Crossbow

A crossbow is a weapon consisting of a bow mounted on a stock that fires arrow-like projectiles. A mechanism in the stock holds the bow in its fully-drawn position until it is fired by releasing a trigger. Crossbows played a significant role in the warfare of Europe during the Middle Ages, and in China throughout much of its history. Crossbows are used today primarily for target shooting and sport hunting.

History and technology of crossbows

Many scholars believe the crossbow first appeared in China, probably by the 6th century BC[1][2], with some archeological evidence indicating it was developed as early as 2000 BC[3]. Other sources (Steven Selby, 2001) agree to East Asia as origin of the crossbow, but question whether it first appeared in China. A version of the crossbow, known as a ballista was used around the Mediterranean by the Roman Empire and others during the Hellenistic Period. This weapon varied size from one-man field versions to heavy siege engines. "Ballista" is still the root word for crossbow in Romance languages such as Spanish (ballesta) and Italian (balestra).

Remains of an ancient Chinese crossbow, 2nd century BC.
Remains of an ancient Chinese crossbow, 2nd century BC.

The bow (called the "prod" on a crossbow) of early crossbows were made of a single piece of wood, usually ash or yew. During the Crusades, Europeans were exposed to Saracen composite bows, made from layers of different material--often wood, horn and sinew--glued together and bound with animal tendon. These composite bows could be much more powerful than wooden bows, and were adopted for crossbow prods across Europe. As steel became more widely available around the 14th century, spring steel prods came into use. The crossbow prod is very short compared to ordinary bows, resulting in a short draw length. This makes crossbows less efficient at releasing energy, and to compensate they must have very heavy draw weights. Although some crossbows (ancient or modern) are drawn using only the unassisted arm strength of the archer, more powerful crossbows required some sort of mechanical device to draw the string. These drawing mechanisms were of many different forms, using levers, ratchets and pulleys in various ways. The use of these devices allowed soldiers to use and fire weapons with a draw force far in excess of what they could have handled with a bow. In the later years of the crossbow it had enough kinetic energy to penetrate any chainmail and most plate armor hit squarely: some reached a draw force of nearly 350 lbf (1600 N), compared to the 60-180lbf (300-900 N) draw force for a longbow. Moreover, crossbows could be kept cocked and ready to shoot for some time with little effort, allowing crossbowmen to aim better and to "cover" a target area, while archers could not keep their powerful bows pulled for long periods of time.

The arrow-like projectiles of a crossbow are called "bolts." These are much shorter than arrows but several times heavier. There is an optimum weight for bolts to achieve maximum kinetic energy, which varies depending on the strength and characteristics of the crossbow. Modern bolts are stamped with a proof mark to ensure their consistent weight. In order to accommodate the groove that the bolt rests in, bolts typically have only two fletches, rather than the three fletches commonly seen on arrows. Crossbow bolts can be fitted with a variety of heads, but the most common is a four-sided point called a quarrel. Some crossbows were made to fire stones or lead bullets. Primarily used for hunting wildfowl, these had a double string with a pouch between the strings to hold the projectile.

 Lian Nu (multiple shot crossbow) from the Wubei Zhi (military encyclopedia) without a nut
Lian Nu (multiple shot crossbow) from the Wubei Zhi (military encyclopedia) without a nut

The mechanism that holds the drawn bowstring, called a nut, was usually made of bone, ivory or metal, and the trigger mechanism of metal. Bronze triggers with safety notches are known to have been used on crossbows from at least 200 BC in China. Complicated iron triggers are known in Europe from the early 1400s. Leonardo da Vinci designed many trigger mechanisms for crossbows, ultimately producing a "hair trigger" that could be released with very little finger strength.

The prod was often lashed to the stock with rope, whipcord, or other strong cording. This cording is called the bridle of the crossbow. Much as a horse's bridle, it tends to loosen over time, and must be carefully re-bound when appropriate.

The strings for a crossbow are typically made of strong fibers that would not tend to fray. According to W. F. Patternson, whipcord was very common; however linen, hemp, and sinew were used as well. In wet conditions, twisted mulberry root was occasionally used.

History of the use of crossbows

Elephant-mounted double-bow arcuballista and a wheel-mounted bouble-bow arcuballista of the Champa kingdom
Elephant-mounted double-bow arcuballista and a wheel-mounted bouble-bow arcuballista of the Champa kingdom

According to Guinness World Records(2004), the earliest reliable record of crossbow usage is in the Battle of Ma-Ling, Lingyi, China at 341 BC. By the 200s BC, the crossbow (nǔ, 弩) was well developed and quite widely used in China. Crossbows have been found among the soldiers of the Terracotta Army in the tomb of emperor Qin Shi Huang (260-210 BC) [4]. The first western reference to the crossbow is to the gastraphetes ("belly-bow") of early Hellenistic period (ca. 400 BC). The Romans called the crossbow an arcuballista (hence name "arbalest"). They did not employ it as a massed weapon, but used it as a scout weapon and for hunting. It served the same purpose in Western Africa, with enslaved Africans bringing the technology to America.[5] In the American south, the crossbow was used as a hunting weapon when firearms or gunpowder were unavailable because of economic hardships or isolation. Light hunting crossbows were traditionally used by the Inuit in Northern America, as well as being found throughout Eurasia and the Indonesian Islands.

Chinese Chuangzi Nu "Little Bed Crossbow", alias Double-bow Arcuballista
Chinese Chuangzi Nu "Little Bed Crossbow", alias Double-bow Arcuballista

Up until the seventeenth century most beekeepers in Europe kept their hives spread across the woods and had to defend them against bears. Therefore their guild was granted the right to bear arms and is commonly depicted carrying heavy crossbows.

