How Crossbows Work

Safe Crossbow Shooting

Cocking a crossbow
Image courtesy Amazon

Most modern crossbows have the same basic loading and cocking procedure:

  1. Place the crossbow's stirrup on the ground.
  2. Slip your foot through the stirrup and brace it firmly. Make sure that your foot is all the way in the stirrup and will not slip out while you cock the bow.
  3. Grab the string with both hands. Pull it upward using the same amount of force on both sides. If you pull harder on one side than on the other, the string will be off-center, and your shot will not be accurate. Some crossbow manufacturers sell cocking aids that use cranks or elastic straps to make cocking easier.
  4. Pull the string all the way to the cocking mechanism. When the bow is cocked, you will hear a loud click. Make sure the string is completely cocked before letting go.
  5. Place a bolt in the groove, making sure that the end of the bolt touches the string. One of the feathers, or fletchings, should be in the groove.

Crossbows have an automatic safety that engages as soon as you cock the bow. Some have a separate manual safety that you can engage yourself. Either way, the safety will keep you from firing the bow accidentally.


Firing a crossbow safely requires several precautions:

  • Remember that a crossbow is a weapon, not a toy. Many crossbows are used for hunting large animals and can severely injure or kill a person. Do not point one at anything you do not plan to shoot.
  • Make sure nothing is in the path of the bow's string or limbs. The limbs will move forward and out and the string will move forward very quickly. The limbs and string can seriously injure any part of your body that is in their way. If a moving limb hits an obstacle like a tree trunk, it can damage the crossbow.
  • Do not release the safety until you are ready to fire.

In addition, you should never dry fire your crossbow or use it with bolts that are lighter than those it's built to use. A crossbow is made to move very quickly while pushing a bolt, and if that bolt isn't there, the extra energy could break the crossbows' limbs. Dry firing voids nearly all crossbow manufacturers' warranties.

Finally, laws governing crossbow use vary widely, and they specify who can use a crossbow and when. Some laws permit only hunters with disabilities to use crossbows, while others permit anyone to use a crossbow during any hunting season. Before using a crossbow, particularly for hunting purposes, research the laws in your area.

Check out the links below for more information on crossbows, physics and other topics.


Related Articles

More Great Links


  • Ball, Donald B. "Notes on West African Crossbow Technology." African-American Archaeology. Spring-Summer 1996.
  • Excalibur Crossbows. Crossbow Video.
  • Excalibur. Crossbow Basics.
  • Fitz Museum. Unknown Maker, Germany
  • Martin Archery. The Facts about Archery.
  • Medieval Crossbows
  • Middleton, Richard. "The Practical Guide to Man-Powered Bullets." Stackpole Books. 2005.
  • Mr. Fizzix: The Physics of Archery
  • New World Arbalest. First Book of Crossbows.
  • Newton's Apple. Archery.
  • Old Basing Archers. The Bow with Wheels.
  • Rees, Gareth. "The Longbow's Deadly Secrets." New Scientist. June 5, 1993. success-at-the-battleof-agincourt-can-largely-be-put-down-to-strips-of-yew-wood-strung- withlinen-what-made-this-weapon-so-lethal.html
  • Repeating Chinese Crossbow
  • Smith, Hovey. "The Modern Hunting Crossbow." Cabelas.
  • Tapley, Joe. "Some Notes on the Mechanics of Archery."
  • Taylor, Rich. "Wheels of Fire." Popular Mechanics. 8/12/2003.
  • The New Illustrated Science and Invention Encyclopedia. H.S. Stuttman Inc. 1989. "Crossbow."
  • The Physics Classroom. Work, Energy, and Power. Lesson 1.
  • Traditional Archery Supply. Recurve Bows: History and Thoughts.