History of the Crossbow

A common modern term that we hear is “Made in China,” it’s everywhere and there’s no escaping it. The crossbow fits that modern term as well. If you haven’t got the hint yet, crossbows originate from ancient China. The weapon itself manifested from the bow and arrow design but features a horizontally placed mechanism and sometimes a buttstock. The major difference between a bow and arrow and a crossbow is how simple it can be used. Even the commonest of soldiers could use a crossbow with little to no training. Any nation at the time could simply place a crossbow in someone’s hand and send them into a battlefield.

How long has the crossbow been around you say? Well, no one really knows but we know it originated in East Asia. In terms of actual archaeological evidence, the earliest Crossbow bolts (arrows) were found as early as the mid 5th century BC and there’s even evidence of crossbows being mentioned in text as far back as the 4th century BC. Some of the first crossbow trigger mechanisms date around the 6th century which were found in tombs.

Altogether, the earliest evidence that we know of was in ancient China but as Sir Joseph Needham states in his Science and Civilisation in China that it is not possible to accurately determine which of the East Asian civilization invented the crossbow.  Fast forwarding a bit to 234 AD the Zhuge Crossbow was invited. The Zhuge crossbow is the machine gun of all crossbows. This repeating crossbow had an ammo container on top that would hold all the crossbow bolts. You might be wondering, well that’s not impressive? Yes, the fuck it is. The container wasn’t there to just hold ammo, the ammo container was there to make it easier to load. A back and forth crank on the handle cocked the bow which loaded an arrow and fired it automatically. Who’s the badass that made this thing? Well, the crossbow was named after Zhuge Liang, a famous military advisor at that time. Though he might not have invented the repeating crossbow, his name was attributed to it due to his improved design that could fire up to three bolts at once.

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Influence on Warfare

One of the major advantages Chinese states had over their less industrialized neighbors was how effective the weapon system was and how familiar they were with its construction. These two factors alone are a major advantage. Back in ancient warfare, due to rough terrain, you would have slow-moving chariots. At the end of a battle, victory notes sometimes read “wherever the crossbow bolts reached, the chariot tracks were chaotic and the banners were scattered.”  Perhaps this is where the expression stopped dead in their tracks came from? In addition, the crossbow made killing a little easier and a lot less personal. The improved firing range meant that you can strike someone from afar while at a safer distance. Despite all the new weapon developments such as catapults, gunpowder, and canons, the crossbow would continue to be in use all the way into the 19th century CE.

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