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Bows Versus Crossbows

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Genoese crossbows versus English longbows.note 
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Despite being very different weapons, each built with a different purpose in mind, in many Fantasy settings, standard bows and crossbows seem to be at odds with each other. For instance, Mooks are more likely to have crossbows, while heroes get regular bows. Less graceful, more 'brutish' or 'brute force' characters get crossbows while the graceful characters get arrows.

Bows also carry an air of elitism about them, in a manner of speaking. While almost anyone could be taught to use a crossbow in relatively short time, and as such large masses of people with less training were equipped with them, a bow requires many years of practice to be truly good at. Thus anyone using a bow in a fight is likely to have many more years of training, and potentially be more of a career fighter. Going along with that, a truly great archer with a bow generally can be more lethal than a great archer with a crossbow, due to how much faster their shooting rate could be.

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Bows are usually treated as much less powerful than crossbows and thus are more likely to get the Annoying Arrows treatment. In contrast, crossbow bolts tend to be shown as having proper stopping power when they hit and are generally shown being more lethal. One reason for this disparity likely has to do with movie props. Prop crossbows can be made with high draw weights closer to historical crossbows, as their spanning devices allow virtually anyone to draw them. Prop bows, on the other hand, tend to be of low draw weight like most beginner and target shooting bows, as they have to be usable by actors who lack the specific muscle development and training in form to draw heavy bows. As such, bows seen in movies tend to be a lot less powerful than most historical hunting and war bows were. Also keep in mind that medieval European crossbows were less mechanically efficient than longbows of the time because of factors such as their short powerstroke (~6 in. compared to ~24 in. for a longbow) and the energy lost moving their heavy limbs and strings along with the bolt, so in order to achieve as much projectile energy as a longbow of a given draw weight, a crossbow needed to have a draw weight several times greater.note  Modern crossbows are much more efficient than their medieval ancestors thanks to improved materials and design,note  so they achieve much higher projectile energy than crossbows of old despite having lower draw weights.

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Based on the fact that men are stronger than women on average, fictional stories sometimes portray men using crossbows and women using bows, the notion being that crossbows are utilitarian and brutal while bows are elegant and rely on finesse rather than brute strength. In reality, if you were going to give men and women different weapons it should be the other way around: crossbows with spanning devices would allow women to repeatedly shoot powerful bolts without tiring even if they have less raw upper body strength, while a man (or indeed any person) with greater strength could handle a bow with a heavy enough draw to yield respectable range and penetrating power, and use it to shoot more rapidly than if you gave them a crossbow.

One other aspect often seen in fiction treats crossbows as being "sneaky" weapons because they're marginally more concealable than bows, and because of lingering cultural ideas that the possibility of large numbers of serfs armed with crossbows being able to perforate aristocratic, land-owning knights is somehow unfair and against the natural order of things. Miniature, concealable versions may appear as assassin's weapons and be shot with one hand like a pistol, though in real life these weren't popular or effective as weapons. note 

In Real Life, the main advantages of a drawn bow were rate of fire and mechanical efficiency: a decent archer could loose arrows much faster than a crossbowman could shoot bolts, and the large draw length spreads out the power required to pull back the string so that a strong and skilled archer can draw a heavy bow without a time-consuming spanning device. This disparity was somewhat mitigated by the fact that an archer would try not to use up his limited supply of arrows too quickly, while a crossbowman could speed up his rate if he had spare crossbows and assistants to span them for him while he was shooting. The ability to shoot rapidly was most important in horseback archery—a hit-and-run art in which the rider has a short window of opportunity to shoot as many arrows as possible before retreating out of range—and least important in sieges, during which the archer or crossbowman could take his time reloading behind cover without having to worry about his position being charged.

Meanwhile, crossbows had advantages in that with spanning devices they require less upper body strength to use compared to a longbow with similar projectile energy, they are easier to use in a confined space or from a hiding position, they can be held ready at full draw without exhausting the archer, and on a Game-Breaker level, training a crossbowman to shoot accurately and use a weapon of useful military draw weight only took a few weeks, whereas it took years to for an archer to develop instinctive aiming and build up his body to draw bows of military power.

