This article discusses the history of the crossbow and its use from ancient times all the way to modern times. You will see how the crossbow was used in ancient times and how it is used in modern times as well.
And you get to see a cool crossbow that was used in World War One.
Below you have the main takeaway from the entire article.
Crossbows have been in use since at least 6 century B.C. in China. It was widely popular during the warring states period in China. At almost the same time, the ancient Greeks made their own crossbow named Gastraphetes. Due to it being easier to use than bows, the crossbow remained popular in armies from ancient times all the way until the end of the medieval period when it was replaced by firearms.
Now, let’s delve deeper. We will start with Chinese crossbows. You will get to see a cool “crossbow machine gun” that was able to fire darts at rapid speeds. Truly a technological wonder.
Crossbows In Ancient China
The oldest archaeological evidence of crossbow use was found in modern-day China. The earliest recorded trigger mechanism, made from bronze was found in Shandong province in China. And it’s dated to be from 6 century B.C. As seen here.
Which is amazing in itself. The use of metal triggers likely came after decades of experimentation. In any case, the oldest sign of crossbow use comes from China.
Given the archaeological evidence, it is highly unlikely that the crossbow was first invented by the Greeks since the Chinese have written accounts of its use dating back to 5 century B.C. In fact, in the famous military book “The Art of War” which was penned in the early 5th century B.C. crossbow use is mentioned there.
“Energy may be likened to the bending of a crossbow; decision, to the releasing of a trigger.“Art Of War ch. 5 verse 15
So, why use a crossbow instead of a bow? What’s the point since bows do good enough of a job?
The original purpose of the crossbow was to reduce the time it took to train an ordinary citizen for military duty. While archers took months and years to develop their upper body strength to fire the bow repeatedly a crossbowman was trained in a matter of weeks. This greatly reduced the time it took to train an army and made ordinary citizens into lethal soldiers.
That is the main point of a crossbow. To greatly reduce the time it takes to train a soldier that is able to inflict damage from afar.
So, if an army lost a thousand archers in a battle, they could train a thousand peasants to field a crossbow in a matter of weeks. Hence soldiers became easily replaceable, which came in handy during the Chinese “Warring States” period.
How Effective Were Chinese Crossbows?
According to the Chu-Yen slips found by archaeologists in 1930, ancient Chinese crossbows were effective at distances of over 300 meters or more than 984 feet. The average draw weight of crossbows in the Han dynasty was 380 pounds.
That was a typical crossbow in use. Although there were crossbows with much heavier draw weights, those were rare.
Heads up! To see an article on the complete history of Chinese Archery, just click here, if you want. It will open another tab with the article so you can read it after you finish this article.
A Cool Chinese Invention
The Chinese invented a repeating crossbow. It was a crossbow that readied a bolt to be fired automatically every time you pulled the string back.
The main drawback of these repeating crossbows was their lack of piercing power. And the range was not that impressive either. So, while it was incredibly advanced for its time its effectiveness on the battlefield is questionable. It simply lacked piercing power which is why it is said the bolts themselves were dipped in poison to increase its lethal power.
The oldest archaeological find dates the oldest repeating crossbow to about 4 century B.C. So, the Chinese were very advanced when it came to crossbows.
But they were not alone in their use. A civilization in another part of the world started using them as well. Of course, we are talking about Ancient Greece.
Crossbows In Ancient Greece
The Greeks started using crossbows as well since at least the 3rd Century B.C. Their version of the crossbow was named the “Gastraphetes”, or the belly bow. It was named the belly bow because the crossbowmen had to reload the crossbow by pressing it against their stomach to pull the string back.
The first written account of Gastrephetes comes from Heron of Alexandria in the first century A.D. and his work on military equipment named Belopoeica. In it, he describes the Gastrephetes as having more power than a standard bow. Given that he draws his information from the work of an earlier Greek engineer from the 3rd century B.C. it’s safe to say that the use of crossbows in Ancient Greece started at least in the 3rd century B.C.
From the small handheld crossbow, the Greeks even built mighty siege weapons, which were basically a bigger version of a crossbow. But we won’t touch on those.
So why did the Greeks start using the crossbow?
It was because it was easier to train an ordinary citizen to use a crossbow than an actual bow and it had more piercing power than an ordinary bow.
Let’s proceed to the next major culture of the ancient world. Rome!
Crossbows In Ancient Rome
The early Roman empire for the most part stayed away from the use of the crossbow, although they were familiar with it due to their conflict with the Greek colonies in Sicily and their later conquest of Greece. In the late Roman empire, they started using the Arcuballista, which was a handheld crossbow.
So, yes the Romans were late to the party in terms of using the crossbow. They started big with their ballista which was a siege weapon, then shrunk that down to a Scorpio, which was both a siege weapon and that could be used in open battle then they developed their own crossbow which was the Arcuballista.
Heads up: If you want to see a detailed article on the Roman Arcubalista click here. Clicking the link will open the article on the Roman Arcubalista in another tab.
The picture above shows the use of “Manubalista”.
