I've always thought the answer was 'duh, obviously' but I'm hard-pressed to find RAW evidence all of a sudden.

Assume you have a hand crossbow, loaded, in one hand, while your other hand is occupied (holding a sword or a very important relic or even missing for that matter). Can you fire that single shot from the crossbow before having to drop it for something more practical? I'm unsure, on account of not being able to clearly show that such a thing as a 'loaded state' exists for a crossbow, by RAW:

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).

Emphasis mine. That part might imply that the loading (and thus the hand requirement) is to happen as part of the attack.

Then again, when later referring to using a Loading weapon for a melee attack,

A sling must be loaded to deal any damage when used in this way.

This could imply the sling (and by extension other loading weapons) can be pre-loaded. Or that it needs proper loading, ammo etc. even as an improvised melee weapon.

Is there a solid RAW answer on this?

  • \$\begingroup\$ I’ve closed your question as a duplicate as it looks like it’s covered in that question. Let us know if it doesn’t and why, and we can work to get it reopened. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 21, 2020 at 23:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't believe it does, sadly. While the chosen answer offhandedly mentions 'if they start loaded', it isn't somehow backed, and that is the gist of this question (whether preloading is actually a RAW option). The mentioned crossbow expert errata in one of the comments further compound the question. Was the qualification "loaded hand crossbow" removed because that is an impossible condition/not a rules term, or for some other reason? The same pattern emerges with all other answers; they assume for fact what I'm asking proven in this question (which I also have been doing so far). \$\endgroup\$ Nov 22, 2020 at 0:08
  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, I think the crux of the question is different; it's not a question of whether or not you need a free hand to load the crossbow, but whether the rules allow that a crossbow can exist in a loaded state independent of being loaded and immediately fired as part of an attack. You probably want to edit a question a bit so that is explicitly what you're asking about - as it stands it seems like there is a presumption that preloading is possible and the confusion is about the mechanism of firing. \$\endgroup\$
    – Carcer
    Nov 22, 2020 at 0:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Carcer very good thinking! I clarified it, thanks! \$\endgroup\$ Nov 22, 2020 at 0:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, looks good to me. Good question Thanos. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 22, 2020 at 1:03

2 Answers 2


Pre-loaded crossbows do not exist

Strictly speaking, there is no way to pre-load a crossbow. The "Weapon Properties" rules state (emphasis mine):

[...] 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 [...]

There simply is no way to draw the ammunition for an attack other than during the attack; thus crossbows cannot be pre-loaded as the only time they are loaded is immediately before being fired.

Of course, this is possible using a made up action as the rules on "Actions in Combat" state:

[...] When you describe an action not detailed elsewhere in the rules, the DM tells you whether that action is possible and what kind of roll you need to make, if any, to determine success or failure. [...]

So you could use your action on the non-detailed action of loading a crossbow, though whether this can happen is up to the GM; as are the results and ramifications of allowing such an action.

The bit about slings merely requires that you have ammunition available

[...] If you use a weapon that has the ammunition property to make a melee attack, you treat the weapon as an improvised weapon (see "Improvised Weapons" later in the section). A sling must be loaded to deal any damage when used in this way. [...]

This merely clarifies that in order to use a sling to make an improvised melee attack, it must be loaded; and we know from the previous bit that slings are loaded when you attack with them. Thus, this is just stating that for slings in particular, you must have ammunition (and a free hand) available in order to use them to make improvised melee attacks.

What I'd do at my tables

I would allow characters to pre-load crossbows by using their action, though I would not have this make them ignore the Loading property (they could not use Extra Attack to fire two pre-loaded crossbows). Thus it effectively just gives them an extra hand to do something with if they wanted. This is very similar to what I actually do at my tables which is to basically ignore the drawing/stowing rules altogether and allow characters to draw/stow any number of weapons with each of their attacks.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ One ramification of DM saying, "no, you can't just put the bolt onto your crossbow and draw it without attacking" would be to ruin my suspension of disbelief for that campaign... :-D \$\endgroup\$ Nov 22, 2020 at 10:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ How about I preload as many crossbows as I can fit in my bag or any dimensional storage I own. Then since I can ignore drawing as I can always swap out a new pre-loaded crossbow for each attack. I think the reason they haven't made preloading a thing is to stop this exact scenario from occuring. (But that's my opinion and I don't wanna back it up with evidence so I'm not making an answer). Would you allow this to occur? \$\endgroup\$ Nov 23, 2020 at 3:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @TheGrandJ How would you actually be drawing out additional crossbows? You only have one free object interaction on your turn which you would use to actually get the crossbow itself into your hands \$\endgroup\$ Nov 23, 2020 at 5:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ Drop the crossbow after firing to get the next. Dropping doesn't take any effort and hence doesn't warrant taking up an interaction and hence is free. Picking up is an interaction/action normally. So just drop the crossbow and grab the next. I believe the act of taking out an object is 1 interaction. Unless I am wrong. Maybe you just have a belt of crossbows strapped to you? \$\endgroup\$ Nov 23, 2020 at 6:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ @TheGrandJ Yes, taking out a crossbow is an interaction, and you only get one of those. Thus you'd fire at most two shots with your action. I even specifically explain that if I allowed pre-loaded crossbows to exist I wouldn't let that ignore their loading property which is precisely what your strategy tries to do \$\endgroup\$ Nov 23, 2020 at 13:22


Obviously, preloaded hand weapons exist in the fiction. The game, however, has no special rules for them (whether they be crossbows or firearms). The loading or reload properties apply (though, strangely, the reload property does not require two hands).

Since loading hand weapons doesn't take seperate actions (as it does for siege weapons) I'm guessing the writers didn't feel the need for any special rules.

This question is an example of the writers missing something. (As an aside, hand crossbows sure do generate a lot of discussion.)

Nothing will break if you rule Yes

The shooter still has to pick up the weapon or take it from someone else which needs an object interaction, which the shooter only has one of per round. Having preloaded weapons doesn't allow you to use Extra Attack with hand crossbows or pistols.

There are fictional and real examples of this

In the age of pistols and muskets, a warrior would often go into combat with two or three loaded flintlocks in their belt.

In crossbow hunting, you lock and load the bow before you get close to the prey animal.

In pulp novels, the Great White Hunter shooting big game in Deepest Darkest Africa usually had an assistant loading rifles for them.

In a siege, the defenders would stash preloaded weapons all around the perimiter.


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