AskDefine | Define crossbow

Dictionary Definition

crossbow n : a bow fixed transversely on a wooden stock grooved to direct the arrow (quarrel)

User Contributed Dictionary



  • (UK) /'krɒsbəʊ/


  1. A mechanised weapon, based on the bow and arrow, which fires bolts.

Derived terms


mechanised weapon based on the bow

See also

Extensive Definition


Crossbows exist in different variants, one way to classify them is the acceleration system, another the size and energy, degree of automation or projectiles.
The simplest acceleration system is a straight or bent prod and it is probably the earliest version of a crossbow.
A recurve crossbow is a bow that has tips curving away from the archer. The recurve bow's bent limbs have a longer draw length than an equivalent straight-limbed bow, giving a more acceleration to the projectile and less hand shock. Recurved limbs also put greater strain on the materials used to make the bow, and they may make more noise with the shot.
Multiple bow systems (for example a Chuangzi Nu) have a special system of pulling the sinew via several bows(which can be recurve bows). The workings can be compared to a modern compound bow system. The weapon uses several different bows instead of one bow with a tackle system to achieve a higher acceleration of the sinew via the multiplication with each bow's pulling effect.
A compound crossbow is a modern crossbow and similar to a compound bow, The limbs are usually much stiffer than those of a recurve crossbow. This limb stiffness makes the compound bow more energy efficient than other bows, but the limbs are too stiff to be drawn comfortably with a string attached directly to them. The compound bow has the string attached to the pulleys, one or both of which has one or more cables attached to the opposite limb. When the string is drawn back, the string causes the pulleys to turn. This causes the pulleys to pull the cables, which in turn causes the limbs to bend and thus store energy. The use of this levering system gives the compound bow a characteristic draw-force curve which rises to a peak weight and then "lets off" to a lower holding weight.
In size the smallest are pistol crossbows. Others are simple long stocks with the crossbow mounted on them. These could be shot from under the arm. The next step in development was rifle shaped stocks that allowed better aiming. The arbalest was a heavy crossbow which required special systems for pulling the sinew via windlasses. For siege warfare the size of crossbows was further increased to hurl large projectiles such as rocks at fortifications. The required crossbows needed a massive base frame and powerful windlass devices. Such devices include the oxybeles. The ballista has torsion springs replacing the elastic prod of the oxybeles, but later also developed into smaller versions. "Ballista" is still the root word for crossbow in Romance languages such as Italian (balestra).
The repeating crossbow automated the separate actions of stringing the bow, placing the projectile and shooting. This way the task can be accomplished with a simple one-handed movement, while keeping the weapon stationary. As a result, it is possible to shoot at a faster rate compared to unmodified version. The Chinese repeating crossbow, Chu Ko Nu, is a small handheld crossbow that accomplishes the task with a magazine containing a number of bolts on top. The mechanism is worked by moving a rectangular lever forward and backward.
A bullet crossbow is a type of handheld crossbow which rather than arrows or bolts shoots spherical projectiles made of stone, clay or lead. There are two variants, one has a double string with a pocket for the projectile; the other has a barrel with a slot for the string.
arbalest and a pavise "cranequinier"). His crossbow is drawn with a rack-and-pinion 'cranequin', so it can be used while riding.


The arrow-like projectiles of a crossbow are called bolts. These are much shorter than arrows, but can be several times heavier. There is an optimum weight for bolts to achieve maximum kinetic energy, which varies depending on the strength and characteristics of the crossbow. In ancient times the bolts of a strong crossbow were usually several times heavier than arrows. Modern bolts are stamped with a proof mark to ensure their consistent weight. Bolts typically have three fletches, commonly seen on arrows. Crossbow bolts can be fitted with a variety of heads, some with sickle-shaped heads to cut rope or rigging; but the most common today is a four-sided point called a quarrel. A highly specialized type of bolt can be employed to collect blubber biopsy samples used in biology research.
Crossbows could be adapted to also shoot stones or lead bullets. Primarily used for hunting wildfowl, these usually have a double string with a pouch between the strings to hold the projectile.


