The Complete Crossbow
A crossbow is a short, powerful bow mounted horizontally (transversely) on a wooden or metal rifle-like stock (called a tiller), with a groove to guide the missile and a trigger to release it. It resembles a small ballista, and is aimed and fired like a rifle. A conical or pyramid-headed bolt was the standard ammunition, and was shorter and heavier than an equivalent arrow. (Note that historically a quarrel was a square-headed bolt, but as D&D use both terms interchangeably, so will I). About ten inches long, its maximum range was over 300 yards when fired from the powerful crossbows made possible by mechanical improvements in the Renaissance. It could be fired with considerable accuracy and was capable of piercing all but the stoutest body armor.
Historically, crossbows were much more powerful than conventional bows and had better hitting power at a greater range, but they were also far slower to reload. The English longbow (in the hands of an expert) was never decisively bested by the crossbow simply because a highly trained archer could fire four or more arrows to the heavy crossbowman's single bolt. Still, the crossbow was the leading hand missile weapon of the Middle Ages until the introduction of firearms.
History of crossbows
The crossbow was originally developed in China, culminating in a sturdy, reliable model during the Han Dynasty (around 200BC).
Little is known of the origins of the crossbow in the west. Some scholars believe Roman soldiers taken prisoner in Central Asia about 36BC saw oriental crossbows and brought the concept to Europe (although larger crossbow-like siege weapons such as the ballista and scorpion had been used in the west for centuries). Others suggest that the crossbow was transported to Europe along the east-west trade routes that existed in classical times, where they were first used primarily for hunting Europe in the 4th century AD. By 1000 AD, crossbows had been adopted for warfare, initially by the Italian city states. By the time of the Crusades (late 1000’s to the end of the thirteenth century) crossbows saw widespread use in armies across Europe, particularly in the south: the Italians being the most talented makers and practitioners of the crossbow (perhaps due to cultural exposure to the Saracens, from whom they adopted the composite method of bow construction). Genoese crossbowmen were considered the best in the world, and hired themselves out as mercenaries to armies all across Europe. Crossbows proved especially effective at keeping horse archers away from infantry formations, since they far outranged the cavalry's lighter bows. Crossbows also had excellent penetration power, punching through armor that could stop most bow shots.
Such was its lethal effectiveness, as compared to conventional bows of the age, that several popes banned the use of crossbows (except against the infidel) on the grounds that its use constituted an atrocity (banned initially by Pope Innocent II in 1139 AD). It proved to be the most effective hand missile weapon of the Crusades era. Richard the Lion-Heart won the battle of Arsuf (1191) during the Third Crusade largely because of the havoc wrought among Saladin’s forces by Christian crossbows, and was himself later killed at the siege of Chaluz in 1199 by a crossbow bolt in the neck. King John included many crossbowmen in his castle garrisons, and one of the clauses of the Magna Carta bound him to banish from the kingdom all foreign crossbowmen. By the late 13th century the Master of the Crossbowmen was a great dignitary in France and Spain, and crossbowmen were considered an elite corps.
In western Europe, the crossbow was slowly displaced by the longbow from the late 13th century onwards, mainly because of the latter’s greatly increased rate of fire. The crossbow did not disappear completely: Henry V even had 38 crossbowmen at Agincourt. Companies of crossbowmen were formed for the protection of towns, some of which persist to the present day. European mercenary companies of crossbowmen were hired by both sides in the Wars of the Roses. In Europe, the crossbow persisted as the favored missile weapon until the end of the 15th century, with the introduction of the arquebus.
Throughout the Middle ages the crossbow was also used for hunting, and with the decline of its use on the battlefield, it became increasingly popular for hunting and sport. Both Elizabeth I and James I were expert crossbow hunters. Crossbows still remain somewhat popular today for target and occasional game shooting (the American Bow Hunters Association is currently trying to limit the areas that crossbowmen can hunt in).
Crossbows versus the longbow
Under the D&D rules, crossbows compare unfavorably with conventional bows. Pathfinder does make the crossbow a more attractive weapon than in previous versions of the game. Most players will go for extra shots available with a regular bow over the increased range and damage of the crossbow.
On Earth, the crossbow was the leading hand missile weapon of armies in the middle ages prior to the introduction of firearms.
