It is not clear exactly where and when the crossbow originated, however it is believed to have been invented in Europe and China around 6th to 5th century BC. The current archaeological evidence points to the common usage of crossbows in China for military purposes during the Warring States period from at the very latest, the second half of the 4th century BC onwards.
In terms of archaeological evidence, the earliest handheld crossbow stocks and bronze trigger were found in Tombs 3 and 12 at Qufu, Shandong, previously the capital of Lu, and date to 6th century BC. Bronze crossbow bolts dating from the mid-5th century BC have been found at a Chu burial site in Yutaishan, Jiangling County, Hubei Province. Other early finds of crossbows were discovered in Tomb 138 at Saobatang, Hunan Province, and date to mid-4th century BC. It's possible that these early crossbows used spherical pellets for ammunition. A Western-Han mathematician and music theorist, Jing Fang (78-37 BC), compared the moon to the shape of a round crossbow bullet. Zhuangzi also mentions crossbow bullets.
The earliest Chinese documents mentioning a crossbow were texts from the 4th to 3rd centuries BC attributed to the followers of Mozi. This source refers to the use of a giant crossbow between the 6th and 5th centuries BC, corresponding to the late Spring and Autumn Period. Sun Tzu's The Art of War (first appearance dated between 500 BC to 300 BC) refers to the characteristics and use of crossbows in chapters 5 and 12 respectively, and compares a drawn crossbow to 'might.' The Huainanzi advises its readers not to use crossbows in marshland where the surface is soft and it is hard to arm the crossbow with the foot. The Records of the Grand Historian, completed in 94 BC, mentions that Sun Bin defeated Pang Juan by ambushing him with a body of crossbowmen at the Battle of Maling. The Book of Han, finished 111 AD, lists two military treatises on crossbows.
In the 2nd century AD, Chen Yin gave advice on shooting with a crossbow in the Wuyue Chunqiu:
When shooting, the body should be as steady as a board, and the head mobile like an egg [on a table]; the left foot [forward] and the right foot perpendicular to it; the left hand as if leaning against a branch, the right hand as if embracing a child. Then grip the crossbow and take a sight on the enemy, hold the breath and swallow, then breathe out as soon as you have released [the arrow]; in this way you will be unperturbable. Thus after deep concentration, the two things separate, the [arrow] going, and the [bow] staying. When the right hand moves the trigger [in releasing the arrow] the left hand should not know it. One body, yet different functions [of parts], like a man and a girl well matched; such is the Dao of holding the crossbow and shooting accurately.— Chen Yin
It's clear from surviving inventory lists in Gansu and Xinjiang that the crossbow was greatly favored by the Han dynasty. For example in one batch of slips there are only two mentions of bows, but thirty mentions of crossbows. Crossbows were mass-produced in state armories with designs improving as time went on, such as the use of a mulberry wood stock and brass; a crossbow in 1068 could pierce a tree at 140 paces. Crossbows were used in numbers as large as 50,000 starting from the Qin dynasty and upwards of several hundred thousand during the Han. According to one authority, the crossbow had become "nothing less than the standard weapon of the Han armies," by the second century BC.
After the Han dynasty, the crossbow lost favor until it experienced a mild resurgence during the Tang dynasty, under which the ideal expeditionary army of 20,000 included 2,200 archers and 2,000 crossbowmen. Li Jing and Li Quan prescribed 20 percent of the infantry to be armed with crossbows.
During the Song dynasty, the government attempted to restrict the spread of military crossbows and sought ways to keep armour and crossbows out of private homes. Despite the ban on certain types of crossbows, the weapon experienced an upsurge in civilian usage as both a hunting weapon and pastime. The "romantic young people from rich families, and others who had nothing particular to do" formed crossbow shooting clubs as a way to pass time.
Military crossbows were armed by treading, or basically placing the feet on the bow stave and drawing it using one's arms and back muscles. During the Song dynasty, stirrups were added for ease of drawing and to mitigate damage to the bow. Alternatively the bow could also be drawn by a belt claw attached to the waist, but this was done lying down, as was the case for all large crossbows. Winch-drawing was used for the large bed crossbows as seen below, but evidence for its use in Chinese hand-crossbows is scant.
