Funded! This project was successfully funded on July 17, 2012.

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The Desktop Ballista: A working model of the Roman seige weapon. Shoots toothpicks. Proceeds go to historical research and education.

What is a ballista?

The ballista was an ancient siege engine, invented by the Greeks and later improved by the Romans.  It looked like a large crossbow mounted on a tripod.  

The Desktop Ballista is a scale model of that used by the Romans about 250 BC.  It comes as a kit of laser cut hardwood that you assemble.  It is not a toy. Rather, it is a working model.  It is recommended for ages 12 and up.  Adults should supervise children both in assembling and safe use of the ballista.

Quick update about added shipping if you are outside USA

Thanks for checking out this project. I have had quite a few backers from Europe and around the globe support the project (Merci, Dank, Gracias, спасибо, tak...) but some of them did not notice the note about adding $ for shipping outside of USA. Please look over the reward notes about adding for international shipping. Thanks.

How long does it take to assemble?

It can be put together in about 30 minutes.  I can put one together in 10 minutes, but I've had a lot of practice.  If you're working with a child on it, allow more time.  But it's lots of fun watching kids figure out how to build something themselves.  

How hard is it to assemble?

It's easy.  The kit comes with clearly printed and illustrated instructions and we will post a video showing how to assemble it.  You can assemble it without glue.  Pieces slide and snap together. For best performance long term, glueing is recommended.  The instructions show you how to do both ways.  You can easily fit it together with the pegs and get in some satisfying shots, then glue it later if you like.

Instructions rely mainly on illustrations.  Text is in English by default.  If you need another language, please request and we'll do what we can.  French, German and Spanish instructions are easy to produce with our staff.

Educational benefits

I learned a lot while designing and building the ballista, and so will you putting it together and then "tweaking" it to get better performance.  How does tightening the skein affect range?  What happens if you tighten the skein more on one side than the other?  You can experiment with adding some pieces of cellophane tape or gluing feathers onto the darts or toothpicks to get them to fly straighter. Or try the "party" toothpicks with attached tassels and see how they fly versus vanilla toothpicks.  How about flat toothpicks?

Historically, you get a glimpse into the ancient past, and face the challenges that the ancients faced in working with simple machines to solve problems.  The torsion spring for instance was something that I had read about, but I was very surprised at how well it works, and how much power is available just from twisting some string.

And finally, you benefit others in education indirectly.  Legion 10 is a company that was founded to further historical education.  Proceeds from this project will go toward funding for historical research and education.

Can you shoot something besides toothpicks?

Sure.  If you're worried about toothpicks being unsafe, try some play-doh balls. Actual ballistas fired rounded stone balls, so why not a play-doh missile?  See video below of play-doh taking out an action figure.  If you don't mind some mess, try firing popcorn, milk duds, chips...

Horsehair? And other upgrades.

Yes, horsehair.  We offer a deluxe version of the ballista which uses horsehair rope instead of modern string. The ancients used horsehair in the torsion springs for siege weapons.  Even human hair was used occasionally.  Legion-10 makes genuine horsehair rope for the deluxe kit for that extra touch of realism.  Along with brass and steel parts.  Brass was also used by the Romans in their ballistae (yes, it is spelled that way when plural). 

And we offer a target for practice on the Marksman and Battle Pack reward levels.  The well aimed toothpick is not included.

Here is a photo of the soft tipped darts as they will appear.  The video had early prototypes shown.

Every kickstarter project has a tee-shirt but they never show what it looks like.

Not us.  Here's a mockup of how our Tee Shirt looks.  It says "I kickstarted a Desktop Ballista"  These tee shirts will only go to backers.

How are funds used?

The ballista has been through a round of designs, and is now fully tested and ready to go.  We are ready to start production in Denver as soon as we are funded. Backing dollars cover the one time set up fees for machining of metal parts, set up fee for printing, etc.  We are not asking you to help us buy a laser cutter or a certified pre-owned Lexus.

Profits from the Desktop Ballista will be applied to historical research and education.   Everyone knows who Hannibal was, a general that menaced Rome and somehow got elephants over the Alps, but who defeated Hannibal?  How about Napolean?  Who won at Waterloo?  At Legion-10, we'd like to address these kinds of deficiencies in history education.  Legion-10 will donate kits, books and organize lectures to promote programs in history.

