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Home > Books > Book of archery > Section VI: The Crossbow
Section VI
The Crossbow
Part 1 of 3

I'm clad in youthful green, I other colours scorn;
My silken baldric bears my bugle or my horn,
Which setting to my lips, I wind so loud and shrill,
As makes the echoes shout from every neighbouring hill.
My dog-hook at my belt, to which my Iyman's tied;
My sheaf of arrows bright, my wood-knife at my side;
My crossbow in my hand, my gaffle[1] on the rack
To bend it when I please; or if I list, to slack.
My hound then in my lyam, I by the woodman's art,
Forecast where I may lodge the goodly hie palmed hart.
*	*	*	*	*	
The sylvans are my true subjects--I their king!

THE longbow was the national weapon of England; the arbalist, or crossbow, of the French, Flemings, Germans, Italians, and Spaniards. In describing the latter, therefore, I shall chiefly confine myself to its practice among those nations.

This instrument, anciently used both in war and the chase, is but a modification of the longbow, the latter being a simple, the former a very complicated weapon. The crossbow, properly so called, was unknown to the ancients, though they had something like it in the Balista.

In the brief description of Père Daniel, it is treated merely as a weapon of war, so Alonzo Martinez de Espinar, the author of a delightful Spanish work on field sports, must be considered the only real historian of this arm comparatively so little known in modern times.[2]

The oldest specimens now in use, are those of the Chevaliers Tireurs d'Anneci, in Savoy. This society, formerly called the Jolly Companions, is so ancient that the period of its institution is entirely lost. Their exercises were sanctioned by a patent from Prince Philip of Savoy, dated the 15th of May, 1519; and cotemporary with them there existed at Chamberry a fraternity which obtained a similar charter from Duke Manuel Philiberg, about fifty years afterwards.

There were formerly as many companies of crossbowmen in the principal cities of France, as there are of riflemen at the present day; and in some of its northern towns, and in Brabant, these two arms are still practiced alternately. According to archives preserved in the Town Hall at Lisle, a fraternity of crossbowmen flourished there as far back as 1379, and was suppressed by an ordinance of Council, about half a century subsequently, during the reign of Francis I., its property and possessions being given to the chief hospital of that town.

Similar societies still exist at Lennoy, Le Quesnoy, Comines, and at Roulaix, a little town one league from Lisle, instituted by Pierre de Roulaix, lord of that place, in 1491. Those of Valenciennes and Douay are only very recently abolished, companies of cannoniers, archers, and riflemen, commonly called jouers des armes, having arisen in their stead.

There are exercises with the great and with the little crossbow; the first being weapons of a very large size, which contest the prizes at much longer distances than the second. At La Basée, and Hautbourdin, near Lisle, the arbalisters have adopted the smaller kind, in imitation of several societies at Antwerp, Gand, Bruges, Louvain, Malines, Alost, &c.

Besides the hand crossbow, there were anciently others, of monstrous proportions, called arbalêtes de passe, or ribeaudequins. This appellation, according to Fauchet[3], belonged to an enormous engine, the lathe[4] of which measured twelve or fifteen feet. It was fixed upon a stock of proportionate length, and at least a foot in diameter, containing a groove sufficient to receive an arrow, or rather javelin, of two fathoms, winged with thin leaves of horn, or some kind of light wood.

These huge contrivances were permanently fixed on the walls of towns, castles, forts, &c. To bend them, a windlass, managed by one, two, three, or even four men, according to their magnitude, was necessary. Their arrows flew with prodigious violence, frequently traversing the bodies of several successive men.

Many modern crossbows are constructed with a stock, similar in shape and dimensions to that of the common fowling piece. Our ancestors generally preferred them straight, and much longer; and in taking aim, rested the stock upon the shoulder, while its extreme end -projected behind[5]; a method retained by most of the before-mentioned Continental societies. A few, however, not only substitute the gun-stock for the ancient tiller, but have made many alterations in other parts of this weapon. Thus, at Valenciennes, instead of the old-fashioned nut for receiving the string turning on a pivot when the trigger was pulled, they have a notch in the stock itself, and the cord is confined there by a flat piece of steel, opening and shutting like a valve. To free the string and discharge the arrow, it is only necessary to touch a trigger which communicates with a spring within the body of the stock.

