Different Types Of Crossbows Explained

Written By John VanDerLaan 

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In the market for a crossbow, but overwhelmed by all your options? Investing in your ideal weapon doesn't have to be a complicated process.

We've unpacked the major players, demystified the compound bow, introduced you to pistol and rifle crossbows, and explained how crossbow arrows work in our one-stop guide to getting started with crossbows.

RELATED: Best Crossbow On The Market

Once upon a time, there were only two options available to the keen archer: a traditional bow and arrow, with its inefficient manual processes, and a mechanized crossbow, which first burst onto the scene in the 7th century B.C. in China, quickly becoming one of the most dangerous weapons on the market and reaching the peak of their popularity in the Middle Ages.

Now, bow hunting has progressed and developed, and a number of types of crossbow are available to suit a variety of types of shooting, targets, and locations.

There's more choice than ever before – and to help you spend your money wisely, we've rounded up all the specifics you need to know to find your perfect match.

Recurve Crossbows

Recurve Crossbow

If you're into tradition, you'll love shooting with a recurve bow, which is effectively the forebear to the modern crossbow.

It's named for the curved ends of the bow, which add an elegant touch and keep the strings in place – and they help to add power, too.

Using a recurve crossbow is a manual experience: as you draw back the bowstring, the flexible limbs will bend as well, so your own strength creates the thrust of your shot.

One of the greatest assets of shooting a recurve crossbow is that it's incredibly low maintenance. It doesn't have all the mechanized elements of other crossbows, so if you need to replace a part or change the weight, you can do so without taking it to a specialist.

The downside? They can be difficult to draw, even with a cocking aid, and you'll have slightly less power, too, with that longer draw length. But many pro hunters enjoy using a recurve crossbow for the ease of maintenance and simplicity of design.

Compound Crossbows

Compound Crossbow

In need of more power? A compound crossbow is a perfect solution. This is the most commonly-used kind of crossbow for bow hunting because its mechanism creates much greater tension, which in turn allows for greater velocity and a heavier bolt.

While recurve crossbows require you to put some body weight behind each shot, a compound crossbow uses a complex system of cables and pulleys, called cams, to bend the more rigid limbs back.

This reduces the amount of effort you'll need to put in while adding significant force to your shot – a compound crossbow can easily deliver 150 pounds of power at a much higher speed than a recurve crossbow, and that high kinetic energy will vastly increase your takedown power.

The downside is that the increased mechanization of compound crossbows means they're a more complex fix if something goes wrong, and will usually require a trip to a specialist to get you back out shooting.

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Reverse Limb Crossbows

Reverse Draw Crossbow

Reverse draw crossbows are becoming increasingly popular in the bowhunting market, partly because their center of gravity makes them a lot less front-heavy, so they feel a lot lighter and easier to work with.

This is because their mechanisms are mounted the opposite way to a normal crossbow, and so they're further back, behind your fore-grip support hand, and closer to your body, which stops the nose of the crossbow from trending downwards.

One of the great perks of a reverse draw crossbow is that its strings and cables are mounted at a lower draw weight, which translates to a smoother shot.

So, if you've got your crosshairs locked on a target, they'll stay there even after the bolt has been released.

RELATED: Best Shot Placement On A Deer With A Crossbow

Pistol Crossbows

Pistol Crossbow

Don't need a huge amount of power or a long-range? A pistol crossbow is perfect for hunting small game at relatively short distances.

With its lower draw weight of around 80 pounds, it can be used one-handed and is often referred to as a 'mini crossbow'.

If you're planning to shoot deer in your bow hunting season, a pistol crossbow won't be the weapon for you – it's best used at short distances of up to around 40 yards, and the short pistol crossbow bolts are effective for dispatching rodents, rabbits, and ducks, but nothing bigger than that.

For these small game, or for target practice, it's a great choice, though – and the running and purchasing costs tend to be considerably lower than full-sized rifle crossbows.

Repeating Or Automatic Crossbows

Repeating Crossbow

Ever wished your crossbow was more like a machine gun? A repeating crossbow sometimes referred to as an automatic crossbow, is just what you've been looking for.

First developed in China in the 4th century BC, repeating crossbows simplify the actions of spanning the bow, placing the crossbow bolt, and shooting your shot into a one-handed movement, which allows you to fire again rapidly from a magazine of multiple bolts.

What Are The 2 Most Common Types of Crossbows?

Though there are pros and cons to every crossbow on the market, two outshine the rest in terms of sheer popularity.

More bowhunters use recurve or compound crossbows than any other type, which means that you'll find a huge variety of brands like Barnett, and offerings of either type, as well as easy-to-locate services and parts if you're in need of repairs.

Whether you're an experienced bowhunter or new to this exciting pastime, either of these bows will serve you well and keep you in the field for years to come.

However, the reverse draw crossbows are becoming all the rage in recent years due to their balanced feel and superior effective range. We expect them to outpace the two most common types for deer hunting in the future.

The Main Parts of a Crossbow

Though different kinds of crossbow will have some variation in their parts, most of them have essentially the same basic anatomy.

The major recognizable part of a crossbow is its limbs, which can be single or split. These are the arms from which the string is pulled, and they can take different shapes depending on the structure and type of crossbow you're using.

On most models, they'll be curved limbs, but some crossbows have shorter limbs, others have longer ones, and in compound crossbows, you'll spot the addition of a cam system, which is effectively a pulley system, on the ends of the limbs.

