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Repeating / Semi-Automatic Artillery


Repeating / Semi-Automatic Artillery

Detailing the development and operational history of the Ballista Repeating / Semi-Automatic Artillery.  Entry last updated on 2/4/2019.

The 'ballista' was an artillery weapon appearing in various forms across the ancient and medieval landscape, operated as battlefield artillery piece constructed of various wood and metal components to be operated as a semi-mobile, wheeled weapon or a weapon that was simply carried into battle. The strength of the ballista lay in the ability to heave large spears (or bolts) through Line-of-Sight (LoS) contact at formations of massed infantrymen. The bolt was long enough and powerful enough to pierce through several men in a single blow, when weather permitted it, the ballista could prove itself an extremely reliable and accurate weapon.

Crewed by as little as two infantrymen, the ballista had features akin to a "giant crossbow" (the word ballista actually has an ancient reference to the word "crossbow"). Seeing it that the ballista operated on the same principle of torsion (as opposed to tension found in the bow and arrow approach) it is not a far realization to see the similarities between the two weapons.

Operation of the ballista was accomplished by turning a large multi-spoked crank usually at the rear or sides of the weapon, tightening the rope (or animal sinew in ancient times) hereby drawing back the winch. The designated ammunition loader would place the bolt or spear into the launching cradle and the firer would release the tension trigger, launching the spear toward the enemy at a frightening velocity. The ballista could be counted on to skewer enemies from afar, and could even be used in siege warfare as a psychological tool in bringing down fortifications.

Wheeled versions of the ballista were naturally more mobile and could compensate for directional changes in the enemy formations. The weapon did not operate well in damp or wet weather, particularly when animal sinew was used, as the sinews had a tendency to snap or lose their tension over the course of a fight. As might be expected, the ballista also made for a poor close-range weapon and would in most cases have to be abandoned if the weapon's position was being overrun. Targeting single infantrymen also did not play to the weapon's strong suit and its operation late in a melee-centric battle would render the ballista's power relatively useless for fear of friendly fire.

Before its end, this seemingly simple feat of engineering provided battlefield commanders the ability to apply ranged firepower well before the advent of gun powder artillery. Until then, the ballista could still be used to tremendous effect, particularly against large masses of moving troops or cavalry - the larger the target, the better.
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