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Weapons That Changed The World: Crossbows

Updated: Sep 16, 2020


The Crossbow was once a common and effective weapon used by people around the globe. The Crossbow consists of a tiller or stock ,usually made from of wood, which the wielder would hold on their shoulder. A bolt would be placed as the projectile and the bowstring would be drawn back to create tension. The crossbowmen would pull the trigger and fire the bolt with tremendous force. The Crossbow had a few key advantages that made it a popular choice. First ,the crossbow did not require much skill or practice to use. Before the crossbow, the longbow was the primary projectile weapon used in warfare. Mastering the longbow would take years and physically fit users. Not every commoner could use a longbow but the vast majority could use a crossbow To use a crossbow a person only needed to know how to pull a trigger. As a result, an army could take a large group of people who never had other training and quickly turn them into a formidable group of soldiers ready to deliver devastation via the crossbow.

A diagram of a crossbow that used a cranequin or cranking mechanisms popular in medieval times.

Next, the crossbow was relatively inexpensive to use and make. A crossbow is essentially a small-scale longbow on top of a frame with a trigger mechanism. Crafting a crossbow required mostly wood and a small metal trigger. Any place that had trees could effectively mass produce crossbows. Then, the crossbow was particularly effective against calvary and mounted warriors, which made it a popular choice for armies fighting fearsome warriors like the Mongols and the Xiongnu Finally the bolts used by a crossbow could not be reused by the enemy. A bolt from a crossbow was of no use to an enemy archer. However, the crossbow had one glaring drawback. A crossbow has a relatively slow rate of fire especially compared to the longbow. A skilled crossbowmen could fire up to eight bolts per minute while a skilled archer using a longbow could fire up to eighteen arrows per minute. Crossbows could be utilized only when the enemy was far away and not in hand-to-hand combat distance. With its' numerous advantages, the crossbow had a long history across many eras and places as a useful and effective weapon.

History of the Crossbow


The first recorded use of a crossbow occurs sometime between the 7th and 5th century BCE in China. The crossbow saw its first widespread use during the Warring States period (475-221BCE) a period where regions of China fought each other for control of the nation. There is evidence to suggest that some of these early crossbows used an early type of bullet, rather than arrow or bolt. Under the Han dynasty, the crossbow was critically important to the Han armies. It was not uncommon for a Han army to be comprised of up to one half crossbowmen. When the Han dynasty collapsed, the crossbow temporarily fell out of favor. The crossbow saw a resurgence in popularity under the Tang and Song dynasties. By the time of the Ming dynasty, the crossbow became obsolete as early forms of firearms and artillery were introduced.

A crossbow from the Han dynasty


The Ancient Greeks developed a their own crossbow, a weapons known as a gastraphetes. The gastraphetes was essentially a large crossbow used in siege warfare. The Romans may have used crossbows but if so rarely since little evidence or references exists of their use. The crossbow seemingly disappeared from use in Europe following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The crossbow reappears at the Siege of Verdun in 984. Normans heavily used the crossbow at their triumph at the Battle of Hastings. Many European armies recognized the advantages of the crossbow and by the twelfth century many European armies used crossbowmen. The notable exception to this crossbow trend was England who still favored the longbow. The crossbow remained a critical weapon in warfare until the invention of firearms. Crossbowmen were often hired as mercenaries to bolster an army of infantry or to fight calvary.

A unit of the Genoese Crossbowmen, a famous mercenary unit that fought with crossbows and large shields knows as a Pavise.

Around the World

The Islamic world mostly avoided the crossbow as they saw it as a foreign weapon. The crossbow made appearances in parts of Africa and the Inuit people used an early crossbow for hunting


The crossbow is a storied weapon that undoubtably changed the world. The crossbow gave empires and kingdoms the ability to transform a ragtag bunch of conscripts into a deadly fighting force that could defeat even the most formidable armies. It is no mere coincidence that almost every continent used some form of a crossbow and it's history spans nearly two millennia. The crossbow was one of the most significant developments in warfare and was of the most effective weapons prior to the invention of firearms.

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