Having given this brief description of the French crossbow, ancient and modern, I will next remark upon the arrows discharged from it. Of these there are several kinds, differing greatly from each other, in length, thickness, manner of feathering, and shape of their heads. Some were winged with horn, some with leather. Others, again, had merely three triangular projections, of the same wood of which the arrow was made. The heads of many were exceedingly sharp; many resembled a lozenge, being obtuse, and indented at the sides. All these bolts[6] receive different names, according to their form; as, vire, vireton, sagette, garrot, bougon, &c., and they are usually only half the length of the long-bow arrow, which in France measured two feet and a half. The wood was of various kinds; in the statutes of the Gunmakers' Company of Paris, formed about the middle of the sixteenth century, it is recorded that the chef d'oeuvre of the master of that company was a crossbow complete, with its gaffle[7], a dozen well-brazed quarrils, duly and properly made of good seasoned yew, and a quiver for the arrows, garnished with a cover.

It now remains to treat of the purposes to which the arbalist was applied. And here, making little reference to its warlike character, I shall confine my remarks to the more pleasing considerations connected with sylvan sport. The principles of its construction, and the requisite attention on the part of the workman to form a perfect crossbow, will be accurately detailed.

It appears that the arbalist was formerly in Spain what the long bow was in our own country the popular amusement of all ranks. By no other European nation was it brought to so high a degree of perfection, and none more excelled in its use. Espinar has preserved the names and marks of those ancient Spanish crossbow-makers who acquired a high degree of consideration in their art; though, it may be observed, there were very few who could make the entire instrument. While one set of artisans devoted themselves to the construction of the steel bow (verger), others only made the stock (tablero), and the bender (gafa). The manufacture of arrows was likewise a distinct branch of the art. These, as in France, bore names indicative of their form;--verote, jara, sostrore, passadore, &c.

A Spanish crossbow, when intended for the chase, generally measured two feet in length. The stock in its most ancient form was square and somewhat flat, tapering gradually towards the extremity. It is thus represented in a collection of costumes belonging to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, preserved in the royal cabinet of engravings at Paris.

As all sportsmen cannot accommodate themselves to one level, some crossbows had stocks perfectly straight, whilst others were slightly curved from the nut to the extremity of the butt. The former appear to be most favourable to correct shooting. Their mode of taking aim with the straight stock was this: whilst the sportsman's left hand supported the upper end of the crossbow, he grasped the butt with his right, placing the thumb above, and the forefinger below upon the trigger; the thumb was then drawn just sufficiently under the eye to enable the shooter to discern the head of his quarril. On covering his mark he pressed the trigger, and away flew the arrow. The crossbow with a crooked stock was not raised to the eye, but to the cheek; a difference easily comprehended by those familiar with the effects of a greater or less curvature in the stock of a modern fowlingpiece.

In a perfect crossbow, the recoil against the sportsman's cheek is so trifling as not in the least to incommode him. Espinar expresses this quality by the word sobrosa,--gentle, agreeable. Its trigger should be easy, and not liable to go off accidentally when the string is stretched upon the nut. The lathe must be truly and accurately proportioned, for therein a crossbow's principal excellence consists; from this its force and certainty are derived: for when the quarril twists and wabbles, instead of flying straight, not only will its range be greatly diminished, but the sportsman is never secure of his shot.

This fault may arise from various causes; as when, through the ignorance or carelessness of the workmen, the bow is not well fitted in the stock, one of its arms being higher than the other. The force of the impulsion on either side is then unequal; and the higher arm, being mistress of the other, disOrders tdisordershe quarril's flight. If this disparity be considerable, there results from it another capital inconvenience. Owing to the bow not lying level, the string will never strike the arrow exactly in the middle, and the aim, however correctly taken, must be unsuccessful in consequence. It is also of primary importance that the notch in the nut of the crossbow hold the string exactly at its centre, so that the mark which the nut impresses on it, trespass not the breadth of a horsehair on one side more than on the other.

There are many other defects; as when the cord, pressing too tightly on the surface of the stock, diminishes the power of the arms of the bow, prevents their playing freely, and causes the cord to act not upon the centre of the quarril's butt, but lower down. The reverse of this fault is equally disadvantageous to its flight. In the one case, it will go whirling and wriggling through the air; in the other it is forced downwards, and quickly falls to the earth. Finally, a crossbow will shoot incorrectly, when there is any considerable friction of the arrow upon the surface of the stock. The ancient arbalister was very particular upon this point. Whilst the butt of his quarril rested in the notch of the nut, he took care that its head only should be upon the upper end of the stock, none of the intermediate portion coming in contact with it.

