The crossbow was a handheld weapon consisting of a short bow made of either composite materials such as wood and horn, or iron, mounted on a stock, generally of wood.

Nature and Use

The crossbow was a handheld weapon consisting of a short bow made of either composite materials such as wood and horn, or iron, mounted on a stock, generally of wood. The bowstring was usually drawn by a type of mechanical device and fired by a trigger mechanism. The crossbow’s missile, called a Quarrels (crossbow missiles)quarrel, or Bolt (crossbow missile)bolt, was short and heavy, designed to penetrate armor at close range. Various devices were employed to cock the bow, with its short limbs and heavy draw weight. The crossbow’s power and short-range accuracy were counterbalanced by the length of time required to arm the weapon and its lack of range. Sometimes called Arbalest (missile thrower)arbalests, crossbows have been used as infantry weapons, and in heavier, more complicated versions as siege weapons.CrossbowsCrossbows

Evidence points to the China;crossbowsChinese of the Shang Shang DynastyDynasty (1600-1066 b.c.e.) as the originators of the crossbow. Early missiles included stones and fire arrows. By the time of the Han Han DynastyDynasty (206 b.c.e.-220 c.e.), crossbows had come into regular use among Chinese troops, particularly along the northwestern frontier. Soldiers stationed on the Great Great Wall of ChinaWall could use the protection of the wall as they loaded and fired their bolts at invaders. Chinese crossbows featured bows of laminated bamboo, specially glued and covered with lacquered silk, which were fitted onto lacquered, wooden stocks. Chinese bolts were usually about 12 inches long with bronze heads capable of puncturing the quilted silk, padded leather, and metal armor of the era.

Another refinement was the repeating Repeating crossbowcrossbow, fitted with a wooden, boxlike magazine holding from ten to twelve bolts and appearing in China in the first century c.e. The hinged magazine could be moved forward and back, thus serving as both a loading mechanism and a cocking device. Although the magazine increased the output of the archer, the magazine system was awkward and time consuming to reload. There is evidence, however, that types of magazine-fed crossbows were still in use during the First Sino-Japanese War Sino-Japanese War, First (1894-1895)[Sino Japanese War, First](1894-1895).

Crossbows spread from Asia to Europe at some unspecified date. The Rome;crossbowsRomans used large, complex versions of the crossbow as siege engines capable of firing heavy missiles against walled cities. In terms of infantry use, however, fragments of tombstone carvings from Le Puy and Polignac-sur-Loire in France dating roughly from the fourth century c.e. indicate that Roman legions may also have had crossbowmen using a basic model of laminated wood with a manual cocking arrangement. There is no evidence to show that the Romans employed the weapon on a broad scale.


Although there have been allusions to the crossbow’s use in fifth and sixth century England, the first Western written record of its use appears in a manuscript from 985 c.e. Derived from the Latin arc, or bow, and ballista, or missile thrower, the weapon became known as an Arbalest (missile thrower) Arcuballista (missile thrower) arcuballista, or arbalest. Several eleventh century references note that William the William the ConquerorWilliam the Conqueror (king of England) Conqueror (c. 1028-1087) included crossbowmen in his Norman army, which invaded England in 1066. By the time of the Crusades of the eleventh through thirteenth centuries, crossbows had become a standard and valued part of European armies. Anna Comnena, AnnaComnena, Anna Comnena of Byzantium (1083-c. 1148) provided one of the most complete descriptions of Crusader crossbows, noting that soldiers had to strain with both arms to cock, or span, the bow.

Among the most proficient soldiers using crossbows were the Italy;crossbowsItalians, particularly the Genoese. Hired as Mercenaries;Italianmercenaries by a variety of European crowned heads, Italian crossbowmen were noted for their accuracy in battle. Simple soldiers could be trained in the use of the crossbow in a matter of weeks, whereas longbow archers required years of strengthening and practice to become expert. The use of the crossbow allowed a common soldier with minimal training to dispatch a well-armored, professional knight. So devastating had the crossbow become in conflicts raging across Europe that Pope Innocent Innocent II (pope)Innocent II (pope)[Innocent 02]II (died 1143), at the Lateran Council (1139), prohibited their Lateran Council (1139)use. The prohibition did not extend, however, to use against infidels, and even in Europe the ban was generally ignored.

