Crossbow Target Shooting For The Physically Handicapped

Ronald Adams

The origins of the crossbow are not really known. Some documented records indicate that it was originated by the Persians, Mongols, and Vietnamese in the era circa 700 A.D. Other historical records indicate that the crossbow was first used, on October 14, 1066, during the Battle of Hastings when the Norman invaders led by William the Conquerer, Duke of Normandy, defeated the English and marked the end of Anglo-Saxon rule in early England.


The crossbow is a short, powerful bow attached to a gun stock with certain modifications. The modern version is a precision-built sports weapon which is slowly becoming popular among archery enthusiasts throughout the country. Much like a rifle, it gives the shooter built-in uniformity of power, loading, sighting, and release. One added feature of the crossbow is the silence of the arrow (bolt) when it is released, quite unlike the noise and recoil of a rifle. In 1947, a separate division entitled the National Crossbowmen of the United States was added to the National Archery Association. Because the arrow is released by a trigger, the crossbow is classified as a mechanical weapon and, therefore, separate tournaments are held within the N.A.A. and competition is not conducted between crossbow archers and those using regular bows.

Sport for Physically Handicapped

To the best of our knowledge, the first crossbow program for physically handicapped children was started in 1968 at the University of Virginia Children's Rehabilitation Center, under the supervision of the author. After reviewing the possibilities for physically handicapped children in regular archery programs, research was instigated to find a means by which those individuals handicapped by muscle weakness or upper-extremity involvement could participate in the sport. Study had indicated that many physically handicapped individuals would be denied an opportunity to participate in the sport of archery if only the longbow were available. The reason for this is that the archer using the longbow must have good muscle strength in his arms and shoulders, as well as a strong back, before mastery of the proper shooting techniques can be attempted. It was reasoned that the crossbow with an assistive device could serve as a substitute for a regular bow for certain individuals handicapped by upper-limb weakness. It would thus make it possible for more children and adults to engage in archery programs thereby providing a more comprehensive program of adaptive physical education or recreational therapy.


The crossbow (Fig. 1 ) can be bought commercially with a price range from S30.00 to $200.00. The two types, the tournament or backyard target-shooting crossbow and the hunting crossbow, have draw weights that vary according to the type of device. The target crossbow may range from 30 to 70 pounds draw-weight, while the hunting bow has varied draw weights from 80 to 130 pounds, or more for big-game hunting and deep-water fishing. George M. Stevens*, a leading authority on the sport of crossbow shooting in the United States, recommends a 30 to 35-pound draw weight for children between 9 and 12 years of age, with appropriate increases as the child gets older.

Aluminum crossbows should be spiral taped to reduce or eliminate the danger of breakage. The solid glass bows are safe to use, and so are the laminated bows made of veneer and layers of fiberglass joined together by a very elastic and high-strength epoxy glue.


Arrows for crossbows are called "bolts," and average in length from 8 to 15 inches. Each costs approximately one dollar, while the fishing and hunting bolts cost slightly more.

Crossbow strings vary in price from two to four dollars each. It is best to keep at least six of these in stock.

Another very important accessory is the crossbow target. Targets made from baled hay may cause problems because the bolt will bury itself in the hay and the shooter or assistant will need to probe and push it through the opposite end. One archery target that is recommended is the "Korky" archery target (Fig. 2 ), which is a product of L & M Cork Products, Inc.** This new indoor-outdoor target is made of self-sealing cork composition and will accept 22 to 80 pounds pull without complete penetration or bounce out for shooting distances up to 80 yards.

Assistive Device

One suggested piece of adapted equipment for physically handicapped participants is an adjustable tripod device (Fig. 3 ) to balance and securely hold the fore-end of the crossbow stock. In most situations, a camera tripod can be modified for this purpose. The main objectives in using the tripod are to compensate for the shooter's lack of upper-extremity strength, and to promote independent shooting.

The individual using the tripod should be completely independent in sighting the target and squeezing the trigger. If these basic requirements cannot be met. it is questionable whether crossbow shooting should be recommended.

The assistive stabilizer device can be made of 3/4-in. plywood and is screwed into the top of the tripod to stabilize the fore-end of the stock (Fig. 4 ). Size and shape will depend upon the type of crossbow and camera tripod.

Safety Measures for Crossbow Shooting

  • The crossbow should always be used under the supervision of an adult usually a therapist or the instructor.

