Medieval Crossbow Bolt

Arrows Vs. Bolts: What’s the Difference?

If you’re an archer, you already know that compound bows shoot arrows. But what do crossbows shoot? Are those arrows too? What about Bolts? It depends on who you ask, but most crossbow manufacturers agree that today’s modern crossbow shoots ARROWS and the terms are interchangeable. Technically speaking, Crossbow Bolts are generally shorter in length (16-22-inches) and have no stabilizing vanes near the back while arrows always do. And although the terms are interchangeable, the projectiles are NOT interchangeable with your compound bow and crossbow. But to really get an understanding of these projectiles, let’s take a deeper dive into the history, characteristics, and and why the heck we started calling them bolts in the first place.

Medieval Crossbows & Bolts

Although its origins are heavily disputed, the crossbow was considered one of the most important weapons during medieval times. It was primarily used for military purposes and the weapon dramatically changed the way battles were fought. It was the first ranged weapon to be simple, cheap and physically undemanding enough to be operated by large numbers of untrained soldiers. The projectiles for these weapons were typically shorter and heavier than traditional bows, and they were incredibly strong. So strong that they could easily pass through chainmail. And that’s where some think the “bolt” name comes from…the projectiles would hit so hard and so unexpectedly that it was like “A bolt out of the blue.”


Crossbow Bolt Characteristics

  • Typically 16-22″ in length with the most common length being 20-inches.
  • 4 distinct parts: Shaft, Fletching, Broadhead, and Nock
  • Heavier than traditional arrows

Arrow Characteristics

  • Typically 27-32″ in length
  • 4 distinct parts: Shaft, Fletching, Broadhead, and Nock
  • Lighter than Crossbow bolts

What the Experts Think:

“If it’s under 16 inches, it’s a bolt,” says Phillip Bednar, director of marketing for TenPoint Crossbows. “Sixteen inches or more is considered an arrow. We shoot 20- and 22-inch arrows.”

“Technically, either term is correct,” says Sam Coalson, Director of Marketing for Bowtech Archery. “Most people still call them bolts, but more and more crossbow enthusiasts seem to be calling them arrows.”

Quick tips for Choosing the Right Arrows (Bolts)

If you’re a first time archer, there’s nothing more important than picking the right arrows for your compound bow or crossbow. With all of the different brands, lengths, and different nock types, it can be quite confusing. But if you follow these quick tips, you’ll be nailing bullseyes in no time.

  • NEVER use arrows that are shorter than the manufacturer’s recommended length. It might not happen every time but your arrow is bound to fall off your rest or hit the rail of your crossbow. If you don’t believe me, google “Arrow Hand.” 
  • Never use arrows that are lighter than the manufacturer’s recommended weight. Heaver is safe to use, but will reduce your FPS.
  • Never fire broadheads or field tips that are lighter than the manufacturer’s reccomended weight. Heavier is fine, but keep in mind your FPS will be reduced.

So what do you think? Are today’s crossbows using Bolts? Or are they arrows? If you’re tired of the debate, let’s just agree to call them what they really are…arrows.

Additional Resources

Getting More Out of Your Crossbow Arrows

Archer’s Edge: Choosing the Right Arrows

Archer’s Edge: The Complete Crossbow Manual

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