Plausibility check: Native Americans developing crossbows (and their spread in the New World)

Discussion in 'Alternate History Discussion: Before 1900' started by Petike, Jul 20, 2018.

  1. Petike Sky Pirate Extraordinaire

    Jun 25, 2008
    Clockpunk Zemplín Kingdom / Franz Josef's Land
    Several ways to go about this topic. First, I've figured we should get some clichés out of the way:

    - Cliché 1: "Crossbows are impossible to build without metal parts !"
    - Cliché 2: "No OTL Native American culture has ever even thought of the concept of a crossbow !"

    - Retort 1: Several cultures in Europe, Asia, western Africa and even a certain New World culture had developed their own, all-wooden crossbow designs. Though it is true a crossbow with greater military potential, such as the ones we see in late-medieval Europe, favoured plenty of steel parts, you don't actually need any metal to create a working crossbow.

    - Retort 2: At first glance, it seems no Native American culture could have developed crossbows. Bow usage in North America became commonly widespread after 500 AD, but had a much earlier basis, scattered localy. It doesn't seem any culture went further than developing selfbows and sinew-enhanced bows and recurved bows (the latter similar to Egyptian and Middle Eastern bows from antiquity). Composite bows in the Old World sense seem absent. (Update: I partly retract the last statement, as some NA cultures seem to have utilised bows with horn-enhanced components in addition to sinew.) Not even Mesoamericans or the Incas, advanced Neolithic and Chalcolithic cultures, invented the crossbow independently. Case closed, right ? Well, no. Possibly due to trade contacts with Alaska and Asia, or possibly independently, the Inuit had and manufactured hunting crossbows. All-wooden, of course. With the same basic design you see in early medieval European hunting crossbows, medieval and early modern west African hunting crossbows, and even colonial era Appalachian hunting crossbows (possibly inspired by European or African tradition).


    Yep, that's an Inuit hunting crossbow. Though it has its distinctive features (a gun barrel-like "roof" made from bark), it shares the basics with its European and Asian cousins. Ordinary bow lashed to the tiller, a flight groove in the front half of the tiller, a simpler lever trigger without the need of a crossbow nut, a "threshold" element on the stock ("string-catch" ?) to hold the bowstring spanned until you raise the lever (it replaces the function of the nut). The similarities between these European, African and Inuit crossbows also include performance characteristics. These are not exactly a weapon of war, but perfectly adequate for sniping small prey (seabirds, hares, maybe even fish in streams, etc.) or defending yourself from a pesky attacker ("Oi ! You there ! Stop poking around my igloo !").


    To compare, here are the Inuit crossbow's cousins from other continents:


    early all-wooden hunting crossbow (rising peg trigger).jpg

    The European form. Specifically, the one based on the typology seen in a 11th century find from Colletiere a Charavines in France. The functioning of the two weapons is basically identical, though these cultures had never met. They had the same basic idea, though. You use the little string-catch threshold around the middle of the crossbow instead of a nut and spring and tickler lever. Instead, you have a little "thumb lever", attached to two elevated areas on the tiller of the crossbow via a tiny axle (either a peg or cord). By pushing down on the operating end of the little lever, you raise the other end, and that other end also lifts the bowstring beyond the threshold of the string-catch. At a certain height, this move, of course, releases the bowstring. The string snaps back forward with the flexing of the bow, and as the string travels along the tiller, it hits the back part of the bolt (they're flat and without nocks, unlike arrows) and shoots it in a fairly straight line.

    (Though the idea of a bolt-latch/bolt-catch was not invented yet by either Europeans or Inuit (it took the former until the 16th/17th century, oddly enough), there is a way around fearing you'll unintentionally drop your bolts. You can hold the end of the bolt down while not aiming straight, then release your bolt-holding thumb just as you release the bowstring by operating the lever. So, it isn't impossible to shoot bolts from these crossbows outside of a perfectly straight, still line. The vast majority of crossbows in human history did well without bolt-latches. Even though they're not held in place by anything, with a little practice, you can easily prevent the bolts from falling off the tiller, by using the thumb-trick.)

    Whether the Inuit invented their "thumb lever" crossbow idea independently, or got wind of some simple Asian design (identical to the CaC design) and tried to build their own as a result, we'll probably never know.

    First image: A replica based on the Colletiere a Charavines find, from the 11th century.
    Second and third image: The construction of the "thumb lever" trigger mechanism in this crossbow.




    The western African form. Used since at least the late Middle Ages in various countries of western Africa, these have a slightly different design, but they also lack metal parts and focus on simple mechanisms. They are rather skillfully made. There's been a lot of speculation whether these were invented independently by western African nationalities, or might have had some inspiration from Portuguese and other European sailors first. Like with the Inuit crossbow, we'll probably never know. Most of the surviving examples in museums are from the 18th or 19th century. Mind you, these were not necessarily weapons of rich African courts. Quite the contrary. They were often used by various forest-dwelling tribes, living a simple hunger-gatherer or partial-agricultural lifestyle. Again, simple designs used by cultures that didn't necessarily have all the resources to make crossbows demanding sophisticated metallurgy. At any rate, the construction basics of these show a remarkably similar design philosophy to the European and Inuit all-wooden crossbows.

    First two images: 19th century originals, based on western African designs traditionally used for at least 4-5 centuries.
    Third image: The construction of the "rising peg lever" trigger mechanism in this crossbow. (Descriptions in French.)


    Spotlight on the European (Colletiere a Charavines / "thumb lever") type:

    In addition to the French find from the 11th century, detailed in the above videos and earlier images, there was also a nearly identical type of all-wooden, simple mechanism crossbow, found in Sweden's region of Skåne. The two specimens found were from the 16th century, and it's been speculated they might have been used in a siege during a peasant uprising. The type represented by these finds is the so-called Skåne lockbow. Here is a pretty good replica:


    Yes, 16th century cheapo crossbows. It does make sense, though. While there were much more sophisticated civilian crossbows available by the 1500s and especially the 1600s - some 500-600 years after the French find - the simple design still saw some use. Possibly because it was inexpensive to make, with poorer Swedish peasants who could afford neither a gun or a proper crossbow building these very home-brewn hunting crossbows instead.

