Crossbow Bolts | Information for the Beginning Crossbow Hunter

What You Need to Know About Crossbow Bolts

With the use of crossbows as a hunting weapon gaining popularity rapidly across much of the country, beginning crossbow hunters are seeking out what to look for when purchasing crossbow bolts. Sure, it is important to research the actual model and brand of crossbow like any other piece of hunting equipment before making a purchase, however, what many hunters and shooters are missing is what bolt is best for their crossbow setup and for the species of animal they intend to shoot. Deciding on which crossbow bolt to shoot, what the best crossbow bolt is for you, or building crossbow bolts specifically for a hunt is information that any crossbow hunter should know.

Looking for a Reliable Crossbow Bolt

A lot of variables make up a good crossbow bolt. Until you know which bolt performs the best from your crossbow it is not as simple as walking into your pro shop and purchasing a six-pack of bolts and hoping for the best. Crossbow bolt length, the weight of the entire bolt, type of nock, and shaft material should all be considered before making an initial purchase. Crossbow manufacturers have recommendations for which type of bolt shoots best and these recommendations should be followed. They will also provide the necessary information for the weight, length, and nock type for their crossbow. However, when it comes down to it, it’s obviously up to each individual hunter to choose the best crossbow bolt for their crossbow using the guidelines set by the crossbow manufacturer. If you do not shoot the correct bolt or nock, you run the risk of damaging the crossbow and/or yourself.



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Crossbow Bolt Construction

Crossbow bolts are similar to construction to that of arrows shot from compound bows. But, with many crossbows shooting more than 400 fps, the bolts need to be tough enough to prevent them from exploding when shot.

Bolt Length

Bolts range in length from 16” to 22”. The most common length is 20-inches. It is possible to get away with a longer bolt than recommended, but anything shorter than what is recommended could cause the broadhead or field point to get caught on the crossbow rail when fired. However, it’s hard to think of one good reason why you would shoot a bolt longer than the manufacturer’s recommendations.

Bolt Weight

The total weight of the bolt includes the weight of the bolt, crossbow nock, insert, vanes, and broadhead or field point. Just about all bolt manufacturers will list how many grains each shaft weighs or how many grains are in each inch of the shaft. For example, your bolt might say 15 grains per inch (GPI). If your bolt is 20-inches, multiply 15 x 20 to figure your bolts weight. In this example it is 300 grains. Now all you have to do is add the weight of the nock, insert, vanes and tip for a total weight. A heavier bolt, at least 400 grains not including the head, will have better downrange energy and offer better penetration. Keep in mind that even though a bolt will leave the rail quickly, a heavier bolt will quickly lose power as it flies. A bolt on the lighter end of the manufacturer’s recommendations will fly faster and will give the shooter an extended range but might not get the desired penetration.

When purchasing a crossbow, the speed ratings are often rated using a 400-grain arrow. The heavier your arrow is, the slower it will fly. For example, if your crossbow is rated at 350 fps, it will only travel at about 315 fps if you are shooting a 500-grain bolt. This matters when thinking about kinetic energy. How fast your bow shoots, the total mass of the bolt, and distance traveled all plays into how much force is delivered upon impact. Keep in mind that the larger your broadhead is, the more kinetic energy is required to get good penetration.

A Bolt’s Kinetic Energy

For small animals like deer and antelope, 23 pounds of energy is the minimum amount of kinetic energy needed. For bigger animals like elk and black bear, the minimum is about 43-pounds and bigger animals like grizzly bears will require 63 pounds of energy. For every 10 yards your bolt travels, you can expect to lose 3 to 4-percent of energy. If you bolt is delivering 80-foot-pounds of force at the initial shot you can expect at 10-yards you will receive 78 to 77-foot-pounds of kinetic energy. At 20-yards those numbers drop to 75 -74-foot-pounds of kinetic energy.

There are several kinetic energy calculators on the internet that will help you figure out how much kinetic energy your bow is delivering. However, you can figure it for yourself. All you need to know is the feet per second (fps) a bolt is flying and the total mass weight of your bolt.


M= total mass of arrow (grains)

V= velocity of arrow (fps)

Bolt Fletching and FOC

As far as vanes go, some people prefer the smaller 2-inch vanes over the larger 4 or 5-inch vanes. The reason some like to shoot the smaller vanes has a lot to do with the arrow front of the center ratio (FOC). The smaller vanes will take away some of the weight off the rear of the bolt. This will add to the FOC. Depending on your overall setup, smaller vanes can help improve accuracy. Once you have decided on length and the total weight of the arrow, practice shooting some bolts with different sizes of vanes to see which one flies better for you.