The relative merits of crossbow and English longbow were first tested on the field of Crecy (1346) when the longbow had the advantage; but the poor showing of the Genoese crossbowmen may be attributable chiefly to the inept tactics of their employers, the French knights. Also it must be remembered that the training and marksmanship of the English archers was without equal in Europe.
Advantages of a crossbow
Advantages of a longbow
Basic Crossbow Data
|Crossbow, heavy||50 gp||1d10||19–20/x2||120 ft.||8 Lb.|
|Crossbow, light||35 gp||1d8||19–20/x2||80 ft.||4 Lb.|
|Crossbow, hand||100 gp||1d4||19–20/x2||30 ft.||2 Lb.|
|Crossbow, repeating heavy||400 gp||1d10||19–20/x2||120 ft.||12 Lb.|
|Crossbow, repeating light||250 gp||1d8||19–20/x2||80 ft.||6 Lb.|
Rules concerning crossbows
Crossbows require two hands to wield regardless of the wielders size (hand and light crossbows can be fired with one hand, but it takes two to cock and reload them).
Using crossbows underwater
Although bows cannot be used underwater, the crossbow can, since the tension produced by the weapon overcomes the water resistance. Underwater races such as the locathah, mermen, and tritons use both heavy and light crossbows. Range is 1/4 normal. Note that iron and steel crossbow parts will rust quickly if not oiled/dried or subjected to some special corrosion-curbing treatment.
Armor penetration (Optional Rule)
The construction, penetrative ability and sheer power of quarrels fired from crossbows helps them pierce heavy armor better than other weapons allowing them to partially ignore a target's armor bonus. Bolts fired from light and heavy crossbows within 30 ft. of the target effectively reduce the AC of an armored opponent by 4. Outside of 30 ft., the AC of an armored opponent is reduced by 2 points. Other crossbows do not have this special ability.
Note that this armor class reduction only applies to that portion of a target's armor class that is derived from physical armor: dexterity, cover or magical bonuses are not affected. An individuals armor bonus can not be reduced below 0. For example, an archer fires a heavy crossbow at a warrior wearing chainmail and a shield with a Dexterity of 16. The chainmail is considered to be 2 points worse, so it has a base AC of 3, not 5. Overall, the warrior's AC drops from 19 to 17. If the warrior wore nothing but bracers of armor +4, his AC would not be affected.
First Round Firing (Optional Rule)
If the crossbow is ready to fire before combat is initiated (bolt loaded, target sighted and crossbow aimed up) then the wielder can fire the weapon as a free action at the start of combat (possibly reloading and firing again on their initiative). This rule is especially applicable to ambush situations, and accounts for the fact that a loaded and aimed crossbow takes almost no time to shoot before reloading can commence.
Standard Crossbow Types
(aka. drow crossbow, handbow) Description: The smallest of the crossbow family, the fast and accurate hand crossbow features a thin steel bow and trigger assembly mounted on a metal pistol-like stock. It may be easily concealed beneath flowing garments such as cloaks or robes. It is easily aimed and fired in one hand; and can be held in one hand while being cocked with the other (or with a simple built-in cocking claw).
The hand crossbow is occasionally fitted with leather straps or a grip for the forearm, but these have minimal effect on accuracy for a proficient marksmen.
Campaign Notes: The hand crossbow is thought to have been first developed by the drow as a weapon for personal defense and assassination, and it is certainly more common in their societies than any other. It is less common throughout other kingdoms, due both to its dark reputation as an assassins weapon (it may be outlawed in some lands) and because of the high technical proficiency required to produce the weapon (hence the cost).
(aka. latch) Description: The rugged light crossbow, or latch, is the standard crossbow. The bow of a latch is usually made of wooden composite (usually horn and sinew bonded to ash or yew) to cut down on weight, and so the weapon can be drawn by hand. The tiller, or stock, is made of thick wood or metal (to provide strength and rigidity). It is cocked (spanned) with both hands (and either foot in a stirrup at the front end and the string pulled up, or with the butt supported on the knee and the string pulled down). The string is either pulled back with a (gloved) hand or with a short hook gripped in both hands (the handle of this hook can be built into the stock). Alternatively the weapon can be cocked using ‘belt and claw’ or ‘cord and pulley’ mechanisms (see glossary) where devices are attached to the string and the act of standing up spans the crossbow. Like the smaller hand crossbow the latch can be partially concealed beneath voluminous cloaks.
