Crossbow Bolt vs Arrow – The Complete Comparison Guide

| Last Updated May 17, 2021

If you’re a rifle-hunter looking to move into bowhunting, or if you’re entirely new to the sport, you might be stuck between the upright and the crossbow options available.

This is a long-standing question, with devotees on both sides.

We’ve got you covered with the info, so let’s take a look at the facts. 

TL;DR: Crossbow Bolt vs Arrow

Not everyone wants to read through multiple pages to get an answer to their question, so let's begin with a summarized view of the topics covered in this article.

Crossbow Bolt

Arrow

PROS

PROS

  • Stability - Operates like a rifle

  • Speed - Bolt speeds are significantly higher

  • Accuracy - An added range of approx 10 yards
  • Sleekness - Easy mobility in the thick growth

  • Lightweight - Around 25% lighter

  • Ease of Loading - The upright can be reloaded swiftly

CONS

CONS

  • Weight - At around 25% extra, it makes a difference

  • Bulk - The design means less mobility

  • Sound - Added noise is a factor
  • Stability - The design requires more experience

  • Speed - Arrow speeds are lower

  • Accuracy - Lower range

BEST FOR

BEST FOR

It can be used by relative newcomers or younger/older persons who may lack experience.

Highly versatile for any blinds or tracking. Benefits the experienced hunter.

What is a Crossbow Bolt? 

Here, we have an issue of some controversy. Some prefer to call the projectiles fired by a crossbow “bolts” (or even “quarrels”), while others simply call them “arrows.” This is confused further by the fact that modern crossbows fire projectiles which differ from earlier bolts. 

Like an arrow, a bolt is a shaft that is fired by means of a tensioned bow and is fitted with a sharpened head. Nevertheless, distinctions can be made along three lines. Firstly, the traditional bolt is far shorter, typically being between 16”- 22” in length. Secondly, the bolt is heavier. 

Photo credit: rangerexpert.com

The shaft of the bolt is much wider, so a traditional bolt can be several times heavier than an arrow per inch of shaft length. Thirdly, traditional bolts have no fletching, although modern ones tend to have it, just as arrows do. As a general rule, we might say that bolts are fired from crossbows, whereas arrows are fired from upright bows. 

Another distinction you often hear is that bows and arrows were originally designed for hunting, while crossbows and bolts were designed for military purposes. Certainly, the additional weight of a bolt made it possible to penetrate chainmail, and other armor, at closer distances. 

What is an Arrow? 

An arrow is a cylindrical shaft that is designed to be fired from an upright bow. It differs from the bolt in that it is usually much longer, narrower, and lighter. Given that it’s longer and narrower, it is also considerably more flexible than the average bolt. 

In terms of length, an arrow for an upright bow is typically between 27”- 32”, although there have been historical examples of arrows far longer than that.

This means that the average modern arrow is around a foot longer than the average modern bolt. 

While the overall weights overlap somewhat, the arrow is considerably lighter per inch of shaft length. Although modern bolts feature vanes, where traditional ones didn’t, they usually have fewer. Arrows typically have 3 or 4. 

The vanes for an arrow are most often made of feathers, while bolt vanes are usually plastic. In both cases, the purpose of the vanes (or fins) is to impart spin to the arrow/bolt to increase stability, in the same way as rifling imparts spin to a bullet. 

Relevant Characteristics Between Crossbow Bolts and Arrows

Before we start discussing the differences and similarities in detail, here’s a quick overview.

Crossbow Bolt

Arrow

16-22 inches

Length

27-32 inches

400-460 grains

Weight

420-500 grains

22/64 inches

Shaft

9/32-5/16 inches

Broadheads, Field Tips, Blunt Tips

Point

Broadheads, Field Tips, Blunt Tips

0-3 Vanes, usually plastic

Fletching

3-4 Vanes, usually feather

75-300 grains

Broadhead

75-300 grains

Flat, Moon, Omni

Nock

3/16-1/4 inch

Similarities and Differences 

We’ve seen the specs and definitions, and now it’s time to take a look at how they match up. It’s impossible to speak about bolts and arrows without also mentioning their respective firing mechanisms. There are some notable differences, as well as lots of overlap, in how they operate under ordinary use conditions and where each might have an edge. 

