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The Crossbow: The Weapon That Changed Warfare Forever

Warfare History Network, Arnold Blumberg

Security, Europe

The age of knights was ending.

Key point: It closed the martial gap between untrained commoners and trained knights.

The crossbow’s use grew by leaps and bounds between the 13th and mid-15th centuries. The reasons for this steady rise in popularity were that the device was inexpensive to make and easy to master. Further, on the tactical level, the use of crossbows proved to be a wise choice owing to the type of warfare conducted between 1100 and 1500.

From the 10th to the 15th centuries battles in Europe tended to be between small groups of mounted knights and their retainers, supported by local levies of peasants armed with spears and bows. Battles were set-piece encounters where both sides had the opportunity to choose their ground, arrange their forces, and either wait to be attacked, initiate their own assault, or leave the scene if that appeared to be the most prudent course. In these circumstances, the crossbow was perfect. Crossbow units were assigned to those parts of the battlefield deemed to need their firepower the most. The ranges would be preregistered to ensure accurate fire at the proper distances. In these situations, the crossbow was equally effective in attack or defense.

But for every field engagement fought during the period, five or more sieges would be carried out. A siege was considered less risky than open battle, and the rewards could be immeasurably greater. Whereas enemy notables could be captured and later ransomed after a military encounter, the taking of a castle, city, or town would yield not only booty and greater ransom prospects, but also new land and subjects to tax. In this type of war, crossbows were even more suitable than on a battlefield. During a siege both the besieger and besieged could site their crossbows where they would do the most damage, and the weapon’s low rate of fire was minimized because the pace of a siege (versus that of a battle) was slow and more controlled by the participants. Also, the power and usefulness of the crossbow were greatly enhanced because the attacker was protected by trenches or the bowman’s pavise (a four-foot shield used to cover the bowman while he reloaded), or by the stone walls and towers of the castle sheltering the defenders.

Use by Mounted Soldiers:

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