Han Dynasty Crossbow


Ad Honorem
Feb 2011
Han Dynasty Crossbow Technology

The prevalence and praise of the crossbow in ancient Chinese texts is so widespread (The excavated Donghai accounting records show the existence of up to half a million crossbows in its stockpile) that I find this single weapon notable enough to write an entire article centered on it. No doubt, from its inception during the 6th century BC the crossbow revolutionized Chinese warfare. Projectiles fired from a crossbow are much more powerful than those fired from bows, and only a little time is needed for one to become proficient with it. Bolts can be fired with enough force to penetrate shields and armor at a distance. No longer can heavily armored, skilled nobility outmatch the everyday peasant. This essay only deals with ancient crossbows of the Han dynasty, although it was one of the primary weapons in Chinese history for a much longer time than the dynasty itself.

Range and Draw Weight

Just how powerful a crossbow could be is glimpsed in the excavated Chu-yen slips, from which records of crossbow maintenance was kept. From the slips already excavated, we have available a set of records showing six crossbows shooting 168 to 280+ meters. Each of these crossbows had only draw weights of 3-5 stone, as compared to typical Han era crossbows of 6 stone. Of these crossbows, two was tested for their penetration ability, both puncturing a wooden wall (most likely a plank or fence) at 252 meters.

Slip 14.026: 一今力五石廿九斤射百八十步辟木郭
Translation: Present strength 5 stone 29 jin (341 lbs) and will penetrate a wooden wall at 180 paces (252 meters).
Slip 515.46: 三石具弩射百廿步
Translation: 3 stone (193.5 lbs) crossbow, fully assembled, shoots 120 paces (168 meters)
Slip 36.10: 官第一六石具弩一今力四石【四十】二斤射白八十五步完(The words in 【】 is used to display what the word on the slip means, but the actual word cannot be typed by computer as the word is no longer in use)
Translation: Number one 6 stone crossbow, fully assembled, present strength is 4 stone 42 chin (285 lbs), and it will shoot to the end of 185 paces (259 meters).
Slip 510.026: 五石具弩射百廿步
Translation: Five stone crossbow fully assembled, shoots 120 paces (168 meters)
Slip 341.3: 具弩一今力四石射二百…(too smeared to make out)…
Translation: Fully assembled crossbow, present strength 4 stone (258 lbs), shoots two hundred and …[text too smeared to make out] (280-418.6 meters).
Slip 14.62A: 一今力三石廿九斤射百八十步辟木郭
Translation: Present strength 3 stone 29 jin (212.2 lbs) and penetrates wooden wall at 252 meters.
In general Chu-yen slips categorize crossbow draw weight by 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 10+ stone, with each stone unit being the modern equivalent of ~64.5 pounds. The majority of crossbows have a draw weight of 6 stone. From the above tests, one can extrapolate that typical Han crossbows of 6 stone would have an average range of over 300 meters, assuming that the bolt fired was no different from those fired from weaker crossbows. The following is a calculation on the percentage of crossbows for each categorical draw weight, but it is currently not verified by me as I did not count them personally(However, historian Yang Hong also states that the majority of crossbows were categorized with draw weights of 6 stone):
1 stone: 1.37%
2 stone: 1.37%
3 stone: 21.92%
4 stone: 2.74%
5 dan: 17.81%
6 dan: 43.84%
7 dan: 2.74%
8 stone: 2.74%
10 stone and above (Great Yellow Crossbow): 5.48%
Efficiency and Power

What must be noted is that crossbows were typically weaker than bows pound for pound due to their shorter powerstroke. Powerstroke is the length required for a string at rest to be drawn back to the trigger. This means crossbows must have heavier draw weights than bows in order to shoot the same projectile at the same velocity. Typical crossbows of Medieval Europe generally need to have three times the draw weight of a bow in order to give a similarly powerful shot, but made up for this by utilizing winches to maximize the draw weight.

However, ancient Chinese crossbows thanks to their trigger design allow the nut of the trigger to be placed near the back of the stock. This results in relatively long power strokes rivaling that of a bow, which greatly reduces the crossbow’s usual weakness of energy transference inefficiency. Han dynasty crossbows would have a draw length of 24 inches, implying a powerstroke of 18-20 inches, or rivaling that of a bow.

