Musket Vs. Crossbow – What Is The Difference?

Key Point: A musket is a firearm using gunpowder to propel bullets from a smoothbore barrel, while a crossbow is a ranged weapon with a horizontal bow, shooting bolts with a mechanical trigger.

In this article, we will discuss the differences between the musket and the crossbow. Why did the musket replace the crossbow on the battlefield even though crossbows were generally a lot more accurate?

So, by the time you finish this article, you will have a firm understanding of the main differences between the musket and the crossbow.

Now, let’s do a quick overview of the article explaining the key differences between a musket and a crossbow you should be aware of.

As a general rule, the musket and the crossbow had the same purpose on the battlefield but they differed in 4 main ways:

  • their firing mechanism
  • their projectile
  • range
  • accuracy

The table below shows the differences between a musket and a crossbow in an easy-to-understand format.

Musket vs. CrossbowMusketCrossbow
Their firing mechanismmatchlock, flintlock, or percussion cap firing mechanismA trigger releases the stored energy in the crossbow
The projectileUsually a lead round ballA bolt (like an arrow but shorter)
Rangeup to 300 yardsup to 150 yards
AccuracyLess accurate than a musketMore accurate than a musket
Musket vs. Crossbow – The Differences

That was a short overview of the differences between the musket and the crossbow. Now, let’s go through their history before going deeper into their differences.

Their History

The crossbow has a history that spans thousands of years. You can see how ancient crossbows really are here if you wish. The short story is that the crossbow was likely invented in Ancient China. The earliest archaeological finds of a crossbow trigger come from China. The main innovation that the crossbow brought was that it enabled the soldier to store the energy of the weapon for longer.

Think about it. If you pull back a bow (draw the bow) your arm has to hold the string until you aim, and only then do you release the bowstring. With the crossbow, you could cock the crossbow and let the device hold the energy. The soldier could cock his weapon and then wait and take his time to aim. This made the soldiers a lot less exhausted when firing but also a lot more accurate.

And the fact that the storage of energy depended on the device and not the human meant that a lot more energy could get stored. An added benefit of a crossbow was that it could pierce most armor of the era.

Now, that we have dealt with the crossbow’s history let’s take a look at the history of the musket.

History Of The Musket

The musket can trace its origins to the early 16th century. The musket had many ways of being fired through the centuries. Firstly it started with the matchlock trigger. It involved a slow-burning rope or cord, known as a “match,” that was placed in a clamp attached to the trigger. When the shooter pulled the trigger, the clamp would release the match and bring it into contact with a small pan of gunpowder, which would then ignite and fire the weapon.

A basic way of firing that was quite ineffective in damp weather. It was hard to keep the match burning. Which lead to the creation of the flintlock mechanism. This involved a piece of flint that was held in a clamp called the “cock.” When the trigger was pulled, the cock would be released and would strike a steel plate called the “frizzen,” creating a spark that would ignite a small pan of gunpowder and fire the weapon.

There were a couple of improvements made to the musket through the years, aside from the trigger. Mainly, the rifling. They figured out that putting grooves inside the barrel meant the bullets were far more accurate and it helped with the range as well.

Now that we dealt with the brief historical overview of both weapons let’s go deeper into the main differences.

The Firing Mechanism – Muskets vs. Crossbows

Let’s see the differences in their firing mechanism.

When it comes to the crossbow its energy gets stored in the limbs. These are bent by a string attached to a pulley system. To fire the crossbow, the shooter pulls back the string using a trigger mechanism, which locks the string in place. When the trigger is pulled, the string is released, which propels the bolt forward.

The crossbow firing mechanism consists of a trigger, a sear, and a trigger safety. The trigger is the part that the shooter pulls to release the string, the sear holds the string in place until the trigger is pulled, and the trigger safety prevents accidental firing. Some modern crossbows also have a dry-fire inhibitor that prevents the shooter from firing the crossbow when there is no bolt loaded.

What About The Musket?

When it comes to the musket, the energy is stored chemically, in the gunpowder.

