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The Medieval Crossbow

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A medieval crossbow.

The crossbow. Instantly recognisable to kids who love playing 'bows and arrows', it has a layman's reputation for power and accuracy. Yet in some circles, especially in the UK, it is often referred to disparagingly as no match for the mighty longbow. Both were weapons of choice, however, from the late 11th Century through to the end of the 15th Century, when gunpowder became more prevalent.

Terminology

  • Prod - This term applies both to the individual halves and to the complete single piece which can make up the bow.

  • Stock - The main body of the crossbow to which the prod is attached. Houses the tickler and nut which comprises the release mechanism.

  • Tickler - The 'trigger' which is used to release the string and thus shoot the bolt.

  • Nut - The rotating catch which, in conjunction with the tickler, holds the string of the crossbow in the spanned position. When the tickler is used, the nut is freed and the string releases to shoot the bolt.

  • Spanning - The act of moving the string onto the nut of the crossbow thus preparing it to shoot. There was no safety catch on 15th Century or earlier bows, so in this state the crossbow was potentially lethal to anyone it was pointed at, intent notwithstanding.

  • Quarrel - a square-headed bolt or arrow especially for a crossbow.

  • Bolt - Common, interchangeable, term for quarrel.

  • Pavise - A large curved shield specifically designed for the crossbow-man to hide behind during battle. They were self supporting and were stood on the ground, not held by the crossbow-man. It protected him while he spanned the crossbow.

  • Draw Weight - The weight required to draw the string from the rest position to the shooting position (the nut on the crossbow or the archer's shoulder on the longbow).

  • Draw Length - The distance the centre of the string moves from the rest position to the spanned position1.

  • Loose/Loosing - Term applied to the act of shooting the bolt. To loose a bolt or arrow is to shoot it. Archers were commanded to 'Ready, aim, loose!' when required to shoot on command.

Shooting

Crossbows and long/short bows, were not fired, they were shot. This is because the term 'firing' only appeared with the popular use of handguns and then was retrospectively applied to the act of shooting anything. During the period of use, you would shoot a crossbow. If you told someone to fire a crossbow they would look askance at you, since to 'fire' something meant to set it on fire and burn it - eg, using burning arrows to fire a building. When reading around the subject, any document referring to the 'firing' of a bow or crossbow should be immediately viewed with suspicion as it's likely to have been either dumbed down or written by someone with little knowledge of the subject.

The Crossbow Prior to the 11th Century

The crossbow is a very old weapon, stretching back some 5000 years in China. Perhaps the most famous Chinese crossbow was the repeating bow. This was relatively low-powered due to the single-handed operation of the spanning lever, and was used by local law enforcement. Due to its therefore shorter range, the bolts it shot were often poison-coated to ensure that they had the desired effect on the target. One of the earliest and greatest exponents of its use were the Romans. They developed it from the simple handbow right up to siege weapons. There is also at least one account and archaeological evidence of a Roman Repeating Siege crossbow. This was stationary, mounted on some form of stand and used to accurately bombard a target with multiple ballista bolts. Interestingly, when the Romans left Britain, so did the crossbow. It was not reintroduced until the Norman Conquest. Although there are no crossbows depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry, records of the time refer to payments made for crossbow-men and its use continued in Europe.

The 11th to 15th Centuries

The crossbow has had a long and chequered history, particularly in England where it has lost out to the longbow. There are several reasons for this, but the English victories using the longbow at both Crécy and Agincourt, and the political gains made from this, are a major cause.

The devastating effect of the crossbow and the wounds it could inflict are reflected by early weapon bans. In April 1139, the Second Lateran Council, under Pope Innocent II, banned the use of the crossbow against Christians2. The Latin text is as follows:

Artem autem illam mortiferam et Deo odibilem ballistoriorum et sagittariorum, adversus christianos et catholicos de cetero sub anathemate prohibemus.
Translation: We prohibit under anathema that murderous art of crossbowmen and archers, which is hated by God, to be employed against Christians and Catholics from now on.
This ban was reissued many times over the following years, although it continued to be largely ignored by many. Similarly, the Magna Carta banned the use of the crossbow as a battlefield weapon in England. This was, again, ignored by all concerned.
Article (51) Et statim post pacis reformacionem amovebimus de regno omnes alienigenas milites, balistarios, servientes, stipendiarios, qui venerint cum equis et armis ad nocumentum regni.
Translation: As soon as peace is restored, we will banish from the kingdom all foreign born knights, crossbow men, sergeants and mercenary soldiers who have come with horses and arms to the kingdom's hurt.

