Crossbows have been around since humans could pick up tools, being mentioned as early as Biblical times.
The crossbow has shaped the course of humanity, being the weapon of choice for countless armies throughout history. The history of the crossbow is certainly a long one.
What is a Crossbow
A crossbow is a weapon, composed of a bow and an arrow. The most basic crossbow design is a horizontal bow mounted on a stock that shoots arrows.
In recent years, the crossbow has been dramatically transformed, with more variations being made available. However, any variant of the crossbow that looks like a horizontal bow is considered a crossbow, despite what features and accessories that it may have.
The crossbow design we know today was first invented in the 5th century (BC), in China. It was designed to be a lethal weapon for use in combat.
In 2020, there are different variations of the crossbow available to buy on the market. The main ones are:
- Recurve crossbow
- Compound crossbow
- Rifle crossbow
- Pistol crossbow
- Repeating crossbow
Historic Use of Crossbows in the Military
The crossbow played a prominent role in warfare across East Asia, Europe, and the Levant, essentially revolutionizing warfare.
Between the 10th and 15th centuries in Europe, warfare was generally on a small scale — compared to modern standards — and usually between two small groups of knights and retainers, with peasants armed with bows and arrows.
Battles were usually planned, with parties being able to choose their location and arrange their army. Crossbows were the weapon of choice during this time. Crossbowmen were well trained and put on the front line to shoot and utilize the firepower that comes with the weapon. Planning and preparation were key in maximizing the benefits of the crossbow. The positioning of the crossbowmen was prearranged to correlate with the range of the weapon. With skilled crossbowmen, crossbows could fire with a precision that beat any other weapon of the time. And unlike other weapons, crossbows were perfect in both defense and offense, as they had high firepower and efficiency.
Crossbowmen were generally from upper-class backgrounds, and they were usually taught the weapon from childhood. They were well regarded due to the skill needed to successfully hit a target and operate the crossbow. The crossbow was a top choice for many cultures, as it was generally a very cheap piece of weaponry that was easy to manufacture.
During the medieval period, crossbows were the weapon of choice for both infantry and mounted soldiers. For example, the King of France at the time, Philip Augustus, had mounted soldiers use crossbows against England. Pope Gregory IX used mounted crossbowmen in 1239, as a part of his mobile defense against attacks by the Lombard League. This use of the crossbow was generally successful.
China was behind the widespread, global use of the crossbow we recognize today. Archeological findings suggest that the Terracotta Army used handheld crossbows in warfare. They were found buried in the tomb of Qin Shihuang with crossbows that featured bronze trigger mechanisms. It’s believed that the Chinese added accessories and features to the crossbow to increase its lethality, making it the ultimate weapon for warfare. In the 12th century, the Chinese exported the new design of the crossbow to Champa (now Vietnam), where it was used in military campaigns.
The ancient Greeks used a type of crossbow called a “gastraphetes” that was invented in around 399BC. The design of the gastraphetes was that of a composite flexion bow, with a sliding arrow rest. This was a very early design — much bigger and much less portable than the crossbow we know and use today. Ratchets held the trigger back and a simple forked sear was held closed by a rotating bar. Some of the Greek crossbows were found to be able to fire two projectiles at one time. This design was the predecessor to the ballista.
Modern Use of Crossbows in the Military
In 2020, most crossbow owners use the weapon for either target-shooting or for sport hunting. However, the weapon still plays a small role in modern warfare. Modern crossbows are designed to be easier to carry around, without weighing too much. Size and portability are two of the main differences between modern and ancient crossbows.
One of the best things about crossbows is that they can fire silently. This is something that is valuable in warfare when you need to stay silent and unnoticed by the enemy. Crossbows may not anymore be a feasible option for warfare on a large scale, but they’re a great choice for missions that require silence.
Crossbows were used by the native Montagnards of the Vietnamese Highlands against the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War and before. The Montagnard army used crossbows and proved to be extremely valuable to the U.S. forces operating in Vietnam at the time. In fact, Green Berets used Montagnard crossbowmen in their teams.
Although faster, lighter, and more efficient weapons are now used in warfare, crossbows certainly have a place in the history of war. They have been the weapon of choice for many armies over the centuries. Now, the crossbow is generally used for hunting as opposed to warfare, but it still has a place in our world.