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Bolts or Arrows: Which is Correct for Crossbows?

Andrew McKean Avatar

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We shoot arrows in our compound bows. But what do we shoot in our crossbows? Are they bolts? Or arrows?

As long as the projectile flies true and hits hard, what it’s called probably doesn’t matter for shooters. But as an editor, I’m interested in linguistic precision, which is why I put this question to my sources in the crossbow industry.

The consensus: most modern crossbows shoot arrows. Or maybe the right way to put it is: modern crossbows mostly shoot arrows.

“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.”

Aaron McCaleb, whose Source Outdoor Group reps for Barnett Crossbows, agrees that the correct term is arrows, but notes that it’s a sliding scale.

“Crossbows are being seen more as archery gear now, so the nomenclature is becoming homogenized,” McCaleb says. “We go with arrows.”

And Sam Coalson, director of marketing for Bowtech Archery, a center-of-mass compound company that is reaching into crossbow accessories, notes the divide between terminology used by the masses vs. that used by passionate users.

“Technically, either term is correct,” he says. “Most people still call them bolts, but more and more crossbow enthusiasts seem to be calling them arrows.”

A little medieval history comes into play in the terminology, too. Original crossbows were massive contraptions wheeled around on rolling stock and drawn by oxen. They fired relatively short, stout projectiles without vanes. They looked a lot like squat darts, and one explanation of their name–bolts–is that they hit an enemy’s fortification literally like a bolt from the blue. They were probably about as accurate as a lightning bolt, too.

That history indicates to me that definition based on length is a little arbitrary. Instead, I’m comfortable saying that a projectile fired from a limbed bow that has vanes and is longer than it is broad is an arrow.

What do you call crossbow projectiles? And does the term really matter?