Today, crossbows are rarely used in war but aren’t non-existent. They can be great for launching a zip line, shooting at targets carrying explosive or flammable materials and have even been modified for use in mine retrieval. However, they’re no match for firearms and you’d have a hard time convincing soldiers that it’d be a good idea to bring a crossbow to a gunfight. Instead, they’re mostly used for hunting deer, taking blubber biopsies from whales and threatening the Queen of England when breaking into Windsor Castle. As they’re not technically a firearm, crossbows don’t come under the same restrictions and can often be bought without so much as giving your name. An issue raised in the UK in 2018 when Anthony Lawrence killed his neighbour and shot a pregnant woman in the head with his unregulated crossbow. The woman was able to pull the bolt out of her head but Lawrence grabbed it and sunk it into her neck. Remarkably she escaped and survived, calling for greater crossbow regulation.
While crossbow attacks are now, thankfully, rare this wasn’t always the case. At times they’ve been the weapon of choice for armies and the key to success in sieges and battles worldwide. But, while most people think of crossbows as a medieval invention and picture them being used to pick off attackers from battlements they were around long before. Thousands of years before in fact. While records are non-existent, Chinese archaeologists Yang Hong and Zhu Fenghan believe they’ve discovered ancient crossbow triggers made of bone, stone and shell dating back to 2000 BCE. More concrete proof of the Chinese invention of the crossbow lies in tombs 3 and 12 at Qufu where the world’s first handheld crossbows with bronze triggers were discovered, buried with their owners in the 6th century BCE.
The crossbow found great popularity in China, particularly in defending their northern border against nomadic tribesmen armed mainly with bows. Historically, Chinese combat had been dominated by chariots. 2-wheeled, horse-drawn war vehicles that provided a platform for commanders and mobility for archers and soldiers. They were in use until the end of the Warring States period in 210 BCE. But, they required flat land and as lighter armour was adopted by enemy infantry they were losing their speed advantage. A new kind of warfare developed which favoured mobility and manpower over the status symbol of the chariot. It required large numbers of infantry, standard cavalry and, of course, the ranged attacks and armour piercing capabilities of crossbowmen. They became such important weapons that armies consisting of 30 – 50% crossbowmen were not unheard of. They were well developed by then with a range of 170-450m, handheld, standardised by the government and they’d gone into mass production with complex triggers. Examples were even found with the Terracotta army, buried in the tomb of Qin Shihuang in 210 BCE.
China was also responsible for many deadly developments and variations. The classic crossbow was strong but could only loose 1 to 2 bolts in 20 seconds. This deficit led to the invention of the chukonu, the repeating crossbow, one of the World’s first semi-automatic weapons. Multiple bolts were stored on top of the bow and when one was shot another would drop into its place. This took bolt rate to 10 in 20 seconds, a terrifying increase. There were, however, trade-offs. The chukonu was fast but had a much shorter range of 73-180m and wasn’t as powerful. Bolts would no longer rip through a man but would only wound. To counteract this disadvantage the crossbowmen began tipping their bolts with poison, maintaining their kill rate and psychological advantage.
The crossbow reached its peak popularity in China during the Han dynasty during which time 2 important improvements were made. Firstly the trigger mechanism received a bronze casing. This enabled the string to be held at a higher tension than the previous versions which had installed the trigger directly in the wooden frame, increasing the power of the bolts. Secondly, a scale table was added to the trigger mechanism. This increased the accuracy of the weapon enabling the crossbowmen to hit their targets more easily.
The Han Dynasty was also the first to implement the countermarch method with crossbows. It was used to provide a continuous volley of crossbow bolts that’d overwhelm the enemy, giving them no opportunity to retaliate. To overcome their slow reload time, Crossbowmen would be arranged in a rectangular formation. The front line were the ‘shooting crossbows’ with the 2 rows behind as the ‘loading crossbows’. When the front row loosed their bolts, they’d be immediately replaced by the loaders who’d be ready to loose theirs. The whole thing would be coordinated by rows of drummers, providing both precision and a psychological torment to the enemy.
