By Mike Loades
Published by Osprey Publishing
I have worked with Mike on several TV shows; ‘The weapons that made Britain’ series in 2004 then again on Scrapheap Challenge, Beat the Ancestors and Secrets of the Terracotta Army and have enjoyed previous books of his. Last summer Mike approached me to provide pictures and thoughts for his forthcoming book on crossbows and so I was very happy to help out.
Osprey books are short and excellently useful reference guides that cover every period of history and so they lack the depth and sheer detail that larger books have, but nonetheless are very worthy of shelf space and I have dozens. What is a very notable about the approach that Mike has taken with this particular book however is that it takes a good look at the early origins of crossbows and this is an area that is often neglected in weightier tomes.
The book starts by looking at the ancient Chinese crossbow and the repeating crossbow and the goes on to look at the Greek Gastraphetes and the Roman Arcuballista, so I talked Mike through these last two designs and supplied the pictures.
The gastraphetes (literally ‘belly bow’) was developed by Heron of Alexandria in the 5thC BC and we have an existing sketch of his that does not look much like my version, but in fact I have followed the established direction for the design of these bows.
The stock has a heavy outer section and a thinner central section that slides in and out and has the trigger attached to it. To load the bow, the slider is pushed forward, and the trigger is closed onto the string, the slider is then placed on the ground and the user pushes down onto the crossbow, moving the trigger and string back. A series of pawls on the side of the bow stop the trigger moving forward until the bow has been shot.
You can see the gastraphetes being shot here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kP8bqIgd5ro
The book then goes on to discuss the Roman Arcuballista, which is as far as Western Europe goes, the first direct step along the line to the medieval European crossbows we are really familiar with. The only solid evidence we have for the arcuballista are two stone relief carvings and some scant written descriptions by Vegetius, of how they could be used (but not what they were).
Below is an arcuballista I made for Mike Loades’ book and what is notable about this is it now uses the standard rotating nut trigger system that was used throughout the middle ages and also the rather strange stock configuration that continued to around the year 1000.
You can see an arcuballista being shot here https://www.youtube.com/edit?o=U&video_id=0RIPKMZbDZU
The book follows on with a nicely thorough look at early wooden crossbows and again most books skip very quickly on to composite and steel limbed crossbows so this is a refreshing and welcome move by Mike.
From here on in the book covers some more traditional ground on steel and composite limbed crossbows, though again very well done before moving on to some of the more odd offshoots of the crossbows world like the latchet crossbow.
You can see a latchet crossbow being shot here.
The book then covers the balestrino or assassins crossbow; as far as I can tell the worlds first ‘executive toy’. These were a family of small crossbows spanned by turning a screw built into the rear of the bow and believed by the Victorians to be used for assassinations, but the power is simply not enough for this.
You can see a balestrino being shot here
From here on the book turns back to look at the military aspects of the crossbow; how it used and what it could do, with nice entries on role of the crossbow in the Crusades and how it was used in siege warfare. It covers all of the standard spanning methods and layouts of crossbows, such as the spanning belt, goats foot lever, windlass and cranequin.
To conclude, as an Osprey book, it is of course short, but it tackles the subject in an interesting way and has enough interesting content to really make it a worth while read.
If you are interested in these bows, you can find links to the pages on my site that show them below.