|Ideal WS Zhao||1,300||100,000||13,000||50,000||164,300|
|Anti-Xiongnu Han (97 BC)||70,000||140,000||210,000|
|Basic Sui expedition||4,000||8,000||8,000||20,000|
|Basic early Tang expedition||2,000||2,200||4,000||2,900||2,900||6,000||20,000|
According to the Wu-Yue Chunqiu (history of the Wu-Yue War), written in the Eastern Han dynasty, the repeating crossbow was invented during the Warring States Period by a Mr. Qin from the State of Chu. This is corroborated by the earliest archaeological evidence of repeating crossbows, which was excavated from a Chu burial site at Tomb 47 at Qinjiazui, Hubei Province, and has been dated to the 4th century BC, during the Warring States Period (475 - 220 BC). Unlike repeating crossbows of later eras, the ancient double shot repeating crossbow uses a pistol grip and a rear pulling mechanism for arming. The Ming repeating crossbow uses an arming mechanism which requires its user to push a rear lever upwards and downwards back and forth.
Although the invention of the repeating crossbow has often been attributed to Zhuge Liang, he in fact had nothing to do with it. This misconception is based on a record attributing improvements to the multiple bolt crossbows to him.
Now for piercing through hard things and shooting a long distance, and when struggling to defend mountain-passes, where much noise and impetuous strength must be stemmed, there is nothing like the crossbow for success. However, as the drawing (i.e. the arming] is slow, it is difficult to cope with sudden attacks. A crossbow can only be shot off [by a single man] three times before it comes to hand-to-hand weapons. Some have therefore thought crossbows inconvenient for fighting, but truly the inconvenience lay not in the crossbow itself but in the commanders, who did not know how to make use of crossbows. All the military theorists of the Tang maintained that the crossbow had no advantage over hand-to-hand weapons, and they insisted on having long bills and great shields in the front line to repel the charge, and made the crossbowmen to carry sabres and long-hafted weapons. The result was that if the enemy adopted an open-order formation and attacked with hand-to-hand weapons, the soldiers would throwaway their crossbows and have recourse to those also. A body of the rearguard was therefore detailed beforehand to go round and collect up the crossbows.
The crossbow allowed archers to shoot bows of greater strength and more accurately as well due to its greater stability, but at the cost of speed.
Of course, in mounted archery [using the short bow] the Yi and the Di are skilful, but the Chinese are good at using nu che. These carriages can be drawn up in the form of a laager which cannot be penetrated by cavalry. Moreover, the crossbows can shoot their bolts to a considerable range, and do more harm [lit. penetrate deeper] than those of the short bow. And again, if the crossbow bolts are picked up by the barbarians they have no way of making use of them. Recently the crossbow has unfortunately fallen into some neglect; we must carefully consider this.— Chao Cuo
The Wujing Zongyao states that the crossbow used en masse was the most effective weapon against northern nomadic cavalry charges. Elite crossbowmen were used to pick off targets as was the case when the Liao Dynasty general Xiao Talin was picked off by a Song crossbowman at the Battle of Shanzhou in 1004.
Large mounted crossbows known as "bed crossbows" were used as early as the Warring States period. Mozi described them as defensive weapons placed on top the battlements. Around the 5th century AD, multiple bows were combined together to increase draw weight and length, thus creating the double and triple bed crossbows. Tang versions of this weapon are stated to have obtained a range of 1,160 yards, which is supported by a Persian source on the use of similar weapons by the Mongols in 1256. Constructing these weapons, especially the casting of the large triggers, and their operation required the highest order of technical expertise available at the time. They were primarily used from the 8th to 11th centuries.
The multiple bolt crossbow appeared around the late 4th century BC. A passage dated to 320 BC states that it was mounted on a three wheeled carriage and stationed on the ramparts. The crossbow was drawn using a treadle and shot 10 foot long arrows. Other drawing mechanisms such as winches and oxen were also used. Later on pedal release triggers were also used. Although this weapon was able to discharge multiple bolts, it was at the cost of reduced accuracy. It had a maximum range of 500 yards.
When Qin Shi Huang's magicians failed to get in touch with "spirits and immortals of the marvellous islands of the Eastern Sea", they excused themselves by saying large monsters blocked their way. Qin Shi Huang personally went out with a multiple bolt crossbow to see these monsters for himself. He found no monsters but killed a big fish.
In 99 BC, they were used as field artillery against attacking nomadic cavalry.
