Ancient Weapons – What the Crossbow did for Warfare

Doug Williams

The bow is one of the oldest weapons – dating so far back in antiquity that we’re really not sure when it was invented. Some sources cite dates as early as 64,000 years ago and place the invention in Africa. We have a much better idea about the history of the crossbow, however, which was invented in China in the 7th century BC.


Like much else that has been around for centuries, the crossbow has a number of myths surrounding it. One of these is the claim that it was invented to be “armor piercing” and that it served this purpose well into the Middle Ages. But, as with many myths, the truth is far from what is commonly understood about it.

Bows and crossbows have been a part of warfare for millennia

Bows and, to a lesser extent, crossbows have been a part of warfare for millennia – until they were replaced by gunpowder. While their use has changed throughout time, the basic idea hasn’t.

The bow and the crossbow gave commanders a weapon that could be used to target enemy soldiers at a long range. In both attack and defense, a company of archers could provide massed fire and attack the enemy before the army could get into melee range.

Massed fire of this type was not normally aimed at individuals but rather at the opposing army: merely sending volleys of fire into the enemy ranks with the idea that a certain percentage of the arrows would hit their targets.

Even so, this required a high degree of skill on the part of the archers, who needed to be able to draw and fire a large number of arrows quickly with some degree of accuracy.

Archers received a considerable amount of training and practice

Even that sort of shooting required the archers to have received a considerable amount of training and practice. Aiming a bow, especially the bows they had back then, is an acquired skill. Older bows didn’t have sights and all of the other bells and whistles that modern compound hunting bows have.

This is where the crossbow came in. By mounting a bow on a gunstock it was turned into a “point-and-shoot” weapon. While the average person might not be able to shoot one as accurately as a trained archer, they would still be able to shoot it. This was good enough for the massed fire I mentioned a moment ago.

It was much easier to teach archers to use a crossbow accurately than a bow

Not only was the crossbow a point-and-shoot weapon, but it was also extremely accurate. It was much easier to teach archers to use a crossbow accurately than it was to teach archers to shoot a bow accurately. The design of the crossbow, even without modern sights, allowed the archer to sight along the weapon.

Early crossbows didn’t have the huge draw weights of modern ones. They were not a high-velocity weapon; rather, they were the same sort of bow mounted on a stock with a trigger mechanism. This made them easier to use.

Later on, in the second century BC, the multi-shot crossbow was developed. This added a magazine so that multiple bolts could be loaded into the weapon. Each time the archer drew the bowstring and set it, a bolt would drop into place, putting the crossbow fully in action while saving the archer time in the reloading process and allowing them to fire more quickly.

The multi-shot crossbow was developed in the 2nd century BC

The real secret of the crossbow was the trigger mechanism, which was a closely guarded secret of the Chinese for centuries. Crossbows were not allowed to fall into enemy hands to prevent them from being copied. They became one of the best-kept military secrets of all time.

The inventor of the crossbow never actually intended for it to be used in battle. Rather, it was his intent that the crossbow would be a weapon to cause peace.

The foundational idea, which has surfaced more than once throughout the history of warfare, was that the appearance of new and superior weapons technology on the battlefield would be enough to cause the other side to surrender. But it didn’t work that way.

The Pros and Cons

While crossbows of the Middle Ages never reached the point of being able to pierce plate armor, the draw weight of the bows did increase. This helped them to defeat lesser types of armor such as leather armor, ring mail, and even chain mail to some extent, even though chain mail was developed to protect against arrows.

On the downside, while crossbows were easier to aim, these higher draw weight crossbows were harder to draw and load, which slowed down firing rates. Archers would need to use a foot in a metal stirrup to hold the crossbow while they drew the string with both hands, locking it into the firing mechanism.

Once they did that, they could load the bolt. This worked out to a firing rate of four bolts per minute for hand-drawn crossbows and one per minute for windlass-drawn crossbows.

By comparison, archers using bows or longbows could shoot anywhere from six to twelve arrows per minute depending on the time period and the training of the archers. Not only that, but bows are considerably lighter and easier to carry into battle than crossbows.

Archers using bows or longbows could shoot anywhere from six to twelve arrows per minute

While all archers carried an alternate weapon, usually some sort of sword, this was much more essential for the archer armed with a crossbow than for one armed with a bow.

Even at the best speeds, the time it took to reload the crossbow made it a “one-shot” weapon on the battlefield – unless the archer was behind a line of infantry to protect him. Once he shot, he would have to resort to his sword until he could remove himself to a place of safety where he would have time to ready his crossbow once again.

This brings to light an interesting principle of warfare: gains in the power of weapons usually require a tradeoff in either accuracy or ease of use.

The most powerful weapon on the battlefield isn’t of much use if you can’t bring it to bear before the enemy has a chance to shoot you. Always weigh up all factors before making a decision.

How This Applies to Us in a Survival Situation

As in older times, we need to consider the crossbow a one-shot weapon too. While a modern crossbow can be considered to be a fearsome weapon with a long range and considerable accuracy, it takes a considerable amount of time to reload. I have a crossbow that I have to cock with a windlass – a process that takes me a couple of minutes per shot.

If you have a crossbow and intend to use it as part of your home-defense strategy, it should probably be the first weapon you fire.

So, if you have a crossbow and intend to use it as part of your home-defense strategy, it should probably be the first weapon you fire.

After that, you should set it aside and opt for other weapons instead until you have a lull in which you can recock and reload it. 

As for hunting, the crossbow has a better range and greater accuracy than a bow – especially for those who have not had the time to practice sufficiently with a bow.

However, it is considerably heavier than a bow and even than many hunting rifles, so you’re faced with the same sort of tradeoff that we see with many other weapons. It will work and work well, but you’d better be strong enough to lug it around all day if you’re going to use it.

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