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All Types of Crossbows

types of crossbows - man holding crossbow

So you've decided on purchasing a crossbow, only to find out there are several types of unique crossbows. Lets go over each type of crossbow and their benefits:

Recurve Crossbows

recurve crossbow

Repeating crossbows are primarily the domain of archery enthusiasts and serious hobbyists, not bowhunters. Modern repeating crossbows sometimes use other mechanisms like bolt actions to fire repeated shots, but the magazine has to be on top, which severely hinders your aim. Accuracy is certainly more important than rapid fire when it comes to bowhunting. Still, these are fun weapons that can give you a glimpse into ancient warfare. There are few models on the market, so many hobbyists choose to .  

Recurve crossbows are the most traditional type of crossbows, what you’d think of some medieval archer using. “Recurve” refers to the fact that, at first, the bow limbs curve down away from the front of the bow, but then recurve back toward it, away from the shooter. This recurve lets the limbs produce more power while being shorter than otherwise. The recurve has the added benefit of holding the bowstring in place more effectively.

In shape, recurve crossbows aren’t all that different from the first crossbows used by the Chinese in ancient times or their European cousins during the Middle Ages. They are made from different materials, though. While you can get a traditional wooden crossbow if you want, most use aluminum or carbon fiber for the limbs. These can hold more tension than wood with less weight.

These days, archers and bowhunters choose recurve crossbows for a number of reasons. The long, curved limbs can hold a lot of power, sometimes even more than the more technologically advanced bows we’re going to discuss later. They tend to be larger with a long draw length. This makes them the powerful weapon necessary for taking down large game like moose, elk or bear. They also have fewer mechanisms and therefore require less maintenance, and their classical look is always in style.

Unfortunately, a recurve crossbow’s large size also means more recoil and a lot more noise when shooting. Plus, the longer limbs are more awkward when you’re hiking through the woods and can cause rustling in the brush. They’re also just heavier, making recurve crossbows all around less portable.

Compound Crossbows

compound crossbow

Compound crossbows are called such because they use a compound pulley system to draw more power from the bowstring while cutting down on the length of the limbs. These pulleys are called cams, and to understand why they give a crossbow so much power, we have to understand the physics behind them.

The compound cams feature a small pulley within a large pulley, both moving around the same axis. There are two cams, one on each limb. The bowstring loops through the larger pulleys of each cam, symmetrically on each side. Then, two cables connect the inner pulleys, each with a cable that is attached to its axis and then threaded through the inner pulley of the cam on the opposite limb.

When you draw the bowstring, it rotates the outer pulleys of the cams. This in turn rotates the inner pulleys. However, since they’re smaller, the inner pulleys move a shorter distance even though they’ve absorbed the same amount of energy. In physics, energy is force multiplied by distance, so if there’s less distance for the same energy, that means more force. This is stored in the cables of the inner pulleys.

As you can see, the physics involved in a compound bow is advanced. These crossbows are compact, which makes them easier to carry around and store, all while maintaining the power necessary to hunt wild animals. Plus, a side effect of the cam system is decreased noise compared to a recurve crossbow.

As for downsides, some archers don’t like the compound cam system because of the maintenance required. Naturally, more moving parts means a higher likelihood something will break down. In general, modern compound crossbows are very reliable, but depending on the cam system, they may need regular synchronization. Certain models may also be on the heavier side thanks to the added equipment.

Reverse Draw Crossbows


Reverse draw crossbows are a relatively new invention. As you can guess from the name, the limbs are oriented in the opposite direction from a traditional bow. That is to say, they connect in the rear of the crossbow and then curve forward. In reality, they aren’t so much turned around as they are turned perpendicular and attached in the back. This is possible because the cams are still at the front of the crossbow, even more forward than a normal compound bow. That’s where the bowstring attaches. When you draw the bowstring, it pulls the limbs inward, storing the energy.

Reverse draw crossbows cut down on your ATA, or axle-to-axle limb length, significantly. This helps with moving around when you’re hunting. Plus, by having the center of gravity at the rear of the bow, they’re easier to control and produce less noise and recoil when shooting. 

The main advantage of the reverse draw design, though, is power. Having the cams in front allows the bowstring to push against the bolt along a longer length of shaft, resulting in more speed. The catch? Reverse draw crossbows are hard to find, and the technology is less understood, making maintenance a hassle.

