How Does a Crossbow Work: A Basic Guide

how does a crossbow work
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Answering, "How does a crossbow work?" seems complicated in that it's a powerful weapon with exceptional features.

However, once you know its anatomy, understanding how they work is far more straightforward than you'd think.

As a tool that dates back to the sixth century B.C., they are unique tools for hunting and archery.

Are Bows Like Springs?

The simplest way to explain how a bow works is to think of a spring.

If you were to push one down and remove your finger, it returns to its original shape by using force.

This premise also applies to bows since their elastic potential energy changes as you draw the string.

By cocking the string back, you're putting your finger on the "spring."

When you pull the trigger, the string is released, using kinetic energy to propel the bolt.

With that said, many different pieces work together for this to happen.

how does a crossbow work

Types of Crossbows

You've likely noticed two main types of crossbows to get your hands on, including recurve and compound bows.

Recurve Bows

These types of crossbows contain a recurve bow mechanism, as their name suggests.

They are some of the most modern options, and you can use them for hunting and archery, like in the Olympics.

When a recurve bow is unstrung, the limbs are curved away from the person shooting.

By having curved limbs, the draw length is exceptionally longer than straight-limbed bows, offering more power.

With that said, recurve bows aren't more powerful than compound bows.

If you were to look at the recurve profile, you'd find it looks similar to the number three.

Most recurve options are a fantastic option for survival with limited technology.

Since they aren't as high-tech, you'll have to mostly rely on your strength to use them, such as when drawing.

They might be lightweight, but they also require more experience than their counterpart.

Compound Bows

No doubt, using a compound bow requires practice, but it's easier than other models.

You'll find that these units have far more technology and user-friendly features ideal for beginners.

Also, they are designed to work with several accessories, like stabilizers and scopes.

When you use a compound bow, you'll find it has exceptional power, which allows you to remain more accurate at distances.

They're also the favorite option for hunters because they can be lightweight with limited attachments.

However, there is plenty of maintenance that goes into owning a compound bow.

Since there are more mechanisms than recurve models, they need to be inspected and oiled regularly.

How Crossbow Parts Work

The majority of these crossbow parts you can find on both recurve and compound bows.

Knowing the anatomy of your weapon can help you understand better how the parts work together, and how does a crossbow work, in general.


When you hold your crossbow, the stock will rest against your shoulder.

This piece is typically made of injection-molded plastic or wood, depending on the model you choose.

Its primary purpose is to act as the base for all firing mechanisms, including the trigger, barrel, and sight bridge.

A considerable advantage of current stocks is they allow you to adjust their size to fit your specifications.


Foregrips are essential for people who want to have the most accurate shots.

Your hand will rest on this part and allows you to control your shots, so bolts shoot where you want them to.

The foregrip is also essential for making sure you have the steadiest aim possible.

Trigger and Safety

As with a gun, the trigger is responsible for firing your bolt when you're ready.

There are two basic designs for triggers; it's mounted either under or in front of the latch.

It's imperative that the trigger has a safety feature to prevent bolts from accidentally releasing when cocked.

Rail, Track, or Barrel

All of your shots' accuracy comes from the track, also known as a rail or barrel.

There are multiple materials they can be made of, although plastics and polymers are the most common.

There will be a track with grooves that help the bolt align with your string on the barrel.

Aluminum tracks are most common on high-end crossbows since they're lighter than polymer and stronger.

You can also find carbon fiber tracks because they also help reduce the weapon's weight.


There are several types of riser configurations because this is where the limbs connect.

Its sole purpose is to hold the bow and limbs at a particular angle for more accurate shooting.

Most risers are made from machined aluminum or magnesium, although carbon fiber is also getting popular.


Arguably some of the most critical components of your crossbow, the limbs hold the entire unit together.

You'll find recurve bows have longer limbs than compound models because they need the extra length for power.

Your string will connect to both of the limbs.

how does a crossbow work


Found on compound crossbows, cams are at the end of the limbs, and they look like wheels.

The string will be attached to the cams, and the wheels turn when the line is pulled.

Using this motion, the limbs can hold plenty of kinetic energy needed to shoot the bolt further.


The string on your crossbow is the most important since it is responsible for firing your arrow.

It will also require the most maintenance because it determines the speed of your crossbow.

Displayed as feet per second (FPS), the crossbow's speed is how fast the bolt travels.

There are three main things to consider with string: stretch capacity, breaking strength, and weight.


To protect your string, the serving is situated where the line touches the retention string.

It's responsible for riding along the rail when you pull the trigger to prevent excessive friction.

You'll want to ensure your serving is centered for consistent shooting.

Flight Groove

Another part that is important for consistency is the flight groove.

This feature ensures the arrow is correctly aligned with the string for accurate shooting.

When fired, the flight groove makes sure the arrow's fletching travels unobstructed.


The latch's essential purpose is to make sure your crossbow string is held in place when drawn.

It should only be released when the trigger is pulled, making it a vital safety component.

Sight and Sight Bridge

There are plenty of different types of sights that you can invest in, depending on your preferences.

Multi-reticle sights are the most popular because they accommodate short and long-distance shooting.

Red dots are another popular option, although they are not ideal for shooting at a distance.

You will need to connect the sight to the bridge, designed to hold it in place.


This part is particularly important for beginners, as cocking a crossbow can be challenging.

Some of the most influential models have a draw weight of 185 lbs, which is a lot to handle.

You will need to put your foot through the stirrup when you pull the string back.


One of the most popular accessories that hunters and archers use is a quiver, especially if you're traveling.

A quiver can be mounted to your crossbow's left or right side and come in different shapes and sizes.

Some models even allow you to mount it on the bottom or top of your bow.

The primary purpose of a quiver is to hold your arrows to prevent the bolts from getting damaged.

How Does a Crossbow Work: Final Thoughts

The best way to remember how a crossbow works is to think of it like a spring.

With all of the unique components built into their design, they can shoot arrows as fast as 400+ FPS.

Knowing how they work can help you to put your gear to better use for your next hunt.

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