Campaign Notes: Light crossbowmen are favored by many military commanders, replacing regular archers in some armies and especially in militia levies. The crossbow requires less training than larger bows, and is easier to handle, making these soldiers cheaper in the long run to maintain. Each man normally has a light crossbow, a melee weapon, and only light armor (as these crossbowmen fight hand-to-hand only to save themselves and will fall back if attacked). They expect pay of around 2gp per month, similar to a heavy footman, or about half that of a trained archer.
On earth, Italian crossbowmen commonly wore padded armor and carried a long sword, buckler, and light crossbow. Burgundians wore a light coat of chain and carried no weapons other than their crossbows. Greek crossbowmen carried a variety of weapons including crossbow, sword, and spear or javelin. Crossbowmen can be mounted, usually on light unarmored horses (note that heavier crossbows cannot be cocked on horseback), and are paid about the same as a horse archer or light cavalryman, typically 4gp per month.
Description: The heavy crossbow is a fearsome weapon, capable of dealing out great damage at very long ranges. The spring steel bow is too stiff to be drawn by hand, so requires mechanical assistance to cock it. The weapon has a small cranequin (a simple winch operated by a geared lever or crank) that is built into the butt of the weapon to draw back the bowstring. A stirrup is often fitted at the front end of the crossbow for balance while the cranequin is worked.
Campaign Notes: On Earth, Genoese mercenaries sometimes wielded heavy crossbows, as did Venetian soldiers serving on galleys. Dwarven mercenaries are often equipped as heavy crossbowmen, and their disciplined ranks can inflict massive damage of advancing troops and cavalry. Heavy crossbowmen are normally assigned to garrison and siege duties. Each normally has a heavy crossbow, short sword and dagger, and wears chain mail or similar medium armors. The services of a shield bearer is often supplied to each man. Monthly wages are about 3gp, slightly less than a trained archer. They can serve as effective infantry when pressed.
On the battlefield, these crossbowmen often protected themselves with a tall door shield called a pavise (tower shield), carried slung on their backs (or borne by a shield bearer) and propped up in front of them before combat to provide effective cover from missiles. The crossbowman would duck behind the pavise to re-load during a battle.
Other Crossbow Types
The double crossbow is essentially two light crossbows (with their own bolt shafts and strings) mounted above and below the same stock. The design halves the crossbow's range in comparison to that of the standard light crossbow, although it fires the same type of bolt and causes the same damage. Both strings can be cranked back with a single hook, making this a rapid-firing weapon that can fire two bolts per melee round in the hands of someone who has proficiency with this weapon (this is an exotic weapon, so someone with standard light or heavy crossbow proficiency is not considered to have proficiency with a double crossbow). A warrior employing the double crossbow without having a proficiency with it can fire only one bolt per round until he has a chance to stop firing for one round to reload both bolt shafts.
These crossbows are almost exclusively employed by expert human and dwarven missile troops because so few crossbow makers have the skill or knowledge to craft these devices. (See New Weapons For Old in Dragon 169, and the film LadyHawke). Their bulkiness and design means they cannot effectively take modifications (see the next section).
Repeating Crossbow (cho-ku-no)
Seen only in oriental settings such as Kara-Tur, the cho-ku-no is similar to a light crossbow, but holds up to 10 bolts in a magazine (a thin box) that rests on top of the weapon. The repeating action of the weapon is made possible by a pivoting lever arm that is pushed forward to draw back the bowstring and so cock the weapon. Range and armor penetration are less than a standard light crossbow, due to lower bowstring pressure (easing reloading) and smaller bowarms (to cut down on weight). This weapon uses normal light crossbow quarrels. Note that Paterson states that the Chinese only developed a self-loading, repeating crossbow in the 18th century.
There are also several modifications that can be made to standard weapons. All modifiers are cumulative (particularly cost):
Blade: Crossbow with reinforced stock and twin heavy dirk-sized blades at the front. Can be wielded in melee (1d4+1 damage, critical 20/x3, requires exotic weapon proficiency) if necessary. Base cost if 1.5x and weight is increased by 4lbs.