Crossbows were the first of the two to disappear from European warfare, since by the 16th century the arquebus had stolen its niche as the mass point-and-shoot weapon of the battlefield; crossbows continued to stick around around as recreational and hunting weapons. For another century or more the English tried to supplement arquebus armies with units of longbowmen because they could still beat the arquebus in shooting speed. However, the ease of equipping and training soldiers with guns and the dwindling numbers of skilled warbow archers eventually retired the bow from warfare as well. Western Europe was actually a bit of an outlier in terms of how early they gave up military archery, since warriors in many other parts of Eurasia liked to arm themselves with both musket and bow for different applications well into the 19th century.

Related to Fantasy Gun Control, in which crossbows tend to stand in for absent guns. See also Kinetic Weapons Are Just Better.


Examples:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • Berserk: For the most part, crossbows are the standard ranged weapon of mooks and heroes alike (Guts in particular has an early Automatic Crossbow on his arm). However, one of Griffith's Apostles wields a longbow capable of some truly impressive feats like firing half a dozen arrows at once or shish-kebobing both the target's eyes and keep going. In his Apostle form, his lower body sprouts massive horns which he uses like a ballista.
  • Vinland Saga treats crossbows somewhat like BFGs compared to bows, as they can shatter shields.

    Asian Animation 
  • In the 3000 Whys of Blue Cat episode "Will Earth Be Destroyed?", Blue Cat shoots Feifei with a bow and Feifei shoots him back with a crossbow.

    Comic Books 
  • Thorgal: One an early story, Thorgal (who uses a drawn bow, and is very good with it) is in a standoff with a crossbowman, and actually notes that the advantage is to the crossbow. Fortunately a distraction comes along to help him win.
  • Wonder Woman (1987): Despite theoretically being together to help their allies Wonder Woman Batman, Donna Troy and Nightwing when Artemis (who uses a tall drawn bow) and Huntress (who uses a crossbow) first meet they can't stop arguing, insult each other's weapon of choice and repeatedly nearly come to shooting at each other despite the enemies they could be focusing on. They finally start truly working together once Tim and Cassie show up.

    Fanfic 
  • Dungeon Keeper Ami: In Out-of-Dungeon Experiences'', 'dark elves', in comparison to the Light surfacer "elves":
    They also seemed to have exchanged the traditional elven weapon of bow and arrows for crossbows.

