How to Use a Crossbow: Tips for Beginners

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By Bryan Rucker •  18 min read

Shaped like a horizontal version of a traditional bow, the crossbow is an impressive weapon—a weapon that is capable of taking down some of the biggest game in the world.  It is also a very accurate weapon, one that can kill an animal or hit a target from scores of yards away.  The weapon has been used for centuries in places where it is legal, and those who have mastered it have only good things to say about its accuracy, power and responsiveness.

Using a crossbow requires lots of knowledge and know-how, as well as tons of practice.  Because of the way it fires, it can be tremendously dangerous in the wrong hands, which is why it is important to fully understand the crossbow and the manner in which it is meant to be used.

To help you learn how to correctly use and care for a crossbow, below we have compiled several beginner tips and pieces of advice—advice that comes directly from some of the people who have mastered this impressive weapon.  Some of this information includes a basic definition of the weapon, the importance of buying a quality crossbow and ammunition, and tips on how to use the crossbow, whether shooting at a range or out in the wild as part of hunt.

What Is a Crossbow?

A crossbow is a modified bow and arrow style weapon—one that looks like a horizontal version of the traditional long bow or compound bow.  The weapon was invented for the military in China around the year 6 B.C., but it did not catch on in Europe until several centuries later.

When looking at a crossbow, you will notice that the bow is attached to a stock.  This enables it to remain loaded and ready to fire when not in use.  This is an important feature, because in the time it takes to actually load the crossbow, the game one is hunting can be long gone.  The crossbow has a lever attached to the stock, which assists users in the loading of the weapon.  When that lever is released, the arrow—known as a bolt—is fired from the bow.

Known for their remarkable accuracy, crossbows have a firing range that is substantially longer than a traditional bow and arrow system.  They are extraordinarily easy to operate, and because of the way they are designed, they are perfect for those who lack the arm and upper body strength to pull the traditional bow.  As mentioned, the big disadvantage of the crossbow lies in the loading time.  According to estimates, a traditional bow can fire between 5-7 arrows in the time (usually about a minute) it takes to load the crossbow once.

The long range of the crossbow has made it a very popular weapon for bow hunters.  For comparison’s sake, the traditional long bow has a distance range of about 280 yards, while the cross bow can cover some 380 yards.  At tactical range, both the long bow and the crossbow can shoot projectiles that can pierce plate armor, assuming the arrows or bolts were properly tempered.

From a history perspective, the existence of crossbows was known by the Roman Army, but they chose to stay with the traditional bow and arrow, of which they were more familiar.  Many years later, in the year 1066, crossbows were introduced to Europe by William the Conqueror at the well-known Battle of Hastings.  Even later, the army of Richard I used crossbows in the Middle East during the Crusades—a time in which the crossbow also became the preferred weapon of assassins.  News of the accuracy and power of the crossbow spread rapidly across Europe after the Crusades, and the weapon continued to be used in battle until well into the 15th century.

Since that time, the crossbow has been mostly a weapon for hunting, as it is today.  Nowadays the crossbow can be made from a variety of materials, including wood, metals and polymer plastics.  They are available in many different sizes and styles, from pistol grip crossbows to full-size military models.  Amateur and professional crossbow users utilize the weapon mostly for target practice and hunting game.

Crossbow Tips for Beginners

Due to the way it looks, the crossbow can seem like quite an intimidating weapon—as it should.  The power of the crossbow means that beginners should take the weapon very seriously, and know exactly what they are doing before they even think about using it.  Some of the things users will need to understand about the crossbow include how to load, draw and shoot the weapon, and they will need to have an understanding about the kick or recoil, the noise and the accuracy of the crossbow.  This may seem like a lot to learn, but as you will see from this article, when done correctly the crossbow can be a fairly easy weapon to master.

Below we have listed a few crossbow tips for beginners, beginning with some advice on how to choose your first crossbow.

