The Crossbow

(Great Weapons of the Ancient World Number 65)

I've decided to bung onto my site a short video I took of someone using a reconstructed crossbow at a public display in Aynsley castle, Northumberland. He is using a goatsfoot lever to load the weapon, and is in a race against an archer. He lost badly, shooting not half as many bolts as his opponent shot arrows. He may not appear to be hurrying, but this really is as fast as he can go. Part of my inspiration for including this file is my hearing a man at a lecture at the Wallace Collection in London, years ago, saying that goatsfoot levers wouldn't have worked. He had had a go at making one, and this was his conclusion.

You can hear a baby crying in the background. Be assured it is not being shot at.
You can view/download the video as an .mpg file: MPG file (2862K)

Crossbows were not invented in the late medieval period, as is often written, but are much older in origin. The Romans had them, and the Ancient Greeks designed examples of many sizes, the largest being siege weapons. The Chinese had them too.

I thought I'd just quickly list a lot of the advantages and disadvantages of crossbows, relative to bows:


  • The crossbow could be loaded with devices such as cranequins and windlasses, which rather than requiring one hefty movement to load the weapon, allowed the loader to break the task into many small increments, perhaps stopping for a rest midway. This meant that very powerful crossbows could be made that were more powerful than a man could draw in one go.
  • An archer had to be strong to pull the most powerful bows, which were about 120 lb draw-strength (above 120 lb, bows don't gain any power – the limit of the system has been reached). A crossbowman could use loading tools to load comparatively powerful crossbows without spending years in training, building up his muscles.
  • An archer cannot hold his weapon ready for a quick shot for ages. If a crossbowman expected a foe to come out of a doorway at some uncertain time in the near future, he could aim his loaded weapon at the doorway and wait in comfort. An archer would have to draw his arrow back and use his strength to hold it there as he waited, or else he'd have to start drawing his arrow when the enemy appeared, losing the element of surprise.
  • An archer has to expose himself more when shooting. A crossbow man could load his weapon while hiding behind cover, pop up with a ready-loaded weapon, and just expose the top half of his head his front hand, and then shoot.
  • The most powerful crossbows were very powerful indeed at close range. The smaller missiles they shot could be accelerated to very high speed.


  • If the string gets wet, the power of the crossbow is greatly diminished, and to put a new dry string on requires a visit to a workshop with vices. An archer could carry a few spare dry strings in a little rain-proof pouch, and change the string in the field.
  • Archers could shoot over the heads of friendly troops in a battle. Formations of archers were often deep, and the rear ranks shot high into the air. Crossbowmen were forced to deploy in thin lines, shooting on a flatter trajectory.
  • Archers could move and load their bows at the same time. A crossbowman could only load when stationary.
  • Crossbows had a far slower rate of shot than bows. This mattered less in sieges.
  • The bolts or quarrels that crossbows shot were smaller and lighter than long bow arrows, and so they lost power over distance far more rapidly. Long bow arrows were still dangerous when they were just falling out of the sky at extreme range.

Mainstream opinion is that archers took many years to train, and crossbowmen could be taught to shoot effectively very quickly. I am unconvinced by this argument. I have taught people to use bows very quickly, and a bow that an ordinarily strong man can use is still very dangerous, so years of muscle-building aren't necessary.

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