    Films — Live-Action 

    Literature 
  • In Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell, the protagonist is a young archer named Nicholas Hook who joins King Henry V's expedition to France. In addition to having good aim, Nicholas is very strong because of how he was raised from boyhood to bend progressively heavier longbows, and the book shows many oft-neglected facts about English archery such as the craft of making arrows and how the archers were also expected to fight at close quarters. Accompanying Nicholas is his lover, Melisandre, whom he rescued in Soissons. Being a waifish girl who was living in a convent when he met her, Nick has to think of how she can defend herself when he's not by her side. Soon he finds just the thing for her: a little crossbow confiscated from a French noble's boy. One time he notices that she keeps it drawn in her bag, and worries that the prod will lose power if she stores it like that, but he realizes that wouldn't be such a bad thing because she needs all the help she can get to be able to draw it. Eventually this weapon enables her to save herself from Attempted Rape by Sinister Minister Father Martin, when she secretly reaches for it while pinned underneath her attacker and shoots him in the groin with the already loaded bolt.
  • Early in Oath of Swords, Rianthus "suggests" Bahzell should replace his crossbow with a standard bow. Then Bahzell shows what he can do with that crossbow (and just how fast someone much stronger than human can recock one). He keeps the crossbow.
  • Shows up in Ranger's Apprentice with surprising historical accuracy. The Weapon of Choice of the rangers is the bow because they have the time and training to become experts at using it. The bow allows them to fire off many shots very quickly while their training means they rarely miss. On the other hand, crossbows tend to show up in the hands of guardsmen and villains who need to be able to kill things at a distance without needing to master a weapon.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Game of Thrones: When Arya is being sent north to the Wall, Yoren, a recruiter for the Night's Watch, mentions that he hates crossbows, because "they take too long to reload!", as he kills a crossbow-wielder mid-reload.
  • Robin of Sherwood unusually has a clear moral distinction between the two weapons - the heroes constantly use longbows while anybody who uses a crossbow, almost without exception, will be evil. This is almost certainly because of the historical associations described below, where longbows are seen as the iconic "English" weapon, while crossbows are for sneaky foreigners.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Dungeons & Dragons 3.5: Unless they're playing a Squishy Wizard, most players will never even touch a crossbow. Bows allow you to add your Strength bonus to your ranged attacks, while crossbows can only use a single die roll. Also, when at higher levels, bows can be fired multiple times per round, while crossbows can still only be fired once, unless you take the appropriate Feat or it's a Repeating Crossbow (five shots per round before needing to recharge).
  • Warhammer: Elves are divided into three factions; the "good" and "neutral" (in that they're merely insular, xenophobic, and hugely obnoxious) High and Wood Elves, and the evil (in that they're murder-worshiping psychopathic slavers; no grey here) Dark Elves. The first two have bows and longbows as their primary ranged weapons, while the Dark Elves favor Automatic Crossbows.

