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The Crossbow Expert feat states that as a bonus action, you can "attack with a loaded hand crossbow you are holding."

However, nowhere in the rules does it specify a "loaded" versus "unloaded" state for any weapon. There is a "Loading" property (PHB p.147) that just says that "because of the time to load this weapon, you can fire only one piece of ammunition from it..." but doesn't specify an amount of time, type of action, or anything to load the weapon. (And, in any case, if you have Crossbow Expert you can ignore the "Loading" property.)

Under "Ammunition" (PHB p.146) it just says that "drawing the ammunition from a quiver, case, or other container is part of the attack" which seems to imply that crossbows are not kept loaded all the time, but are loaded and fired as part of the same attack. So is there some other action that needs to be performed to load it (so you can have it loaded first, before the trigger hits?)

[The specific situation that I have in mind was the case of a character with Crssbow Expert and two hand crossbows, one in each hand: Can he fire both crossbows every turn, using his normal and bonus actions respectively, even though he doesn't have a hand free to load the crossbows? Do you need a hand free to load a crossbow?]

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    \$\begingroup\$ The updated crossbow expert feat in the latest printing of the PH no longer mentions anything about the crossbow having to be "loaded" to take the bonus attack. \$\endgroup\$ – Purseon Oct 19 '15 at 3:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ Generally you operate a hand winch and pull back the string, then fit a bolt into the recess. :P \$\endgroup\$ – Sandwich Jan 24 '18 at 11:29
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You load as part of any attack with a crossbow. You can draw the ammunition as part of the attack, so loading it is implied to be part of the attack as well. "Loaded" in this case means only that you have ammunition available for the attack. Per the official errata, "loading a one-handed weapon requires a free hand."

This means that, post-errata, using rules-as-written (RAW), you cannot indefinitely fire two hand crossbows in the same turn. If you have a single attack, you can fire once with your action and once with the second crossbow as your bonus action with Crossbow Expert on the first turn of combat if they start loaded. However, you can't keep dual-wielding because you won't be able to reload with both hands full.

If you stow the second crossbow on the first turn with your free object interaction, you can fire the main crossbow twice on the second turn, since Crossbow Expert does not say the bonus hand crossbow needs to be different than the one-handed weapon that triggers its bonus attack. You may need to load it before the bonus attack using your object interaction, depending on your GM's interpretation of the feat. You can do this on each subsequent turn to fire a single hand crossbow twice per turn (or more than that, if you have Extra Attack).

You didn't request a rules-as-written answer, so I'll note that there is nothing game-breaking about allowing dual-wielding hand crossbows using Crossbow Expert.

Because of the way crossbows work, I think your GM would be perfectly justified in waiving the errata rule in this case but requiring you to get a customized crossbow and ammo belt to allow you to load it one-handed. That would be part of your house rules, though.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Two-weapon fighting does not apply to hand crossbows. It requires a light melee weapon in each hand (or melee weapon, light or otherwise, if you have the Two-Weapon feat). The only way you can attack with a hand crossbow as a Bonus Action is if you have the Crossbow Mastery feat. (Note that I could have the feat names wrong - my PHB is being replaced). \$\endgroup\$ – Greenstone Walker Oct 6 '15 at 3:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GreenstoneWalker You're right, I got my rules confused. \$\endgroup\$ – Gregory Avery-Weir Oct 6 '15 at 12:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ No worries. hand crossbows have the "light" tag, so it confuses the issue. \$\endgroup\$ – Greenstone Walker Oct 6 '15 at 21:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ The official errata for the crossbow expert bonus attack, replaced "loaded hand crossbow" with simply "hand crossbow". This specific rule should take precedent over the general rule regarding loading ammunition thus allowing a character to wield two hand crossbows. RAW says "you can use a bonus action to attack with a hand crossbow you are holding". No ifs, and, or buts. I would say from a practical standpoint, the hand crossbow is small enough to allow manipulation of a bolt while still in your hand. \$\endgroup\$ – Purseon Oct 18 '15 at 14:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Purseon, I don't see any official errata for Crossbow Expert. Can you please provide a link for that? \$\endgroup\$ – Gregory Avery-Weir Oct 19 '15 at 0:20
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You require a free hand to load a crossbow.

From the PHB Errata:

Ammunition (p. 146).
Loading a onehanded weapon requires a free hand.

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The "loading" property for a crossbow without the Crossbow Expert feat exists for one reason. To prevent you from making multiple crossbow attacks as your action (for instance, the L20 fighter can't take 4 attacks with his crossbow when he'd normally be permitted to. Only the one).

Loading the crossbow is done as part of the action, but can only be done once, not 2, 3 or 4 times. Basically this is under the purview of the inset "things you can do as part of an action or move" though it's special because you can use it multiple times per turn and it's part of the attack.

Crossbow Expert allows you to ignore this and make all of your normal attacks.

With the Crossbow Expert feat, you're sometimes dealing with two hand crossbows or a melee weapon and a hand crossbow and making your regular attacks plus the bonus action one. However, there are still two states to the hand crossbow, loaded an unloaded. Even though you ignore loading, all you are ignoring in that case is the single attack restriction. The bonus action attack with the hand crossbow is an exception to this. You have to have it loaded before you make your other attack.

To do this, you simply need to use your "interact with object" part of a move or attack action, as such, this is not much of a restriction, it just prevents you from doing any of the other interaction things on your turn when you want to make this attack.

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A solution to this problem is the Dual Wielder feat in addition to the Crossbow Expert feat; it allows you to stow or draw two weapons in your turn.

You would start your turn with one crossbow (#1) in hand and a free hand so that you can fire all the attacks you have and reload. Before firing the last shot just draw the other hand crossbow(#2). And after you fired with crossbow (#1), you stow it, freeing a hand so that you can take the shot with crossbow (#2).

Repeat this process on your next turn, switching crossbow #1 and #2.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. This doesn't actually seem to answer OP's confusion about the rules around loading a weapon, and instead seems to be intended as a comment on Gregory's answer or some other one. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Aug 29 at 20:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ okay I see sorry, should I delete the answer? Although it does provide a solution for the question the OP asked "Can he fire both crossbows every turn, using his normal and bonus actions respectively, even though he doesn't have a hand free to load the crossbows?" \$\endgroup\$ – WrabbitW Sep 3 at 20:12

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