Optima: Quality-built crossbow with advanced sights and a specially enclosed and slotted bolt groove on the tiller (that extends further forward on a longer tiller). Confers greater accuracy at range (increase range by 10%). Fires only standard quarrels (exact tolerances of the bolt groove negate other bolts being used). Weight is increased by +2lbs and base cost is doubled. Not compatible with other modifications.
Sniper: This modification allows the crossbow to be broken down into pieces for easier concealment. The stock (tiller) is made of tubular metal pieces (butt, trigger assembly and headboard). There are special hinges and latches that allow the stock to be broken down and the limbs to be folded into the body (after the reinforcing of the stiff but narrow bow has been removed). Alternatively, the bow can be removed and folded in two and slid inside the tubular pieces, so that the weapon resembles a piece of machinery (perhaps from a wagon’s running gear). The cost of this modification is 2.5x base cost (if the weapon is legal, more if not). Overall weight is reduced by 1lb for lighter crossbows, and 2lbs for heavy crossbows. Once assembled, other characteristics remain the same, except that every time it is fired roll 1d10: on a 10 a hinge will break or bow limb will snap, and the crossbow will be inoperable until repaired (repair costs equal normal base cost). They are illegal in most goodly realms due to their fell reputation and association with assassination (people found in possession of such a weapon in a well-policed realm will have it confiscated, and will certainly be either jailed, banished or watched closely).
Strength Modified (Biter): Confers a stronger pull (string tension) on the bow and therefore increases hitting power, through greater crank gearing, stiffer bow, and a heavier (reinforced) frame. Weighs 2lbs extra and allows STR bonus up to +4. Cannot be cranked if wielder’s strength is less than 14. Base cost is increased 2.5x normal.
Sidearm: Fitted with a hand crossbow rail beneath main stock and fired with a second trigger (similar to a double crossbow). Weapons are 2 lbs heavier, and base cost is doubled. The hand crossbow provides additional hitting power in emergencies or in an ambush situation.
Ultima: Similar to, but more extensive than, an optima modification, the ultima is the rarest and most difficult craft work commonly performed on a crossbow. Only a light crossbow can be effectively modified this way: hand crossbows are too small to incorporate the parts; and the bows of heavy crossbows cannot be further strengthened. Excellent craftsmanship, a wide stiff bow and a spyglass attached to the side of the crossbow allow a greater effective range than a standard light crossbow (increase range by 50%). The cost for the crossbow is around 750gp. To achieve the extra range (and because of the exact tolerances of the bolt rail), only specially made bolts called qrello can be fired. These distinctive ‘kill-quarrels’ cost 1gp each, have a pyramidal tip with a square base, and leather fins wound around the specially slotted shaft to make the bolt rotate in flight. The modifications to this weapon result in a 3lb weight increase, and no other modifications are compatible.
(Note that historically a quarrel was a square-headed bolt, but D&D use both terms interchangeably.)
Standard ammunition for crossbows is a conical or pyramid-headed bolt, which is shorter and heavier than an equivalent arrow. Lengths and weights of bolts vary, depending on the size of machine they are made to fit. Crossbows can fire smaller bolts, but they only gain the range and damage characteristics as if fired from the weapon it was designed for. The smallest bolts (for a hand crossbow) are about 7” long and weight as little as 0.1 lb.
A wide variety of special purpose ammunitions are available, as befits the technical nature of crossbow manufacture and use. They must be purchased individually, for at least twice the cost of the equivalent standard bolt (glitter and stun bolts are very rare outside dwarfholds, and would cost 50–100gp or more).
Barbed bolt (ripper): With a wickedly barbed, tined or hooked head, these bolts cause +2 damage, ½ range. The wound inflicted is more bloody, and the bolt is difficult to remove. Good aligned folk won’t use barbed bolts (not even for shooting fish).
Blunt bolt (pulzone in Italian): These bolts are built with large blunt heads and are designed to stun the target, rather than kill. They have ½ normal range, and do -2 damage. Damage caused is subdual-type (target is knocked out if reduced to zero hit points by one of these bolts. 25% of all damage caused by these bolts is permanent).