The ancient crossbow often included a metal grid serving as iron sights. Modern crossbow sights often use similar technology to modern firearm sights such red dot sights and telescopic sights. Many crossbow scopes feature multiple crosshairs to compensate for the significant effects of gravity over different ranges.
Quivers can be mounted to hold ammunition. These are often made from plastic and usually hold the bolts in fixed positions along the structure. A popular detachable design consists of a main arm that is attached to the weapon, a plate on one end that secures four or more individual bolts at a point on their shafts and at the other end a cover that secures their heads. This kind of quiver is attached under the front of the crossbow, parallel to the string and is designed to be quickly detached and reattached. Other designs hold bolts underneath the crossbow parallel to the stock, sometimes on either side of the crossbow.
A major cause of the sound of firing a crossbow is vibration of various components. Crossbow silencers are multiple components placed on high vibration parts such as the string and limbs to dampen vibration and suppress the sound of loosing.


First evidence

It is not clear exactly where and when the crossbow originated, but there is evidence that it was used for military purposes from the second half of the 4th century BC onwards.
Linguistic evidence makes it the more probable hypothesis that the crossbow may have originated among the cultures neighboring ancient China. It was used as weapon and toy, but mainly in the form of unattended traps.
The earliest Chinese document mentioning a crossbow is in scripts from the 4th–3rd century BC attributed to the followers of Mozi. This source refers the use of a giant crossbow catapult to the 6th to 5th century BC, corresponding to the late Spring and Autumn Period. Sun Tzu's influential book The Art of War (first appearance dated in between 500 BC to 300 BC) refers in chapter V to the traits and in XII to the use of crossbows. One of the earliest reliable records of this weapon in warfare is from an ambush, the Battle of Ma-Ling in 341 BC. By the 200s BC, the crossbow (nǔ, 弩) was well developed and quite widely used in China. Several remains of them have been found among the soldiers of the Terracotta Army in the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang (260-210 BC).
The earliest date for the crossbow is from the 5th century BC, from the Greek world. This was called the gastraphetes, which could store more energy than the Greek bows, and was used in the Siege of Motya in 397 BC. This was a key Carthaginian stronghold in Sicily, as described in the 1st century AD by Hero of Alexandria in his book Belopoeica. Same as with the Chinese sources a non-contemporary attribution of technical means can be doubted. Furthermore, there is a lack of other Greek sources stating the same. At least Alexander's siege of Tyre in 332 BC provides reliable sources for the use of these weapons by the Greek besiegers.

Classical Mediterranean antiquity

The gastraphetes was a handheld crossbow, used by ancient Greeks. It was described in the first century AD by the Greek author Heron of Alexandria in his work Belopoeica (Ancient Greek Βελοποιικά, 'on catapult-making'). It is believed to have been invented around 400 BC. The weapon was powered by a composite bow. It was cocked by resting the stomach in a concavity at the rear of the stock and pressing down with all strength. In this way considerably more energy can be summoned up than by using only one arm of the archer as in the hand-bow.
There are no attestations through pictures or archaeological finds, but the description by Heron is detailed enough to have allowed modern reconstructions to be made. Its application in sieges and against rigid infantry formations featured more and more powerful projectiles, leading first to the larger oxybeles and then to technical improvements with the ballista. The ballista is a torsion weapon, not being a tension weapon and for this reason it isn't considered a crossbow.

Medieval Europe

The use of crossbows in European warfare dates back to Roman times and is again evident from the battle of Hastings until about 1500 AD. They almost completely superseded hand bows in many European armies in the twelfth century for a number of reasons. Although a longbow had greater range, could achieve comparable accuracy and faster shooting rate than an average crossbow, crossbows could release more kinetic energy and be used effectively after a week of training, while a comparable single-shot skill with a longbow could take years of practice.
In the armies of Europe, mounted and unmounted crossbowmen, often mixed with javeliners and archers, occupied a central position in battle formations. Usually they engaged the enemy in offensive skirmishes before an assault of mounted knights. Crossbowmen were also valuable in counterattacks to protect their infantry. The rank of commanding officer of the crossbowmen corps was one of the highest positions in any army of this time. Along with polearm weapons made from farming equipment, the crossbow was also a weapon of choice for insurgent peasants such as the Taborites.
Mounted knights armed with lances proved ineffective against formations of pikemen combined with crossbowmen whose weapons could penetrate most knights' armor. The invention of pushlever and ratchet drawing mechanisms enabled the use of crossbows on horseback, leading to the development of new cavalry tactics. Knights and mercenaries deployed in triangular formations, with the most heavily armored knights at the front. Some of these riders would carry small, powerful all-metal crossbows of their own. Crossbows were eventually replaced in warfare by gunpowder weapons, although early guns had slower rates of fire and much worse accuracy than contemporary crossbows. Later, similar competing tactics would feature harquebusiers or musketeers in formation with pikemen, pitted against cavalry firing pistols or carbines.