Above is medieval trigger, below is Han trigger

Generally speaking, the power of a bow or crossbow measured in inch lbs = 0.5 x powerstroke length x draw weight. The most commonly mentioned crossbow in excavated accounting records were of the 6 stone (387 lb) type. In comparison most bows would only have draw weights of 40 to 100 lbs. Against armored men, Song dynasty archers could use bows with draw weights of up to 160 lbs, still less than half the draw weight of typical Han crossbows. From this, we have the following result for shooting power:

Heaviest standard 8 stone Han crossbow power = 516 lbs draw weight * ~19 inches powerstroke/2 = 4902 inch lbs
Heaviest Medieval crossbow found from Gallway = 1200 lbs draw weight * 7 inches powerstroke/2 = 4200 inch lbs
Typical 6 stone strength Han crossbow's power = 387 lbs draw weight * ~19 inches powerstroke/2 = 3676.5 inch pounds
Heavy Song dynasty bow made to pierce armor = 160 lbs draw weight * ~20 inches powerstroke/2 = 1600 inch pounds


Most bronze weaponry died out during early Han, but throughout the dynasty most crossbow arrowheads were made of bronze with a metallic tang, inserted into a wooden shaft. Some crossbow bolts were not entirely bronze. Rather, the arrowhead was of bronze while the tang (which sockets the bolt into the shaft) was iron. The reason for this is answered by Donald Wagner, who points to the superior casting properties of bronze. Han bronze arrowheads were remarkable for its attention to detail. Their intricate wings placed along the bolt tip were so small yet finely cast that it would be beyond the casting ability of iron for more than a thousand years afterwards.

The two projectiles on the right are Han dynasty crossbow bolts, picture taken by Kenneth from CHF

Such precise casting techniques allow a more aerodynamic bolt. Because this aerodynamic design only focused on the bolt tip, having the tang of the bolt be made out of iron would not affect its flight. Therefore, with iron being the cheaper metal, it was only natural for Han metallurgists to design crossbow bolts with a bronze head and an iron tang.

Drawing the Crossbow

Yet how were one able to draw these powerful crossbows? Weaker Han crossbows were categorized as “arm-drawn”, in that the bow was drawn in a standing position with the two feet grounded on the prod while the arms pulled the string up towards the trigger. More powerful Han crossbows were “foot-drawn”, in that the string was drawn in a sitting position using both the legs and the arms. This allows a much heavier draw weight as the muscles from the legs are much more powerful than those in the arms. Thus one can compare the effort of drawing a Han crossbow with the effort used in deadlifting heavy weights. However, when deadlifting one is not only using muscle energy to lift the loaded barbell, but also using energy to “lift” most of his own body weight. For the typical Han crossbow, which is drawn in a sitting position, one is able to avoid lifting his own body weight (receiving ~150 lbs of “free” energy). Thus the muscles from his legs and arms which would have been used for balance and lifting his own mass could now be diverted to drawing the crossbow. Today’s strength standard for a male novice (with body weight of 150 lbs) in deadlifting would be around 235 lbs. Because a Han crossbowman would be loading his crossbow in a sitting position, he would receive another 150 lbs due to him not “lifting” or balancing most of his body weight. Plus, when loading a crossbow, only when the string reaches the trigger would the crossbowman be drawing the full draw weight, whereas in deadlifting the lifter would be lifting the full weight of the barbell from the start. So with a modicum of training, the everyday peasant would be able to draw a typical Han crossbow of 387 lbs in draw weight.
The heaviest crossbows would be drawn with a winch. These would no longer be handheld but must be used with at least a prop. Immobile crossbows fixed inside military forts on on top of walls are called "Revolving Shooters". Each revolving shooter would have a very thick wooden plank in front of it for protection against enemy fire. "Yellow Crossbows" was the name given for more mobile devices. The strongest Heavy Yellow Crossbow could have draw weights of 90 stone, implying that its size would probably be akin to that of a ballista.