The weapon was considered obsolete by 1530.
|Weapon||Shots per minute||Range in yards|
|Chinese composite bow||?||165|
|Mounted single-bow crossbow||?||270-500|
|Mounted multi-bow crossbow||?||1,160|
|Multiple bolt crossbow||?||400-500|
|Mounted multiple bolt||6-12||500|
|Double shot repeating||56-96||80-200|
The concept of continuous and concerted rotating fire, the countermarch, may have been implemented using crossbows as early as the Han dynasty, but it was not until the Tang dynasty that illustrations of the countermarch appeared. The 759 CE text, Tai bai yin jing (太白陰經) by Tang military official Li Quan (李筌), contains the oldest known depiction and description of the volley fire technique. The illustration shows a rectangular crossbow formation with each circle representing one man. In the front is a line labeled "shooting crossbows" (發弩) and behind that line are rows of crossbowmen, two facing right and two facing left, and they are labeled "loading crossbows" (張弩). The commander (大將軍) is situated in the middle of the formation and to his right and left are vertical rows of drummers (鼓) who coordinate the firing and reloading procedure in procession: who loaded their weapons, stepped forward to the outer ranks, shot, and then retired to reload. According to Li Quan, "the classics say that the crossbow is fury. It is said that its noise is so powerful that it sounds like fury, and that's why they named it this way," and by using the volley fire method there is no end to the sound and fury, and the enemy is unable to approach. Here he is referring to the word for "crossbow" nu which is also a homophone for the word for fury, nu.
The encyclopedic text known as the Tongdian by Du You from 801 CE also provides a description of the volley fire technique: "[Crossbow units] should be divided into teams that can concentrate their arrow shooting.… Those in the center of the formations should load [their bows] while those on the outside of the formations should shoot. They take turns, revolving and returning, so that once they've loaded they exit [i.e., proceed to the outer ranks] and once they've shot they enter [i.e., go within the formations]. In this way, the sound of the crossbow will not cease and the enemy will not harm us."
The Wujing Zongyao, written during the Song dynasty, notes that during the Tang period, crossbows were not used to their full effectiveness due to the fear of cavalry charges. The author's solution was to drill the soldiers to the point where rather than hide behind shieldbearers upon the approach of enemy soldier, they would "plant the feet like a firm mountain, and, unmoving at the front of the battle arrays, shoot thickly to the middle [of the enemy], and none among them will not fall down dead." The Song volley fire formation was described thus: "Those in the center of the formation should load while those on the outside of the formation should shoot, and when [the enemy gets] close, then they should shelter themselves with small shields [literally side shields, 旁牌], each taking turns and returning, so that those who are loading are within the formation. In this way the crossbows will not cease sounding." In addition to the Tang formation, the Song illustration also added a new label to the middle line of crossbowmen between the firing and reloading lines, known as the "advancing crossbows." Both Tang and Song manuals also made aware to the reader that "the accumulated arrows should be shot in a stream, which means that in front of them there must be no standing troops, and across [from them] no horizontal formations."
Regarding the method of using the crossbow, it cannot be mixed up with hand-to-hand weapons, and it is beneficial when shot from high ground facing downwards. It only needs to be used so that the men within the formation are loading while the men in the front line of the formation are shooting. As they come forward they use shields to protect their flanks. Thus each in their turn they draw their crossbows and come up; then as soon as they have shot bolts they return again into the formation. Thus the sound of the crossbows is incessant and the enemy can hardly even flee. Therefore we have the following drill - shooting rank, advancing rank, loading rank.
The volley fire technique was used to great effect by the Song during the Jin-Song Wars. In the fall of 1131 the Jin commander Wuzhu (兀朮) invaded the Shaanxi region but was defeated by general Wu Jie (吳 玠) and his younger brother Wu Lin (吳璘). The History of Song elaborates on the battle in detail:
[Wu] Jie ordered his commanders to select their most vigorous bowmen and strongest crossbowmen and to divide them up for alternate shooting by turns (分番迭射). They were called the "Standing-Firm Arrow Teams" (駐隊矢), and they shot continuously without cease, as thick as rain pouring down. The enemy fell back a bit, and then [Wu Jie] attacked with cavalry from the side to cut off the [enemy's] supply routes. [The enemy] crossed the encirclement and retreated, but [Wu Jie] set up ambushes at Shenben and waited. When the Jin troops arrived, [Wu's] ambushers shot, and the many [enemy] were in chaos. The troops were released to attack at night and greatly defeated them. Wuzhu was struck by a flowing arrow and barely escaped with his life.