Roman commander Arrian in his military manual “Tactica” describes Roman cavalry units training with a handheld device able to shoot bolts. This suggests that crossbows saw limited use in the Roman military although no major archaeological evidence was found yet that supports this notion.
They also used the crossbow-like device called the Arcuballista. It was smaller than the device pictured above. Likely the crossbow that was used on horses.
Now, let continue to the Medieval era. And, you get to see the reason why the Pope banned the use of crossbows in Europe. which I find funny, to be honest.
Crossbows In Medieval Europe
Crossbows spread across Europe with the help of the Roman empire. The earliest known depiction of crossbow use comes from the Pictish stones that date back to the 9th century A.D. Which seems to depict the use of a crossbow in hunting.
Obviously, the black circle with an arrow pointing to it is my work. That’s it, from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to around 9th century A.D. there isn’t much evidence around depicting the use of crossbows before then, although surely they were in use.
We have evidence of crossbow use in the 10th century with the siege of Verdun and most importantly the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Where the Normans used crossbowmen to beat the local English forces.
The only written account of this battle comes from the “Song of Hastings” written by Guy Bishop of Amiens in 1067. In it, he describes the use of crossbows in the actual battle.
How Popular Was The Crossbow In The Middle Ages?
The use of crossbows was extremely popular in the middle ages. The main benefit of crossbows was the ease with which even an ordinary peasant could be taught to use them. Unlike an ordinary bow, the crossbow was easily mastered by anyone and had greater piercing power than ordinary bows.
So, what did an ordinary medieval crossbow look like?
Well, at first it was made from wood. As you would expect. But as metallurgy progressed in those times crossbows suddenly started being built with metal components that were able to support greater draw weights.
The standard wooden crossbow used in the early Middle Ages had a draw weight of up to 200 pounds. Crossbows which were made out of composite materials, meaning they had wood, animal horn, and sinew glued together had draw weights of up to 1500 pounds. Much like their steel counterparts in the late Middle Ages.
As you can see in these replicas above. The wooden crossbow was much easier to make yet lacked the piercing power of the metal crossbow on the right of the picture.
As metallurgy progressed the knights were able to construct better and better armor which made even the English Longbow almost obsolete. Hence why there was a need to upgrade the design of the crossbow.
How Were Crossbows Used In The Middle Ages?
In battle, the crossbows were used by crossbowmen firing at a rate of 2 bolts per minute. During the latter half of the Middle Ages, the crossbowmen hid behind shields called pavise while they reloaded their crossbows.
The use of Pavise shields was popular in the second half of the middle ages but they were not always available.
Which illustrates the main drawback of the crossbow. All that piercing power came at a cost of a slow rate of fire. Being able to fire just 2 shots a minute in battle is a huge disadvantage, compared to a medieval English longbow which was able to produce rates of fire of about 6 to 8 a minute. Depending on the archer’s skill.
How did crossbowmen reload their crossbows if it took them half a minute for one shot?
Take a look at this short three-and-a-half-minute youtube video which explains this in a great way.
Why The Catholic Church Tried To Ban Crossbows
In 1139 Pope Innocent II issued an official ban on the use of crossbows against Christians. Thus in effect meant a ban for the entire European continent which was in effect predominantly Christian. Despite the official ban under the threat of ex-communication armies in Europe continued using crossbows in a battle against other European kingdoms.
They tried banning it because the crossbow was such a powerful weapon that even a peasant could in effect take down a knight. Thus the crossbow gave too much power to the common man which jeopardized the social hierarchy of the continent.
A peasant with a crossbow could take out a lord in full armor. During peasant revolts, you can see how dangerous that could be for elites. Of course, the ban went into effect but no one paid any attention to it.
How Crossbows Fell Out Of Use
The crossbow started to fall out of use with the introduction of gunpowder weapons. The reason why the crossbow was replaced is simple: It was even easier and cheaper to equip armies with gunpowder weapons than crossbows. And gunpowder weapons provided more piercing power at greater distances for a fraction of the cost.
That is why crossbow was replaced on the battlefield by muskets and other gunpowder weapons. As you can see here, a similar thing happened to bows.
Crossbow Use In World War 1
This is going to be bizarre. But I checked it and it is true. In WWI the Allies used large crossbows for the purpose of throwing hand grenades into enemy trenches. It was named the “Sauterelle”. It could throw a hand grenade to a distance of up to 140 meters.
It definitely did not change the course of the war and given that it was replaced by a mortar later in the war it is safe to assume the allies saw how dumb of an idea it really was to use a medieval weapon in a modern war.
But bless their hearts for coming up with something so stupid.
The Peruvian army to this day uses crossbows for establishing ziplines across difficult areas. It’s more for transport than actual combat.
In modern times the crossbow is used predominantly by bowhunters and historical enthusiasts. It has its uses just outside of war.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. If you wish you can check some other articles on history and archery such as:
- To see a full breakdown of the Roman Arcubalista and how it was used just go here.
- Go here to discover more information on the history of Chinese Archery.
To see how Arrowheads evolved through the ages feel free to click here for an article on just that.