Not a Shot in the Dark: How Crossbows Changed War in Ancient China
The crossbow is a missile weapon that had a major impact on the way battles were fought in the ancient world. Prior to the widespread use of crossbows, it was the bow and arrow that was the projectile weapon of choice. To use this weapon efficiently, however, it was necessary for archers to have a considerable amount of training as well as physical strength.
By contrast, it takes a relatively lesser amount of skill and physical strength to operate a crossbow. Moreover, it could be made cheaply. Thus, conscripted soldiers (who may not have had training with the bow and arrow) could be armed with crossbows to shower projectiles on the enemy.
Tracing the Origins of Crossbows
The crossbow may have been first invented in ancient China. Some historians believe the Chinese had even already invented the first crude crossbows as early as 2,000 BC. This is based on certain bone, stone and shell artifacts that have been interpreted as crossbow triggers. More conclusive evidence of ancient Chinese crossbows, however, comes from around the 6th century BC, if not earlier.
Portrait of the Imperial Bodyguard Zhanyinbao, carrying his archery equipment and wearing a sheathed dao. ( Public Domain )
Whilst the crossbow was probably first invented in East Asia, it is difficult to determine its exact civilization of origin. Apart from ancient China, the crossbow could have been first used in Central Asia. It has also been suggested that crossbow technology spread into ancient China when Central Asian marksmen were hired as mercenaries by the Chinese. Nevertheless, most of the evidence (literary and archaeological) for the earliest crossbows is from China itself.
Early Mentions of the Crossbow
Two examples of early Chinese literature mentioning the crossbow include Sun Tzu’s The Art of War , and Mohist scripts from the 4th to 3rd centuries BC. In the latter source, there is a reference to the use of a giant crossbow during the late Spring and Autumn period (from the 6th to the 5th centuries BC).
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A miniature guard wielding a handheld crossbow from the top balcony of a model watchtower, made of glazed earthenware during the Eastern Han era (25–220 AD) of China, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
As for the archaeological evidence, bronze triggers that were once part of crossbows were discovered in a grave in Qufu, Shandong Province. These artifacts date to around 600 BC, when this area was part of the State of Lu during the Spring and Autumn period.
Additionally, bronze crossbow bolts were found in a mid-5th century BC grave in Hubei province, which was at that time part of the State of Chu. In 2015, the first complete crossbow from the Qin Dynasty was excavated by archaeologists from the tomb of Qin Shi Huang. This crossbow, which measures about 1.5 m (4.9 Feet) in length, had a firing range of almost 800 m (2624 Feet).
A kneeling crossbowman from the Terracotta Army assembled for the tomb complex of Qin Shi Huang (r. 221–210 BC) ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )
A Crossbow Solution
In Europe, crossbow-like siege machines were used by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The former were even recorded to have used a smaller type of crossbow known as the gastraphates (meaning ‘belly shooter’). Nevertheless, it was later during the Middle Ages that smaller, handheld crossbows became popular on the battlefield.
Despite its numerous advantages, the crossbow had some serious flaws. One of them was the fact that it was a very slow weapon. A crossbow’s average rate of fire was two bolts a minute. By contrast, a skilled longbow man could fire between 10 to 12 arrows in a minute.
It is likely that the ancient Chinese crossbows had this same problem as their medieval European counterparts. As a result of their innovation, the Chinese came up with an ingenious solution – the Zhuge nu , or repeating crossbow.
A non-recurve repeating crossbow. Ones used for war would be recurved ( CC BY 1.0 )
Although its invention is traditionally attributed to a tactician of the Three Kingdoms period called Zhuge Liang, archaeological evidence has shown that the use of this weapon predated the famous tactician about 500 years.
Nevertheless, it is entirely possible that Zhuge Liang made significant improvements to the design of the repeating crossbow. As its name suggests, the repeating crossbow was capable to firing a number of bolts before needing to be reloaded. Later repeating crossbows, for instance, were able to fire as many as 10 bolts in 15 seconds before reloading was required.
In Europe, crossbows were gradually replaced by gunpowder weapons. In China, on the other hand, the use of the crossbow seems to have survived up till the late Qing Dynasty. It has been said that the last major world conflict to feature crossbows was the First Sino-Japanese War (1894 – 1895).
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Japanese troops during the Sino-Japanese war. ( Public Domain )
By this time, gunpowder weapons had developed to a stage that the crossbow could not match, and that was one of the contributing factors to China’s defeat in the war. It was also the leading cause for the decline in future crossbow use.
Featured image: Part of a Naval Battle Scroll from the Imjin War. Photo source: ( CC BY 1.0 )
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