    Notice the one big difference when compared with the CaC crossbow: The rising peg isn't a little "thumb lever" attached close to the stringcatch, but more in the vein of the typical "tickler" levers that were commonplace on all crossbows by the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Peasants probably emulated those at the time more familiar designs more literally, since that was what they had for reference, even if it was a good bit more complicated than it needed to be. Notice that the wooden tickler includes a stub carved into a wooden peg or an attached wooden peg, and this rises through a hole made into the body of the crossbow in the stringcatch area. You raise the lever upward, like on most typical crossbows, and the peg lifts the string (just like the much simpler "thumb lever" of the CaC specimen) and the string is set loose and shoots the prepared bolt. Nice, but the lever design of the French find is a lot more compact, obviously. :) The Skåne lockbow also shares the rising peg concept with the West African crossbows, so we could say there are two "schools of thought" here, on how to make non-metal crossbows. (There's also a replica of this type with a more later-medieval steel bow, here. But I'm concentrating on the all-wooden version.)

    The 16th century Swedish example above wasn't the last time the simplicity of the all-wooden design found continued use. A little later in North America, the aforementioned Appalachian crossbows were famously used by 18th-20th century locals, who were too strapped for cash to buy gunpowder and hunting muskets/rifles. Here are two historical images related to local craftsmen, making these crossbows well into the 20th century:



    These are interesting, because they're a mix of the features seen in the traditional European and African hunting crossbows, including an all-wooden construction, but tend to also borrow from 17th and 18th century hunting crossbow designs, and occassionally include one or two metal parts (though not in any of the crucial bits, like the bow or its lashing to the stock).

    Interesting discussions I've found off-site, about simple hunting crossbows and their mechanisms: - Crossbows with rising peg mechanisms (Europe, west Africa, etc.) - the post-Columbian crossbows used by rural European settlers in the Appalachians


    Before we start concocting far-fetched scenarios about Inuits spreading hunting crossbows to Native American nations in the south (erm, why ?), let's think outside of the box a little. The timeframe I'll be using here is pre-Columbian. (And no, Scandinavians won't introduce crossbows via Vinland. They didn't have them at the time and they also barely inhabited Vinland, aside from one or two seasonal camps. So, those are out.)

    Let's imagine some culture other than the Inuit has a person who comes up with the idea of a hunting crossbow independently. Which ethnicities would be the most likely candidates ? I'm wondering whether the New World cultures that developed and used recurved bows in OTL, and were sedentary enough to have the time, tools and resources to make potential crossbows, could have developed them ?

    Though the influence of native-developed crossbow designs is largely negligible, as they'll be most useful for hunting, the fact that any Native American culture could have these would make for a really interesting divergence. Despite the primarily civilian use in OTL, we know European, African and Inuit all-wooden crossbows also saw some minor use in anti-personnel combat.

    Could Native American cultures that develop these simple crossbows in an ATL prove deadly during raids on tribes that have only ordinary bows ? The reload time for crossbows would be slightly higher, their fluid rate of shot-after-shot in turn slower than those of a usual bow. However, the straight flight of the bolts or quarrels, and less shooting practice needed for archers of raiding/fighting bands could prove an innovating factor in native combat tactics. (And, of course, European explorers might be unpleasantly surprised by natives laying down shots from crossbows in addition to bows...)

    Thoughts ?
    Last edited: Sep 8, 2018
  2. Carp Literally a fish

    Apr 16, 2014
    An ordinary self (that is, non-composite) crossbow does not enjoy many obvious advantages over an ordinary self-bow. A bow, after all, is a bow; being mounted on a stock/tiller does not itself make it stronger or more effective. Early medieval (11th-12th c.) crossbows could achieve some improvement in draw weight by allowing the crossbowman to span the bow with his legs, which have stronger muscles than the arms, but this increase in power was limited by the practical size of the bow (as a six foot wide crossbow would have been a bit difficult to use).

    What the crossbow had going for it was accuracy. The bolt didn’t fly any truer than an arrow, of course, but the dissociation of the act of spanning/drawing from the act of shooting allowed a crossbowman to patiently aim and wait for just the right time to shoot, something which an archer could not do. That was useful in hunting, but in warfare accuracy was often not a primary concern; bowmen dropping arrows on an enemy army didn’t need to wait for the perfect shot, as they were saturating an area and trying to do so as quickly as possible. The one place on where a crossbow was particularly useful was in a siege, where one might wait patiently for an enemy’s head to pop over a parapet and then shoot. Accordingly, in 12th century Italy crossbows were something of a specialist weapon for sieges (and siege defense) whose users were clearly in the minority compared to normal archers. (I have also heard it suggested that the wait-and-shoot nature of the crossbow was useful against horse archers in the east, being fast-moving targets, but I can’t vouch for the accuracy of that and in any case it has no bearing on the horse-less Americas.)

    The reputation of crossbows as “armor-piercers” only comes later, as composite technology (and later, steel prods) made it possible to increase the strength of the bow without making it inordinately large, and spanning devices were developed to make it possible to span such bows through the miracle of mechanical advantage. But composite technology was mostly absent from the pre-Columbian Americas, save perhaps for the cable-backed bows of the north and some examples of sinew backing in the west, which may have been intended more to shore up poor-quality bows than anything else. Moreover, merely having composite technology does not guarantee the leap from crossbows as “specialist bows” to primary weapons of war in their own right, as proved by the Romans, who had both crossbows and composite technology but did not develop the crossbow into a practical and widely used weapon of war.

    So while I can certainly see the self-bow crossbow seeing more widespread use as a hunting weapon, which does not preclude its occasional use against people, the likelihood of the crossbow gaining any kind of dominance as a weapon of war seems dubious to me. The pre-Columbian Americas don’t really provide the kind of environment which plays to the crossbow’s strengths.
    Last edited: Jul 21, 2018
  3. Claudius Well-Known Member

    Sep 12, 2008
    New Jersey, USA
    Fascinating stuff. I literally had no idea the Inuit had such a weapon, but I see why they could find it useful. Perhaps seal fishing at ice-holes, where a concealed, waiting hunter could shoot quickly without needing to draw a self bow or draw back a harpoon just with the movement of a finger. In sub-zero- temperatures that might be a real plus.

    For use in warfare, by analogy with the European use in siege warefare, I could coceive of tribes like the Pueblo defending their cliff dwellings from marauders by shooting from prepared positions. (perhaps like in European castles) from slots in the brickwork.

