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A Beginner’s Guide To Crossbows : Everything You Need To Know

hunter in the woods taking aim with a crossbow

Crossbows are one of the most rewarding and enjoyable hobbies around. They are a fantastic way to spend time in nature, learn a new skill, and become part of a supportive and welcoming community. However, it can be intimidating for a beginner to know where to start.

What do all the terms mean? What is the best bow for a beginner? How do you even load the weapon? Thankfully, crossbows represent an extremely accessible hobby once you’ve learned just a few key concepts.

This guide is designed to be a crossbow beginners guide for everything you need to know to start your adventure. Let’s get started. 

How to Choose a Crossbow

Deciding on the best crossbow is likely to be the first challenge for any beginner. With countless options on the market with hugely variable price points, it can be an intimidating prospect without the proper guidance on how to choose a crossbow. The first question to ask yourself is what type of shooting you intend to spend your time learning.

Most people associate crossbows with deer hunting, and this is a fantastic pastime. However, this is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to options. Many crossbow enthusiasts prefer to focus on target practice or small-game hunts. All of the options can be rewarding and enjoyable, but the best crossbow for your needs depends a lot on your use.

If you intend to do long-range whitetail hunting, you’re going to need a much more powerful model than if your targets will be more squirrel-sized. Further, if archery practice is more your style, buying a bow with lighter trigger action and a smoother rail might be money better spent.

Be realistic about your goals and desires, and spend some time reading reviews of numerous models. A good reviewer will always take the time to explain what a certain bow is – or isn’t – good for.

Before we dive too deeply into specific bows or specifications, let’s go over some basic terms. 

Recurve or Compound Crossbow – What is Better?

When you first get started on this hobby, there will be a few terms you might not be familiar with, but they’re important to know when choosing a crossbow. Crossbows typically come in two main varieties: “recurve” and “compound.”

Neither option is necessarily better or worse than the other, and both certainly have their devoted fans. Your preference may even change as your skills and interests evolve. But at the most basic level, what’s the difference?

Recurve Crossbows

A recurve crossbow is the original form-factor for a crossbow, having been around for centuries. Functionally, a recurve crossbow is little more than a traditional “Robin Hood” style bow mounted to a frame, similar to a gunstock.

You tension the bow by flexing the arms (known as “limbs”) backward using the string, which then holds the tension until you pull the trigger. There are a lot of pros to recurve crossbows, but also some drawbacks. Many enthusiasts enjoy recurve crossbows because of their inherent simplicity. Because there are so few moving parts, recurve crossbows tend to be very reliable and easy to maintain. Further, they also have a certain classic elegance coupled to a sportsmanlike traditionalism that many users find attractive. Yet, looking past the advantages, there are some compromises to consider.

recurve crossbow close up detail

The largest issue that a new user will face with a recurve crossbow is the amount of force required to cock the weapon. This force – known as “draw weight” – can be substantially higher on a recurve bow because there is no mechanical advantage provided by the weapon itself.

This can be mitigated with various tools and methods but at the end of the day, a recurve bow is almost always more challenging to cock than a comparable compound model. This issue can be remedied somewhat by using less stiff limbs, but the firing rate will be negatively impacted.

The other issue faced by recurve crossbows is their size. Unlike a compound bow, the limbs of a recurve crossbow are mounted directly perpendicular to the stock, making the bow significantly wider. Typically this measurement is expressed as the “axle to axle” width, meaning the distance between the pivot point of the limbs.

Think of it as the wingspan of the bow. If you intend to use the crossbow almost exclusively for target practice, the width may not pose an issue. However, a wider bow can become a challenge out in the field. Whether you’re in a tight deer blind or you’re trying to draw a bead in a dense patch of brush, maneuvering a bulky weapon can quickly become a trying experience.

Recurve bows still have a place, but the technology of more modern bows has advanced rapidly as the price has fallen. Unless you are dead-set on traditionalism or utter simplicity, a compound crossbow is typically the more approachable choice when choosing a crossbow for beginners.

Last update on 2021-10-05 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Compound Crossbows

Compound crossbows shake off the dust of traditionalism and replace it with a healthy dose of modern technology. Rather than relying purely on the strength of the user to tension the limbs, compound crossbows instead use a series of pulleys and levers to cock the bow and fire the arrow.

This arrangement provides a mechanical advantage, allowing the use of stiffer limbs, leading to a generally higher firing rate. From a functional standpoint, this is a win-win, providing an easier to use weapon that is more capable as well.

close up of compound crossbow cam wheels

Compound crossbows also offer packaging advantages. Because the energy is transferred through a series of pulleys, manufacturers have a lot more leeway in designing the layout of the bow. Because the limbs no longer need to be perpendicular to the stock, compound crossbows are generally significantly more compact than their recurve cousins. You can also take a look at these centerpoint crossbow reviews to learn more about specific models in the centerpoint range.

