30 August 2006

Chapter XX, Part Two

After turning and milling this piece on a lathe and mill using electricity, I became curious how mediaeval balistaria accomplished the same task with only manual tools. The remarkable thing is that brass is quite soft and easily turned, but Payne-Gallwey describes mediaeval bowmakers turning sockets and nuts from blanks of steel. It is difficult to imagine turning steel by hand, even with a so called “pole lathe.” The answer “turns” out to be simply mechanical advantage. Old lathes apparently used a massive wheel rotated manually at first and by water by the end of the seventeenth century. Here are some links on the subject:

29 August 2006

Great Moments In Crossbow Cinema, Part One


28 August 2006

Chapter XX, Part One

The Nut & Socket

The nut and socket hold and release the string. The fingers on the top of the nut hold the string in place when the bow is drawn. The forward end of the trigger fits into a notch cut into the underside of the nut and prevent the nut from rolling forward when the bow is loaded. When the rear of the trigger is pulled, the forward end plunges clear of the notch, allowing the nut to roll forward and release the string. A steel plug ia inserted into the notch to prevent wear.

Jeweler's latheA brass blank

Early locks were made from bone, horn or tusk, but by the time period of our design, the nut and socket were often composed of steel or brass. We began with two brass cylinders for blanks, The first cylinder was turned to a given diameter on a small jeweler’s lathe to form the nut, and a hole was bored through the center of the second cylinder to create the socket. Both pieces were then milled and ground into their final shapes, and will be polished before installation.

25 August 2006

Chapter XIX: Part One

The stock Payne-Galwey recommends that the stock be cut from a single piece of hard wood such as beech to the following dimensions:
  • D to F: 3 feet.
  • D to H: 3.75 inches.
  • Width at F: 1.75 inches.
  • Thickness from D to E: 1.5 inches, then tapering 1.25 inches at F.
  • D to C: 14 inches.

The stock

We followed his recommended dimensions approximately but cut the stock from two pieces of oak that will be fixed together later, which is not how stocks from the period of this design were in fact crafted. Target crossbows from much later periods, using complicated triggers, were made in this manner.

A groove for the trigger

In shaping the stock, we were also guided by plans available from Alchem, Inc., which maintains a fascinating website covering fencing equipment, crossbow manufacturing, furniture and, oddly enough, Lake Erie shipwrecks. Not only do they sell bow irons, trigger locks and steel prods, but they also have available a template for crafting the stock. We were guided more by Alchem’s template and, as a result, our stock is probably a bit shorter than it ought to be. Bows of the fifteenth Century were generally quite long, causing Louis XI, of France, 1461-1483, to have his crossbowmen’s vizors cut short on the right-hand side of the helmet. The ugly squares at the end of the tiller will be trimmed and shaped later, and, hopefully, the end product will be much improved. The recesses cut on the outer faces of each side fit brass plates that hold the nut and socket in place.

24 August 2006

Crossbow Anatomy

Here is the crossbow detailed in Chapter XVIII Payne-Gallwey’s book. He describes the design as the high point of the millitary and sporting crossbow as reached in the fifteenth century. This design remained essentially unchanged until the extinction of the crossbow as a millitary weapon in the early sixteenth century. The design persisted for deer hunting. The steel prod had such tremendous pull that it could only be bent by means of a windlass. Thus, it is variously referred as a Grosse Arbaleste, Arbaleste a Moulinet, Rolling Purchase Crossbow, or Windlass Crossbow. The Windlass Crossbow
  1. Prod: Also known as a lathe (when made of steel). Early prods were probably made from a single piece of yew or ash, which tends to warp, crack or fail under strain. For this reason, such prods were replaced by composite bows, which were made of laminae of whalebone, yew and tendon. This transition occurred during the twelfth century and originated in the Middle East (Turkish bows are an excellent example). With the later adoption of steel lathes, the crossbow regained its dominance for several centuries.
  2. Bow-String: Historically made from hemp or flax twine in essentially the same fashion as bows strings today.
  3. Nut and Socket: Early locking mechanisms were made from horn or bone (or walrus tusk in the case of Scandinavian crossbows). Early chinese locking mechanisms, even those of 2000 years ago, were quite complex, involving several interconnected bronze castings, and even included a rudimentary safety lock.
  4. Stock: The stock was fashioned from a single piece of hardwood, such as oak. In some cases two pieces were joined latterally.
  5. Groove: A groove runs down the top of the stock to guide the bolt. The grooves of later bows were made of brass to protect the stock from ware. The addition of the groove greatly improved the accuracy of the bow and was a significant step in its evolution.
  6. Sight: The arbalist used his fingers to pull the trigger and his thumb to grasp the handle of the crossbow. He would then sight by lining up the first joint of the thumb with the upper edge of the bolt. Target crossbows developed much later used sites similar to those used in recurve archery today.
  7. Trigger: These were often beautiful examples of blacksmithing.
  8. Stirrup: The arbalist held the business end of the bow down and placed his foot through the stirrup to steady the bow while he worked the windlass.
  9. Bow-Irons: These were generally made of steel, although less commonly they were made of brass.
23 August 2006