    Did the meso-American or Andean civilizations use self bows in warfare? It always has puzzled me that Pizzaro or Cortez did not have an Agincourt experience at some point, with clouds of arrows falling on them. What one often sees is depictions of Aztec knights with clubs or flint edged swords. Does anyone know?
  4. Petike Sky Pirate Extraordinaire

    Jun 25, 2008
    Clockpunk Zemplín Kingdom / Franz Josef's Land
    @Carp, you make a lot of good points. :)

    That I don't doubt. It's a clear limitation, which is why I mention it in my opening post. You're not going to be getting the same sort of power from an all-wooden crossbow.

    Absolutely agreed on this. Which is why I have my doubts about the crossbow ever developing much beyond the hunting crossbow stage.

    The issue with these simpler hunting crossbows is that they cannot really take advantage of the leg-assisted spanning that occurred in the later military self-crossbows you mention, in the pre-stirrup era. They all seem to be hand-spanners only (though the African crossbows might have been an exception, but I don't know enough about that particular detail). Even if we have a scenario where native cultures develop the hunting version, and make a later leap to a "military" version, the latter would be limited by the practical size of the bow.

    I've seen some early European military crossbows with fairly wide self-bows and hand-spanning only (example here, in this docu). They aren't impossible to manufacture, but they would take up a lot of space if carried by an individual warrior. Woodland cultures of North America wouldn't find these too practical in raiding activities, while closing in on enemy camps or forts stealthily through a forest.

    Even if these would be more powerful than hunting crossbows, they wouldn't be compact enough to carry around as comfortably. Making the bow the usual size wouldn't solve a thing. At most, that solution would render them glorified higher-power hunting crossbows:

    Without composite bow construction*, metals, or stirrups, native crossbows will be in no position and in no hurry to advance.

    Yeah, when it comes to the rate of shot, even a crossbow with simple hand-spanning doesn't really surpass the bow in terms of how fast you can fling arrows at an enemy. In that sense, the bow would be preferrable. This is part of why I'm convinced that even if crossbows are developed by Amerindians and some of their cultures then get the idea to use them in fighting, these crossbows will be used in smaller numbers, alongside regular bows.

    But on that note, aside from accuracy, one other factor would be the diminished need to train archers. This is a bigger factor than it appears, IMHO. Even with something as simple as these hunting crossbows, you don't really need the years of gradually gained experience to be a reasonably proficient shooter with them, unlike with a bow. You can learn archery with a bow in fairly short time, but it takes months and years to become a really good shot. While it's not that important when it comes to hunting, this limitation becomes fairly crucial in tribal warfare.

    If your archers are killed or wounded in a local conflict, it will take a good while until you replace them with an adequate amount of bowmen. The crossbow, on the other hand, does not have that inherent limitation. You can teach even non-combatants to use it effectivelly on a regular basis, and their personal strength and skill won't have much impact on the crossbow. (The crossbow's quality of manufacture has the bigger impact here.) Though manufacturing a hunting crossbow would take a bit longer than a bow, the crossbow would be something of a hunting and military equaliser in the cultures that develop it. This doesn't mean it would gain some sort of supremacy over the bow, but it could contribute to the tech options the various cultures have at hand.

    Funnily enough, due to many cultures' archers being primarily men, it wouldn't be that surprising if a culture that developed crossbows saw them as more of a male-and-female weapon, or even a female weapon (used by women as self-defence weapons in settlements or shooting nearby prey). I'm not going to claim the invention of the crossbow would prove some major factor in social change, such as male-female division of work and duties, but it might have a degree of economic influence on its adopters. Nowhere near as great as the (re)introduction of horses to the Americas had on some cultures, but some influence nonetheless.

    No quibbles with that. Both the Amerindian hunting crossbow and its hypothetical military descendant would see more specialised use in combat. We've already mentioned the issues with shot rate and the obvious factors limiting the strength/draw weight of the things, compared to ordinary bows. In that sense, they couldn't stand entirely on their own as ranged weapons. Combined weapons tactics for missile weaponry would be necessary, any way you slice it.

    The open battlefield, without cover, would be the trickiest environment to deal with, given the inherent limitations of these crossbows. Cover would be crucial to crossbow users in a fight, even moreso than to regular bowmen. While hand-spanning wouldn't take long, it's still a bit longer time-wise than just nocking an arrow and pulling back a bowstring, then nocking another arrow. Even with the fastest hand-spanner, you lose at least a few seconds compared to a bow.

    I suppose we could imagine cultures like the Iroquois and others creating both combat-capable crossbows and mantlets or other pavise equivalents (they had mantlets in OTL, see article), getting their own analogue of European crossbowmen as a result. But even then, that's just more busywork to add to the pile. Unless there is some persistent drive to develop more regular military application of the crossbow, we're bound to see it used primarily as a hunting weapon.

    Hillfort sieges with some native archers using crossbows I can certainly see. Even pure hunting crossbows could be useful for that, though their limited power would also limit their range. Short-to-medium distance shooting, some basic cover absolutely necessary, but otherwise there's nothing preventing it from working.

    In turn, where any sort of native crossbows would be really king, would be in defensive roles. Whether it's the aforementioned defence of villages, small towns and hillforts, they'd be good for defenders popping quarrels at attackers. Or even at dangerous wild animals, if those would drive one or more people into hiding in an elevated place.

    Concerning armour, this wouldn't really be much of a problem. Most native cultures didn't bother with any armour whatsoever. If I remember clearly, only Pacific Northwest and BC/Yukon cultures (e.g. Tlingit, Haida, etc.) developed forms of substantial skin-and-wood or cloth-and-wood armour, and possibly a few other unrelated cultures (including the Eastern Woodland ones - I think I've read about Mohican armour), but armour was not a common part of the native arsenal. Even Mesoamerican and South American cultures usually fought clad in clothing. So, on that front, you really don't need very powerful crossbows. Hardy wooden helmets, such as those developed by the PN and BC cultures, could work fine against crossbow projectiles, but the crossbow could still be a good piercer of the torso.

    Otherwise, I agree that the biggest issue here is the construction and ensuing draw weight of the bow. As mentioned above, without composite construction or metals, crossbows will be stuck at a certain technological stage. Even cable-backed bows attached to tillers wouldn't be a drastic improvement, as they're just an enhancement or modification in OTL.

