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Updated on December 18, 2016

Crossbow, or arbalest, is a missile weapon formed by fastening a bow at right angles in a tiller or stock. The drawn string is held in a latch or lock and is released by a trigger. It threw a bolt (arrow) 7 to 15 inches (18-38 cm) long. Unlike the longbow, the crossbow could be set in advance and held ready, an advantage in hunting. Hunting bolts had many shapes and were carefully finished; war bolts, called quarrels, were crude shafts with square iron heads.

How It Works

With early crossbows the string was drawn back to the latch with both hands and the bow, or lath, was of wood. Improvements soon followed such as the 'belt and claw' where a hook, hung from a waistbelt, was used to bend or span the bow. The cord and pulley and the windlass with winding handles were both in use in the 13th century, the latter giving a power advantage of about 40:1. Composite laths of horn and sinew appeared in the 12th century and steel at the beginning of the 14th century.

The cranequin (or rack), employing toothed gear wheels, was the most powerful spanning device with an advantage of over 100:1. All systems and designs continued to be used as well as lighter military crossbows, bent by the goat's-foot lever, where speed of shooting was more important than power. The latch on most crossbows until the first quarter of the 16th century was a rotating cylinder, or nut, carved to take the drawn string and slotted for the tail end of the bolt. A long trigger lever engaged the underside of the nut directly. As the crossbow began giving way to firearms for military use, interest redoubled for hunting and sport.

Trigger mechanisms were often complex with a chain of interacting levers to provide a hair trigger. Though the nut continued in use, other forms of latch appeared, such as the tumblers with a rocking or semi-rotary action. Light stone, or pellet, crossbows were widely used against small game from the beginning of the 16th century, followed in the second half by more powerful bullet-shooting forms with a built-in spanning lever. A development of this type was popular in England from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century. The advantage offered was the relative silence that would not scare game in the same way as a gun. This feature led to the modern use of the crossbow for game preservation or veterinary purposes where a drugged dart can knock out even the largest animals.

The constant effort to increase the crossbow's power resulted, first, in a composite bow made by adding horn and sinew to the original wood, and second, in the arbalest, created by switching to a steel bow in the 15th century. Increased stiffness required mechanical bow-drawing aids. A sliding lever, the "goat's-foot," would set a composite bow, or let a boy or a woman set a light hunting bow. The power to bend an arbalest came from a crank and gears or from a tackle of windlass and pulleys. An arbalest would penetrate most armor at close range but never approached the longbow for accuracy or distance. Extreme range was 120 yards (110 meters).

History of the Crossbow

Early crossbows were made of wood, and the string was drawn by hand. Steel crossbows were later developed that required a winch attachment to enable the archer to load. This type of crossbow was used primarily as a military weapon and was called an arbalest.

Crossbows were widely used during the Middle Ages, and earlier forms were known to the Romans. They were able to fire iron bolts or arrows with considerable accuracy. The oldest example of a latch and trigger is in bronze from China, 228 BC, and these were widely used in the Han dynasty, 221 BC-AD 220. The Chinese also devised the repeating crossbow and existing examples hold up to 20 bolts in their magazines. There is Greek and Roman evidence for use of early hand ballistas, but the crossbow appeared for general military purposes at the end of the 10th century. It was effectively used by the Norman attacks on the Byzantines in 1096, and also during the Crusades in Palestine.

It appeared in warfare near the end of the llth century, but was a poor war weapon. Even at its best it was useless when wet weather relaxed its thick gut bowstring. Nevertheless, a man too weak to draw a longbow could set a crossbow. Since the crossbowman could sight his target directly, as the longbowman could not, he bypassed the archer's long training. Crossbows defended fortifications. In the field they provided a mass discharge ahead of advancing knights.

The crossbow was extremely powerful but was difficult to manipulate. In England it was replaced in about the 14th century by the longbow, a much lighter weapon that could be fired more rapidly than the slow-action crossbow.

Companies of crossbowmen, formed in many cities for their defence, became societies that continued to exercise their art. Several exist today and shoot both horizontally at targets and at the popinjay in the form of a bird, or birds, on the top of a tall mast. Elegantly decorated heavy sporting crossbows, with draw-weights up to 450 kg, spanned with the rack, were introduced in the 16th century and used against deer and wild boar.

Hunting with simple crossbows continues in parts of South-East Asia, where they are of ancient use, and in parts of West Africa following their more recent introduction from visiting whalers, on which they are used to launch light harpoons from boats.

Modern crossbow enthusiasts include the old companies, mostly using powerful versions needing some spanning device, but other societies limit the power by requiring the string to be retracted by hand. The British crossbow target championships are shot at a 5 zone, 70 cm target with 5 dozen arrows at 60, 50 and 40 yards (54-86, 45-72 and 36-57 metres). The international round is shot at a 10 zone, 80 cm target with 30 arrows at 65 metres, 50 metres and 35 metres.


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    • ata1515 profile image

      ata1515 5 years ago from Buffalo, New York.

      Great hub. Bow hunting is really interesting and I would love to get a functioning historical replica of a crossbow.