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    Medieval Crossbows in open warfare

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    Post by Onager Lovac Tue Nov 17, 2015 6:43 pm

    So yesterday i got bored and decided to watch "Weapons that made Britain: The Longbow" and during the show the guy started talking about crossbows and the battle of crecy and as some of you might know all the crossbowmen were killed, mostly by the french who saw them retreat and figured they were cowards, anyway he said that the crossbowmen got to close and didnt carry their shields and that is why they lost, have they had their shields they would have easily gotten close enough to the English to start killing them without fear of being flanked because of the main french army behind them, so this got me thinking about how the crossbow could have been used in open combat, i generally relegate the crossbow to siege weapon only where you have less exposure and more accuracy than an archer, but i was wondering what you guys think about the subject.
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    Post by kenh Tue Nov 17, 2015 8:39 pm

    Militarily I see the crossbow used in siege actions, from either side of the wall -- attacker and defender. 

    In massed formations crossbowmen weren't used very effectively.   They should not have needed the pavaise to keep off attackers; they should have been (but apparently were not) trained in rank/volley fire, the way muzzleloading and single shot cartridge formations were taught to operate a hundred or more years later.

    I see the crossbow most useful however as a foot skirmisher/scout weapon and as light cavalry action weapon.  Not the really heavy draw weight bows, but the lighter draw quick fire Latchet type bows carried on horseback by some of the Scottish Borderers and used in running actions.
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    Post by Onager Lovac Wed Nov 18, 2015 6:55 pm

    Wow, how awesome it would have been to see the crossbowmen shooting in a ranked/volley formation, i never though of that, i imagine it would be very effective specially if they used crossbows that required a windlass since they could generally outshoot simple longbows and even recurves.
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    Post by Geezer Thu Nov 19, 2015 7:03 am

    Geezer here: I had a comment working on this crossbows in field-action that has disappeared into the system. In short, I think crossbows WERE used in a coordinated way, firing in disciplined volleys from behind pavises, at least that should be true of trained bands like the Genoese professionals or the well ordered militias of the Flemish towns.  At Crecy, the Genoese were apparently deployed in a hurry without their shields. When they began to suffer substantially from the English arrow-storm and tried to withdraw or re-deploy in another position, the impatient/ill disciplined French knights rode them down in their hurry to get into action.  I don't see being attacked from the rear by your employers qualifies as a failure of your system, neither is poor deployment of your mercenaries by an incompetent French command structure.
       Given what I know about bows of the period, I suspect the crossbows and longbows in the field at Crecy were fairly equal in actual power and range (say 300 lb. crossbows with 8 inches of draw vs. 120 lb. longbows at 22 inches of draw (2400 inch/pounds vs. 2600 inch pounds) What does matter: the longbowmen are uphill, with some cover (staked position, behind ditches) but the big factor would be rate of fire.  Those Genoese pros had NEVER encountered massed fire from longbows before.  The fury of the arrow storm was totally unanticipated. Depending on the source the Genoese either broke and fled under fire, or tried to make an orderly withdrawal, only to be ridden down by their own allies.  Absence of their pavises (if that is the case) would be a complicating factor. 
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    Post by Geezer Thu Nov 19, 2015 7:11 am

    Geezer here again: Discipline for medieval armies is one of those perennial questions  engaged in by historians.  Still there is fair evidence that English longbowmen shot in disciplined formations, with designated officers and conveniences like ammo-boys running extra bundles of shot to the bowmen.
    It isn't much of a stretch to assume the same from trained, professional crossbowmen of the sort from Genoa, as well as skeletal remains from sites like Visby in the Island of Gotland, where perusal of 2000 skeletons buried after a battle in 1361 show 16 percent of the skeletons with arrow-wounds (probably crossbows) to the head alone (because bolts stuck in skulls are easier to interpret than possible soft-tissue wounds that have long rotted away) So that's over 300 of the 2000 recorded casualties show serious wounds from the archers.  Could we assume another 10-20 percent take wounds to the rest of the body?  Probably, though the head is up there on top, a relatively easy target. 
    Anyhow, this doesn't disprove the assumption that crossbows would be more useful in siege or positional warfare, but I don't think we should assume either foot or mounted crossbows were limited to sniping.  We should always be careful of underestimating our ancestors.  They were smarter than Monty Python suggests.
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    Post by c sitas Thu Nov 19, 2015 8:42 am

