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Crossbow Bolt vs Arrow – Key Differences & Tips for Choosing

crossbow bolt vs arrow
Written by Erik Himmel

There has been much deliberation on what is a bolt and what makes an arrow. Purists claim a crossbow shoots bolts, not arrows and has little to do with archery. Originally, crossbows were invented as an implement for warring and military purposes. They were quite different from modern crossbows. Actually antique. The bolt release mechanism of medieval crossbows was a trigger and there was no fletching on the bolts which were heavy, being of steel with a short-range capable of piercing through chain mail. But why call it a bolt? As some historian suggests, it took one by complete surprise; ‘a bolt from the blue’ perhaps.

Crossbow Bolt vs Arrow: What’s the Difference?

Archery Arrows                                                                                                    Crossbow Arrows

Archery Arrows                            Crossbow Arrows

Crossbow bolts are:

  • Crossbow bolts are typically 16-22 inches, 20 inches being common the most.
  • They are shorter than those used in traditional archery.
  • They are bereft of stabilizing vanes at the back.
  • These bolts are heavier

Archery arrows, on the other hand, are:

  • 27-32 inches is the normal arrow length
  • They are lighter

Characteristics of Crossbow Bolts

  • Crossbow bolts are identical to arrows shot from a compound bow. With a high speed of 400 FPS (feet per second), the bolt itself should be robust to prevent it from exploding on release.
  • Bolt length should strictly not exceed the manufacturers’ recommendation. The broadhead or field point can get caught on the rail of the crossbow when fired.
  • They are rigid with limited flexibility like an arrow.
  • They are devoid of fletching or feathers to steer flight guidance.
  • As they are heavy, they leave the rails with high kinetic energy which peters off fast.

Characteristics of Crossbow Arrows

  • The main difference is that crossbow arrows have a nock.
  • They are lighter and hence the trajectory is flatter.
  • Penetration power is compromised because of lighter weight.
  • Affected by wind and external natural causes

Tips for Choosing the Right Arrows And Bolts

Arrow speed is not the be-all for consideration. Manufacturers play to the gallery and hype-up this facet be it the crossbow or the bolt/arrow. Let’s get going on the crossbow bolt vs arrows debate.

Bolt Weight

The weights of the four sections of a bolt, namely shaft, fletching, nock and broadhead or field point, make up the compound value of the total mass. The range that is best suited for the bolt you use is decreed by the crossbow manufacturer. Weight close to the bottom limit will yield a faster flying, greater range by sacrificing penetration. 400 grain is a normal rating. Your crossbow may be rated at 350 FPS, but with a bolt weight of 500 grains, this will deescalate to 315 FPS. How fast your bow shoots, the bolt’s total mass, and distance traversed is a consideration of kinetic energy. Whatever energy remains should be sufficient for penetration. A broadhead, by the way, requires more energy to penetrate. The material of choice is either aluminum or carbon.

Kinetic Energy of A Bolt

The minimum kinetic energy required on the bolt is 23 pounds for small game such as deer and antelope. This ups to 43 pounds for larger prey such as elk and black bears.

Travelling, for every 10 yards, 3-4 % of the energy is expended by the bolt.

If your bow delivers 80 pounds initially, you can do the math as to how much residual force is available at different ranges. All you need to know is the initial FPS and the total weight of the bolt.

KE=(mv )/450,240; m=mass of arrow in grains; v= velocity of arrow in FPS

Bolt Fletching and FOC

Normal preference is for smaller 2” vanes over the usual 4-5” larger vanes. The governing principle here is the ‘arrow front of the center ratio,’ (FOC). Smaller vanes snip off the weight from the rear end hence improving FOC and accuracy.

Crossbow Nocks

Nocks come in unlimited styles and do present the danger of the string jumping off. Always use the type of nock designed for your crossbow. Because of the high delivery speed, it is difficult to distinguish the impact clearly.

Considerations Regarding Broadheads

Aside from the usual arrow tips, you’ll now find quality broadheads with expandable blades. Their flight characteristics are different. They will not follow the same trajectory as a field point or other broadheads owing to subtle wind drag.

Static Spine Selection

This parameter is all about deflection or the flexibility/ stiffness of the arrow. The poundage and draw stroke of the bow should ideally be closely matched to the stiffness.

The weak spot of the shaft is revealed by spine indexing.

arrow selection chart
Crossbow bolt size chart
BS EN 15048 BZP & HDG
A weight chart and a size chart have been included above to narrow your selection from different types of crossbow bolts and arrows. For a moment, let us leave behind all the confusion of crossbow bolt vs arrow. Is it a bolt? Is it an arrow? It’s The CrossbowMan. The fine points of this sport leave much to be explored. It transports you back when man hunted his quarry based on his skills, unlike using a sniper rifle to bring down the game. It has a more elemental feel. We strongly recommend further reading up. What’s left, sign up and be a woodsman. Best of luck.

About the author

Erik Himmel

A Part-Time Firearm Instructor

Hi, this is Erik. We all know firearms are dangerous, but only when one doesn’t know how to use and care for them. I have 15+ years of experience with different types of guns and for the last 10 years, I have taught numerous people how to hold and shoot a gun while staying safe and keeping the surroundings unharmed. My neighbors are some of my biggest admirers who enjoy talking to me about their guns, firearms safety and maintenance.

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