The trigger mechanism of a musket is used to ignite the gunpowder and fire the weapon. The most basic type of trigger mechanism is the matchlock, which required the shooter to light a fuse to ignite the gunpowder.

A more advanced trigger mechanism was the flintlock, which used a piece of flint to strike a steel plate and create a spark to ignite the gunpowder. The flintlock mechanism was more reliable and efficient than the matchlock as it did not require a slow-burning rope and was less prone to failure in damp weather.

As technology advanced, the musket also adopted the percussion cap mechanism in the 19th century, which used a small metal cap containing a sensitive explosive that could be struck by a hammer to ignite the gunpowder. This was the most reliable and efficient trigger mechanism for muskets, and it remained in use until the musket was eventually replaced by the rifle.

Now let us compare the projectiles used by crossbows and muskets.


Muskets have mostly used round balls as projectiles. The round ball was the most common type of bullet used in muskets because it was relatively cheap and easy to produce.

However, the shape of musket bullets did change over time as technology advanced. One example is the Minie ball, which was developed in the mid-19th century. The Minie ball was conical in shape and had a hollow base. This design allowed for a better seal between the bullet and the barrel, which improved the accuracy and range of muskets.

Another example of a weird musketball is the Buck and Ball load, which was a combination of a round ball and several smaller balls. This load was used to increase the chances of hitting a target, as the smaller balls would spread out upon firing, creating a shot pattern similar to that of a shotgun.

And The Crossbow?

Crossbows use “bolts”. Think of them as smaller versions of arrows. While modern-day bolts have shafts that are made from special lightweight materials the earlier counterparts had shafts that were made from wood. The points in modern-day bolts are made from aluminum or steel and the older versions from history were made from iron, stone, bones, and other lightweight metals.

Now, how does a bolt compare to a musketball? Well, not that well. Musketball clearly can cause a lot more damage. Now, a bullet causing more damage than an arrow-shaped projectile isn’t that shocking, you can see reasons as to why here. But in short, far greater speeds of a musket ball cause greater damage.

Range Of A Musket Vs Crossbows

In general, a crossbow has a shorter effective range than a musket. A typical crossbow can shoot a bolt up to 150 yards, while a musket can shoot a bullet up to 300 yards. This difference in range is due to several factors.

Firstly, crossbows use shorter, heavier bolts which lose energy faster than musket bullets. This results in a shorter effective range for the crossbow. Secondly, muskets have longer barrels, which allows for more efficient use of gunpowder, resulting in longer ranges.

However, crossbows have other advantages over muskets. They have a faster reload time, which makes them more suitable for close-quarters combat. They are also more compact than muskets, which makes them easier to carry and maneuver.

What about their accuracy?

The Accuracy Element

Even though muskets win out when it comes to range the crossbow wins out in terms of accuracy. So, how accurate is the crossbow? Consider that the Catholic church at one point even tried to ban crossbow use in Europe. Obviously, everyone and their grandma ignored that edict but it goes to show one important point. The accuracy of crossbows was such that it enabled a low-born peasant to take out nobility with very little training.

Which made the elites nervous. Hence the attempted ban that everyone ignored.

The musket on the other hand was ridiculously inaccurate at long ranges. It was somewhat accurate in close quarters but at distances over 50 yards, yeah good luck hitting anything accurately. The armies of the era first tried to rectify that with volley fire. This is a tactic where they lined up their soldiers and have them fire muskets at an opposing army. That way a giant wall of musket balls fired at once was bound to hit something. You just had to point it in the general direction of the enemy.

The issue of musket inaccuracy only started to be solved when rifling was added to the inside of musket barrels. This spun the ball while it exited the barrel which increased its accuracy. That helped. But the issue of accuracy was one of the main reasons why it was eventually replaced by rifles in the 19th century.

In Conclusion

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you learned a thing or two. If you wish you can continue learning by taking a look at my article on the English Musketeers here.

Or continue reading about the role muskets played in displacing the use of body armor on the battlefield by going here.

Take care!


The Crossbow: Its Military and Sporting History, Construction and Use

“Firearms: A Global History to 1700” by Kenneth Chase