Crossbow Basics for the Complete Beginner

Est. Reading: 4 minutes

The crossbow is a weapon that works similarly to a bow. It shoots projectiles - arrows (or bolts). You load it by pulling back the string and placing an arrow on the rail. Then you can use it like a rifle - rest the stock against your shoulder to aim and pull the trigger to shoot.

A crossbow's main difference compared to a bow is that you do not need to use your own physical strength to maintain its draw while aiming. You only need to pull the string until it "clicks" into a locked position.

Why use a crossbow?

Ease of use is the main reason so many shooters prefer crossbows over a traditional bow.

Shooting a bow involves manually maintaining a full draw for at least a few seconds. Which puts a strain on the body and takes quite a bit of effort and energy.

Once the crossbow is cocked, the shooter can focus on aiming, without feeling the urge to release the arrow. Or simply relax and enjoy the scenery while waiting for some animal to pass by.

This makes crossbows much more accessible weapon for:

  • those whose physical condition does not allow them to practice bow shooting.
  • people who cannot or do not want to spend the time required to become proficient with a bow
  • new hunters
  • younger hunters

Of course, we are not mentioning those who simply find crossbows extremely cool! Because they are.

How Crossbows Work

For many people, crossbows are a hybrid between a bow and a rifle. They use limbs and a string to generate force but also have stock, barrel, and a trigger. Basically, they are loaded like a bow but are aimed and shot like a rifle.

Here is a brilliant animation, demonstrating how the mechanism of an ancient/medieval crossbow functions.

Modern crossbows utilize the same principles but usually offer additional features and accessories in order to improve the efficiency, usability, and safety.

Anatomy of a Crossbow

A crossbow is made of the following components:

recurve crossbow parts
  • Stock: the base of the weapon on which the other main components are mounted. The shooter would press the back of it against their shoulder when aiming and shooting.
  • Rail: a metal bar with a groove on its top that serves as a flight track for the arrows.
  • Riser: the central part of the bow, attached to the rail. The two limbs are mounted on both sides of it.
  • Limbs: usually made of high-quality carbon, they are used to store energy when the crossbow is cocked.
  • String: tied to the far ends of the limbs, the shooter would use it to cock the crossbow by pulling on it. When the trigger is pulled, the string would transfer the kinetic energy from the limbs to the arrow, sliding on top of the rail and pushing the arrow forward.
  • Trigger: used to release the string when the crossbow is cocked. All modern crossbows have a safety mechanism as well, which is engaged every time the weapon is cocked.
  • Cam wheels and cables: used in compound crossbows only, they provide mechanical efficiency when the shooter pulls the string back. Basically, they make cocking easier and allow the limbs to store more energy.
  • Stirrup: a heavy-duty metal piece attached to the crossbow tip. Used to cock the crossbow by putting one's foot inside in order to lock the stock in place while pulling the string.

Shooting a Crossbow

In order to shoot, the crossbowman would:

  1. Rest the crossbow on the ground.
  2. Insert their foot in the cocking stirrup.
  3. Grab the string with either a rope cocking device or their bare hands (usually not a great idea).
  4. Use their muscle strength to pull the string up until the locking mechanism "clicks". Safety is engaged.
  5. Take an arrow and place it into the flight groove of the rail, sliding it all the way back into the arrow retention string.
  6. Raise the crossbow and aim.
  7. Push the safety switch to the fire position.
  8. Pull the trigger to release the string, which ejects the arrow forward. It would slide along the rail in a straight line and start spinning after leaving it and as it is going through the air, due to the curvature of its fletchings.

Note: there's a third option for cocking the crossbow - a crank device that allows you to pull the string with minimal effort. Useful for younger/older shooters, people with disabilities, or for the super-powerful crossbow models with enormous draw weight - around 300 lbs or more.

crank cocking device
Integrated crank cocking device

Effective range

When hunting, it is not advisable to pull the trigger if the animal is further than 40 yards, even if using a relatively modern and powerful crossbow. And it is mainly a matter of accuracy and not power or speed. Most hunters cannot reliably hit their target beyond that range.

Are crossbows legal?

That depends on where you live. In most US states they are legal to use for hunting during the archery season. And in some states- during the muzzleloader season. Finally, there are some states with stricter rules in regard to hunting with a crossbow. Check the regulations map on TenPoint's website for more detailed info on the matter.

Recurve or Compound

There are two main types of crossbows, depending on their mechanics for generating force. Recurve crossbows rely entirely on the flexible limbs, and compound crossbows utilize a more complex "cam system" - a set of cam wheels, pulleys, and cables.

Recurve crossbows are generally simpler, more reliable, and quieter, while compound crossbows tend to generate greater arrow speeds and require less draw weight to be cocked.


A crossbow's ammunition is comprised of a shaft, head, 3 or 4 fletchings, and a nock.

arrow anatomy

While practicing, target shooting, or hunting small game, you'd load the crossbow with arrows with field point tips:

field points
field points

And when hunting (big game), you'd use some variation of the deadly broadheads, which feature mini blades:

fixed broadhead
Fixed broadhead

The broadheads can be fixed or mechanical. The difference between the two is that the blades of the mechanical broadheads are folded into the tip during the flight and deploy/expand upon impact with the target.

mechanical broadhead
Mechanical broadhead

The mechanical broadheads offer better ballistics and tend to be preferred in many cases.

What can you kill with a crossbow?

Turkey, whitetail deer, hog, black bear, elk, moose. Plus everything in between, but these are the most common game for crossbow hunters in the US.

Oh, and zombies, of course!

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