It’s a simple thing, but also a tedious, and gory sort of thing. Here’s four essential facts about this simple, but often misunderstood, weapon.
1 – They’re Easy
Firing a good ol’ bow and arrow is pretty tough. You have to master knocking the arrow on the inside (which doesn’t feel natural at first), learn how far to pull back the string, and then spend the rest of your life perfecting the art of making the arrow arc just right so it hits the target.
The crossbow, by comparison, is child’s play. The extra power sends the bolt in more of a straight line, so you just point the crossbow and pull the trigger. (Rifles wouldn’t achieve this accuracy until the 19th century.) You could mount crossbows on a castle wall and tell just about anyone to sit there to fire at an oncoming horde of invaders. Easy.
2 – But They’re Also Really Hard
Stories rarely show the hard part of using a crossbow. All that power comes from a string that’s pulled back with more tension that most people can manage, so crossbows usually require a crank or some other tool to use between shots.
Also, you’ve got to place the bolt just right, and it can tumble off if you aren’t holding the crossbow correctly.
3 – They’re Powerful
Where an arrow would bounce off of a suit of armor, a crossbow bolt might punch right through it. And if didn’t do that it could still knock you from the saddle. When no armor is involved the bolt can even pass through a few people before stopping. Sometime you might read a book where a character shrugs off a crossbow attack, and now you know why that’s silly.
4 – They’re Slow
Because of the loading issues and the tools needed to pull back the string, it takes a while to reload and fire a crossbow. A trained archer could let out countless arrows in that time, which meant that the man with the crossbow really wanted to hit his target on the first try, or have some really good cover.
A fascinating and more in-depth account of how crossbows were problematic in the field can be read here. I was going to quote from that post, but it’s too good not to read the whole thing.
BONUS – Yes, they can be automatic
Many cultures pioneered a self-reloading crossbow. For the most part, these turned out to be expensive and impractical, but a raiding party certainly thought twice about approaching a keep if they knew a mounted crossbow inside could spit a dozen bolts at them.
Oddly enough, even though these were very real, seeing a self-loading crossbow in a historical or fantasy novel would probably feel far-fetched.