The Definitive Hand Crossbow 5E Guide: Mastering the Underappreciated Ranged Weapon

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In the vast arsenal of ranged weapons across the many exciting classes and builds of Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, the humble hand crossbow often goes overlooked and underestimated. At first glance, its measly 1d6 piercing damage die makes it seem lackluster compared to the mighty longbow or the brutal heavy crossbow. Many adventurers try out the hand crossbow in their early levels only to toss it aside for what seem like superior options later on.

However, this unassuming little crossbow hides surprising potential for those willing to master it. Like a diamond in the rough, the hand crossbow features unique capabilities and advantages that, when combined with the right character builds and feats, can make it an incredibly effective and versatile ranged weapon.

This definitive guide will dive deep on everything you need to know about hand crossbows in 5E. You'll learn about optimal builds, effective tactics, maximizing damage, and specialized uses for the hand crossbow so you can master this deceptive weapon. Let's pull back the curtain on this overlooked ranged option and see how it truly measures up!

The Basics of the Not-So-Basic Hand Crossbow

At its core, the hand crossbow has a few basic traits that distinguish it from its larger cousins, the heavy crossbow and longbow:

  • Deals 1d6 piercing damage, compared to the longbow's 1d8 and the heavy crossbow's 1d10
  • Weighs 3 lbs compared to the longbow's 2 lbs and the heavy crossbow's 18 lbs!
  • Has the loading property, meaning it can only be fired once per action normally
  • Has the Light property, meaning it only requires one hand to wield and attack with
  • Has a range of 30/120 compared to the longbow's 150/600 and the heavy crossbow's 100/400
  • Costs 75 gp compared to the longbow's 50 gp and the heavy crossbow's 50 gp

The lower damage die and range jump out immediately as the hand crossbow's apparent disadvantages. However, its Light property is a huge distinction that opens up intriguing combat options we'll explore later. And its lower cost and weight means even brand new adventurers can wield this weapon effectively.

Right away, we can see the beginnings of the hand crossbow's identity – it's not meant to be a heavy hitting sniper weapon. Rather, it's an agile, flexible ranged option suitable for quicker, nimble combatants.

Specialized Builds and Classes for the Hand Crossbow

Given its niche properties, the hand crossbow excels when used by specific character builds and classes that complement and optimize its capabilities. Trying to use it like a longbow with a Strength-based fighter build, for example, is unlikely to impress. But build a character around the hand crossbow's strengths, and you have a potent ranged weapon in your arsenal.

Some of the best class options for effective hand crossbow wielders include:

  • Rogues – The quintessential hand crossbow class. All rogue subclasses can find a home with the hand crossbow given its skill synergy, but especially melee-focused rogues like the Swashbuckler. Sneak Attack grants reliable ranged damage, Cunning Action enhances mobility, and they aren't reliant on heavy hits from high Strength or Dexterity.
  • Rangers – Dex-based damage benefits from the Archery fighting style, their Hunter's Mark enhances every hand crossbow hit, and they don't need heavy armor to be effective in the backline. The bonus action economy can get crowded at times, but otherwise an excellent option.
  • Fighters – More attacks per turn offsets the lower damage die, and Eldritch Knights can seamlessly blend spellcasting with hand crossbow attacks. Pairs well with the Archery fighting style and Precision Attack maneuver. Action Surge also combines potently with the Crossbow Expert feat.
  • Artificers – Repeating Shot infusion solves the ammunition issue, leaving both hands free. The Battle Smith's Steel Defender provides potent distraction. Their supportive abilities mesh perfectly with hand crossbow damage.

Other classes like Clerics, Monks, and Bards can also utilize hand crossbows effectively in the right builds. The key is maximizing the Dex focus and skill/mobility synergies.

Specialized Feats for Hand Crossbow Mastery

There are two feats in particular that can transform a hand crossbow wielder from mundane to masterful: Crossbow Expert and Sharpshooter. Together they turn the hand crossbow into a machine of damage and versatility.

Crossbow Expert allows you to ignore the loading quality on hand crossbows you're proficient with. This enables you to fire as many attacks per turn as your class allows, overcoming a major handicap. Even better, when you attack with a one-handed weapon, you can use your bonus action to attack with the hand crossbow, essentially giving you an extra attack per round!

Combine this with Sharpshooter's infamous -5 to hit, +10 to damage trade-off, and your damage potential skyrockets. The bonus action attack helps offset the accuracy penalty by providing more chances to hit and deal big damage. Other great feats include Elven Accuracy for expanded critical strike potential and Fighting Initiate for the Archery fighting style.

Maximizing Hand Crossbow Damage Potential

With the right build, a hand crossbow wielder can keep pace in damage with any ranged weapon specialist. Here are some tips for getting the most damage out of your mini crossbow:

  • Max your Dexterity! This boosts your attack and damage rolls.
  • Take Crossbow Expert early for unlimited attacks per turn.
  • Grab Sharpshooter at level 4 or 8 depending on your build.
  • Use your bonus action for Crossbow Expert's extra attack frequently.
  • Crit-fish with features like the Champion fighter's Improved Critical or Elven Accuracy.
  • Layer on damage boosters like a rogue's Sneak Attack or a ranger's Hunter's Mark.
  • Use magic hand crossbows and power-infused bolts when possible.
  • Purchase +1, +2, or +3 hand crossbows if available.