    Just a quick agreement here. Most things new now days are just often re-remembered old things.Good day every one.
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    Post by Geezer Thu Nov 19, 2015 10:12 am

    There's other stuff about medieval armies, like marching in step.  Romans marched in step and knew to break step when crossing bridges.  Presumably Renaissance armies started marching in step again with highly coordinated formations like pike presses... but did Richard the Lionheart's armies march in step?  I dunno.
    Not that this has a blessed thing to do with crossbowmen... unless they too marched in step.  Geezer
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    Post by Onager Lovac Thu Nov 19, 2015 8:40 pm

    Hey Geezer, i i always asumed that during that time the crossbows didnt have the range to compete with longbows so thats cool and i also asumed that they were sent without their shields to be killed or something  Rolling Eyes lol, anyway thanks for the comments, ps, monty python and the holy grail is my favorite movie  Very Happy
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    Post by Geezer Thu Nov 19, 2015 9:24 pm

    Range is limited by projectile weight/velocity and aerodynamics.  If energy and velocity is similar and there's not some big difference in projectile shape, the range won't differ much.  In fact, ranges for field bows, both long and cross would likely max out to about 300 yards.  Siege bows will carry further, perhaps 400 yards, but effective range (accurate and sufficient power to wound) wouldn't be all that much greater.
    The best accounts of the battle at Crecy suggest there was a heavy rain before, and that the Genoese bowmen were dispatched in a hurry to the field without their shields.  In fact it appears the French king had great trouble restraining his eager knights from rushing into battle.  Finally he gave permission to charge en masse, rather than having them go trickling out in small bands to get slaughtered. So the French knights charged directly through their mercenary bowmen and straight into the arrow storm.  Had they exercised a modicum of discipline, the French army might have prevailed, instead they threw away their chance, and in the process helped to establish the enduring legend of the English Longbow in the 100 yrs. war.  For further research, see Strikland and Hardy's "The Great Warbow"
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    Post by twedzel Thu Nov 19, 2015 11:45 pm

    Geezer, I agree with most everything you said except the 22" draw of the longbows. They were usually drawn back to the ear, so that would be a 28-32" draw length depending on the wingspan of the archer. I think 30" was fairly standard.

    However range is directly affected by weight of the projectile. If you look at the flight shooting results you will see the record for primitive self unlimited currently stands at 395 yards. Medieval English Longbows would fall under this category. The current broad head record for the same category is 295 yards. The broad head category is for using hunting weight arrows whereas the overall category uses lighter flight shooting arrows. You can see the difference that projectile weight can make. Whereas lighter arrows fly farther, heavy arrows will tend to out penetrate them if driven at the same velocity. I also know with bows that you reach a point of limited return on draw weight. Very heavy bows tend to need heavier arrows to become more efficient. I would imagine those heavy draw weight steel prod medieval crossbows would be best served using a fairly heavy bolt (correct me if I am wrong). These bolts are probably designed for penetration not range. Therefor I believe the crossbow would be better used and far more deadly when fired at closer ranges against more heavily armored opponents. I think that it would be devastating against a cavalry charge when used en masse. That's probably why the pope banned them. Too many rich knights and their horses going down from the quarrels of relative peasants.
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    Post by Geezer Fri Nov 20, 2015 7:39 am