Eastern Han mural depiction of a winched crossbow, possibly a lower tier "Yellow Crossbow"

Advantages and Disadvantages

The primary strength of the crossbow is without doubt its strong armor penetration capability. With a median draw weight of 387 lbs, and a powerstroke rivaling that of a bow, Han crossbows could shoot a projectile farther and faster than that of a bow. According to the Han era government official Chao Cuo, one of the biggest advantages of Han armies over the Xiongnu was that the crossbow could penetrate the leather armor and wooden shields that the nomads posses.
Furthermore, a crossbow has the option to shoot shorter projectiles. For a bow, the length of an arrowshaft must be greater than the bow's draw length, or else the bow would not be able to shoot the arrow at full draw. A Han crossbow may very well shoot bolts with a length rivaling that of an arrow, or it could shoot significantly shorter bolts. This is possible because the bolt would be launched from the groove of the stock, so a crossbow could even shoot bolts small enough to be called darts should the occasion warrant it. By shooting shorter bolts, launched projectiles cannot be picked up by enemy archers to be shot back against the crossbowman. Needham speculates that the East Asian arrow-tube guide (called pyun-chun to the Koreans), was developed by nomadic peoples in order to counter precisely this advantage.
Another advantage is that the crossbow is much easier to aim and shoot than a bow. A bowman must take aim while his arms resist the tension of the string at full draw. Even the strongest bowman could only aim within a limited time frame before his bow arm gives in. A crossbowman can take aim indefinitely, as the tension is held by the trigger.
When used in a chariot or ship, the stability that the crossbow provides while aiming no doubt also alleviates the rocking motion of the vehicle involved.
crossbowman can also draw the string before battle starts, to make sure he is able to take the first shot within a moment’s notice. Examples of this can be found such as when Xiangyu tried to kill the first Han emperor by hiding a pre-cocked pistol crossbow within his clothing. When emperor Wen inspected the military camp of general Zhou Yafu, the sentries were described in the Shiji as “in armour and bearing their swords and other weapons, their crossbows cocked and full of arrows”. The advantage to having a crossbow loaded indefinitely becomes particularly useful in sieges, as crossbowmen could use this advantage to take very quick pot-shots when enemies peek their heads from pavises, battlements, or any other protection.

The Han crossbow does come with shortcomings. Han crossbow prods were composite, including sinew and horn materials. Compared to metal prods of winched crossbows in Medieval Europe, composite prods need to be longer in order to have the same draw weight. Thus each crossbowman requires more horizontal space for shooting, although this is partially offset by the fact that composite prods tend to shoot projectiles with higher velocity as compared to steel prods of the same draw weight. The high draw weight of the crossbow also makes stringing difficult, particularly when the bow is recurved like those of Han crossbow prods. By the Qin dynasty, this problem was probably alleviated by having a bastard string in addition to the main string, so that the prod could be left partially unstrung to make stringing easier for future use. When shooting at a particularly elevated angle, the stock of the crossbow would block the user's line of sight, nullifying the crossbow's advantage in superior range when it comes to precision shooting. The biggest offset for the crossbow was its reloading speed. Even when pulled by hand as opposed to mechanical means, a crossbowman would still be outpaced by an archer in rate of fire. However, to offset this disadvantage, Han era soldiers came up with a drill similar to the countermarch:

“The drill of crossbowmen alternatively advancing [to shoot] and retiring [to load]; this is something the Xiongnu cannot face” –Chao Cuo of Western Han, Shiji


The aiming of the crossbow was refined by both technology and technique. The Han trigger mechanism is a perfect manifestation of this. The trigger itself is designed to operate like a modern trigger in which stored horizontal energy is transferred into a vertical one. This sophisticated design is perhaps the first of its kind that fully allows both hands to stabilize a ranged weapon when discharging a shot.

The trigger also comes with graduated sighting blade and grid sight in order to adjust for target distance, which allows the crossbowman to aim with better accuracy. Liu Chong of the Han dynasty, himself very adept as a crossbowman, described how to use it:
“of all the things in the whole wide world, there is none so extraordinary as the principle of sighting. There are three minute points and three small points. The three minute points and three small points are upon the warp and the three small points are upon the weft [analogy to silk looms]. They unite upon the catch of the crossbow. “-translation from atarn

Han dynasty trigger with long sighting blade(casing seems particularly small or partially missing)

Nearly 1000 years later, Shen Gua of the Song dynasty unearthed a trigger mechanism with a sighting blade. Using Liu Chong’s method for shooting, he managed to score 7-8 hits out of 10. Shen Gua claimed he could have scored even better with a graduated sight.


