As we continue to make technological advances in modern weaponry, we start to wonder: where did it all start? Our journey begins in the 4th century BC with the invention of the handheld crossbow.
Similar to the bow and arrow, a crossbow is a handheld mechanical, ranged weapon that shoots arrow-like projectiles. We will explore when the crossbow was invented and Chinese crossbows, common terminology, its history, and the revolutionary uses for crossbows today.
Before we start let’s take a look at some common terms and gain an understanding of what they are:
An Arbalest is the earliest medieval crossbow. The term “arbalest” orignates from the Roman name ‘arcuballista’ which literally translates to a “bow missile-throwing engine”.
An arbalest had a steel bow and a bow stave that was made out of elm or ule and it was more heavy and expensive than earlier models. Using an arbalest also required more skill than regular crossbows.
The medieval tiller is the wooden frame that the bow is mounted on. Tillers are also known as the wooden ‘stock’.
The prod, also known as the ‘lath’, is the bow of the crossbow.
Nuts are found halfway down the tiller which is a rotating catch made of brass or horn. The bottom of the nut has a notch where the bowstring fits.
Crossbow strings were made out of plaited or braided hair or thread. The strings were pulled back to engage with the nut and the added pressure on the trigger would release the nut and send the string forward.
The lock is the release mechanism which included the string, sears, and trigger lever. The Chinese called it ‘ji’.
Spanned also means ‘load’. For example; saying, “I am spanning my crossbow” translates to, “I’m loading my crossbow”.
The bolt is a short, heavy arrow that’s designed for crossbows. Bolts are also referred to as ‘quarrels’. They fit inside of a groove that’s cut along the tiller. Bolts are either made of ule or ash and have two fletchings on the back.
Fletchings were made of feather, leather, wood, or even parchment paper. Some fletchings had spiral designs that allowed the bolt to spin mid-flight.
A quiver is a box that was hung from the belt that held all of the bolts.
The pavise was a large shield that soldiers carried on their backs. These shields were made in Pavia, Italy and are so named after the city. Soldiers would set the pavise on its stand (located in the back) which would give them enough time and protection to reload and fire their weapon safely.
Simply put, it’s a belt with a hook on it. As the name suggests, when it was time to span their crossbow, soldiers would wrap the belt around their waist and hook the belt to the bowstring.
In doing this, the soldier could use his full body weight to lift the bowstring and connect it to the nut.
The windlass is a metal frame that attaches to the butt-end of the tiller. It has to be wound up to pull the bowstring over the nut and then wound back down to secure the string to the nut. Once the weapon was ready, the windlass could be removed.
The cranequin was a device used to arm a crossbow by cranking a gear. It was meant to be a faster means of loading the crossbow. The cranequin has a toothed wheel which connects to a toothed bar that has a double hook at the end.
To use it, soldiers wound the bar down and attached the string to it. Next, the bar would be wound back up to pull the string onto the nut. When the weapon was all set, the cranequin could be removed.
This loading mechanism was much more manageable to use than the windlass and gave a higher advantage to soldiers on horses (because they didn’t have to set the weapon down).
Origins of the Crossbow
The invention of the crossbow revolutionized military firepower. Although there is no concrete evidence, crossbows are believed to have originated around or before 400 BC in China. Let’s take a look at a couple of places where the crossbow has made a lasting appearance.
The crossbow was introduced to China during the Warring States period (481-221 BC). This period lasted over three centuries where neighboring Chinese states fought mercilessly for dominance and territory. Throughout this span of time the crossbow evolved which made it easier to carry and improved firing accuracy. This highly sought after weapon led to the success of the Han and Song empires.
There are historical documents such as The Art Of War, dated between the 5th and 3rd century BC, that mention the use of the crossbow in battle. Crossbows have been found buried in different burial sites including the Chu burial site in Yutaishan, Jiangling County, Hubei Province. Archaeological evidence also reveals that the Terracotta Warriors that are buried with Qin Shi Huangdi carry their crossbows.
The Crossbow Design and Use
The Chinese crossbow, also known as ‘nu’, has a wooden stock and bronze-headed arrows. Triggers and firing mechanisms were made out of either bronze or metal. In the beginning, it was designed in such a way that the soldiers had to plow the bow vertically under their feet whiled the string was pulled back and secured. In the middle of battle, who has the time to do all of that?
As time went on, the belt hook was invented so that soldiers could remain on their horses while spanning their weapon. The progression of technological advancements for the crossbow allowed soldiers to not only shoot multiple bolts at a time but helped them cover further distances (increasing kill rate).