Crossbow Development

Early bows had plain wooden prods, often utilising similar woods to the bow. As time went on, laminated woods and sinew were used. The bows were spanned by sitting down and placing the bow over the feet, then drawing the string back towards you and hooking it over the nut. Due to this the crossbows were referred to as one-foot or two-foot bows, depending on whether you would use one or both feet to do this.

Later bows, from the 14th or 15th Century, started to use metal prods and draw weights which gave much greater reliability. There were also other technologies developed to improve efficiency. For example, the stock of the crossbow was often angled very slightly upwards (as a modern rifle is) so that when aimed on a flat trajectory at a man's head at 50 yards, the bolt would hit him no lower than his chin. The stocks and the bolts were often shaped to remove unwanted wood. This is because the greatest friction is between the bolt and the crossbow stock. If you shape the bolt so that only two points of it rest on the bow (like an hour glass on its side) there is less friction. Alternatively, the bow stock would be tapered towards the end so the bolt was only in contact with the stock for half its length when shot.

One misconception about the crossbow is that it was in direct competition to the longbow. Although very different, they're often compared as they have a similar mechanical design and are both ranged weapons. It would be like comparing a sniper rifle with an AK47. Both very good at their job, but when you absolutely, positively have to kill every Frenchman on the field, 5,000 longbow archers is what you need! However, if you're protecting a castle or a ship, from behind defences, then a crossbow is by far the better choice. This is due to its smaller size, greater accuracy and ease of use. Indeed, the crossbow was still used on ships after the bow had been replaced by the gun.

Comparison

The longbow, while very effective, is not the greatest weapon of its age. Otherwise, everyone would have used them. The French retained a small force of longbow archers. However, they never achieved the success or recognition of the English longbow archers. This was mainly due to the perception that the time, effort and cost taken to train a competent longbow archer was just not worth it. Many European countries relied instead on mercenary groups, such as the renowned Genoese crossbowmen.

Range

The crossbows used in battle have a longer and more effective range than the longbows. This is due mainly to the poundage, a typical battlefield crossbow having anything up to 1200lb draw weight whereas the heaviest longbow would be in the 150lb area. The projectile also has an effect. The crossbow bolt is smaller and offers less resistance. When compared on equal draw weight, the crossbow and longbow are roughly equal on range, the crossbow slightly losing out to the longbow in this Researcher's experience.

On even ground, the longest verified longbow shot was about 300 yards long. The crossbow could be effective to 100 yards more than that. They've been used to shoot across the Menai Straits 3 before now. The heaviest longbow weighed up to 150lb, whereas the crossbow would be 500lb plus. So the comparison is not of like with like. If like for like poundage is compared, and this researcher has done some experimentation in this area, a 100lb longbow seems to have further range than the crossbow since the arrows are developed to 'fly' and are lighter. The crossbow bolt is not. It is short, sharp, and to the point. A 2.5-ounce head is common for a warhead bolt on a light (100lb-150lb) crossbow.

Speed

The crossbow is much slower than the longbow. During the peak of the longbow's usage, an archer had to be able to loose 12 arrows a minute and was expected to loose more. A competent archer could manage 17 or so - and an exceptional archer could manage up to 24 per minute. Comparatively the crossbow managed far less, although there is no single figure due to the different methods of spanning the bow.

  • Windlass (400lb or greater) One per minute (or less!)
  • Cranequin (250lb +) Two or maybe three if lucky!
  • Goat's foot leaver (250lb - 350lb) Three per minute
  • Belt Hook (125lb +) Three to four
  • Hand-spanned (equal to or less than 125lb) Seven, or possibly eight per minute (seven is the best this Researcher has managed!)

