Last Updated on January 22, 2023
Welcome to another Black Citadel gear guide where we break down how different weapons and pieces of adventuring equipment work, how to get the most utility out of them, and how they stack up against some of the other options available to an adventurer starting out on the road to greatness (or possibly the much shorter path to becoming an owlbear’s lunch).
This time, we’re going to be tackling one of the most widely available and accessible ranged weapons in Dungeons & Dragons 5e: the shortbow.
As well as breaking down how this weapon works and how it stacks up (or more accurately doesn’t stack up) against its counterparts like the longbow and the light crossbow, we’re going to suggest some house rules to make shortbows stand out a little more from the crowd. Additionally, we’re going to talk a bit about ammunition (magical and mundane) and some different ways you can track your arrows at the table.
Let’s get started.
Simple Ranged Weapon
Proficiency with a shortbow allows you to add your proficiency bonus to the attack roll for any attack you make with it.
How Does a Shortbow Work in DnD 5e?
A shortbow is a ranged weapon that fires arrows at targets up to 320 feet away. As a ranged weapon, the shortbow requires you to make an attack roll by adding your Dexterity modifier and proficiency bonus (if you’re proficient with the shortbow) to the result of a d20 roll. If the total figure (which can be messed with by stuff like the Bless and Bane spells) is equal to or greater than the target’s armor class (which can be affected by things like cover and the Shield spell), you hit the target and deal 1d6 + your Dexterity modifier points of piercing damage to the target.
Unlike the more powerful longbow and heavy crossbow, the shortbow is classed as a simple weapon, meaning a greater variety of character classes are able to add their proficiency bonus to their d20 roll when rolling to hit with it (the only exception being wizards and sorcerers, who have cantrips anyway).
Shortbows are relatively cheap too. With a price tag of just 25 gp, they’re half the price of a longbow or a heavy crossbow. Given the price of a quiver (1 gp, holds 20 arrows) full of arrows (which cost 1 gp each), you can comfortably set yourself up to use a shortbow for the low price of just 46 gp. Unfortunately for the shortbow, this puts it on price parity with its main competition for the best simple ranged weapon available to non-martial characters: the light crossbow.
We’ll get into why that’s just one more reason to ditch your shortbow in favor of the light crossbow (which is basically a cool fantasy gun that’s always T-posing to assert its dominance) in a minute. For now, let’s look at the shortbow’s properties one by one and break them down.
Weapons with the two-handed property require you to have both hands free in order to use them. That could mean taking both hands to lift a weighty greataxe or to slam a fresh bolt into your baddass light crossbow (aka The Goblin Annihilator). It also means reloading, drawing, and releasing an arrow from your shortbow.
The two-handed property means you’ll need to stow any shields, torches, or other weapons you’re carrying if you want to use your shortbow, and you’ll need to account for the time it takes to switch weapons if you want to change to or from your shortbow in the heat of battle. If you’re a spellcasting character, you’ll need at least one hand free if you want to cast a spell with the Somatic (fancy magic finger wiggling, basically) component, which means you can’t use a two-handed weapon like a shortbow on the same turn.
All ranged weapons in D&D 5e have a distance up to which they stand a chance of hitting their targets, which is broken up into two ranges denoting the weapon’s short and long ranges. Beyond long range, a weapon can’t attack a target. These effective ranges are expressed with two numbers in a weapon’s description. Outside of melee range (5 feet), which typically imposes disadvantage on ranged attacks, weapons can be fired normally up to their short range and with disadvantage up to their long range.
The shortbow has a range of (80/320), meaning you can use it to roll attacks normally against a target up to 80 feet away and with disadvantage against targets up to 320 feet away. If you’re using a battlemat or map broken up into 5-foot squares, this means you can shoot normally at a target up to 16 squares away and with disadvantage at targets between 17 and 64 squares away.
It’s very rare that a combat encounter will take place over a distance great enough to impose long-range disadvantage on you or beyond long range for that matter, so the shortbow will probably always ensure that you can get shots off against your enemies.
Weapons with the ammunition property are designed to fire pieces of ammunition (crossbow bolts, stones, bullets, or in the case of the shortbow, arrows) that are consumed in the process, although some types of ammunition can be partially recovered after firing.
Arrows are probably the most common type of ammunition (other than the small stones you put in a sling) in the world of D&D and are readily available in most towns with the average price of 1 gold piece per arrow.
Arrows are used with a weapon that has the ammunition property to make a ranged attack. Each time you attack with the weapon, you expend one piece of ammunition. Drawing the ammunition from a quiver, case, or other container is part of the attack (you need a free hand to load a one-handed weapon). At the end of the battle, you can recover half your expended ammunition by taking a minute to search the battlefield.