    Yep, I'm also skeptical of greater military usage. There would be some, but the crossbow would be recognised mainly as a hunting or settlement defence weapon. Still, the "equaliser" ideas I've mentioned could have interesting ethnographic and economic repercussions. These society-and-economy-influencing divergences would be more interesting to contemplate than the military implications.

    AFAIK, these native crossbows were occassionally used for bow-fishing, a tradition that already existed with bows. Not so sure about blowhole fishing, since waiting with a harpoon would probably be more practical. It is still possible to wait with a crossbow at a blowhole, though. I just don't know about any ethnographic evidence of that.

    Yep. :) This is what I mention earlier in this post. As defensive weapons, crossbows could be useful even to many Native American cultures.

    Sure. They all had bows. Incas also used slings, and I think some of the Mesoamericans probably did as well. Would have to check.

    I think one of the issues is that we think of medieval-level archers purely as deliverers of arrow-barrages. It wasn't all like that, though I know the idea of the Agincourt barrage is a pervasive one.

    It is entirely possible Pizzaro and Cortez did experience a wave of arrows, but the environments in which they usually fought their battles with the natives didn't permit those being too "flashy". Maybe the natives quickly realised it's pointless to fight the conquistadors on an open battlefield, and preferred using ambush tactics and relying on defensive sieges. Those spare more of your men, and the native military commanders certainly weren't fools. They wouldn't charge or otherwise attack the Spaniards head-on, if they could help it with a clever and patient use of tactics.

    Additionally, do you think men like Pizzaro or Cortez would be all that descriptive of the natives' fighting methods ? I doubt it. A hail of arrows would still be a common sight in fighting back then, so why would either of the conquistador commanders mention that ? To them, it would be an ordinary sight. "The enemy shot at us", "the enemy hurled stones at us", and so on, would probably be the closest mention. They bothered more with describing the impresiveness of Mesoamerican cities (and their riches), since that left more of a lasting impression in them.


    On a side note, I do find it fascinating how some North American cultures approached bow stave making. :cool: Loads of possible methods, and this isn't one I've considered before learning about it.

    (* - Update: Turns out there was some composite bow manufacturing among North American nationalities, but not exactly widespread. I'm still assuming we won't see many native composite crossbows, even if native crossbows are invented and spread rather evenly as a piece of tech throughout North America.)
    Last edited: Sep 16, 2018
  5. Pesterfield Well-Known Member

    Mar 3, 2011
    Was that the preferred method, or just the effect of not being able to aim well?

    Would any of the metals the natives have access to be useful for crossbows?
  6. Petike Sky Pirate Extraordinaire

    Jun 25, 2008
    Clockpunk Zemplín Kingdom / Franz Josef's Land
    There's quite a lot of misconceptions floating around concerning the military archery tactics of the period. Both individually targeted attacks and barrage attacks existed and had their uses. Their exact use in warfare depends on the situation, the location and the goals of the side that's doing the shooting. A lack of accuracy wasn't the reason for barrages, the numerical size of the enemy and the surrounding terrain played a bigger role in using or not using a barrage.

    Period archers weren't "doing spray and pray barrage tactics because they couldn't shoot well", as some people have often popularly claimed. Bows aren't machine guns, even if you have a highly skilled archer that could shoot up to 10 arrows a minute. They don't work like guns, you can't exactly use them as guns or think of them as guns. They're large springs shooting projectiles, and the same goes for crossbows. (I suppose crossbows are a bit more gun-like, but they are still unlike guns in most ways.) Ancient and medieval military archers didn't need to "spray and pray". A military archer already had to be good with accurate shooting.

    They were doing barrages because they had to cover a lot of ground, so to speak, when dealing with a huge number of enemies. If you had a group of four attackers going against your archers, the archers won't "spray" them with arrows. No point. They'd shoot them individually. But throw a group of two hundred attackers marching or charging towards your archers, and volley and barrage tactics suddenly make a lot more sense. Barrage tactics could also be used to preemptively weaken an enemy from afar and scare them or otherwise disrupt them (sort of like an ambush by snipers or small artillery, if you will). Archers defending fortifications also shot arrows in volleys when needed against larger groups, in addition to just individually picking off individual attackers in the siege.

    This would be the same with any Native American culture, depending on the archery tactics they'd need to employ in a particular place, at a particular time, for a particular end goal.

    (If you have time to spare, here's a good half hour video on myths and misconceptions about medieval longbow archery. An episode of an otherwise serious documentary series is examined, due to having several issues with how it portrays longbow archery.)

    Very few New World cultures used any sort of metals for tools or weaponry. The Incas were probably the only culture to develop bronze on their own, and even that wasn't used that much on weapons. Various North American cultures, including the Hopewell, made it to the Copper Age, but most of their Chalcolithic output was decorative. The Inuit and related Arctic cultures learned of meteorite iron and used it to an extent for spearheads and arrowheads, but you need to bear in mind this iron wasn't really all that processed (i.e. they weren't smithing).

    Neither copper or bronze are adequate for crossbows. Bronze arrowheads I could certainly see, but the bronze mettalurgy of the New World was both very rare and not as developed as that of the Mediterranean, Middle East and Europe.

    To really get results with metals applied to crossbows, you need iron, and you need to figure out how to make good quality steel from that iron. Ergo, you need iron metallurgy first, and that requires both good quality iron ore and plenty of good quality charcoal. With the two, and some smithing know-how, you could kickstart native metallurgy on the level of the Old World. That would obviously change a lot about the technology available and the nature of the cultures, both nomadic and sedentary.

    There's a reason why we have so many POD discussions about New World native metallurgy. It had lots of trouble getting off the ground in OTL, and mostly in isolated examples only. The contributing factors include larger distances and greater spacing between viable ore sites, the greater limitations to overland trade and trade routes (with only dog travois and their own feet, traders travelled rather slowly, couldn't travel very far in one go, and couldn't carry many goods), and various natural obstacles in the way.