Zhou Dynasty (771-256 BC)
Succeeding the battle of Ma Ling (341 BC), the Zhou dynasty became widely known for its elite use of the crossbow. Qualifying crossbowmen had to endure seven years of training and be able to march 100 miles without stopping. The treatise, ‘Six Secret Teachings’ by T’ai Kung, stated that the ideal army has a total of 10,000 men with 6,000 of them being crossbowmen and the rest fight with swords and spears.
Han Dynasty (206-220 BC)
Over several hundred thousand crossbows were created during the Han dynasty. It is believed that it was the use of the crossbow that led to the state’s victory. During this time, the crossbow underwent two important upgrades. Bronze casings and scale tables.
When installed in a bronze casing rather than a wooden one, the triggering mechanism creates more tension. This greatly improved the crossbow’s shooting range.
Putting a scale table on top of the triggering mechanism, with the bow’s improved range, created better accuracy of the shooting and made hitting the target a little easier.
With these improved weapons, the Han could easily cause monumental damage to the enemies troops and lure the enemy into deadly crossfires.
Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD)
The Tang dynasty did not see any improvements to the crossbow. As a result, the crossbow lost some of its popularity. In this period the ideal army now consisted of 20,000 soldiers with only 2,000 of them being crossbowmen. Historian CJ Peers says, “…the T’ang had so little confidence in the crossbows that they equipped its users with halberds (battle axes) for self-defense…One source gives the ratio of bows to crossbows on the ideal army as five to one”.
Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD)
Following the Tang dynasty, the crossbow received more modification which once again made it the weapon of choice. The Wu Ching Tsung Yao (1044 AD) credits the crossbow saying it’s “the strongest weapon of China, and what the four kinds of barbarian most fear”. It was the invention of the repeating crossbow that brought the favored killing machines back to life.
Repeating crossbows could fire a bolt every couple of seconds, but reduced accuracy. As well, there were several other improvements made to the crossbow including sights which improved accuracy, increased firing power, and stirrups to help cock the weapon.
With these new developments, crossbows gained growing popularity among civilians. As a result, the government tried to keep people having military weapons in their home. Unfortunately, civilian usage of the crossbow increased and was used for hunting and passing the time despite the ban on certain types. Sound familiar?
The Impact On War
Firstly, the crossbow was a technical weapon which required experience and intermediate knowledge on the weapon. Because their neighbors were a little less developed, this gave the Chinese states a huge edge. The crossbow also had a hand in the discontinuation of chariots in battle because the bolts could easily pierce the riders of the slow-moving vehicles (they also didn’t provide much protection).
Since the crossbow continued to make game-changing advancements, increased development of improved military armor became more common. Metal became a leading ingredient to offset the damage of a crossbow bolt. However, at close range, a bolt could still penetrate all of that metal.
Furthermore, crossbows made killing less personal. The increased firing range gave the army a way to attack from afar which in turn kept them away at a safe distance. These key features made the crossbow and efficient piece of weaponry up into the 19th century.
China was not the only place that utilized the power of the crossbow. The exact date that crossbows came into play is unknown, but researches guess that they made an appearance around 5th century BC. Documents show that the earliest known crossbow was call ‘gastraphetes’, crossbows used by the Ancient Greeks.
The gastraphetes was also referred to as ‘belly shooters’. It was so named because to cock it, the crossbowmen had to rest his stomach in a concavity at the butt-end of the stock and press down with all of his strength. According to Heron of Alexandria, the gastraphetes was powered by a composite bow. Composite bows were more traditional bows made from horn, wood, and sinew.
In his ‘Belopoeica’, Heron states that the gastraphetes paved the way for the catapult (invented sometime prior to 399). As it’s mentioned, the gastraphetes inspired several other inventions that would soon take its place.
The gastraphetes was later transfigured into ‘oxybeles’. Oxybeles are pretty much larger versions of the gastraphetes. The only difference was that the gastraphetes had a stand. Soon, oxybeles would give birth to the first ‘ballista’. The ballista used twisted ropes to provide tension and torsion power so that its arms could swing forward. Because of this, the ballista was commonly known as a torsion catapult rather than an evolved version of the crossbow.
These new weapons were famously used in siege warfare. Research shows that Phillip ll’s siege of Perinthose used these weapons as well as arrow throwing machines. Even though it’s argued that torsion catapults were the first siege warcraft machines, there is archaeological evidence that proves that crossbows were the first.
By 3rd century BC, Dionysius of Alexandria brought the repeating crossbow back to life. It was known as the ‘polybolos’ and it worked like a chain drive. Contrary to the Chinese repeating crossbow, the polybolos used a crank to fire.