In the Finnish national epic, Kalevala, depicts Joukahainen ambushing the hero Väinämöinen with a crossbow. The legendary hero of Switzerland, William Tell supposedly shot an apple from the top of his son's head using a crossbow, and went on to start the war of liberation by ambushing the landreeve Gessler.

A modern sculpture showing a Medieval crossbowman drawing his bow behind his pavise. This crossbow shows one of the simpler mechanisms for drawing a powerful crossbow: A strap is attached to the archer's belt, a hook on the end of the strap engaging the bowstring. Holding the crossbow down by putting his foot through the stirrup, he draws the bow by straightening his legs.
A modern sculpture showing a Medieval crossbowman drawing his bow behind his pavise. This crossbow shows one of the simpler mechanisms for drawing a powerful crossbow: A strap is attached to the archer's belt, a hook on the end of the strap engaging the bowstring. Holding the crossbow down by putting his foot through the stirrup, he draws the bow by straightening his legs.

Crossbows were used in European warfare from roughly 800 to 1500 A.D. They almost completely superseded hand bows in many European armies in the twelfth century for a number of reasons. Although an expertly handled longbow had greater range, equal accuracy and faster rate of fire than an average crossbow, the value of the crossbow came in its simplicity: it could be used effectively after a week of training, while a comparable single-shot skill with a longbow could take years of practice. The invention of pushlever and ratchet drawing mechanisms enabled the use of crossbows on horseback.

The Saracens called the crossbow qaws Ferengi, or "Frankish bow", as the Crusaders used the crossbow against the Arab and Turkoman horsemen with remarkable success. In the armies of Europe[6], mounted and unmounted crossbowmen, often mixed with javeliners and archers, occupied a central position in battle formations. Usually they engaged the enemy in offensive skirmishes before an assault of mounted knights. Crossbowmen were also valuable in counterattacks to protect their infantry. The rank of commanding officer of the crossbowmen corps was one of the highest positions in any army of this time. Along with polearm weapons made from farming equipment, the crossbow was also a weapon of choice for insurgent peasants such as the Taborites.

Crossbowmen among the Flemish citizens[7], in the army of Richard Lionheart, and others, had two servants, two crossbows and a pavise shield to protect the men. One of the servants had the task of reloading the weapons, while the second subordinate would carry and hold the pavise (the archer himself also wore protective armor). Such a three-man team could fire 8 shots per minute, compared to a single crossbowman's 3 shots per minute. The archer was the leader of the team, the one who owned the equipment, and the one who received payment for their services. The payment for a crossbow mercenary was higher than for a longbow mercenary, but the longbowman did not have to pay a team of assistants and his equipment was cheaper.

Hussite crossbowman with arbalest and his shield bearer
Hussite crossbowman with arbalest and his shield bearer

Mounted knights armed with lances proved ineffective against formations of pikemen combined with crossbowmen whose weapons could penetrate most knight's armor. This led to the development of new cavalry tactics. Knights and merceneries deployed in triangular formations, with the most heavily armored knights at the front. The knights would carry small, powerful all-metal crossbows of their own. Crossbows were eventually replaced in warfare by gunpowder weapons, although early guns had slower rates of fire and much worse accuracy than contemporary crossbows. Later, similar competing tactics would feature harquebusiers or musketeers in formation with pikemen, pitted against cavalry firing pistols or carbines.

Although it is an often-repeated belief that both Pope Urban II in 1097 and the Second Lateran Council under Pope Innocent II in 1139 banned the use of crossbows against Christians, scholars who have closely examined the original sources believe that Urban II never made any such ban, and that the Second Lateran Council's prohibition (which has various possible translations) applied to ordinary bows as well as crossbows, and perhaps to all missile weapons in general.[8]

Modern crossbows

Modern recurve crossbow
Modern recurve crossbow

Modern crossbows are often made with a similar technology to modern bows, though spring steel is still sometimes used. Composite materials such as fibreglass can be employed for either compound, recurve or simple bow structures. As with ordinary compound bows, compound crossbows use pulleys or cams to provide a mechanical advantage.

Modern crossbows are used for target shooting, as noiseless military weapons and in some places for hunting.

Laws on crossbows

For crossbowhunting in the U.S. a person generally has to have a disability or special license to use one.

Pistol crossbows are strictly controlled in many Australian states due to their concealable nature.

In German law on weapons crossbows and firearms are equated in their legal status as weapons(WaffG Anlage 1 1.2.2), but in contrast to guns, acquisition, possession, trade and production of crossbows requires no license (WaffG Anlage 2). Because of their definition as weapons, but without further restrictions, any crossbows can be used by minors under custody of competent adults. Fishing and hunting with crossbows is prohibited.

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ Needham, Joseph (2004). Science and Civilisation in China, Vol 5 Part 6. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521087325.
  2. ^ A Crossbow Mechanism, by Stephen Selby, 2001
  3. ^ ChinaCulture.org "The Crossbow"
  4. ^ Weapons of the terracotta army
  5. ^ Notes On West African Crossbow Technology
  6. ^ Verbruggen, J.F.; Second revised and enlarged, edition, in English translation (1997). The art of warfare in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. Boydell&Brewer. ISBN 0-85115-570-7.
  7. ^ Verbruggen, J.F.; Second revised and enlarged, edition, in English translation (1997). The art of warfare in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. Boydell&Brewer. ISBN 0-85115-570-7.
  8. ^ Turner, Monte (2004). The Not So Diabolical Crossbow: A Re-Examination of Innocent II’s Supposed Ban Of The Crossbow at the SecondLateran Council. Self-published thesis.


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