5 Types of Crossbows (Plus Some Interesting Facts)

A loaded crossbow on top of a wooden bench.

Crossbows are an ingenious invention that paved the way for creating better weapons. Compared to a bow which relies on the strength of the archer, using a crossbow will provide more consistent range and power however many arrows or bolts you fire.

It was also agreed that the crossbow was more powerful than a simple bow. It was mainly utilized to pierce armor and go over walls. This was why in field battles, crossbowmen shot at a cavalry first, which incapacitated the opposing forces.

Nowadays, a crossbow is used mainly for hunting games and competitive shooting. New technology is being used to make more powerful, lighter, and more accurate crossbows, leading to many types.

A crossbow consists of a prod, which is the bow-mounted on top of a horizontal frame that looks like the stock of a rifle. Instead of shooting arrows, it shoots a crossbow bolt, which is a small type of arrow.

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Different Types of Crossbows

Recurve Crossbows

A Crosman Primal 330 recurve crossbow package from Optics Planet.

Source: Optics Planet

You can tell a recurve crossbow by the number of its string. Usually, it has a single string which makes it one of the easiest crossbows to operate. These are generally the first types of crossbows recommended to amateurs because of that reason.

It has small curves which serve as lock and strain pointing away from the shooter to prevent them from hurting the shooter. These also have fewer moving parts. It has the fundamentals: stock, the string, the limbs, and the trigger.

The design of a recurve crossbow goes back to the original ones found in China, Greece, and Egypt. They were used by crossbowmen to shoot at armored cavalry and fighters on horseback. Since these did not need two hands to operate, it was a simple and practical choice for the army.

Modern recurve bows are used for hunting and sport shooting. They are made from different materials such as wood, carbon fiber, magnesium, and aluminum alloy.

To operate a recurve crossbow, you just need to pull the string and clamp it to the trigger system. These can also go a fair distance which is why they are great for beginners who want to learn how to hunt using a crossbow. They are also designed to provide good ergonomics for comfort and for more accurate shooting.

Most recurve crossbows are lightweight and do not need a lot of maintenance. Modern crossbows also have a safety feature which also comes in handy if the user does not have a lot of experience yet.

Compound Crossbows

A black Barnett 78610 recruit compound crossbow package from Ultimate Hunting and Fishing.

Source: Ultimate Hunting and Fishing

One of the things that distinguish a compound crossbow is the seemingly additional parts to it. It has multiple cables attached to it, and when pulled back, pulleys are turned to assist the bow and store more energy.

The compound bow has a central mount called the riser. A riser is a rigid part that secures the limbs. These are made from durable yet lightweight materials like aircraft aluminum alloy and magnesium. The limbs are made from high-tensile materials since they need to tolerate extreme amounts of energy. A compound crossbow is comparatively stiffer than recurve crossbows which also means they provide more power when fired.

The stiffness of the limbs is the main reason why compound crossbows have pulleys and cams. These pulleys reduce the amount of effort needed to pull the string and the limbs back. On the other hand, cams are used to capture the maximum energy from the draw length and draw weight. As crossbows are smaller than regular bows or even recurve crossbows, cams are useful in terms of concentrating the energy of the bow to increase the velocity of the bolt.

Another feature to be considered is the Powerstroke. This is the length of the stock. Its length directly affects the speed of the bolt’s flight. The longer it is, the faster the bolt goes.

Maintaining a compound crossbow takes skills and patience because of the additional parts.

Repeating or Automatic Crossbows

EK Archery RX Adder Automatic SELF Loading Repeating Crossbow
Click image for more info

A repeating crossbow was invented to help anyone defend themselves. Early crossbows had a rather weak draw and shot that it was advised to put poison at the tips of the arrows to make shots deal more damage.

The specialty of a repeating crossbow is its higher rate of fire compared to regular crossbows. This is because it combined the actions of the spanning bow and placed the bolt at an ideal location to allow for one-handed shooting. Bolts are also fed through a top-mounted magazine and loaded via a cocking mechanism.

To reload, the arbalist does not need to reach for the arrows as they are already lined up in the magazine. Since the draw is relatively less, they can reload faster. There are a variety of designs for reloading, but the principle is the same. Each broadhead bolt is preloaded in the magazine and lines up when a bolt is shot.

Most repeating crossbows have an average range of 70 to 180 meters because of the weaker draw. But it makes up for speed what it lost in the distance. It has the ability to discharge about ten bolts in as little as 20 seconds, whereas a regular crossbow will need about thirty seconds to a minute to shoot and reload.

Nowadays, repeating crossbows are also referred to as automatic crossbows. Some modern designs let you change the strings so that you can have more power with every shot. You will also have the option of putting accessories to make it even more practical for tactical applications.

Reverse Draw Limbs Crossbows

A Barnett Vicious Crossbow from Hunting Bow.

Source: Hunting Bow

From the name itself, the limbs of this crossbow are put backward. The riser is placed at the back of the frame, and the trigger is put more forward so that the shooter can place the stock of the crossbow on their shoulder.

