One cardinal rule exists when it comes to using a crossbow that is important above all others. Never dry fire your crossbow! There are many good reasons for why those warnings exist whenever you purchase a new crossbow. Dry firing can damage a crossbow in a hurry.
Accidental dry firing can occur with some models that don’t possess an anti-dry-firing mechanism. Dry firing incidents can be typically avoided, however, by using and caring for your crossbow properly. If you want to avoid shelling out money for major repairs or end up replacing the weapon altogether, it’s important to understand what dry firing does and the consequences for both you and your crossbow.
What is Dry Firing?
Dry firing is simply releasing/firing a cocked crossbow string without a bolt nocked in place. It may sound harmless to a person who hasn’t fired a crossbow and isn’t familiar with how one works. The results are anything but harmless.
When you cock the crossbow string, it stores potential energy in the limbs. Then, when the string is finally released, it becomes kinetic energy that is transferred into the bolt and pushes it forward. It is basic science. This quick burst of energy is what gives your bolt the speed and momentum it needs to strike a target downrange.
Firing without a bolt in place causes both the string and limbs to vibrate powerfully. All of that built up energy has no other place to go. This means kinetic energy is redirected back onto the bow itself in a violent shock wave. Firing a bolt usually causes small vibrations in a bow. Dry firing will amplify those vibrations to dangerous levels and create major stress on both the string and the limbs.
When and Why Do Dry Fires Occur?
A majority of dry firing incidents are not intentional. These can occur simply because you make a mistake. Sometimes the string slips. Other times, the bolt is not correctly nocked to the string. Using too light of a bolt can also lead to a dry fire because too much energy is sent back into the bow instead of being absorbed by the bolt.
Inexperienced crossbow users can make the mistake of dry firing a cocked crossbow. Sometimes they don’t want to damage an arrow by shooting it into the ground. Then there is the rare breed who think it is easier to learn to shoot without a bolt than with one and will fire a cocked bow just to see what happens.
There’s simply no excuse for entertaining either train of thought. Using bolts with field tips can help you save wear and tear on more expensive fixed blade broadheads when it’s time to release the cocked crossbow and call it a day. Shooting without a bolt because it supposedly is easier to learn how to shoot this way is careless and incorrect. It’s a huge mistake that you will soon regret when you see what happens to your crossbow after a dry fire.
The Consequences of Dry Firing
Many newer crossbow models have anti-dry fire mechanisms in place to prevent dry fires. If you do end up dry firing a crossbow, it has an immediate impact. The limbs are not made to absorb the excess energy you have redirected back into the bow. Tons of power is generated upon releasing the string. Release it without a bolt nocked to the string and the picture isn’t pretty. A loud snap or bang follows and your troubles are just beginning.
Three consequences can occur if you dry fire a crossbow:
- The Limbs Crack or Shatter – Limbs are typically laminated composite, they can splinter, delaminated, or crack completely.
- The Strings Fray or Snap – You see this immediately, with fuzzy strings or completely snapped in two.
- Nothing Happens – Consider yourself one of the lucky ones! You should still bring your bow to a pro shop for a full inspection before shooting it again.
Your crossbow limbs can crack or splinter during a dry fire. Kinetic energy slamming back into the bow can also do a number on the cams. It can bend them and warp the cam tracks where the string sits.
If the cams become damaged, the string will vibrate out of the cam tracks. The stress can be enough to make the string completely snap. At that point, the cams can crash into the limbs and leave deep cracks or indentations. In extreme cases, the crossbow comes completely apart and broken pieces fly off in multiple directions.
Sometimes, nothing visible happens after a dry fire. That doesn’t mean you got off lucky. You need to inspect the bow for damage. Your crossbow is guaranteed to show signs of component failure when you shoot with a bolt again and it’s only a matter of time before it does break.
What to Do After Dry Firing
If you experience a dry fire, inspecting your crossbow becomes your top priority. You need to inspect it with a careful eye before you shoot it again. Even if you see no visible damage occur, you must always assume that damage has occurred. Any minor damage can turn into major damage in a hurry if it isn’t detected and fixed.
Here is a rundown of what you need to inspect following a dry fire:
For recurve bows, you want to inspect limb tips to make sure the string loops are still securely slotted on the tips. With compound bows, you need to inspect the cams and riser to make sure there are no cracks or bends and that the string and cables are still slotted in their proper place. Check the limbs for splinters, cracks or chips. Rub a cotton ball over the surface and edges to detect limb flaws. Then, run your fingers along the string and cables to see if there is still tension in them and no strands have damaged.
Once you have inspected all the parts of your crossbow, cock the crossbow with precaution and listen for unusual sounds. If you hear nothing out of the ordinary, fire off a practice round to test the in-flight trajectory and accuracy of your bolt to see if it reveals any hidden damage.
Taking your crossbow to a pro shop and getting it inspected by a professional is a necessary final step. They can identify and repair any damage for you, or set you up with a new crossbow if necessary.
The Final Word
You can mitigate the risks of accidental dry-fire by purchasing a crossbow with an anti-dry fire mechanism already in place. Still, accidents do happen. Everyone has dry fired a bow at one point or another if they have used one long enough. The key is being prepared and educated on what to do and what not to do to keep your crossbow in optimal working condition.