The Crossbow

What it was:

What it looked like: Crossbows have the same curved C shape as the longbow, held by a string, but are held horizontal to the ground. It is attached to a wooden body called a stock or tiller, which holds the arrow and has a catch for the string, attached to a trigger for shooting(4).

Dimensions: Ballistas were around 15 feet across and propelled javelins up to 12 feet long and iron bolts weighing around 5 lbs (5). A hand-held crossbow was usually around 24-38 inches in width with a stock around 18 inches. They weighed up to 18 lbs.

How it worked: It gave the bow a trigger so that it could be shot like a modern gun and therefore not need the immediate muscle power to pull back a string. Instead they used different types of mechanisms like a hook on a belt or a screw to pull the string back. Ballistas would be pulled back by a windlass pushed by as many as four men(5).

Range: By the 15th century, with a steel crossbow, the range was about 380 yards, sometimes up to 500(2). Earlier crossbows were thought to have a point blank range of 70 yards but were more often angled up 45 degrees to give them a range of 350 yards. Highest effective was 150 yards, but still able to kill at 300(5).

Materials: Was made, at first, of wood with a sinew string and later slowly added steel or iron to parts of the bow. Early ballistas were made of iron.

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When and where:

Dates it became popular: Ballistas used much before by even the Romans, small hand crossbows introduced to Europe around the 10th century(5). The composite crossbow, made with iron and horn was thought to have come into fashion after the First Crusade in 1099, although wooden onces were still in use during the 1200s(6).

Dates it declined: Used by armies in Europe until around 1535. Used much later by the Japanese until 1895 and even still in use by some Asian groups(5).

Where popular: Popular in France during the Hundred Years War. Most heard of were the Genoese mercenary crossbowmen. Crossbows were used by the English from the 12th century onward but lost popularity as the longbow came into favor in the 13th century(6).

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Who made and how:

Person who made it: Fletcher and bowyer.

Cost: Small crossbows cost around three shillings to five shillings, larger ones five shillings to seven shillings and up to ten shillings. Belt and claw cost around ten pence, a goat's foot lever 25 pence, a cranequin 120 pence, and a windlass 60 pence(1).

Other things needed for it: Quarrels or bolts (both terms for crossbow arrows), hooks or other levers to wind back the string.

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Technological innovations:

What changes occured and when:

  • Crossbows first used in early China around 1200 BC and didn't get to Europe for a few centuries(5).
  • The first images of crossbows in Europe are of Ballistas, a precision siege weapon for javelins(5).
  • The hand held crossbow was brought to England by the Normans in the 10th century but mostly associated with Spain, France and Italy. It was often used for hunting since it could easily be fired from horseback(5).
  • Early on, when bows were made of wood, the string could be pulled back by hand while placing both feet on the bow as leverage, or in a stirrup on the front of the bow(2).
  • Later a hook was added to belts of the crossbowmen, who by bending over would hook the string, and by straightening, would pull the string back. A goat's foot lever was invented for special crossbows to draw the string(2).
  • A windlass is a winding pulley machine invented in the later 14th century, which helped to pull heavier crossbows(2).
  • The stirrup, hook and windlass were all used in England as early as 1215(6).
  • At the end of the use of the crossbow came the cranequine, a metal rachet bar with a winder. This was useful because it was light and easy to pull back, but slower to crank than the windlass (35 seconds versus 12 seconds) yet popular for hunters due to ease of use on horseback(2).
  • Added a back sighting for aim, a notch of wood to place the fingers that could be adjusted to fix aim(2).
  • By 15th century most were made of steel so crossbows could have a better range than a longbow, as well as require less training to use(2).
  • The most powerful were Genoese crossbows (this and their training may have accounted for their being the major mercenary crossbowmen hired in the Hundred Years War by France). This bow was 38 inches wide, 18 lbs, with a pull of 1,200 lbs and a range of 450 yards. It would shoot a bolt of 14 inches and 1/4 lbs but had to use a windlass and was very slow and heavy(5).

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How common a weapon: Very common in continental Europe for warfare and later for hunting. Were ordered in the 20-50 thousand range by the government to be produced for warfare(6).

Battles it was famously used in: Crecy

Primary source quotes:


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Other interesting facts:

  • Banned by the church a few times as an offense to humanity in 1139(3).
  • Crossbow bolts killed both the English Kings William Rufus and Richard Lionheart(5).

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Problems for the crossbow:

  • A longbowman could shoot around three arrows in the same time a crossbowman could shoot one.
  • It could not be tilted at all or else the bolt would come loose, and the arms made there need to be a gap in ranks between each archer.
  • It was very heavy to carry around and very awkward when marching.
  • Very susceptible to weather conditions both because of glue and iron. Believed that the rain before the battle of Crecy helped the English win with their longbows against the damaged crossbows.
  • The iron needed for the bow was also needed for armor and other weapons that were more useful(5).

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  • Much less strength needed to operate since drawn by mechanical means.
  • Much less need for training and very easy to aim.
  • The wounds from a quarrel were much more frightful and much more damaging.
  • Was more effective than other bows in the right conditions, longer range, and better armor penetration and could be used as a club at close range when out of bolts(5).

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  • (1) Longbow - comes of age
  • (2) The Medieval Archer Jim Bradbury, Boydell Press, NY: 1992.
  • (3) A Historical Guide to Arms and Armor, Stephan Bull.
  • (4) Encyclopedia of Archery, W.F. Paterson, St. Martins Press, NY:1984.
  • (5) Arrows Against Steel, Vic Hurley, Mason/Charter, NY: 1984.
  • (6) David S. Bachrach, Crossbows for the King, 2004: The Society for the History of Technology.