Crossbowmen at the Battle of Crécy (1346), illustration from the “chroniques” of Jean Froissart (1337–1405).
Crossbowmen at the Battle of Crécy (1346), illustration from the “chroniques” of Jean Froissart (1337–1405). Bibliothèque Nationale de France

The crossbow: A weapon for assassins and freedom fighters

Wilhelm Tell’s crossbow is, so to speak, the national weapon of Switzerland. In actual fact the weapon has its origins in ancient China, and although superior to the bow the crossbow didn’t have the best reputation.

Thomas Weibel

Thomas Weibel

Thomas Weibel is a journalist and Professor of Media Engineering at the Fachhochschule Graubünden and the Hochschule der Künste in Berne.

Gessler: “I hear, Tell, you’re a master with the bow, and bear the palm away from every rival? Walterli: Yes, my lord! My father will shoot an apple for you off the tree at a hundred paces. (...) Gessler: Then, Tell! Since at a hundred yards thou canst bring down the apple from the tree, thou shalt approve thy skill before me. Take thy bow – Thou hast it there at hand – and make thee ready to shoot an apple from the stripling's head! But take this counsel – look well to thine aim, see that thou hittest the apple at the first, for, shouldst thou miss, thy head shall pay the forfeit.
Wall decoration depicting Tell shooting the apple off his son’s head, c. 1523.
Wall decoration depicting Tell shooting the apple off his son’s head, c. 1523. Swiss National Museum
  Friedrich Schiller’s final drama made the crossbow the embodiment of Swiss fighting spirit. It is the assault weapon of the Middle Ages, and as a logo it also stands for Swiss reliability and precision. But the crossbow isn’t a Swiss invention at all; instead, it has a Latin name and comes from ancient China. The word “arbalest” [in German, “Armbrust” – “arm” and “chest”] has nothing to do with the body of the shooter, although he uses his arm to press the device to his shoulder when firing. “Arbalest” comes from the Latin “arcuballista” (from “arcus”, bow, and “ballista”, catapult). Remains of crossbows, triggers and bolts dating from the 7th, 6th and 5th centuries BC have been found in Chinese tombs in Qufu in Shandong Province, and in Yutaishan in Hubei Province. Technological advances in bronze casting made the mass production of crossbow triggers possible in ancient China; individual specimens of these triggers are outstandingly well preserved despite being more than 2,000 years old.
Crossbow trigger from the Sino-Vietnamese Dong Son culture, around 500 BC.
Crossbow trigger from the Sino-Vietnamese Dong Son culture, around 500 BC. Wikimedia / Bình Giang
The main feature of a crossbow is its powerful horizontal bow, the cord of which is tensioned by hand or using a winding device and then held by a retention mechanism, the “nut”. When hunting and on the battlefield, the crossbow was a superior device because, compared to other weapons, it was very compact and because, unlike with conventional bows, the shooter didn’t have to use muscle power to hold back the tensioned cord, but was able to concentrate fully on releasing the shot. Because of the comparatively short stroke, the crossbow fired not arrows but short metal bolts, which were relatively inexpensive to produce.
Crossbow with horn bow and iron foot stirrup, made by Ulrich Bock, c. 1460. Beside it is an incendiary bolt from the same period.
Crossbow with horn bow and iron foot stirrup, made by Ulrich Bock, c. 1460. Beside it is an incendiary bolt from the same period. Swiss National Museum
In terms of range and penetrating power, the crossbow was far superior to the longbow, not just for hunting, but also in war, when besieging cities, for example, or in naval battles. Because no armour could withstand their shot and their use contradicted the chivalric ethos of the duel, at the second Lateran Council in 1139 Pope Innocent II outlawed the crossbow, under threat of excommunication: Canon 29 prohibited the use of the “murderous art of crossbowmen and archers, which is hateful to God” – a ban which, however, received little attention on the battlefields of Europe. There, the deadly ends justified the means.
Winch crossbow with steel bow, weighing around 3.5 kg, c. 1550–1600.
Winch crossbow with steel bow, weighing around 3.5 kg, c. 1550–1600. Swiss National Museum
