Tag Archives: middle ages

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

I have a question & I apologize if it has been answered before but– I am writing a medieval/fantasy novel & my MC is a very hard working farm girl who ends up getting into a quest that will need her to use some kind of force/weaponry. I don’t want to do the clichéd “very natural with no training with a sword/bow” but I need her to be decent with some kind of weapon. I am thinking an axe would be the most realistic for her past, or possibly a flail/mace. Any help is greatly appreciated.

I’d give her three weapons: one ranged, two close combat. I’m basing my choices below on her background and I’ll explain why.

Sling

Staff

Dirk/Dagger

These three cover your basic necessities while giving you the ability to branch out over the course of the story. Let me explain each in detail:

The Sling – the sling is the weapon of the farm child, one children still use to defend their flock from attackers both animal and human. It’s a great weapon, easy to maintain and use with ammunition everywhere with the potential for deadly accuracy.

Like the sword, the sling comes with it’s own thematic history when found literature as it was the weapon of choice for David when he fought and killed Goliath. It is a literary flashcard that this person is an underdog meant for great things.

Yes, it’s the weapon of the child but your character starts the story young. This is their coming of age. Besides that, it’s a great weapon and one you don’t have to worry too much about when it comes to logistics. The only downside is that its themes indicate someone who is intelligent, canny, and cunning, who performs the unexpected, and breaks the conventional rules to change to odds to their favor. (It also takes way less time to set up than the bow.)

The Staff – the staff is a basic, easy to use weapon that has an advantage over the sword in terms of reach and provides the base for training in more advanced polearms like the spear or the halberd. The learning curve is quick, it’s easy to practice, and it’s the weapon of the wizard/traveler.

If your character is going on a journey, she needs a walking stick. A walking stick that stealthily transitions into a beat down stick. She’s not professionally trained so taking on a city guard or knight early in the story is going to be a last resort, but she couldn’t have done that with an axe or a flail/mace anyway. If asked by the local city guard or lord, she has a convenient justification for carrying it and given that she is a peasant this is probably a good thing.

The Dagger – the dagger covers basic hand to hand, if she can’t get to the staff or the sling, then she can fall back to this. The dagger will give her the advantage in an unarmed/unarmored fight which she needs because she doesn’t know how. She may need someone to teach her how to hold it and strike with it, but it’s another weapon that is very easy to learn the basics of.

Other suggestions: a club, a cudgel, or a hand axe (like a hatchet)

On the mace/flail/morningstar: these are weapons meant for armored melee, specifically against enemies in plate. They won’t do your character a lot of good if you’re not planning on having her go after guys in mass melee wearing heavy plate. Since she hasn’t been trained to use it or fight them anyway, I’d suggest avoiding it.

Between the three, she has better odds than if you give her just the one. Also, the one weapon concept is really, really stupid. She’s going to face a variety of challenges over the course of her journey and there is no one weapon fits all. Different tools for different challenges. This is necessary to understand if you ever want to break out into more specialized weaponry because it’s important to remember that a highly specialized weapon only has an advantage under a very specific set of circumstances and combat variables. Any of the above weapons (ignoring the flail, the mace, and the morningstar) are weapons that would be ones she’s grown up with and make sense given her background.

There are some important things to remember: The weapons I’ve suggested won’t help her when it comes time to take on a professional warrior a la a knight but given your character’s background there’s no real helping that anyway. The axe won’t help her either. They will help with encountering bandits on the road during her travels and defending herself in tavern brawls, weapons that will provide her with the opportunity to fend someone off and give her time to adjust to her new surroundings. Some weapons like the sling are preemptive and can be used dangerously when at range to take out men in armor if they’re not wearing helmets. It won’t help her if they see her and catch her.

Combat is about skill and experience than it is about any physical qualities. Not all weapons are created equal and it’s best not to underestimate the training of the enemies she will be facing. It’s best to remember that these guys are dangerous to her and direct force like taking on a whole garrison full of guards to get to one single target may not be the wisest choice. (Is it ever?) Despite their lack of experience, your character has a unique perspective to apply when solving situations. Let them live in that place. Little John wasn’t a super fighter but he still managed to dump Robin Hood in a river.

A hero is made a hero by their brains, not their brawn. By understanding their limitations, you’ll be better able to work out how they might uniquely solve their problems. Fighting a better equipped enemy on the enemy’s terms is not cowardice, it’s stupid. Your character will never be able to “catch up” to other characters that have been training to become warriors since childhood, just like how during the Star Wars Original Trilogy Luke never really became Vader’s equal in martial skill. He matches him in other more important qualities and those qualities are what cement him as a hero.

-Michi