Getting Your First Crossbow

When you set out to purchase your first crossbow, the first thing you will notice is the sheer number of crossbow and crossbow packages available.  This can be a little intimidating for first-time buyers, so we recommend you speak with a professional at your hunting-style or sporting goods store before making up your mind on a purchase.  Here are a few tips for selecting your first crossbow:

Understanding the Draw Weights

The draw weights on a crossbow will determine the power of the weapon—the distance it can travel and the stopping power it will have.  In many states, there are regulations that govern the minimum and maximum draw weights you can use in your area.  To find out this information, you can contact your local wildlife or hunting agency—preferably before you buy the crossbow, as these minimums and maximums can have a bearing on your purchasing decision.

A quality crossbow will shoot at a draw weight of about 150 pounds of pressure.  This is very powerful and will give you the distance and stopping power you need for some of the largest game available.  Most states, however, will recommend a draw weight range of about 75 pounds to 125 pounds—which is still a good range for most target practice and hunting activities.

Invest in Optics

When you hear the word optics when it comes to crossbow hunting they are talking about a scope—the same (roughly) type of scope you would see on a hunting rifle.  As a beginner just starting out, you will definitely need a quality scope for your crossbow, whether you plan to shoot at targets or hunt game.

Shooting a crossbow involves much more than just pointing at a target and releasing the lever.  Remember, in target practice and in hunting, your intended mark is likely to be several to hundreds of yards away.  A scope will enable you to line up your target to ensure the most accuracy humanly possible.

Many of the packaged-deal crossbows come complete with a scope—so take advantage of this tool.  If you need to buy a scope for your new crossbow, try to select one with different levels of magnification.  These scopes, which tend to be a little pricier than single-vision scopes, can dramatically improve your accuracy, making your crossbow experience that much more enjoyable and satisfying.

Get Quality Ammunition

When it comes time to purchase the ammunition for your new crossbow, make sure you invest in bolts that are of the highest quality—bolts that have been tempered to bring down even the largest game.  You cannot use any other type of ammunition with a crossbow than those bolts that have been specially designed for that weapon.  Here are just a few things to look for when buying bolts for your new crossbow:

Become Familiar with Your Crossbow

Once you have purchased your crossbow, crossbow accessories (scope, etc) and the bolts you will fire from it, it’s time to study your crossbow and learn how it works.  Below we have listed several of the parts on a crossbow and described what each one is and does:

While becoming familiar with the different parts of the crossbow, you should also learn about the trigger.  Every crossbow has its own unique feel and trigger pressure, so it pays to learn just how much pressure is needed to fire the bolt.

Becoming familiar with the various parts of your crossbow will enable you to better master and maintain your weapon.

Loading and Shooting Your Crossbow

Before you can practice with your new crossbow at the shooting range (explained in the next section), you will first need to learn how to load and fire your weapon.  This sequence will be the same each and every time you fire your weapon, so learning how to do it safely—and then quickly—is one of the most important tips we can give you.

There are four steps to loading and shooting a crossbow:  Cocking or drawing the crossbow, loading the crossbow, aiming the Crossbow, and firing the Crossbow

Step #1 Cocking or Drawing the Crossbow

Cocking the crossbow is perhaps the most important step in the entire process, and the step that is perhaps hardest to master.  Failure to do this properly can result in a misaligned string and a wildly inaccurate shot.

There are two ways to cock a crossbow:  manual and crank-operated.

Manual Cocking

To manually cock the crossbow, you will first need to place your foot in the foot stirrup, located at the front of the bow.  Once your foot is securely in the stirrup, pull the crossbow string back evenly across both sides of the barrel until is cocked.  This is not as easy as it sounds; especially when you consider that some crossbows have draw weights up to 150 pounds.  However, with practice you should have it down in no time.  Just remember, if you fail to pull the string back evenly, you can misalign the bow and your aim will be off.

