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Crossbows and Guns

by Kenneth Baggaley

Here's a comparison of Renaissance usage of Crossbows and guns.

The crossbow came in two types, the Latch and the Crannequin.

The Latch crossbow used a single lever, depressed by arm strength, to pull back the bowstring and slip it into its holding notch. The action is much like loading your stapler! Of course, any crossbow which could be loaded by such manpower had less penetrating power. The latch crossbow was both shorter and less powerful than the crannequin, and was used mostly by skirmishing cavalry (easy to do on horseback) and Eastern armies. It could be fired one handed - again an advantage while mounted.

The Crannequin crossbow was named for an elaborate but small device which attached to the back of the bow when loading. To load, the user pointed the bow to the ground, often stepping into a foothold built into the front of the bow, resembling a stirrup! He then attached the crannequin to the back of the bow. The crannequin was a small squarish device filled with gears and a crank handle and trailing a strong line with a hook. Attaching the line to the bowstring, quarrel in his teeth, he held the bow with one hand while cranking the handle with the other (or sometimes two handed) to draw the bowstring to the notch. Once in place, the crannequin was popped off, the quarrel placed in the firing groove, and the crossbow raised and fired.

Because of this technology, the crossbow was used extensively in seiges and ahead of the battleline prior to the clash of knights. The parallels to later artillery use are obvious. Often the bowman had a large shield as tall as himself, called a mantlet, which he would prop up in front of him while reloading. The mantlet largely disappeared by 1500.

This crossbow had great penetrating power, but was heavy and much slower to fire. It could both outdistance and out penetrate the longbow (sorry, my British friends, but your national egos aside, it's the truth!). The longbow fired faster, hence its reputation as the "better" weapon.

The crossbow was banned by Popes as unholy (it could knock off the heaviest armored knight at a distance), but was OK to use against infidels! Nobody paid attention to the ban. Crossbows fired quarrels, not arrows; quarrels had leather "feathers" attached at the tail. They were placed in grooves in a twisting pattern, much like rifling, to increase distance and penetrating power. Crossbows were also popular at sea, since there was no powder to run out of or get wet. Of course, a drenched bowstring and rusted crannequin would be equally limited....

The arquebus was the second generation of firearms in the West, surplanting the medieval Hangun. Firing one was an excercise worthy of choreographiing CATS. A lit piece of match (a hemp cord) was carried in one hand during the whole procedure. Without boring you with too much detail, you had to pour powder down the barrel, place the ball in the barrel, place a piece of wadding (paper, etc) down the barrel, remove the ramrod, stuff the ramrod down the barrel to pack the powder/ball/wadding in tight, remove the ramrod (rookie troops often forgot to do this!), put the ramrod back, raise the gun, place a little primer powder in the flash pan (at the lever where the spark hits the opening in the barrel, down where the charge is packed), cock the lever, place the lit match in the cock, blow on the match (to spark the fire), aim, and fire. All this while that lancer is charging in on you! No wonder you stayed close to the pikemen!!

Shortcuts included carrying 12 pre-wrapped cartridges slung over the shoulder on bandoliers (called the Twelve Apostles), banging the butt-end on the ground instead of using the ramrod, and firing only 2-3 shots before drawing your sword! Naturally, a rainy or windy day made your weapon even tougher to use.

Effective range was about the same as the crossbow, although penetrating power was greater. But historically, the weapons were used differently. Crossbows often fired at distances, raising the bow above level, to get in as many shots as possible before contact. The aquebusier held his fire until ranges were a little closer, then fired en masse, a thundering and deadly volley that emptied many saddles and broke the impetus of a charge. Arquebusiers fired by ranks, then filed to the rear to reload. While it never approximated the continual fire of the 18th and 19th century, it was powerful enough. The morale effect of a gunpowder barrage should not be discounted, either.

The arquebus was shorter and lighter than the musket, which required a rest (like a third leg) to fire from. Muskets fired at longer ranges, and were used mostly by skirmishers until the later 16th century. As late as 1640, the Spanish often used the arquebus over the musket because it was more nimble.