Crossbow Bolt and Arrow Differences 

Let’s begin with the differences between these two so you can decide which one you like more.

Speed  

The crossbow fires a bolt very rapidly. Modern crossbows generate enough power to fire bolts around 450 fps (feet per second), with some getting into the 500 fps range. 

Most bows generate a speed of around 300-340 fps. Because of this power, the crossbow is a little noisier when fired, even with string dampeners. Added to that, it can’t easily be reloaded for a follow-up shot, and these two factors lean in favor of the upright. 

Photo credit: outdoorempire.com

Weight 

Weighing in at around 8-9lbs, the average crossbow is 20-30% heavier than its upright counterpart. For mobility, this can be a telling difference in favor of the bow, especially on longer walks. 

The modern crossbow is far sleeker and lighter than they once were, but the difference remains. This does, however, mean that the crossbow has a small advantage in terms of stability. 

Hunting 

As far as range goes, the upright bow is usually rated to about 40 yards as far as its effective killing range is concerned. The crossbow is often rated at between 40-50 yards, although the upper limit would be a very risky shot. 

Since the crossbow is pre-loaded, as opposed to drawing, this limits movement in the eyeline of the prey animal. Some may regard this as an advantage, especially since it allows those who struggle with the bow to take part, as well. 

Photo credit: bullseyehunting.com

Overall, the bolt is a more accommodating option for hunters who, for a variety of reasons, have not mastered the upright bow. Its advantages in this way can be answered by the better mobility and stealth offered by the upright and arrow combination. 

Crossbow Bolt and Arrow Similarities

Now, it’s time to see where these two aspects are the same.

Tips

Both weapons can use a variety of broadheads, field tips, and others. In fact, they are largely interchangeable. Whether practicing in the yard, or at a range, or even out hunting in the woods, the functionality is very similar for both arrows and bolts. 

While most tips can be used on either bolts or arrows, the manufacturer of particular bows will have fairly specific guidelines to optimize your setup. 

Stealth

Because it generates more power, the crossbow makes more noise. Especially over longer ranges, this can sometimes mean an edge for the upright, especially with those prey-animals which are skittish, such as whitetails. Added to this, the upright bow is less bulky in design and significantly lighter. 

This makes it easier for the hunter to remain silent and hidden in the background when preparing to take a shot. When you factor in the fewer movements required by the crossbow, though, it evens out the field between both options because they both bring an element that the other lacks. 

Range 

Since both bows fire at fps ratings far below those found in modern rifles, they share another factor, and it’s the very factor that makes bowhunting what it is: intimacy. Bowhunting brings hunter and prey together in close proximity so that any scent or sound will end the encounter. 

It is, without a doubt, this feature of the sport which appeals to bowhunters, and this feature is common to both weapons and projectiles. It is also this factor that binds the modern with the ancient, since the moment of encounter is the same today, as it was thousands of years ago. 

Advantages of Crossbow Bolts

Crossbow bolts have several benefits worth considering if you’re wanting to buy a few. Here’s a list of our top advantages.

Distance

Bolts fired from crossbows have a slightly higher distance rating, in terms of their accuracy. While the difference is small, it is a benefit of the bolt as an option. Its marginal advantage in accuracy also figures into its overall stability as a weapon. 

Photo credit: thebowguy.com

This means that older and younger enthusiasts can also take part,  even if they may not quite be able to master the upright. The extra noise when firing is mitigated a little by the extra speed of the bolt through the air. 

Ready to Fire

This makes a difference, especially at the limits of the range, giving the prey less time to respond to any alert. The crossbow bolt will be loaded and ready to fire, and this is another slight plus for the bolt because there’s minimal movement in the hunter’s posture during those critical moments when prey animals are wary. 

Where the upright bow requires a whole-body ergonomic in addition to the calculation of the shot, the crossbow frees you up to figure out your shot without consideration of posture, footing, or stance. 

This is clearly a major win for those who are either new to bowhunting or who may not have the strength and dexterity required by the upright. In this way, the bolt is more welcoming to those who are entering the sport or who can’t pull the bow for some reason. 

Damage on Impact

It should be noted that the bolt gives the hunter another advantage in that it widens the tolerance of a kill shot.

This is because of the higher speed at which it travels, and the corresponding damage it does on impact. This again opens the crossbow bolt as an option for people entering the wider sport of bowhunting. 

