Thursday, March 10, 2016

Ballista, Catapult, Trebuchet...

...Onager, Mangonel, Springald, Polybolos—all words for devices that propelled heavy objects toward an enemy; not to mention Cheiroballista, Manuballista, Carroballista, and Couillard.

Ever since early man learned that hitting someone in the head with a rock was an efficient way to win an argument, he probably started thinking "Hmmm. If only I could hit him without getting too close."

The invention of the catapult [Latin "catapulta" from Greek "kata"=down and "pallo"=to hurl] is credited to the ancient Greeks—as this blog has mentioned previously—although a similar device is described even earlier in the Old Testament:
And he made in Jerusalem engines, invented by cunning men, to be on the towers and upon the bulwarks, to shoot arrows and great stones withal. And his name spread far abroad; for he was marvellously helped, till he was strong. [King James Bible, 2 Chronicles 26:15]
Not all catapults are alike. The various names for such devices distinguish different types of them. For instance, the onager [Greek: "wild ass"] was so named because when fired it "bucked and kicked" like a donkey. The trebuchet used a counterweight to provide the thrusting power, rather than the tension of pulling the arm back, as in the standard catapult. The couillard was a French modification on the trebuchet; it used a two-part counterweight, each half swinging to the side of the central arm. The most famous trebuchet was probably one called Warwolf, used by Edward I in 1304 to bring down a section of the walls of Stirling Castle.

The manuballista [Latin: "hand thrower"] was exactly what it sounds like: a hand-operated throwing device, such as used by young boys through the ages and pictured above. The cheiroballista [Greek: "hand thrower'] is considered to be the same device, even though descriptions are not included in the references. The carroballista? A catapult mounted on a carro, a cart, for easy transport.

The springald was essentially a crossbow: smaller, and therefore less tension and less damage, used best against individuals in closer quarters. It first appears in a Byzantine manuscript of the 11th century.

Most of these devices threw a single mass in order to cause great damage to a defensive wall. Occasionally, however, you might want smaller damage but over a wider area. That is when you used the polybolos [Greek: "many thrower"]. Equivalent to a gatling gun rather than a shotgun, the polybolos could fire repeatedly: Philo of Byzantium (c.280-c.220 BCE) describes the mechanism that could fire bolt after bolt—eleven per minute!—once you loaded it up.

If you wish to build your own device, consider this store.

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