Authored By Staff Writer (Updated: 4/8/2013): For the purpose of this entry, it is assumed that the descriptive term "crossbow" refers to the traditional medieval weapon, though its origins place it as an ancient design used by the revolutionary Chinese and among other ancient civilizations of the time. Regardless, it held a definitive place on the battlefield, particularly as those found in medieval times.
At its core, the crossbow utilized a drawn bowstring which was held in place via a locking mechanism. The operator released the tension through a trigger-style installation. The built-up tnesion sent the bolt towards the intended target utilizing piercing damage to help penetrate leather, armor, flesh and bone. The system would appear in a variety of forms, both small hand-held variations, up through large siege-type weapons and ultimately form the support branch of many a crusading force.
The crossbow superceded the mighty bow-and-arrow in the battlefield role of personal artillery. The system had its fair share of drawbacks but proved to be quite accurate, produce effective piercing properties thanks to high levels of kinetic energy at release and an individual could be trained in its use in just a week. In comparison, a weapon such as the English Longbow required the operator to undergo years of training to hone his skill at ranging and, ultimately, hitting his target. The biggest drawback in crossbow implementation lay in its inability to reload quickly. An expertly trained Longbowman could fire off some 10 arrows in one minute while a crossbowman might need the a full 60 seconds to load and fire just one bolt.
Reloading was made more time consuming by the amount of energy required to bring the bowstring back to the lock. Later crossbow systems drew upon the rack-and-pinion “cranequin” cranking feature which allowed the operator to utilize basic physics principles and operate hand-powered levers to draw the bowstring into place. Other forms saw the use of belts, hinges, levers and cord-and-pulley systems which became known as "windlasses" to achieve the same feat.
The firing action of the basic hand-held crossbow covered in this article consisted of the operator fitting his foot through the integrated stirrup at the crossbows extreme foreend. The operator would hold the crossbow vertically, facing down, and brace the body of the crossbow along his leg for support. The bowstring would then be drawn up - either by hand or through mechanical means - until it rested near the locking nut. From there, the operator need only to load the bolt onto the bridle, aim his weapon (taking into account range and windage) and release the nut to activate the firing motion (this most often times accomplished through use of a trigger or "tickler"). Accuracy was a strength of the medieval crossbow, as the system itself could be used for sighting the target and making a more controlled assault as opposed to the arch firing action of archers (hence the longer training periods of archers).
The medieval crossbowman could be used in a variety of ways, as an offensive or defensive implement. Rows of crossbowman could be utilized by having the frontline fire, pass back the spent crossbow while a loaded crossbow was passed forward ready to fire another volley. In this fashion, a somewhat sustained rate of fire could be achieved. Some crossbowman units were fitted with large kite shields along their backs, allowing the operator to fire his crossbow, turn around to face the shield against the enemy while reloading, and turn around to fire a fresh bolt. Another lethal combination for the crossbowman was as a mounted soldier, providing the force of the basic crossbow with the mobility and power of a mounted battlefield component. Ammunition could consist of either armor piercing bolts or arrows of various designs, spelling danger to whatever enemy found in the sights of the crossbowman.
Though the crossbow continues on in its modernized form today, the system is often relegated for use to hunting and target practice exercises. In some cases, it is still used by special forces operatives as a silent killer.