The Medieval Crossbow
As a weapon, the medieval crossbow was regarded with great respect and one of short range deadliness in the hands of almost anyone. As the long bow required extensive training and strength, most users were trained nearly from birth, as it was an excellent choice for longer range targets. The crossbow was easy to learn and given in great numbers to the average soldier as a solution for short range targets. It was the forerunner of short range attack weapons which gave way eventually to the effectiveness of gun powder arms. Silent, deadly and efficient, it remains today a choice for the sportsman and in other situations where silence is needed to obtain the target.
Its history is found in the fifth century B.C. in China with numerous archaeological digs revealing brass bolts and brass trigger mechanisms and writings as early as fourth century B.C. discussing the use of repeating crossbow mechanisms and descriptions of their use in battle. These historical documents showed that crossbow strategy was similar to what was developed later for the musket and was even used while mounted on horses with cavalry formations.
In the meantime, the Greeks began to develop a slightly different style of crossbow around the same time period. They used torsion or twisted movement in their early models although this was eventually found only in their catapults, an ingenious twist, literally, that produced much more power. These earlier, smaller versions required a prop to use and were actually made with a concave design that allowed the user to use core body strength to operate it by pressing forward with his abdomen . These eventually gave way to being mounted and in place on walls, probably due to the internal injuries and complaints from the users caused by consistent use of them, and then the design moved into their catapults.
The Romans had hand held mechanical weapons that were a combination of both the Asian and Greek influence. This was typical of the Romans as they were great copiers of both weapons and armor of their enemies and took the best ideas from both of these cultures to produce their own. Written history emerges around the fourth century B.C. of their defeat by the hands of the Chinese who were able to penetrate their body armor with their hand held catapults, which was around the time these were put to use in the Roman armies.
By the Fifth century AD, there are records of them in use in Scotland by the Picts as hunting weapons. The styles of medieval crossbows that we now see were used by European armies through the 1500’s. Both mounted and on foot, the crossbowmen were mixed in with the rest of the troops and were a popular choice of weapon until the enemy bore down on you requiring a quick transfer to short sword, knife or pole axe. The beauty of this strategy made good offensive sense and the fact that even the peasants, with very little training, could be armed with a crossbow easily made the weapon a huge success. Pole axe and crossbow was the typical peasant weaponry which worked in the better trained armies as well.
The crossbow encouraged the development of mail armor or chainmail under regular plate armor which salvaged the day for many a soldier under the brutal and effective onslaught of crossbowmen. It literally changed battlefield strategy when it first appeared as completely as the introduction of short range gun powder weapons did. A very valuable asset to any medieval soldier, the medieval crossbow, found in several designs throughout Medieval times, was the weapon that produced fear in its enemies and was the choice of the silent assassin and snipers that could quickly ambush and overtake much larger armies than themselves.
It can be found in the history of every continent in a variety of cultures from ancient times and continues today as a respected hunting weapon. The medieval crossbow was only one stop in a very, very long road through man’s story of hunting and warfare but an instrument of such cunning design that it still intrigues us today.
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