    Video Games 
  • Empire Earth: Crossbows don't replace standard bowmen, they work as a medieval Sniper Rifle: very slow, long range, and a One-Hit Kill against infantry. Huge masses of them can fend off attacks, but bowmen have the advantage of shooting over walls.
  • In the Dragon Age series, crossbows have only been widely available in the first game, whereas later installments only offer drawn bows and magic as ranged combat options, with Varric's token Automatic Crossbow Bianca being the only exception. Interestingly, the advantages of using crossbows, particularly in large scale deployments where common footsoldiers need to be trained to shoot within limited time, are discussed by Varric and Solas during Party Banter in Inquisition, but the Player Party is still restricted to using bows and Bianca. Enemies, particularly Darkspawn, still carry them on occasion.
  • Both crossbows and bows exist in Total War: Attila. Crossbows are generally superior weapons for their greater damage, range and armor-piercing damage, but cannot fire in an arc and at a minimum have greater requirements to obtain to use. Bows by contrast are units that are cheaper and available sooner, can fire in an arc, and their greater fire-rate makes them easier to fire off while skirmishing from enemy units... and there are a good amount of Horse Archers available in the game while there's literally one horse crossbowmen unit available to one faction.
  • Throughout the Dark Souls series, bows and crossbows are both classes of weapon. Bows take both hands to use, take a short time to prepare a shot, reload quickly, and get significant damage from stat scaling (usually from Dexterity and sometime from Strength). Crossbows can be fired one handed, are ready to fire as soon as you pull them out, reload slowly, and do slightly more damage than bows with less stat investment (the higher base damage increase from upgrades compensates for the total lack of stat scaling). Some quirks with using crossbows made bows more popular, but they were fixed later on.
    • In Dark Souls I, crossbows cannot be aimed without using the binoculars, an item that lacks a sight for precision aiming. This makes the supposed "Sniper Crossbow" actually useless for sniping. The game wouldn't track if a crossbow had a bolt loaded or not, so firing a crossbow forces the player to immediately stand in place to reload, which can be extremely dangerous.
    • Dark Souls II allowed crossbows to be aimed when they're held in two hand.
    • Dark Souls III finally gave crossbows a magazine, so you don't have to reload it immediately after firing, and made both weapon types more distinct with the addition of weapon Skills. A bow's skill is either a low damage rapid fire attack, a Charged Attack that pierces shields, or a three arrow shot. The skill all crossbows share is a shoulder tackle meant to push enemies back.
  • In Civilization V, most civilizations upgrade from bowmen to crossbowmen in the Medieval Era. However, the British get the longbowman as a unique unit, replacing the normal crossbowman. It has the same attack strength as the crossbowman, but it's also the only pre-industrial era unit which can fire 3 tiles, making it extremely useful in mid-game sieges.
  • Rise of Nations: Most nations get crossbowmen for their Medieval Age ranged infantry unit, upgrading from Classical Age archers with additional hit points and attack strength. Native American nations get heavy archers instead (which is just a cosmetic change; they have the same stats as crossbowmen), while English, Nubians, and Koreans get unique longbowmen with improved stats over crossbowmen.
  • The Elder Scrolls: All games in the series have drawn bows, but only two have crossbows available. To note:
    • Morrowind: Unlike drawn bows, crossbows do the same damage with every hit, but drawn bows go all the way up to Daedric in quality, whereas crossbows only come in Steel and Dwarven in the vanilla game (the Bloodmoon expansion adds a Huntsman Crossbow which is between Steel and Dwarven in quality). Drawn bows are also faster to fire, arrows are more commonly found than crossbow bolts, and drawn bows have two "legendary" options - Auriel's Bow and the Bow of Shadows. There are no "legendary" crossbows to be had. Drawn bows are the better all-around option.
    • Skyrim: The vanilla game lacks crossbows, but this is averted with the crossbows added in the Dawnguard DLC. The Dwarven crossbow actually has a slightly higher damage value than even a Daedric or Dragonbone longbow, and the "Enhanced" versions ignore 50% of the target's armor. However, their rate of fire is considerably slower than using a drawn bow. As in Real Life, one is not clearly superior to the other, but each is better-suited for different situations. Generally speaking, bows are better-suited for dedicated archer characters thanks to their high rate of fire and more perk bonuses applying to their use. Crossbows are better-suited for melee specialists who need a ranged option, since they fire instantly instead of needing to be drawn before the first shot. A melee character can fire their crossbow to open an engagement and then draw a sword or other hand-to-hand weapon upon closing to melee range.
  • Mount & Blade tends to stay loyal to reality, with weaker bows that nevertheless can be fired much faster, though with a bit less accuracy, and very slow crossbows that, for the bigger and stronger variants, will pierce even through thick armor and do terrible damage. Bows can also be used on horseback while crossbows cannot, for cranks haven't been invented yet. The only exceptions to this are the two lightest crossbow designs, which can be used on horseback, but are strictly hand-spanned and less powerful.
  • 7 Days to Die, as of Alpha 15, features both a wooden bow and a crossbow. The bow is easier to craft and faster to fire, but deals less damage and is hard to aim for long-distance shooting, while the crossbow can fire instantly and is more powerful, but reloads slower and has a more complicated crafting that requires a schematic and metal. Bows can load up fire arrows, while crossbows have explosive bolts as an option.