    This had always hampered innovation among Native American cultures, even those that were highly advanced despite limited technology. It took a while until agricultural crops and methods spread around the New World. And as I mention in my opening post, the bow didn't become common in most of North America until the 5th or 6th century AD. While it's true cultures like the Incas eventually built very good road networks, most overland trade roads in the Americas remained fairly primitive for many centuries, limiting the regular exchange of goods and exchange of innovative ideas between the various cultures.
    Last edited: Aug 30, 2018
    Fabius Maximus and Carp like this.
  7. Carp Literally a fish

    Apr 16, 2014
    I know it is a truism that "crossbows are easy to use," but I confess that I've always been a bit skeptical - it's the sort of argument that seems logical and yet is also, at least in my experience, difficult to reconcile with observed historical fact. Consider that in early medieval Italy, the context with which I'm most familiar, crossbows were definitely not peasant weapons handed out to anyone with two hands and a pulse, but reserved for specialists. By the 13th century, when crossbows really came into common use, we most often see crossbows in the hands of mercenaries who tended to be high-status and well-paid, as well as the upper echelons of Italian urban militias, who may have been part-timers but had considerable resources and regular training. This may in part be explained by cost - the crossbow was not a cheap weapons system, and thus tended to be used by professionals and semi-professional troops with money to spend. Yet even in the 12th century, when the dominant type (at least early on) was all-wood hand (or foot) spanned self bows, crossbows were considerably rarer than bows, and certainly by the end of the century (and probably well before) crossbowmen were paid much more than common bowmen and fined much more if they failed to appear for muster.

    Moreover, while a crossbow may well be easier to shoot than a bow, warfare is not all about shooting. Particularly with a relatively complex weapon, much more of a soldier's time is spent on care and maintenance, which for a crossbow requires considerably more skill than caring for a simple self-bow. Re-stringing a self-bow in the field is quick and easy; re-stringing a crossbow, save perhaps for the lightest and simplest specimens, generally requires a workbench and special tools. A poorly maintained crossbow will not shoot straight and may not even shoot at all.

    I am reluctant to say what "would" happen in an American context, because my own experience is narrow - perhaps what I've mentioned isn't true in the Chinese context, for instance, or elsewhere. But I would suggest caution when it comes to applying the "common sense" tropes of crossbows as "easy" weapons or as "equalizers," given that European crossbows tended to be a weapon of professionals which, despite supposedly being "equalizers," certainly did not herald the doom of the armored knight or the social order he inhabited.

    The Mesoamerican ichcahuipilli, at least, was not mere clothing, and the Spaniards found it so effective that they adopted the escaupile (as they called it) for themselves. These layered cotton coats were extremely effective against arrows, even iron-tipped arrows, and in the Codex Rios a Spanish author claimed that the escaupile offered better protection against arrows than iron mail and even low-quality plate. From what I can tell, however, this garment was of little use against 16th century military crossbows, which were designed to deal with iron-clad Europeans.

    In a field battle, when armies were at some distance and individuals were not readily discernible, bows tended to be used as artillery and loosed at enemy formations in large volleys. English longbowmen, for instance, were trained to hit ranges rather than people - "accuracy" in that context was being able to shoot an arrow exactly 150 yards when ordered to shoot an arrow 150 yards, and well-trained archers could indeed be very accurate. At closer range, with a more direct shot (less arc), there's no reason that a skilled archer couldn't use a bow to shoot an individual enemy, and he might well do this depending on the circumstances of the encounter.
  8. Captain Jack Hobbes Was Right

    Jul 2, 2012
    A quick google check indicates that the Aztecs do seem to have made substantial use of bows, that arrow wounds were reasonably common when the Spanish engaged the Aztecs, and that they did, at least on accassion, deliver them as a barrage to break the enemy formation. That said, they don't seem to have relied on bows for their ranged capacity, but used them in conjuction with slings and spear-throwers. To me, it seems at least superficially similar to how the Romans, for example, used a wide variety of ranged weapons. Additionally, the atlatl seems to have held a particular cultural and symbolic importance in the cultures of the Mexican highland. IIRC (and it’s possible I’m not) he atlatl was associated with Teotihuacan which was a deeply powerful historical/mythological reference and was also a symbol of an Aztec deity. So there’s plenty of reason to prioritize the atlatl, as a significant cultural motif, over the bow in depictions of warfare.

    Again, this is just from a quick google but Bernal Diaz' account mentions being shot at with arows by Aztecs relatively frequently, goes into detail on the number and severity of wounds recieved from them, and on a couple of occassions mentions how they used them in a tactical sense. I don't recall how much detail Cortes puts into his account about the actual combat itself, but still I think I disagree with the assessment that the Spanish only recorded the wealth and impressiveness of the cities. They did plenty of describing other things too. And in any case, I believe there are a number of native codices that provide some detail on military techniques.

    Note that I have no particular expertise on Aztec history, so I invite anyone with expertise to expand/correct me.

    On the subject of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican metallurgy: while there was some use of metal for tools, copper tweezers and arrowheads have been found for example, Mesoamerican metal use focused primarily on aesthetic value, particularly in visual and auditory properties. The latter is particularly evident in the bronze work, where they often added massively more tin or arsenic to the copper than was necessary or desirable to achieve improved mechanical properties because they valued the changed color of the alloys. Adding enough tin to copper turns the bronze a gold color while adding arsenic turns it silver, if memory holds.

    Edit: jeez, the edit history on my post is a mess. Serves me right for posting while tired.
    Last edited: Jul 21, 2018
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  9. Tomislav Addai Well-Known Member

    May 13, 2017
    Due to obvious reasons, I tend to think that such weapons would be developed in the more developed parts of America: Mesoamerica, the Andes, possibly Aridoamerica and Mississippi as well. Goven its role as a primary defensive weapon, it would slower down the greatest conquerers, Aztecs and Incas. With less unified native states, it would take longer for the Spanish to subdue them
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  10. Petike Sky Pirate Extraordinaire

    Jun 25, 2008
    Clockpunk Zemplín Kingdom / Franz Josef's Land
    The material and craftsmanship expenses are the biggest downside.