Why did armies go from the fast, simple bow to the clumsy crossbow and the even more difficult arquebus? Easy. Bows didn't work anymore. Heavy armor negated bows. Armor was useless against bullets. A bow depends on the strength of the user for its power. A crossbow and arquebus do not. It takes years to become proficient using a bow. Despite the many steps, you could train an arquebusier in a month.

No army, however culturally bigoted, ever went back to the bow after seeing the arquebus. The Yeoman, the Samuari, the Punjabi all bragged about their golden days of skilled bowmanship, yet couldn't get firearms fast enough once they saw them. The proof is in the pudding. Guns ruled.

The crossbow and the arquebus were used in conjunction by Western armies from 1490 to about 1520. Eastern armies such as Moors used both weapons well into the 16th century. By 1550, no Western army had crossbows (except maybe a scattering among militia, esp. in Italy & Scandinavia). In 1550, the Moorish infantry had about a 50-50 split between arquebus and crossbow. Range was about 200 yards.

By the way, the pistol was used solely as a hand-to-hand type weapon. Its range of 50 yards was never tested, because you rode up (or charged into) point blank range when using your pistol. Pistols fired a Wheel-lock mechanism, which worked kind of like a modern cigarette lighter. A flint spun against metal, sending sparks - no match was used. This made the pistol excellent for mounted use. Pistoleers carrying 2 and sometimes 3 pistols (one in the boot!) would charge up to a wall of pikemen, fire, turn around, fire, and fall to the back of the column. This move was called a caracole, and was popular from 1540 to about 1640. After that, muskets got too powerful, so cavalry got to fire one pistol before charging home.

what if they started adding back some logbowmen among the ranks of the arquebusiers after the use of the armor had been more or less abandonned?

Too then, guns were too powerful. And it still took longer to train a bowmen than an arquebusier/musketeer.

Man throws stones. He develops sticks, then spears. Some bright person builds a bow. Armor increases. Then someone turns a wagon into a chariot, harnessing horses as the first "shock troops". Someone learns to ride a horse in battle, but without stirrups and a tall saddle, the effectiveness is limited.

Enter the tall saddle. Enter stirrups. Enter the knight, the medieval equivalent of the tank. Strong, mobile, encased in armor, ferocious and born in war, he rules the battlefield from 500-1500 AD. Infantry goes into decline except for garrisons and seiges.

Someone reads Greek history and remembers the pike. Simply put, a tightly packed array of men, 12-16 foot spears in front of them, layer upon layer, are a porcupine that no horse can break. Horses aren't stupid - they don't charge into cacti willingly. Those that do are impaled. The knight is doomed. It takes disciplined, trained infantry to perform this - enter the Renaissance mercenary.

Pikes can roll over any foot on level ground, but have trouble in rough terrain and must stay staionary when attacked by cavalry. So cavalry start feinting charges to freeze pike blocks, then bring up the guns. Better yet, they stop charging. Enter the Reiter (or Pistoleer), an armored cavalryman without a lance who trots up to pike blocks, fires a pistol, wheels 180 degrees, fires another pistol, and trots to the back of the column. After enough shooting, the pikes are softened up for a charge.

Pike blocks add a few crossbows/arquebusiers to skirmish and fire back at the pistoleers. As time goes on, the shot get more and more numerous. From 1:10 in 1500, shot increase to 1:4/1:2 by 1550, 1:1/2:1 by the 30 Year's War (1618-1648), and 6:1/8:1 by 1670-80. Armor disappears except for pikemen and Heavy cavalry, now called Cuirassier (for their breastplate or Curiass). Muskets are the way to go, but musketeers in the open are run over by cavalry. hmmm...

Bayonets go through several failures. Plug bayonets get stuck in the barrel, meaning you can't fire anymore - and sometimes they don't fit, or come out! Ring bayonets are unstable. Finally, some genius invents the socket bayonet (1690), which fits around the barrel. You can now shoot and poke. By 1700, pikemen disappear. Shot now fire in lines for maximum firepower, and if cavalry attack, form a "square" with bayonets facing out. By 1850, the rifle appears in numbers, so infantry can shoot down cavalry without forming square. All armor disappears. By 1900, cavaly are reduced to recon, scouting, pursuing routed enemy, mounted infantry, and fighting other cavalry!

There.....from caveman to Colenso in one page!