Broadhead (war bolt): With a heavier, harder and wider head, these bolts cause +1hp damage, and have ½ normal range.
Game bolt (Dardo in Italian): A narrow-headed bolt with 2–3 steel points, used for hunting smaller game. Inflicts +1hp of damage. This bolt does not benefit from the armor penetration abilities of larger crossbows.
Frog crotch: Standard quarrel fitted with a wide head shaped like a concave arc sharpened on the inner edge, for cutting ropes and banners. Looks like: )-----<< Does 1d4 damage and ½ range.
Glass head bolt (bulb): On this bolt the standard metal head is replaced with a small glass bottle for carrying liquids or powders. Due to the shape and size of the head, these bolts are –2 to hit and range is half normal. The bolts themselves cause half damage to the target and release the contents on impact when the bottle shatters.
Glitter bolt: Similar to a stun bolt, this is a special ammunition used by dwarves. This short-shafted bolt has a head like a flat many-pronged star shape. Regardless of the size of the crossbow it is fired from, it has the flight characteristics of a hand crossbow quarrel. On impact (use grenade-like missile table on a miss) the head shatters into a 5’ radius cloud of glittering golden particles. Those in the area must roll a successful Reflex Save (DC 20) or be blinded for 1d4+1 rounds. In addition, all within the area are covered by the dust, which cannot be removed and continues to sparkle until it fades (in 5 rounds). Note that this reveals invisible creatures. These quasi-magical items are believed to be made by skilled dwarven artisans using rare minerals found deep in the earth (a special type of mica) which shatter into incandescent splinters when subjected to impact shock.
Grapnel bolt: Standard bolt fitted with light grapnel (fixed or, on more advanced examples, snap-out) and rope loop. Not designed to grip, but to snag on obstacles when reeled in. Due to its design a grapnel bolt can only be fired at half range, though when a rope is fitted this range drops by a further half. Does half normal damage if hitting a victim.
Stun bolt: Commonly used by guards in larger dwarven holds, this special quarrel looks like a stone doorknob on a short, thin shaft. Regardless of the size of the crossbow it is fired from, it has the flight characteristics of a hand crossbow quarrel. On impact it shatters into bright dust-motes, releasing a stunning magical shock of force that does 2d4hp damage to any being struck. Victims are stunned (unable to think or act) for the following round (no save). Only living creatures are affected.
Target bolt (Verretto in Italian): Light, cheap bolt used for target competitions, with a light conical point and long shaft made of wood, steel, or cow horn (+25% range, ½ damage, ½ price).
Whistling bolt: Has a hollow head that whistles loudly when fired. The hollow head can be stuffed with combustibles and set afire (and won’t whistle in this case) for use as an incendiary round.
Wood biter/stone biter: Expensive hardened heads designed to grip into wood or stone (different designs). Some elaborate dwarven and gnomish creations have small snap-out prongs on head. Half normal range (1/10 range with rope attached through the rope loop). Does normal damage if hitting a victim.
Bolts of special materials: Bolts can be made of special materials, such as superior steel, silver alloy or arandur, and even incredibly rare (and expensive) metals like mithril or adamantine, that increase both cost and damage caused. See Unusual Materials for more details on these special materials.
Barreled crossbow (slurbow): a crossbow with a wooden leaf on the top of the tiller with a slot on each side for the string. This device would have been useful for shooting in vertical or near vertical situations, or for mounted crossbowmen, who could keep the crossbow spanned and loaded while riding without the possibility of the bolt falling from the lath.
Belt and claw: a early (c.1180AD) device used to span a light crossbow. It consists of a belt with a rope attached to it at the front of the body, with a claw or hook attached to the end of the rope. The crossbowman spans the crossbow by bending down, attaching the hook to the string. The act of standing up spans the crossbow. Similar to the cord and pulley mechanism for spanning a crossbow.
Bolt shaft (bolt groove): groove or slot along the top of the tiller, to hold the bolt.
Braced bow: a bow that is strung and ready for shooting
Catch (nut): a catch/trigger mechanism with one or more notches that holds the string back when the crossbow is spanned.