Great Moments In Crossbow History

We begin our “Great Moments” series with a look at the rise and fall of the crossbow from antiquity through modern times.

  • 2000 to 600 BCE: Several scholars place the invention of the crossbow in China as early as 2000 BCE based on fragmented physical evidence corresponding to locking mechanisms, and a comparison of certain chinese characters. Although no locking mechanisms have ever been recovered dating to that period, it is clear that bronze casting technology in China was sufficently advanced to manufacture metal locks at least as early as 1300 BCE. The first clear archaeological evidence of crossbows dates to approximately 600 BCE, during the Warring States period. 1, 2
  • 500 BCE: The first recorded historical reference to a crossbow is contained in “The Romance of Wu and Yue,” a chinese historical epic authored by Zhao Ye in about 500 BCE. 3
  • 228 BCE: Historical records and several archaeological finds show that crossbows were mass produced on a large scale in China during the Warring States period. Many of the terra cotta soldiers discovered in Emporer Qin’s tombs are armed with crossbows. 4 5

A chinese lock A terra cotta crosbowman

  • 100: Hero(n) of Alexander, mad scientist and so-called inventor of the first steam engine, describes a hand held ballista (the gastraphetes or “stomach bow”). This is the earliest surviving historical reference to a manual crossbow in the west.
  • 385: Vegetius Renatus references crossbows in his millitary treatise De Re Militari
  • 400: Evidence of roman crossbows recorded in roman bas-reliefs now in France. See Payne-Gallwey, p. 43.
  • 1000: The crossbow is in general use throughout continental Europe by this time. Still primitive and constructed of solid wood, the device was probably equivalent to the common short bow in terms of range and power. The crossbow is favored for its accuracy and the ability to hold the bow drawn for indefinite periods. See Payne-Gallwey, p. 31.
  • 1066: The Normans bring the crossbow to England. Although it is widely recorded that the crossbow made its English debut at Hastings, sadly, not one crossbow appears in the Bayeaux Tapestry. See Payne-Gallwey, p. 3, 31, 44.
  • 1099: The Genoese earn a collective reputation as the finest crossbow craftsmen in Europe. The crossbow is used during the siege of Jerusalem.
  • 1100: King William II suffers a fatal hunting “accident” by means of a crossbow.
  • 1139: Crossbow prods (bows) are now manufactured from a composite of wood, horn and sinew. The increased power of the prods and other innovations, such as a groove in the stock to accomodate the bolt, increase the weapon’s accuracy and mechanical efficiency. The wounds caused by the crossbow are so grievous that its use, except against infidels, is banned by the Second Lateran Council on pain of anathema. See also Payne-Gallwey, p. 1.
  • 1189-1199: In spite of the papal mandate prohibiting its use, Richard the Lionhearted reintroduces the crossbow throughout Europe. Richard is an absolute crossbow fanatic, and, though immobilized with fever, insists that his bed be positioned such that he may fire bolts at the Turks during the siege of Ascalon. Although he uses the weapon primarily against “infidels” during the Crusades, it is widely considered divine retribution when he is shot by a crossbow and succumbs to gangrene. See Payne-Gallwey, p.3.
  • 1216-1272: King John and King Henry III, employ vast numbers of foreign mercenaries armed with crossbows. A clause banishing foreign crossbowman is included in the Magna Charta (pdf): “And immediately after the conclusion of the peace, we will remove out of the kingdom all foreign knights, crossbow men, and stipendiary soldiers, who have come with horses and arms to the molestation of the kingdom.”
  • 1272: The longbow comes to prominance in England, almost entirely displacing the crossbow there. The longbow is basically a 6 foot tall solid plank used for archery. At this time it is faster and more powerful than any crossbow on the field. To this day scholars and medievalists argue over the relative merits of the two weapons. See The Beckoning (ollecting sources) C.f. Payne Gallwey, p. 20.
  • 1290 – 1460: The height of the crossbow in continental Europe. Bizarrely, in spite of its obvious advantages over the crossbow at this stage in its development, the longbow is never adopted as a millitary weapon on the continent.
  • 1314: The first instance of crossbow lathes (again, bows) manufactured from steel.
