Crossbows: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Them and More

Curious about crossbows, or x-bows as we sometimes call them? The x-bow might seem like a new invention, but in reality the weapon has been around for thousands of years. Its origins go back to ancient China, where it was invented, and then it was utilized in countless wars across the world, including Asia and Europe. Today, the best crossbow is considered the ultimate weapon for archery and hunting, surpassing the finest traditional and compound bows in power and accuracy.

What Are Crossbows?

At the simplest level, a crossbow is a bow placed on its side upon what looks and feels like a rifle stock. Most modern x-bows can also be used with a scope, greatly enhancing your accuracy to give you pinpoint precision over your shot placement. Today, many crossbows shoot their arrows at upwards of 300 feet per second, and are deadly accurate to as far away as 75-100 yards. Weight is typically between six and eight pounds, heavier than most bows but lighter than many rifles.

Most crossbows utilize the equivalent of a compound bow, but there are some fine recurve crossbows on the market. Excalibur Crossbows is well known for its recurve crossbows, which often rival their compound brethren.

The Parts of a Crossbow

By and large, a crossbow will have the “bow” section, called a riser. The riser attaches to a prod, which is much like your average rifle stock. The string pulls back and latches into place behind the trigger and release mechanism when you cock it, and is released when you pull a trigger. Additionally, modern crossbows almost always have a mechanism that prevents accidental shots or dry-firing the weapon. Along the top of the prod or stock, you’ll notice a rail, typically made of aluminum. This is where your arrow rests before you fire the weapon.

Then, of course, you have the crossbow scope, which mounts to a dovetail or Picatinny rail and gives you the ability to shoot an arrow the same way you would fire your rifle.

Crossbow Bolts

You won’t typically hear me call crossbow arrows bolts, even though that’s the correct terminology. An arrow for a crossbow differs considerably from its cousin for traditional archery. Most notably, it’s shorter than most arrows. These vary in length from 16 to 22 inches, with the average bolt measuring 20 inches long. Unlike arrows, you won’t find bird feather fletchings or vanes on crossbow bolts. They are usually some form of plastic, although other materials are sometimes used.

Crossbow Scopes

The scope for your crossbow will look and act much like your riflescope. It often magnifies the target image, greatly extending the accurate range of the weapon. Most good crossbow scopes provide for ballistic trajectory compensation, using lines or dots to represent where your shot should impact at various ranges. It’s important to note that a riflescope will not usually be effective on a crossbow; rifles have much longer range, and are not typically able to be sighted in on a crossbow. The good news is that high quality x-bows almost always come with a good scope.

Preparing to Shoot a Crossbow

When it comes down to it, you shoot a crossbow much the same way you fire a rifle. The only difference is in how you cock the weapon. There are several ways you can prepare a crossbow to be fired, including using your bare hands and using various cocking aids.

Before proceeding, make sure you read your owner’s manually carefully before proceeding. Some models require you to turn the safety to the SAFE position before cocking, while others need it in the FIRE position and automatically put it back into SAFE once the string is securely latched behind the trigger mechanism.

Cocking a Crossbow by Hand

Note that I don’t recommend this, because you get a much safer and more accurate shot when you use a cocking aid of some sort. With that said, sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. To cock a crossbow by hand, you should put your foot firmly in the stirrup at the far end of the weapon, with the buttstock facing you. Failing to do this could result in the x-bow sliding out from under your foot, causing serious injury.

Next, grip the string with the fingers of each hand, placed at equal distances on the left and right side of the stock. Next, pull back on the string firmly but smoothly, continuing to draw until it latches into place near the trigger mechanism.

Using a Rope Cocking Device

A rope cocking device is a strong rope with handles and rollers at either end. It works as a pulley system, greatly reducing the amount of effort required to draw the string back. To use one, you place your foot firmly in the x-bow’s stirrup. Then, place the device’s hooks on the string at equal distances to the left and right of the stock. Once the hooks are in place, you can pull firmly but smoothly upwards, and the string will come along. Keep pulling until the string is latched into place, then remove the rope cocking device and place it somewhere that it cannot come into contact with any part of the x-bow.

Using a Hand-Cranking Device to Cock Your Crossbow

The hand-cranking device functions much like a rope cocking aid, except that it adds in gears to the equation. You place the rope and hooks on your crossbow string just as you would a rope cocking device, except that you need only rotate a handle to begin drawing the string back. Keep cranking until the string is latched into place, then remove the device and stow it somewhere safe. Many modern crossbows have a hand-cranking mechanism integrated into the buttstock, and the rope easily retracts into the prod. The handle is typically removable, and needs to be placed somewhere you won’t lose it.

Seating the Bolt

Once your crossbow is cocked, you’re ready to seat a bolt. Never, ever, ever attempt to fire a crossbow without a bolt properly in place. This is known as dry firing, and will cause irreparable harm to your crossbow’s limbs and possibly your own.

Inspect the bolt’s nock carefully for wear or breakage, throwing it away if it isn’t in perfect shape. Place the arrow on the rail, usually with one vane resting inside the rail.

Shooting the Crossbow

Once you’ve cocked your crossbow and seated a bolt, it’s ready to fire. Take careful aim, either using your scope or using the sight pins, and then release the safety. Once you’re sure of your target and beyond, pull the trigger smoothly back until the crossbow fires. Then cackle in glee when your bolt strikes your target, damaging inanimate objects and killing animate ones.

Selecting a Crossbow

When you’re thinking about buying a x-bow, you need to keep in mind your primary purpose for the weapon. If it’s hunting, you obviously want something strong enough to take down the largest critter you’ll be preying on. You should also do quite a bit of research before going shopping, simply because a number of manufacturers do not follow proper safety procedures in building and assembling their crossbows. Barnett, for example, used to have serious quality control issues with limbs cracking, but they’ve gotten past that and now manufacture some of the best x-bows in the industry.

Make sure your retailer allows you to practice firing the crossbow. This will assure you that you’re able to cock and properly fire the weapon. It also gives you a chance to see how the x-bow feels when you’re holding it in the ready position.

Crossbow Safety

There are several rules you should always follow when using a crossbow. Let’s go over how to be safe when you’re target shooting or hunting with a x-bow.

  • Always wear safety glasses when assembling, cocking, or shooting the crossbow.
  • Do not stalk with, carry, or transport a loaded crossbow.
  • Keep your hands and fingers clear of the string’s release path of a cocked and/or loaded x-bow.
  • Don’t let your thumb or fingers move inside the cables, above the flight deck, or in the bowstring’s release path.
  • Always be sure of your intended target and beyond.
  • When target shooting, never point your loaded crossbow in any direction other than that of your target. Especially make sure you don’t turn toward someone you’re talking to with a loaded x-bow. They’ll get scared, and rightly so.
  • Keep the limbs of your crossbow clear of any obstacles like tree limbs or branches.
  • Don’t move the safety into the FIRE position until you’re ready to pull the trigger.
  • Never shoot your crossbow with others standing next to you; make sure they are behind you. If the string breaks, the debris will all fly sideways.
  • Cock your crossbow before climbing into your treestand, and use a bow rope or string to hoist your crossbow into or out of the stand. Keep the front end of the crossbow pointed towards the ground at all times.
  • Check your shooting lane for obstacles in the way of your bow limbs or your arrow’s trajectory.
  • Keep your arrows and broadheads safely protected in your quiver when not in use.

A crossbow is a wonderful tool for hunting and target shooting, but you need to take it seriously. They are seriously deadly if you aren’t careful.