Reliability

Both the bow and the crossbow suffer from the fact their strings are sensitive to damp and rain. Once damp, the string expands and the poundage drops. Longbows have another reliability issue peculiar to themselves. When a longbow is fully drawn, it's in fact three quarters broken. This is another reason they are not as accurate, since the archer would want to minimise the amount of time at full draw. Metal prod crossbows obviously do not have this problem.

Ease of use

To properly be able to use a longbow you had to be trained, every week, from the age of five onwards. An archer would not be considered properly proficient unttil they had reached their late teens. With the crossbow, anyone can pick one up and get the bolt somewhere near the target. To be good, lots of practice is still required, but not as much as with the longbow.

Accuracy

A long bow can be very accurate over shorter distances, but since the arrow is longer and lighter it is more susceptible to the wind and other factors. Hence, it's less accurate the further it travels.

If you were defending a castle, a crossbow's smaller size made it easier to manoeuvre in the enclosed archers' platforms and through the slits. Especially for vertical movement. In fact there was one Spanish arbalister who used the crossbow long after the invention of muskets as he was quicker and more accurate than they could possibly be. He was an exception though.

Reputation

The longbow enjoys, in the UK anyway, a very good press following Crécy and Agincourt. But closer research of those battles shows that it wasn't quite the decisive weapon it is made out to be. Crécy would have been very different if the Genoese hadn't got their bowstrings wet and been unable to use them. They were then ridden down by the French knights on their own side.

Apparently soldiers were very close to using the longbow in the American war of independence. This was due to its ease of manufacture and capability for killing or maiming large numbers of people.

The range of the longbow was increased by using 'flight' arrows. These were much lighter and not really designed to do much damage. The intent was to frighten and rout the opposing side by having huge numbers of arrows falling out the air on them and clattering on their armour. Anyone unprotected could still easily be injured.

General

If you look at paintings of the time, you will see the crossbow more often levelled straight at the opponent, whereas the longbow is aimed at an angle. This is another area where the range myth comes in, since an angled release will carry the projectile further. It also demonstrates clearly the difference in usage. A longbow archer would try to bring the arrow down on top of the enemy, in large numbers but the crossbowman would go for a single, fatal shot.

Longbows do manage to stay in the game because, even though the draw weight is so much lower, the arrows and the bolts both leave their respective weapons at about the same velocity. This is because the ends of the longbow are further apart (six feet or so) and have longer to build up the speed of the arrow. The crossbow on the other hand typically has a span of two to three feet, so the ends of the bow do not move as far, thereby not having time to speed the bolt up as much. Obviously a 500lb crossbow with a six-foot bow would completely devastate a longbow of six feet. These are called siege weapons and are another subject.

Contemporary terminology for Crossbowmen

Arbalestier: old French
Arcubalistarius, Balistarios: medieval Latin
Arbaletrier: modern French
Arbalister, Arbalester: medieval Spanish.

These terms are considered by many to have given rise to several surnames in European countries such as:

The English Alabastar, Alabester, Alabasters, Arblasts, Balsters, Balistarius, Albalestarius, Arblaster, Balister
The French Larbalestier, L'arbalestier
The Spanish Ballesteros4

The names are thought to be derived from official titles for those who held a position as a retained crossbowman or as a crossbow maker.

References

  • The Book Of The Crossbow - Ralph Payne-Gallwey ISBN 0486287203
  • The Devills Enginne - Gary G. Ball ISBN 1858041597
  • This Researcher's own experience!
1A well-documented 15th Century assassin's bow from Italy had a draw weight of 90lb and a draw length of two inches. It shot six-inch steel bolts and was an effective way of out-voting your political opponents.2Although some historians dispute this motivation assigned to the ban.3A 14-mile channel of the Irish Sea, separating Anglesey from Caernarvonshire, North Wales.4Some may recognise this from the name of Seve Ballesteros, the famous golfer.

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