Crossbows 101: Everything
You Need to Know to
Get Started Crossbows 101: Everything You Need to Know to Get Started

Crossbows are used by recreational and competitive archers, as well as bowhunters. They offer precision aim for long-distance targets – an excellent feature for bowhunting – and are a fantastic way to have a little fun with archery. Before bowhunting with a crossbow, check your local and state regulations regarding approved bowhunting equipment. Equipment specifications vary by state.

A crossbow was used in one of archery’s most famous shots. The German folk hero, William Tell, wielded a crossbow for the famous “apple-on-the-head shot.” (Don’t try that at home!) You’ll also see crossbows in movies and TV shows like “The Walking Dead,” helping Daryl Dixon fight hordes of zombies.

You don’t have to fight zombies or be a legendary archer to appreciate crossbow archery. Anyone can shoot a crossbow, thanks to the discipline’s short learning curve. The crossbow’s unique design allows for great accuracy, which is important for bowhunting. The bow part of a crossbow looks like a standard bow, only smaller and mounted horizontally. Like conventional bows, crossbows come in recurve and compound varieties.

With a typical recurve or compound bow, the archer pulls the bowstring and holds it in place, either with their fingers or a release aid. A crossbow is different – the bowstring is locked and held in place by a mechanical latch rather than physical strength. Photo Credit: John Hafner

With a typical recurve or compound bow, the archer pulls the bowstring and holds it in place, either with their fingers or a release aid. A crossbow is different – the bowstring is locked and held in place by a mechanical latch rather than physical strength. This feature, called the cocked position, makes crossbows an excellent option for archers with injuries. Also, accuracy improves because you don’t have to struggle against the bow’s weight when aiming.

Standard bows – like the ones Katniss shoots and those used in the Olympics – are held with one hand on the grip and one hand on the bowstring. Crossbows, on the other hand, are fired from a shouldered position. Both hands and the shoulder support the crossbow, giving you a steadier aim, whether in a treestand or ground blind.

Crossbows can have a shooting rest and telescopic sight. A shooting rest, such as a shooting stick or a bi-pod, is a tool that holds a crossbow steady. A telescopic scope helps you take precision aim even at far-away targets. Enhanced aiming, of course, helps ensure proper shot placement, enabling you to take advantage of coveted shot opportunities while bowhunting.

Crossbow arrows, called bolts, are made of carbon fiber or aluminum. They are shorter than standard arrows and are made specifically for crossbows. Photo Credit: John Hafner

Crossbow Arrows, aka “Bolts”

Crossbow arrows, called bolts, are made of carbon fiber or aluminum. They are shorter than standard arrows and are made specifically for crossbows. It’s important to only use manufacturer-recommended crossbow bolts. Manufacturers specify bolt length, weight, nock type and fletching requirements. These specifications can be confusing for the new archer.

Cocking Aids

A cocking aid makes cocking your crossbow easier. These devices hook onto the string and increase mechanical advantage. When you purchase a crossbow at your local archery store, the staff can teach you how to use a cocking device.

In this photo, the archer’s left (non-dominant) hand is on the foregrip and below the crossbow’s rail. His right (dominant) hand is safely placed on the grip, with his finger off the trigger until he’s ready to shoot. The archer uses his right shoulder to support the crossbow’s buttstock. Photo Credit: John Hafner

Anatomy of a Crossbow

Stirrup – A metal frame located at the front of the crossbow. Place your foot inside the stirrup to secure the crossbow during cocking.

Stock – A stock is considered the body of the crossbow. All other parts of the crossbow are attached to the stock. The front of the stock where you grip the bow is called the foregrip. The rear of the stock that rests against your shoulder is called the buttstock.

Limbs – The limbs provide the bow’s power. They flex and store energy to propel the bolt. Recurve crossbows have curved limbs. Compound crossbows have a pulley system, called cams, at the end of the limbs.

Bowstring – The bowstring connects both limbs and transfers the bow’s energy to the bolt.

Rail – The top of the foregrip is called the rail. This is where the arrow sits and the bowstring slides across.

Trigger – Crossbows have a trigger mechanism, which releases the latch that holds the bowstring. The trigger also has a safety that prevents accidental misfires.

Always carry a crossbow in the uncocked position and pointed away from other people. Bow cases made specifically for crossbows ensure safety and prevent mishandling. Photo Credit: John Hafner

Safe Handling and Storage

Safety is the most important part of a fun day of shooting.

Always carry your crossbow in the uncocked position. Hold a crossbow with two hands and point it down and away from people. While at the range, keep your crossbow uncocked and unloaded unless you’re ready to shoot.

Never fire a crossbow without a properly loaded bolt. This is called a dry fire, and it will damage the crossbow and may injure the archer.

Crossbows can only be uncocked by firing into a target. To safely unload your crossbow, make sure the crossbow bolt is loaded. When the range is clear, aim at the target, disengage your safety and fire your bolt.

Safely store and transport your crossbow using a crossbow case. This will protect your crossbow and prevent mishandling.

The crossbow’s unique design allows for great accuracy, which is important for bowhunting. Before loading a bolt into a crossbow, make sure the safety is fully engaged in the “on” or “safe” position. Photo Credit: John Hafner

Steps for Safely Firing a Crossbow

STEP 1: Load the Crossbow

Place your foot securely into the stirrup.

Set your cocking device per the manufacturer’s instructions. If you aren’t using a device, simply reach down with both hands and grasp the string. With a hand on each rail, hook the string with the index, middle and ring fingers. Keep your thumbs on the side of the rail to help center the string while cocking the crossbow.

Stand up while pulling the string upward. Continue to pull the string until it’s beneath the arrow-retention spring and the string latches into place, engaging the safety.

Ensure the safety is fully engaged in the “on” or “safe” position, indicating the crossbow is properly cocked.

STEP 2: Take Your Stance

Stand with feet shoulder width apart. Point your non-dominant shoulder toward the target.

STEP 3: Load the Bolt

With one hand supporting the crossbow, remove an arrow (bolt) from the quiver. Place the bolt on the rail. On the bolt, one of the vanes will be a different color. Place the odd-colored vane down so it can slide through the groove in the rail. Slide the bolt until it is firmly seated against the string. You will know it is seated correctly when the bolt cannot slide further and the safety can be disengaged.

STEP 4: Getting Ready to Shoot

Point the crossbow safely downrange and away from people. Place your non-dominant hand at the center of the foregrip. Keep your thumb and fingers below the crossbow rail.

Place your trigger hand on the grip, keeping your finger away from the trigger. Next, put the buttstock against your shoulder. Firmly seat your cheek onto the stock. This will bring your dominant eye in line with the sight. Once you align your sight with the target, push the safety into the “fire” or “off” position.

STEP 5: Shoot

Settle the sight on the target and slowly squeeze the trigger with your index finger until the crossbow fires.

STEP 6: Follow-through

Keep your focus on the target throughout the shot. Then, lower the crossbow and get ready to shoot again.

Interested in trying a crossbow? Visit your local archery store and check out the options. You’ll find crossbows for recreational use, competitive use and bowhunting.

Note: Before bowhunting with a crossbow, check you local and state regulations regarding approved bowhunting equipment. Equipment specifications vary by state.

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