Kerwin, the founder of Legion-10, is researching an historical fiction novel centered on the Roman general Scipio Africanus. (He was the commander that defeated Hannibal).  Profits for the ballista will also go toward research for this novel and other topics.

Exotic Wood Deluxe Model

By request, I am offering a deluxe model using a selection of exotic hardwoods. There will only be 5 of these models made.  They will be fully assembled using the deluxe model parts (horsehair rope and brass metal parts).  Select from the following woods.  If you have a request outside of these, contact us.

Notes about Historical Accuracy (and Inaccuracies)

I started this project as part of research for my novel.  Over a period of about 2 months, I found increasingly more information and realized that the first design I was doing was not accurate historically, and so I started over.  Twice.  Below are some notes about the design, where it is accurate, where I had to make concessions, etc.

  • 1) This small siege engine should actually be called a "catapulta".  A ballista was a much larger weapon that was used to throw stones.  The model in this project was also called a "Scorpion" or "Scorpio".  I chose to call it Ballista for this kickstarter project because the average person has a different picture in their head when they see the word "catapult".  And Scorpion conjures another image entirely, whereas the shape of a ballista to most people matches up with the form of my project.
  • 2) The design was based primarily on that of Vitruvius, a roman engineer that served with Julius Caesar.  Vitruvius wrote a multiple volume book called De Architectura, and among many machine descriptions is written directions on how to construct a ballista.  I am not competent in reading latin, and so I relied on a solid bit of work written by Alan Wilkins.  Wilkins notes that Vitruvius' text is incomplete and so also draws from writings from Philon and Heron (ancient Greek historians).
  • 3) I tried to hold to original designs where I could, but there are concessions that had to be made mainly due to the size of this model.  Some parts in the frame had to be enlarged to support the forces of the skein without breaking (I broke 2 frames).  I also altered the proportions in order to take advantage of standardized lumber sizes.  So if the design called for a part to be 1/3 inches, I used 1/4 inches.
  • 4) Trigger mechanism.  The actual trigger mechanism used by the Romans is described and illustrated quite nicely by Wilkins.  However, making this with wood parts in a laser cutter was not practical.  The cost of custom metal parts would make the project prohibitively expensive.  Finally, at this scale, accurately sized parts would be impossible to operate without tweezers.  So I finally went with the spring loaded part that you see in this project. I did this to strike a balance between historical accuracy, and accessibility to the public.  And it's also quite frankly more fun.
  • 5) Why toothpicks?  I was aiming for about a 1/10'th scale for my design. The Roman Scorpion fired a 27 inch long projectile.  A standard toothpick (at least here in the US) is 2.54 inches (6.45 cm) long, which is very close to a 1/10'th scale.  I knew I'd be test firing a lot, and didn't want to go chasing the one or two projectiles that I had made.  So with toothpicks, I eliminated that problem.  Although my house now has toothpicks laying around over it.

Link to text by Wilkins is below:

http://www.romanarmy.net/pdf/Reconstruction%20of%20Vitruvius'%20Ballista%20Ver%201-05.pdf

Finally, a photo acknowledgement.  The photo near beginning of the project video of two Roman legionaries operating a catapulta are two members of the Ermine Street Guard, a Roman re-enactment group in England.  

FAQ

  • The Deluxe model includes horsehair rope and brass parts for the ratchet gear, pawl, and the 4 skein tightening washers. This makes a nice looking unit for display. There is no big advantage to performance or range with the metal parts. The horsehair rope actually has less performance for range/power than modern nylon string.

    Each Deluxe unit comes with a complete basic unit PLUS the horsehair and brass parts. So you still get everything with a Deluxe model that you would a Basic model.

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  • Yes. All Deluxe models include engraving (if you want engraving). You can choose no engraving if you prefer. There are several rewards with Deluxe models in them. All Deluxe model rewards include engraving in the reward price.

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  • Pledge $1 or more
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    10 backers

    Backing at this level will go toward funding for historical education programs. Donations will be project kits like the ballista and monetary for books, etc.

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  • Pledge $9 or more
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    0 backers

    10 pack of soft tipped darts. These are wooden darts tipped with a soft foam head for safe firing. This item was added for those that want to add more darts to their kit order. Add $9 to any reward below to get the 10 pack of darts.