    I think a recap about these hypothetical native crossbows is in order:


    - don't need metal components of any kind, nor a trigger-and-nut system to work; the lever and string-catch system is sufficient
    - don't necessitate someone becoming a highly skilled archer, whether for hunting or defensive/offensive fighting; skill and length of training isn't a deciding factor anymore
    - could prove very useful in defensive roles, whether it's home defence (against thieves, raiders, wild animals) or siege defence (against attackers)
    - depending on the quality of manufacture, more accurate for shooting in a straight line

    - more expensive to manufacture, as a single specimen requires more materials overall, and requires a craftsman with slightly higher mechanical know-how
    - even with simple hand-spanning, hunting crossbows with the fastest reload time are still slower to reload than an ordinary bow
    - due to reload times, not good in open battle; these crossbows require stationary cover (rocks, tree trunks, etc.) or at least portable cover (a separately built wicker-and-wood mantlet, etc.) to become really efficient in battle, otherwise the archer is too exposed
    - bow development is limited, as size matters for draw weights achievable with selfbows; this could be remedied if composite bow construction is invented (a big "if", but generally possible)

    Neutral (resolvable)
    - if a wider-bowed or composite bow, "military" version of the basic crossbow is ever developed, the lack of a stirrup might limit the life of the bow, due to stresses it undergoes during spanning; inventing an equivalent of the crossbow stirrup could help resolve this issue

    That's a good point, which is why I wrote that sedentary and economically advanced cultures would be the most likely inventors or adopters of crossbows. Given that these native hunting crossbows are nowhere near as technologically complex as the military crossbows we see at the height of their development in China (e.g. repeaters) or in late-medieval Europe (trigger and nut, steel bows, necessary spanning mechanisms, etc.), I can't imagine they'd require overly advanced tools or workshops to maintain.

    The whole point of these basic crossbows is that you can put them together "at home", with relatively little materials. You only need adequate kinds of wood, and some threads to make the lashing ropes and the bowstring, and you're set. Did the Inuit have any sort of workbenches or medieval workshops for manufacturing their own specimens ? Of course they didn't.

    It would be ideal if native craftsmen fashioned crossbows in a slightly less "carving it on my knee" manner, but ultimately, we can't expect them to develop mass production of crossbows. Even bows weren't exactly mass-produced, though they were manufactured in larger numbers over time. One of the limitations of native crossbows will be the fairly low rate of production. This further reinforces my earlier assumption that bows will still keep their primacy as ranged weapons, with crossbows used as auxilliary ranged weapons or as specialised ranged weapons (e.g. home defence, sieges).

    I agree. :) As this is AH speculation, I'm trying to come up with possible divergences following the repercussions and divergences caused by the invention of this particular technology. There could be some, there might be some, obvious emphasis on could or might. Maybe little would change. As I'm a person who prefers subtle PODs and subtle changes, instead of "they invent some minor thing, and next day, they're flying to outer space" bombastic PODs, this is exactly what I meant by "equaliser". It's a potential equaliser, in subtle ways. It might not take off, it might not launch any sort of deeper changes, but it might influence some social and economic developments of native cultures. It's a valid thing to consider, IMHO. These crossbows would be mostly tools, not military weapons, and no technology exists in a vacuum. All technologies can have some impact on the societies that use them, regardless of how minor that impact might be.

    Oh yeah, I forgot about that one !

    Given that buffed-up cloth armours, or armours using any hardened but thin enough materials strung together to form interlapping scales or structures similar to lamellar armour, can be manufactured quite easily in a non-metallurgical culture, the presence of similar armour concepts in many unrelated Amerindian cultures isn't surprising.

    No surprise here, these types of armour were too weak against really high-powered crossbows. Older types of archery weaponry, including older crossbows, and arrowheads not specialised for plate impact, would have been less deadly to these non-metallic armours. (It was common in Europe to wear a gambeson for protection against piercing arrowheads, and mail on top of it for protection against broadheads. In tandem, the two types of armour could protect really well against both types of arrows, due to the different physical properties of the armours and their different reactions to specific arrowhead impacts. Broadheads can slice through gambeson to an extent but barely harm mail, while piercing arrows are better against mail, but get stuck in gambesons.)

    Even then, it was a bit difficult to beat plate armour with military grade crossbows. There were also few types of arrowheads that could withstand the stress of impacting into plate.

    Yes. It makes sense they'd focus on range, given the numbers of combatants they had to deal with. Whereas it's easy to shoot at individual soldiers with intentional accuracy, shooting with accuracy becomes pretty worthless when you have to deal with tens or hundreds or thousands of enemy soldiers. If they're in a formation or in a close-enough crowd, going for hitting a certain range is a lot more sensible in that type of situation.

    We even had a whole discussion years back about whether Aztec bows could have been further improved. :)

    Well, appearances can be deceiving. This discussion and an older one have already mentioned the fact that Aztec bows were fairly wimpy, and the atlatl-and-javelin combo seems to have been favoured due to its cultural and ritual significance. In contrast, we also have the Inuit with their hunting crossbows. The Incas invented their own way to produce copper and bronze objects, their own style of halberd and advanced maces, they knew how to make wheels and built very good roads. At the same time, they had no wagons whatsoever, and mostly used kipu for records instead of a writing system. Technological development can offer many odd paradoxes.

    In terms of prerequisites for crossbow production and adoption, the Mesoamerican cultures are not that bad a bet. We should just be careful in assuming that "oh, they were advanced in many particular ways, so of course they'll start making crossbows right away". History has its ironies. They might look at the crossbow, try it out, appreciate it for what it is, but then reject it as a fancy toy. Or whatever. We can't be certain, and that's part of the fun and peril in this sort of AH speculation.

    I don't think Native Americans didn't bother with crossbows because they were impractical or impossible to make, they didn't bother with them because the OTL factors simply proved prohibitive, in multiple ways. Even if someone thought up a good enough crossbow, their invention might have died with them, due to the slow trade networks and resulting slow spread of innovation to different regions. All the various prohibitive factors don't rule out the independent invention of the crossbow, and its subsequent spread throughout the New World (same for things like metallurgy), but they certainly limit such a development.
    Last edited: Jan 25, 2019
  11. GohanLSSJ2 Peruvian Pan-Americanist

    Jul 18, 2015
    Well, I always wanted to explore such an idea. Although I personally wanted it for post-Columbian conflicts with the settlers.

    In particular, I wonder how would Natives make it through the use of this bad boi:

    Would a widespread adaptation of this weapon slow down the advance of the colonists?
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  12. Petike Sky Pirate Extraordinaire

    Jun 25, 2008
    Clockpunk Zemplín Kingdom / Franz Josef's Land
    I've noticed you mentioning your timeline quite often in these sorts of discussions. Good luck with the writing. :)

    While I've started this thread as a general discussion on the viability of crossbows as an invention among Native Americans, I'm also exploring this avenue because I'm preparing an AH story about an earlier, unintentional transatlantic contact. Part of the premise is that the natives could copy some of the foreign castaways' technology, and crossbows are part of the things I'd want them to try out. Not just the simple all-wooden ones either, but also the concept of more advanced ones (once they also figure out iron metallurgy).