  • The condition of the string should always be checked prior to each shooting session.

  • The bow should never be fired unless an arrow is actually in position. It is harmful to both string and bow if this rule is not followed.

  • Shots should be made only at the target. Shooting the arrow straight up in the air should never be permitted.

  • In cocking the crossbow, the butt of the stock should be placed against the abdomen. The string is pulled back with both hands until it is securely-caught in the string release slot (Fig. 5 ). A crossbow should never be cocked with the butt of the stock against the ground.

How to Shoot the Crossbow

The instructions are given for a right-handed shooter. The procedures would be reversed for a left-handed shooter.

When shooting, the stock should be held as in firing a rifle. Ambulatory shooters should stand with the alignment of their feet pointing just to the right of the target with the shoulders turned slightly more to the left. The feet should be spread naturally for good balance and the weight evenly distributed on both feet. The right arm should point outward at shoulder level and the grip hand should press the butt of the stock into the right shoulder with reasonable firmness. The trigger should be squeezed with slow, even pressure, as in firing a rifle. Do not jerk. With most crossbows, allowance may be made for wind drift by adjusting the sights accordingly.

The wheelchair-bound crossbow archer using the assistive device should face directly at the target with the tripod adjusted to fit the requirements of the shooter.

Archers with good upper-extremity strength, who are confined to a wheelchair, but do not use the tripod will follow the same procedures as the ambulatory shooter. This group will have one distinct advantage because the left elbow can be stabilized on the arm rest and thus provide a cushion when the crossbow is being balanced.

Program Adjustments For Specific Types Of Disabilities


In order to be a crossbow shooter the quadriplegic will require considerable assistance from a therapist or instructor. Sitting tolerance and balance must be thoroughly evaluated prior to enlisting an individual with this type of a disability in a crossbow program. It has been suggested that a harness or strap be designed to hold the stock of the crossbow against the shooter's shoulder for complete independence in shooting. However, it is the opinion of the author that with the quadriplegic an assistant should help in this phase of shooting. A strap or harness could put undue pressure on the skin or shoulder area, particularly if an unpleasant jerk or kick accompanied the trigger release. The element of safety should be considered an important factor in this situation. The quadriplegic may also need assistance in maintaining good body alignment after each shot. Hence, a seat belt should be required to assist in the maintenance of proper shooting posture.

Case History. The patient was 14 years of age with a diagnosis of quadriplegia secondary to a spinal cord injury at the C-3 level due to an incomplete dislocation of the second cervical vertebra. He could tolerate a maximum of 30 minutes of crossbow shooting each day which meant shooting approximately 15 20 bolts each session.

A mouthpiece connected by a wire securely attached to the trigger was used to release the bolt since the shooter had no voluntary control of his arms (Fig. 6 ). Supportive strength from the upper trapezius and neck musculature permitted the archer to jerk his head backward, thereby creating tension on the trigger for independent shooting. An attendant had to load the bolts in the firing mechanism and assist in holding the stock against the shooter's right shoulder. The shooter was completely independent in sighting and the attendant was instructed to guide the crossbow only upon verbal orders from the shooter.

This boy developed into an excellent crossbow archer at distances of 2030 yards and won 19 dual competitive matches while losing only three against less severely involved wheelchair-bound shooters. He also holds the best accuracy record ever recorded in bull's-eye shooting at the Children's Rehabilitation Center by scoring five consecutive bulls in a 4 3/4-in, bull at 20 yards. The sport of crossbow shooting helped develop self-confidence, provided a hobby interest, and was a tremendous morale builder during this boy's hospitalization period. The strength of the neck and trapezius muscles was increased by their active physical use in the sport.

Progressive Muscular Dystrophy and Other Conditions Associated with Hypotonia and Muscular Weakness

Program adjustments for this type of patient will naturally depend upon the severity of the involvement and the functional ability of the participant. The tripod assistive device is particularly helpful for those handicapped by progressive muscular weakness because it can compensate for the lack of arm and shoulder girdle strength. In most situations, an individual who ambulates with a severe waddling gait and lordosis will need to shoot the crossbow from a sitting position with the aid of the tripod. However, before crossbow shooting is introduced, it is essential that the therapist or instructor evaluate trunk balance and sitting posture. The more severely handicapped wheelchair-bound participant may require a back support or seat belt in order to obtain a good shooting position. In these situations, the assistant will usually need to guide the shoulder stock of the crossbow while the shooter releases the trigger with both hands.

