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How to Shoot a Crossbow: 6 Steps for Pinpoint Accuracy


There are steps you can take to shoot a crossbow with accuracy.  As a beginner, learning the basics of a crossbow will help you develop pinpoint accuracy.

There are six steps that a beginner should know to shoot a crossbow with accuracy.  The steps are necessary and range from cocking the bow, to loading and aiming the bow, to shooting the bow.

For a beginner, there are six steps you need to know to shoot a crossbow.  Learning how to shoot a crossbow accurately takes practice and experience. 

To learn more about the six steps to shoot a crossbow, what a crossbow is and its components, the best usage for a crossbow and other basic information, continue reading below.

What is a Crossbow?

Before learning how to shoot a crossbow, it is best to what it is and how it is used.

A crossbow is a mechanical bow that uses moving parts to project the arrow, rather than manually drawing the bowstring to shoot an arrow, like a traditional bow.  The similarities to a bow are that the crossbow shoots short arrows which are called bolts.

Because of the mechanics and moving parts involved, drawing the string of a crossbow is almost effortless and is powerful.

The power of a crossbow is strong and accurate enough to hunt some of the largest wildlife creatures.

In addition, the mechanisms of how the crossbow is designed to be used horizontally as opposed to vertically like a longbow or compound bow. 

It is also interesting to know that the crossbow has also existed in history, around medieval times.  However, with technology and modernization, crossbows have evolved and have become more intricate.

As a beginner, I found it much easier to understand the terminology and parts of the crossbow before learning how to shoot with one.

Types of Crossbows

Like any other bow, there are different types of crossbows that can be used for hunting or target practice.

Because of the power of a crossbow, it is best used for hunting.  However, choosing a crossbow depends on what you are going to use it for. 

Recurve Crossbow

Some types of crossbow that are designed for hunting include:

  • Recurve crossbow
    • Just as the traditional recurve bow, the limbs of the recurve crossbow also curve outwards in the direction of the target.  The difference is that the limbs are horizontal rather than vertical.  The recurve crossbow is simple to aim and has a longer draw length.
  • Compound crossbow
    • A compound crossbow is harder to use because it is more complex.  The limbs are shorter than a recurve crossbow and are sturdier.  Just like a traditional compound bow, the compound crossbow uses pulleys and cables.
  • Repeating crossbow
    • A repeating crossbow is the easiest type to use.  This type of crossbow is a good option for beginner to use.
Compound Crossbow

Parts of a Crossbow

Because the crossbow is mechanical and projects a lot of power, it is good to learn the different parts that make it function before learning to shoot one.

In addition to some of the basic parts of a bow, such as the riser and the limbs, a crossbow also has a:

  • Cocking stirrup:
    • The cocking stirrup is a part that is stepped on by the archer so that bow will not slip when you engage it.
  • Barrel:
    • The barrel is the top of the bow, where the arrow is placed and aligned with the string.  This part is what makes the arrow shoot out accurately.
  • Stock
    • The stock is the part closest to your body above where you rest the bow.
  • Arrow retention spring:
    • The arrow retention spring is what hold the arrow in place and releases the arrow once the trigger is pulled.
  • Flight groove:
    • The flight groove is located on top of the body of the bow, also referred to as the barrel.  It serves to align the arrow with the string.
  • Latch:
    • The latch is the part that holds onto the string when it has been drawn and before it is released by pulling the trigger.
  • Safety:
    • The safety on a crossbow prevents the arrow from being shot accidentally.
  • Sight bridge:
    • The sight bridge is located under the sight accessory. The sight allows the archer to have direct aim at the target.

How Does a Crossbow Work?

Although knowing the parts of a crossbow is helpful, it is also best to know how it functions.  And, if you are aware of the mechanics of a crossbow, knowing how the parts make the crossbow works will help you learn how to shoot with pinpoint accuracy.

The basic function of a crossbow is similar to a traditional bow because it uses a string to propel the arrow.  The main difference between a crossbow and a traditional bow is the way it is fired.  With a bow, the archer has to pull back the bow string and maintain it before releasing the arrow.   

