Last updated on July 1st, 2021
The crossbow has been around since the first millennium AD – probably since around the 7th-century AD.
It changed lives – and, to be fair, ended them – while changing history all the way up to the invention of gunpowder.
It’s a weapon still used today in both target shooting and hunting settings. And it’s fair to say the crossbow has come on a little since its humble beginnings.
Most modern crossbows shoot bolts at 350 feet per second (fps) plus. Several will push them to 375, and a few will easily break 400 fps. They are astonishingly consistent, and after a little initial practice, they are easy shooting tools for most people, some of whom wouldn’t know what to do with a recurve or longbow if their lives depended on it.
We probably don’t need to describe in any detail what happens to animal flesh if it’s hit at any kind of decent range with a crossbow bolt travelling at a minimum of 350 feet per second. Just in case you need it scaled up, that’s a little over 238 miles per hour.
So it seems a little redundant to point out that these are serious weapons. Not, of course, in the same league as modern firearms – an AR-15 can fire a round at 3251 feet per second, which is the equivalent of a staggering 2,216 miles per hour – but nevertheless, not things you want to find yourself on the wrong end of.
Fortunately, crossbow fatalities and injuries are incredibly rare, both in shooting, hunting, and the wider population.
One of the reasons for that is that all crossbows have an automatic safety, which kicks in the moment the bow is cocked. Some even have a second safety, that shooters can enable themselves in addition to the in-built safety.
The automatic safety is usually located on the side, or sometimes at the back, of the sight bridge. Once the crossbow is cocked and loaded, the safety will ensure the bow does not fire until the safety is released.
As such, the safety mechanism is an important part of overall safe crossbow operation, but it is only a single part of the steps you need to ensure are taken to operate a crossbow in relative safety.
Fortunately, many of the elements of crossbow safety are obvious and common sense.
For instance, never cock and load a crossbow until you intend to fire it.
Never – but never – aim a loaded crossbow at another human being once it’s been cocked and loaded.
Never keep a crossbow cocked and loaded during storage. The colossal potential force stored in its limbs and firing mechanism will put the bow under extreme strain, and you may not have as safe a bow when you take it out of storage as you think you have.
Never try to cock a crossbow when it’s pointing at anything other than the ground.
Never fire a crossbow without a bolt loaded – the impressive forces it contains might well be enough to shatter the bow’s limbs if it tries to fire empty.
Never fire a crossbow with an underweight bolt fitted – it will have the same effect as if you fired without a bolt at all.
Always be aware of anything in your line of fire – you do not want a bolt to ricochet in a different direction.
Never put your finger on the trigger until you’re ready to fire.
When you’re getting ready to fire, make sure to keep your fingers and thumbs below the safety line – at least, assuming you like having fingers and thumbs.
Maker sure nothing is in the way of the string or the bolt prior to firing
And of course, the most obvious of all – never release the safety until you’re aimed and ready to fire.
How will you know your crossbow safety has engaged correctly?
The crossbow safety engages as soon as the bow is correctly cocked (as soon as the string is pulled back into its pre-firing position under tension). When this happens, you will hear a distinct ‘click.’ No distinct click, no certainty that your crossbow has been correctly cocked and your safety has engaged.
If you don’t hear the click – even if in reality, it made the sound and you missed it – you have to treat it as a potentially live lethal weapon. As per normal protocol, do not aim the crossbow at anyone or anything that could be endangered if it went off accidentally.
Whereas you have options when cocking your crossbow, and can do it by hand or with the assistance of a cocking aid, you cannot manually de-cock a crossbow if you suspect the safety has not been correctly engaged. The safest of all the available options at that point is to fire the bolt as normal, and then check the safety is working before your next shot.
There are occasional cases where the safety does not engage during the cocking, and the bow will then not fire when the trigger is pulled. In those cases, the bow has likely been under-cocked. Ideally, attempt to pull the string back further until you hear the cocking ‘click as the safety engages.
How to release the safety
This is usually a straightforward process, but it’s not one you should ever consider until your crossbow is cocked, loaded and correctly aimed. Usually, the safety is literally flipped or lifted out of the way, so that when the trigger is pulled, the string is released at incredible force, and the bolt is shot at that speed of 350 feet per second we mentioned.
Never release the safety until you have checked you have an obstruction-free shot in the direction of the target at which you’re aiming.
The safety on a crossbow is at least partially responsible for keeping the number of injuries and fatalities related to crossbow-use as low as it is. Always obey all the safety rules, treat a loaded crossbow as a live crossbow, and never remove the safety or pull the trigger until you’re ready to shoot the bow.
That way, those low injury figures will stay the way they are, and neither you nor anyone you know will become an unhappy statistic.