The crossbow was an effective weapon used by many cultures across the world from the ancient times to the Middle Ages, and the deadly devise is still used by hunters, today. It is thought to be the world’s first mass-produced mechanical weapon. Able to be produced in large quantities and easily taught to soldiers, the crossbow proved to be an effective weapon on the battlefield for more than a thousand years.
Historians still debate where the crossbow originated, but a wide majority places the first crossbows in ancient China around the 5th and 4th century BCE, but some even claim it was developed in the 6th century BCE. In ancient China, the crossbow trigger mechanisms were fairly standardized, so soldiers could repair their weapons without much difficulty. Furthermore, detailed manuscripts of crossbow use have been discovered in China dating from the 4th and 3rd century BCE.
Across the world, the ancient Greeks, and later the Romans, used a much larger crossbow design to make powerful siege engines known as ballistae. There is some evidence that crossbows may have been used in Europe by the 390s BCE, and the ballista is definitely thought to have been in Alexander the Great’s arsenal during his conquests in the 330s and 320s BCE.
The crossbow remained a relevant weapon well into medieval history. It’s use turned simple and weak peasants into deadly soldiers, especially when it was outfitted with a crank, making the device easier to load. The crossbow only went out of style, along with other projectile ancient weapons, when firearms began to become the world’s long-range weapon of choice.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Art of War by Sun Tzu, translated by John Minford. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.