While a typical axle-to-axle width of a recurve bow can easily be over thirty inches, most compound models are under twenty. Some bows even mount the limbs backward – known as a “reverse draw” bow – to get a width of under fifteen inches.

The downside of compound crossbows is the direct corollary to the upside of a recurve: they’re complex. Compound bows simply have more moving parts, and thus pieces to fail. However, this concern used to be much more valid. As materials and manufacturing methods have progressed, the failure rates of compound bows have dropped to the point of being practically insignificant. Thus, a compound crossbow is often the best choice for a beginner.

They’re easier to use, faster to shoot, and fully reliable provided you purchase from a reputable brand.

Last update on 2021-10-05 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

The Speed of Your Crossbow

One of the most common mistakes that beginners make when shopping for their first crossbow is focusing too much on speed. There seems to be a misguided belief that the best crossbow is bound to be the fastest one. For many reasons, this simply isn’t the case. Many of the top-performing bows on the market are capable of speeds well north of 450 feet per second (FPS), a speed that would be unthinkable to an archer only a few decades ago.

While having this much power at your disposal is a neat bragging right, it simply isn’t necessary for the vast majority of cases. You aren’t likely to be tracking rhinos with your newly purchased crossbow any time soon, and a white-tailed doe simply isn’t that formidable of an opponent. The takeaway? Anything over 300 FPS is going to be more than enough for any beginner.

The best crossbow for beginner hunter use simply doesn’t need to be the fastest model on the market.

The issue with speed is not just a matter of paying for capabilities you don’t need. Rather, a faster crossbow is typically a more difficult one. The fastest bows on the market achieve these speeds by using exceptionally stiff limbs, leading to a bow that is difficult or even dangerous to cock.

Further, speed can actually make shooting more difficult as well. When arrows fly at faster rates, their flight paths become more unstable and less predictable. Thus, what looks like a small deviation at 300 FPS can become a massive one at 450.

Besides, the speed is mostly irrelevant when it comes to the usability of a crossbow. Manufacturers normally test speeds using exceptionally light arrows. While fast, the lower mass means that these shots actually impart less force on the target. A slower but heavier arrow is always going to be the easier and safer bet when tracking game.

When it comes to speed, the answer is simple: don’t worry about it. There are many other aspects that impact your experience much more. You can always buy a faster bow later if the need arrives. 

Important Safety Basics to Consider

When learning about crossbows, nothing is more important than safety. Coming to the hobby from a fresh perspective, there is going to be a lot to learn and some unfamiliar concepts. Always take your time and make sure you know how to be safe before anything else.

Thankfully, modern crossbows are designed with a lot of safety features integrated. But you still need to know what they are and how to use them. Here are the most important considerations.

Anti Dry Fire

“Dry Firing” is when a crossbow is shot without an arrow. There are few things that are potentially more damaging to you and your new bow. Releasing the enormous potential energy of a crossbow without the resistance of an arrow puts a huge amount of stress on the limbs and frame of the crossbow.

Rather than a controlled launch, your bow will experience an instantaneous burst. In the best case, this will prematurely weaken your crossbow. In the worst, it could lead to a failure that destroys your bow and injures the user.

A lot of modern crossbows include a device known as an “anti-dry-fire” mechanism or a “dry fire inhibitor.” These mechanisms prevent the weapon from being fired unless an arrow is properly seated into the bow.

While you are still learning the ropes, it can be surprisingly easy to accidentally hit a release lever or graze a trigger. Thus, looking for a crossbow with an anti-dry-fire mechanism is certainly worthwhile.

Auto Engaging Safety

Similar to guns, almost all modern crossbows feature a safety that prevents the trigger from releasing the string until you disengage the safety. Even though most bows have a safety of some form, most require you to remember to set it before cocking the crossbow. However, automatic safety mechanisms are becoming increasingly common.

These devices automatically lock the trigger, thus preventing a mishap while cocking or aiming. Experts differ on whether or not an automatic safety is a good idea for a beginner crossbow. From one perspective, it eliminates a variable and ensures the weapon won’t discharge accidentally.

However, this also has the potential of forming bad habits, especially when moving onto other crossbows with manual safeties.

Typically, I recommend that beginners always look for a crossbow with an auto-safety. But never become complacent. Whenever you cock your bow, go through the mental checklist of the necessary steps, and actively check that the safety is engaged. This forces you into the habit without opening the door for unfortunate mistakes.

