Medieval Crossbow

When the crossbow first began to be used, it was hated by a number of people. In fact, the Pope declared that if a person used a crossbow, that person could be excommunicated and demanded that the weapon be banned. People viewed crossbowmen as having no honour so people were hesitant to use the weapon. As a result, crossbowmen were paid almost double the pay of other soldiers.

medieval crossbow

How It Was Made

The crossbow was a bow that was turned on its side and attached to a wooden body. This body is called the stock or the tiller and had a trigger. The stock also had a groove on the top where the arrow would be placed. This stock was made from a variety of wood such as yew, elm, ash, or hazel. Once the stock was formed, it would be covered in glue.

The bow part of the crossbow was made of either wood, steel, or iron. The string was made from a number of materials such as sinew, hemp, or whipcord. Sinew comes from the tendons of animals and is pounded with a smooth rock or stick until the tendons start to separate into individual threads which were then woven into a bowstring. Whipcord is made by taking four lengths of fabric and weaving them together.

The crossbow could be shot just like a rifle—held up to your shoulder, aimed and then the trigger pulled. A hand-held crossbow was 60 to 65 centimeters wide and the stock was around 45 centimetres long. The quarrels were typically shorter and had a sharp point at the end.

Draw Weight and Draw Length

The draw weight is the amount of force the crossbowman needed to exert to pull back the crossbow string. The draw length was how far the string needs to be pulled back.

The draw weight of a crossbow was very high. If a crossbowman wanted to pull the string back just ten centimetres, it would take a force of around 180 kilograms. As a result, it was impossible for a crossbowman to pull the string back by simply using his strength, and he needed some other mechanism to pull the string back.

One mechanism that a crossbowman used was a hook attached to the archer’s belt. To use the hook, the crossbowman would bend over and attach the hook to the string. He would then straighten up causing the string to be pulled back. Another mechanism that was used to draw the crossbow string was a lever. The archer would pull back the lever which in turn would draw back the string. Later, a winch was added to the crossbow to help pull back the string on bigger crossbows. The crossbow arrow (called a bolt or quarrel) was then laid in the groove on top of the stock. The crossbow was then aimed and the trigger pulled.

Skill Required

It did not take a lot of skill to use a crossbow and did not require the years of training that a person needed to use the longbow. The crossbow was also a lot easier to aim than a longbow and could even be used by young boys or injured soldiers. This was one of the moral problems people saw with the crossbow. It could be used by an untrained soldier to injure a knight in plate mail. The nobility felt that commoners should not have a weapon that could injure the commoner’s betters.

Rate of Fire

The crossbow was a fairly slow weapon when compared to a longbow. A crossbowman would average about two to three shots per minute and the range was around 320 to 360 meters. This was a lot slower than the rate of fire of a longbow. An archer could should around ten to twelve shots per minute with a longbow.

Problems with Crossbows

The biggest problem with crossbows were that they were slow. A longbowman could shoot three to four arrows (or more) during the time it would take for a crossbowman to shoot one arrow. The crossbow was very heavy to carry around and it could be damaged by the weather. The crossbow was made up of wood, glue, and iron and did not work well in the rain. Also, the width of the crossbow required that there be a fairly large gap between the crossbowmen. Another problem with the crossbow was that it cost a lot of money and time to make one.

The crossbow was an effective weapon and helped win a number of battles. Although slow, it could be used by an untrained or injured soldier which made it very valuable on the battlefield.