Although the crossbow had been used in the Crusades;First (1095-1099)First (1095-1099) and Crusades;Second (1145-1149)Second Crusades (1145-1149), it had its greatest impact during the Third CrusadeCrusades;Third (1187-1192);crossbows(1187-1192). King Richard I Richard I ofRichard I “Lion-Heart” (king of England)[Richard 01]England (1157-1199), a proponent of crossbow use and an accomplished marksman, was reported to have used the weapon to slay a Muslim archer high atop a wall during the Siege of Acre Acre, Siege of (1189-1191)(1189-1191). In various skirmishes throughout the campaign, crossbowmen successfully defended supply routes and garrison posts. At the Battle of Arsuf Arsuf, Battle of (1191)(1191), Christian crossbowmen wreaked havoc against the lightly armored Muslim bowmen of the sultan SaladinSaladin (sultan of Egypt and Syria)Saladin (1138-1193). Muslim arrows did not easily penetrate the thick felt overcoats and mail shirts of the Europeans, whereas the short, heavy quarrels pierced the light armor of Muslim soldiers and horses. At Jaffa Jaffa, Battle of (1192)(1192) crossbowmen played a key part in Richard s victory over a numerically superior force. Later, after returning to England, Richard was mortally wounded by a crossbow quarrel while laying siege to the castle of Chalus, in the Limousin, France (1199).

The cocking Cocking mechanisms for crossbowsmechanisms of crossbows went through a variety of developments during the Middle Ages. Although dates of innovations are unknown, evidence shows the weapon’s evolution. As armor increased in strength, crossbows increased in power. The simple method of cocking, or spanning, by hand was replaced with both a stirruplike device at the head of the stock and a pair of belt hooks known as the “belt and claw.” By placing the bowstring in the hooks, and the foot in the stirrup, sufficient leverage and power could be exerted to cock the weapon.

With the desire to increase range, even more radical spanning devices were needed. The Arbalest (missile thrower)arbalest à tour utilized a pulley system hooked to the string rather than the belt claws. By drawing on the pulleys, the string could be more easily cocked. In the fifteenth century, a “screw and handle” device consisting of a threaded rod hooked to the string and cranked at the rear of the stock by a handle, created a powerful weapon. The “goat’s foot lever” employed hinged double levers, which bent the bow and cocked the string. This system was particularly efficient in the lighter-weight crossbows favored by European cavalry. A French innovation called the Cranequin (ratchet winder) cranequin, or ratchet winder, utilized a handle connected to a pair of cogs enclosed in a drumlike attachment hooked to the string by a rail. By cranking the handle in a circular motion, the rail drew the string to the cocked position. Each time a cranequin was used, however, it had to be removed in order to fire the crossbow and then reattached for reloading. Such a device was especially necessary as laminated bows were replaced with stiffer, more powerful metal limbs.

A crossbow shown with two quarrels, or bolts (a), which are fitted into the groove (b), with their butt ends against the nut (c) after the bowstring (d) has been drawn back and held by the nut. When ready to fire, the operator aims from the shoulder and presses the trigger to release the bolt.

(Kimberly L. Dawson Kurnizki)

Perhaps the most complicated version of crossbow mechanisms was the Windlass systemwindlass, or Moulinet systemmoulinet, system. A combination of fixed and free pulleys was attached to the stock of the bow, and the free-running pulleys hooked to the string. By inserting a foot into the stirrup to stabilize the weapon, crossbowmen would then crank a pair of handles engaging a windlass to wind the fixed pulleys. This marriage of pulleys and handles could span even the heaviest of crossbows used in besieging castles and other fortifications. As with the cranequin, however, the moulinet system had to be removed to shoot, thus creating a slow rate of fire.