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  • Pledge $20 or more
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    5 backers

    You will receive the "I kickstarted a desktop ballista" tee shirt (see photo in the project description). If you'd like a tee shirt AND a ballista kit, just add $15 to any of the reward levels below. We'll get your order exactly by form if we are funded. Please add $7 shipping/handling for any location outside of USA for the shirt only.

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  • Pledge $30 or more
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    235 backers

    You will receive one basic ballista kit that includes everything you need to build, and two foam tipped darts. You can fire your own toothpicks, so you won't have to worry about losing the darts. Please add $10 shipping/handling for any location outside of USA.

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  • Pledge $37 or more
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    44 backers

    The ballista marksman (or woman) kit. This includes a basic ballista and a foam target complete with red bullseye. You can add $5 to any of the rewards to get a target. Please add $10 shipping/handling for any location outside of USA.

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  • Pledge $40 or more
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    19 backers

    You will receive a basic ballista kit WITH laser engraving. We will laser engrave the side piece of the ballista with your name or whatever text you like and any font that we can engrave (many available). Recommended engravable area is 2.5 inches (~1 cm) wide by 3/8" (9.5 mm) high. Please add $10 for shipping to locations outside of the USA.

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  • Pledge $55 or more
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    81 backers

    The Battle Pack: Two standard model ballistas (the plural form is actually spelled "ballistae"), 10 foam tipped darts, and a practice target with stand. Please add $12 for shipping/handling outside of USA.

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  • Pledge $60 or more
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    2 backers

    The Gift: An assembled basic ballista kit, including engraving. If you'd like to buy the ballista as a gift for someone pre-assembled, go with this model. We will assemble it for you, with engraving. Please add $15 for shipping to locations outside of USA.

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  • Pledge $75 or more
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    15 backers All gone!

    The Deluxe Kit: You will receive the deluxe model which includes genuine horsehair twisted rope instead of modern string, and brass metal parts (ratchet gear, pawl, and washers) and engraving on the side (if desired). The brass parts are decorative, but also historically accurate. The Romans used brass and steel parts on their ballistae. Please add $12 for shipping/handling outside the USA.

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  • Pledge $81 or more
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    19 backers

    3 pack: With this reward you are purchasing 3 basic ballistas. This reward was added in response to requests for 3 or more ballista packs. People are thinking of Christmas gifts already? Okay, so this is for those uber organized folk. Please note that shipping of all units must be to one location. Please add $15 for shipping to locations outside of US.

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  • Pledge $90 or more
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    24 backers All gone!

    One basic ballista kit and one deluxe kit, two targets, and 10 soft tipped darts. Please add $15 for shipping to locations outside the USA.

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  • Pledge $115 or more
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    5 backers

    The Deluxe Kit: You will receive the deluxe model which includes genuine horsehair twisted rope instead of modern string, and brass metal parts (ratchet gear, pawl, and washers) and engraving on the side (if desired). The brass parts are decorative, but also historically accurate. The Romans used brass and steel parts on their ballistae. Please add $12 for shipping/handling outside the USA. The $75 price for deluxe was an "early backer" offering at limited quantity.

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  • Pledge $150 or more
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    9 backers

    The Deluxe Gift: You get a pre-assembled deluxe model. This model includes engraving and we'll polish the brasswork, so that the ballista is ready for use and attractive display out of the box. Please add $15 shipping for locations outside of the USA.

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  • Pledge $200 or more
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    2 backers

    Deluxe ballista and a story: You get a deluxe ballista, and if you're in the Denver area, we'll give a tour of our shop and take you to dinner. And during dinner, I'll share outline and some sample writing from an historical novel in the works that is about the Roman general Scipio Africanus.

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  • Pledge $350 or more
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    1 backer Limited (4 left of 5)

    Exotic Wood Deluxe Model - Only 5 of these will be made. It will be a fully assembled ballista made with the deluxe materials (brass and horsehair parts) but also made in your choice of exotic hardwood (Purpleheart, Zebrawood, Rosewood, Bubinga, Padauk, Wenge, Cherry, or Curly Maple). See photo in description for the wood appearance. Price includes shipping anywhere. Includes engraving if you would like it.

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Funding period

- (21 days)