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Crossbow hunting requires a keen knowledge of your equipment, particularly the construction of your arrows - or crossbow bolts. Learn how to distinguish the different types of crossbow hunting arrows, what each element of an arrow can do, and how to pick the correct bolt or arrow for the job.
Anatomy of a Crossbow Bolt
Before determining the best way to choose your crossbow hunting arrows, it is essential to know the parts of a typical crossbow arrow (or crossbow bolt).
A typical bolt features four parts: a head or arrowhead, a shaft, fletching, and a nock.
- The head is similar to the bullet on a rifle cartridge; it is the part of the bolt intended to impact and penetrate the target. Therefore, choosing the correct head type is essential when hunting with a crossbow.
- The shaft is the central tube connecting all of the other parts. There exist shafts of different lengths and materials, each with its own purposes.
- The fletching is the name given to the fins at the rear of an arrow. They provide aerodynamic stabilization in flight.
- The nock is the rearmost part of the bolt, designed to engage with the crossbow’s string and absorb the energy imparted when firing. The expression “nocking an arrow” means readying a shot.
How to Choose Your Arrows
Despite their historical importance, medieval crossbows were heavy implements made of wood, iron, and string. Bolts fired from a medieval crossbow rarely exceeded 150 ft/s.
In contrast, modern crossbows extensively use ultramodern materials, such as carbon fiber, polymers, and aluminum alloys. As a result, they can support much higher draw weights, resulting in projectile velocities of 300 to 350 ft/s. Some of the most powerful models can even exceed 400 ft/s.
However, having the best and most powerful hunting crossbow means nothing without the right arrows. Don’t forget that manufacturers typically obtain their advertised velocities using the lightest possible bolts, often far removed from proper hunting arrows.
Here are the factors you must consider when choosing your crossbow hunting arrows: the overall arrow length, the arrow weight, the nock type, the shaft material, and the arrowhead type.
Overall arrow length
Standard crossbow bolts range between 16” and 22” in length. Some one-handed pistol crossbows use significantly shorter bolts (6” to 9”), but these models are not typically suitable for hunting.
The most common lengths are 20” and 22”. Although you can get away with firing a longer (and therefore, heavier) bolt than the recommended specification, you should never fire a shorter bolt.
Bolts of a specific length are designed to absorb a certain quantity of energy; when subjecting an arrow to more energy than it can absorb, you run the risk of causing it to break or shatter, which may damage or destroy the crossbow and cause severe injuries.
Crossbow bolt weights use the grains per inch (GPI) unit. To determine the weight of your shaft, multiply the length (in inches) by the GPI. Therefore, a 20” shaft with 11 GPI weighs 220 grains. Note that this doesn’t include the weight of the other elements (fletching, head, nock, etc.), which can nearly double this value.
Lighter arrows will achieve higher velocities, but heavier arrows tend to conserve energy over greater distances, granting them higher penetrative power.
Most hunters use medium-weight arrows as a compromise between the two, but you may find yourself needing heavy-weight arrows for hunting large animals. When in doubt, never hesitate to use the heavier option. Velocity isn’t everything!
Today’s crossbow bolts typically employ three types of materials in their shaft’s construction: aluminum, carbon fiber, or a combination of the two.
All-aluminum crossbow arrows are the least expensive and nominally the most durable. Aluminum arrows are fairly impact-resistant and typically do not break or shatter but are prone to bending. Once an aluminum arrow is bent, it becomes worthless, leaving you no option but to throw it out.
Carbon fiber shafts are more expensive, but crossbow hunters consider this material the best overall choice due to their high durability and excellent penetrative capabilities.
In recent years, carbon-aluminum arrows have risen in popularity. They employ an aluminum tube with a carbon fiber core, adding weight and increasing stability, even through strong crosswinds.
Although you may find inexpensive crossbow bolts with shafts made of wood or fiberglass on the market, you should never use these in a modern hunting crossbow, as they are far too light and risk shattering immediately upon firing. Such bolts are intended for smaller, less powerful recreational crossbows.
The head type determines the purpose of the arrow. Forget about plastic-pointed field heads for hunting; you should save these for practice and training. All hunting arrowheads are broadheads of some sort, as they are the only ones capable of delivering a humane, fatal hit to the animal.
Multiple broadhead types are available on the market, making it challenging to choose the right ones.
Make sure the model you’re interested in is specifically intended and optimized for use with crossbow bolts. Don’t use broadheads designed only to fit onto regular bow arrows, as they can damage your crossbow.
The broadhead must have good aerodynamics, sufficient penetrative power to reach the game animal’s vitals, and enough cutting surface area to perform a clean kill.
Once you’ve narrowed down the heads you think will be most effective for the game animals of your choice, don’t hesitate to test them on the range before taking them with you on the field.
The only way to determine if your crossbow arrows fly true is to shoot them at realistic engagement distances. If your crossbow has a scope, don’t forget to re-zero it if necessary.
The Right Arrows for the Right Job
Don’t hesitate to read your crossbow’s user manual or contact the manufacturer if you’re ever in doubt about what you should and shouldn’t use. Certain models may have specific limitations, safety advisories, and requirements that you must keep in mind when choosing arrows.