At the time of the first crusade in 1096, the Byzantine princess Anna Komnene (1083–1154) described the crossbow as a truly diabolical machine: the arrows “pierce through the thickest armour and throw people down so suddenly that they don’t even feel the shot”. Three attacks on English kings earned the crossbow a reputation as an assassin’s weapon. William II (1056-1100) is said to have been fatally ambushed while hunting in the New Forest in southern England; in 1119 his brother Henry I (1068-1135) narrowly missed falling victim to a crossbow bolt fired at him by his illegitimate daughter Juliana; and Richard I the Lionheart (1157–1199) died of gangrene caused by a bolt that struck the king in the shoulder during the siege of the Château de Châlus-Chabrol.
William II is fatally shot by an arrow from a crossbow.
William II is fatally shot by an arrow from a crossbow. British Library
The crossbow was a tour de force of weapons technology, and the great engineers of history were captivated by it. A detailed illustration of a crossbow called a “Gastraphetes” (literally, “belly-releaser”) can be found in a copy of the work “Belopoeica” by the Greek mathematician and engineer Heron of Alexandria dating from the first century AD. It shows a crossbow with double reflex bow, bowstring, elongated shot channel, a semicircular abdominal support and in particular the construction of the technical core, the trigger with the holding device of the tensioned bowstring. Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) preserved the design drawing of a gigantic crossbow on six wheels, whose bow length of 25 metres suggests that crossbows, like catapults, were intended to cause dread and terror on medieval battlefields or when besieging a town.
Design drawing of a “Gastraphetes” from a copy of the work “Belopoeica” by Heron of Alexandria.
Design drawing of a “Gastraphetes” from a copy of the work “Belopoeica” by Heron of Alexandria. Wikimedia / Bibliothèque Nationale de France
Design drawing of a giant crossbow with tensioned double cord by Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1500.
Design drawing of a giant crossbow with tensioned double cord by Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1500. Wikimedia
The crossbow didn’t appear on the battlefields of Europe until the late 10th century, and as a widely feared long-distance weapon it gradually found its way to Switzerland. In the 14th and 15th centuries, to ensure they were prepared for armed conflicts the cities began to set up crossbow camps, or they required the local men fit for military service to procure a crossbow themselves. The surname “Armbruster” still bears witness to the fact that in medieval formations bowmen were well-respected specialists, and enjoyed civil servant status in cities. Units of crossbowmen had their own flags and standards, under which they took part in Schützenfesten (fairs featuring shooting matches) and marched to war. Meanwhile, the crossbow was also undergoing continuous further development from a technical angle. The earlier composite bow made of horn or wood was replaced by a much more powerful steel bow, which could only be tensioned using a windlass embedded in the crossbow body. Modern crossbows are truly high-tech weapons. They are lightweight at less than four kilograms, their metal or carbon bolts can reach speeds of up to 150 metres per second – almost half the speed of a pistol bullet – and telescopic sights are used for sighting.
Modern Winzeler 313 crossbow, 2005.
Modern Winzeler 313 crossbow, 2005. Swiss National Museum
But although it was quiet, precise and compact, the crossbow was never particularly popular in Switzerland prior to the 19th century. That was to change abruptly in 1804, with the premiere of Friedrich Schiller’s “William Tell” at the Weimarer Hoftheater. The story of the indomitable Uri freedom fighter became Switzerland’s national myth, and the crossbow the epitome of Swiss reliability and precision. The crossbow as a trademark has been internationally protected since 2009, and the emblem of the “Swiss Label” association is – how could it be anything else? – Tell’s white crossbow on a red background.
Wilhelm Tell by Ferdinand Hodler, 1897.
Wilhelm Tell by Ferdinand Hodler, 1897. Hodler stylised the crossbow in Tell’s hand as a Christian cross, lending the depiction a sacred quality. Kunstmuseum Solothurn
Tell stands fearfully agitated by contending emotions, his hands moving convulsively, and his eyes turning alternately to the governor and heaven – suddenly he reaches into his quiver, pulls out an arrow and tucks it into his tunic. Walterli: Shoot, Father, I’m not afraid. Tell: It must be! (...) Stauffacher: The apple’s down! Rösselmann: The boy’s alive!

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