  • 1340: The French employ 20,000 crossbowmen against the English in a naval engagement near Sluys, in Holland. The Battle of Crecy
  • 1346: The Battle of Crécy, where the English longbow was most famously pitted against 15,000 Genoese crossbows. The longbow ruled the day. There is some controversy surrounding the effects of the weather on the crossbows at Crécy, the latter being the odds-on favourites prior to the battle. The crossbows at issue were most likely of composite construction and, it has been shown, susceptible to dampness. Heavy rain the night before has been blamed for the failure of the Genoese crossbows. Gallwey, with characteristic English patriotism, insists that these arguments are misguided and that, rain or no rain, the English would have ruled the day. See Payne-Gallwey, p. 4-6.
  • 1373: Earliest recorded illustration of a cranequin.
  • 1400: The crossbow becomes so important that crossbowmen are now considered elite soldiers. In Spain, a crossbowman enjoys a status equivalent to knighthood, while throughout France and Italy, the position of Master Crossbowman is highly coveted and influential. See Payne-Gallwey, p. 48.
  • 1440: Invention of the the goat’s-foot lever. Steel lathes are commonly in use by this time. Heavy crossbows, drawn by windlasses, offer superior fire power, range and accuracy at the expense of rapidity. The longbow fires 6 times to the heavy crossbow’s once. The crossbow is used primarily in positions of defense, and castle’s are designed to accomodate the crossbow’s dimensions.
  • 1461: The town of Gubbio, Italy, conducts its first crossbow tournament, inviting challengers from nearby Umbria. The annual matches continue to this day. Contestants recently travelled to the U.S. and performed for audiences at the Yarmouth Clam Festival here in Maine!
Members of the Balestrieri
  • 1470: Handguns begin to gradually supersede the crossbow on the continent.
  • 1503: The first in a series of statutes banning the crossbows in England, as a measure to prevent the yeoman from losing proficiency with the longbow. See Payne-Gallwey, p. 33-35.
  • 1522-1525: Except in naval battles, crossbows are abandoned as millitary missive weapons in Europe. By the mid 1530s, the crossbow is abandoned entirely as a millitary weapon.
  • 1650: The crossbow gains great favor as a sporting arm, particularly for taking deer. The first target crossbows are constructed. The stonebow—a double stringed crossbow used to fire pellets—becomes the weapon of choice for birding, and even makes an appearance in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, in which Toby cries, “O! for a stonebow! to hit him in the eye.”
  • 1700: Invention of the so-called Chinese repeating crossbow (though this date is disputed), which is used as a police weapon into the Twentieth Century. (Reconstructing one of these will be our next project here at Balistarius Blog.)
  • 1860: Chinese troops use crossbows, including repeating crossbows, against British invaders at Taku fort. A repeating crossbow discarded by one of the Chinese soldiers is on display in the Tower of London to this day.
21 August 2006

About Balistarius Blog

The Book of the Crossbow

If you want to know anything about crossbows, the most authoritative treatise on the subject still in print is Ralph Payne-Gallwey’s The Crossbow; Mediæval and Modern; Millitary and Sporting; Its Construction, History and Management; With a Treatise on the Ballista and Catapult of the Ancients. The book was first published in 1903, but a reprint is available from Dover Press, retitled somewhat less colorfully as “The Book of the Crossbow.”

Payne-Gallwey not only traces the history of the crossbow in his book, but he also lays out complete plans for building everything from rudimentary wooden crossbows to Chinese repeating crossbows to siege engines. I couldn’t resist the urge to build some of these devices, and resolved to start with the crossbow detailed in Chapter XIX, entitled: The Construction Of A Powerful Crossbow, Such As Was Used In The Fifteenth Century For Killing Deer With a Heavy Non-Poisonous Bolt; The Same Weapon, Of Slightly Larger Size, Was Employed In Warfare From About 1370 To About 1490, Or Till The Time When Military Crossbows Were Generally Discarded For Handguns. Feel free to offer any advice as we follow along through the book.

N.B.: By contrast with the many “DIY armorers” out there, who are serious artisans and craftspeople (see the sidebar), this is just for fun so please excuse the ugly hacks.