The only known evidence that Rome had crossbows was in the writings of 4th-century author Vegetius. These devices spread to a handful of states which led to Rome acquiring the crossbow. Vegetius calls it the ‘acruballista’ in his work. He doesn’t go too in-depth with describing these machines but he does mention that the crossbows were well-known devices.
Arrian of Nicomedia, a Greek historian, and military commander notes in ‘Ars Tactica’ that missiles had been shot from a machine. He goes on to say that mounted soldiers could work this device in full gallop. Researchers believe that these crossbows share similarities with the medieval crossbow.
There are rumors that the Romans also used a rotating ballista, but there’s no archaeological evidence to support those claims. As Rome was falling, the ballista was replaced with the springald: a smaller version of the ballista with inward swinging arms.
Due to Rome’s heavy influence, other European countries began incorporating the use of the crossbow. The reappearance of the crossbow took place in 947 during the siege of Senlis. Shortly after, the crossbow shows up again in 984 at the siege of Verdon. Crossbows were also used at the battle of Hastings in 1066.
However, Pope Urban ll banned the use of crossbows in 1096 because the thought of a peasant being able to kill, with elementary experience, a mounted knight terrified him. But, by the 12th century, crossbows once again became a common weapon used in battle. Most European armies, except England, preferred the use of the crossbow rather than the hand bow.
In the 1300s crossbows with steel, laths began to emerge. Unfortunately, these devices needed a mechanical aid like the cranequin to load. These crossbows could only shoot two bolts a minute and required the use of a pavise. Wooden laths still remained popular up into the 1400s in spite of the new steel laths.
Crossbowmen earned widespread popularity and were regarded as high status, professional soldiers. They were also paid more compared to the foot soldiers. The commanding officer of the crossbowmen corps was one of the highest positions in the army at the time. By 1525, the use of the crossbow had faded out and was replaced with firearms. Nonetheless, crossbows became a popular hunting weapon in Europe until the 18th century.
The Islamic World
There is no mention of crossbows being used in the Middle East. Generally, Arabs didn’t care too much for the crossbow and considered it foreign. Muslim crossbows had more complex triggering mechanisms than the European type. They were referred to as the ‘qaus al-rijl (foot-drawn bow), the qaus al-faranjiyah (Frankish bow), and the qaus al-zanburak (bolt bow). It wasn’t until the Crusades that the crossbow gained heavy traction.
In The Alexiad, Anna Commena gives a detailed description of the powerful weapon. Muslims characterized the weapon as an invention created by the devil because it could easily penetrate armor. The ban of the crossbow by the Catholic church is also believed to be a reason why people said it was invented by the devil.
Islamic armies used crossbows to defend their castles and were operated with or without stirrups. A footstrapped version of the crossbow was pretty popular in Iberia.
Africa and Americas
As far as we know, crossbows were primarily used as a hunting and scouting weapon. Most of our knowledge on the usage of the crossbow in Africa comes from the writing of Henry Balfour. Henry Balfour was a British archaeologist and founded the Pitt Rivers Museum.
Henry Balfour says that the crossbow was present in West Africa as early as 1861. In his book, The Origin of West African Crossbows, Balfour talks about how common crossbows were among the Fan and Mpongwe tribes of the Gaboon and Ogowe Rivers. Samples of these old-fashioned weapons are actually housed in the Pitt Rivers Museum. According to Balfour, crossbows were kept within the limits of the regions, but different variations of the crossbow could be found everywhere.
North and South America
There’s little to no research on the appearance of crossbows in North and South America. In South America, crossbows were used by conquistadors for hunting and warfare. Although they weren’t very common, crossbows were the go-to weapon when firearms and gunpowder were unavailable due to economic hardships.
The Inuit were traditionally known to use light hunting crossbows.
Modern Day Use
Leisure Crossbow Archery
Nowadays, crossbows are mainly used for hunting and sporting activities. Some people use them for target shooting instead of the typical bow and arrow.
There are two types of crossbow archery: match crossbow and field crossbow. They vary depending on what style of shooting you prefer. In both types, competitions are conducted in two different formats: the 10m match and the 30m match. The 30m match require competitors to shoot at a target, in both standing and kneeling positions, that’s 30m away. On the other hand, the 10m format takes place in indoor ranges and makes competitors shoot at a target that’s 10m away.
There are also crossbow building competitions that are a bit more low-key. Competitors pretty much compete for bragging rights.
There are several states in the US, and other countries such as Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia that continue to use the crossbow for hunting. In North America, there are certain rules and regulations that hunters have to follow in order to use a crossbow.