Since a crossbow has moving parts, it is not necessary to manually draw the bowstring, maintaining it to aim the arrow for accuracy and releasing energy from the string to project the arrow.

The way a crossbow works seems simple and basic:

  • The archer pulls / draws the bow string and places it to the latch.
  • The arrow (called a bolt) is place over the barrel and is aligned on the grove. 
  • The crossbow has a latch that holds the drawstring and the arrow is held in the barrel where the arrow retention spring is. 
  • When the string is locked it, the arrow is released by pulling the trigger.

The mechanism of the crossbow allows an archer with any size and strength to properly use the bow.  On the other hand, if the archer does not use a traditional bow suited for their height and strength, the shot will not be accurate.

One disadvantage of a crossbow is the time it takes to set it up.  With a traditional bow, you can swiftly align your arrow, aim and shoot in a matter of seconds.  However, because of the parts of a crossbow, it can take almost a minute to operate it in the same way.

Now that we have some understanding of how a crossbow works, we can look at the steps you need to know to shoot a crossbow.

Here is a fantastic video that goes over everything you need to know about crossbows in order to help improve your accuracy.

Steps to Shoot a Crossbow

Although you will find many tutorials that indicate there are four basic steps in shooting a crossbow, there are two additional steps you should include before you can set up or cock a crossbow. 

If you follow the preparation steps below, in addition to cocking the crossbow accurately, you can shoot the crossbow with pinpoint accuracy.

Step 1:

The first step to firing a crossbow accurately is picking the right crossbow for you.

When you use the right crossbow, you should be able to hold it comfortably and cock the bow easily to get the best accuracy.

Step 2:

Once you have the right crossbow, the second step is to make sure that the flight rail is properly lubricated and the sting is properly waxed.

Taking the time to lubricate the rail and wax the string will lengthen the life of your crossbow and make your crossbow more accurate.

 Step 3:

If you use a scope on your crossbow, the next step is to calibrate your scope.

Make sure you adjust your scope to the range that you’re going to be firing your crossbow from.  Test your scope to make sure it is adjusted properly before setting up a target.  If you know how to cock the crossbow, you can fire some test shots (called bolts) at the target to make the necessary adjustments.

Step 4:

After taking the preparation measures above, it’s time to begin the loading, or cocking, procedures. 

To cock your crossbow correctly every time for the best accuracy possible, you need to:

  1. Place the stirrup part of the bow on the ground and hold it securely with your foot.
  2. Pull the string with both hands and evenly on both sides of the string.
  3. Place the string on the cocking mechanism so that it latches.  When the string is placed correctly, you will hear a click.  Do not let go of the string if you do not hear that click.
  4. Place the bolt (arrow) in the groove on the top of the bow.  The end of the bold should touch the string.

One way to know that you have loaded the bolt correctly is that one of the fletchings (feathers or plastic vanes at the end of the arrow) will be in the groove.

You need to make sure that you cock the bolt (arrows or shots) correctly; the bolt should be perfectly straight and aligned.  If your bolt is off-center it can mess up the accuracy.  So make sure your bolt is straight.

It is also important to mention that a crossbow has a safety mechanism to prevent unintentionally releasing a bolt.  Once you cock the crossbow, the safety feature activates and will prevent the bolt for accidently shooting out.

Step 5:

Another way to firing a crossbow with pinpoint accuracy is to eliminate crossbow canting.

Crossbow canting is when you lean your crossbow too much to the left or right.  This affects how accurate your shot will be.

The best way to eliminate crossbow canting is to attach a small level to your crossbow to make your shot more precise.

Step 6:

The last step is to aim at the target and shoot. 

At first, your accuracy will be off.  But that just means that you need to practice all these steps until you have mastered them.  Please understand that practicing does not mean to fire without a bolt.

Practicing all these steps will ensure the best possible accuracy.  It will improve your skills as you participate in sports, hunt, or participate in recreational activities.

What is a Bolt?

In archery, you typically use a bow and arrow. 

