Types of Crossbows – Your Complete Guide on Crossbows


You’re thinking of getting into archery and you’re sure you want a crossbow, but that’s about as far into the decision-making as you’ve gotten. It’s important to know about the types of crossbows so you can choose the one that’s best suited to your level of archery experience. What crossbow options do you have?

Here are the types of crossbows:

  • Rifle crossbow
  • Repeating crossbow
  • Forward-draw crossbow
  • Reverse-draw crossbow
  • Pistol crossbow
  • Compound crossbow
  • Recurve crossbow

This article will act as your complete guide on crossbows. You’ll learn more about each crossbow type as well as get some pointers on how to pick the right crossbow for you. Keep reading!

The 7 Types of Crossbows: What You Need to Know

Rifle Crossbow

Starting our list is the rifle crossbow, which is named such because it has accuracy akin to a rifle. Ideal for hunting, rifle bows feature a foot-pull, a fiber body, and a sight that will make targeting game simpler. Many rifle crossbows are designed for long-distance firing somewhere in the ballpark of 250 feet. This gives you the advantage, as you can hide in the bushes or otherwise obstruct yourself and strike your hunting target before they ever know what’s coming.

The velocity of the rail is another winning feature of a rifle crossbow. The rail is made in such a way that you can launch more bolts without the worry of friction slowing you down. Once you generate a good velocity with a rifle crossbow, you should be able to consistently maintain it. Between the accuracy and speed, you can see why so many archers choose a rifle bow.

As if all that wasn’t great, so too is the rifle crossbow’s streamlined design. With an average width of six inches, rifle bows are very narrow, especially compared to the other crossbows on this list. Their slimmer shape lets you maneuver the rifle crossbow more easily than other types. Do keep in mind that these bows demand more power out of the user. If you’re lacking upper body strength or if you’re new to archery, you might not want to start with a rifle crossbow. 

Repeating Crossbow

The second crossbow style is the repeating bow, which originates in China. This ancient crossbow was favored as weaponry for the Warring States period and was once known as a Zhuge crossbow. Its design has been improved upon and modernized for today’s archer. That said, you have to anticipate that the look of a repeating crossbow is not going to be like what you’re used to.

Repeating crossbows feature a magazine at the top that holds the bolts. The bolts go through the crossbow near a lever between the magazine and a tiller. You put the tiller closer to your hips, pull on the bow’s lever, and load your bolt. 

Instead of having to span your bow, place it, and then shoot using two hands, a repeating crossbow allows you to do these tasks single-handedly. Compared to other crossbows, your rate of fire may be improved, sometimes by as much as three times. If you’re looking to make fast, consistent shots, a repeating crossbow is a good bet. Once you get used to the interesting design and functioning, we’d say a repeating crossbow may be even easier to use for beginners than a rifle crossbow.

Operating a repeating bow is usually very mechanical. After a while using this bow, you might get bored with it. That’s fair considering a repeating crossbow is less about technique than other crossbow types.  

Forward-Draw Crossbow

The next two types of crossbows that we’ll discuss are in the same vein yet share few similarities. They are the forward-draw and reverse-draw bows. We’ll start with the conventional-draw or forward-draw crossbow, which is admittedly considered the weaker of the two bows but may still come in handy for certain applications.

The power stroke of a forward-draw crossbow is about 13.5 inches, which leads to a firing velocity of 350 feet per second. For those new to archery, this isn’t a bad bow to start with, although you won’t stick with it forever. Its lightweight feel lends this bow easy maneuverability, which also wins it points among beginners. That said, the bow tends to feel heavier at the front, and no, this isn’t just your imagination. The riser is near the barrel’s front so the crossbow’s center of balance is forward-facing as well. 

As a whole, forward-draw crossbows are stable with good accuracy and decent speed. Compared to reverse-draw crossbows, you’ll spend less money on a forward-draw bow. This too will appeal to beginners who aren’t sure if they’ll stick with archery and will not want to spend too much money on a bow or other equipment yet. 

Reverse-Draw Crossbow

Now that you better understand how forward-draw crossbows work, we can discuss reverse-draw bows. To reiterate, these crossbows are regarded as the superior of the two. Why is that? For a multitude of reasons, really. 

We mentioned in the last section that the trouble with forward-draw crossbows is their front-leaning balance, which can make these bows a bit tricky for beginners to use. Reverse-draw bows have no such issue since the riser is nearer the center of the bow’s body. You’ll find it’s easier to maneuver and balance this crossbow when you need it.

Reverse-draw bows have a better power stroke, as theirs is 15.5 inches on average compared to a forward-draw bow’s 13.5 inches. You have greater firing power as well at a rate of at least 400 feet per second. 

The smoothness of firing is one such feature that reverse-draw crossbows are renowned for. You can mount the bow without as much draw weight to reduce vibrations. The fewer vibrations, the easier it is to avoid muzzle jump so the sights you set in your crosshairs don’t move from shot to shot. 