After losing half his army Wuzhu escaped back to the north, only to invade again in the following year. Again, he was defeated while trying to breach a strategic pass. The History of Song states that during the battle Wu Jie's brother Wu Lin "used the Standing-Firm Arrow Teams, who shot alternately, and the arrows fell like rain, and the dead piled up in layers, but the enemy climbed over them and kept climbing up." This passage is especially noteworthy for its mention of a special technique being utilized as it is one of the very few times that the History of Song has elaborated on a specific tactic.
|“||Throughout the southeastern Asia the crossbow is still used by primitive and tribal peoples both for hunting and war, from the Assamese mountains through Burma, Siam and to the confines of Indo-China. The peoples of the northeastern Asia possess it also, both as weapon and toy, but use it mainly in the form of unattended traps; this is true of the Yakut, Tungus, and Chukchi, even of the Ainu in the east. There seems to be no way of answering the question whether it first arose among the barbaric forefathers of these Asian peoples before the rise of the Chinese culture in their midst, and then underwent its technical development only therein, or whether it spread outwards from China to all the environing peoples. The former seems the more probable hypothesis, given the further linguistic evidence in its support.||”|
Crossbows were given to the Chams by China with instruction in crossbows and mounted archery being given by a Chinese official in 1171. In 1177 the transfer of crossbow technology by the Chinese was used by the Champa in their invasion and sacking of Angkor, the Khmer Empire's capital.
The earliest evidence for a form of the crossbow in Europe dates to the 5th century BC when the gastraphetes, an ancient Greek crossbow type, appeared. The device was described by the Greek author Heron of Alexandria in his work Belopoeica ("On Catapult-making"), which draws on an earlier account of his famous compatriot engineer Ctesibius (fl. 285–222 BC). Heron identifies the gastraphetes as the forerunner of the later catapult, which places its invention some unknown time prior to 420 BC.
The gastraphetes was a large artillery crossbow mounted on a heavy stock with a lower and upper section, the lower being the case fixed to the bow and the upper being the slider which had the same dimensions as the case. Meaning "belly-bow", it was called as such because the concave withdrawal rest at one end of the stock was placed against the stomach of the operator, which he could press to withdraw the slider before attaching a string to the trigger and loading the bolt; this could thus store more energy than regular Greek bows. It was used in the Siege of Motya in 397 BC. This was a key Carthaginian stronghold in Sicily, as described in the 1st century AD by Heron of Alexandria in his book Belopoeica. Alexander the Great's 332 BC siege of Tyre provides reliable sources for the use of these weapons by the Greek besiegers.
The efficiency of the gastraphetes was improved by introducing the ballista. Its application in sieges and against rigid infantry formations featured more and more powerful projectiles, leading to technical improvements and larger ballistae. The smaller sniper version was often called Scorpio. An example for the importance of ballistae in Hellenistic warfare is the Helepolis, a siege tower employed by Demetrius during the siege of Rhodes in 305 BC. At each level of the moveable tower were several ballistae. The large ballistae at the bottom level were designed to destroy the parapet and clear it of any hostile troop concentrations while the small armorbreaking scorpios at the top level sniped at the besieged. This suppressive shooting would allow them to mount the wall with ladders more safely.
The use of the modern crossbow in European warfare dates back to Roman times. According to R. Ernest Dupuy and Trevor N. Dupuy, in 36 BC a Han empire expedition into central Asia encountered and defeated a contingent of Roman legionaries. The Romans were suggested to have been part of Antony's campaign against Parthia. Chinese victory was based on their crossbows, whose bolts and darts seem to "have penetrated Roman shields and armor." The theory is that the Chinese crossbow was transmitted to the Roman world through this encounter.
The crossbow was particularly prominent in European warfare from the battle of Hastings (1066) until about 1525. In the armies of Europe, mounted and unmounted crossbowmen, often mixed with slingers, javeliners and archers, occupied a central position in battle formations. Usually they engaged the enemy in offensive skirmishes before an assault of mounted knights. Crossbowmen were also valuable in counterattacks to protect their infantry. Crossbowmen were held in high esteem as professional soldiers, often commanding higher rates of pay than other foot soldiers. The rank of commanding officer of the crossbowmen corps was one of the highest positions in many medieval armies, including those of Spain, France, and Italy. Crossbowmen were held in such high regard in Spain that they were granted status on par with the knightly class. Along with polearm weapons made from farming equipment, the crossbow was also a weapon of choice for insurgent peasants such as the Taborites. Genoese crossbowmen were famous mercenaries hired throughout medieval Europe, while the crossbow also played an important role in anti-personnel defense of ships.