Again, don't expect to match a greatsword-wielding barbarian in raw damage. But with the right build, you can rival and even surpass a longbow fighter's potential damage output by firing more frequent attacks.

Innovative Tactics and Strategies

Skilled hand crossbow duelists also utilize tactics and strategies specific to their weapon and capabilities:

  • Weave melee and ranged attacks by alternating weapons between rounds
  • Fire shots safely from melee range without disadvantage thanks to Crossbow Expert
  • Use Cunning Action or Expeditious Retreat to avoid opportunity attacks after firing
  • Set up ambushes or snipe from hidden positions like a rogue
  • Kite enemies – fire shots while staying safely out of reach before repositioning
  • Use mobility and range to distract enemies and provide cover fire for allies
  • Cripple unarmored or lightly armored opponents with precise shots from concealment

With the hand crossbow, you become an unpredictable force on the battlefield that leaves enemies constantly guessing and adapting. Take full advantage of your maneuverability.

Hand Crossbow vs. Other Ranged Weapons

Despite the lower damage die, the hand crossbow carves out a distinct niche from its ranged weapon cousins:

  • Less raw damage than longbows or heavy crossbows, but more attacks per turn
  • Requires more specialized builds to optimize than more general options like longbows
  • Excels when mobility, variable combat ranges, and skill/Dexterity synergies are maximized
  • Devastating at short range in the hands of a skilled wielder, not as reliable at long range sniping
  • Tricky to use for classes without Dexterity synergy like barbarians and paladins
  • Shines when you can regularly utilize Crossbow Expert's bonus action attack

In general, longbows work better for more static, long range damage dealers while the hand crossbow rewards mobile skirmishing and adaptability. But in the right situations and builds, the hand crossbow exceeds both.

Drawbacks and Downsides of the Hand Crossbow

For all its potential, the hand crossbow still comes with some inherent disadvantages:

  • Relatively Short Range – Only 30/120 feet limits sniping and engagement range considerably
  • Lower Damage Die – 1d6 just can't compete with heavier crossbows for raw damage per shot
  • Feat Dependency – Crossbow Expert and/or Sharpshooter required to excel with the hand crossbow
  • Still Limited by Ammunition – Requires a steady supply of bolts to utilize fully
  • Very Niche Use Cases – Generalist builds are better served by heavier options
  • Unlikely to be Optimal if Dexterity or Mobility are Dump Stats – Requires finesse

The hand crossbow also adds complexity – firing multiple times per round or weaving spells into your attacks takes practice and mastery. But becoming an expert hand crossbow wielder is deeply rewarding.

The Verdict on the Deceptive Hand Crossbow

When all is said and done, the hand crossbow is far from the lackluster option it appears to be at first glance. In the hands of a skilled wielder utilizing the right build, tactics, and supporting feats, it transforms into a versatile and lethal ranged weapon in its own right.

The 1d6 damage die belies the hand crossbow's potential when you maximize your Dexterity modifier, number of attacks per round, and damage boosters. Few creatures will scoff at a rogue rolling four Sneak Attack-empowered d6s round after round, or a fighter using Action Surge and Crossbow Expert to unleash a hand crossbow fusillade.

Much comes down to your character concept and playstyle preferences. If you envision a mobile skirmisher flitting between ranged and melee encounters, or an agile dungeoneer equally capable of skillful subterfuge and deadly ambushes, the hand crossbow delivers. For long range tactical support or pure damage potential, heavier options like the longbow typically serve better.

But one thing is certain – the hand crossbow deserves far more respect and experimentation than it typically receives. It may not stand out on paper, but the right build and tactics transform it into an elite ranged weapon. Underappreciated? Yes. Underpowered? Far from it.

Now get out there and show the world what the hand crossbow is truly capable of!

Frequently Asked Questions on Hand Crossbow Use:

  • Can you dual wield hand crossbows? Yes! But you'll need the Crossbow Expert feat and a free hand for reloading. Still, double the attacks and double the fun!
  • Does Sharpshooter work with a hand crossbow? Absolutely! The -5/+10 damage tradeoff pairs perfectly with Crossbow Expert.
  • What about magical hand crossbows? Options are limited, but any bonus to attack and damage applies, so get a +1 crossbow ASAP.
  • Is Elven Accuracy good for hand crossbows? You bet! Triple advantage helps land Sharpshooter shots and fish for crits.
  • Can a hand crossbow be used underwater? Surprisingly yes! The loading property only specifies you need a free hand to load.
  • How do you reload while dual wielding hand crossbows? Very carefully! You'll need to juggle weapons and hope you don't need to reload both before your next turn.

So don't let its unassuming looks fool you. A dexterous rogue with a finely-tuned hand crossbow and specialized skills can become the bane of evil creatures and tyrants alike. Heed the guidance in this definitive guide, and unleash the true potential of this versatile ranged weapon in your next adventure!


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