how to shoot a crossbow

How To Use A Crossbow Correctly, Tips and Tricks

Armies may have lost their interest in crossbows centuries ago with the arrival of guns, but in their modern avatars, crossbows are still very popular, and very deadly as well. We have all seen them on screen umpteen times over the years, in the hands of aliens, orcs, vampire hunters, and zombie survivalists. Cool and enticing they may be, but you need to know a few important things about owning and using a crossbow before you go and buy one.

What is a crossbow?

shooting crossbows for beginnersIn simple terms, a crossbow is like a cross between an ordinary bow and a rifle stock. The working principle behind a crossbow is almost the same as a regular bow, despite the radical difference in design and usage between the two. You use energy to pull a bow string that when released, shoots a bolt or quarrel at the target.

Modern crossbows may look nothing like their medieval counterparts, with sleek design and a boatload of accessories. But believe it or not, the basic design is still unchanged after all these years. The main difference lies in the materials used for the construction, and advanced technology used in the accessories.

Traditional crossbows were made from a combination of wood and metal. Modern variants are stronger, lighter and more durable thanks to the use of advanced materials like fiberglass or composite plastics. Laminated wood and metals are also used in constructing modern crossbows.

What are some common words associated with Crossbows?

As with all specialized equipment, the different parts of a crossbow are also given specific names. There are also common words used to denote specific actions you do with a crossbow. If you are on a hunt with experienced bow hunters, an ignorance of the basic terms can show you up as a rookie.

Here are a few of the more common terms related to crossbows, that we will be using in this guide. The extremely helpful and informative Crossbowmen site  has a comprehensive list of crossbow terms you may want to look up if you plan to start shooting bolts as a pastime.

  • Bolt: The short, arrow-like projectile that shot by crossbows, also called quarrel
  • Cock: Much the same as cocking a gun, to draw the crossbow string to the latched position, ready to shoot
  • ​Dry Fire: Releasing a crossbow string without a bolt loaded in the bow
  • Pull Weight: The amount of pressure required to pull the string and cock a crossbow. This is commonly expressed in pounds (lbs).
  • ​Limb: The curved part of the bow, made from wood or modern composites and fiber glass.
  • Safety: The same as in a gun, a button or lever that prevents the bow from firing accidentally
  • Spanner: A term for devices used to cock a crossbow

Are there different types of crossbows?

Yes, there are at least two major design variations when it comes to modern crossbows. As you may very well know, there are different kinds of bows out there, like the simple bow, the compound bow, and the recurve bow. These designs are also available on crossbows, with the recurve and compound crossbows being the most prominent.

  • Recurve Crossbow: Much like a regular recurve bow, the crossbow variant has its tips curling away from the user. It is wider and has a longer draw length, making it somewhat cumbersome and unsuitable in tight spaces. Though it can result in better acceleration, this type of bow does produce more noise while shooting.
  • Compound Crossbow: though a more complicated design involving pulleys and strings, these crossbows are more compact with shorter limbs. They need a lot more energy to draw because of stiffer limbs, but they are also more powerful and can deliver faster shots. There are many different types of compound crossbow designs available in the market these days.

According to Crossbow Productions some of the other common variations of crossbows include the smaller pistol crossbows, the more powerful long-ranged rifle crossbows, bullet crossbows, and repeating crossbows.

Why use a modern crossbow?

As we have already noted, crossbows were rendered mostly obsolete by the arrival of the more powerful guns and rifles. But according to Wikipedia, special forces across the world still use them in small numbers, for occasions where stealth and silence are important. But if you were to buy a crossbow today, it would be mainly for sport and hunting.

And for hunters, the crossbow in its modern avatar is a fascinating weapon indeed. Much like guns, they are relatively easy to pick up and shoot. Getting good at it is a different matter of course, but in this aspect, they are much more beginner friendly than regular longbows/compound bows.

modern crossbow barnett
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And unlike guns, they don’t cause any loud noises or flashes. This can be very helpful if you are out hunting, as there is less chance of scaring the game away. Older versions of crossbows did make some amount of noise while shooting, but modern designs have largely solved that issue.

But one of the most significant advantages of crossbows is the level of physical fitness required to use one. Archery is a physically demanding sport, which can be a bit daunting for youngsters, seniors, and women. Crossbows require less energy and are extremely beginner friendly.

That shallow learning curve is another thing that makes a crossbow such an attractive proposition. With archery, you need years and years of practice to become reasonably skilled at bow hunting. With a modern crossbow, your chances of bagging some game on your first hunt are much, much higher.