As crossbows evolved, so too did quarrels. Wooden shafts fitted with iron heads remained the standard Arrows;quarrelsmissile for centuries. Quarrels (crossbow missiles)Quarrels were usually from 9 to 12 inches long. To stabilize the quarrel in flight, fletchings of wood, leather, or feathers were used, although these were much shorter and shallower vanes than those of longbow arrows. With the development of mechanical spanning devices, all-metal bolts became the most lethal of projectiles, particularly when used on heavier crossbows.

In English and continental European armies, crossbowmen were generally placed in the front line of battle to pepper foes with their bolts. At the Battle of Taillebourg Taillebourg, Battle of (1242)(1242), England’s King Henry Henry IIIHenry III (king of England)[Henry 03]III (1207-1272) was defeated by French king Louis Louis IXLouis IX (king of France)[Louis 09]IX (1214-1270) even though the English counted some 700 crossbowmen in the infantry. During the Hundred Years’ War Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453)(1337-1453), Genoese crossbowmen in the employ of the French dueled English longbow archers at Crécy Crécy, Battle of (1346)[Crecy, Battle of](1346) and Agincourt Agincourt, Battle of (1415)(1415). In both engagements, the longbowmen prevailed with their greater range and accuracy.

Corps of crossbowmen were included in most European armies into the sixteenth century. At the Battle of Marignano Marignano, Battle of (1515)(1515), a bodyguard of two hundred mounted crossbowmen helped Francis Francis IFrancis I (king of France)[Francis 01]I (1494-1547) of France defeat the duke of Milan. When Spanish adventurer Hernán Cortés, HernánCortés, Hernán[Cortes, Hernan]Cortés (1485-1547) trekked into Mexico (1521), he brought with him a company of arbalesters, as did Francisco Pizarro, FranciscoPizarro, FranciscoPizarro (c. 1478-1541) in his invasion of Peru (1524). As late as 1570, Spanish marines stationed aboard galleons were still armed with crossbows.

With the advent of gunpowder and handguns, the military use of the crossbow dwindled. By the seventeenth century, it had primarily become a tool for hunting and target practice. During World War I (1914-1918), medieval crossbows were stripped from armories and converted into grenade launchers for use in the trenches. More recently, some modern military special forces have adopted crossbow use for clandestine operations.Crossbows

Books and Articles

  • Bennett, Matthew, et al. Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World, A.D. 500 to A.D. 1500. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005.
  • Brodie, Bernard. From Crossbow to H-Bomb. New York: Dell, 1962
  • Diagram Group. The New Weapons of the World Encyclopedia: An International Encyclopedia from 5000 B.C. to the Twenty-first Century. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2007.
  • Gardner, Charles W. “Weapon of Power: Slower than the Longbow, the Crossbow Offered Deadly, Accurate Simplicity.” Military History 6, no. 3 (1989): 18, 70-74.
  • Heath, E. G. The Grey Goose Wing. Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1971.
  • Hurley, Vic. Arrows Against Steel: The History of the Bow. New York: Mason Charter, 1975.
  • Nicolle, David. A Companion to Medieval Arms and Armour. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 2002.
  • Nosov, Konstantin S. Ancient and Medieval Siege Weapons: A Fully Illustrated Guide to Siege Weapons and Tactics. Illustrated by Vladimir Golubev. Guilford, Conn.: Lyons Press, 2005.
  • Payne-Gallwey, Sir Ralph. The Crossbow: Its Military and Sporting History, Construction. and Use. 1903. Reprint. New York: Skyhorse, 2007.

Films and Other Media

  • Crossbow. Television series. Cinecom, 1987.
  • The Dark Ages. Documentary. History Channel, 2007.
  • Henry V. Feature film. BBC/Curzon/Renaissance, 1989.

Clubs, Maces, and Slings

Picks, Axes, and War Hammers

Bows and Arrows

Knives, Swords, and Daggers

Spears and Pole Arms


Firearms and Cannon

Handarms to Firearms