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A short history of crossbows

By Robin Barkes

Bavarian crossbow with carved ivory overlay and bow made from steel.> Bavarian crossbow with carved ivory overlay and bow made from steel.

Some time back I was reading a book written by a fellow making a study of the Eskimo people in the far north of Canada and Alaska. One day he and an old Eskimo guide passed the remains of an ancient encampment that lay scattered about in some remote area. Scratching around the anthropologist discovered what he concluded to be the remains of an old crossbow. Intrigued, he asked the tribal elder about it and was told that it was a weapon once used by his people in the old days.

Well, that's the first time I'd ever heard of crossbows being used by the first indigenous people of the North American continent. And why, I asked myself, if the Eskimos used the crossbow how come there is no record of the native Indians using it. After all, both peoples originally came from the same place when the Bering Sea iced over 20 000 years ago. But, unfortunately, the answer is lost in time and will remain forever a secret of the ages. Anyway, being fascinated with the history of all weaponry, I began a research into crossbows and came across many interesting facts that I'd like to share with the readers of this magazine.

Chinese repeating crossbow used as late as the Sino-Japanese war of 1894. < Chinese repeating crossbow used as late as the Sino-Japanese war of 1894.

The earliest recorded use of crossbows was documented in a Chinese manuscript written in 500 BC. Here the writer, Sun Tzu, mentions the use of powerful arrow-shooting crossbows. By the year 200 BC crossbows were in regular use in China and by 100 AD the Chinese were using repeating crossbows to hurl a rapid shower of arrows at a massed enemy. As a matter of fact, repeating crossbows were still being used by the Chinese as late as the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-95. My drawing will show you more or less what it looked like and how the loading lever was pushed foreword to catch the bowstring and draw it back while the next arrow dropped down from the "magazine" and at the same time the string was released to discharge the deadly shaft. Actually a very simple device and I wish I was a better wood worker so I could build a model of the weapon just for fun.

By the year 1100 crossbows were in regular use in Europe and in 1139 Pope Innocent the Second passed a law prohibiting the use of crossbows against Christians – a law that was totally ignored! Another interesting and ironical fact was that in 1199 King Richard the First of England, a great advocate of the crossbow, was killed by an armour-piercing bolt from a crossbow at the siege of Chaluz. However in England, by the late 13th century, the crossbow was replaced by the longbow although it was still widely used in Europe. The hunting crossbows used by the rich of Europe were highly decorated with jewels and carved ivory and are today extremely valuable collectors items. It is also interesting that the first Spaniards to arrive in America in the early 1500s took crossbows with them thus introducing a new weapon to the Native Indians. But apparently the red men preferred their simple bows and flint-tipped arrows to the new fangled and difficult to make Spanish weapon. This makes me believe that the first Eskimos of the frozen north had brought Chinese style crossbows from Eastern Europe, but dropped the idea because of the lack of material to build them.

I was also surprised to read that in the old days the crossbow had a greater range than the longbow. My source gave the range of a long bow as 280 yards and the crossbow at 380 yards. However, I am sure there will be those who disagree with this. Both weapons were capable of piercing plate armour at close range provided, of course, they both used correctly tempered arrowheads. I have actually seen Johnny "Longbow" Snyman pierce a metal breastplate with an arrow from his self-made longbow. The big difference was that the longbow man could launch up to 12 arrows a minute whilst the crossbow man, having to use an additional instrument to draw back his bowstring, could only manage one arrow a minute. However, by using a belt and claw apparatus, the crossbow man could get off up to four shots a minute.

The development of the different types of loading aids I found to be just as interesting as the development of firearms over the ages. At first the drawing back of the string on the crossbow was a simple, but strenuous, action. Placing a foot through the metal bridal on the front of the bow the user would hold the butt against his stomach and draw the string back with both hands until he could hook it behind the notch, or nut as it was called.

But as military crossbows became stronger the belt and claw was used. This was simply a heavy belt around the waist that had a short piece of rope with a metal claw attached. Now, with his foot in the stirrup, the archer bent forward and hooked the claw onto the string and on straightening up used his whole body to draw the string back into the notch.

However, can you imagine having to do that back-breaking task over and over again throughout a long battle. So the next development was called a Goats Foot Lever. This was a devise that could be hooked onto the top of the bow and a lever pulled back to draw the string into place. Then came the Push Lever, an even simpler device that pushed the bowstring back into the notch.

Bows were becoming stronger and stronger and the loading became harder – and this led to even more ingenious loading instruments such as the Windlass and later the Cranequin, a device using a rack and pinion system that made drawing back the string easy, but terribly slow. These loading instruments also gave the poor old archer more to carry into battle. Some of these soldiers also had to lug along a large protective shield called a parvise, as well as a pointed stake. The stake was driven into the ground to protect the line of archers from attack by a mounted enemy.

The great advantage of the crossbow was that it could be kept "loaded" and always ready. I also found it interesting to read that steel bows were fitted to crossbows as early as the 1300s – which was about the same time the very first cannons were used. The history of crossbows is sure a fascinating subject and I also discovered that they were once used in the Congo and other West African countries – the idea probably coming from the first Portuguese explorers to the areas. By the 16th century hand-held firearms had replaced crossbows in warfare, but they were still used for hunting in some European countries.

Today, the modern space-age type of bows bear only a passing resemblance to the original crossbow and longbow. But to some of us, hunting the old way gives us a greater challenge and hones our stalking and shooting skills back to the art it once was in the days of long ago. So well done everybody – lets put the hunt back into hunting.


Traditionele lang en recurve boë deur Johan vander Merwe. 083 544 7042. Pasmaak vir jou

CUPIDAPRIL09Pierre de Wet
073 151 1992
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