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The earliest evidence for the crossbow dates back to the 5th century BC when an ancient Greek crossbow type appeared. Heron of Alexandria identifies the device, called the Gastraphetes as the forerunner of the later catapult, which places its invention some unknown time prior to 420 BC.
The Gastraphetes was a large artillery crossbow mounted on a heavy stock with a lower and upper section, the lower being the case fixed to the bow and the upper being the slider which had the same dimensions as the case. The name translates as "belly-bow", because the concave withdrawal rest at one end of the stock was placed against the stomach of the operator, which he could press to withdraw the slider before attaching a string to the trigger and loading the bolt; this could thus store more energy than regular Greek bows.
The efficiency of the Gastraphetes was improved by introducing the ballista. Its application in sieges and against rigid infantry formations featured more and more powerful projectiles, leading to technical improvements and larger ballistae. The smaller sniper version was often called Scorpio.The large ballistae were designed to destroy the parapet and clear it of any hostile troop concentrations while the small armor breaking scorpios sniped at the besieged. This suppressive shooting would allow them to mount the wall with ladders more safely.
The use of crossbows in Medieval warfare dates back to Roman times and is again evident from the Battle of Hastings (1066) until about 1525 AD. They almost completely superseded hand bows in many European armies in the twelfth century for a number of reasons. Although a longbow had greater range, could achieve comparable accuracy and faster shooting rate than wooden or composite crossbow, crossbows could release more kinetic energy and be used effectively after a week of training, while a comparable single-shot skill with a longbow could take years of practice.
Later crossbows (sometimes referred to as arbalests), utilizing all-steel prods were able to out-range and out-penetrate the longbow, but were more expensive to produce and slower to reload, requiring the aid of mechanical devices such as the cranequin or windlass - often necessitating the use of a pavise (a type of shield), to protect the operator from enemy fire.
Crossbowmen were held in high esteem as professional soldiers, often commanding higher rates of pay than other foot-soldiers. The rank of commanding officer of the crossbowmen corps was one of the highest positions many medieval armies, including those of Spain, France and Italy. Crossbowmen were held in such high regard in Spain that they were granted status on par with the knightly class.
Crossbowmen among the Flemish citizens, in the army of Richard Lionheart, and others, could have up to two servants, two crossbows and a pavise to protect the men. One of the servants had the task of reloading the weapons, while the second servant would carry and hold the pavise (the archer himself also wore protective armor). This three-man team could shoot 8 shots per minute, compared to a single crossbowman's 3 shots per minute. The archer was the leader of the team, the one who owned the equipment, and the one who received payment for their services. The payment for a crossbow mercenary was higher than for a longbow mercenary, but the longbowman did not have to pay a team of assistants and his equipment was cheaper.
However, the prod and bow string of a composite crossbow were subject to damage in rain whereas the longbowman could simply unstring his bow to protect the string. The composite crossbow was shown to be an inferior weapon at Crecy in 1346, at Poitiers in 1356 and at Agincourt in 1415 where the French armies paid dearly for their reliance upon it. As a result, use of the crossbow declined sharply in France, and the French authorities made attempts to train longbowmen of their own.
However, after the conclusion of the Hundred Years’ War’, the French largely abandoned the use of the longbow, and consequently the military crossbow saw a resurgence in popularity. The crossbow continue to see use in French armies by both infantry and mounted troops until as late as 1520 when, as with elsewhere in continental Europe, the crossbow would be largely eclipsed by the handgun.
Spanish forces in the New World would make extensive use of the crossbow, even after it had largely fallen out of use in Europe, with crossbowmen participating in Hernan Cortes’ conquest of Mexico and accompanying Francisco Pizzaro on his initial expedition to Peru.
Mounted knights armed with lances proved ineffective against formations of pikemen combined with crossbowmen whose weapons could penetrate most knights' armor. The invention of push-lever and ratchet drawing mechanisms enabled the use of crossbows on horseback, leading to the development of new cavalry tactics. Knights and mercenaries deployed in triangular formations, with the most heavily armored knights at the front. Some of these riders would carry small, powerful all-metal crossbows of their own.
Inevitably, crossbows were eventually replaced in warfare by gunpowder weapons, although early guns had slower rates of fire and much worse accuracy than contemporary crossbows.
Interestingly, up until the seventeenth century most beekeepers in Europe kept their hives spread across the woods and had to defend them against bears. Therefore their guild was granted the right to bear arms and is commonly depicted carrying heavy crossbows.
While the military crossbow had largely been supplanted by firearms on the battlefield by 1525, the sporting crossbow in various forms remained a popular hunting weapon in Europe until the eighteenth century.
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