Protected Forward Grip

The forward grip of a crossbow in the location under the rail where your stabilizing hand will hold the bow. When a crossbow is firing, the string slides down the rail of the bow rapidly, releasing the energy of the limbs and carrying the arrow with it.

Experienced shooters know to keep their support hand low to avoid an unfortunate collision between stringer and finger. Yet, for a newcomer, it is all too easy to accidentally place your hand slightly too high. This won’t just ruin your shot, but can seriously injure your hand.

To avoid this risk, it is best to purchase a bow with a protected forward grip. Typically this takes the form of a guard or shield that prevents your fingers from going into the glide-path of the string. For a beginner bow, it is a must-have

Crossbow Assembly

Most crossbows will come mostly assembled, but in all likelihood, you will still have a few tasks to complete. Generally, the assembly will require little more than bolting the bow assembly to the barrel/stock, tacking on a few accessories, and bolting on the scope. 

Of course, this will vary slightly for each model, but it is rarely something to be intimidated by. In most cases, the tools are even included. Take your time in this process, as it is a great time to take a moment and learn the intricacies of your new bow. Further, it never hurts to double-check all of the fasteners for tightness. A quick turn of the wrench can make sure everything is straight, true, and secure.

This may sound obvious, but make sure to not install your scope backward – a mistake that is surprisingly easy to make. Sometimes they are marked, but often you will have to look through the scope to determine the correct orientation. If you chose a crossbow with an illuminated scope, you will have three dials on the body of the scope.

Place the scope so that the middle dial is pointing as close to straight-up as you can manage. If your scope is not an illuminated model, you’ll only have two dials. In this case, place one dial to the right and the other straight up. Take your time in this process, as a crooked scope can be difficult or impossible to sight in.

Crossbow Bolt Selection

Most beginner crossbows come with at least a few arrows, or “bolts” as they are known in the sport. However, if you’re looking to buy a few more or you purchased a crossbow with any arrows, they are not hard to find. Although you can buy bolts in either aluminum or carbon, most people opt for the lighter and stronger carbon models. Beyond the material, there are only two other considerations: length and weight.

Last update on 2021-10-05 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

It is crucial to get the right length of arrow. While there are only a few sizes, crossbows are generally designed with a specific shaft length in mind. Attempting to fire a bolt that is too short can result in a dangerous dry fire. Weight is a similar matter. While you have some latitude regarding the weight of the bolt, you want to make sure you are within the specifications of your crossbow. For most uses, a 350-400 grain bolt is a great starting point for a beginner’s crossbows. 

Selecting a Crossbow Target

It is a great idea to purchase a target to practice your shooting before you embark on beginner crossbow hunting. However, not all targets are created equally. Crossbows are generally significantly more powerful than older bows and thus require a specific target. Make sure you purchase a target that is designed to withstand crossbow fire.

This will ensure that the target can withstand the impact, and will prevent the bolt from becoming too deeply embedded. Beyond this, there are countless shapes and sizes of targets to choose from, so let your imagination go wild.

Last update on 2021-10-05 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Shooting with Your Crossbow

Once you have all of the equipment and know-how in place, it is time for the most exciting part: shooting your new crossbow! Yet, you will notice a common theme throughout this guide. Safety should always be your utmost priority.

A crossbow should be treated with the same healthy fear and respect as a gun. When you’re first starting out, never cock your crossbow until you are prepared to fire it. Just as with a gun, never point a crossbow at anything you are not prepared to shoot. Trigger discipline matters here. Keep your finger off the trigger until you’re locked, loaded, and ready to fire.

Finally, don’t simply think about your target. Rather, always consider what is beyond the target and in the immediate vicinity. If you miss a target, or if your bolt goes through the target, it is important that there is nothing beyond the point that could be injured. With these important considerations in mind, let’s look at how to fire your crossbow for the first time.

How to Draw or Cock Your Crossbow

Crossbows can require a significant amount of force and skill to cock, but the process is very doable once you get the hang of it. However, it is very common for a crossbow to have a draw weight of between 150 and 200 lbs. Thus, be careful, take your time, and don’t force yourself to do something that could result in injury.

Most crossbows are equipped with a device known as a “rope cocker.” This is a rope that hooks the bowstring, allowing you more leverage and control while cocking the weapon. To use a rope cocker, hook the cocker to the string on either side of the rail. Then, place the crossbow pointed directly down while placing your foot firmly in the foothold (known as the “stirrup”.) Then, using a smooth and controlled motion, use both hands to pull the rope cocker evenly until you can feel and hear the string latch into the firing pin. Going quickly is often easier, but try to avoid a jerking motion. Check that the safety is activated, and then remove the cocker from the string.

