The Crossbow — A Book Review

I finally figured out my genre is flintlock fantasy, or rather that’s the genre that most closely fits Lady Merreth’s world.  Her world has matchlocks, flintlocks, and (eventually) even rifles.  However, in Western Watch the predominant ranged weapon is the crossbow.  The crossbow held some advantages over early firearms. It was easier to maintain,slightly less susceptible to inclement weather, and didn’t require as much industrial infrastructure to produce.   Having decided early on the crossbow was the weapon of choice for Western Watch, I set about looking for a book that would provide me with the information I needed to ensure I depicted the weapons in at least a semi-realistic fashion.  I ran across Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey’s effort — The Crossbow, Its Military and Sporing History, Construction, and Use (hereinafter “The Crossbow”). I present here, then, The Crossbow — a Book Review.

Book Physical Characteristics

The Crossbow, a Book Review, Brant Forseng,@branforsengPayne-Gallwey’s The Crossbow is available in softcover, with rather unusual dimensions, being 9.2 inches by 6 inches. 

It’s 319 pages long, indexed, and lavishly illustrated with black and white drawings, both period and explanatory.

This is not a book you’ll be stuffing in your back pocket. 



Book Organization

The Crossbow is divided into four parts:

  • The History of the Crossbow
  • The Construction and Management of Crossbows: Medieval
  • The Construction and Management of Crossbows:  Modern
  • A Treatise on Siege Engines Used in Ancient and Medieval Times for Discharging Great Stones and Arrows

The History of the Crossbow

The Crossbow starts with a brief early history of the weapon, “probably first introduced into England as a military and sporting arm by Normal invaders in 1066”.  Reaction to the weapon, its effectiveness, and some of the early issues with its use are covered. 

Therein follows a brief recounting of its employment in selected battles, including sieges, and the use of heavier versions, which required the use of a windlass or similar “cocking” mechanism.   Also covered is the crossbow in hunting, and some of the differences between military crossbows and sporting crossbows highlighted. 

Separate chapters are devoted to crossbow dimensions, bolts used, and range, the latter chapter being quite lengthy.  Part One ends with a comparison of the crossbow to the short blow, long bow, and early hand gun (about which significant information is provided).

Medieval Construction and Management of Crossbows

Part Two of The Crossbow is concerned with construction — materials, mechanisms, and supporting tools.  It begins with an explanation of simple crossbow assembly, which was quite literally fixing a bow to a stock.  Cocking was accomplished by placing the bow on the ground and using both hands to draw the bowstring up to the lock mechanism. 

Later crossbows were made of composite materials, wood, bone, sinew, and waterproofed against the elements.  These bows were more powerful, and required additional features to cock them — first the stirrup, and later a variety of cocking mechanisms including pulleys, belt claws, screw rods, windlass, or goats-foot. 

I was particularly interested in the goats-foot, a lever cocking device that could be used by mounted troops.  In Lady Merreth’s world, the female light cavalry favours crossbows, and the goats-foots allows them to cock moderately-powered crossbows without dismounting.  

Detailed explanations of the crossbow construction are provided, covering such topics as preparing the bow, fixing it to the stock, crafting and installing the locking mechanisms,fitting the bowstring, and more.   Payne-Gallwey provides copious period illustrations and covers not only wood-based crossbows but also those with a steel bow. 

A crossbow is not of much use without quarrels and the book provides information on those as well.  Finally, significant attention is paid to crossbows designed and built for hunting.  This part provides a comprehensive explanation of the construction, care, and use of both military and sporting crossbows from the 13th to the 17th century.

Modern Construction and Management of Crossbows

Part Three is primarily concerned with sporting and hunting crossbows developed in the 18th and 19th centuries.  These weapons were designed to loose bullets rather quarrels. In some cases they actually had barrels, rather than a grooved slot in which to place the projectile.  With the advancement of metal working and related crafts, locking mechanisms become more sophisticated and steel all but supplanted other materials for the bow.  

While not primarily military in nature, I tucked some of the information away, against the possibility that Merreth’s world might progress with crossbow technology in tandem with that of firearms.

This part also provides a brief description of the of the various companies raised to defend towns in Europe during the middle ages; appropriate as the weapon used by such militia was the crossbow.

Of considerable interest, however, is the chapter devoted to the Chinese repeating crossbow.  While relatively low-powered compared to European models, this weapon compensated with a high rate of fire.  It sported a magazine holding 10 to 12 quarrels and an ingenious cocking mechanism that simultaneously drew the bowstring, cocked it, and dropped a fresh quarrel into the waiting groove on the stock.  The chapter devoted to this weapon is only six pages long.  However, it provides a comprehensive description, along with several illustrations, is provided. 

Siege Engines

Part Four begins with a brief explanation of the types of siege engines used, from the earliest times (Roman and before) before describing at length three different engines:  Balista, catapult, and trebuchet.  Payne-Gallwey covers construction, use, range, and effect of the three different weapons, supported by numerous illustrations.  Chapters are provided on each, as are some descriptions of notable military actions which featured the use of siege engines.  By the end of this part the reader will have a comprehensive introduction to these weapons. 

Final Thoughts

It might seem to odd to use a book such as The Crossbow for reference when writing Flintlock Fantasy,  However, Merreth’s world encompasses are range of military technologies and at the beginning of her story, crossbows are the weapons of choice for the Matriarchy.   Hence I was delighted to find this work and strongly recommend it be given a look by those writing on the genre or, alternatively, straight fantasy.    Interestingly, the book’s writing style is a bit dated by modern standards which gives it the feel of a historical treatise.   I found it a delight to read (and it is clear and understandable), but your mileage may vary.  

I particularly liked the extensive explanations provided on crossbow (and siege engine!) construction, as these details are often lacking in texts devoted purely to the use of a particular weapon.  Such information can be worked into story to lend greater depth and authenticity to the writing.

I strongly recommend this book for fantasy and flintlock fantasy authors or anyone else with more than a passing interest in this iconic weapon.

Well that’s it for this post.  What do you think?  Do you use crossbows in your stories?  Let me know in the comments.

Thanks for reading and I will see you again next time.




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