  • Monster Hunter has bows and bowguns. Bows are more mobile and can be charged while on the move (though this drains stamina), and charging is in fact crucial due to the low damage for each individual arrow. But multiple can be fire at once based on the bow's innate quality, you do not have to worry about ammunition, and elemental damage is built in to specific bows (though you will have to use coatings for status effects). Bowguns are less mobile and have limited (though replenishable through purchasing or crafting) ammunition you have to reload, and storage space is at a premium for them due to many bows having room for more ammunition types than your inventory does, but this makes it somewhat more bearable to deal with multiple monsters with different elemental weaknesses. Bowguns themselves are further split between Light and Heavy versions, with the LBG having a faster movement speed and "Rapid Fire" on certain ammunition types that let multiple shots be fired from a single round of ammunition for a small damage penalty (making it deal for inflicting status ailments), whereas a HBG will have you move at a crawl while it's drawn, but allow for "Artillery Mode", letting you stay rooted in one place and drastically increasing the magazine size and fire rate for certain ammunition types. On top of all of that, you can also optionally remove the limiters on Bowguns, and trading the Rapid or Artillery shots in exchange for using a special, high-damage type of ammunition and either load all your ammunition at once and eliminate the need for reloading, or increase damage and clip size.
  • In Drakensang, this trope can be seen as another way to underline the slight Elves vs. Dwarves trope, with Elves using mostly "natural" weapons like bows, spears, daggers and, rarely, swords, while the Dwarves are fond of using heavy weapons and crossbows, especially big ones to take down Dragons. In-game the standard assumption is followed: bows deal less damage but can be reloaded istantly (except the largest Longbow, which takes two turns) while crossbows and arbalests packs a bigger punch but take from two to four rounds to reload, though you can choose a feat that halves the reloading time of crossbows; as a result, Bows were generally better at long-distance fighting. This was toned down in the sequel, were none of the bows has a reload time and even the biggest crossbow (which is also one of the most damaging weapons stat-wise) take at most two rounds to reload, and the above mentioned feat is still avaible.
  • In Age of Empires II, British Longbowmen have the biggest range of all archer units in game, outranging even defensive structures and most siege weapons, despite having a scarce accuracy from afar. Compared to them, even the unique crossbowmen units (like the Chinese Chu Ko Nu and the Italian Genoese Crossbowman) have pretty low range, though the unique ones compensate with better damage and their traits (respectively fire rate and Anti-Cavalry damage). On the other hand, crossbows are a straight upgrade compared to standard archers.
  • The Stronghold series has both archers and crossbowmen, and they're portrayed as useful for different forms of ranged combat. Archers are cheaper to equip, faster, reload more quickly and can shoot at ballistic arcs, but are far more vulnerable to enemy ranged weapons and especially enemy melee. Crossbowmen are slower on foot and also reload slower (the animations portray something akin to windlass or crannequin reloading), but are far more effective against armoured enemies and shoot very straight and accurately. This makes them excellent defenders or infantry shooting in volleys, while archers are better for scouting and hit-and-run tactics (and when crossbowmen are unavailable to the player). Both archery units have good range, though that of crossbowmen tends to be a bit shorter. While neither of the units can last long in a melee, crossbowmen wear more armour in the game, which gives them slightly more resilience than archers if they're forced into a hand-to-hand fight with enemy soldiers.
  • In Chivalry: Medieval Warfare, the Archer class can chose between crossbows, bows, javelins, and a sling. Crossbows are much easier to use thanks to their extreme projectile velocity and high damage, but they can only be reloaded while stationary. Bows have slower projectiles and deal less damage, but they can be fired at a walking pace and reloaded at jogging pace, and they carry more ammo. Each weapon type has 3 speed-vs-damage variants, so one could use a lightweight crossbow, or a heavy-draw longbow.
  • Final Fantasy Tactics has both bows and crossbows. While both weapons have similar attack power, crossbows tend to have slightly longer range than bows, but are treated like guns where shots can only go straight and are stopped by terrain obstacles and height differences if the target is above you. Bows can't be shot quite as far as crossbows, but their shots arc, which makes them not suffer the problem of obstacles and terrain issues most of the time. Bows also get a boost to range when fired from higher elevation while crossbows don't. Later games would drop the crossbow.
  • Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn is the first (and currently only) game in the Fire Emblem series to have crossbows in addition to the usual bows. Compared to bows, crossbows do not add the user's strength to their overall attack, meaning all of the damage comes from the weapon alone. To compensate, crossbows can attack adjacent enemies unlike most bows, and their attack is much higher than bows, making them much more dangerous against flying units, which are weak to bows and crossbows, since the extra damage is based on the weapon's power.
  • Fell Seal: Arbiter's Mark has Bows and Crossbows as distinct types of ranged weapon. Bows hit harder and have superior range, while crossbows give their wielders a bonus to accuracy. Both weapons deal more damage than guns.

