Updated: What is a Crossbow?

A crossbow can basically be thought of as a horizontal bow that is mounted on a stock and is used to shoot bolts.

In recent times, the crossbow has seen a drastic transformation with respect to its design, build and functionality. The weapon that has been historically employed during the military campaigns is no longer used the same way. With novel designs and a complex build, modern crossbows vary greatly in their purpose of use as compared to their “predecessors”.

This piece is intended to familiarizing you with how crossbows have evolved over time and bringing you a comprehensive guide to help you really understand the history of crossbows.

If you are more specifically looking for the crossbow itself and looking to get more info about the specifics of your first crossbow, you may have a look at How to choose a Crossbow.

When was The Crossbow invented?

Evolution through ages

Before we delve into how crossbows look and work today, let us quickly go through the pages of history and have a closer look at the genesis of the weapon and how it was actively used as a lethal weapon during warfare. Crossbows were first invented by Chinese in 5th century BC. It was not before when Greeks embraced crossbow and vigorously used it during their warfare that the weapon was recognized and used by the rest of the world. The primary reasons for its popularity were its ease of use and high precision. As compared to traditional bow and arrow, crossbows didn’t require a lot of expertise. The crossbow could have been mastered with routine military training and this is what intrigued many empires to acquire crossbows and get their armies acquainted with the latest weaponry of that time.


What is a Crossbow?

Talking about things in precise terms, there is a substantial amount of evidence to suggest that the use of crossbows dates back to 4th century BC even before documented military usage of Chinese. Though there is no concrete conclusion that can be extracted about who first invented the weapon, there are archaeological and historical pieces of evidence implying the first surfacing of the weapon in East-Asia region. At the same time, it is important to mention the role of Greeks in developing the crossbow as an active warfare weapon. In fact, many textual pieces of evidence and documents hold the Greeks responsible for the invention and development of crossbows. Some evidence suggests that in Ancient Greece crossbows existed and were used much before when Chinese heard of them in 1st and 2nd century BC, though with a different name. Contradictory indirect references regarding the origin of crossbows leave one stunned and confused, but in the midst of ambiguity, one thing that can be established with conformity is that crossbows were invented in time between 2nd and 4th century.

Though China and Greece both can be attributed with the invention of the weapon, Chinese did play a more active part which serves as a primary reason for the notion that holds them sole inventors of the weapon.


What is a Crossbow?

China’s rulers in the 4th and 5th century are believed to play an instrumental role in developing and equipping the weapon with accessories that enhanced the weapon with the ability to maximize the lethality with minimum effort involved. It’s not that ancient crossbows didn’t have any variants, a thing that is mostly linked with modern versions of the weapon. Soon after the discovery of crossbow, militaries all over the world, introduced variants with different accessories to match the capabilities of their troops and the type of warfare they were involved in. China is also responsible for the widespread use of the weapon in centuries to come. In the 12th century, Chinese exported the technology to Champa who then used it in their military campaigns.

While there is sufficient amount of evidence that suggests the use of the weapon during centuries, it is important to mention that modern crossbows are nowhere close in appearance, performance, and design to historic crossbows which were used during the wars.  So, the question arises where do we draw the line and which modern variants can be considered as crossbows?

To understand this, it is important to establish the defining features of a crossbow that distinguish it from a conventional bow and arrow. So, before proceeding further, let us have a look at what distinguishes a crossbow from conventional bow and arrow.


Conventional Bows and Crossbows:

Crossbows are known for their ease of use and little experience and expertise required to attain optimum accuracy. Any variant that looks like a horizontal bow can be considered as a crossbow, irrespective of the accessories or the shooting mechanism involved.

A conventional bow and arrow release lesser energy as compared to the crossbow, given that the effort exerted is the same in both the cases. Apart from the released energy, crossbows are generally much more accurate than a simple bow. This enhanced accuracy is primarily caused by the fact that when an archer holds a conventional bow there is a lot of effort required to keep it stretched while aiming. Accurate release requires time, so the archer can precisely focus on the target. With extensive effort required to focus, even the strongest archers can lose their calm, as muscles are stressed and consequently, results depreciated accuracy. This means that with a little effort employed, a crossbow can hit the target with much more precision.

Moreover, this also goes on to imply that extensive muscle training and strong build that is often required of great archers, fades away when it comes to operating crossbows. People in most sizes and statures can operate crossbow with basic training.

With all that being said, don’t let you assume that crossbows dominate traditional bows in every aspect. If that would have been the case, why militaries would in the past days had preferred bow and arrow over a crossbow? 

The reason that why most armies in the past didn’t adopt crossbows as a primary archery weapon is that in war fields speed mattered more than precision. The precision gap was often filled with extensive training and routine an archer had to go through. Crossbows, with their hefty build, made it difficult to hold and shoot quickly enough. Moreover, slower shooting frequency of crossbows also counts to the slower speed of the weapon and makes it an unfit for widespread use during wars.

Modern Crossbows:

Modern crossbows are nothing like ancient crossbows with numerous accessories to enhance its functionality. There are various variants of crossbows available. Each one of them is aimed to enhance a specific aspect/s of the shooting process, and thus making it suitable for specialized use. For instance, a crossbow that will be fit for hunting will not be fit for use when used during a sport.