However, for a crossbow, the arrow is called a bolt.  The difference between a bolt and an arrow is that the bolt is much smaller than an arrow.

The size of a bolt is about 16 inches or smaller.  On the other hand, the size of an arrow ranges from about 20 inches in length.

Nevertheless, a bolt acts in the same way as an arrow.  Both are shot out from a bow at an intended target.  The name bolt is used to indicate they are to be used with a crossbow.

The structure of a bolt is similar to an arrow and is made up of:

  • The shaft
    • The shaft can be made out of carbon or aluminum and are lightweight.
    • The shaft has different levels of stiffness.  When an archer says the bolt has more spine, it means that it is more resistant.
  • The nock
    • The nock is the back part of the bolt and is where the string is held to (which is the same as arrows).
  • Fletchings
    • Fletchings are the feathers or plastic vanes that are attached at the end of the bolt (also like an arrow).
    • Fletchings are important because it guides the bolt to shoot in the intended direction and keeps the bolt stable.
  • The bolt heads (similar to arrowheads)
    • There are different types of bolt heads:
      • Target points (or field points) that are best used for target practice.  They are not sharp and not good for hunting.
    • Broad-heads can be used for hunting because they have pointy blades that can penetrate gem. 

What Kind of Bolts do Crossbows Use?

A modern crossbow fires out bolts made by aluminum or carbon.  With a traditional bow, you shoot out arrows.  However, the concept is similar.

These materials are lightweight, durable, and do not splinter if they break like many traditional wooden arrows do. These factors allow the hunter to carry more bolts since they are lightweight and shorter than traditional arrows for bows.

As with any bows, using a crossbow with the correct bolts is necessary for accuracy.  Since the crossbow shoots out bolts with great force, you should not use bolts that are very light.  If you use a bolt that is too light, the force of the crossbow can break it. 

As we mentioned before, you should not fire a crossbow without a bolt (called dry firing).  When you dry fire, it can cause damage to the bow and this type of damage is not covered by warranty.

The type of bolt that you can use with a crossbow also depends on how you are going to use it. 

  • For instance, we’ve learned that field point bolts are best used for target practice because the point is not sharp and is not efficient for hunting.
    • On the other hand, if you are using your crossbow for hunting, you will want to use a broad head.

How Safe Are Crossbows?

If you are an experienced archer, using a crossbow is safe.  The only difference is crossbows use a trigger mechanism to shoot bolts. 

Therefore, not only is it important to know how to load a crossbow properly but you should also know how to operate a crossbow safely.

Some safety tips you should keep in mind are:

  1. ALWAYS keep it in a safe place and unloaded when not in use.  Also keep it away from children.
  2. When cocking a crossbow, set the bow on the ground and use the stirrup to support the bow.
  3. Make sure that the stirrup is properly secure before you begin to cock the crossbow.
  4. You should put the crossbow on the stand when it is unloaded.
  5. Do not lean on the stand to cock the crossbow.
  6. When you are placing the unloaded crossbow on the stand, make sure that the bow is facing the ground while you are moving it and keep away from the trigger.
  7. Do not fire a crossbow without a bolt.
  8. Once loaded and cocked, make sure that the bolt is straight before shooting.
  9. Make sure the safety feature is working properly on the crossbow.
  10. You should not attempt to de-cock a crossbow manually.  If you need to de-cock it, you should shoot out the bolt.
  11. Do not use bolts that are not appropriate for the type of crossbow you are shooting.  Refer to the manufacturer and use the correct bolts.

For a beginner, it will take practice and time to learn how to accurately and safely use a crossbow.

Although, keep in mind the proper way to load and cock a crossbow along with the safety measures to prevent accidents.

What Else Should I Know About Crossbows?

Crossbows are powerful tools.  Because of this feature, owning a crossbow might not be as simple as owning a traditional bow.

Also, while it may be legal to own a crossbow in one state, other states may have certain restrictions and require a special license just to use one.

