The very first crossbows date back to around 600BC in China. In later centuries, Romans and Greeks also used crossbows for hunting and during times of war. In 1066, crossbows were reintroduced to England by William the Conqueror and the Normans and subsequently used throughout the Middle Ages. Richard the Lionheart’s army had both crossbows and longbows. He died as a result of gangrene after being hit by a crossbow bolt in 1199 at Chalus-Charbrol, France.
You could shoot a crossbow bolt accurately up to a range of 300 – 350 yards. Due to the fact, that reloading the crossbow took considerable effort, you could only shoot 2 bolts per minute. The upside was, that it was very easy to use and only required minimal training.
Medieval crossbows were vastly superior to their predecessor the short bow. Using a little bit of engineering, the bolts were a lot faster and a lot deadlier compared to arrows from a short bow and could easily pierce a knights armour and kill him. That also meant, that knights slowly became fewer and fewer, because even a relatively unskilled crossbowman could take him down. In 1096 Pope Urban II banned crossbows, as it became too dangerous for thise high born knights and royalty in general. It was viewed as an “abomination”, but the ban was ignored by most people and the crossbow continued to remain a favoured weapon across both Europe and England.
Due to its superiority and ease of use, groups of peasants formed in medieval towns to protect it. Unlike normal bows, they could have one bolt loaded at all times, which allowed them to react faster in case of an attack.
The main disadvantages of the Medieval crossbow were the expense and time to manufacture and the slow firing rate. From the crossbowmans point of view its main disadvantage was his vulnerability whilst reloading the crossbow. He needed protection and tall shields called pavises were developed. The crossbowman would duck behind the pavise to reload his crossbow during a battle. When not needed, he would carry it on his back. Before the battle started, he propped it up in front of him and hid behind it.
Eventually, the use of the crossbow even led to a point where soldiers rarely brought knives and swords to the battlefield. In Europe, medieval crossbows remained in use until the end of the 15th century. The crossbows of this time period are generally called “Arbalest”. They were a bigger and heavier version of earlier crossbows and could not be reloaded without a windlass or crannequin. Being heavier in their nature, reloading them took slightly longer than normal crossbows, but it also increased their range to about 350 – 400 yards.
Crossbows were slowly replaced by the first firearms due to their same level of effectiveness, but allowing any foot soldier to be given one with little to no training first. This happened throughout the 15th century, as guns became more and more popular.
“There are three avenues of opportunity: events, trends, and conditions. When opportunities occur through events but you are unable to respond, you are not smart. When opportunities become active through a trend and yet you cannot make plans, you are not wise. When opportunities emerge through conditions but you cannot act on them, you are not bold. Those skilled in generalship always achieve their victories by taking advantage of opportunities.”
Zhuge Liang (circa 200 AD, The Way of the General)
In the second century of China during the Han dynasty the crossbow known as Cho-Ko-Nu was invented.
This repetition crossbow was originally invented by Zhuge Liang and could fire up to 10 times without need for reloading. It’s range and killing power were less than normal crossbows but the simple fact of firing so many arrows in a row was enough to have it’s usage expanded until the 19th century. For some reason the weapon never made it into Europe and when longbows , composite bows and crossbows were in it’s peak gunpowder and fireguns appeared.
Nevertheless the Cho-Ko-Nu was an interesting and very important weapon during the classical and post-classical China.
In the war between China and Japan between the years of 1894 and 1895 the repetition crossbow was frequently seen in the hands of troops from Mainland China.
The angular stone of this weapon is it’s repetition system that allowed the user to fire 10 rounds in 15 seconds.
This was a very effective weapon to stop open field enemy attacks and to uphold a fortification, even though it was not as accurate as a traditional bow or crossbow its firing speed was what made it the best choice for those situations.
Imagine 100 defenders firing 1000 arrows towards the enemy group every 15 seconds.
The arrows of this weapon were lighter and shorter and had a lower penetration power compared to the heavier arrows used by European crossbows in medieval times, which were capable of ending a life in one shoot. For this reason the arrow heads of this kinds of crossbow were dipped in poison so they would become lethal.
With a few modifications on the mechanism it was possible to make it fire two arrows at the same time in each round.
This way those 100 defenders would have been able to fire 2000 arrows every 15 seconds.
The effective range of these Chinese weapons was of around 80 yards with 180-200 yards being the extreme range.
The bamboo arrows used were around 12 and 16 inches and had a diameter of a little less than half an inch but had a metal head that was heavy in comparison to its lightweight body. The arrows had no feathers so that there was no impediment to the reloading process