Crossbow Nocks

Nocks come in several styles and shooting the wrong one from your crossbow could result in the string jumping the nock and causing a dry fire. Look to see if your crossbow shoots half moon, flat back, capture, or hybrid moon nocks. From there you will want to find a lighted crossbow nock that is the same type of nock. Because crossbows are delivering bolts as such a high rate of speed, they are often difficult to see upon impact. This often leaves the hunter guessing where the bolt struck the animal. To combat this problem it is a good idea to use a lighted nock. The two styles of lighted crossbow nocks by Nock Out® are half moon and flat back. Always use the nock type your crossbow is designed to shoot. Most crossbows will not shoot both styles of nocks.

Broadhead Considerations

Companies are now offering expandable blades designed specifically for crossbows. They are very similar to the same head you would shoot out of your compound. Whether you plan on shooting a fixed blade or an expandable specific for crossbows be sure to sight your crossbow in for the broadhead you intend to shoot. Even if you are shooting the bullseye at 30 yards with your field point that does not mean a bigger broadhead will fly the same. With expendables, you stand a better chance of getting the same grouping you did with your field points.

Building Your Own Bolts

If you plan on building your own bolts, it not very complicated. Just be sure each bolt is constructed using the same components. You do not want different grains of inserts, nocks, etc. If you were to do this, no two bolts would fly the same. Even when everything should be equal you might find that one bolt is a little off.

Every component of the bolt will affect how it flies and even penetrates. It might seem overwhelming to try and figure all this out at first. But, it is really a lot easier than you think. The crossbow manufacturer’s recommendations will give you a jump start. It is then up to you make the necessary little adjustments to get the bolt that flies best for you.

Setting Up a New Property for Bow Hunting

Creating a Bow Hunting Property From Scratch

Picture this, you’ve just purchased your dream hunting property. It’s exactly like you pictured, two-thirds of it is wooded and the other third is in AG production. The previous owners haven’t done anything too fancy in terms of deer management, but that didn’t stop your mind from racing with ideas on how to improve the property for deer hunting for the first season of hunting it. Since then, you’ve scoured the aerial maps, jotted down ideas, bought trail cameras, and planted food plots. The property is yours and you’ve got a blank canvas. It is time to turn this property into a deer hunting and more importantly bow hunting masterpiece that even Picasso would envy!

As you begin this process it’s important to realize what is realistic, and what is/can be the most effective in terms of delivering bow hunting opportunities for the first year of hunting a new property.

Creating a Plan that is Realistic

Like any great architectural design, it starts with a vision. From there you will start to develop a plan, then change the plan, then change the plan some more until finally, you’ve got something tangible to work with. The canvas may be the physical landscape, but the blueprints happen on maps first. Many websites and hunting map apps offer incredible aerial imagery with a few clicks and scrolls of the mouse allowing you to focus in on your property. One such asset is the free version of Google Earth Pro – it’s a major step above the standard version and offers just about all the features a land manager and hunter could ask for. You can mark trails, food plots, sanctuaries, tree stands, trail cameras, and even figure out acreages and distances. Perhaps the best part is that Google Earth Pro turns everything you add into a layer that can be clicked on and off allowing for easy altering. Check out the photo below to see an example of a strategic layout of a hunting property done using the free Google Earth Pro.

Maps will always be the lifeline and center of discussion when it comes to doing anything on your property, be it hunting, managing, or just plain strategizing. It makes sense to use a variety of apps and maps to get as much detail on paper as possible. Now onto the fun part, setting the stage for successful bow hunts.

Bow Hunting Food Plots

Let’s start with what’s usually first on everyone’s mind when it comes to habitat management – food plots. Plant it, and they will come…right? Wrong! Often times we are so anxious to get something in the ground, we hurry and plant a food plot wherever it might be convenient for us, not the deer. These spots often include power and gas line openings, field edges, old grassy spots, or just about any place that’s on our hunting property and void of trees. While there is no harm in this, these spots are not always ideal bow hunting locations. This is where those maps come in handy. Mark the bedding areas and physically draw out how the deer are moving about your property. There will be hidden clues lying in the topo lines and habitat edges as to how deer will likely travel across the area. A well-placed kill plot along one of these travel corridors might create the opportunity you’re seeking for your first year of hunting the property.

