How To Shoot a Crossbow For Beginners

Written By Ron Parker 

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Crossbows caught on as weapons of war during the Medieval Period specifically because they were easy to use and required little training. This principle still makes them great options for target shooting or bow hunting today. A beginner can quickly start using their crossbow successfully as long as they follow proper shooting and safety methods. That's exactly what you'll find below. 

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Step 1. Cock The Crossbow

Cocking a crossbow

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"Cocking" is the term for drawing your crossbow, pulling back the string until it catches the trigger latch and remains in place. All the energy that goes into the bolt is stored in the crossbow string by this action.

In other words, all the incredible speed and destructive power of a crossbow bolt, you have to produce that yourself with your own muscles by pulling back the bowstring. As you can imagine, this isn't exactly easy. Crossbows can have draw weights up to 200 pounds, meaning cocking them can take the same amount of effort as lifting 200 pounds off the ground.

This isn't something you can do without specific techniques and, in some cases, special devices. There are three main ways to cock a crossbow.

Cocking A Crossbow With Your Hands

The most basic method for cocking a crossbow is to just do it with your hands. The higher the crossbow draw weight, the more difficult this is, and it will take a considerable amount of upper body strength regardless.

Even when cocking a crossbow with your hands, you can't simply pull the bowstring back without leverage. The standard way to get this is with a foot stirrup. This is a loop at the front of the crossbow where you can put your foot to hold down the crossbow while you pull the bowstring up towards your body.

To cock a crossbow by hand, push the stirrup firmly into the ground and stick your foot into it so that your body weight holds down the crossbow. Grip the bowstring on either side of the rail and pull up until it's secured by the latch.

Cocking a crossbow by hand can be dangerous for your fingers. Not only can it hurt when the bowstring digs into the skin, but you may risk getting your fingers caught in different mechanisms. This is more true for narrow crossbows like compound models.

Cocking A Crossbow With A Cocking Rope

A cocking rope is the most basic device to help you cock your crossbow. It's a lot like cocking your crossbow with your hands, but it gives you a better grip and more leverage. It also saves your fingers. A cocking rope consists of handles on both ends with hooks attached to the rope by pulleys that let them glide along the length of the rope. 

To cock the crossbow, position yourself the same way you would to cock a crossbow by hand. Place the stirrup against the ground and slide your foot through it so that the crossbow is stable and secure.

Then, place the center of the cocking rope over the back of the crossbow behind the latch. Most modern crossbows have a specific notch here for cocking ropes. Next, let the ends drop down so that you can connect the hooks to the bowstring on either side of the rail. Now, grip the handles firmly and pull up until the latch catches the bowstring.

Cocking A Crossbow With A Hand Crank

A crank is the most mechanically complex way of cocking a crossbow. These cranks make cocking your crossbow much easier because, as levers rotating in 360 degrees, they let you do the same amount of work by applying a much smaller force over a much longer distance. The trade-off, of course, is that it takes a lot longer to cock the crossbow in this case.

Cranks can be separate devices that you mount on your crossbow or they can be built into the stock of the crossbow itself. Models vary widely, but most function much the same way as cocking ropes with hooks that connect to the bowstring on either side of the rail. There are even budget crossbows that come equipped with a crank cocking device.

The best way is to keep the front of the crossbow pressed into the ground just like with other methods. Then simply attach the hooks and turn the crank until the bowstring reaches the latch.

Hand cranks are usually included equipment on crossbows with extreme draw weights

One of the differences between a compound bow vs crossbow is a crossbow will need to be uncocked after a hunt, if a shot is not fired. Here is how to uncock a crossbow.

Step 2. Loading A Bolt In The Crossbow

Loading a crossbow bolt is actually pretty straightforward, but there are a few things to keep in mind. Unlike traditional bows, you load a crossbow bolt after you've already cocked it.

First, hold the bolt near the tip but make sure that your hand or fingers are not actually covering the tip itself. Then locate the differently colored (usually white) of the three fletchings. This is the one that you'll slide into the groove of the crossbow rail. Then slide the bolt back until it engages the bowstring.

During this process, it's important to never let your hands cross the horizontal plane of the bowstring where they'd be hit and almost certainly injured if you accidentally fired the bow. Similarly, you should never hold the bolt by covering the tip for the same reason.

Step 3. How To Aim A Crossbow?

Aiming a crossbow scope

The best way to aim a crossbow is with a scope, and the vast majority of modern crossbows come with one. A scope will have crosshairs or a single dot that you place over the target. On the target range, you will have to adjust the scope until the bolt accurately hits where the crosshairs or dot is.

Still, this accuracy is only for a specific distance. At other distances, the scope won't be accurate because the bolt will drop more or less than the scope accounts for. 

For this reason, if your scope is sighted in for, say, 40 yards, you need to have a good grasp of that distance when aiming. If your target is farther away, you'll need to aim slightly higher, and if it's closer, slightly lower.  

RELATED: Best Place To Shoot A Deer With A Crossbow

Step 4. Shooting A Crossbow

Once you've cocked your crossbow, loaded the bolt and taken aim, it's time to shoot. 

The most important thing to pay attention to is form. Hold the front of your crossbow with your non-dominant hand under the foregrip, supporting it horizontally. Firmly press the stock of the crossbow into your shoulder.

