The Medieval Weapon With Staying Power

It turns out that crossbows still have a host of unique, even life-saving, tactical capabilities that keep them in the modern rotation

Back in July, the police force of Chengdu, China released a series of posters calling for young people to apply for positions from traffic cop to SWAT team member. The posters sparked a frenzy of amused-to-concerned coverage online, because rather than going for the uninspired smiling face and trite slogan, the Chengdu police opted for sleek, studio-quality action-movie posters—like a less hokey, grittier reboot of your average overproduced U.S. Marines ad.

But a few commentators did a spit-take when they noticed that the model police were not only striking dashing poses, some were also toting crossbows. Perceived as a brutal weapon pulled from the medieval era, or at best backwoods hunting or The Walking Dead, the photos inspired some confusion and hand-wringing as to whether this was just a cultural photo-op or a sign of some tactical cruelty among local Chinese cops. In truth, it was neither. Although they seem brutal and anachronistic, crossbows still have life-saving value—so much so that it’s not just the Chinese who use them in active duty, but a whole slew of nations including, from time to time, the U.S. Military.

Crossbow firing mechanism from China's Warring States Period. Photo by Gary Lee Todd

Still, it’s easy to see where the idea that this might have been a bit of cultural image-smithing could come in. The crossbow was, after all, first developed in China at least as early as 400 B.C. and probably played a role in the unification of the nation under Qin Shi Huang. The mechanized force of the crossbow, though slower to load and fire for a skilled archer than a plain bow, gained it a foothold as a devastating weapon in medieval Europe. But that’s where, many assumed, the world left crossbows, as gunpowder largely made them obsolete. Given the association between “medieval” and force—undue and cruel—seeing such a medieval weapon on the modern battlefield seemed odd and troubling to many.

Yet it turns out that crossbows still have a host of unique, even life-saving, tactical capabilities that keep them in the modern rotation. At range, crossbows firing metal bolts have enough force to punch through a brick wall, making mincemeat of armored assailants. And they do so as or more silently than a stealth rifle, but with none of the recoil or muzzle flash. Given their low probability of impact detonation, they’ve become a preferred weapon for neutralizing not just armed, but explosive-laden aggressors (like suicide bombers) without endangering the surrounding environs. It’s in tactical situations like this that we’ve actually seen crossbows employed in 2008 during Chinese training drills in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and in practice in Xinjiang in 2009. It’s also why, last year, China sought (in what seemed like a strange move out of context) to track down and interrogate all illegal crossbow owners in the nation.

Leonardo da Vinci's design for a gigantic crossbow

Militaries around the world, including those in Brazil, Greece, India, Serbia, and Turkey, have all recognized the utility of these lightweight, accurate, and collapsible weapons in the modern era. In Peru and the United States, units have also figured out how to use the devices to launch zip-line bases and fire grappling hooks.

None of this is to say that it’s great to see China using crossbows. All weapons, as devices made to kill or maim, are of suspect value in the grand moral scheme of things. But given their tactical advantages in stealth, bomber disarmament, and terrain management, crossbows may just have the power to do some limited good or at least mitigate some of the damage that other weapons would do. At the very least, they’re not some cruel and unusual throwback to a bygone era.


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