The Book of Later Han listed some of the most popular works read during the Han dynasty. Two of the lost books are named “The Strong Crossbow General Wang Wei’s Way of Shooting” and “The Way of Shooting from Afar with the Interconnected Crossbow [a ballista]”. There are other book titles that mention styles of shooting such as “General Li’s Way of Shooting”, which may include the art of shooting crossbows. It is unfortunate that all but the title of the books are lost.

Sources used:

Records of the Grand Historian, by Simaqian
The Book of Later Han, by Fan Ye
Chu-yen slips
The Military Storehouse of YongShi’s 4th year Equipment Account Book
Handbook of Oriental Studies, by Donald Wagner
Asian Traditional Archery Research Network, by Stephen Selby
Science and Civilization in Ancient China, by Needham
Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, Volumes 12-22
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Ad Honorem
Mar 2013
I'd never seen that about the trigger mechanisms before and always wondered about the claims of such long ranges by Han crossbows which only late medieval European crossbows could reach. That and the different limbs does help explain it and answered something I've been curious about but never researched myself.


Ad Honorem
Feb 2011
Yes, but the quality of the trigger varied by state. Some Warring States triggers are every bit a match for Han dynasty ones, while others lack even a bronze casing, yet others still are a hybrid between the two. The Qin would have the most primitive triggers, while the state of Hann(different power from the Han dynasty) would have the best crossbows. After all, the state of Hann was known to offset its small population/army by providing its military with top tier quality equipment. Its heaviest crossbows were said to achieve a range of 600 paces.

By the Han dynasty pretty much all triggers are the type with a bronze casing that allows the pressure exerted by the prod's draw weight to be displaced throughout a maximum surface area.


Ad Honorem
Feb 2011
The HanShu contained an account of one of the most detailed battles in Chinese history. This is rare as most battles in Chinese records contains minimal information, being written by court officials with more interest in financial cost than tactics or weaponry. The following passage gives an example of how important crossbows played out in a siege:

明日,前至郅支城都赖水上,离城三里,止营傅陈。望见单于城上立五采幡帜,数百人披甲乘城,又出百余骑往来驰城下,步兵百余人夹门鱼鳞陈,讲习用兵。城上 人更招汉军曰斗来!百余骑驰赴营,营皆张弩持满指之,骑引却。颇遣吏士射城门骑步兵,骑步兵皆入。延寿、汤令军闻鼓音皆薄城下,四周围城,各有所守, 穿堑,塞门户,卤楯为前,戟弩为后,卬射城中楼上人,楼上人下走。土城外有重木城,从木城中射,颇杀伤外人。外人发薪烧木城。夜,数百骑欲出外,迎射杀 之。

Translation: After one day, the enemy fortress was reached at the banks of Talas River. At a distance of three li from the city, a camp was set. Looking at the Chanyu’s fortress from a distance, one could see atop its walls 5 colored banners and streamers, with several hundred armored men on the ramparts. There were over a hundred cavalry galloping out of the city, along with over a hundred infantry drilling in fish scale formation at the gates. The people atop the city wall shouted toward the Han army “Come fight!”A hundred cavalry galloped toward the Han camp, but the camp was bristling with crossbows, so the cavalry retreated. An order was given for soldiers to shoot at the cavalry and infantry at the gates, so that each one of the latter went back into the city. YangShou and YangLing’s division attacked the city from all four sides. Each took part in defending, tunneling, and blocking up arrow ports. Crossbowmen and halberdiers advanced behind pavise shields, all the while shooting at the people atop the ramparts until the defenders were driven from the walls. However, a heavy wooden stockade surrounded the outside of the fortress, from which the defenders shot from, wounding or killing those outside. The attackers responded by using torches to set the wooden walls afire. By night, several hundred enemy cavalry rode out but were shot to death.

