Shooting a 15th century crossbow

Today an archer at my local archery club gave me the opportunity to try his reconstruction of a 15th century crossbow. He reported that the weapon was 95#, and was loaded using a hip draw.

I shot at a foxed-shaped target 22-25 yards away. The first shot struck the body of the fox exactly where I had aimed. Amazed, and more confident on my second shot, I aimed at the fox’s head, and hit the eye.

I am extremely impressed. The crossbow was actually easier to aim and shoot than a rifle, despite having no sights except the tip of the bolt. A problem with firearms is that the shooter may anticipate the recoil, jerking their body and throwing off their aim just as they squeeze the trigger. This crossbow had no recoil to anticipate. I also found the lever-style trigger easier to squeeze without changing my aiming point, as I could press it with the strength of my whole hand rather than with one finger. Granted, the crossbow is fairly light by 15th century standards and a heavier one may not have been so pleasant.

I have been practicing archery intensely for three months now, but at the same distance, I could probably hit the fox’s head at the same distance with my 60# recurve only on maybe one in three or four shots. With my matchlock I can achieve similar accuracy to the crossbow, but I have to work harder for it, splitting my mental processes between aiming, not anticipating the significant recoil, keeping track of the match, and squeezing the trigger smoothly.

Next time I’ll try to remember to take pictures.


Musket Accuracy at 80 Yards

My copy of Firearms: A Global History to 1700 by Kenneth Chase has just arrived. Cracking it open near the middle, I landed on the section concerning Guns and Bows. Thankfully, Chase doesn’t repeat the line, common in history books written for a casual audience, that firearms were somehow less effective than bows until the American Civil War.

Chase does, however, compare bows and firearms in terms of reliability, rate of shot, and accuracy.

Chase claims that firearms misfired up to 50% of the time, citing Tallett, War and society in early-modern Europe, p. 23. This assertion is extremely dubious. Nobody would use a weapon that was so unreliable.

Chase then makes a brief comparison of accuracy. Citing page 138 of Saracen Archery, Chase says “The Turkish mamluks were also expected to hit a 38-inch circle at a range of 75 yards with five out of five arrows, and a good archer might hit a target the size of a man on horseback one out of four times at a range of 280 yards.”

By contrast, Chase says that the smoothbore musket “had no chance of hitting a man-sized target at more than 80 yards.”

Really? No chance? Zero percent? Murphey has no problem hitting a smaller than man-sized target dead center at 80 yards:

In a test at the Provincial Armory in Graz, Austria, the muskets were tested at a range of 100 meters (109 yards) against a target 167cm x 30cm, or about the height and width of a short man with no arms. The pistols were tested at 30 meters. The muskets had significantly more than “no chance” of hitting at 100m.

I suspect that period firearms might have even performed better than the results of the Graz test indicate. Three of the muzzleloaders tested were rifled: G 284, RG 272, and STG 1288. Only STG 1288 displayed better accuracy than the smoothbores- but STG 1288 was also the only muzzleloader loaded with a bullet larger than the bore. The report does not mention what sort of wadding or patch was used, if any. Lack of a patch would explain why the rifles provided with sub-caliber bullets didn’t perform better than the smoothbores, as the bullet could not engage the rifling. If the test was really performed without wadding or patch, that is an unfortunate oversight. Also consider, that at the time the Graz tests were performed, the weapons are hundreds of years old. While when the weapons were actually in use on the battlefield, they would have been relatively new. The test writeup mentions that two pieces were rejected because of weakness in the metal. If two pieces had become too dangerous to shoot in the years since they were built, then time, moisture and the notorious corrosivity of black powder residue could have also worn the pieces enough to negatively affect accuracy.

This post deals only with theoretical accuracy against man-sized targets. Tests against targets the size of close-order units, and accuracy under real combat conditions, are another matter.

History Channel: Bows vs Crossbows vs Guns

This is a pretty silly pop history demonstration- just what one would expect from the History Channel- but still entertaining to see the power of a heavy matchlock musket.

The narrator claims that his longbow can penetrate the final suit of armor at 60 yards, but we won’t know, since he never actually hits any of the armor. With the way that the crossbow shots bounce off without leaving a scratch, it’s doubtful that the longbow would perform too much better.