    Real Life 
  • The battle of Crecy during The Hundred Years War undoubtedly did much to give rise to some of the common assumptions about the two weapons. Earlier in the day before the battle, the French had slogged through rain and mud to reach the area where the English had set up position. The Genoese crossbowmen mercenaries who fought on the French side were ordered forward to begin firing a first wave against the English position, despite the fact that their bowstrings were wet from the rain and the large shields called Pavises that the crossbowmen would duck behind while reloading were stuck in the army's baggage train. Predictably, the crossbowmen could barely even reach the English lines with their shots due to the bowstrings being weakened, while the return fire from the English longbows cut the exposed crossbowmen (and the French knights who tried charging the English afterwards, trampling the survivors) down like grass. The page image is a cropped version of a 15th century illustration that accompanied a chronicle compiled by a contemporary who fought on the English side, available in its entirely as the leading image for the page about the battle on The Other Wiki.
  • Richard I of England was a crossbow fan, and loved to shoot at the enemy when he wasn't fighting hand-to-hand. His armies also used disciplined crossbowmen to help mitigate the threat of Saladin's horse archers. Ironically he was mortally wounded by a crossbow bolt while besieging the Château de Chalus-Chabrol in France. Crossbows were popular in sieges because of their opportunity fire capability. While a bow has a much higher rate of fire, you can't draw and hold for minutes on end hoping something to shoot at will turn up — on a crossbow the weapon itself takes the strain.
  • Apparently, the crossobow was, at first, considered "vile" and unfair compared to the bow. The Church also had a dim view of ranged weapons at certain points in history. In a bit of a subversion, the Second Council of the Lateran, Canon 29 decreeted the ban of missile weapons - such as bows and crossbows - in battles between Christian armies. They were still permitted against Muslim or pagan armies, though. The oft-repeated myth that "the Papacy banned crossbows, specifically crossbows" is just tha, a misconception. Medieval polities and armies being what they were, military crossbow usage continued unhindered...
  • As shown in this video and this one, the often compared advantages and drawbacks of bows and crossbows, such as rate of fire and reload times, weren't absolute. It very much depends on the exact type of weapon you're using. Many hand-spanned crossbows could be reloaded rather quickly, almost capable of competing with longbow rate of reload and fire, but the rub is that such crossbows had much lower poundage. This made them more limited as military weapons (especially in later eras), compared to higher-poundage crossbows that required spanning tools for reloading, but were preferred as battlefield weapons. Even with later fast-reloading improvements, such as the invention of the latchet crossbow in the late-medieval and early modern era, civilian crossbows and hunting crossbows kept their lower poundage disadvantage. Higher-poundage crossbows continued to be the opposite: Favoured for heavy-duty combat roles due to the kinetic energy they could transfer into a shot (and impacting) bolt, but taking a lot longer to reload due to their more demanding draw weight and the mechanisms that necessitated. Mind you, modern crossbows generally outcompete historical examples in terms of poundage and bolt energy transfer efficiency, due to the technological advances they can afford to include in the design of the bow (e.g. a compound bow with pulleys, longer starting distance offered for the bolt, etc.), the design of the bolt (much lighter materials), and so on. Of course, centuries back, people designed crossbows with the best technology of their day. The progress can be really seen if you closely study crossbows, from century to century.
  • One popculture cliché surrounding crossbows is that they could only be constructed by advanced cultures knowledgeable about metallurgy. Historically, crossbows were used and invented independently by a wide array of cultures, including ones with little to no knowledge of metalworking. These crossbows tended to be all-wooden in construction, with the bowstring the only non-wooden part. They also had simplified trigger and release mechanisms, most lacking a nut altogether. However, as a consequence of that simpler design from more readily available materials, they were usually relegated to the role of hunting weapons, or self-defence weapons for use against unarmoured opponents, and were not military crossbows. Good for hunting birds, quadrupeds or even smaller water-dwelling animals, or protecting your home, but not weapons of war. An early medieval European example, West African examples, and an Inuit example.

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