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The Chinese repeating crossbow

"I read with great interest the article regarding the history of the crossbow by Robin Barkes in the August 2012 Africa's Bowhunter ('A short history of crossbows')," writes Lex Mitchell in a letter to Africa's Bowhunter. Here follows the rest of his letter.

< General view of the crossbow.

Being a rabid Medievalist, I have for many years (12 to date) presented a medieval Fayre and banquet for the enjoyment of patrons in Port Elizabeth and to support a few well-deserving charities for the physically disabled. I obviously immediately penned this article to your fine magazine – and look what happened! It is now five months later and here it is! I blame the lack of an adequate photographer – and I finally found someone to take a few pictures.

> This is a close-up of the firing mechanism. The short dowel protruding below the string is pushed up when it strikes the body of the crossbow, forcing the string up and out of the groove where it engages the bolt to propel it forward. The handle is then pushed forward where it picks up the string in the groove again, the next bolt drops down into the firing position, and so you can continue until all the bolts in the magazine have been fired.

To present a real slice of medieval life for our Fayres requires the study and manufacture of many ingenious and fascinating war machines. Through time I have built catapults, trebuchets, a ballista (very large crossbow built by the Romans before 200 BC), a 14th century war crossbow and many bows and arrows (not as successfully as my friend and fellow-archer Paul Roth, however). We usually have a golden arrow competition at the Fayre to draw the crowds during the day and this is happily supported by the band of traditional archers from Zingela, who never fail to wow the onlookers!

> The weapon is fired by resting the butt against the upper thigh and working the lever forward (to pick up the string) and back to fire.

However, to get to the heart of my tale, the one weapon I have built that most people (especially the kids!) are absolutely blown away by is the Chinese repeating crossbow (Chukonu). I have built two of these – one that has a magazine holding ten bolts, firing one bolt at a time, and a second with a double magazine, which can fire two bolts simultaneously. The mode of firing is very reminiscent of a pump action shotgun. I find that one can fire 10 bolts from the single magazine weapon in about eight seconds and with the twin magazine obviously 20 bolts in the same time!

< The author with his 14th centuary war crossbow. After bolt release. Note that the release has rotated forward. It really is a very neat and ingenious mechanism.

My source tells of 7 000 Chinese crossbowmen firing on the enemy with these weapons – talk about fighting in the shade! (The Book of the Crossbow by Ralph Payne-Galloway published in 1901 – a fascinating read since it deals with many other weapons of medieval destruction and contains lots of fine illustrations.) He also mentions the use of these crossbows in the 1100s and claims they had bamboo prods and thus were only effective over a distance of about 80 metres, and because of this the tips were dipped in poison. There are reports of this weapon being used as early as the second century AD, and the last report of their use was in the Sino-Japanese war in 1894-1895. If you wanted to see one in the flesh, you would need to talk very nicely to the curator of the history museum in Grahamstown. I saw one there in the bowels of the building where they keep all excess items that are not on display. It actually has a vel "string" which is so wide I can't believe it is original.

> General view of the war crossbow showing the release mechanism.

I have also attached a couple of pictures of my replica 14th century war crossbow. I have yet to build a windlass (crank mechanism), which was used to crank the string back to the firing position and is the reason for the square butt of the weapon. (You will find detailed instructions on how to build this weapon in Payne-Galloway's book, by the way.) The windlass fitted over the butt-end and when the string was tensioned, it was removed to fire. You can imagine the time it took to do this. This was one of the reasons for the success of the English longbow in warfare. A longbow in competent hands could fire in excess of eight arrows in the time it took to load the crossbow. The crossbow would have had a range of about 300 plus metres and the longbow about 260.

I hope this is of interest to the history buffs out there.

Updated: Thursday, June 20, 2013 4:20 PM



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