    Thing is, not all of the Chinese repeaters were equipped with more powerful composite bows. In addition, it seems they were fairly low-power for a crossbow usable for combat purposes, regardless of bow type. Even Gajin Tushu Jicheng explicitly states things like "It fires weakly, so you have to tip the darts with poison." and "The draw-back to the weapon is its very limited range.". When a period Chinese writer doesn't overpraise them, you know that they're not the wonder weapons they might seem at first glance.

    While these crossbows had an impressive shot rate, the mechanism necessary for that also brought a lot of drawbacks, purely because of its nature. The crossbow is heavier due to the magazine, the necessary position of the gravity-fed magazine makes careful aiming impractical, and the draw weight employed and power transferred to bolts isn't all that great compared to other crossbows. About the only clear advantage of the weapon is the shot rate - you can pop a fair number of bolts at an enemy in fairly quick succession, apparently even in two rows from two separate magazine compartments. But good luck when you run out of bolts ! Reloading a repeating crossbow would be even more time-consuming than a single-shot, military-grade heavy crossbow with a slow spanning mechanism, say a windlass. (Unless you can figure out some foolproof method of quickly loading a row of bolts into the magazine... But I doubt it.)

    Though these repeaters had some military value, they were very much the rare example of an archery weapon being used more like an SMG. You use these for short-ranged defence, often to hit a small crowd of attackers. Otherwise, these crossbows are not all that practical. And they would require a lot more artisan skills and mechanical know-how to assemble, things which the simple hunting crossbows don't require. If the Chinese repeaters were really that amazing, you'd see them far more widespread in Asia, at least in neighbouring countries. Any Europeans would probably have adopted them too. But it didn't happen in OTL. Not because they were a bad invention, but because they had clear practical and technological limitations. They would have suffered on any open battlefield, especially from the reloading issues. As defensive weapons, you could perhaps use them in an aforementioned "medieval SMG" role (quickly defending a guardhouse or tollhouse) or as man-portable mini-ballistas for wall defence (like a wall gun). From what I know, that was their use in China. However, even in China, ordinary crossbows were still the predominant type, because repeaters are highly specialised in what they can do effectivelly. In short, they are definitely not some "invincible weapon that could turn the tide". Their OTL track record clearly shows otherwise.

    As we've discussed above, Amerindians would be hard-pressed to adopt even hunting crossbows or their improved larger versions for any sort of military purposes. The only reason they could manufacture those types of crossbows potentially well is because of their technological simplicity and very low resource needs. Compared with those, any sort of repeating crossbow would be far more demanding, and for generally little reward. I can't imagine even the most advanced, urbanised native cultures of the Americas using repeating crossbows. Based on their traditional military tactics and on their typical military needs, the repeater would probably seem more of a pointless distraction, requiring too much fiddling to construct and get working properly. A native commander would have a dim view of any warrior hauling such an unwieldy weapon around, spending the whole magazine quickly, then being basically useless on the battlefield, with an empty weapon that would take long to reload. (The hand-spanned crossbows would not have this problem, and even they would be slower to reload than an ordinary bow.) In combat archery, virtually all New World native cultures seem to have favoured more of a "make every arrow count" approach. (Not too dissimilar to how generals as late as the American Civil War urged their soldiers to use single-shots instead of repeaters, in order to conserve ammunition.) The repeating crossbow would therefore not be in line with the sort of military needs they had. Forget about magazine crossbows mowing down conquistadors.

    While I'm sorry to rain on the parade like that, I have big doubts whether Amerindians could find any adequate use for the Chinese "bad boi".
    Last edited: Aug 9, 2018
  13. Petike Sky Pirate Extraordinaire

    Jun 25, 2008
    Clockpunk Zemplín Kingdom / Franz Josef's Land
    We have mostly covered the limitations of wooden bowstaves for these crossbows. Now I have to wonder...

    What if some native cultures first developed more advanced composite bows than in OTL ?* Then the later invention of the crossbow could profit from that, with the technology now available to develop the crossbow up to a level where it uses a composite bow.

    Now, there are obvious questions when it comes to Native American composite bows. What materials could they build them from ?
    1.) Several types of wood ? Possible, but the resulting composite bowstaves would probably still be too weak to make a performance difference.
    2.) Horn and wood combinations, like we see in Old World composite bows ? Possible, but that would require them to have enough horn material, and the tools and know-how to fashion that horn material into parts usable for a composite bow. What are likely candidates for a resource of the horn material ? Bighorn sheep, making such material usage in bowyery possible at least for the cultures that lived near such animals ? (I dunno, I'm open to suggestions.)
    3.) Maybe implausibly, but what about utilising their OTL sinew-reinforced bows for the crossbows ? These bow types weren't exactly fantastic, they're early forms of the composite bow concept (ancient Egyptians had this same type, in fact, after their original longbows), but maybe they could give some added performance when lashed to a tiller instead of a simple bowstave ? While this third option is a bit cobbled-together, it wouldn't necessitate native cultures developing entirely new bow-making techniques if they'd want to use these for crossbow-making as well as bow-making.

    * - Update: I retract my previous statements on composite bows probably not being invented. Historically, they had presence, even if the least common in numerical terms. Some native cultures, in North America at least, developed the composite bow idea on their own in addition to selfbows and sinew-wrapped bows. These composite bows were not detailed to the same extent as those in Asia and elsewhere, but some nationalities on the plains and elsewhere certainly had horn-backed bows that worked well (many also including the established sinew-wrapping technique). The one clear OTL downside is that these bows were the most time-consuming and resource-intensive to produce, and therefore also the most expensive and rarest native bows around.

    As a consequence of the above, any native composite crossbows derived from native composite bows (made by combining the composite bow-making techniques with the hunting crossbow making techniques) would therefore have to be quite rare as well. At least until the technology becomes common enough for whatever reason, to warrant manufacturing composite bows en masse. In such a hypothetical scenario, I suppose we'd see a far greater regular harvesting of antler material by the natives than in OTL.


