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What are the key differences between Crossbows and Longbows? I'm playing a ranger, but I'm relatively new to D&D, and all my friends have differing opinions on it.

For example, Friend A states that Crossbows take an entire turn to reload, while Friend B tells me that it only uses up a move action.

I'm also confused about the meaning of "takes 2 hands to reload." Can someone clarify the differences between the two weapons?


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This question is somewhat messy, I'm sorry about that. It's just that, there's so many different types of bows that I'm pretty much overwhelmed by all of them. –  DISREGARD MODS ACQUIRE REP Jun 11 '12 at 16:34
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3 Answers

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For example, Friend A states that Crossbows take an entire turn to reload, while Friend B tells me that it only uses up a move action.

Both friends are right. There are four different types of crossbow: Hand, Light, Heavy, and Repeating.

Hand and Light crossbows can be reloaded with a move action. Heavy crossbows require a full-round action, and repeating crossbows require a free action to ready a new bolt and a full-round action to load a new magazine.

I'm also confused about the meaning of "takes 2 hands to reload. Can someone clarify the differences between the two weapons?

You can fire most crossbows one-handed (although some give you a penalty when you do so). Reloading requires two hands.

This means that when you reload you can't have anything in your off-hand (no shield, torch, dual-wielding, etc.).

Can someone clarify the differences between the two weapons?

The key long-term difference between crossbows and longbows is that when you have multiple attacks, you can take all of them with a longbow. Crossbows need to be reloaded, which usually rules out multiple attacks in a round.

Because of this limitation, most dedicated ranged characters gravitate towards a Composite Longbow. The longbow allows them to use all of their attacks in a round, and gets a strength bonus as an added benefit.

The crossbows are usually used by low-level characters, characters with negative strength modifiers (bows take strength penalties, crossbows do not), characters without martial weapon proficiency, or characters that use ranged attacks as a backup to other, more powerful attacks.

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Extremely comprehensive. This really helps clarify a lot of the issues I had. Thanks! –  DISREGARD MODS ACQUIRE REP Jun 11 '12 at 16:48
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A shortbow is recurved in order to give it more pull than its short length would normally grant. Historically, many shortbows were composite, being made of laminated materials like wood and horn. The lamination reinforced the unstrung shape, increase the draw and allowing even shorter bows.

A longbow is a tall, mostly-straight staff of wood that gets most or all of its curve from the tension of the string. The English longbow is the most famous historical example. D&D 3.5e features a composite longbow, though we have no historical examples of such a thing. Both longbows and shortbows can be nocked for free, allowing you to fire and move in the same round.

A light crossbow is about the size of a shotgun. The bow across the stock (hence the name) is relatively small, and constructed like a short composite bow, often made of metal. Because the pull is not too great, light crossbows can be cranked with one hand. The mechanism might be a wheel-crank or a lever, depending on design. In 3.5e, reloading is a move action that leaves your guard down (i.e., it grants adjacent opponents an opportunity attack). This means that the maximum rate of fire is 1/round, and only while mostly staying put (that is, moving at most a 5-foot step).

A heavy crossbow is much more massive and has a heavier pull. To reload it has to be put business-end down while you stick a foot in a stirrup and use two hands on the mechanism to crank the string back. That's what the "2 hands to reload" bit means. In 3.5e, reloading is a full-round action, leaving you unable to do anything else. This makes the rate of fire 1 per 2 rounds at best.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each. Crossbows have longer range, but limited rate of fire. Short- and longbows can take advantage of a Strength bonus to damage, but suffer penalties to damage for low Strength. Crossbows meanwhile are unaffected by Strength, denying a bonus but ignoring penalties.

Crossbows have longer range than regular bows, and though it doesn't matter for a ranger, crossbows also count as Simple weapons which makes them easier to use with less training. Bows count as Martial weapons, limiting which classes may use them proficiently without having to invest feats.