Case History. The patient, an 11-year-old boy with pseudohypertrophic muscular dystrophy could tolerate a standing position intermittently for a period of approximately five hours each day. However, most gross motor activities were performed from a wheelchair. The patient was completely independent in shooting except for cocking the crossbow and placing it in the tripod stabilizer unit. This boy had sufficient shoulder girdle strength to guide and sight the crossbow (Fig. 7 ).


The tripod assistive device is particularly helpful for the unimembral upper-extremity amputee because it can serve as a substitute for the missing limb. Some amputee crossbow archers prefer to be independent shooters and use the terminal device of the prosthesis as the grip hand. However, unless the shoulder stock is securely held in position the crossbow will tend to tilt. One possible solution to this problem is to shorten the shoulder stock and this is recommended by many crossbow experts if warranted by the disability. Another solution is to develop a chest strap or harness as discussed below. In some situations with the upper-extremity amputee, the terminal device will aet as the shooting hand but, under other circumstances, the instructor will need to guide the hook lingers around the trigger. Some bilateral above-elbow amputees have become excellent crossbow shooters.

Case History. This youngster, a 10-year-old amputee, received a traumatic injury which required amputation of all of the digits on his right hand. The palmar surface was replaced by a full thickness graft from the abdomen. The participant was independent in shooting from the standing position (Fig. 8 ). However, the absence of a grip hand caused two major problems: 1) the shooter ad trouble balancing the crossbow and, 2) the extra weight applied to the stump put additional pressure on the affected extremity. In addition to using the tripod as an assistive device, design of an anterior chest strap*** to brace the butt of the stock against the shooter's shoulder was undertaken. Since the loss of the grip hand was a major factor in the shooter's inability to secure a comfortable fit for the shoulder stock, it was considered that the chest strap or harness adaptation would be of particular help to the patient if he wished to engage in small-game hunting.


Although this type of disability may be congenital or acquired, it is most often associated with cerebral palsy and the arm is usually more affected than the leg. The ability to participate in the sport will depend upon the degree of affliction. However, in most situations the tripod assistive device can compensate for the weakness of the affected extremity. Standing tolerance must be thoroughly evaluated and, if necessary, the participant should shoot from a sitting position. Before teaching the basic shooting techniques, the instructor should secure the crossbow in the stabilizer unit and, if possible, let the shooter experiment by using the affected extremity as an assist in guiding the crossbow. Poor hand-eye coordination is another common difficulty and, although crossbow shooting is primarily a single-response activity (a simple one-act movement, generally in one plane), the elements of directionality, coordination, and balance are utilized in the performance of the basic motor movements associated with crossbow shooting.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Program management for the patients with rheumatoid arthritis will depend upon the tolerance of the participant and the degree of joint involvement. Since the course of most patients is marked by periods of exacerbation, the therapist or instructor should be aware of the problems of actively inflamed joints. The tripod assistive device is extremely helpful for those individuals handicapped by involvement of the wrists, elbows, or digits. Two primary therapeutic objectives in including this group of patients in programs of nonstrenuous physical activities are to improve range of motion and exercise tolerance. Crossbow shooting with the necessary adaptations is an excellent sport that places a minimum amount of stress and strain on the affected joints.


The sport of crossbow shooting provides an unique and challenging sport for the physically handicapped, regardless of the disability or age of the participant. The activity can be therapeutic, recreational, or both, depending upon the objectives of the program director. In any event, it is a fascinating development that the medieval weapon called the crossbow with its many refinements and improvements has found a place in our modern-day recreational therapy programs.

*Head of the American Crossbow Association with headquarters in Huntsville. Alabama.

**L & M Cork Products. Inc., Moneka, Illinois 60448

***This research project is a joint endeavor of the recreational therapy departments of the University of Virginia Children's Rehabilitation Center and Gillette State Hospital, St. Paul, Minnesota. The chest strap is being designed primarily for riile and crossbow shooting. When completed, the assistive device will be especially helpful to those children with transcarpal deficiencies.

Ronald C. Adams is the Director of Recreational Therapy and Adaptive Physical Education at the Children's Rehabilitation Center University of Virginia Charlottesville, Virginia