Banned Crossbow? Some History of the Medieval Crossbow.

medieval crossbowSince the crossbow pistol is basically a mini crossbow, it’s history is intertwined with it’s big brother.  The crossbow dates back to China in 600 BC.  It was widely used in early Asia warfare.  In 1066, the Normans and William the Conqueror introduced the Medieval crossbow to England.  It became a popular weapon for centuries to come.  During the Middle Ages the crossbow basically replaced the traditional short bow and arrow for a number of reasons.

The advantages of the Medieval crossbow was that it was easier to shoot than a standard bow and arrow.  It also could be preloaded so soldiers were ready to fire anytime.   Also it took less skill, training, and strength to shoot than a bow and arrow.  It meant that young and old soldiers alike could fire them.  Archers were traditionally very expensive to train and took years of training but crossbowmen could be trained cheaply and quickly.  This caused huge mercenary armies to form during this time.  The most notable is the Genoese crossbowmen who were one of the most respected military corps during the First Crusade.   They fought on land and at sea for Italy and European powers.

medieval crossbow 1The disadvantage of the crossbow was it took longer to load, longer to build, and they cost more than a regular bow.  A crossbow’s firing rate was only about 1-2 bolts per minute where as long bows could fire 10 arrows per minute.  The long reload time also meant that crossbowmen would be vulnerable to attack while reloading.  In order to combat this they developed pavies which were large shields planted in the ground that crossbowmen hid behind while reloading.  Some of these shields were up to 5 feet tall and wide enough to protect the soldier.   Other crossbowmen were outfitted with shields on their backs and would turn around before reloading.

Early crossbows were made of a single piece of ash or yew wood and were coated in glue or varnish to protect the wood.  Strings were commonly made from whipcord, linen, hemp or sinew.  The string was then soaked in glue to make it moisture resistant.  Light crossbows could be drawn by hand, whereas heavier crossbows needed a cocking aid.  Some had hinged levers while others relied on rack and pinion systems called “cranequins”  Some even had multiple cord and pulley devices called windlasses.  These early crossbows could shoot up to 400 yards in some cases and would penetrate heavily armored Knights.

Given the lack of skill needed to use a Medieval crossbow and it’s devastating effect on heavily armored Knights, many leaders seen the crossbow as an honor less weapon.  In 1139 Pope Innocent II tried to ban crossbowmen by saying crossbows were a weapon hated by God and unfit for Christians.  Again in 1215, the Magna Carta tried to ban foreign born crossbowmen.  It was not uncommon for captured crossbowman to have their fingers cut off during this time.  Despite their efforts, the Medieval crossbow remained popular until the end of the 15th century in Europe.   During this time, the Medieval crossbow was also used for sports such as hunting but it is more remembered for the damage it did on the battle field.  Today, we mainly use crossbows for target practice and hunting but militaries still use it in a few cases.

Photos by nik gaffney, Euginio Larosa

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