After the Han dynasty and during the Three Kingdoms period the crossbow fell out of fashion, but more improvements were made. Military advisor Zhuge Liang (181-234 AD) was often credited with the invention of the repeating crossbow due to a mistranslation. But, as it predated him by hundreds of years were fairly sure he had nothing to do with it. However, he was responsible for its refinement and improvements. His mechanisms allowed reloading to be achieved one-handed with levers that pulled the string back and dropped new bolts into place. This allowed the crossbow to be kept stationary, increasing the fire rate. He also invented the multi bolt crossbow which could shoot between 2 and 10 bolts at once. Less accurate, but much more intimidating for the enemy who would be faced with a hail storm of bolts.
The crossbow was such an important development for China that its technology was a closely guarded secret they endeavoured to keep out of enemy hands. When a crossbowman fell in battle his crossbow would be retrieved for fear of it being copied.
The Ancient Greeks and Romans
Meanwhile, in Ancient Greece, they were developing the crossbow for themselves. Admittedly much later than the Chinese, but that’s true for a vast number of human developments. The first example of a crossbow-like weapon in Europe was the Katapeltikon, dating to sometime in the 5th century BCE. Ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus described the machine as a mechanical arrow shooting catapult. A large piece of siege equipment that could be used to tear down the walls of a town or city to allow invasion.
Smaller handheld versions were later invented by engineer Ctesibius in the 3rd Century BCE. His weapon was named a gastraphetes or ‘belly shooter’ as it would be cocked by pressing the stock into the stomach as the string was drawn back. This allowed it to store more energy than the bows at the time, increasing the power and damage done. They were large and heavy and often had to be propped on stands or walls to use so, a smaller ‘sniper’ version named Scorpio was also developed.
The ability of these crossbow-like weapons allowed more and more powerful projectiles to be propelled, revolutionising siege warfare. During the siege of Rhodes in 305BCE Demetrius employed a moveable siege tower armed with the weapons. Powerful ballistae would be used on the bottom lever to destroy walls, parapets and smash through large concentrations of enemy forces. Meanwhile, the upper levels would house men with gastraphetes and Scorpios who’d snipe off the remainder. The suppressing fire provided by the tower allowed them to get ladders to the walls and invade more easily.
These ancient Greek and Roman war machines were clearly the inspiration for the handheld crossbows of the Middle Ages. However, they fell completely out of use between 400 AD and 946AD with no archaeological or textual evidence from the period. And, when they made their reappearance it wasn’t welcomed by all.
In medieval times, societies were divided into commoners and elites. Armies consisted of great and heavily armoured noble knights, swathes of unwashed foot soldiers and highly trained archers. Though not considered aristocracy, the archers were far above the common foot soldier and enjoyed titles to land and some wealth and privilege. The foot soldiers had no opportunity for progression. Training with the sword was expensive and intense and archery was a tremendous skill which had to be started in childhood. The upper body strength required to draw the bow needed years of training and developing their speed and accuracy demanded years more on top of that. Common citizens couldn’t put in the time to train as they’d be too busy working just to feed themselves. Knights felt invincible, armoured, on horseback, foot soldiers were no threat to them.
The crossbow changed everything. Training took weeks, not years. The string could be pulled with both arms or by a hook on the belt, enabling already strong back and leg muscles to be used instead of spending years conditioning the arms and the method was very much point and shoot. Now, any commoner on the street could suddenly be armed with a weapon capable of piercing armour and taking down a knight, Duke, Earl or Viscount. They tried to lessen the threat by donning stronger and thicker armour but were matched with developments in crossbow speed and strength and a man
The crossbow’s popularity was rising and spread to England by Norman invaders in 1066. Fearing for their lives and the disruption of the hierarchy, which benefitted them greatly, the nobles turned to the church for help. They claimed that the sword ‘knew where it struck’ and was an honourable weapon. The crossbow, however, was a scoundrel’s weapon which ‘knew not who it might injure.’ How could the justice of God be handed down through his warriors if an untrained pagan could loose a random bolt and kill him in one? So, in the late 1090s Pope Urban II declared a ban on crossbow production and use. However, few listened and crossbow production carried on, at a rate of thousands per year. In 1139 the European nobility tried again to encourage the church to issue a ban, if not on all crossbows they should at least be banned from being pointed at Christians. And so, Pope Innocent II declared ‘the deadly art, hated by God, of crossbowmen.’ a crime that would condemn all those who made or used them against Christians to receive the penalty of anathema and be doomed to an eternity in Hell.