Some crossbows have a “crank cocker”, which is essentially a small winch that you crank to cock the string for you. These are helpful devices, especially if you find the rope cocker requires more strength than you’re comfortable exerting.

How to Aim Your Crossbow

Almost all crossbows come equipped with at least a basic scope, allowing you significantly more accuracy while aiming. The general idea of a scope is simple: you look through it, line up your target with the crosshairs, and fire. In practice, the process can be a bit more tricky. Set up a target about 30 yards away and fire a few bolts at it. If you notice a pattern in your trajectory, you can adjust your aim to compensate. It can be a frustrating process, but it is truly a case of practice makes perfect.

Most scopes also have horizontal lines below the crosshairs, allowing you to compensate for the dropping of the arrow when shooting further distances. Generally, these are calibrated for each line to be a 10-yard delta. In other words, if your scope is sighted for 30-yards on the main cross, then one line before should account for the drop at 40-yards. Again, this is more of an art than a science, so be patient and find your patterns.

Firing Your Crossbow

After your crossbow is cocked, the next step is to place an arrow onto the rail. Again, check that your safety is on. Then, grab the arrow a few inches from the point and slide it into the rail, taking care to make sure it touches the bowstring. Most arrows will have a vane (the fins at the end) that is a different color from the rest.

Always place this vane down into the rail. This will make sure that the body of the arrow is resting on the rail, rather than being supported by a vane. Finally, there will be a groove in the back of the arrow, called the “nock.” Always have this groove seated cleanly on the string. Once the arrow is seated properly, simply take aim, click off your safety, and pull the trigger.

How to Sight in Your Crossbow

After you’ve spent some time shooting your crossbow and have begun to notice some patterns in how your scope’s crosshairs differ from your resulting shots, it can be extremely helpful to “sight in” your scope. This is just a fancy way of saying calibrate it. Your scope will have two caps with dials underneath.

One adjusts upward calibration, while the other adjusts left to right. If you are firing at a target directly in your crosshairs but the bolt is consistently going left, simply adjust the dial slightly right. The up/down adjustment is no different.

Take your time with this process. At first, you will probably make adjustments that are too large. However, in time, the process will become second nature. 

Crossbow Accessories

Once you become acclimated to the hobby, you will quickly discover that there is no shortage of accessories available for crossbows. Some of the most popular accessories are storage bags and bolt-on quivers that allow you to store additional arrows on your crossbow.

Past this, the sky’s the limit. From fancier scopes, purpose-built arrows, or even colorful stocks, there is no shortage of ways to make your crossbow your own. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Are a bolt and an arrow the same thing?

A: In most uses, these terms are interchangeable. However, they aren’t actually the same. Technically speaking, a “bolt” is a traditional projectile without stabilizing vanes. These are almost never used in a modern context. Yet, as a nod to traditional, many users still call a modern arrow a “bolt.”

Q: Do I absolutely have to have a cocking device?

A: No, but you likely should. If you have the strength to do so, there is nothing to prevent you from cocking a bow by hand. However, this can be a difficult process given the force required, and we always recommend using either a rope cocking or crank cocking device.

Q: Do I need a special crossbow if I’m left-handed?

A: No. Crossbows can be used easily regardless of your dominant hand. The only adjustment you may have to make is reversing the mounting of your quiver, if your crossbow has one.

Q: How far can a crossbow shoot?

A: This question depends more on the skill of the operator. A modern crossbow is capable of shooting an arrow hundreds of yards, but hitting a target beyond 80-yards is rare. For a beginner, under 50-yards is more reasonable.

Q: Are crossbows legal?

A: In most places, possessing, shooting, and hunting with a crossbow is perfectly legal. However, some regions have specific seasons where crossbow hunting is allowed. It is always best to check your local laws and regulations to be sure.

Final Thoughts

There has never been an easier or more affordable time to get into crossbows for beginners. Compared to the often finicky bows of the past, modern crossbows are incredibly reliable, capable, and affordable devices.

As this crossbow beginners guide has shown, getting started is an easy process with only a few pieces of information. The crossbow community is generally an incredibly welcoming and supportive environment, so if you have questions, it is never hard to find someone to ask.

Simply take your time, learn the right habits, and have fun.

Matthew Russo
Hey, my name is Matt, an avid outdoorsman, prepper and action taker. If you have found this article informative please feel free to leave a comment below and share it with your friends and family, it would make my day!

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