The point-blank range of an ordinary crossbow was twenty-five paces. At thirty, the arrow began to lose its force, and to descend; this was, of course, in proportion to the strength and goodness of the bow. The weaker sort, at merely an increase of five paces in the distance, drops the arrow two fingers' breadth; the stronger, one finger only. The crossbowman, by repeated trials, made himself thoroughly acquainted with the range of his weapon, and levelled higher or lower according to the distance of his mark.

The next question which naturally arises is, what was the remotest flight of a bolt discharged from a well-constructed arbaliste de chasse. According to the Spanish author, it would kill at one hundred and fifty paces, or more. The military crossbow, of much larger dimensions, threw an arrow considerably further, killing man or horse two hundred paces off. " Our archers and crossbowmen," says the author of the "Discipline Militaire," "will slay a naked man, ten or even twenty score further off than the best arquebusiers; even harness, if not very strong, will at that distance be unable to resist their quarrils." A celebrated modern French sportsman remarks, that this statement is by no means an exaggerated one. He adds, that Mons. the Abbe Collomb, canon of Anneci, to oblige him and gratify his curiosity, caused several of the best crossbows belonging to the society of archers there to be fried before him. Certain of them, at a very small elevation, threw the arrow four hundred paces; others three hundred end twenty, the smallest distance being two hundred and sixty. These shots were measured by the ordinary military pace of from eighteen to twenty inches.[8] The reader, however, will bear in mind that I am here speaking of the French arbalist. In the D unstable Chronicle, preserved in the Harleian collection of MSS. No. 24., it is stated, that Henry V. came to the city of Rouen by forty rods length, within shot of quarril. The rod is five and a half yards.[9]

Fire-arms doubtless possess some advantages over the crossbow, being more manageable, as well as more rapid in their discharge. Yet there is one characteristic which gives a decided superiority to the latter: I mean its silent discharge, which enables the hunter to get a second, and even a third shot, should the first be unsuccessful, or the game abundant on any particular spot. Dominique Boccamazza, who wrote a treatise on field-sports applicable to the country around Rome,[10] complains that the use of the arquebuse had so alarmed and dispersed all animals of the deer kind, that the sportsmen of his day rarely returned home satisfied with their chase.

When the ancient Spanish huntsman used the crossbow for the destruction of the larger species of game, he shot with poisoned arrows, prepared by steeping their points in the expressed juice of white hellebore, veratrum album, gathered in the month of August. Like the vegetable poisons used by the barbarous' nations of Africa and South America, it produces death by coagulation of the blood, and however slightly the animal may be wounded, its operation is so sudden, that the victim never floes beyond 150 or 200 paces, and expires in a few minutes.

For this reason, the white hellebore is still called yerta da ballestero, or crossbow plant, by the country people of Spain, who are proverbially tenacious of ancient usages.

It is generally asserted by those who have treated upon missile weapons, in use previous to the invention of gunpowder, that the custom of poisoning arrows never prevailed in Europe. Espinar, however, has thus set the question at rest, as far as relates, to his own countrymen; though there is good reason for believing the practice was confined to Spain. Neither Modus, nor Phebus Comte de Foix, make mention of it in their circumstantial details of the chase of the boar, the wolf, and the stag. It is true, they speak of the long bow, alla not of the arbalist; but if poisoned arrows had at all been familiar to the sportsmen of France, they were as applicable to the former as to the latter.

The crossbow, then, before the invention of fire-arms, formed the chief dependence of the hunter. It was in much more general use than the long bow, over which it possessed the advantage of shooting further[11], and with a truer aim. The sportsman could also adjust to it arrows of various descriptions, according to the species of game of which he was in pursuit.

It will be readily understood what extreme accuracy of aim belonged to those who prided themselves on their expertness with this weapon. To strike an object with the crossbow bolt is infinitely more difficult than with a single rifle ball. As the crossbowman never shot flying,[12] and very rarely at running game, a setter dog was infinitely more necessary for him than for the modern fowler, especially when in pursuit of the hare or partridge. To train and break this dog required the utmost skill and patience; and even when the animal was brought under a proper degree of subjection, his sagacity availed little, unless his master also possessed a natural quickness of eye to discover the game through all its concealment, while the dog held it at point; besides which, many little expedients, with much adroitness and precaution, were requisite to obviate defects it was scarcely possible to remedy altogether. Yet the crossbow continued to survive the invention of the arquebuse, even for a considerable period after the latter was rendered far more manageable than at its first introduction. In Spain, and also in Italy, they made occasional use of it during the seventeenth century. Espinar repeatedly alludes to the crossbow, when describing certain royal hunting-matches at which he was present, and he tells us that Philip IV. of Spain, to whom he acted as gunbearer, had in his service a maker of these weapons, called John de Lostra. As to Italy, we see frequent representations of huntsmen armed with the crossbow in the plates attached to Olina's Natural History of Birds, A.D. 1622; and in a Treatise on the Chase, by Eugenio Raimondi, published in 1626. Salnovius, the author of a book on hunting well known in France, who wrote during the reign of Louis XIII., complains that, in his time, the sovereigns of Europe killed the noble hart and fallow-deer with the crossbow and fusil, instead of manfully chasing them with hound and horn, as their ancestors were wont to do.

