Inventing the Medieval Ballista

Picture of medieval ballista

The Ballista was one of the first catapults used by the Greeks.

The catapult was invented around 400 BC in a Greek town called Syracus. However, this was not the type of catapult we generally think of today.

The very first catapult resembled,and operated much like, a crossbow and was named the Gastraphete. Loading and reloading took considerably more effort than today’s crossbows. The Gastraphete had to be pointed at the ground so the operator could push down with all his weight.

The Greeks were so impressed by the destructive power of this new weapon they created a larger version of the Gastraphete. This new weapon was called a Ballista.

The Ballista was primarily used as a defensive weapon against raiding armies rather than as an offensive weapon. The main reason for this was the great effort required to load the weapon. In order to reload this massive machine, many men had to work together pushing down with all their weight. In time, the Greeks created a solution to this problem in the form of a crank that allowed only one or two men to reload the weapon.

The Ballista consisted of a spear and propelling mechanism much like the bow and arrow or crossbow but on a much more massive scale than either.

Designed to pierce enemy shields at great distances, it became a much used and greatly feared weapon. Because normal arrows could not be relied upon to breach the defense of the enemy shields the Greeks mounted a spear set off by enough torsion to easily rip through enemy shields.

In case you are wondering, torsion is when the rope of the machine is twisted to generate the force. The rope will get tighter and then when released the force of the rope quickly unwinding will propel the dart or arrow.

The Ballista consisted of a giant bow on which the spear would be set into and loaded. A set of twisted sinew ropes and wood on each half of the frame made up the weapon’s bow. A string would then be tied to each end of the wood to complete the strung bow.

The accuracy of the Ballista was impressive. However, the shortcomings of the weapon began with the difficulty in constructing it. This reduced the number of these weapons that could be produced at a desirable time for their use in war.

The force and danger of the Ballista often caused a scattering of lines and a rethinking of front line warfare strategies. It is no surprise how the innovations of war weapons such as this provoked change in attack and defense strategies. A direct hit from the spear could easily immobilize a number of attackers.

The power of the Ballista to affect a greater volume of damage per launch than normal arrows or other projectiles gave this medieval weapon a reputation to be feared.

The developments of warfare and defense inevitably give rise to the weapons that can penetrate them, such is the case with the Ballista.


More information related to the ballista:

You can learn more about the ballista at Wikipedia


Go to the main Medieval Ballista page.

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