Claw: 1. a hook attached to a string and a belt that latches on to the string and allows the crossbowman to span the crossbow by standing up. 2. a catch mechanism similar to the tumbler mechanism utilizing a transverse notch. Unlike the tumbler mechanism, the claw mechanism does not have a lower jaw, and uses a more curved upper jaw to hold the string.
Composite bow: a bow made from more than one type of material. Composite bows are often stronger and more resilient than plain wooden bows, and are more resilient and less likely to break than metal bows.
Cord and pulley: a mechanism for spanning a light or heavy crossbow (may also be applicable for disc and double crossbows). It consists of a belt with a rope attached to it at the front of the body, with a claw or hook attached to a pulley on the rope. The crossbowman spans the crossbow by bending down, attaching the hook to the string and the free end of the rope to the belt. The act of standing up spans the crossbow. Similar to the belt and claw mechanism for spanning a crossbow.
Cranequin (cric, rack): a mechanism for spanning a crossbow utilizing a winding device that moves along a ratchet bar via the use of toothed wheels. Standard spanning mechanism for heavy (and sometimes disc) crossbows. Used on earth from the mid to late 14th century.
Discharge (loose, release, shoot): releasing a bolt from a crossbow. (Note ‘fire’ should not be used as the word ‘fire’ refers to gunpowder weapons. ‘Firing’ a bolt should only be used when describing a flaming bolt.)
Fletching: the feathers or vanes on an arrow or bolt.
Gaffle (goat's foot): a mechanism for spanning a crossbow (not sure of its design). The goat's foot is an old name for a gaffle mechanism, the former used on Earth from the mid 14th century, and the latter the most common method during the 16th century.
Hinged arm lever: a mechanism for spanning a crossbow utilizing a lever with a hinged arm attached to it that pushes the string back to the catch. Used on repeating crossbows and later stonebows.
Nock: 1. a groove on the back of a bolt or arrow into which the bow string is placed, 2. one or more grooves on either end of a bow which hold the bowstring in place.
Peg-and-hole: a simple catch/trigger mechanism using a lever attached to the bottom of the tiller that pushes a peg up, forcing the string out of a transverse notch.
Prod (lath, lathe): The modern term for the bow portion of a crossbow. The portion of the crossbow that is flexed back and that gives the bolt its force and motion. Lath and lathe are older terms.
Screw and handle: a spanning mechanism roughly similar to a cranequin. The screw and handle are built onto the crossbow, and the screw portion is mounted lengthwise inside the tiller. The handle pulls the threaded screw backwards, and a hook on the end of the threaded screw pulls the string back to the catch. Standard spanning mechanism for disc (and sometimes heavy) crossbows.
Serving: material, usually thread, wrapped around the bowstring to prevent the arrow or the releasing device (be it hand for bows, or a nut for crossbows) from fraying the string.
Shaft: the main part of a bolt or arrow, that part lying between the point and the nock.
Sichern (safety straps): a rawhide or similar band which runs along the back of the prod and is tied to each end at the nocks. This is intended to reduce the chance of the shooter or a bystander being injured by a broken limb.
Span (bend, cock): the act of drawing the string back to the nut or catch of a crossbow.
Stirrup: a sturdy metal or rope loop on the tip of the lath to put one's foot through to aid in hand spanning a crossbow. Introduced on Earth in the early 13th century.
Stock (tiller): Main body of the crossbow that supports the bow. The tiller is positioned at right angles to the bow. The main body of a crossbow. (Tiller is the older term, derived from the old English word for beam.)
Trigger: any mechanism or device used to release the string from the catch
Transverse notch: a groove cut into the top of the tiller perpendicular to the length of the tiller that acts as a catch for the string when it is drawn back.
Tumbler: a catch/trigger mechanism utilizing a transverse notch. When the string is drawn back to the catch, it is placed between the forward facing upper and lower jaw which then rotate forward and trap the string against a transverse notch.
AD&D Version :: The Complete Crossbow January 2000, © Simon Gibbs ::
3rd Edition D&D Version :: The Complete Crossbow December 2005, (no longer available) © Bryan Rutherford ::
Pathfinder Version :: The Complete Crossbow December 2010, © Bryan Rutherford :: |}