Although this weapon has now been superseded by the fowlingpiece, in Spain, as elsewhere, the word ballastero, or crossbowman, is still there used to signify a sportsman. Its application, however, is not indiscriminate. For instance, they call him who occupies himself only in the chase of small game, cozador. Montero, is a hunter who pursues the stag, the fallow-deer, and the wild boar, on horseback, with dogs and gun; for, owing to the mountainous character of Spanish landscape, they are unable to run the game down, as in more level countries. But ballestero, is one expert and skilled in every description of chase, great and small; or, as we express it, a thorough-bred sportsman. It has been remarked that shooting with the crossbow was more followed, brought to greater perfection, and attended with higher honours in Spain, than in any other European country. Indeed, by an enactment of James I. of that country, no knight's son, not being a knight himself, or a crossbowman, was deemed worthy to sit at table with knights or their ladies.[13]

Hitherto, I have spoken only of the crossbow for discharging bolts or quarrils. It remains briefly to describe that called in French, arc a gallet; or, in England, the road, or stone-bow. They were of a much lighter, and, in many respects, of a construction very different from the others, the stock in its upper part being either hollowed out, or formed into a semicircle. The cord was double, its two portions being separated right and left by little cylinders of ivory placed at equal distance between the two horns and centre of the bow. In the middle of this cord, was a contrivance for holding the ball, called purse or cradle in English; in French, la fronde, or the sling. To charge the weaker sort of stone bows, the hands alone suffice; but for the stronger, a bender is as necessary as for those intended to cast arrows.

The stone-bow was used to kill small birds, as thrushes, blackbirds, larks, ortolans, or, at the utmost, partridges and quails. Espinar, who enters so fully into every detail connected with the arbalist properly so called, says not a word of the stone-bow, as if he disdained to speak of a thing so insignificant.

Several of our ancient English dramatists were less fastidious; in Shakspeare's "Twelfth Night, or What you Will," Sir Toby exclaims--

    O. for a stone-bow! to hit him in the eye.--Act ii. se. 5.

    Children will shortly take him for a wall, and set their stone bows in his forehead.--fletcher's King and no King.

    Who ever will hit the mark of profit, must be like those who shoot with stone-bows, wink with one eye.--Marston's Dutch Courtezan.

I will now present the reader with a translated passage from Le Plaisir des Champs[14], a poem by Claude Gauchet D'Ampmartinois. It minutely describes the manner by which the ancient sportsman manoeuvred his stone-bow:--

Lors, avec l'arbalestre a la main, je m'approche,
Je bonde, et le boulet dans le fronde j'encoche;
Et l'oeillet dans le noix; puis par le trou je voy,
Et le merle et le point; alors m'arrestant coy,
Je desserre la clef. La serre se desbande,
Et l'are se rejette avecque force grande,
Envoye en l'air le plomb qui vers l'oiseau dresse,
L'atteinet, el l'abat mort, d'oultre en oultre perce.

Then, with stone-bow in hand, I draw near, and placing a bullet in its sling[15], and the loop upon the nut of the lock, I bend it. Through the little sight-hole therein, I espy my blackbird, and having covered her with the bead, I touch the trigger. The spring flies; and the steel bow, recoiling with prodigious force, drives the ball through the yielding air, directly towards the bird. It strikes; and, O lucky shot! my game falls to the ground, pierced through and through.

Should there be, as I suspect, no poetical exaggeration here, the bow must have been a very extraordinary one, to pierce even so small an object through and through. It may be remarked, that Gauchet speaks of the leaden bullet, instead of a clay ban; because, perhaps, plomb, a monosyllable, agreed better than boulet, with the measure of his verse. In the sixteenth century, the stone-bow was charged with clay balls and pebbles only, as its name imports.

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