PHOTO: The Virtue TV

Plan your attack carefully and remember, bigger is not always better when it comes to creating killer bow hunting plots. There’s a big difference between a destination feeding plot and a bow hunting plot. The two main differences are usually size and location. It’s not to say a destination plot can’t be a killing plot, but generally speaking, a feeding plot is usually more than two acres in size, while a killing plot is typically under an acre. It’s often closer to ¼ acre to promote close encounters for bow hunting.

Additionally, a network of food plots will create bottlenecks for deer movement. Often times, bucks will travel just inside the cover on the downwind side of the food plot while scent checking for does or danger, especially during the rut. Deer and big bucks especially will stage up in a well-placed food plot that’s tucked back in the cover and within one hundred yards or so of their desired feeding field. Use these tactics to layout and install food plots in the best locations possible – it’ll save a lot of time, money, and headaches down the road.

Waterholes for Deer

Food plots are usually top-of-mind when it comes to improving the deer habitat, but let’s face it, the majority of hunters don’t have the time, money, or effort for exceptionally productive food plots. This is where deer waterholes come in. They are cheap, easy to install, and can be placed just about anywhere. The simplest designs include 50-gallon barrels cut in half, kiddie swimming pools, cattle tanks, and holes lined with plastic. The cool thing about water holes is you can place them just about anywhere. Placing them on ridgetops and funnels may slow up cruising bucks for a quick drink during the rut, allowing you to get off a perfect shot. Placing them in open timber or along field edges can also help bring deer in range. Once the deer get conditioned to this new source, it may even shrink their range if water is the limiting resource on your hunting property.


After food plots and waterholes for deer, habitat is usually the next asset to look at for a new hunting property. One of the first things that comes to mind when discussion deer habitat management is hinge-cutting. Not too long ago hinge cutting was once a relatively new and foreign topic, but now it’s a household term amongst deer hunters and managers. For those that are unfamiliar, hinge cutting is simply cutting a tree three-quarters of the way through and approximately 3-5 feet off the ground. Ideally, the tree will fall in the direction you intended and the portion of the tree you didn’t cut through will continue to provide water and nutrients to the rest of the tree which is now laying on the ground. There’s plenty of articles that cover this topic more in depth, but the point is to provide living and growing browse and cover at a height beneficial to deer.

There are three basic management outcomes that hinge cutting will achieve depending upon how it is implemented: bedding, browse, and transitional cover.

  1. Hinging for bedding purposes can be done in two ways: creating individual bedding locations and creating overall bedding areas. Basically, the difference is whether you will be doing select individual trees or an entire area.
  2. Hinging for browse is similar to hinging for bedding areas, but is done at a higher frequency. Browse areas should be done in areas with little to no future timber value or areas that are extremely crowded and choking each other out.
  3. Feathering the edges with hinge cuts is also an effective management practice. Feathering edges around food plot openings will increase the security cover and can provide a soft edge between hardwood stands and food plots or field openings. This is an important factor to consider, as these denser edges will often lead to an increase in daytime deer movement, especially mature buck movement.

Along the same line of creating soft edges, is the practice of creating barriers with hinge cuts or other downed trees. In essence, you’re creating a semi-natural fence to alter deer movement in your favor. You can cut or stack a tangled mess around food plots so the deer can only enter in certain areas or even lay a line through a big chunk of timber to concentrate the often-erratic deer movement to certain pinch points. There’s a lot of fun to be had in the woods with a chainsaw, but just remember you can’t uncut a cut tree. It’s always a wise idea to consult a forester first or at least take the less-is-more approach.

Strategically Placed Scrape Trees

When it comes to creating bow hunting opportunities on a new hunting property mock scrapes are often overlooked. Planting scrape trees or creating mock scrapes in October and November in certain areas is a super simple and effective project to steer deer into bow range. All you need to do is to cut down a scrape worthy tree or branch within bow range of your stand, scrape a patch of dirt in below the branch, add some scent to the ground and branch, and wait for the right buck to start using it frequently. Like any scrape, these are perfect trail camera locations and once a pattern is developed, hunting locations! If you don’t want to physically place a tree, another strategy is to selectively trim branches along field edges, making sure to only leave one or two perfect scrape branches in the perfect spot.

And there you have it – a quick guide to creating an ideal bow hunting property from scratch. While this barely scratches the surface of some techniques and improvements, these simple enhancements can drastically alter a bow hunting property’s productivity with the realistic effort needed to produce results. Remember though, it’s crucial to start with a vision and map out your plan before you go in with time and money. Be strategic in your approach and remember less is usually more if it is done properly.