Medieval Crossbow History and Technology

by Macabee Callard

Certainly one of the most prominent inventions (if not the most) of medieval technology was the crossbow. Technically, crossbows had been invented in Dynastic China (circa 700 B.C, around the time of the rule of the Zhou dynasty.) But the crossbow was invented in europe during the early medieval period. This weapon would become one of the most dangerous tools of medieval warfare. The thing that openly made it so dangerous was the fact that it took next to no training. You could give some a crossbow, teach them how to load it, and bam. You have a fairly dangerous soldier. That was the opposite of true with the longbow.The longbow was like a family heirloom; sometimes one would be past down in a family. You had to come from a family of longbowmen- you couldn’t just be any old bloke. The longbow took a life of training; learning about angles, wind resistance, and just learning how high to shoot in relativity to your target. 

The crossbow had much more force propelling the bolt, so you didn’t always need to find how high to shoot; sometimes you could just aim for the enemy because your crossbow could shoot perfectly straight. Now, there are some downsides to the crossbow; since it has a more complicated trigger and propulsion system, the person firing it probably has no idea how to repair it or how to even treat it sometimes. Now, the person firing the longbow has dealt with it their whole life, and usually knows how to fix it. A prime example of this is the battle of Agincourt. I want to save this battle for future papers on heavy knights and cavalry, so I’m not going to go into full detail on this battle. It deserves it’s own paper. All I want to say is the longbowmen unstrung their bows when it started raining, but the crossbowmen had a more complicated weapon, and they did not know how to unstring it. Because of this, their strings that were made out of animal intestines sagged and weren’t able to shoot accurately, while the longbowmen had stored them in their hats and took them out when the rain stopped. 

I am now going to go into the second half of my paper, about crossbow mechanics. The crossbow had a lot in common with some guns; even though it didn’t use a chemical explosion to propel its ammo, it had a barrel-like tube and a stock. It used a trigger mechanism and didn’t take much training. The crossbow was the continuation of mass-production that the Romans started, where equipment does not show individuality, but rather is a common, ranked, uniform that fits you in as a regular soldier. 

    When you pull the trigger (silver) back, the nut (gold) is pushed by the top of the trigger back. The prongs on the nut are holding the string back, and the string shoots forward, pushing the crossbow bolt forward and shooting it. It is very complicated, and I understand if you don’t understand. Here is a drawing from yours truly:   

2 thoughts on “Medieval Crossbow History and Technology

  1. Love your posts, keep it up! Do you know if the European crossbow was invented independently but in parallel to the Chinese version, or did the Chinese invention eventually make its way to Europe?

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    1. Great question! I am not sure, but I think the former. Not only did Chinese hand-held crossbows have a completely different mechanism, but also, a lot of the time China used the larger siege crossbow. Basically a Ballista.

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