And talking about hunting game, a modern crossbow is more than enough to handle any and all of the big game animals found in North America. It is a very deadly weapon within a range of 10-50 yards, especially if you have one with a velocity rating above 300 FPS. As long as you learn how to shoot a crossbow correctly, you should have no issues in hunting down game anywhere with a crossbow.

What are the steps involved in shooting a crossbow?

Shooting a crossbow is not that hard when compared to shooting a gun or a regular bow. In fact, in many states, hunting laws allow physically disabled hunters and seniors to use crossbows instead of regular bows or guns. That in itself is a clear indication of how user-friendly a modern crossbow is.

Regardless of the type of crossbow you use, shooting one involves the same three basic steps. They are Cocking, Shooting, and Safety.

Step 1: Cocking

  • Manual Cocking (by hand): Crossbows have a stirrup at the front. You have to securely put your foot in the stirrup while standing, and then pull the string back with both hands. If you don’t use equal force on both sides, the bow will be misaligned, costing you accuracy. But manual cocking is by far the fastest method to load a crossbow for firing.
  • Manual Cocking (using Rope Cocker): Hand cocking can be extremely hard on hunting crossbows rated at over 150lbs. You can use a simple pulley-based tool, called a rope cocker, to ease the stress on your hands while cocking a crossbow. Using one is extremely simple: all you need to do is connect the tool to your string, then put your foot into the stirrup and pull until the string is cocked.
  • Using a Crank: if you have fitness issues, or lack the upper body strength required for manual cranking, a crank is the best option. A crossbow crank is a winch based system, which is often integrated into a bow, or else available as a separate accessory. To use a crank, engage it first, and then turn the winch until the bow is cocked.When using tools like a rope cocker or crank to cock your crossbow, once the string is cocked you have to disengage the cocker or crank for later use. The crank does take a lot of time to cock, and may not be the best option if you are out in the field hunting.

Step 2: Loading & Safety

Once the bow is fully cocked, take your bolt/arrow and place it onto the barrel, nocking it securely in place. The cock vane of the arrow should be aligned with the groove or channel of the barrel. Once this is done, your crossbow is loaded and ready to fire.

Modern crossbows come mounted with scopes for improved accuracy. Use your optical scope (or sight pin if you don’t have a scope) to aim at the target. Before pressing the trigger, you need to focus on several safety precautions:

  • Make sure that your fingers are not in the limb area of the crossbow, in the path of the released string. While shooting, the rebounding string can strike with enough force to dismember your fingers! So make sure that they are not obstructing in any way.
  • Also ensure that there are no other obstructions, like branches in the way of the limbs. These can also lead to flying debris, snapped parts and potential for serious injuries. For more crossbow safety related tips, check out the Alaska Crossbow Ed Course.

Step 3: Shooting and Decocking

Shooting a crossbow is not rocket science. All you need to do is aim and lightly press the trigger,
much like a gun. The best way to shoot a crossbow is from a stable, stationary position, either while sitting or kneeling. American Hunter further suggests using a shooting stick or rail for better balance and accuracy, since a crossbow can be very top heavy.

One the arrow or bolt has been shot, you can either cock the crossbow again or leave it decocked. To decock a cocked crossbow, the best option is to fire it. You can do that by shooting a regular bolt at a target or a special decocking bag. Or you can use a decocking bolt and fire it into the ground.

Dry firing a cocked crossbow is something you never want to do, for the sake of your safety as well as that of the crossbow. Check out this YouTube video to see firsthand the damaging impact of dry firing on a modern crossbow.

Is hunting with crossbows legal in the US and Canada?

That is an excellent question. There is no straight answer to this issue, as the local laws differ widely from state to state. For a simple overview, Cabela’s has an extremely helpful map. As of 2017, crossbows are only illegal in three states/provinces in US and Canada: Oregon, Yukon Territories, and Newfoundland.

In all other states, they are legal or semi-legal. There may be restrictions on usage in particular hunting seasons. In many states, they are only legal for senior citizens/hunters with permanent disabilities. Most require special permits or hunting licenses for using crossbows. If you are planning to learn how to shoot a crossbow for hunting, you need to check your local hunting laws first.


Hunting with crossbows can be a gratifying experience. They allow you to have that primal thrill of using a bow, without having to put up with the physical rigors and training regimen required to become a skilled archer. But crossbows are not very popular among traditional bow-hunters and are often the target or bans or restrictions.

But learning how to shoot a crossbow is a good idea, whether your state laws allow you to hunt with one or not. You can always join enthusiast clubs and take it up as a sport. And in the event of a zombie or vampire apocalypse, you will be well equipped to defend yourself, and in style!


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