The crossbow has a very long and misunderstood history. Originally invented by the Chinese, it wasn’t as popular in medieval warfare as role-playing games suggest.
In fact, crossbows were actually banned for a time in Europe due to the fact that they could pierce armor. They were known to be used frequently in hunting, which is their primary function today.
However, they’re often highly regulated in various countries, with some considering them to be equivalent to firearms because of their power. They’re also still used in military operations, especially by snipers and during assassination operations.
Crossbows have changed a lot over the centuries, even though they often had very similar appearances. Modern crossbows bear little resemblance to their traditional counterparts outside of the basic shape, with modern models being popular with sport hunters and traditional models being prized by collectors and non-sport hunters alike.
Let’s look at 13 different types of crossbows, some of which you’ve likely never heard of.
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Types of Crossbows
Appearing around the 12th century, this heavy crossbow used a metal bow instead of wood. It has an impressive 110 yard accuracy range and could fire with up to 22 Kilonewtons (4,946 lbs) of force.
The largest models used a windlass and, in the hands of a skilled arbalestier, could fire at up to two bolts per minute. While that doesn’t sound very useful in battle, the hefty amount of force meant these weapons could easily pierce armor or other battlefield defenses.
Mounting crossbows onto a stand or tripod might seem like a novel idea, but this has been done multiple times since their invention in both China and Europe. Nowhere is this more apparent than the ballista, a massive mounted crossbow that saw use both on the battlefield and even on ships.
There are numerous types of ballista, most notably the cart-mounted carroballista and cheiroballista – which was an iron ballista small enough to be hand-held.
It should be noted that while some ballistas throughout history were literally mounted heavy crossbows, many of the more famous models had a modified design. For these, the single prod (bow) was replaced by two pieces which incorporate springs to increase tension.
Many ballistas could also be modified to fire spherical projectiles. Due to the variety of designs, some scholars consider ballistas to be a completely different weapon category than crossbows, while others consider them to be members of the same family of mechanical bow weapons.
3. Compound Crossbow
Sometimes, making something look messier actually has its benefits. The compound crossbow is a great example of this. One glance is all you need to spot the pulleys and extra strings.
But while this visually detracts from the elegant design of a crossbow, the superior power is undeniable. This is due to much stiffer parts, which means the string can’t be drawn without the aid of pulleys and the tension is far greater than on normal light crossbows.
While the exact age of this Grecian crossbow is unknown, descriptions suggest it was invented at some point between 500 an 300 BC. One theory by E.W. Marsden suggests that Dyonysius I of Syracuse had a team of craftsmen invent the weapon in 399 BC.
The gastraphetes gained its name because the weapon was reloaded while being pressed against the abdomen. Heron of Alexandria believed this weapon was the progenitor of the catapult, quoting Ctesibius, an engineer from the third century BC.
With the exception of the crossbow using a brace for the gut as opposed to a stirrup, the design changed very little throughout the ages. Oddly enough, while medieval crossbows had very similar designs, the Greek had long forgotten about the existence of the gastraphetes by the time the newer designs began appearing.
This, paired with the fact that we have no direct ties between the invention of crossbows in China and Greece really goes to show how intuitive the basic design is.
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5. Hand Crossbow
This category of crossbow isn’t as well known as larger types, although they’re sometimes found in roleplaying games. A hand crossbow is meant to be a small, concealable version of the crossbow that can be fired one-handed. Due to their smaller size, traditional hand crossbows used darts instead of bows.
Nowadays, slightly longer versions of the hand crossbow exist and are often referred to as pistol bows. These are usually held stable using the other arm and can often accommodate bolts.
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6. Heavy Crossbow
The biggest crossbows are known as heavy crossbows. These sacrifice speed for power. While there is no official definition of when a light crossbow becomes a heavy crossbow, there is a widely accepted distinction. According to this distinction, a heavy crossbow is one in which the draw may be interrupted.
Heavy crossbows often use some form of crank or other device to help draw the bow back. As with light crossbows, these were often primed while a foot was in the stirrup. However, if the user needed to take a break or was interrupted while priming, the bow wouldn’t snap back.
7. L’Arbalète la Sauterelle Type A D’Imphy
One of the strangest and most overlooked types of crossbow on our list, the arbalète or sauterelle (as it was commonly called) was invented by Elie André Broca and served as an important transition for trench warfare.
At the onset of WWI, catapults were used to lob grenades at the enemy trenches. Despite resistance from the top brass, the arbalate saw active duty from 1915 to 1918 in the hands of both the French and English.
Instead of a sinew bow, the arbalète had a metal frame with a cup for holding grenades. It could be operated by one to two people and would be set at a 45 degree angle. Markings on the body allowed for three different ranges, and the frame would be drawn back into the locking position via two hand cranks, much like many other heavy crossbows.
A grenade was then placed in the cup and fired at a rate of four per minute. Surprisingly lightweight and highly popular with those who used it in the field, this nearly forgotten crossbow was replaced by mortar guns.
8. Light Crossbow
Light crossbows are a category that fits between the hand crossbow and heavy crossbow. As mentioned with the heavy crossbow, there’s no official point in which one becomes the other. However, the common consensus is that a light crossbow is any crossbow in which the draw cannot be interrupted.
The user puts his foot into a stirrup, freeing up both hands to draw back the bow. The process must be done in a single motion, as any interruption will cause the bow to snap back into the fired position.
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Sometimes referred to as a bullet-shooting crossbow or rock-throwing crossbow, this variation of the crossbow is designed to fire bullets (i.e. small, round projectiles) instead of bolts.
It’s possible that there were also ancient Chinese crossbows that could fire bullets, although the first confirmed pelletbow was made in 16th century Europe. These crossbows were used primarily for hunting small game as they were powerful, accurate, and silent.
10. Recurve Crossbow
Chances are, when you think of a crossbow, it will be a recurve. Recurve crossbows have a single string, making them easy to operate, with some models being small enough to set one-handed.
The name relates to the way the bow (called a prod in European designs) curves towards the user only to curve away again at the tips.
11. Repeating Crossbow
This is actually one of the oldest crossbow designs, although it didn’t make its first appearance in Europe until recently. Depending on the model and era, these crossbows have different methods of priming and loading, with many having a vertical magazine to store bolts.
Much like single-shot crossbows, repairing crossbows were soon mounted on carts as a form of mobile artillery.
In one infamous Chinese account, carts filled with lime were used to fill the air around the enemy with dust. Then carts containing repeating crossbows linked to the wheels were set on fire, causing the horses pulling them to rush into the enemy while both the crossbows and enemy fired blindly, resulting in mass casualties.
12. Reverse Draw Crossbow
These modern crossbows are often considered to be superior to the traditional forward design. They use multiple strings and pulleys, with the prod facing the user instead of towards the front.
The design looks awkward, but has a center of gravity closer to the middle and a slightly longer draw. These give the reverse draw crossbow slightly more power and make them far easier for beginners to use.
13. Zhūgě nǔ
While closely associated with Zhūgě Liàng, this small two-shot repeating crossbow is much older and was considered a domestic defense weapon rather than a military one.
It was small and frequently wielded by women, although it was also sometimes used for hunting. The mechanism had a weak firing strength, meaning range and damage was limited, so the darts were usually tipped in poison.