Because of the design, it usually has a lower draw weight and a longer power stroke, which means faster shooting speed. Faster arrow speeds also mean better accuracy and penetration. The average feet per second of a reverse draw crossbow with less than 200 lbs of draw weight is at around 400.

Since the center of gravity is shifted further back, the archer will not have a hard time stabilizing their shots which adds to the accuracy and precision of every shot. They can easily control the wobble and shaking by firmly holding the crossbow to their body. With this design, they can also hold the position longer in case they are hunting something that needs more patience, or they need to take multiple shots.

Using a reverse draw crossbow needs a bit of experience, which is why this is not usually the first crossbow to be recommended for amateurs. But with a bit of practice, anyone can enjoy the unusualness of these crossbows. They are one of the most effective types of crossbows when fully utilized and understood.

Pistol Crossbows

A SAS Prophecy self-cocking pistol crossbow package from Southland Archery.

Source: Southland Archery

For anyone looking for a lightweight modern crossbow to carry as a backup, then a pistol crossbow is the ideal choice. It is a small version of a repeating crossbow that can be fired one-handed and still have sufficient arrow speed. While not as powerful because of its size, it still is usable in terms of tracking or hunting small game or fish.

Pistol crossbows are also referred to as crossbow handguns, hand crossbows, and mini crossbows. Primarily because they resemble a pistol, they may have less power, but they will prove to be useful in many other applications.

These also are not that intimidating and inexpensive, which is why a beginner can start by getting these types of crossbows and then eventually move on and pass this on to someone else who wants to learn without thinking too much about it.

This can also be used in competition scenarios. As a backup, this will work well because of its lightweight construction and small size. When hiking and going in the bush, this can also serve as a good self-defense weapon.

It uses smaller bolts that are equally easy to carry around. To make the shot deal more damage, you can equip the bolts with sharper and larger arrowheads. Just make sure to adjust your aim as these may cause the arrows to be forward heavy.

Interesting Facts About Crossbows

Da Vinci’s Crossbow Design

Da Vinci designed his own crossbow, which he called Balestra Veloce around 1485. The design was found in his Codex Atlanticus. It had mechanisms that allowed for rapid shooting. Although there is no known proof that this was made in his time, a working replica was created in 2015 in Milan.

Ancient Crossbows

Crossbows used in the Middle Ages were made with materials that were available to them at the time. This is why they are made from a stock of wood. These can be ash, hazel, or elm and then treated with glue or varnish. They used iron, steel, or even wood for the limbs.

Most of the lengths of these crossbows were about three feet. The strings were made from hemp, which was one of the most durable and elastic fibers available then. It was soaked in glue to protect it from moisture.

To operate them, they needed a lever or a crank. This was why even untrained soldiers were given these to use since it was an intuitive weapon that can be used even with little instruction. Since they are shorter, they were also rather easier to aim and shoot.

In ancient Greece, the Gastraphetes were invented. This literally meant “belly-bow” because the archer needed to lean his stomach at the end of the stock to cock it. It was also quite bigger than average crossbows. They seemed to have liked it so much that they invented a big brother for it, the oxybeles. It was operated with the same principle, but because of its size, it was put on a stand. It was only a matter of time before they created the ballista, the granddaddy of all crossbows.

Crossbow Strings

One of the most important components of a crossbow is the strings. These vary from different materials, which provide elasticity and durability. Choosing a string, you have to take into consideration what bow type you’re putting it on and what materials it is made from.

Too much tension from the crossbow string can break a crossbow if it’s not compatible with it. This can cause damage and injury. If your recurve bow has wooden limbs, a string with dacron materials is more suitable because it gives more allowance when pulling it and helps absorb plenty of energy from the bow.

On the other hand, if the limbs of your bow are reinforced, you can use stronger materials like Dyneema or fast flight. This allows for better performance and stability. There are also steel cables which can be used for suitable styles of crossbows.

Frequently Asked Questions

How far can you shoot with a crossbow?

A powerful crossbow can shoot up to 450 meters. But if you want to be accurate, a 50-meter distance from your target is a safe distance.

How can you reduce the noise of a crossbow?

There are a couple of different methods. You can dampen the crossbow by using a dampening setup. You can also use heavier bolts. This way, the sound will be more controlled.

How long can you leave a crossbow cocked?

While it is generally not recommended to leave your crossbow cocked because it will cause premature stretching and damage if you accidentally leave it on, then it has about 24 hours before the string gets broken or a crossbow is damaged in one way or another.

Is it okay to dry fire a crossbow?

Yes, but this is not good practice because it may cause damage to your crossbow. While some models have dry fire inhibitors which catch the string when fired accidentally, you have to be more careful around unloaded and cocked crossbows so that you and the equipment are safe.

How much does it cost to restring a crossbow?

This depends on the type of string you will put on and the service you will avail. Typically, it’s an average of $20 and can even go upwards to $100.


Crossbows are a great addition to your hunting equipment because of their ease of use. You can also use them as your main hunting gun. With proper understanding and maintenance, a crossbow is going to be an indispensable tool in your kit.

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