Reverse-draw bows are known to be extremely quiet, which is a feature that hunters especially do not want to go without. The accuracy of these crossbows is typically great too, which is attributed in part to the better balance of the reverse-draw bow as well as the lower rate of vibrations. 

Pistol Crossbow

No, pistol crossbows don’t include a pistol and bow in one, although that would be cool. Instead, these smaller crossbows are named such since they’re hunting bows. You won’t have good results with a pistol crossbow if you’re trying to hunt larger animals, but for small game, this is a great bow to reach for. Pistol crossbows also come in handy for target practice. 

With a draw weight of around 80 pounds and 165 feet per second of firing power, pistol crossbows definitely aren’t the most powerful bow on this list. However, they’re beginner-friendly in that their features are easy to figure out. Most pistol bows self-cock and have a durable grip so your hands won’t slip when making a shot. 

Not all pistol crossbows include scopes, but for the ones that do, you’ll notice improvements from shot to shot whether you’re enjoying some no-sweat target practice or trying to hunt. Some pistol bows are available preassembled so you can use them right out of the box. 

Compound Crossbow

Arguably the most popular type of crossbow is the compound bow, so you had to expect to see it on this list sooner or later. These bows include a levering system with pulleys and cables that arch the limbs when pulled. This levering system is also referred to as a cam system. 

Since compound bows have such stiff limbs, the limbs don’t use as much energy to move. That’s true even in humidity and temperature changes. Overall, you get better accuracy from the rigid limbs as well as greater energy efficiency.

When you pull back on your string, the compound crossbow’s cam system spins, but not necessarily to the same radius every time. That’s due to the inclusion of an outer and inner track for each of the cams. By drawing your compound bow, you can change the cam track shape and thus alter the profile of your draw stroke. This is known as let-off. 

Compound bows are advantageous in many ways, but a few issues can make these bows less effective. Compared to other crossbow types, if you dry fire, you could wreck your compound bow much more easily. You also have to take very good care of your strings with a compound crossbow. If they snap, you need a bow press to fix the complex parts of this bow. 

Recurve Crossbow

The last type of crossbow is the recurve. Its history may date back even further than the repeating crossbow, so you’re shooting with a piece of history if you use this crossbow. The bow’s lightweight body is carbon, magnesium alloy, or aluminum. The tips of the bow curve out and away, but this is for more than just an appealing design. The style of the recurve crossbow also holds the string where it should be. 

Between compound and recurve crossbows, the latter weighs less and has greater maneuverability. You can often buy recurve crossbows with features such as sights, scopes, and stabilization for greater accuracy. Before you can make the shot though, you have to cock the string, which isn’t always easy with a recurve bow. You’ll have to be pretty strong to pull one of these bows back, especially if you’re used to compound bows. 

Shorter archers can struggle with recurve bows as well, as properly cocking the bow at your height is a greater challenge. Without cams though, once a recurve bow starts firing, it makes a lot less noise than a compound bow. This doesn’t make these bows whisper-quiet though. They’re still considered loud, just not as loud as compound crossbows. You do get some long-range shots with a recurve bow, so that might make up for the noise! 

How to Select the Right Crossbow for You

You just learned about some awesome crossbows, but which is the right pick for you? Here are some considerations to keep in mind.

Weight

How much weight you feel comfortable toting around and supporting with your upper body for hours on end is up to you, but weight is certainly an important factor when shopping for a crossbow. Beginners don’t want to feel overwhelmed by a bow that’s too heavy for them. Even intermediate players shouldn’t want to have to contend with extra weight if there’s a more reasonably weighted crossbow available. 

We’d recommend trying a few types of crossbows until you find a weight that gels with your body. 

Ease of Use

We mentioned that repeating crossbows are pretty beginner-friendly, as are reverse-draw crossbows and even pistol crossbows to an extent. You don’t want to be in over your head with a complex crossbow like a compound bow if you’re new to archery. Learning all the cams and pulleys can frustrate you and make you quit before you ever get started.

Accuracy

None of the crossbow types we discussed are lacking in accuracy, but some are more accurate than others. Remember that if you’re not happy with the accuracy of your crossbow that you can usually outfit it with a scope provided that it doesn’t already come with one. 

Firing Power

Everyone wants a powerful crossbow, but you don’t always need one. If you’re just doing target practice or hunting small game, you can skip the mighty crossbows and buy one with decent power instead. For those archers who use a crossbow for hunting big game, the bow’s firing power should especially be a priority. 

Maintenance

Think long-term when selecting your crossbow. Some bows require more advanced maintenance than others. For example, compound bows have a lot of moving parts, and each of those parts will need tending to at one point or another. Recurve crossbows are considered much lower-maintenance by comparison. 

Final Thoughts 

Shopping for a crossbow as a beginner can be daunting, but not anymore. Now that you’re much more familiar with the different crossbow types, you can focus on the qualities that matter, such as firing speed, accuracy, and ease of use. 

Geoff Southworth

I am a California native and I enjoy all the outdoors has to offer. My latest adventures have been taking the family camping, hiking and surfing.

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