Saturday, 10 February 2018

Projectile weapons in history

I tend not to chase hits, and just ramble as I like, but did notice that the medieval taxation blog got more hits than average so thought I’d write some more in a similar vein.

Projectile weapons, by which I mean one- or two-handed weapons rather than siege equipment, have been used throughout warfare. Most recently, we have sniper rifles and the like, but the bow and arrow go all the way back to prehistory, and the sling likewise.

But which was more effective? And what about darts?

Slings were used by many people, perhaps most notably the shepherds on the Balearic Islands. Because the terrain was very rugged and it was a pain to wander around, the shepherds would sling stones to get sheep to move this way or that. Naturally, the ability to (fairly) accurately hurl stones was handy in warfare too.

In war, slingers would prefer to use the lead bullet, which would be a pellet of lead similar in shape to a rugby ball or acorn. A big advantage they had over archers was that if they ran out of ammunition they could just scrabble for stones and use them instead. Armouring oneself against a bullet or stone from a sling is difficult. Not only are they harder to see than an arrow (which might be three feet long, give or take), but the sheer concussive force is significant. An arrow might be deflected by a curving piece of armour or shield, but a lead bullet will give you a solid thwack wherever it hits. The Romans had a specific surgical tool (fancy tongs) for removing lead bullets because, hitting unprotected flesh, they would get deeply embedded.

That all sounds impressive, but there are two major drawbacks with slingers. Firstly, the range is much less than that of an archer. Secondly, the accuracy is much lower. There are some other pros and cons. You can sling in the rain, whereas bowstrings go a bit iffy, and I’m not sure there’s any record of riding slingers (unlike mounted archers or mounted darters). Another pro is that a sling can just be tied around the waist, so you could have a few shots at the enemy, then pick up your ‘proper’ weapons to meet their charge. (A bow and quiver are rather more cumbersome, although you could still have a sword or suchlike, or even just smack enemies in the face with your bow).

The shorter range and poorer accuracy made slingers significantly less useful for the attacking party during sieges, because simply reaching the defenders (assuming they’re atop a wall) and hitting them was harder than it was for archers. Naturally, the sling was still pretty handy in defence, with gravity helping the distance and weak accuracy compensated for by the funnelling of attackers (who would cluster against a gate, at scaling ladders, or the site of a breach).

Side note: slingers were also involved the first ever literal form of friendly ‘fire’ in history, when messages were passed between opposing sides during a siege. On a less amicable note, lead bullets would sometimes be engraved with offensive messages to their intended targets, as per the modern world with bombs.

Archers have a special place in English history, largely due to helping crush the French at Agincourt. And they’re pretty damned impressive bits of kit. They can shoot at a faster rate than a Napoleonic-era musket, with better range and accuracy. Not only that, they’re pretty good at getting through most armour (eventually armour caught up and the curving plates became very successful at deflecting arrows). There were, in Parthia, famous horse-archers who could shoot from the saddle (including backwards, the famous Parthian Shot). These Parthian chaps were amongst those who cut Crassus to pieces at Carrhae. At one time, it was illegal in England and Wales not to perform archery practice, so useful were the peasant archers to the army.

However, this indicates the single biggest drawback of the bow. Teaching someone to use a war bow takes a long time because immense strength is required. Give an average man one, and his skeleton would bend before the bow was pulled all the way back. Unlike slingers, arrows have to be used, and you don’t just find ammunition scattered about on the floor. Mentioned above, but the strings also went a bit wonky in the rain.

During a siege, arrows were a very good means of ensuring the besiegers didn’t wander too near. Whilst archers could also be used offensively, battlements and arrow slits offered good protection for defending archers, and gravity made their job rather easier than the men tasked at firing upwards at tall walls.

There is, however, a third type of projectile weapon used in the ancient world: the thrown spear (or dart. And also throwing axe). My favourite example of these would be the Numidian cavalry that accompanied Hannibal in his famous invasion of Italy. These fellows rode small horses, rampaging around battlefields and peppering the enemy with darts (small thrown spears) before retreating. Now, those au fait with classical history will be aware that the Roman cavalry was rubbish but, nevertheless, the Numidian cavalry was a key strength of Hannibal’s army. They were also highly disciplined, which enabled them, having chased off the Roman horse at Cannae, to return to the battle and help complete the encirclement of the Romans.

A foot soldier equivalent, of a different nature, can be find in the Romans themselves. The legionary would have his own throwing spear, the heavyweight and hated pilum. The pilum was deliberately designed to be useless for most of the things a spear is usually good for (walking stick, three to a make a tripod, two to make a stretcher etc). It was heavy at the sharp end with an intentionally weak spearhead that would become hopelessly bent upon impact. This was cunning, because if it struck a shield, the sheer weight made the shield worthless. The pila were thrown right before the charge, killing some enemy and rendering the rest shieldless moments before the legion closed the distance and introduced their foes to the business end of their swords.

A third example would be the Frankish throwing axe. Smaller than the pilum, and with a curving handle which, according to an impeccable source (Lindybeige), ensured it bounced unpredictably, the throwing axe would be the Franks’ warm welcome to their battlefield opponents.

Thrown weapons, naturally, have much shorter range. In common with archers, but even more so, once ammunition is spent, that’s it. Because arrows are smaller than darts, the number of projectiles available is correspondingly smaller. There’s also a chance that the enemy might throw your weapon back, depending how the battle is going (although obviously this isn’t a problem with the pilum, which is a one-throw spear). There’s also a very clear divide, with horse rolling up, throwing some darts and then buggering off before the enemy get close, and foot throwing then immediately charging whilst the enemy are in disarray (in short, Numidian horsemen want to avoid getting close at all costs, whereas Roman legionaries want to get close as soon as possible after throwing).

In sieges, thrown weapons were either very handy (and could encompass heavy rocks or boiling sand/water) or bloody useless, depending which side you were on and the size of the walls.

NB I decided specifically not to include crossbows because the mechanism involved enables a shot to be held, imminently ready to be loosed, whereas all the above examples require the exertion immediately prior to release. That might sound like a finickity reason, but it fundamentally alters the way that crossbows were used in sieges (you could load then aim at a specific point waiting for a patrolling guard, something very hard to accomplish with a bow).


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