Longbows do triple damage on a critical hit, while crossbows only do double but have a critical-hit range that's twice as large: 19-20 on the to-hit roll, versus just 20 for a bow. Crossbows also do more damage normally, rolling larger damage dice. This loosely represents that crossbows are more hard-hitting than bows, and somewhat mitigates the lower rate of fire.

Shortbows and light crossbows can be used mounted, while longbows can't and, though they may be fired, your DM may rule that heavy crossbows can't be reloaded on horseback.

You must use bows two-handed, while loaded crossbows may be used two-handed with a penalty to hit (that's larger for the heavy variety).

And finally, bows are more iconic for rangers. This may or may not be important to you, though knowing that is useful for mindfully choosing or breaking the stereotype. The issue of what's more iconic also has a slight importance for future magic-item possibilities, as there is more variety of interesting magical bows and arrows than of magical crossbows and enchanted bolts.

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+1 for great facts (and explaining to me how the reloading works, I get it now!) –  DISREGARD MODS ACQUIRE REP Jun 11 '12 at 16:58
I'm glad! I tied in some D&D mechanics and pros/cons too, to make it a more complete answer. –  SevenSidedDie Jun 11 '12 at 17:00
Great answer, but I have 1 quibble (not sure if I'm confusing my 3.5 and Pathfinder), but in the light crossbow paragraph you end with "This means that the maximum rate of fire is 1/round, and only while staying put." What about the 5 foot step? –  Pulsehead Jun 11 '12 at 18:42
@Pulsehead No, that's a good quibble. It's debatable whether the 5-foot step could be called "staying put": I fall on the side that says a 5-foot step exists because it'd be unreasonable to say a PC's feet are completely immobile just because they're not running around, so I tend to take it for granted and overlook it. I'll correct the answer! –  SevenSidedDie Jun 11 '12 at 18:47
Just like to add that any DM who cares about realism should ban reloading a heavy crossbow while mounted. Using normal tack would involve pulling the saddle off the horse and yourself with it; with reinforced straps you would probably cut the horse in half. –  TimLymington Jun 11 '12 at 22:36
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A lot of this comes down to which kind of crossbow you're using. Summarizing from PHB pg115-116:

Hand crossbow: Can be fired one-handed with no penalty, dual-wielded as if with two light weapons. Reloading is a move action.

Light crossbow: Can be fired one-handed with a -2 penalty, dual-wielded as if with two light weapons (one-handed firing penalty stacks with the dual-wield penalties). Reloading is a move action.

Heavy crossbow: Can be fired one-handed with a -4 penalty, dual-wielded as if with two one-handed weapons (one-handed firing penalty stacks with the dual-wield penalties). Reloading is a full-round action.

Repeating crossbow: A repeating crossbow is hand, light or heavy, and has the same penalties for firing one-handed and dual-wielding as its non-repeating counterpart. Reloading is a free action when loading from the 5 round clip; replacing the 5 round clip is a full-round action.

Every kind of crossbow requires both hands to reload: you can fire them with a single hand, but you'll have to drop or stow whatever you have in your other hand to reload. This includes reloading a repeating crossbow from the clip.

The Rapid Reload feat reduces reloading to a free action for hand/light crossbows and a move action for heavy crossbows.

If you have multiple attacks from a high base attack bonus, you can only make 1 attack with a crossbow, since it has to be reloaded. The exception is if you use a repeating crossbow, or a light/hand crossbow with the Rapid Reload feat.

Note also that bows are martial weapons, so not everyone will be proficient in them. Crossbows are simple weapons (except repeating crossbows, which are exotic), so almost every class is proficient with them. Finally, if you have a negative Strength modifier, you take a penalty to bow damage but not to crossbow damage. If you have a positive Strength modifier, you can apply some or all of your modifier to bow damage (with the right kind of bow) but not to crossbow damage. Generally speaking, fighter/archer types who want to fight at range with a weapon will use a bow, while caster types who want something useful to do when they're out of spells will use a crossbow.

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+1 for explaining feats to me. This is all a new experience for me, thanks! –  DISREGARD MODS ACQUIRE REP Jun 11 '12 at 17:03
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