Dates Back to: 11th Century

The crossbow is a type of elastic ranged weapon that consists of a bow-like assembly or prod mounted horizontally on a main frame or tiller. A crossbow shoots bolts or quarrels.

Because crossbows use a locking mechanism, crossbowmen were able to handle stronger draw weight and hold for longer with significantly less physical strain, providing them with better precision.

The arrow-like projectiles of a crossbow are called bolts. Shorter than arrows, they can be several times heavier. They were fitted with a variety of heads, some with sickle-shaped heads to cut rope or rigging and others with a four-sided point called a quarrel.

Medieval Weapons: Medieval Crossbow

History of the Crossbow

Crossbows played a significant role in the warfare of Medieval Europe and East Asia.

The first crossbows were invented in ancient China and cause a major shift in the role of projectile weaponry. Unlike the bow, which required considerable training, physical strength and expertise, the crossbow was simple to use, cheap to make and physically undemanding. It was the perfect weapon for large numbers of untrained conscript soldiers.

A small body of evidence point to the fact that the ancient European crossbow was primarily a hunting tool or minor siege weapon. The earliest European crossbow designs featured a transverse slot in the top surface of the frame. A vertical rod thrust up through a hole in the bottom of the notch forced the string out. A later design implemented a rolling cylindrical pawl called a nut  held in place by wood, ivory or metal to retain the string. 

Crossbows were used at the battle of Hastings in 1066 and by the 12th century they had become a common battlefield weapon. By the 13th century European crossbows used winches and a variety of spanning mechanisms such as winch pulleys, cord pulleys, gaffles, cranequins, and screws.

A crossbowman in a 1225-1250 English manuscript.
A crossbowman in a 1225-1250 English manuscript. BL Royal 12 F XIII The Rochester Bestiary. Image courtesy of British Library and Manuscript Miniatures.
Sketch of a crossbow made of wood and iron by Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1500.
Sketch of a crossbow made of wood and iron by Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1500. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Types of Crossbows

  • Gastraphetes: A crossbow described by Heron of Alexandria in the 1st century AD, who believed it to be the forerunner of the catapult.
  • Pistol Crossbows: These were smaller crossbows that could be shot from under the arm. Later, stocks of the shape that would then be used for firearms were added. 
  • Arbalests: A late variation of the crossbow first used in Europe during the 12th century. Much larger in size, the arbalest had a steel prod and greater force. The strongest windlass-pulled arbalests could have up to 22 kN (5000 lbf) of force and be accurate up to 100 m.

Using Crossbows

"Ballestero", or crossbowman from Spain, 1400. The Draper Fund, New York City.
"Ballestero", or crossbowman from Spain, 1400. The Draper Fund, New York City. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

The crossbow is handheld in a similar fashion to the stock of a long gun. Crossbows use a locking mechanism to maintain draw. The shooter only needs to pull the string into lock and then release the shot by pressing a lever or trigger.

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