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From China to Europe: The Epic Evolution of Medieval Crossbows

Used by the fearless Scottish rebel William Wallace in the Battle of Stirling Bridge, the Medieval Crossbow was a game-changer on the battlefield. If you are a fan of period drama movies like Braveheart and  TV shows like Game of Thrones, don’t miss out on this opportunity to learn more about medieval crossbows.

Read about the history and evolution of this deadly weapon, from its origin in China to widespread use in medieval Europe.

History of Medieval Crossbow

The roots of the medieval crossbow can be traced back to 5th century China. But it wasn’t until the 11th century that the crossbow became a prevalent weapon in medieval Europe.

The initial versions of the medieval crossbows were relatively simple, with wooden stocks and basic trigger systems. Nonetheless, over the centuries, crossbows started featuring more advanced trigger mechanisms like better bolts and attachment of stirrups to make it easier for troops to load and aim the weapon.

Steel medieval crossbows were developed in the later middle ages, and this was one of the finest developments since it extended the crossbow’s firing range to around 400–500 yards and improved the force of the bolt launched.

Although the European armies did not always favor the crossbow. It was considered unchivalrous since even the lowest-class foot soldiers could use it efficiently.

Types of Medieval Crossbows

During the middle ages, different types of the medieval crossbow were devised, each with its own distinctive features and peculiarities. The most prevalent types of medieval crossbows are listed as follows:

  • Gastraphetes – The first crossbow design was the Gastraphetes, which was created in ancient Greece around 400 BCE. A composite bow was mounted horizontally on a wooden frame in this early crossbow, and the bowstring was drawn back using a system of pulleys and ropes. It was a tremendously powerful weapon, but it was also incredibly challenging to use and required a lot of upper-body strength.
  • Arbalest – Around the 12th century, a bigger, more powerful crossbow called the Arbalest was devised in Europe. Compared to prior medieval crossbows, it possessed a shorter, thicker bow and a more complicated trigger mechanism. The Arbalest was often placed on a wooden stock with a stirrup to make it easier for the user to load and aim the weapon.
  • Pistol Crossbow – A compact, portable crossbow called the Pistol Crossbow was built in the 15th century. With a pistol handle and trigger mechanism, it was significantly smaller and lighter than conventional crossbows. Rich aristocracy favored it and used it mostly for hunting.

What were Medieval Crossbows made from?

Depending on the region, the time period, and the intended purpose of the weapon, various materials were used to construct medieval crossbows. The most typical components used to make medieval crossbows include the following:

  • Wood: Ash, yew, or elm were frequently used to make crossbow stocks, the main body. The medieval crossbow’s capacity to endure the stress of the bowstring was made possible by the strength, toughness, and flexibility of these woods, which were highly valued.
  • Horns: Some crossbow manufacturers made the bow arms of the crossbow from animal horns, such as those from buffalo or cows. Because of its durability, adaptability, and low weight, the horn was highly valued.
  • Bone: Another material frequently utilized for making crossbows’ arms was bone. To make crossbow limbs that were both light and durable, animal bones, such as those from deer or buffalo, were boiled, shaped, and polished.
  • Metal: The trigger mechanism, bolts, and other minor pieces of medieval crossbows were made primarily of metal. Steel was the most widely utilized metal because it was robust, long-lasting, and corrosion-resistant.

How were Medieval Crossbows used in battle?

From the 11th through the 16th centuries, medieval crossbows were often used in wars in Europe and Asia. Both mounted knights and foot warriors frequently chose crossbows as their weapon of choice, and they were deployed in several ways on the battlefield.

Medieval Crossbows
Medieval Crossbows by Thomas Quine lisenced under CC BY 2.0

The crossbow’s ease of use and precision were two main advantages. In contrast to conventional longbows, crossbows could be used proficiently by untrained warriors with little to no archery skill. The ability of medieval crossbows to be produced swiftly and efficiently by vast numbers of men made them the perfect weapon for big armies.

The mercenary soldiers of Italy and France were particularly fond of crossbows, whereas the English and Welsh armies preferred the longbow. Armed forces from India, the Middle East, China, and the Mongol Empire also substantially used crossbows.

Medieval Crossbows Interesting Facts

Here are some interesting facts about the medieval crossbow:

  • Two of the most renowned kings, Richard the Lionheart and William Ruffus, were killed by crossbow bolts.
  • The use of crossbows was forbidden by The Pope in 1139 at the Second Lateran Council, but nobody paid any attention to it.
  • The French employed Genoese crossbowmen in several medieval battles, notably the Battle of Crécy.
  • Crossbows’ quick rate of fire and lethal precision earned them the nickname “the machine guns of the Middle Ages.”
  • Crossbows were sometimes used to launch flaming projectiles, which could be used to ignite enemy fortifications or cause chaos in the enemy ranks.


This blog covers the history and evolution of medieval crossbows, from their origin in ancient China to widespread use in Europe. It describes the different types of crossbows, the materials used to make them, and how they were used in battle. Additionally, it includes some quirky facts about medieval crossbows, such as their use in killing famous kings and their nickname as “the machine guns of the Middle Ages.

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