In all likelihood, you probably heard someone say bolts at one point or another and wondered how they differed from arrows. You do have a few differences between the two that you want to be aware of because while they may serve the same function, arrows and bolts aren’t completely the same thing. Let’s have a look at the differences.
Bolts: More Commonly Used Term for Crossbows
Usually, when you refer to bolts, you mean the projectiles for the crossbow. Bolts measure from 16 to 22 inches, while arrows measure from 27 to 32 inches. As you can see, bolts don’t have the length that arrows have.
Despite the differences, some manufacturers have tried to say the terms between bolts and arrows are interchangeable—they are not interchangeable in the usage sense.
Some people think, “The manufacturers call it that, so it must be all right.” I will emphasize—I don’t think that manufacturers should encourage the interchangeable use of the terms arrows and bolts. Losing the difference between the two, you may think to use a shorter arrow on your bow from the crossbow. Too long of an arrow on a bow is much safer than too short of one. No harm is done as long as you understand the differences, but I wouldn’t make them interchangeable. Eventually, however, I see it as inevitable.
I wrote an article on why you should never shoot too short of an arrow here. To sum it up, too short of an arrow can fall off the bow and shoot straight through the hand, ending your hobby in archery. Never use crossbow bolts on a bow and arrow. Along with the shortness of the bolt, they don’t have the stabilizing vanes at the back that arrows will have.
Arrows vs Bolts: The Weight Difference
Standard crossbow bolts will weigh anywhere from 400 to 459 grains. Heavyweight crossbow bolts will weigh 460 grains or higher. On the other hand, light arrows will usually weigh around 340 grains, but they can weigh up to 400 grains. You do have one exception to this, which is bowfishing arrows. They will weigh anywhere from 1,400 to 1,500 grains and won’t have fletching.
No matter what the weight of an arrow or a bolt, you should always check with the instruction manual to see the minimum recommended weight. Never go under the minimum recommended weight because it can be dangerous. While heavier arrows and bolts don’t matter as much, the heavier the projectile, the lower the fps.
Arrows vs Bolts: Which are Deadlier?
If you ever shot a crossbow, you will know how the bolts cause damage differently from that of arrows. Bolts do far more damage than arrows. Crossbows that shoot bolts would penetrate armor better than that shot from a bow because crossbows were designed for this purpose. The heavier weight makes it easier for bolts to penetrate armor. Bolts will usually shoot straighter than an arrow because of the design.
Arrows prove deadlier at a farther distance because bolts won’t shoot as far due to the extra weight. At the same time, arrows remain more accurate at longer distances than crossbows. Modern crossbows can shoot a bolt for up to 500 yards. However, 60 yards is ideal for the average hunter because you likely won’t hit a target out at 500 yards. On the other hand, bows can shoot for up to 500 yards as well, but they have much greater accuracy, making them deadlier at a distance.
Why Don’t Bolts Have Fletching
Now is the point where we come to medieval crossbow bolts versus the modern crossbow bolts. Most modern bolts will have three fletchings on them that the manufacturers made from plastic. You will never see traditional bird feathers used as fletching on crossbow bolts, however. This is because of how the crossbow has been designed. When you load the bolt onto the crossbow, it would push the arrow against the slope and cause it to either break or separate.
Arrow Used to Be an Uncommon Term
Nowadays, the arrow has become the most common term, and you even hear it used interchangeably at times with bolt, but this wasn’t always the case. In fact, even the arrows of a bow used to be called bolts. You would hardly ever hear anyone refer to them as arrows. You can see this in Chaucer’s proverb, “To shoot a featherless bolt.” This meant to labor in vain, but as you can see he didn’t say to shoot a featherless arrow.
The modern term, however, for a bolt is that you can’t fletch it like how you could an arrow. Most people still call them bolts, but an increasing number of people have taken to calling them crossbow arrows. Still, you need to understand the difference between the two and not intermix them with shooting, which could prove dangerous.
Where Arrows and Bolts Remain the Same
It doesn’t matter if you have an arrow or a bolt because the components of each remain the same: shaft, nock, fletch and point. Whether a bolt or an arrow, they will both effectively kill whatever your target is. Crossbows remain interesting for the fact that they can also shoot bullets and stones. With stones, they have called this a stone-bow, which they mostly use for hunting waterfowl.
How Arrows were Used versus How Bolts were Used in the Past
In the past, arrows were meant more to shoot a broad range and hit targets indirectly. With crossbow bolts, on the other hand, they made them to strike a target directly, and they tended to be thought of as more deadly because of their armor-piercing capabilities. Crossbows, especially in the past, didn’t have as much range as bows, which made them more ideal for direct shots.
Fps: Arrows vs Bolts
Arrows will usually have a maximum recommended fps of 260 to 270 fps, especially with a broadhead on them. Beyond that point, accuracy can start to take a turn for the worst. On the other hand, most crossbow bolts tend to shoot faster at 280 to 350 fps. Some crossbows can even shoot at up to 400 fps.
With that in mind, fps matters for how fast the projectile shoots, but it doesn’t make too much difference in terms of deadliness. A well-placed shot will have a far greater impact than the fps. You have some recurves that shoot at 140 to 225 fps, but if you place the shot well, it will still drop a deer. The fps doesn’t matter too much.
Arrows vs Bolts: Loading and Reloading
The biggest downside of using bolts on a crossbow comes from the slower loading time, which is why they never fully overtook the bow in the past. Crossbows take about half a minute to load the bolt and prepare for the shot. In comparison, shooting a bow and arrow takes about 5 seconds, and for experienced archers, it may take less time. This has made it so that arrows will often have an advantage over bolts when it comes to the speed of loading.
The speed of the loading was one of the reasons that I chose to continue shooting a bow during bowfishing because the high level of action requires that I keep shooting. With a crossbow, it takes time to put the bolt onto it, and you can miss opportunities.
Why are crossbow bolts not called arrows? Crossbow bolts use the older term for these projectiles. Even for the bow, they used to call them bolts, rather than arrows, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that the term became more popular to use. Things have even begun to change for the crossbow where people call them arrows, rather than bolts.
Are crossbow bolts faster than arrows? Generally speaking, crossbow bolts tend to be a little faster than arrows, and in the past, they were known for better armor-piercing capabilities than arrows. They could pierce ringmail easily and were thought of as the deadlier weapon.
Why do crossbows use heavy arrows? The extra weight of the arrow makes for quieter shots, and they prove to have better penetration capabilities. You have hunters who take shots at deer that will shoot straight through the deer with a crossbow. Heavier arrows will also retain their kinetic energy for longer.
To sum it up, calling bolts for crossbows and arrows for bows helps to differentiate the two, but they have slowly started to call them both arrows, which could eventually mean that the bolts on a crossbow are also referred to as arrows. Manufacturers have even said that you can use the same term arrow for crossbow bolts as well. It would be fine for doing this as long as people understand how you should never use crossbow arrows for a bow because it can lead to serious injury.
If you enjoyed this article on the differences between the crossbow bolt and the arrow and you’d like to read another excellent subject that I wrote about, check out, “Bow and Arrow: A Journey through History.” I will take you on an adventure through time that stretches back to 72,000 years ago when the bow and arrow were first discovered in South Africa, and we will arrive at the point of today and what happened in between.