At the same time, hold the crossbow grip with your dominant hand, wrapping your thumb around one side and your fingers around the other. Then lightly press your index finger against the trigger and disengage the safety.

Crossbow safety Mechanism

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Depending on the amount of creep your particular trigger has, you may be able to pull it back with a slight amount of pressure before it finally fires. This, along with the right amount of pressure to shoot, will take some getting used to. Once you've learned this, you'll be able to consistently pull the trigger to shoot the bolt exactly when you want to. 

How To Shoot A Crossbow Accurately

Shooting a crossbow

Shooting your crossbow accurately primarily involves sighting in your scope correctly and then using proper form. 

If you find that your bolts are hitting the target on one side when you move farther away, you should try walk back tuning the crossbow to determine the reason for this.

To sight your scope in, you need to go to a range and shoot from a consistent distance. Fire your crossbow while aiming at the bullseye. If your shot lands to the right, you have to turn the scope a little to the right. If your shot lands low, you have to turn the scope down. Each scope will have a different way to adjust it, so check your manual.

Once your scope is sighted in, you can shoot accurately at a similar distance as long as you use proper form. That means supporting the crossbow at the foregrip and pressing the stock firmly but not excessively into your shoulder.

If you're shooting from a standing position, place your feet shoulder width apart with your trigger-side foot planted firmly behind you for balance. This will rotate your torso so that you can place your non-trigger leg slightly forward. You should be stable enough that your body can absorb the energy from the crossbow shot without jerking—or falling over.

If you're shooting from a seated position, make sure you're sitting upright with your back straight and your feet planted firmly on the ground. Use the back of the seat, tree, etc. to stabilize your body.

In both cases, you shouldn't bend over or roll your shoulders to look through the scope. Instead, keep your shoulders squared but extend your head and neck forward till your eye meets the scope.   

How To Shoot A Deer With A Crossbow?

Shooting a deer can be intimidating compared to a target on the range, but the process is the same. The target is merely the deer's vital organs, heart and lungs. 

This "kill zone" is located about a third of the way up a deer's torso and a third of the way back, just behind its front shoulder blades. A bolt that lands here has a good chance of hitting the heart. Near this point it's also likely to hit the lungs or liver, which will also cause death, though you may have to track the deer first.

It is easiest to hit the kill zone if the deer is standing broadside, perpendicular to you so you can see its entire flank. Quartering away shots, where the deer is walking away from you at an angle, are also good shots to take. 

Quartering toward shots, straight on shots, where the deer is facing you, and rump shots aren't good ideas. You'll most likely injure the deer without killing it, or it will take so long to die that you won't be able to find it.

Even though a crossbow can shoot hundreds of yards, the ethical range for shooting a deer is only around 40 yards.

For more help hunting deer, visit Deer Hunting Tip For Beginners.

How To Shoot A Crossbow From A Tree Stand?

Shooting a crossbow from a tree stand

Shooting a crossbow from a tree stand is not much different than shooting from the ground, but you do have to adjust your form based on the space available. In many situations, you'll even have to shoot from a seated position. No matter the position you're shooting from, your shoulders should be squared and straight, and you should stabilize your body so that you don't jerk when you fire the bolt.

Additionally, shooting from a tree stand will change your aim a little. Since you're shooting from above your target, the horizontal distance the bolt travels across the ground is actually shorter than the straight-line distance from the crossbow to the target. This means it drops less than the scope is calibrated for.

For compound bows and recurves, this means you should aim slightly lower when shooting from a tree stand. However, this phenomenon is much less pronounced with crossbows. 

Nevertheless, if you're using a less powerful crossbow or shooting from a particularly high tree stand, you may find that you need to aim just a tad lower. The alternative is to sight in your scope from your tree stand itself if you have constant access to it and a target.

The best rangefinders for bow hunting use angle compensation to give you a corrected distance to the target based on the angle.

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Important Safety Tips When Shooting A Crossbow

Crossbows are powerful weapons that can seriously injure you or people nearby. To minimize the risks and keep everyone safe, follows these tips:

  • Do not ever put your hands or fingers in the way of the bowstring.
  • Always point the crossbow away from yourself and others.
  • Keep the safety engaged until you're ready to shoot.
  • Store and transport your crossbow uncocked and ideally in a protective case.
  • Wear safety glasses when shooting or servicing your crossbow.
  • Do not shoot a crossbow under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  • Check your surroundings before shooting and make sure neither the bolt nor the crossbow limbs or bowstring will strike anyone or anything nearby.
  • Never shoot a bolt straight up or over a hill where you don't know what—or who—is on the other side.
  • Keep your weapon in prime condition be performing routine crossbow maintenance regularly.

Additionally, you should never dry fire a crossbow. This means shooting it without a bolt loaded. If you do this, the energy that would normally be transferred into the bolt is transferred into the crossbow itself, which can cause permanent damage to the device. More importantly, it may shatter and injure you or someone nearby.

Final Thoughts

A crossbow can seem intimidating at first glance, but by following this guide, you can start using one successfully without much hassle.

We suggest starting with a beginner crossbow like the Barnett Whitetail Hunter II crossbow.

No matter what type of crossbow you choose, just remember to have fun and stay safe.

RELATED: Best Crossbow For Women

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Ron Parker

Ron is an archery instructor and expert bow hunter that lives with his wife and kids in central Ohio. When he is not teaching archery or in the woods bow hunting deer, he is writing informative articles for

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