s going to be hard for one to step out and make a noticeable difference.”
That’s helpful context when considering the field of 2020 flagships. Manufacturers largely stuck with proven cam designs in lieu of chasing added performance, and focused instead on making the bows more user-friendly. The second-place Elite Kure ($1,100), for example, has a system called S.E.T. Technology (this stands for Simplified Exact Tuning), which lets users adjust the tension on the split limbs on both ends of the riser in order to fine-tune cam lean to a specific shooting style.
The third-place Bowtech Revolt X ($1,199) has a different system called DeadLock that allows you to move the cams and string along the axles, instead of adjusting your rest, to tune the bow. Bowtech says this is the best way to do it, and they coined a great “locks in accuracy” tagline to go with it.
We played with both systems and found that they work and are easy enough to use. But do they do a bowhunter much good?
Bowtech compromised some serious cam performance to accommodate the DeadLock system; the Revolt X is less efficient and 19 fps slower than last year’s Realm SR6, which won our 2019 test. The Elite Kure was 11 fps slower than last year’s Ritual 35, but it was otherwise comparable or better.
Both bows were shooters, though. The Revolt X was the test’s overall accuracy champion, while the Kure turned out to be my personal best-shooting bow of the test, and in the top third of the test for accuracy. Can we say one way or the other that it was due to the tuning systems? No. The winning Mathews finished between them in accuracy.
Danny Hinton, who’s been my partner in crime on this test for eight years now, is a rabid bowhunter and former pro-shop owner with an engineering background. He was skeptical of such systems for the average hunter.
“I think sometimes bow engineers need to step out of their bubbles,” he says. “The average bowhunter can move a sight and change draw weight, and that’s about it. Let him start moving cams around after a bad day on the range, and he’ll have things so out of whack I’m not sure I could fix it.”
Still, the market demands companies put a new compound out every year and promote it as the best thing yet. Since bows have about reached the pinnacle of performance, I’d expect to continue seeing these annual innovations—at least in the near term—directed at adjustable features like this, which hopefully make bows easier to use and tune.
And really, if ever there was a year when it’s beneficial to be able to work on your equipment at home, 2020 is it.
Best Crossbows of 2020
Editor’s Choice: Ravin R29X
The Ravin R29X crossbow. (Jeff Wilson/)456.5 fps12-inch power stroke6 inches wide (cocked)6.75 pounds$2,625
If you test gear for a living, it’s rare to see something that’s as influential as the Ravin crossbow design has been. The first R15s launched with an ad campaign promising rifle-like accuracy at 100 yards—and testers could mostly back it up. The R15 won our 2017 crossbow test; the 2018 R10 finished runner-up (narrowly), and 2019′s R26 won again. Now Ravin can add our 2020 Editor’s Choice for the R29X to its cabinet of blue ribbons. The design is so good—and so unique in a number of ways—that only one other manufacturer (TenPoint) can seriously compete with it.
All the Ravin crossbows use the same HeliCoil system, which allows the cams to rotate 340 degrees for crushing power in a compact package. Ravin does not publish draw weight figures, and instead publishes the required cocking effort (more on that system in a bit). That makes sense because, like many high-performance crossbows, it’s impossible to cock a Ravin by hand. The bolt is supported in the bow via a traditional nock and a rest at the front of the bow; there is no contact with a barrel in between, and that’s a recipe for excellent accuracy. The bows have all used the same 400-grain finished arrow, and the R29X is the fastest of them yet—and also the most accurate that I’ve tested. I averaged .7-inch groups at 50 yards with this bow, destroying a couple of bolts in the process. Nothing else we tested this year came close to that accuracy, and it was the fastest bow to boot.
Unconstrained by human draw strength, crossbow design keeps getting faster, cooler, and weirder (Jeff Wilson/)
The biggest improvement to the platform is the R29X’s new cocking system, which eliminates the previous models' signature boat-trailer-ratchet sound that could be heard plainly on a still morning from 100 yards away. It’s a safe system that’s easy to use, earning this bow maximum points in both the cocking effort and safety categories. It also has a great trigger, with an average pull weight of 2.03 pounds. Combine that with Ravin’s signature compact dimensions, and you’re left with a crossbow that, performance-wise, is tough to beat. We did dock it some value points because $2,625 is a whole lot of money—but gave extra credit for outstanding accessories, which it indeed has.
Great Buy: Barnett TS380
The Barnett TS380 crossbow. (Jeff Wilson/)371 fps122.5 ft.-lb.12.6-inch power stroke13.25 inches wide (cocked)6.9 pounds$550
Sometimes lost in the discussion of crossbow performance is this simple fact: A well-placed bolt tipped with a good broadhead and moving at 350 fps will kill anything on Earth. It’s also worth knowing that most people who buy a crossbow only need it to kill a whitetail—maybe a pig or turkey on occasion—and they don’t care to spend $3,000 to do that.