Crossbows are no longer actively used as a war weapon as more powerful and effective weapons took over the scene centuries ago. From war fields to softer uses like hunting, leisure and sports activities, crossbows have made a grave transformation in this regard. Modern crossbows are made with strong and lighter materials to make the handling easy and also not compromise the strength of the weapon at the same time. Today, we have such materials with such properties, but in the days which we have just talked about, it was not a possibility.

Modern crossbows have adjustable stocks and scopes which not only make the weapon easy to use but provide increased accuracy to the shooter. Moreover, with lighter materials being adopted by the manufacturers and induction of sophisticated technology to the process, the traditional downside of crossbows, slowness, and weight have largely been overcome. With all the sophistication involved, these modern crossbows are essentially a horizontal bow, tied with a spring mechanism to shoot projectiles or quarrels, which is enough to keep these variants embedded in the category of crossbows.

Crossbows are catalog between compound crossbows, reverse compound crossbows (relatively new technology) and recurve crossbows. Before going further you may want to have a look at Crossbow Terminology and Definitions. Those terms can get you confused if you are a beginner.


Compound Crossbows: 


Compound Crossbow


Basically, a compound crossbow uses cams or pulleys to help draw the string to the latch which is the mechanism for holding the bowstring in a cocked position. Compound crossbows offer Let-off technology to reduce the draw weight when you draw back in the cocked position. The energy is then stored into the limbs more effortless. Moreover, compound crossbows are built with shorter limbs which can clearly give you better maneuverability in different situations.

A disadvantage of the compound crossbows is, if the string gets damaged, your day is done. A bow press is necessary to make any repairs on compound technology.

A compound crossbow is relatively noisy compared to a recurve crossbow but there are many items that can help you reduce the sound made by the string.

Reverse Compound Crossbows:


Reverse Draw Crossbow


Reverse draw technology is relatively recent for crossbows. It creates a unique design that is undeniable and this without altering performances. By reversing the limbs, the center of gravity is more toward the shooter and then closer to the trigger. This disposition reduces front end weight which is a disadvantage of compound crossbows. The technology also helps to reduce noise and vibration when shooting. They may be even narrower than the conventional compound crossbows.

The main advantage of the reverse draw technology is increasing speed per pound of draw weight. In other words, less draw weight is necessary to produce the same amount of speed as other models. The fact that the string stays longer in contact with the arrow on the length of the barrel increases also its speed.


Recurve Crossbows: 


Recurve Crossbow


Based on its ancestors, modern recurve crossbows have tips that are curving away from the shooter.  The recurve limbs have a longer draw length which is directly related to bolts speed.  Recurve style is lighter than compound style and therefore easier to carry. Manufacturers have included more modern features such as stabilization, scopes, cocks and sights to make them more efficient.

To draw the string in a cocked position, more strength is needed than with a compound crossbow. In other words, you all pull the weight as long as you reached the latch. The person length might be an issue if you can’t reach the cocking position if your personal length is too short. String cocker or mechanical aids are available in those cases.

However, recurves are quieter since they don’t have cams and cables in motion. As they have fewer parts they are easier to maintain and also less possible to go wrong when shooting.


Reasons to use a Crossbow

Modern Usage:

Today crossbows are more extensively used as a means of leisure and fun, than as a combat weapon.  Nonetheless, crossbows are still in use and quite recently, they have seen an increase in their popularity in many parts of the world.  Here are a few areas that crossbows are used in:


Hunters have graciously embraced crossbows during the past decade. Even before that, crossbows have always been popular with the hunters, but it has only been quite recently, that they are an accessory that is often linked with hunters. With many efficient and easy to use firearms available, hunters still seem to prefer the variants of this centuries-old weapon. Though there is no solid evidence to suggest this, the only reason one can think of is that crossbows give them a better feel of the classic sport as compared to any firearm, as it is closer to traditional arrow and bow, but can be operated with greater ease to attain better accuracy.


Crossbows are used as fun and leisure activities. Many competitions like target shooting are still popular in the modern-day.

Military Use:

Though militaries don’t use the weapon actively, it doesn’t mean that they have abandoned the weapon for good. Many secondary tasks in different armies of the world are performed by the use of crossbows. For instance, crossbows are still used to develop zip lines in difficult terrain. Other than that, crossbows are also used by military and paramilitary forces to inflict reduced damage to the culprits during times of riots and unrest.

Another constructive use of the weapon includes its usage in tagging the sea creatures while monitoring them and acquiring samples during the process. Thought, the weapon is not largely considered lethal, there are different laws in different countries, stating the act of owning and carrying a crossbow legal or otherwise.


In summary

Crossbows have been a huge part of human history. Its uses have been multiple and its evolution remarkable. After reading this post you may want to get more specific information about crossbows. I invite you to have a look at How to choose a Crossbow which covers more deeply the crossbow itself and how we can help you make a better decision on how to choose your first crossbow. To complete the information about crossbows, we also wrote for you an article named how to use a crossbow. After reading all the posts we wrote to facilitate your life with crossbows, you should definitely have a look at our different reviews concerning crossbows.  

Thank you for reading to us! Do not hesitate to ask us if you have any questions or leave a comment below. 



Comments (0)

Leave a comment

Comments may require approval prior to appearing.

* Required fields