Rifle Crossbows


Rifle crossbows are compound bows taken up a notch. The limbs are turned in more horizontally to the shaft, which makes them extremely narrow. Some are as low as six inches wide. This helps their maneuverability. Additionally, although it’s not always the case, these models tend to be more powerful than their standard compound crossbow cousins. 

Archers purchasing rifle crossbows are usually serious about archery and hunting, so manufacturers add a lot of great features. Powerful scopes enhance the weapon’s already high accuracy, and rifle-like stocks make shooting easy and comfortable while reducing recoil and vibration. That means a quieter shot.

Pistol Crossbows

holding pistol crossbow

Pistol crossbows are exactly what they sound like: crossbows you can shoot one handed. They’re miniature versions of the recurve crossbow and have no stock to rest against your shoulder. Many are also “self-cocking,” which doesn’t mean they’re automatic weapons. Rather, there’s an easy lever to cock the crossbow rather than the difficult process of drawing a regular crossbow with your foot in the cocking stirrup. Otherwise they’re the same, just smaller.

Frankly, pistol crossbows are not practical. They’re more for fun. That’s because they rarely have higher than an 80-pound draw weight. This isn’t enough to take down more than the smallest of game, and it’s probably illegal in your state anyway. Still, you can enjoy them on the range. They’re a lot of fun. Thanks to their small size, you can also carry them around as a means of last-resort self-defense when hunting dangerous game like bear or moose.

Bullet Crossbows

bullet crossbow

Bullet crossbows are essentially giant slingshots. Instead of shooting bolts, they shoot small bullets made of clay, wood or metal. This type of crossbow was invented during the Renaissance when it was used for training and competition shooting. They were and are much lighter, safer and easier to use than standard crossbows, which makes them great for beginners, kids or people who just want to play around with archery and have a good time.

Historically, people have used bullet crossbows to hunt small game. In the pre-industrial era, when metal was hard to come by and manufacturing a bolt was a more elaborate process, it didn’t make sense to use a full crossbow bolt on a small animal. You could save the big ammo for big game and use a bullet crossbow for squirrels and rabbits.

These days, you’d only hunt with a bullet crossbow for the novelty and challenge of it. Unfortunately, they lie in a legal gray area. Do they fall under crossbow or slingshot regulations? Depending on your state, one, both or neither may be illegal and come with a different set of rules. Whether you’ve come across an old antique bullet crossbow, made one yourself or found one of the few manufacturers who specially make them, it’s best to call your local game and fish commission or other relevant authority before trying to hunt with it. 

Repeating Crossbows


A semi-automatic crossbow, you say? Yes, it exists. In fact, it was invented nearly 2,000 years ago in Ancient China and used in battle by the Chinese army as recently as 1895 in the First Sino-Japanese War. 

Repeating crossbows feature a magazine much like that of a modern repeating rifle. This magazine is filled with five to 10 bolts stacked on top of each other and fitted on top of the crossbow. When relaxed, the bowstring catches a groove on the inside of the magazine. You then use a lever on the back of the crossbow to pull the magazine back and the bowstring along with it. When it reaches the full cock position, the lever pushes the bowstring out of the groove, releasing it to contact the bolt and shoot it. Then the next bolt falls down into place. By simply moving the lever back and forth, you can shoot through the entire magazine in a matter of seconds.

Before they adopted modern firearms, the Chinese military used these repeating crossbows much like armies use machine guns today. The forced motion of pulling the lever forward and backward made their fire erratic, and the top-loaded magazine made it impossible to aim down the shaft. Instead of accurately placed shots, they provided a rapid spray of cover fire, sometimes thousands of bolts in a matter of minutes. 

Repeating crossbows are primarily the domain of archery enthusiasts and serious hobbyists, not bowhunters. Modern repeating crossbows sometimes use other mechanisms like bolt actions to fire repeated shots, but the magazine has to be on top, which severely hinders your aim. Accuracy is certainly more important than rapid fire when it comes to bowhunting. Still, these are fun weapons that can give you a glimpse into ancient warfare. There are few models on the market, so many hobbyists choose to make one themselves.  

Gregory Johnson

With almost 20 years of archery experience under his belt, Gregory founded the Complete Guide to Archery website in 2019. His purpose has been to spread knowledge about the hobby and sport to anyone willing to learn.