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It has been my understanding that since the first benefit of the Crossbow Expert feat (PHB, p. 165) is:

You ignore the loading quality of crossbows with which you are proficient.

...Then you can fire a light or heavy crossbow as many times as your Attack actions and possible bonus weapon attack bonus actions allow - especially in light of the ruling that the two-handed property means you need two hands to wield it, rather than simply hold it, which means you can free up a hand to reload it in time.

And yet, I see people talking about taking multiple shots with a hand crossbow, explicitly a one-handed weapon. I understand that having the option to fire either it or (depending on interpretation) another one as a bonus action is a desirable quality, but assuming I want my bonus action free, am I able to attack several times with a non-hand crossbow?

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Yes, Crossbow Expert lets you attack with a crossbow more than once a turn.

There are two weapon properties at play here - Ammunition and Loading.

Ammunition. You can use a weapon that has the ammunition property to make a ranged attack only if you have ammunition to fire from the weapon. Each time you attack with the weapon, you expend one piece of ammunition. Drawing the ammunition from a quiver, case, or other container is part of the attack (you need a free hand to load a one-handed weapon). At the end of the battle, you can recover half your expended ammunition by taking a minute to search the battlefield.

This factors into the crossbow conversation mostly due to the sometimes confusing bit about one handed weapons. The confusion comes from trying to apply it to two-handed weapons; it is quite specific about one-handed weapons.

The idea behind it is that you need one hand for the weapon and one for the ammunition, preventing you from holding a shield or second weapon. For two-handed weapons, the second hand involved in firing the weapon can also be used in the loading process.

Loading. Because of the time required to load this weapon, you can fire only one piece of ammunition from it when you use an action, bonus action, or reaction to fire it, regardless of the number of attacks you can normally make.

This property (not Ammunition) restricts the rate of fire. This is also the property that Crossbow Expert removes:

You ignore the loading property of crossbows with which you are proficient.

Additional confusion enters when people try to use two hand crossbows to interact with the third part of Crossbow Expert:

When you use the Attack action and attack with a one-handed weapon, you can use a bonus action to attack with a hand crossbow you are holding.

The second crossbow takes up a hand and prevents reloading (per Ammunition). However, a hand crossbow itself is a one-handed weapon, which is an acceptable weapon to trigger that third clause and allow the bonus action attack. In other words, a character with Crossbow Expert and one hand crossbow can always fire twice a round (once with the Attack action, once with the bonus action), reloading between each shot (per Ammunition).

Characters with a hand crossbow and the Extra Attack feature can get even more shots with the Attack action, but only one from the third function's bonus action. Light Crossbows and Heavy Crossbows do not trigger the third function of Crossbow Expert (because they're two-handed weapons), and only get extra attacks from the Extra Attack feature.

I didn't touch on Crossbow Expert's second function, no-disadvantage-in-close, because it is not relevant to rate of fire.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'd point out that not only are Light and Heavy crossbows not one-handed weapons (they don't trigger the third feature), they're not what the third feature calls by name when describing the benefit - a hand crossbow. \$\endgroup\$ – vonBoomslang Oct 18 '18 at 17:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ @vonBoomslang Technically correct, but as two-handed weapons, they don't even get past the comma. \$\endgroup\$ – T.J.L. Oct 18 '18 at 17:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ Note that if you have 4 hands and 2 attacks on the attack action, you can fire with a heavy crossbow, fire with the hand crossbow, then use the bonus action to fire with the hand crossbow again. For completeness. ;) \$\endgroup\$ – Yakk Oct 18 '18 at 20:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Yakk Perhaps... but what non-homebrew player-character race has four hands? \$\endgroup\$ – T.J.L. Oct 19 '18 at 12:22
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Yes, Crossbow Expert lets you make multiple attacks per round

As the first benefit of the feat is that the "Loading" property of the weapon is ignored, you now can fire the crossbow just as any other weapon with the "Ammunition" property - where applying the ammunition to the weapon to be fired is considered part of the attack, and doesn't need a separate action. If you have the ability to make multiple attacks in a single Attack action, this lets you use a crossbow to do so.

You might be getting confused because what is more frequently discussed is the third benefit of Crossbow Expert, which lets you fire a hand crossbow as a bonus action if you use the Attack action and make an attack with a one-handed weapon. Because of the way this is worded (and it is deliberately so) you can use an attack with the hand crossbow to grant yourself a bonus attack with the same hand crossbow, meaning that all else being equal, a crossbow expert with a hand crossbow will get one more attack per round than a crossbow expert with a light or heavy crossbow. In many situations, being able to make more slightly weaker attacks is better than fewer slightly stronger attacks, and the hand crossbow is simply a more popular option than its heavier cousins.

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