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OM2 is an expanded and updated version of the original Orbis Mundi, covering the reality of Medieval European Life for Role Players.
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Arbalests, Bows & Crossbows

Posted by Phillip McGregor (Creator)

There's a lot of misinformation (Heck. There's a lot of downright wrong information) out there on these three basic forms of missile weapon … the following is gleaned from a variety of re-enactor sources ...  

Arbalest. These only start to appear in the late 14th century, only start to be more than an occasional rarity by the middle of the 15th century, and only become (somewhat) common by the late 15th century. They differ from an ordinary Crossbow in that they have a spring-metal bowstave and, therefore, cannot be spanned without some form of mechanical aid. Rate of Fire was no more than a round a minute for a trained user and maximum range was 380-400 yards (~100 yards for aimed fire at individual targets). They were most commonly used as sniping weapons during sieges.  

Crossbow. Though their use as Hunting weapons goes back to Roman times, they weren't widely adopted for military use, and then mostly on the Continent, until the 13th-14th centuries. They originally had a simple self bowstave and could be spanned by hand … later models (from the middle of the 14th century) started to appear with composite bowstaves which required some form of assistance to be spanned. Rate of Fire was 4-6 round per minute. Maximum range was 300-350 yards, but accurate range for massed fire was 200 yards and for aimed fire at individual targets more like 60 yards. 

Longbow. Maximum range was around 300 yards, Effective Range for Massed Fire was 200 yards and for aimed fire at individual targets, around 80-100 yards. Rate of Fire was 5-6 arrows per minute for aimed fire, or a dozen arrows per minute for massed area fire. 

As you can see, despite claims by older works (and more recent ones that uncritically rely on them), the ranges at which these three weapons were effective was close to identical. Likewise, the damage they did was close to identical as well … with higher draw weights being almost completely cancelled out on Crossbows and Arbalests by the very short arms and short draw distance compared to the Longbow. The big advantage that the Crossbow family had over the Longbow was that it took, at most, weeks to make an effective Crossbowman, but it took many many years to train an effective Longbow Archer. 

Short Bow. Differed from Longbows in that (on the Continent, where they dominated) they were drawn to the chest, not the ear. Maximum range was around 250 yards, effective range was around 100 yards for massed fire and 40 yards for aimed fire. Rate of fire was similar to that of a Longbow. 

Composite Bow. Generally found only on the margins of Europe or in the Arab/Muslim world.Despite claims by older works, often (all too often) repeated uncritically by more recent works, they don't have a significantly greater massed fire, effective fire or aimed fire range than Longbows, nor do they do significantly more damage than a Longbow of the same draw weight. Their big advantage is that they are shorter for the same draw weight than a Longbow … an important consideration for use by Mounted troops (which was more common in areas where they were used).

Jonas Schiött, Daimadoshi_CL, and 4 more people like this update.


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    1. Phillip McGregor 2-time creator

      @Marja Erwin
      Indeed, As fair as I understand it the specialist Archer units of the Early Empire used recurve composite bows ... well, at least the Syrians did, and I can't recall, offhand, any specialist Germanic or Gallic archer units ... for the later Empire, I'd have to check, but I *think* the late western Imperial army, at least in non-specialist units, used short self bows. Dunno about the East Romans, offhand, but I suspect they continued with the short or medium composite bows.

      Yes, I have seen the suggestion that the Solenarion was merely an arrow guide ... but the evidence is inconclusive (well, I'm not as up to date with Graeco-Roman stuff as I am with Medieval, so I am very possibly wrong).

      Range is nice, accuracy is better ...

    2. Missing avatar

      Marja Erwin on

      I am more familiar with ancient than medieval history, so keep that in mind.

      I think the Roman and Byzantine army used recurve longbows. Ear laths, for composite bows, are found across the Roman Empire. Unless there are technical problems with recurve longbows?

      It's not to clear-cut with battlefield crossbows, as opposed to lighter hunting crossbows. The arcuballista may originally refer to a light torsion ballista, whether outswinger or inswinger. Of course it came to refer to a heavy crossbow. Stephenson suggests that the solenarion was an arrow-guide whch could be attached to a conventional bow to throw shorter arrows a greater distance. (Romano-Byzantine Military Equipment, p. 132) These seem to fall out of use by the time of Nikephoros Ouranos.

      That also seems relevant to the range issue.

    3. Phillip McGregor 2-time creator

      @Jack Everitt
      You could still have Crossbowmen ... but the minion would be primarily a Hunter/Ranger tyoe. Crossbows just weren't widely used for *war* ... hunting was different.

      Forex, the Romans used their version of the Crossbow, the Solenarion, mainly for hunting, but occasionally for war, especially in the later period after the collapse of the Empire in the west

      @Svend Andersen
      Well, it was partly tradition ... Short Bows were mainly a continental (French? Iberian?) thing, Longbows were mainly an English thing, though I've read that there were professional German Longbowmen, often fighting as Mercenaries, from at least the late 13th century ... and IIRC the English Longbow is thought to have come from the Germanic (Angles, Saxons) and/or Scandinavian tradition (Vikings) into England.

      Partly because the English archers were trained from a young age not just to use the weapon, but to use it in massed area fire. Their archer units were basically doing indirect, almost plunging, fire ... Crossbows could do massed fire, but I suspect they were less good at massed indirect fire.

    4. Missing avatar

      Svend Andersen

      So, what was the advantage of longbows that compensated for the extra training? Just the extra rate of fire for massed shooting? Differing social traditions?

    5. Jack Everitt on

      Was going to have a minion type with Arbelists in the name (in my forthcoming game), and now I won't, as the game is set around 11th Century. Thanks!