- Crossbows take less energy to use than regular bows.
- Crossbows are easier to use for younger and disabled hunters.
- Because they can be shot while in a resting position, they improve accuracy and precision.
- They shoot faster than regular bows.
- Unlike regular bows, crossbows are heavier and larger.
- Due to their size, they can be hard to carry around.
- Crossbows take longer to span than normal bows.
Nationally, there are certain regulations set in place for using a crossbow, but the same cannot be said in regards to worldwide regulations. There are various armies and police forces that are armed with crossbows. Because of the lack of restrictions, these devices are mostly used as silent weapons and sometimes shoot poisoned projectiles. It’s documented that Serbia forces used the crossbows in anti-sniper operations against the Kosovo Liberation Army during the Kosovo war.
Due to their accuracy, crossbows still prove useful as a powerful weapon for military use.
Types of Modern Day Crossbows
Now that we’ve explored the origins of the crossbow and some of its modern day uses, we’ll take a look at some of the crossbows that are used today.
The recurve bow is the earliest modern crossbow. As we can see by the name, the curves located at the end of the bow point away from the archer. The curves keep the string in place to prevent it from snapping out. To do this, archers lock the string in place to keep from hurting the weapon or themselves.
Modern-day crossbows are made from Carbon Fiber, Magnesium, or Aluminum Alloy and they’re easy to maneuver. They have a longer draw length than the other bows which boosts its projectile acceleration. The recurve crossbow is a pro hunter favorite and is mostly used on expeditions where large game will be hunted (because of the speed and power).
Although they’re easy to change, recurve crossbows cause a strain on the strings, so you might be forking out money a time or two for new strings. Also, recurves are bigger and can be a little awkward to carry around.
The compound crossbow is one of the most popular crossbows today. As complex as the design is, the compound cross is pretty easy to use. The limbs on this bow are a lot stiffer than the other bows which makes them more energy efficient. Its unique design is weather resistant and more durable.
The compound crossbow operates on a pulley system. Some of these pulleys are connected to the opposite limb using cables. Once the string is pulled back, the pulleys and cabled move to bend the limbs. This stores a lot of energy on the shot and makes it extremely fast.
Their short draw length makes them easier to use and their narrow curves make them less awkward to carry in a tighter space. However, recurve crossbows are sensitive to impact and can start to malfunction if it’s repeatedly dropped. So, be careful!
Rifle crossbows are the most advanced model of the crossbow. This model combines the ideas of the normal crossbow with the luxuries of the rifle, making it the coolest hunting tool. It was specifically designed to improve accuracy and aim.
They’re made out of heavy-duty fiber and have technologically advanced sights that can help the archer hit targets 250 ft. away. This state of the art device requires serious power to cock the bow and fire the shot. That’s because it stores a lot more energy.
The repeating crossbow is one of the easiest crossbows to use. It has the ability to shoot repeatedly on an automatic system. If you’re looking for something that takes a little less work, or you’re just starting out, then this crossbow is perfect. Hunters claim that the repeater crossbow can shoot three times faster than a normal crossbow. Due to its performance abilities, it’s not the ideal crossbow for hunting and requires no technique or much experience.
Pistol crossbows, also known as self-cocking pistols, are easy to use and like the repeating crossbow, are perfect if you’re just starting out. They’re mostly used if you’re hunting small game like rabbits or raccoons.
Pistol crossbows are usually made out of fiberglass and strong plastic and have a draw weight of 80 pounds. They have a self-locking mechanism that makes them safe and easy to use.
The bullet crossbow also referred to as ‘stone bow’, shoots bullet-shaped projectiles. These projectiles are made out of lead, stone, or clay. Similar to the pistol crossbow, bullet crossbows are used for hunting small animals such as rats and birds. Some bullet crossbows come with a string slot and others have a double string design.
The Chinese creation of the crossbow revolutionized military warcraft and paved the way for modern crossbows. To incorporate this use of this deadly weapon meant that armed forces stood a better chance at gaining a victory. Starting in China and traveling all the way to Africa, the crossbow saw monumental development and was was eventually regarded as a high-class weapon.
As more modern weapons such as the firearm came into play, the crossbow transitioned into a tool used for hunting and sports. Although, it’s not uncommon to still see crossbows being used by police forces in other countries.
The crossbow now comes in a variety of styles and continue to embark on upgraded performance capabilities and much more. It’s not likely that we’ll see the crossbow fade anytime soon, and I look forward to seeing the future advancements that the legendary crossbow has in store for us.