Accuracy and Power

When it comes to power and accuracy, the horizontal bow enjoys a slight ascendancy over its upright variant. Because of its design, it is highly stable, and in a  sense, its firing mechanism is closer to that of a rifle. 

It’s steady and can easily be rested during a longer range of shots. Added to this, the very high fps rating on some modern crossbows means that the range is favorable with these weapons.

It may be a little heavier and a little bulkier, but your edge will tell with these factors. 

Photo credit: advancedhunter.com

Advantages of Arrows

Next up, let’s see which benefits make arrows worthy of consideration.

Convenience

The arrow is easier to carry. This, combined with its preferable shape and weight, makes it a winner during long walks in the brushland and woods. The going can be tough, and the weather too. In harsh surroundings, that 25-30% weight advantage counts. It also means less strain climbing up into tree blinds, where the space is limited, and footing can be tricky. 

Reliability

This can translate into better results for the hunter and an all-around benefit for the hunting experience. For follow-up shots, the upright and arrows are an easy win. Reloading is quick and reliable, provided the archer is experienced, and again this can translate into real results. 

The modern compound bow has overcome some of the challenges faced by hunters in pulling the older longbow, and pulling heavy poundage is achievable for even smaller-framed hunters. This has made the upright bow an appealing weapon across a wider range of ages and relative strengths. 

Photo credit: bowhunting.com

Engagement

Not everyone can easily pull a bow, but most find that they can, with a little effort and training. Another clear difference with the upright is the fact that you’re completely immersed in the draw. For the seasoned enthusiast, this physical and mental engagement is a good part of the allure of compound bowhunting. 

It’s this moment during which the hunter and the bow form a unitary whole, which distinguishes the upright from both the crossbow and the rifle. Nothing is pre-loaded, and every success depends completely on the holistic unity of your practiced and natural movements. 

Low Noise

The lower firing sound will also ensure that prey in the vicinity is not startled by your shot. This makes it preferable to others who may be hunting nearby. 

Photo credit: bowhunting360.com

Maneuverability

When you’re looking to use mainly tree blinds or a mixture of tree and ground blinds, the upright bow has the basic upper hand.

It’s lighter, sleeker, and generally more maneuverable than its horizontal equivalent. Similarly, for follow-up firing, the upright wins easily. 

Some hunters suggest that drawing the bow causes movement, which can startle prey animals, but this need not be a problem.

Seasoned archers can read the situation and eliminate any problems in this regard by timing the draw intuitively. When the quarry drops its concentration, the hunter draws the arrow back. 

Bottom Line

Ultimately, the two bow types have their niches. Where the crossbow prevails in terms of power and stability, the upright counters with stealth and ease of maneuver. The more rifle-like functioning of the crossbow gives it certain advantages, but then the whole-body involvement of the upright’s action brings a kind of aesthetic too. 

All in all, they are both integral parts of the modern hunting scene, and many hunters choose to use both at different times. If you prefer the ground hide and want additional stability and accuracy, the bolt option is for you. If you like tree hides and prefer the intimacy of the draw, then the upright might be your thing. 

Photo credit: huntertrust.com

People Also Ask

Hunters are naturally curious and always on the lookout for more effective ways of doing what they love. Obviously, this means questioning things. The two forms of bowhunting provide a perfect space for this kind of curiosity. Here are two very common queries:

Are Crossbow Bolts Heavier Than Arrows?

There is a substantial overlap in total weight, but the bolt has a far higher grain weight per inch of shaft length. This translates to lower flexibility overall. While many tips are interchangeable between bolts and arrows, this difference in shaft weight is a central distinction. 

Does Crossbow Bolt Length Matter?

Yes. The manufacturer of your crossbow will provide certain specifications regarding the length most suited to the weapon. As with most things, not all bolts will be suitable for the specs of your crossbow, and so it’s advisable to consult the recommendations. 



My name is Jeff and I have been hunting and fishing for over 40 years. I am an avid archery lover, bass fisherman, and all-around outdoorsman. Currently, I'm obsessed with elk hunting but I'm sure I'll move onto a different favorite soon. You gotta love hunting for that reason :) If you have any questions, or just want chat about your latest hunting score or big catch, you can reach me at admin@biggamelogic.com. Read more about Big Game Logic.