    Twedzel: I think we're running into a problem of definition here. When I talk of draw length for a crossbow, I mean actual power-stroke from string at rest to lock.  That doesn't included brace-height.  I mean the ballpark figure for longbows in the same sense.  Standard longbow arrows from Mary Rose were 28 or 30 inches in length.  Given a six-inch brace height, a longbowman couldn't possibly draw an arrow over 22 inches with a 28 inch arrow. 30 inches would give him a couple of inches more. 
    As for projectile weight and velocity, I'm basing my figures on the experimental work (done with a 150 lb. longbow, which I take as near maximum) documented in Strickland and Hardy's "The Great Warbow" Their test arrows varied from 53 to 82 grams. The lightest arrows achieved 70 meters per second and ranged to 320 meters.  The heaviest arrows got 53 meters per second and ranged to 230 meters. 
    Crossbow bolts documented from Egon Harmuth's "Die Armbrust" and Sensenfelder's big book on the Dutch Army collections, run from 49 to 79 grams... that's pretty close to the arrow weights. Typical velocities documented by Harmuth and Holger Richter suggest 60-70 meters per second.  So indeed we're talking about fairly comparable performance figures.
    As for steel prods: the earliest I can document them is @1325.  So I'm assuming the crossbows at Crecy would probably be mostly yew or horn composite bows.  Those prods tend to be rather longer than steel ones, with consequently longer draws. 
    Conclusion: I stand by my estimates.  And thanks for the spirited debate. That's part of what makes this group great.  Geezer.
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    Post by twedzel Fri Nov 20, 2015 10:45 am

    Looks like we're saying the same thing as far as draw length, I just forgot crossbow people use power stroke.

    I am surprised to see the bolts being so close to arrows in terms of weight. Do you know the average draw weight of the composite prods? With the velocities and arrow weights being virtually identical I see little advantage to using crossbows in open battle. Now I am wondering what tactical advantage crossbows give? As I see it they are more expensive and resource intensive to produce, they would be more complex to transport/maintain in the field, and they have a slower rate of fire. They are however easier for untrained soldiers to use. Is this the only reason to use them over a standard war bow? Is it simply because you can raise and train an army of archers relatively quickly and not rely on people with a lifetimes worth of regular training? Did early crossbowmen make use of field shooting positions like prone, seated, or kneeling which would make for greater long range accuracy over the standard depiction of offhand shooting?
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    Post by Geezer Fri Nov 20, 2015 2:41 pm

    I assume the bows at Crecy were probably drawn with belt hooks, maybe doubled roller belt hooks.  Generally that limits draw weights to @ 300 lb.  Egon Harmuth suggests 150 kg for a single-foot stirrup with simple belt hook and 200 kg for a doubled belt with pulley included.  It might be necessary to sit down with a doubled belt and pull from shoulders and legs.  Princess Ana Comnena of Byzantium in the 13th century has an account that sounds like a bow that is spanned seated.
    As for shooting from positions other than offhand, there's a fair amount of documentary evidence for shooting seated or kneeling, from behind cover or seated on a cart. Illustrations of shooting competitions in the cities usually show crossbowmen seated on stools and timed with a sand-glass.  
    So why crossbows rather than handbows, despite the cost?  Well first, crossbow bolts might actually be cheaper... you can use shorter bits of wood.  Second, crossbows are inherently more accurate, despite having similar ballistics, because the draw and release are always the same. You can under or over-draw a longbow, you can vary your release by jerking the string, or letting the string slide from your fingers rather than releasing crisply.  If you reduce the variables for the shooter, you can speed up the learning time.  So if a good longbowman took ten years to train up to professional standard and a crossbowman could be trained to a similar standard in 2 or 3 years, which would you prefer?  Add to that, the fact that longbows are generally kept in the home, so the archers can practice on every Church holy day (2 or 3 times a week?) wheras the authorities can keep the crossbows in the city armory, to be issued for Sunday afternoon practice... That way you don't have would-be Robin Hoods and Gwillim Tells out making trouble or poaching the king's deer.  
    And last: skeletal remains found in Mary Rose suggest longbowmen developed skeletal deformations from shooting powerful bows at an earlier age.  It's possible a well trained military longbowman might have had only a 5 or 6 year window for best shooting before he began to break down.  Maybe crossbowmen simply lasted longer in the field, with fewer health problems. Probably required less in the way of rations as well.  So yeah, when you think of it, there are a host of reasons you might want to arm most of your shot with crossbows, even for field work.  Geezer.

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