Crossbows are still cool today, which is a universally acknowledged fact. This weapon was as close as civilization got to firearms back when bows were the ranged weapon of choice. Now, bows somehow perceived as a weapon for the less fierce warrior out there. When we think of elite medieval units, we think of knights or swordsmen wearing their own weight in armor, wielding a sword of nearly impractical length. Basically, we have it entirely backward. Archers were some of the most highly trained units and the bow, especially the longbow, required strength that the average infantry unit never had. Not only were they an elite class within the military, their social standing was also equally high, that’s how challenging their profession was. So any time you see a film where a swordsman grabs a bow to score some quick headshots – know that in reality, he would have had more chance of injuring himself than the enemy.
But even a skilled archer with a lifetime of training became increasingly tired as the battle raged on, with accuracy inevitably decreasing. To mitigate this, the evolution of the bow itself was aimed at making the weapon less demanding in both skill and force. In that very pursuit, eventually, the crossbow was born. A crossbow is not complex in its construction. To simplify, its a bow fixed to a stock that had a release mechanism. Its manufacture was equally simple, making it cheap – a vital criterion for making any weapon ubiquitous. Most importantly, it was much easier to use than a classic bow. This removed the need for highly trained archers to fulfill the military’s need for range units.
Some will be surprised to know that the crossbow’s direct ancestor, so to speak, is not the bow. It is the ballista – an artillery version of the crossbow that is identical to the crossbow in its functional configuration. Of course, the ballista was a much larger, cumbersome weapon that didn’t necessarily use long wooden projectiles. Oftentimes it would use rocks, the same way the catapults did. The ballista dates all the way back to biblical times and is mentioned in the Bible in II Chronicles. There, it is referred to as being fixed to defense structures like walls and towers. But while those ballistas are said to have been built in Jerusalem, the earliest crossbow was found in Asia, in the Chinese region. Historians and archeologists struggle to be more specific than that in identifying the exact origins of this weapon, but the earliest documents suggesting its existence date all the way back to the fifth century BC. Built from wood, those early crossbows have not survived to this day unless purposefully preserved in places such as tombs. Most crossbow remains usually come in the form of the bronze bolt mechanism that was used to arm and release the projectile. The bolt was a supremely simple mechanism, allowing it to be mass-produced.