Crossbow is easier to aim with and furthermore releases its projectile with significantly bigger draw force than a traditional bow. The improvement already known by ancient Chinese made it efficient and threatening weapon of medieval battlefields but also usable for hunting. Crossbows still have their place in present shooting sports or military and their ammunition is not ordinary arrows but bolts (sometimes called quarrels) featured with metal tips.
Origins and history
Crossbow was probably invented in old China or somewhere in South East Asia region about 2500 years ago. The first known mention can be traced in The Art of War, a book from 5th century BC attributed to Chinese strategist Sun Tzu. Simultaneously the first Greek crossbows, the gastraphetes, were introduced. Ballista, the first catapult, appeared around 400 BC. This siege engine often used by Romans was based on gastraphetes, although it naturally was larger and threw stones instead of bolts.
European archers of Early Middle Ages were aware of crossbows but mostly carried classic bows anyway. Bowmen could shoot with triple speed and bow was lighter than crossbow. Another disadvantage was an advanced technology needed to create one which also meant higher costs. As a result crossbow was rare in Europe till 11th century. Meanwhile it kept its popularity in China where it was upgraded to repeating crossbow (Chu Ko Nu) with magazines up to 10 bolts.
First massive application in Europe was done by Normans in decisive battle of Hastings in 1066 AD. They realized that crossbows might shoot only 2 or 3 bolts per minute but their range is up to 200 meters and they can penetrate the enemy’s shields or mail armour. Manipulation was easier and therefore they could be handled by a common soldier enabling him to kill hardly and expensively trained knight in armour. Archers were also equipped for close fights with a knife, an axe or a short sword.
Sudden shift in European military caused by employing of the crossbows eventually persuaded the church authorities to forbid them. To be correct, at the Second Council of the Lateran in Rome (1139) it was decided that using crossbow against a Christian is prohibited. It was still alright to shoot Muslims or heretics and therefore the weapon played important role during the Crusades. However, Arabian enemy was armed with crossbows too which was fatal for English king Richard “the Lionheart” (+1199).
14th and 15th centuries combatants gradually switched from mail to plate armours gaining effective protection against the dangerous projectiles. Another important progress in warfare, spreading of firearms, followed later. In 15th century the crossbows could often be seen in the hands of Hussite fighters or other archers covered behind the large pavise shields, but this sight became relatively rare after year 1500. Nevertheless, crossbows still stayed popular as hunting weapons for centuries. Today it is illegal in many developed countries to use them for this purpose. Some modern military and paramilitary units around the world are equipped with various crossbows.
Crossbow is based on the traditional bow which is installed horizontally on a tiller – a wooden stick. This principle allowed easier aiming utilizing the same technique as with modern firearms shoulder stocks. Curved limbs of the bow were usually made of solid oak or ebony wood and often strengthen by leather or birch bark covering the wood. They had to be firm enough against intensive force which was applied on them every time the weapon was loaded. Soft material would result in dangerous accidents. Later (since 15th century) the steel limbs became available. Present crossbows might have steel tillers as well.
Both ends of the limbs held a bowstring. Typical materials were strong fibres like whipcord or sometimes hemp, linen or sinew. The ways how to draw the string were evolving through the history. Ancient gastraphetes were called so because their rear had to be rested under the bent soldier’s stomach and the string pulled upwards by his bare hands (gastraphetes means “belly shooter” in old Greek). Some progress was achieved about year 1200. The crossbowmen could put their foot in the stirrup mounted on the front end, hitch the bowstring with a special hook carried by their belt and then draw the crossbow simply by straightening the leg. Finally, regular late medieval archer enjoyed his crossbow already equipped with a windlass.
The ammunition for the historic crossbows was carried by the soldier’s belt in the quivers. They were usually wooden and covered in leather. Luxury versions could be also decorated by fur.