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I have seen the following information a few different places, and it raises the question for me:

If the hand crossbow requires two hands to use--one for shooting, one for loading--then is there any benefit to using it over a two-handed crossbow?

You still need a free hand, so you can't use a shield or a second weapon, and you can always hold a two-handed crossbow in one hand while you grab something else or cast a spell.

Ammunition and Two-Handed errata

A couple of things that have basically been how I’ve been playing things, but good to see them officially in the rules. You need a hand free to reload a one-handed weapon with the Ammunition property. (It needs two hands). Also, although the maul and other two-handed weapons might require two hands to attack with, you can hold those weapons in a single hand.

This second clarification makes a spell-caster casting Somatic spells have an easier time with it when also wielding a two-handed weapon.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Not an answer but a comment on the "feel" of the question. Extrapolating from the premise of "what's the point..." what is the point of any of the weapons beyond the smallest possible list covering the basic damage types and finesse etc? Example: the glaive and the halberd - what's the point, they are exactly the same in terms of game stats? The answer is because a character will like using that weapon over another for in-character reasons, the player will choose it because it is how they see their character, which should be a priority over maxing their damage. It gives choice and breadth. \$\endgroup\$ – Protonflux Oct 17 '17 at 10:08
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There are a variety of reasons to use hand crossbows!

Combat practicality. The Crossbow Expert feat grants that sweet Bonus Action shot with an already-loaded hand crossbow. Even without that, holding one in each hand means you aren't held down to the one-attack-per-round drawback the Heavy and Light crossbows suffer due to the Loading property.

Inconspicuousness. Maybe you need assassinate the Evil Count at the Grand Ball? That big, Heavy Crossbow's not gonna pass the guards' ocular pat-down, but the Hand Crossbow in your big, fancy coat might get by easily. Maybe you want to back up your buddy in the standoff in the bar? Lugging out your big 'bow is slow and gives everyone time to react, but you can relatively realistically quick-draw with your hand crossbow (assuming you thought to have it strung and a bolt ready, for whatever reason).

One hitter... ness. If you're looking to set up an ambush, having that single shot ready to go can be very worthwhile. Drow, for instance, are notorious in game for shooting from a hiding place with a poisoned hand crossbow bolt before closing to melee, a fighting style that works very well with the HCB/Shield combo. The light crossbow might do slightly more damage, but it'll take another action to strap on that shield while the bugbear you just cheesed off is charging down on you.

But ultimately, it's a cool character concept. If you want to play a gunslinger, or a pirate, or fantasy Trinity from the Matrix, having a long crossbow sorely clashes with the core of a character who would rather carry a revolver or a flintlock, or just a bunch of throw-away guns, one handed.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Holding two Hand-Crossbows will still not let you attack multiple times in a single attack action. It will let you attack once with an action, and use the other for a bonus. But Crossbow Expert will not let you bypass the Ammunition property of crossbows, only the loading property. Ammunition reads: "...you need a free hand to load a one-handed weapon..." You could perhaps take an attack action, shoot, use a bonus action, shoot, drop one crossbow and then take multiple attacks with your free hand but that's unconventional and requires you to go from action-bonus-action in an odd order. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthew Pyon Jul 28 '18 at 6:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ What's an "HCB"? \$\endgroup\$ – spiralofhope Aug 24 '18 at 1:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @spiralofhope HCB stands for Hand Crossbow \$\endgroup\$ – user75015 Jan 3 at 13:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MatthewPyon Crossbow Expert does not require you to use two weapons at all. You can use a single Hand Crossbow and no other weapon and gain the benefits of the bonus attack component of Crossbow Expert. Since the feat also allows you to bypass the Loading requirement, you just get an extra shot. The devs have confirmed this. \$\endgroup\$ – Bacon Bits Jan 13 at 10:46
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There are several benefits:

  • Size a hand crossbow can be concealed, other crossbows not so much.
  • Weight if the optional encumbrance rules are in use, the 2 pound difference between a hand and light crossbow can be significant.
  • Style hand crossbows have it; other crossbows don't. Of course, if you only play characters that are only looking for mechanical advantage then my well-dressed and impeccably groomed rogue snorts in derision at you.
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    \$\begingroup\$ If you're only looking for mechanical advantage, well, 4e is that way. \$\endgroup\$ – corsiKa Jul 8 '16 at 20:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ Could we get an example of how the concealment benefit might play out? I'd be interested in that type of thing, would it be advantage on an appropriate check? \$\endgroup\$ – KMallory Jul 9 '16 at 2:38
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Because they're one-handed, you can carry a loaded one and get one shot off without worrying about loading. This makes it a handy backup weapon for someone who normally uses a single melee weapon and no shield.

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Something alluded to in other answers, but not worked out methodically.

You can walk down a dungeon corridor with a hand crossbow at the ready in one hand, and a shield upon the other. You see enemies at range, you can:

With no feat:

Action: fire

no action cost: Drop the crossbow

Free item interaction: draw your sword

With Crossbow Expert feat:

Bonus action: fire

no action cost: Drop the crossbow

Free item interaction: draw your sword (melee type characters)

Move: to enemy (optional)

Action: Attack or cast spell (spellcasters)

In both cases, you get to keep your shield, which would otherwise take an action to don if you needed to fire a two-handed crossbow. Keeping a loaded hand crossbow is a great way to get off an attack before the enemy closes while keeping up your AC.

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If the DM allows a hand crossbow to be fashioned into a bracer, you could use it on the same wrist as your sword hand. With the feat, that would let you stab and shoot with one hand while your free hand reloads every turn.

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