A Brief History of the Crossbow (ca. 4th C BC – onward)

By: The Scribe on Friday, June 29, 2007

An early crossbow

As one of the deadliest projectile weapons known to man, the creators of the crossbow must have had some very intense warfare in mind as they developed this weapon. In fact, there is quite a bit of uncertainty over when and where the crossbow was first created and used, but evidence for its use first appears around the 4th century BC in China.

The earliest definitive evidence for Chinese crossbow use comes from manuscripts dating to the 4th and 3rd centuries BC in China, associated with the followers of Chinese philosophy Mohism, developed by a man named Mozi. This philosophy, although it asserted a belief in universal love, also called for the development of a political structure within which there was no central authority other than Mozi’s writings. The Mohists developed many ideas on fortification, statecraft, as well as agricultural theories, and were soon hired as advisors for the leaders of warring states.

Keeping this in mind, perhaps it isn’t so unusual that the first reference to crossbows appears in Chinese philosophical writings – the document discusses the use of a giant crossbow catapult during the 6th and 5th centuries BC. Since the use of the crossbow occurred before the manuscript was written, it cannot be said for sure whether use of the crossbow originated in China – though it is certainly possible. However, Sun Tzu’s book The Art of War also refers to the use of crossbows, and this book first appeared around 400 BC.

Another  early crossbow

There are also reliable records that crossbows were used in 341 BC at the Battle of Ma-Ling, and by the end of the 3rd century BC, the crossbow had been very well developed and was a standard weapon used in Chinese warfare. In fact, Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s tomb from 210 BC contained several crossbow pieces, strewn about between the Terracotta Warrior statues.

In the Greek world, the earliest documented evidence for crossbow use was during the Siege of Motya in 397 BC, described by the scholar Heron of Alexandria in his book on war machines from the 1st century BC. Of course, since the gap between the event and the book’s composition is quite wide, there is speculation over the authenticity of the report. Regardless, Alexander the Great is known to have used crossbows for the siege of Tyre in 332 BC – and his crossbows were the first to have documented use of ballista construction, which used torsion spring bundle technology to increase projectile force. Ballistae could actually the shoot lighter projectiles, providing they had higher velocities, over a much longer distance.

As improvements to the crossbow continued, the Greek world soon saw the introduction of a smaller, sniper model called the Scorpio. By the time the Siege of Rhodes came around in 305 BC, siege towers were being constructed with multiple crossbows: a large ballistae at the bottom, designed to demolish the parapet and rid it of troops, while the top of the siege towers held armor-piercing Scorpios to snipe soldiers patrolling city walls.

An early Ballista

It turned out that these types of crossbows were so effective in ancient warfare that the basic styles and functions saw very minimal change until well into the Middle Ages!

Want to read more?

Tomorrow: So much for gun laws…


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