The crossbow almost completely superseded hand bows in many European armies in the twelfth century for a number of reasons (England, where the longbow was more popular, being a rare exception). Although a longbow had greater range, and could achieve comparable accuracy and faster shooting rate than a wooden or composite crossbow, the latter can be used effectively after a week of training, while a comparable single-shot skill with a longbow could take years of practice. Later crossbows (sometimes referred to as arbalests), utilizing all-steel prods, were able to achieve power close (and sometime superior) to longbows, but were more expensive to produce and slower to reload because they required the aid of mechanical devices such as the cranequin or windlass to draw back their extremely heavy bows. Usually these could only shoot two bolts per minute versus twelve or more with a skilled archer, often necessitating the use of a pavise to protect the operator from enemy fire. Crossbowmen among the Flemish citizens, in the army of Richard Lionheart, and others, could have up to two servants, two crossbows and a pavise to protect the men. Then one of the servants had the task of reloading the weapons, while the second subordinate would carry and hold the pavise (the archer himself also wore protective armor). Such a three-man team could shoot eight shots per minute, compared to a single crossbowman's three shots per minute. The archer was the leader of the team, the one who owned the equipment, and the one who received payment for their services.
The payment for a crossbow mercenary was higher than for a longbow mercenary, but the longbowman did not have to pay a team of assistants and his equipment was cheaper. Thus the crossbow team was twelve percent less efficient than the longbowman since three of the latter could be part of the army in place of one crossbow team. Furthermore, the prod and bow string of a composite crossbow were subject to damage in rain whereas the longbowman could simply unstring his bow to protect the string. French forces employing the composite crossbow were outmatched by English longbowmen at Crécy in 1346, at Poitiers in 1356 and at Agincourt in 1415. As a result, use of the crossbow declined sharply in France, and the French authorities made attempts to train longbowmen of their own. After the conclusion of the Hundred Years' War, however, the French largely abandoned the use of the longbow, and consequently the military crossbow saw a resurgence in popularity. The crossbow continued to see use in French armies by both infantry and mounted troops until as late as 1520 when, as with elsewhere in continental Europe, the crossbow would be largely eclipsed by the handgun. Spanish forces in the New World would make extensive use of the crossbow, even after it had largely fallen out of use in Europe. Crossbowmen participated in Hernán Cortés' conquest of Mexico and accompanied Francisco Pizarro on his initial expedition to Peru, though by the time of the conquest of Peru in 1532-1523 he would have only a dozen such men remaining in his service.
Crossbows were eventually replaced in warfare by gunpowder weapons, although early guns had slower rates of fire and much worse accuracy than contemporary crossbows. The Battle of Cerignola in 1503 was largely won by Spain through the use of matchlock firearms, marking the first time a major battle was won through the use of firearms. Later, similar competing tactics would feature harquebusiers or musketeers in formation with pikemen, pitted against cavalry firing pistols or carbines. While the military crossbow had largely been supplanted by firearms on the battlefield by 1525, the sporting crossbow in various forms remained a popular hunting weapon in Europe until the eighteenth century.
A bomb-throwing crossbow called the Sauterelle was used by the French and British armies on the Western Front during World War I. It could throw an F1 grenade or Mills bomb 110–140 m (120–150 yd).
In Central Africa simple crossbows were used for hunting and as a scout weapon, previously thought to have been first introduced by the Portuguese. Until recently they were especially in use by different tribes of the pygmy-people, usually with poisoned and relatively small arrows. This silent technique of hunting in the tropical forest is quite similar to that of the South American indigenous hunting method with blow pipe and poisoned arrows. It makes sure not to startle up the prey, for example if a first shot goes astray. Since the small arrow is rarely deadly itself, the animal will drop from the trees after some time because of the poisoning. In the American South, the crossbow was used by the conquistadors for hunting and warfare when firearms or gunpowder were unavailable because of economic hardships or isolation.
Crossbows are mostly used for target shooting in modern archery. In some countries they are still used for hunting, such as in most of states within the USA, parts of Asia, Europe, Australia and Africa. Crossbows with special projectiles are used in whale research to take blubber biopsy samples without harming the whales or other marine big "game" .
The crossbow is still used in modern times by various militaries, tribal forces and in China even by the police forces. As their worldwide distribution is not restricted by regulations on arms, they are used as silent weapons and for their psychological effect, even reportedly using poisoned projectiles. Crossbows are used for ambush and anti-sniper operations or in conjunction with ropes to establish zip-lines in difficult terrain.
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