初,单于闻汉兵至,欲去,疑康居怨己,为汉内应,又闻乌孙诸国兵皆发,自以无所之。郅支已出,复还,曰:不如坚守。汉兵远来,不能久攻。单于乃被甲在 楼上,诸阏氏夫人数十皆以弓射外人。外人射中单于鼻,诸夫人颇死。单于下骑,传战大内。夜过半,木城穿,中人却入土城,乘城呼。时,康居兵万余骑分为十余 处,四面环城,亦与相应和。夜,数奔营,不利,辄却。平明,四面火起,吏士喜,大呼乘之,钲鼓声动地。康居兵引却。汉兵四面推卤楯,并入土城中。单于男女 百余人走入大内。汉兵纵火,吏士争入,单于被创死。军候假丞杜勋斩单于首,得汉使节二及谷吉等所赍帛书。诸卤获以畀得者。凡斩阏氏、太子、名王以下千五百 一十八级,生虏百四十五人,降虏千余人,赋予城郭诸国所发十五王。

Translation: In the beginning, Chanyu wanted to flee to Kangju but, due to past grievances, was afraid they are in a plot with the Han. He also heard that the Wusun and other states sent troops to support the Han expedition and realized he had nowhere to go. ZhiZhi says “It is better to guard the citadel. The Han soldiers traveled far, and could not continue the siege for an extended period”. The Chanyu thus put on his armor and went atop the ramparts, along with several tens of his concubines to shoot at the attackers with bows. The Chanyu’s nose was hit, and all his concubines were killed. The Chanyu then went down from the walls and directed the siege from within the citadel. After half the night the wooden wall was penetrated and the Chinese was at the base of the earthen wall, while the defenders shouted alerts. During this time, over ten thousand Kangju cavalry arrived. Divided into over ten divisions, they attacked the Han army from four sides around the city to support defenders. By night, their attack having failed, the Kangju galloped back into their camp. By daybreak, the city was set afire from all sides, boosting Han morale while the defenders bellowed a great cry. The drums shook the earth. Seeing this, the Kangju soldiers withdrew. The Han soldiers pushed pavises towards the wall from all four sides. The Chanyu’s males and female followers, more than 100 all told, retreated back into the citadel. The Han soldiers set fires and charged within, killing the Chanyu. -Book of Han


Ad Honorem
Feb 2011
HackneyedScribe said:
The heaviest crossbows would be drawn with a winch. These would no longer be handheld but must be used with at least a prop. Immobile crossbows fixed inside military forts on on top of walls are called "Revolving Shooters". Each revolving shooter would have a very thick wooden plank in front of it for protection against enemy fire. "Yellow Crossbows" was the name given for more mobile devices. The strongest Heavy Yellow Crossbow could have draw weights of 90 stone, implying that its size would probably be akin to that of a ballista.
The following is a picture of a protective screen for revolving shooting machines, multiples of them were found in Han border forts, amongst other things.
The tube in the middle of the wooden screen shows that a revolving shooter should be able to turn up to 120 degrees:

In the book of Mozi (written around 200-300 years prior to the Han dynasty) revolving shooters were described as thus:
52.7 Set up a bamboo fence. In all cases extend it to join the parapet. Make it 6 chi high with spaces 4 chi wide where all those armed with crossbows can take their positions. There should be “revolving shooting machines” which are 6 chi high and buried in the ground 1 chi. Two pieces of wood joined together are used to make protective shields (wen) which are 2 chi long. Through the centres of these drill a hole to accommodate a connecting arm straight against the wall. Every 20 bu there should be one of these (i.e. a “revolving shooting machine” plus its protective shields). [Put someone in charge of it and] order skilled archers to assist him. Not one person is allowed to leave his post.

52.8 [In regards to sallying out of cities against enemy dams] Boats are joined together [in pairs] to make 10 approachers (lin), each approacher having thirty men. Each man is in charge of a crossbow and four of every ten men have a youfang. It is necessary for those skilled in boats to make fenwen (“tank vessels”). Twenty such craft constitute a “squadron”. Thirty men, capable and strong, are chosen for each craft. Of these, twelve men wield a youfang and wear armour and leather helmets whilst the other eighteen men have a miao. Before training these capable soldiers, their parents, wives and children are held as hostages at a different place and provided for. When it is seen that the waters (dikes) can be breached, use the approachers and tank vessels to break the outside (enemy) dikes, assisting them with rapid fire from the “shooting machines” on the wall.
As for the power of these revolving shooting machines, none was passed down to modern day. We know that handheld crossbows could go up to 8 stone, or 516 lbs in draw weight. The lightest "Great Yellow Crossbow" would have draw weights of 10 stone, or 645 lbs. Assuming these are just big enough to necessitate a prop except when wielded by particularly strong men, revolving shooters (which certainly weren't handheld) should be somewhat stronger, at perhaps 12 stone, or 774 lbs. Of course, these are based off of assumptions. At the very least revolving shooters would have draw weights over 516 lbs, or else there would be no point in creating them as 516 lbs could be the draw weight of handheld crossbows.