Richard the Lionheart
Despite multiple attempts, the crossbow was so revolutionary and valuable in battle it only increased in popularity. It was particularly favoured by the King of England – Richard I, the Lionheart who was skilled in its use. He was said to enjoy it so much that during the siege of Acre in 1191 when he fell ill, he ordered his troops to carry him into battle on a silken stretcher from which he picked off enemies from the castle walls with his crossbow. His effort boosted the morale of his troops and is given some credit for their victory.
Ironically, as he was so instrumental in the rise in the popularity of the crossbow, it was a crossbow bolt that eventually killed him. In March 1199, while besieging a tiny castle, Chalus-Chabrol, he was struck in the shoulder by a crossbow bolt. The wound turned gangrenous and would soon kill him. Before his death he asked for the crossbowman to be brought before him, it turned out to be a boy who said he’d been seeking revenge as Richard had killed his father and brothers. In a final act of mercy, the King forgave him and told him to ‘Live on, and by my bounty behold the light of day.’ Asking for him to be freed and given 100 shillings. Unfortunately for the boy, as soon as Richard died, mercenary captain, Mercadier had him flayed alive and hanged.
In spite of the king’s death, the popularity of the crossbow remained and spread across Europe. One of the most famous military corps of the Middle Ages were the Genoese Crossbowmen. An elite mercenary force, highly skilled and available for hire to the armies of Europe. In addition to their crossbows, they were armed with a dagger, light armour and a large shield called a pavise. This shield was vital to their success as it’d provide cover during the long reloading times. Often they’d also bring 2 assistants. One to support the shield and the other to reload, doubling their attack rate. They came to prominence during the crusades and were used in the siege of Jerusalem and the Battle of Jaffa. They inflicted such heavy losses that after defeat at the siege of Parma, Emperor Frederick II ordered all captured crossbowmen to have their fingers cut off so they couldn’t use their weapons again.
However, not everyone believed the crossbow and the crossbowmen to be superior to the classic longbow and the English, in particular, were slow to give them up. Although a longbow requires extensive training, that slows the production of an army, they were faster and more efficient. Their differences were put to the test at the Battle of Crecy in 1346 where 5000 Genoese crossbowmen, hired by the French, were used in the first line against the English. Unfortunately, the pavises had been left behind, leaving them without cover. Things worsened when a rainstorm hit. The English removed their bowstrings and stored them under their caps to keep them dry. The Genoese couldn’t remove the crossbow strings without tools and they were drenched, becoming stretchy and ruining their tension. They were completely outmatched with the bows firing faster and farther than they could achieve and they turned to retreat. When the French knights witnessed what they believed to be cowardice they were ordered by Charles II, Count of Alencon to ‘Slay these rascals, for they shall let and trouble us without reason.’ The English took an easy victory losing very few men, seeing off the remaining French with more arrows from the long-distance bows.
Despite the defeat, however, the Genoese remained well respected and were used, in dry conditions, until the introduction of guns. Gunpowder had been around for centuries and used in bombs, fire lances and hand cannons. But, once it was given a trigger there was no stopping it. The first triggered gunpowder weapon was the arquebus, which matched the crossbow in fire rate but was far more powerful. It won the Battle of Cerignola for Spain in 1503 marking the first victory for firearms and the beginning of the end for the crossbow’s use in warfare.
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