The limbs are connected to the barrel of the crossbow, which is generally made of lightweight materials such as aluminum alloy, carbon fiber, or polymer.

In front of the limbs is the cocking stirrup, in which you'll place your foot to stop your bow from slipping when it's in a cocked position and you're ready to draw. Although, a self-cocking device won't have one of these, and will instead feature a lever.

Along the top of the barrel, you'll find the flight groove, which is where your bolt – the technical name for a crossbow arrow – will sit and travel down once you release it with the trigger.

Until that point, an arrow retention spring keeps it in place, so you can move around with your crossbow cocked and ready to fire.

The riser is the central part of the crossbow, and is made of composite materials or wood and forms the grip, the arrow rest, and the sight.

Finally, the stock, trigger, and foregrip are the 'user end' of the crossbow.

We should also include crossbow scopes, as all modern crossbows come with a scope. Once a crossbow scope is sighted in, it is deadly accurate out to 100 yards or more.

All of these parts will require crossbow maintenance to keep them safe and working properly.

You can also find plenty of optional add-ons for your crossbow, such as a cocking device that attaches to your string to make cocking and uncocking a crossbow easier.

The types of crossbow bolts

Rather than arrows, crossbows fire bolts, which vary in length and weight depending on the type of crossbow you're shooting, the conditions you're shooting in, and the quarry you're aiming for.

Generally speaking, most modern crossbow bolts are made of carbon or aluminum, and beyond that, they're differentiated by their nock. That's the part of the bolt that attaches to the string, and its shape will affect the shot you get.

Most bowhunters use a half-moon nock or flat nock, but you'll also find Omni nocks, multi-groove nocks, and capture nocks on the market.

The history of bows

16th century crossbow

Image credit: Wikipedia

These days, crossbows are generally built with lightweight materials – a far cry from the cumbersome units used in Ancient Greece and ancient China, where the technology was found in its earliest iterations.

The Chinese army's early dependence on repeating crossbows is particularly interesting. They used them in much the same way that modern soldiers might use machine guns. They worried less about technique and aim, and instead opted for an unending spray of bolts to take down their enemies.

They needed to shoot like this – the earliest repeating crossbows made it difficult to force the lever forward and backward, and the weight the archers needed to put into this effort meant they shot erratically and couldn't choose exact targets.

Recurve bows continue to use the same principle that bows have relied on from the outset – when the string is pulled back, the flexible limbs bend with it to add more energy to the eventual release.

One type of bow that's fallen by the wayside is the belly bow, a weapon given to untrained soldiers in Ancient Greece that was easy to shoot but required the archer to lean his body weight on it through his belly in order to cock the device.

Final Thoughts

There may be a plethora of types of crossbows on the market, but consider that a blessing: whether you're hunting small or big game or simply want to enjoy target practice, there's a crossbow to suit your needs and budget out there for you.

RELATED: Best Crossbow Under $500

Frequently Asked Questions

Is a Reverse Limb Crossbow the same as a Rifle Crossbow?

Yes, a reverse limb crossbow is the same as a rifle crossbow. A rifle crossbow utilizes all the features of a crossbow with the convenience of a rifle's butt, trigger, and sight, making it enormously accurate. All crossbows except the pistol crossbow are effectively rifle crossbows.

Is a recurve crossbow or compound crossbow better?

Not sure whether to choose a recurve crossbow or a compound crossbow? Ultimately, it's a matter of personal shooting preference, and many keen bow hunters will swap between both types.

If you prefer testing your aim and ability and want to be able to make easy, quick changes and repairs in the field, recurve crossbows will tick all your boxes.

They're also great for crossbow shooters on a budget. But if you want raw speed and power, and want to ensure you're hitting target after target, you'll enjoy what the compound crossbow has to offer.

Bear in mind, too, that you'll need to stay on top of the maintenance of your compound crossbow – if a cam shifts out of alignment while you're out hunting, your accuracy will be affected, which isn't an issue with recurve crossbows.

Generally, recurve crossbows are larger and heavier than compound crossbows, so keep this in mind if you're planning to climb any trees for better vantage points.

Can you use a crossbow during a regular hunting season?

The seasonal restrictions imposed on your crossbow hunting will depend largely on where you live.

In many states, you'll be able to bow hunt throughout the regular hunting season, but in others, there'll be specific limits on seasonal length, location, and quarry.

Your wisest option? Clarify your rights with your local authorities when you apply for your hunting license.

Are there limits on what game you can shoot with a crossbow?

Just like the length and limitation of your hunting season, the quarry you're allowed to shoot with a crossbow will depend on your location – but globally, game of all sizes can be hunted with a crossbow.

Whitetail deer are perhaps the most common large game to hunt with a bow, but you can go considerably smaller – pistol crossbows are useful for shooting small game, and bow fishing is increasingly popular in some areas.

Intrepid travelers might consider a trip to Africa to hunt big game, which can be done entirely with a crossbow – it's even a viable option for elephants.

Different types of game will require different broadheads, and the larger the game, the more speed and kinetic energy the crossbow must have.

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John VanDerLaan

John VanDerLaan is the managing editor here at DeerHuntingGuide.net. He oversees a team of editors, writers and pro staff that are subject matter experts in hunting and hunting gear. John's expertise includes thoroughly testing all types of hunting gear, as well as hunting all over the U.S. and Canada. While his hunting expertise includes game birds, small game and large game, his favorite game animal is the whitetail deer and he loves to share the knowledge that he has gained over 40 years of chasing the wily whitetail with both archery gear and firearms. John is an active member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America.

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