Ad Honorem
Feb 2011
Great Yellow Crossbows, unlike revolving shooting machines, can be used as field artillery. Here is a passage of the Great Yellow Crossbow in action, taking place in which general Li Guang's army was surrounding by a Xiongnu force 10 times the size of his army:

Translation: Li Guang ordered his men into a circle facing outward. The barbarians attacked furiously and arrows fell like rain. Over half the Han soldiers were killed, and their arrows were nearly gone. Li Guang ordered his soldiers to draw their strings but refrain from firing, while he himself, using his Great Yellow Crossbow, shot at the enemy sub-commanders, killing several of them, nullifying the Xiongnu advantage. -Shiji
Considering the Great Yellow Crossbow described in this battle was used to snipe enemy personnel, we can say that its draw weight was anywhere from 10 stone (645 lbs) to a couple stones higher. However, the heaviest Great Yellow Crossbow I have read mentioned one Great Yellow Crossbow of 40 stone (2580 lbs)! This is likely much greater in size than lower tier Great Yellow Crossbows, and thus could be interpreted as a siege machine. It is likely that another machine, called Interconnected Crossbow Carriage, would be even more powerful. Interconnected Crossbow Carriages was first mentioned in the Mozi during the Spring/Autumn to Warring States period. They were described as ballistas with wheels placed within its framework, shooting either large arrows with strings attached, or multiples of smaller projectiles at once. By the Han Dynasty, more than 500 of these carriages were described in the military inventory accounting record of Donghai Commandery.

Unfortunately, no contemporary picture of Great Yellow Crossbow or Interconnected Siege Ballista was found, but considering the high draw weight, the stronger ones must certainly have multiple prods attached. This allows the draw weight of the ballista to multiply as the accumulated draw weight of each prod is combined together. If the ancient Interconnected Siege Ballista was anything like the Triple prod Ballista shown in Song Dynasty Manuals, then one prod would be placed backwards. Why not have all three prods face the same direction is worthy of consideration. The answer to this is powerstroke. Having one prod placed facing the opposite direction allows the powerstroke to be increased significantly, and I have described in the OP how powerstroke can increase a ballista's shooting power just as much as the ballista's draw weight. One can see how this works with the following picture:

A miniature reconstruction was done for a Triple Prod Ballista in which it was test fired on two separate occasions. In the first test, after strengthening the prods, a 185 gram projectile (about thrice as heavy as standard arrows) was fired to a distance of 162 meters. The 2nd test had same machine fire up to a distance of 175 meters, with probably the same projectile as that of the first test. The total draw weight was roughly around 730 lbs, based on a quote in which it was said that one of the prods was "more than 100 kg". You can see the videos here:

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Note that the prods in the video was just bamboo strips strapped together. During the Song dynasty such prods were a cheap replacement used for weak crossbows such as the Repeating Crossbow, but most crossbows of significant power should have had composite prods.

HackneyedScribe said:
The strongest Heavy Yellow Crossbow could have draw weights of 90 stone, implying that its size would probably be akin to that of a ballista.
I must correct this quote of mine, as the Chinese word for "nine" and "strength" is very similar (“九" and "力”). Because a ballista with a draw weight of 90 stone is unlikely to be found in a border fort, I must conclude that the writer made an error and miswrote "strength" as "nine", changing the meaning "One Great Yellow Crossbow with draw weight of strength ten stone" into "One Great Yellow Crossbow with draw weight of ninety stone". The next greatest draw weight of the Great Yellow Crossbow I've found would have a draw weight of 40 stone (2580 lbs)


Ad Honorem
Mar 2014
Hello, thank's for posting. Your posts made me thinking about Mongols. I always thought that Mongols conquered China using bows, simply outranging huge Chinese armies. But from your post I see that they had crossbows that had greater range than bows. How do you imagine battle between Mongol and Chinese army if Chinese could shoot from greater range?