In Asia, crossbows were used as antipersonnel and siege weapons. The Chinese developed the repeating crossbow with an automatic reloading system.
The Saracens called the crossbow qaws Ferengi, or "Frankish bow", as the Crusaders used the crossbow against the Arab and Turkoman horsemen with remarkable success. The adapted crossbow was used by the Islamic armies in defence of their castles. Later footstrapped version become very popular among the Muslim armies in Spain. During the Crusades, Europeans were exposed to Saracen composite bows, made from layers of different material—often wood, horn and sinew—glued together and bound with animal tendon. These composite bows could be much more powerful than wooden bows, and were adopted for crossbow prods across Europe.
In Western Africa and Central Africa, crossbows serve as a scout weapon and for hunting, with enslaved Africans bringing the technology to America. In the American south, the crossbow was used for hunting when firearms or gunpowder were unavailable because of economic hardships or isolation.

Comparison to conventional bows

With a crossbow, archers could release a draw force far in excess of what they could have handled with a bow. Moreover, crossbows could be kept cocked and ready to shoot for some time with little effort, allowing crossbowmen to aim better. The disadvantage is the greater weight and clumsiness compared to a bow, as well as the slower rate of fire and the lower efficiency of the acceleration system.
Crossbows have a much smaller draw length. Under 12 inches is common, whereas a modern adult recurve bow has a draw length of over 20 inches. This translates to more energy being transferred to the arrow. This means that for the same energy to be imparted to the arrow (or bolt) the crossbow has to have a much higher draw weight. For example, a modern recurve bow, with a draw length of 28 inches (19 inches of draw plus 9 inches of bracing height) with a drawn weight of 42Lbs would have (very) roughly the same energy as a crossbow draw length of 11.8 inches, with a drawn weight of 90Lbs.

Legal issues

The Second Lateran Council under Pope Innocent II in 1139 may have banned the use of crossbows against Christians. The authenticity, interpretation and translation of this source is contested.
Today the crossbow often has a complicated legal status due to the possibility of lethal use and its similarities with both firearms and archery weapons.

See also



  • Payne-Gallwey, Ralph, Sir, The Crossbow: Mediaeval and Modern, Military and Sporting; its Construction, History & Management with a Treatise on the Balista and Catapult of the Ancients and An Appendix on the Catapult, Balista & the Turkish Bow, New York : Bramhall House, 1958.
  • The Crossbows of South-West China, by Stephen Selby, 1999
  • African crossbow, Donald B. Ball, 1996
  • Crossbow of the Hill Tribes

External links

crossbow in Belarusian: Арбалет
crossbow in Bulgarian: Арбалет
crossbow in Catalan: Ballesta
crossbow in Czech: Kuše
crossbow in Danish: Armbrøst
crossbow in German: Armbrust
crossbow in Spanish: Ballesta (arma)
crossbow in Esperanto: Arbalesto
crossbow in French: Arbalète (arme)
crossbow in Galician: Bésta
crossbow in Korean: 석궁
crossbow in Croatian: Samostrel
crossbow in Icelandic: Lásbogi
crossbow in Italian: Balestra (arma)
crossbow in Hebrew: קשת מוצלבת
crossbow in Latvian: Stops (ierocis)
crossbow in Lithuanian: Arbaletas
crossbow in Hungarian: Számszeríj
crossbow in Dutch: Kruisboog
crossbow in Japanese: クロスボウ
crossbow in Norwegian: Armbrøst
crossbow in Polish: Kusza
crossbow in Portuguese: Besta (arma)
crossbow in Russian: Арбалет
crossbow in Slovak: Kuša
crossbow in Slovenian: Samostrel
crossbow in Serbian: Самострел
crossbow in Finnish: Varsijousi
crossbow in Swedish: Armborst
crossbow in Vietnamese: Nỏ
crossbow in Chinese: 弩
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