Crossbow History Timeline & Facts

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The crossbow is a part of a warrior’s weaponry. The original crossbow was made up of a bow and fixed in a crosswise manner on a stock made out of wood. There are grooves in the stock. These grooves help the user direct his or her projectile. The projectiles used in crossbows are known as bolts or quarrels and are not as long as a standard arrow. The crossbow also had a bow made out of wood or iron or even steel. The earliest use of the crossbow was in wars. Today, it is mainly used for sport and hunting.

The earliest use was in East Asia

The history of crossbows can be traced back to East Asia at around the fifth century BC. Though there is no clear indication as to which country initially used the crossbow first, there is ample reason to believe that it may have originated in China. Crossbows were mentioned in ancient writings dating back to the fourth century BC. The earliest examples of the handheld crossbow had a stock and a trigger made from bronze.

Zhuge Liang

The next mention of the crossbow dates to 234 AD when Zhuge Liang, a military advisor from China, is credited with inventing the crossbow. Not surprisingly, these crossbows are called Zhuge crossbows. They were similar to an ancient burp gun and had a container for ammunition, which also contained the bolts. To fire this crossbow quickly, you only need to move a handle.

The resulting back and forth movement of the handle helped to cock the bow, and an arrow would be loaded. This type of crossbow was capable of firing itself. The first mention of this kind of crossbow was in the Records of the Three Kingdoms. At about this time (fourth century AD), it was also common for the Chinese to use crossbow catapults. They considered the crossbow to be a very effective weapon against cavalry charges made by nomads from the north.

Composite crossbow from Greece

The composite crossbow is also known to have been used in Greece in about the fourth century BC. This kind of crossbow was known as the Gastrophetes. In plain English, this term means a belly-bow. It got this name because the user had to lean with his or her belly on the crossbow’s butt end. This kind of crossbow was trendy in Medieval times, and it became popular enough to replace the regular bow and arrow. The earliest known use of the Gastrophetes was in the Siege of Motya, which took place at around this time: 397 BC.

Although the longbow was an essential weapon at about this time, the crossbow was still a competitive weapon because the user could use it without requiring extensive training in its usage. They could also master the art of using the crossbow in less time than it took to master the art of using the longbow. The Gastrophetes would soon give birth to another type of crossbow called the Oxybeles. It was nothing but a larger version of the Gastrophetes. European armies used crossbows to good effect, and they became an essential weapon in their battle formations. The crossbow was used primarily before an assault of mounted knights and to protect infantrymen. Soldiers that could use the crossbow were paid more than other soldiers and considered to be very important to the armies that used them. In a few instances, soldiers who could use crossbows were even given the same status as knights.

Changes to the drawing mechanism

Changes were made to the crossbow with the addition of drawing mechanisms such as a push-lever and ratchet. These changes enabled solders to use the crossbow when mounted on a horse.

Oxybeles to the Ballista

The Oxybeles would then transform into a ballista, which made use of torsion power to launch shots. Torsion power refers to the twisting of looped strings to create a certain amount of tension. The Ballista, however, makes use of twisted ropes that give the crossbow its tension and torsion power.

3rd Century BC: repeating crossbow makes an appearance

In the third century BC, the repeating crossbow made its appearance once more in Greece. This kind of crossbow was invented by Dionysius, who hailed from Alexandria. What set this crossbow apart was its ability to work with chain drives. It was known as the polybalos.

Later, the Romans began to win some important victories over the Greeks, and when they defeated the Greeks, they took with them some of the artillery ides that the vanquished Greek armies were using. The Romans then used the artillery ideas of the Greeks and improved them and came up with the crossbow known as the Vitruvius’ Ballista.

The Ballista was small but adequate, and it proved to be of immense help to the Romans. However, it was not so useful when used against walls, and so it was mainly used to good effect in hurling stones at warrior groups.

Introduction of the Scorpion

Next came the Scorpion, which again was a small crossbow used by Romans. It made use of torsion power and was lauded by none other than Julius Caesar for its accuracy. However, the Roman Empire began to fall, and this led to a reduction in the usage of the Ballista, which was replaced by the Springfield, which was cheap and smaller and worked with inward swinging arms.

European influence

Rome invaded Europe, where it wielded a lot of influence and so unsurprisingly, Europeans began to use crossbows though not to the same extent as the Romans. In fact, the use of crossbows by Europeans fell between the fifth century BC and 947 AD. Its widespread use in Europe however earned it the wrath of Pope Urban II who banned it in 1096. The church was against the idea of lowly peasants having the ability to kill mounted knights of their armies. The church however did not object to the use of crossbows in crusades.

Used in the 1st Crusade

Crossbows were widely being used during the Middle Ages and were particularly popular between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. In the 1st Crusade, crossbows were the preferred weapon of choice of foot soldiers. However, they caused some pretty savage injuries and so the Church considered their use to be a savage act. Even so, Richard the Lionheart, encouraged his soldiers to use the crossbow saying that it was destiny that willed the death of the enemy by crossbow quarrels.

Modern world

In the modern world, crossbows are still being used, especially in countries like India and China, as well as Brazil and Greece. They are also used in countries like Peru and Serbia, as well as countries of the former Soviet Union. In fact, the crossbow is also being used in Turkey and in the USA.

However, these crossbows are only being used in special operations where the user is required to operate in stealth. They are also the preferred weapon when needing to eliminate suicide bombers where it is necessary to kill the bomber without setting off his or her bomb. Crossbows are also used in modern times for hunting though they are certainly far less effective than modern firearms and so are not considered a useful weapon in modern-day wars.

Seventeenth century saw crossbows disappearing

In the seventeenth century, the crossbow almost disappeared but was still used by beekeepers because they had hives in the woods and had to use their crossbows against bears. Sporting crossbows also survived and were used as weapons for hunting in Europe up until the eighteenth century.

Today, they are used for target practice and hunting

In these modern times, crossbows have survived and are used for target practice as well as for hunting. They are also used by scientists who use them to samples from living whales. In some countries, the crossbow still serves as a weapon of war. This is applicable to certain tribes as well as by police in China. When used in a military situation, the modern crossbow is used to ambush the enemy as well as to shoot down snipers. Another use of the modern crossbow is it helps in establishing zip-lines in terrain that is hard to traverse.


We can conclude that the exact time when the first crossbow was used is unknown. We can however go by certain speculations that put the earliest use of crossbows in China. However, there are some that say that the crossbow may have been used in Mongolia around 1000 BC. The Chinese used crossbows around the fourth century BC. They started off using handheld crossbows which had a stock and a trigger made of bronze. Later, they began to use repeating crossbows that were designed to fire bolts without any need to feed the crossbow by hand. Finally, the Chinese began to use crossbow catapults – also from the fourth century BC.

The crossbow then made an entrance in the Mediterranean regions and more particularly in Greece. The Old Testament speaks about the use of crossbows as a war machine. The Greeks also started to use the crossbow well before the Romans who mainly copied the idea from them. The Ballista, as certain crossbows were referred to, were also used to defend fortifications such as a castle or a ship. In the twentieth century, the crossbow was further modified with the introduction of glass fibre. This made the modern version vastly different than the earliest weapons.

Since the modern crossbow is being widely used for target shooting, it has given rise to a completely new discipline. The modern crossbow is just not the same as the original. From being mainly a weapon, it is now only being used in sporting arenas. No longer is the use of the crossbow associated with ancient glories and with medieval times.

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