Various sizes of crossbows have been produced in all cultures. Some were sufficiently small to be loosely considered as pistols, although this term more correctly belongs to small firearms most often shot with a single hand. As a writer who shot pistols competitively and now fairly commonly hunts with muzzleloading and cartridge pistols and who also wrote the book, Crossbow Hunting (Stackpole, 2006), these smaller crossbows interested me.
Of all classes of firearms, pistols are the most challenging to shoot well. The reasons are that the gun is only supported by one hand (usually), the barrel lengths are short (most commonly) and the cartridges are low powered (use to be, but not anymore). The result is that the shooter has a light-weight shooting instrument supported in one hand subjected to normal movements caused by the body (breathing, pulse, muscular twitches, body sway) and external forces such as the wind. The pistol shooter quickly learns that sight alignment and being able to hold the sights precisely in alignment and only pulling the trigger when optimum sighting-on-target conditions exist, is the key to shooting a good score.
Exactly the same considerations apply to getting good results from a crossbow “pistol.” For hunting handguns, weight and barrel length are advantageous, although at the cost of decreased portability. On my muzzleloading hunting handguns, I like barrel lengths of 14-16 inches because these are necessary to sufficiently combust large charges of black powder to generate enough velocity to provide the 500 ft. lbs. of energy generally thought of as being the threshold value for ethically taking deer-sized game. Such guns are shot with two hands and good work can be done with them at ranges of under 50 yards. (I no longer trust my eyes sufficiently to attempt shots at longer range and there are also considerable problems with bullet drop and wind drift with large, heavy muzzleloading slugs.)
The most common crossbow pistols that I have seen on the market are low powered, have terrible trigger pulls, use short arrows and are almost impossible to shoot with any degree of accuracy. The short, light-weight , arrows are only marginally effective on the smallest species of small game (like squirrels) at ranges of a few yards. Even so, squirrels are tough. It takes a large-diameter blunt or judo point to deliver a sufficiently powerful impact to kill one. I mused about taking such a crossbow out on the College Commons and helping t0 reduce the overpopulation of squirrels, but never did the hunt. I could have approached the squirrels close enough, but accurate shot placement in the head with a blunt point was the problem because of the miserable trigger pulls on the pistol crossbow that I had at the time. .
Inspired by a person who was selling a crossbow pistol bowfishing kit at the time I was doing my book Practical Bowfishing (Stackpole, 2004), I purchased a crossbow pistol (Chinese rip-off of a Barnett design) and rigged it out. With very much considerable trouble, I suppose that I could have taken a fish with it, but between the pistol’s terrible trigger pull and the drag of the bowfishing line which caused energy loss, I gave it up as a bad deal. I never took it on the water. I grant that it would have been possible to take a fish with the 70-pound crossbow; but it was more trouble that I was willing to put up with for such an uncertain result.
Occasionally at trade shows I encounter crossbows with full length prods, pull weights that can go over 150 pounds and sufficiently good engineering to provide a reasonable trigger pull. What about these? By their nature, crossbows are cumbersome instruments because of their large prods that are at right-angles to the stock. Typically they are also very front-end heavy, even with a buttstock. With the counter-balancing buttstock removed, they go beyond cumbersome to the point of being very nearly unshootable. These one-handed crossbows are best when combined with reverse-draw technology which eliminates some of the front-end weight, but these are instruments with a big footprint that requires two hands to hold. Eliminating the buttstock only shortens length and does nothing to eliminate the anchor-shaped profile of an arc connected to a central vertical member.
The beautiful crossbow shown in a one of a kind modern crossbow with a carved ivory grip, gold inlays and a knife bayonet. This piece of art was made by Jack Leven of New York and won a first place award at the 2005 International Blade Show in Atlanta. Leven usually makes high-art knives, but took on this very considerable artistic and mechanical challenge and brought it off brilliantly. Rotating the knob at the end operates a screw mechanism that cocks the crossbow. Somewhere they may be a better example of a crossbow “pistol,” but I do not know of it.
Even in this case, I would put more faith in the bayonet as a means of self defence, than the crossbow mechanism that supports it. The arrow from this crossbow could certainly penetrate flesh, but, unless poisoned, would be largely ineffectual as a weapon.
The Chinese crossbow pistol mentioned above in connection with bowfishing, was advertised to have a 70-pound pull and could have shot an arrow that would have penetrated into flesh, but would not have likely caused deadly injury in a man unless it was poisoned, as the Chinese did with small arrows fired from repeating crossbows.
As a novelty, pistol crossbows are interesting if they are made with sufficient care to shoot well. Even these have very limited uses for target shooting and taking of small animals at close range.