Is it a bolt or an arrow?
I was raised with the idea that anything that flew out of a vertical bow was an arrow and anything that flew out of a crossbow was a bolt. I just assumed that was because the crossbow projectile was a lot shorter than a regular arrow. Plus, that is what the guys at the local pro shop called them! All of these projectiles--bolts and arrows--had feathers or vanes and sailed out of rails and rests. When I heard the term "bolt," I wondered what that meant. A bolt, to me, was used to bolt things together. Yes, it might sound simple, but I thought bolts were under the hood, in my workshop and on the swing set. Never could 1 imagine a bolt going down range.
But as .I studied a bit in preparation for writing this column, I discovered there are some good historical reasons for the use of the term bolt. If you look at old photos of some crossbow projectiles from long ago, the projectiles do resemble, well, bolts! Now, how long ago were these bolts used? My research indicates some were employed during medieval times in Europe, while others from Asia date back much further; 1,000 years or more. I have seen pictures of these bolts. I have heard stories of these bolts. But, I have never actually seen them in action.
If you go online and look up articles or other reference material related to the origin and history of crossbows, you will come across crossbow terminology that states that crossbows fire projectiles called bolts. According to these sources, bolts with squared tips are referred to as quarrels. The references also state that quarrels do not depend on lift as arrows do. They also had other tips for these bolts, depending on their purpose. There were tips for penetrating leather and metal and even bolts used as grappling hooks. Bolts were also NOT nocked and were several times heavier than arrows. The medieval bolts were made of metal and wood. Some had feathers on them, and others did not. Old-time bolts were a lot heavier than arrows.
I think most people refer to modern crossbow projectiles as bolts because they are, and have been, much shorter than vertical bow arrows. They are also relatively heavy (thought not really heavy relative to the bolts of antiquity) and, like the bolts of old, do not attach directly to the string. Instead, they have flat nocks that provide a surface for the string to push. The term bolt provides a quick way to differentiate between vertical bows and crossbows. When someone says bolt, I know immediately that they are talking about crossbows!
On the other hand, contemporary use of the term bolt seems to ignore the incredible technological advancements that have gone into producing modern crossbow. projectiles. The bolts of medieval times surely bear little resemblance to the advanced, lightweight, stiff-spined, high flying, accurate projectiles delivered by modern hunting crossbows. In fact, other than being shorter, lighter and stiffer, you can make a good case that the carbon and aluminum projectiles fired by modern crossbows are much more similar to vertical bow arrows than they are the bolts of medieval times.
In light of that, why is the term bolt still so widely used today? I really don't know. I can only think about those who call restrooms "water closets" or those who say "trousers" instead of pants. It certainly is not a crime to call a projectile that comes out of a crossbow a bolt. Just as the words trousers and pants can be used interchangeably, I believe the same is true with bolts and arrows.
The intellectual argument between the "bolters" and "arrowers" is not very popular. In fact, many people in the hunting community may be unaware of this issue, as the disagreement rarely makes the news, even in outdoor publications such as BOWHUNTING. However, there is a group of hardcore believers on both sides. One group vehemently insists that modern crossbows fire bolts, while the other group insists just as vehemently that modern crossbows fire arrows.
In the end, whatever term you choose really doesn't matter--at least on a practical level. It doesn't matter when you are practicing at the range. It doesn't matter when you are planning your hunting trip. And it doesn't matter when you are out in the field and taking aim on that trophy of a lifetime. It only matters that your projectile--bolt or arrow--does the job by bringing down the game or hitting the X-ring!
As far as I am concerned, you can call it what you like.