    I am still skeptical about one thing, though: Even if native composite crossbows are invented, thus forwarding native crossbow technology from all-wooden designs, there is still a threat of the spanning methods lagging behind. A more powerful composite bowstave for the crossbow is fine and dandy, but you have to compensate that greater power with something more powerful than just hand-spanning. Which calls the potential of the Native American composite crossbow into question. I know some 17th century European hunting crossbows used wooden spanning levers (gaffe lever), instead of the older steel spanning levers (goat's foot, etc.) of the late Middle Ages, so maybe a wooden spanning lever could still be manufactured. But it would be one extra thing to make, and without iron and steel, this kind of spanning lever would be a lot more cumbersome. So yes, native composite crossbow technology seems limited in a non-metallurgic society, though not necessarily impossible. Perhaps not viable on a widespread basis, at any rate.

    Here's one rare video of a simple, rising peg style crossbow (based on the find from Sweden), spanned with a wooden gaffe lever (typical of later hunting crossbows from Europe's early modern period). The bow on that crossbow isn't composite, but might be a more powerful self-bow, and either way, a lever like that makes spanning easier (though not necessarily faster than by hand). If we allow for the idea that some native cultures could get as far as making crossbows with heavier draw weights (larger self-bows, composite bows, etc.), and then come up with the idea of a non-metallic spanning lever (in the manner of a gaffe lever), I suppose it could look similar to the above video. Aside from a potential belt-and-hook or belt-and-pulley system in addition to hand-spanning, an equivalent of the gaffe lever seems like the only probable design for a spanning device that pre-contact native cultures could craft, without any need for metals and metallurgy.
    Last edited: Sep 16, 2018
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  14. Pesterfield Well-Known Member

    Mar 3, 2011
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  15. catalfalque Wandering Historian

    Feb 28, 2006
    Didn't the Incas have bronze? Could bronze parts have been used in a crossbow?
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  16. Fabius Maximus Unus qui nobis cunctando restituit rem

    Apr 3, 2013
    Perfidious Albion
    FWIW 16th-century military men considered bows to need less training than handguns, which kind of goes against the whole "bows were super difficult to use and take years of training" idea.

    (I suspect this idea came about because of all the training English longbowmen were expected to do, but (a) English longbowmen were notably good archers, so their training regime isn't necessarily representative of what was common or necessary for battleworthiness, and (b) a lot of their training would have been to retain skills they already had, rather than gain new skills.)
  17. Petike Sky Pirate Extraordinaire

    Jun 25, 2008
    Clockpunk Zemplín Kingdom / Franz Josef's Land
    Sorry about the late replies. I've had a busy week.

    Thank you. :) I know about that article, but I didn't get too deeply into reading up on antler and horn usage before. Seems some cultures might have had rudimentary composite bows after all ! Though ones usually combined with the sinew strips technique.

    It's a pity that article doesn't source its info on composite bows better. I'd be really interested to learn which cultures developed and used composite bows on a more regular basis, and whether it was already a pre-Columbian development or just post-contact.

    Also, look what I've found:

    Perhaps not as advanced as Asian composite bows, but the natives ones we do know about were certainly functional.

    (I also love the fact that the video is basically a what if and the author admits it. :D Might be a guy with membership on this very site.)

    Speaking of alternate bow developments, here's also a follow-up vid about the Eastern Woodland cultures' longbows, and whether and how they could be influenced by English warbows and other European longbow types. Not directly about crossbow tech, but still very interesting (and related to my earlier thoughts on what role crossbows could play alongside bows in Woodland cultures' warfare).

    Given the physical properties of bronze, it isn't very good for the metallic parts of a crossbow. A bronze bow would deform quickly. As for other, minor parts of the crossbow that could be cast in bronze... I suppose there would be a precedent in the Greek gastraphetes, the construction of which included some minor bronze parts. Emphasis on minor, they took up only a small amount of the whole mechanism. I'm not sure New World cultures, much less accustomed to manufacturing bronze objects and parts than ancient Greeks and other Mediterranean cultures, would bother to waste something as comparatively expensive as bronze for crossbows.

    Though the Incas knew bronze and seem to be the only major users of it in the New World, it wasn't like they were making most of their weapons from bronze. The military grade weapons we have preserved from various Inca finds show a predominance of Neolithic or Chalcolithic weaponry. Even those examples of famous Incan maces that were made of metal tended to be made from copper, rather than bronze.

    If the Incas invented or received the hunting crossbow idea, and if they improved upon it in some ways, including more complex mechanisms in the vein of the (rather rare) Greek gastraphetes, then maybe some Incan nobility or royalty could have a few status symbol hunting crossbows, mostly made from wood, with minor bronze parts. (I mention the gastraphetes because we know it did use bronze parts.) But that's a lot of if-s ! The end result isn't the glorious Amerindian Bronze Age super-crossbow one would love to see in a native tech-wank. Bronze just has too many limitations to be useful in crossbows, I'm afraid.

    As me and others have detailed above, the true improvements lie in the improvement of the bows for these things. First, improved and more widespread composites. Second, if possible, developing steel metallurgy and steel bows (a far greater hurdle to achieve without loads of other previous PODs). After the bow improvements, mucking around with trigger improvements would be the other obvious step. Unfortunately, while antler crossbow nuts are very much OTL and wouldn't be an issue to manufacture, the vast majority of the more complex trigger systems from OTL require steel metallurgy. And that's where development hits a snag again.

    Any Amerindian cultures developing iron and steel would become rather different, to potentially unrecognisable from an OTL point of view, but at least the iron and steel know-how could afford them steel weapons and tools. Not just crossbows, but of course, also metal knives, proper swords, metal club and mace heads, metal spearheads and arrowheads, axeheads and polearm implements, and I could go on.

    Well, in one of the earlier posts, I actually mention that learning to shoot a bow taking very long is a bit of a myth. The point of the long learning curve isn't that you can't learn the basic moves and technique of shooting a bow. That can be learned easily. Days of basic practice for basic capability, weeks and months to get that basic capability ingrained.

    However, to get really good, especially in military archery, that takes months and years of practice. Coupled with the specifically English policy of regular archer training, to someone unaccustomed to bows, it might seem that even learning archery takes long. It's not about the basic learning, not about the basic capability, it's about becoming highly professional and proficient with a bow. I know from my own experience that it takes time until you get good enough to hit a target at a slightly longer distance.

    16th century firearms being what they were, it is no surprise these firearms still coexisted with a lot of archery. The full firearms takeover wouldn't begin until the 17th century.
    Last edited: Aug 9, 2018
  18. Petike Sky Pirate Extraordinaire

    Jun 25, 2008
    Clockpunk Zemplín Kingdom / Franz Josef's Land
    Any other ideas concerning this WI ?