In some cases, a rope cocking tool can be used that will make the manual process a bit easier to manage.  These tools, which are essential pulley systems, are recommended by crossbow enthusiasts because they help to center the string more evenly.  To utilize a rope cocker, first get the tool into position while inserting your foot in the foot stirrup.  Next, grab hold of the rope cocker’s pull handles, and firmly pull on the handles until the crossbow string is locked into place.  Once cocked, you can store the tool away until you need to use it again.

Crank-Operated Cocking

A crossbow crank makes the process of drawing and locking the string measurably easier to manage, although the process does take longer to accomplish.  A crossbow crank is really nothing more than a winch.  Some cranks come separately, while some are actually integrated into the crossbow to ease the cocking process.  To cock a crossbow using a crank, simply turn the winch until the string is fully cocked and locked.  Then put the crank back into place, or into its holder

Step #2 Loading the Crossbow

Once the crossbow has been successfully cocked or drawn, the loading process is fairly simple.  To load the crossbow, merely place a bolt (arrow) into the barrel of the crossbow, making sure to align the cock vane of the arrow in the barrel channel.  Then, nock the arrow securely into place.

Step #3 Aiming the Crossbow

Aiming the crossbow using your scope is a process that will take some trial and error.  If you find the scope is off after a couple shots, you may have to tweak the scope a bit—either its positioning or the way you look through it.  Getting your scope set up just the way you like it will take some time and patience.

If not using a scope, most hunting crossbows are equipped with a sight pin arrangement, much like one would see on a rifle or handgun.  Remember, when performing the “aiming” step; make certain there is nothing that could possibly get in the way of the limbs when they snap forward.  This can cause injury.  Moreover, NEVER wrap your thumb around the forearm of the crossbow—unless you are looking to lose that appendage forever.

Step #4 Shooting the Crossbow

Once you have lined up your target, gently squeeze the trigger mechanism on the crossbow, just as you would gently squeeze the trigger of a firearm.  As you do this, you will soon hear the loud POP of the trigger release as the bow shoots and the bolt flies towards the intended target.

Practicing with Your Crossbow

Practice is the best—and only—way to become proficient with your new crossbow.  When just starting out, it is very helpful to enlist the services of a professional to help you get started.  This can be a friend or even an employee at the shooting range in which you will practice firing your new crossbow.  With his (or her) help, you can learn how to properly cock, load, aim and shoot your weapon.

While practicing at the shooting range, try shooting at targets that are at difference distances. This will help you get a feel for your new crossbow’s trigger mechanism and scope, and will tell you if you need to make any adjustments.

The process of cocking or drawing your crossbow between every shot may make you a bit tired, especially if you are using a manual crank system.  Therefore, make sure to rest and take some deep breaths between shots.  You may also want to wear gloves when drawing your weapon to protect your hands from the force that process requires.

Maintaining Your Crossbow

The final step to owning your crossbow is maintenance.  After using your crossbow at the target range—and especially after a long hunt—take some time to clean and maintain your weapon.  Make sure you keep it free of dirt and clutter throughout.  Wax the string from time to time to keep it in the best working order, and carefully clean the cables and the arrows (bolts).  By keeping your crossbow, scope, bolts and accessories clean and in the best working order, you will always be certain it is ready to use the next time you need it.

And Finally…

Crossbow hunting is much different from rifle hunting.  Naturally, rifles give hunters a much better range in terms of distance, but for those who prefer a more primitive style of hunting, the crossbow—which is deadly at short distances—is the perfect solution.  However, before you set out on any crossbow-based hunting expedition, be sure to check the rules and regulations about crossbow hunting in your particular area.  Knowing and following these important rules can save you from a hefty fine or worse.

image by: Stas_K/Deposit Photos

Bryan Rucker

Brian Rucker has spent his entire life participating in essentially all things wildlife. His concern grew astronomically during the previous tensions between the United States and other nations. He also has grown a substantial interest in survival and sustainability due to the current shape of the world over the years. He believes that preparation triumphs all things.