Tag Archives: crossbows

Q&A: Bows and Crossbows

Which medieval weapon took more training time to become proficient with, a short bow or a cross bow? Which took more strength to use? Some writers portray crossbows as much harder to load but easier for untrained persons to hit targets with devestating effect on heavily armored opponents. Is this true?

So, in order.

The bow. I’m talking about bows in general here. To the best of my knowledge, the term “shortbow,” only dates back to the 1890s, so, not exactly a medieval weapon. This doesn’t mean that smaller bows didn’t exist for specialized purposes, just that they weren’t called, “shortbows.”

Training, again, goes to the bow. Training an archer takes much more time, and is significantly more difficult. This leads into your question about it being easier for an untrained user to put a bolt where they want it. I’m not sure if that’s true, but it is much easier to get someone up to speed on the crossbow. Getting an arrow where you want it does require more skill, training, and practice.

Strength also goes to the bow. At least for upper body strength. You’re pulling a lot of weight with every shot, and assuming your archer is getting enough to eat, they’re going to be stacked after a few years. I think I’ve said this before, but the image of a willowy archer from fantasy just does not track with the reality of the weapon. If you’re effectively pulling 80+ pounds of force with every shot, that’s going to be a workout.

“Reloading” a bow is pretty trivial. Drawing and nocking another arrow is a very simple motion, and there’s almost no mechanical considerations. Reloading a crossbow may be more complicated, depending on the arming and firing mechanisms.

Light crossbows can be rearmed by hand. You simply take the bow string and reset the weapon to fire. Heavier weapons often require mechanical systems (called “spanning mechanisms”) to rearm the crossbow before reloading. These range from a stirrup, to allow you to hold the crossbow in place while you draw the string with both hands, to lever systems, and even cranks (both Cranquins and Windlasses were used). Once the crossbow has been rearmed, the actual reload is fairly simple, but that’s a mostly academic distinction.

Saying that it’s harder to reload a crossbow is fair. A little bit of an abstraction, but that’s entirely fair. They do have a much lower cyclic fire rate. With a bow, you simply need to draw another arrow, nock it, draw, and you’re ready to fire. With a crossbow, you need to rearm it (which may be simple, or it might not be), draw and load the bolt, and then you’re ready to fire.

So, when you have crossbows that are delivering force a human archer could not replicate, then, yes, that’s going to impact a target with more power than you could get from a bow. There’s a lot of factors here that I’m glazing over, so, this doesn’t mean that a crossbow will always, automatically, hit harder, and penetrate armor more easily, with heavier designs, especially ones with crank systems, that’s certainly possible.

So some basic physics, when you launch an un-powered missile (doesn’t matter an arrow, bolt, or bullet), it will lose velocity and be affected by gravity (called drop) as it travels. This means, at shorter ranges, these weapons will exhibit better armor penetration, than they will at a distance. So, if you have a character in fairly tight quarters, like a city street, firing a crossbow, it might have better armor penetration than you’d see from a longbow on a ridge.

In fact, crossbows saw most of their use in urban environments, while bows were more common in rural areas, and among standing military forces. The reason is not just tailoring the right weapon to the right situation, but also economic; crossbows were expensive. Even the light crossbows were more mechanically complicated than a bow, so it was easier to produce low quality bows, than low quality crossbows. Cities, with significant economic and production resources could afford to outfit their armories with crossbows, but equipping a village armory, meant you’d probably have to do without. This also meant that crossbows saw use among mercenaries, since they’d be paying for their own gear. European armies transitioned from bows to crossbows at varying points starting in the 12th century. By the 15th century, almost all of Europe had transitioned over, with the notable exception of the British.

Early firearms began appearing in European warfare, in the 14th century. There’s actually a timeframe where the choice would have been between primitive muskets, and crossbows. This persisted into the early modern era, as well. During this period, the crossbow would have been the an alternative with better armor piercing capabilities than those early guns. Also, for awhile, better accuracy and faster reloads. Once you move out of the middle ages, and into the early modern period, firearms start improving beyond the crossbow, but for awhile they both had a battlefield role.

It’s also worth remembering that in these situation, most soldiers would have carried a sword as their sidearm. So, it’s not like your character would have only carried a bow or crossbow, they also would have had something if they ended up in melee.

-Starke

Q&A: Crossbows and DOPE

For a character with a military background and proficiency in modern firearms, would any additional training be necessary for them to master a crossbow? If so, what kind?

For actual training? Not much. They’d need to be run through how to reload, and maintain the weapon. If they were a fairly quick study, that should only take a couple hours. Mastering the weapon would require lots of practice.

The problem is, the crossbow fires a much slower, heavier, projectile. This doesn’t invalidate basic concepts of how to aim and fire, but it does change the parameters where the weapon will be effective. Drop will be far more severe, meaning they’ll need to compensate for that, and the overall range will be much more limited (roughly 50 – 60 meters.)

In order to do that, they’ll simply need to spend time on a range practicing and gathering data on how the weapon performs.

When shooting, it’s very important to collect Data on Previous Engagements (or DOPE) for that weapon. This primarily involves learning how that individual weapon behaves at various ranges. (So, your character would be learning how their rifle or crossbow behaves, not necessarily all rifles and crossbows.) Some will keep DOPE as physical records, others will simply internalize the information based on how the weapon handles. You can collect some of this information online, but ultimately you need to confirm it with the actual weapon before you can count on it.

The end result is, they can probably swap over to a crossbow with a minimum of effort, but they would need to spend time on the range getting a feel for how the weapon handled, particularly in relation to compensating for bolt drop.

Drop is a concept in shooting involving the projectile as a physical object. While it is traveling away from you at high speed (~400 feet per second with a crossbow bolt) it is also falling. Gravity does not give bullets, bolts, or arrows, a pass simply because they’re already going in one direction. This is referred to as, “drop.” When aiming you need to account for this. Drop can be compensated by either zeroing the sights/optics for a specific range, or manually by the shooter.

For example, a shooter who zeroes their scope for 100 meters, will need to aim below the target at closer ranges, and above the target at ranges exceeding that range. To the point that at ranges over 500m the shooter may be aiming several feet above the target.

Factors like relative elevation can further affect calculating drop, with targets above the shooter requiring them to overcompensate for distance, and under-compensate for targets below them.

Another major factor is wind, which can affect a bullet, and may require the shooter to adjust their drop expectations, as well as left to right drift. (If the bullet has a backwind, it will travel faster, and as a result, will reach it’s target sooner, requiring less drop compensation. A headwind will slow the bullet, increasing the effect of drop. Crosswinds will require assessing the speed, and adjusting the aim point to compensate.)

Because the bolt is larger, and slower, all of these factors will be far more pronounced than with a bullet. Meaning a prospective crossbow user will need to collect new DOPE for that weapon. The rough values can be extrapolated from math that can be calculated from available data (the speed of the bolt, its mass, distance to target, ect), but that will only provide a starting point, it won’t be sufficient to really, “master” the crossbow. For that, your character’s simply needs to spend some time practicing, and getting a feel for their weapon.

Incidentally, all of this is also true for a character picking up a new gun. Those will be similar to comparable weapons, but even then, getting highly precise shots off requires spending time with that, specific, firearm. Practicing, and getting a feel for it. Now, with practice on a wider variety of firearms, collecting DOPE for new guns will become faster and more intuitive, but it’s still something your character would need to do.

-Starke

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