So, recognizing a bargain when we see one is particularly important for the crossbow test. For the money, the Barnett TS38o is as good as you can get in the 2020 lineup, and was a shoo-in for this year’s Great Buy. It was easy to cock with a traditional rope, plus it was safe, and the fit and finish were remarkable for the price. It has plenty of speed and power. It sports a crisp, 3-pound 6-ounce TriggerTech trigger and an adjustable stock. I averaged 2.45-inch 50-yard groups with it, and I can’t think of many hunting scenarios where that won’t do the trick.
A Real Revolution
Unlike in the vertical bow world, crossbow change isn’t subtle. The power generated by the top-tier bows in our test is staggering. The runner-up in this year’s test, for example—the TenPoint Vapor RS47o ($2,900)—generates 191 foot-pounds of kinetic energy from a 466-grain bolt moving at 430 fps. That’s the most powerful crossbow we’ve ever tested. (For perspective, the fastest compound this year produces about 85 foot-pounds of energy.)
“One side effect of compound bows being so efficient is that everyone has arrived at the same general design,” says Patrick Harrell of Stress Engineering. “But crossbows don’t have the same constraints. There are lots of ways to store energy with them that don’t work with a compound bow.”
This includes varied limb configurations (solid or split, forward or reverse draw), cam positions, power-stroke lengths, and more. Power aside, the notable trend for the top crossbows of 2020 was found in the cocking devices. Because high-performance crossbows cannot be used without them, those cocking devices have to be pretty much fail-proof.
The Ravin, the TenPoint, and the third-place Excalibur Assassin 4ooTD ($1,900) all sport cocking devices that look and operate a whole lot like the original Ravin’s, but with some subtle differences. And that’s the way it’ll be until someone comes up with a better system. These three crossbows all wore premium scopes and accessories, and they had excellent triggers and flawless fit and finish. I shot sub-2-inch groups at 50 yards with each of them.
Of course, all of that comes at a price. Crossbow manufacturers have the option of competing with the high-end players or driving in a different lane, but they can’t do both.
HHA Tetra Max sights. (Jeff Wilson/)
We tested two inexpensive (relatively speaking) crossbows this year that shot 400-plus fps, but they were a hassle to cock and generally not fun to shoot. The best of the mid-tier crossbows going right now are not trying to be a cheap Ravin. They have a quality build and modest speeds. The biggest overall trend could be that even though all crossbows are built and sold for the same purpose, distinct end-user categories are emerging: Some hunters are simply looking for a reliable crossbow to extend their season, while other, really serious crossbow hunters want the very best. But the lines between categories are still a little blurry.
“Comparing crossbows could become a little like comparing vehicles,” Harrell says. “It wouldn’t make much sense to compare an F250 to a Prius. But the question with crossbows is, what are the categories? Different manufacturers have different goals.”
Rigging compounds for recording noise, speed, and vibration in the anechoic (echo-free) chamber at Stress. (Jeff Wilson/)
Vertical bows are tested (and most are advertised) based on the IBO standard, with measurements taken at 30-inch draw lengths and 70-pound draw weights. For crossbows, there is no IBO standard. And so they’re unencumbered by limitations like wimpy human arms that must pull them back.
Because of that, my guess is we’ll see a 500 fps crossbow soon enough. When it arrives to market, it’ll be flashy and extraordinarily expensive. But just as that’s happening, I expect to see other crossbows that sacrifice some power in favor of quality—and they’ll be priced so the average hunter can actually afford one.
The Hoyt Axius ($1,099) in the hot seat. (Jeff Wilson/)
How We Test
For objective testing, we partnered with Stress Engineering Services in Mason, Ohio, for the fourth year in a row. Testing at their lab includes precise noise, speed, vibration, and efficiency measurements on bows set to IBO specs (70 pounds and 30 inches using 350-grain bare-shaft arrows).
Subjective range testing was done in Kentucky with identical bows, but set to 28 inches and 60 pounds for the categories of accuracy and forgiveness, fit and finish, handling and balance, and value. These were fitted with HHA Tetra Max sights and Virtus drop-away rests, using 28.5-inch, 350-spine Carbon Express Maxima Hunter arrows and Rinehart XL targets. We shot thousands of arrows, measured hundreds of arrow groups, and recorded pages of notes.
Recording draw-force curves to determine efficiency. (Natalie Krebs/)
Crossbows were evaluated on accuracy, speed, kinetic energy, safety, cocking effort, trigger quality, handling and balance, fit and finish, and value. Accuracy testing was done at 50 yards from a Lead Sled and D.O.A. shooting table. All members of the test panel are dedicated bowhunters, with years of experience helping with this test. They included myself as captain of both tests, senior deputy editor Natalie Krebs, and former pro-shop owner and archery tech Danny Hinton. Zach Bell, who works with Hinton and has helped us for years behind the scenes, shot groups for the subjective portion of the compound test.