For example:

  • In Texas, you can use a crossbow only during archery season.   
  • In New York, you can use a crossbow only when it is deer or game hunting season.
  • In Colorado, you can use a crossbow only during the regular hunting season (ie. NOT during bowhunting season).
  • In Oregon, it is not legal to use a crossbow for hunting.

Is a Crossbow Like a Compound Bow?

A crossbow and a compound are similar in the way that they are both mechanical and powerful.  However, a crossbow is much easier to draw and fire because of the trigger system. 

Because a compound bow does not have a trigger system, you still need to use your draw strength to shoot the arrow.

Therefore, a crossbow and compound bow function differently.

  • A crossbow works by the latch and trigger system.  As you cock a crossbow, it is still necessary to draw the string and placing it in the latch.  When your aim at the target is ready, you just pull the trigger and the bolt fires out.
  • A compound bow is also mechanical and uses pulleys and cables to shoot out the arrow with great energy.  With a compound bow, the arrow is attached to the string and the string is drawn with a release.  As the bowstring is drawn, the cams rotate and will stop when the string is fully drawn.  An archer still uses their arm strength to hold the arrow in position and releases the arrow.

What other Types of Bows Can I Use?

If you want to be cautious about using a crossbow and feel that compound bows may also be too powerful for you to handle, there are other types of bows that you can use. 

In addition to compound bows, there are more traditional bows that are easier to operate, such as:

  • Longbow
  • Short bow
  • Recurve bow

Using a traditional longbow is simple to operate because the parts are minimal.  A longbow is basically a long piece of wood that makes up the bow with the bowstring attached to the grooves at the ends of the limbs of the bow.  Using a longbow is so easy that young children are able to learn to shoot one.

To use a longbow all you need to do is:

  1. Place the front of the arrow with the arrowhead along the riser (middle section on the bow).
  2. Place the end of the arrow on the bowstring.
  3. Draw the bowstring.
  4. Aim at your target (using your eye dominance).
  5. Release the arrow

A short bow is similar to a longbow however it is much shorter in length.  A short bow will not exceed five feet in length while a longbow is supposed to be similar to the height of the archer.

You shoot a short bow the same way as you would a longbow.  The only difference is that you will not be able to draw the bowstring as far because of the size.  The size of the short bow is designed to shoot at close range targets; it also allows the arrow to shoot out quicker than a longbow.

A recurve bow is also considered a traditional bow.  And, the difference between a recurve bow and a longbow is the shape.  The limbs of the recurve bow curve outwards and point in the direction of the target.  Because of its shape, the bowstring touches the bow at the grooves.  Shooting with a recurve bow is similar to a longbow or a short bow.  However, because of the shape of the recurve bow, more energy is projected through the string and shoots the arrow faster.

Some Things to Remember

If you want to shoot a crossbow with pinpoint accuracy, you need to practice six steps described above. 

In addition to knowing how to properly cock a crossbow, you need to use the correct crossbow and make sure that it is working properly.  Using a calibrated scope will also pinpoint your accuracy.

Properly cocking a crossbow, and eliminating any crossbow canting, are additional steps needed to make sure that your crossbow will shoot out accurately.

However, no matter how many times you practice, it is very important to follow the safety measures discussed above.  Because of its power and shooting mechanisms, a crossbow should be treated the great care and always pointed in a safe direction.

It is also important to know if your state or residence requires you to have a special license to operate a crossbow.  States also designate different times or seasons when you can use a crossbow.  Using a crossbow for hunting is also illegal in certain areas.

For a beginner, using a crossbow can be intimidating because of all the moving parts it has.  Although a repeating crossbow is one type that a beginner can operate easily.

And in case you are still not comfortable operating a crossbow, there are other traditional types of bows that are less complex and easy to use such as a traditional longbow or recurve bow. Whatever type of bow you decide to use, practice is what will develop the accuracy of the archer.  The features and accessories only enhance the accuracy of the archer.

Peter Sontrop

I live in Alberta, Canada where I enjoy field archery and target shooting with traditional bows and compound bows. On this site, I share everything I’ve learned about archery along the way.

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