Arrows are usually stored in a quiver, which can hold up to 20 arrows at a time and costs 1 gp.
Magic Shortbows and Magical Ammunition
After a certain level, it’s pretty much a given that all of the more martially inclined members of an adventuring party will have a way to make their attacks magical in nature – either through spells or magic weapons.
If you level up a few times and notice that you’ve started facing a heck of a lot more enemies with resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage from nonmagical attacks (which usually happens when the monsters start getting to CR 5 and above), it’s definitely time to start looking for a magic weapon.
Now, while magic swords and other enchanted melee weapons are relatively commonplace in D&D 5e, magical ranged weapons are a lot less easy to come by. The most common examples of magical shortbows are the in +1, +2, and +3 variants that exist of all weapons, each with increasing rarity — although unless the shortbow is your character’s primary weapon, there’s little reason why you’d need anything better than a +1; it’s more about just being able to get any damage at all onto a target.
If the latest dragon hoard once again failed to turn up a +1 magical shortbow (despite all those hints and coy winks at the DM), you might want to consider tracking down the next best thing: magical ammunition. In addition to also coming in +1, +2, and +3 varieties, there’s also walloping ammunition (which knocks targets prone) and the more utility-focused unbreakable arrow.
If you can’t find any magical arrows, consider asking your local potion guy about some oil of sharpness, which can render up to five pieces of ammunition that deal slashing or piercing damage magically sharp, giving them a +3 bonus to attack and damage rolls for the next hour.
My favorite option if you need to take out something really big and really scary, however, is the Arrow of Slaying. These arrows are specially designed to kill a specific type of creature or group of creatures. If a creature belonging to the type, race, or group associated with an arrow of slaying takes damage from the arrow, the creature must make a DC 17 Constitution saving throw, taking an extra 6d10 piercing damage on a failed save or half as much extra damage on a successful one. Once an arrow of slaying has dealt damage, it reverts to being a normal arrow.
Should I Use a Shortbow?
Short answer: No, get a light crossbow or a longbow if you can, unless…you’re short?
Let me explain by comparing the light crossbow and the shortbow.
With identical ranges, price points, ammunition costs, and availability, the only real differences between a shortbow and a light crossbow (other than weight — but don’t go fat shaming your instruments of death) are the fact that the light crossbow deals more damage (1d8 vs. the shortbow’s 1d6) and has the Loading property, which prevents it from being fired more than once per round without the Crossbow Expert feat.
So, the trade-off at face value is between being able to make more attacks with a shortbow and make one higher damage attack with a light crossbow.
Fine, if you’re a rogue who’s never going to unlock multiattack, then it makes sense to go after the biggest damage die you’re proficient in to dish out the biggest possible hit. If you’re playing a ranger, a fighter, or any other character who gets multiattack, it makes more sense to use a shortbow because it allows you to multiattack.
Except it doesn’t.
There’s no class or subclass in 5e that I’m aware of (there probably is, but that’s definitely an exception rather than the rule) that is going to have access to some version of the extra attack feature and not have proficiency with martial weapons.
If you have proficiency with martial weapons, there’s literally no reason why you wouldn’t grab a longbow instead of a shortbow because it has almost double the range and uses a d8 for damage rather than a d6. Unless you’re short.
Because the longbow has the Heavy property, creatures that are size Small or Tiny use it with disadvantage, meaning that if you’re a halfling or gnome fighter, for example, you’re going to want to go with a shortbow rather than a light crossbow. Although, at that point, you should probably grab a hand crossbow instead as it’s the same damage and doesn’t mean you have to put your sword away while you fire it.
House Rule: How To Make Shortbows Useful
Now, I don’t want to break the game here, but my go-to house rule for making shortbows more effective in D&D 5e is this:
- Ranged attacks made with weapons with the Heavy property have disadvantage when being used while mounted.
- The price of a Shortbow is reduced to 15 gp
- Characters wielding a heavy weapon roll initiative with disadvantage (sometimes I rule that light-weapon-wielding or unarmed characters roll with advantage), but this is quite a drastic one.
That’s it. A very simple fix that immediately creates some variation between weapons and makes the shortbow a better option for characters with more than one attack per round, although if you don’t have multiattack, your best bet is still going to be a crossbow.
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I played my first tabletop RPG (Pathfinder 1e, specifically) in college. I rocked up late to the first session with an unread rulebook and a human bard called Nick Jugger. It was a rocky start but I had a blast and now, the better part of a decade later, I play, write, and write about tabletop RPGs (mostly 5e, but also PBtA, Forged in the Dark and OSR) games for a living, which is wild.