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Crossbows are mechanical bows. They shoot projectiles called bolts or quarrels. They were often used by mercenaries or militia, and were to become more powerful during the Hundred Years' War.


The crossbow was invented in Ancient China, but spread to Europe during the medieval period.

Crossbows were simpler, cheaper and less demanding than longbows. They were therefore ideal for conscripts and the growing mercenary companies. Genoese crossbowmen were particularly well known at the time, and fought in several battles.

The crossbow was far more powerful than the longbow. This power was increased during the Hundred Years' War as the wooden bows, or laths, were replaced with composite and steel ones. These more powerful bows could not be bent by hand and spanning aids were developed: the belt-hook, windlass, cranequin, and bending lever. The powerful crossbow may have been one of the contributory factors that led to the introduction of plate armour, as mail armour could no longer provide an effective defence.

Crossbowmen could fight on horseback and on foot.

Use and effect

Crossbows shoot short and heavy arrows, known as quarrels or bolts, using a mechanism that draws and releases the string by the use of a trigger.

The increasing power of the crossbow enabled the bolts to be shot over similar ranges to the lighter longbow arrows (up to about 229 metres: 250 yards) and to cause considerable damage on impact, but they did have a shorter effective range. They were usually fitted with two fletchings, mostly made of wood but sometimes of feathers.

Crossbows were easier to load and shoot than longbows, which required more extensive and physical training. However, there was still a steep learning curve when it came to getting an accurate shot and crossbowmen could only shoot 2 or 3 bolts a minute, compared to the 10–12 arrows a longbow archer could shoot.

Their power and effectiveness was described during the siege of Pontevedra (1397) when Don Pero Niño:

"Went forward with his face uncovered and a great bolt there found its mark, piercing his nostrils through most painfully, whereat he was dazed, but his daze lasted but little time... Niño ...cut himself a path and found himself so pressed against his enemies that sometimes they hit the bolt embedded in his nose, which made him suffer great pain. It happened even that one of them, seeking to cover himself, hit a great blow on the bolt with his shield and drove it further into his head." [1]

[1] Gutierre Diaz Gamez, El Vitorial: Cronica de Don Pero Niño, about 1449


Length 79 cm (31 ins.)
Width 69 cm(27 ¼ ins.)



Bob Woosnam-Savage