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Site Index > Ordnance > Artillery > Mechanical Artillery

Mechanical Artillery

Artillery means any device for launching a projectile. In modern times, it does not usually refer to smaller weapons such as pistols and rifles. Small arms are usually called firearms, side arms or infantry arms. Strictly speaking, the word gun does not refer to small firearms either, but to artillery pieces like cannon. Nevertheless, the distinction between small arms and artillery is fairly vague and in common usage the term gun is frequently used to describe firearms. Artillery also includes such items as bows, crossbows, slings, and slingshots. Also included in artillery are items like ballistae, catapults and trebuchets, called mechanical artillery or siege engines, not to be confused with mechanized artillery.

Development

Far back into antiquity, the development of weapons progressed very slowly. Most early arms were handheld weapons and it is believed that they were developed for hunting as well as fighting. Perhaps the first significant weapon thought to have been made specifically for military use was the mace. The earliest maces were simply rocks and they eventually were made with a grip for holding. Later, maces appeared that had handles. Maces were used to smash bone and flesh. Maces continued to be used for a long period of time and they were made of metal when it became available. Medieval maces frequently had a chain connecting the mace head to the handle and spikes on the ball head. Maces were probably at their height of development during the medieval period and their use diminished after that time. They nearly disappeared as military arms by the 1700s and there are no known military uses of them today.

Invention of Mechanical Artillery

It is believed that mechanical artillery was invented in 399 BC by Dionysius the Elder, tyrant of Syracuse in Sicily while preparing for war with Carthage. Mechanical artillery was widely used in the ancient world and the Romans probably had the greatest variety of mechanical artillery weapons. With few exceptions, Roman mechanical artillery is noted for being the best of all time. Several types of mechanical artillery used by the Romans such as ballistae fell into disuse after the demise of the Roman Empire.

Use of Mechanical Artillery

The use mechanical artillery in general waned after the decline of the Roman Empire. It became important once again in medieval Europe where new styles of fortifications such as castles and the resulting change to siege warfare revived its use. Evidence that mechanical artillery was brought forward from the Classical period into the medieval period is lacking. It is known that the Romans used artillery to support their conquests in Europe so it is possible that Europeans noted the idea at that time. In general, Classical period siege engines were far superior to their medieval counterparts.

Ammunition for Mechanical Artillery

Ammunition for mechanical artillery consisted of rocks, arrows, spears, javelins, bolts, quarrels, darts and nearly anything that could be thrown by these weapons. Greek fire, a substance whose composition is no longer known was sometimes launched from these weapons in breakable containers. Spherical rocks were prized for their accuracy. The ammunition for crossbows is called bolts or quarrels and is similar to arrows, but shorter and usually heavier gauge. Mechanical artillery was used for the first known instance of biological warfare. Corpses and filth could be flung from mechanical artillery and the Black Plague epidemic that swept through medieval Europe is thought to have been the result of this practice.

Mechanical Artillery Devices

Crossbow

One of the most significant developments in military weapons technology was the crossbow. The Chinese made them in great numbers and by the 2nd century BC were using mass production techniques to make them. Evidence shows that crossbows existed in Greece and Rome where they evolved into the earliest artillery pieces. One type of Roman ballistae was essentially a large crossbow. European crossbows became common by the medieval period.

In the medieval period, crossbows improved to the point that the actual bow part of the weapon had to be made stronger and stronger. The first step in improving the strength of the bow was to use composite bows made of wood, horn and sinew. These improvements can be found in weapons dating from the 11th century AD. Later, bows were made in one of the earliest uses of steel, and "crossbow steel" was a term used to designate steel of the highest quality. Steel crossbow members are known from about the 13th century.

Medieval crossbows were made more and more powerful to pierce increasingly thicker armor and they eventually featured mechanical cocking mechanisms. By the 14th century, large crossbows that had draw forces of over 1000 pounds, or 454 kilos, were common. As the draw strength became greater, the cocking mechanisms also became more sophisticated and removable rack-and-pinion drawing mechanisms called cranequins were developed. Cranequins were made with mass production techniques that were apparently forgotten for a few hundred years after this period. Some large crossbows were specifically intended for use in siege operations.

Ballistae

Ballistae occurred in various sizes and in some cases could launch large ammunition like catapults and trebuchets, while smaller examples launched ammunition like arrows. Some launched multiple pieces of ammunition at one time. There were several different configurations of ballista mechanisms. In one type of ballista, the mechanism functioned similar to that of the crossbow where a bowstring propelled the projectile. In another type of ballista, green wood was used to create the spring force.

In the bowstring type of ballista there were several variations of the method used to create the initial force of the mechanism. The complex mechanism favored by the Romans worked by means of creating torsion upon two lengths of rope by twisting them and they transferred that force to two arms to which the projectile driving cord was attached. Roman ballistae were normally mounted on wheels, probably an important feature to increase the range as well as improving the mobility of these engines of war.

The ballista had much better accuracy than the catapult, but its range was shorter. Some ballistae of the Roman era could launch a stone of about 27-kilograms, or 60 pounds avoirdupois, and had a range of about 460 meters or 500 yards.

It is known that Julius Caesar supported the landing of Roman troops in Britain in 57 BC with fire from ballistae and catapults.

Catapult

The word catapult is sometimes applied to several different types of mechanical artillery, but when used here it will be in the narrow sense of the word specifically referring to catapults that have a single arm rotating in a vertical plane. Other types of siege engines that are sometimes referred to by the word catapult are classed under their more specific names, such as ballistae. The words ballistae and catapult, from the Latin catapulta, appear to have exchanged meanings since ancient times. Other types of catapults can be found today that launch missiles or aircraft, especially on aircraft carriers.

Early in antiquity, armies used catapults to assault adversaries as well as for defense in conflicts. It is known that they were used extensively by the Romans. Roman armies used several types of mechanical artillery and called their catapult the onager, after the wild ass, because of the way it bucked from recoil when fired. The catapult was also used in medieval times, but the medieval catapult was inferior to the Roman version.

Catapults exploited the properties of elastic materials such as animal sinew, green wood or twisted fibers to propel a projectile. They had much greater range and could launch larger projectiles than hand weapons. It is interesting to note that catapults were still used as late as World War I. During World War I, troops in the trenches fashioned catapults by hand and used them to launch grenades and poison gas canisters behind enemy lines. This appears to be the last military use of mechanical artillery. It seems that the only remaining use of mechanical artillery catapults is for hobby and recreation. Today, aircraft carriers have steam catapults to launch aircraft, but these are really quite different from artillery.

Trebuchet

Another artillery piece that was similar to the catapult in mechanical function but appeared much later was the trebuchet. The first known trebuchets appeared in medieval Europe in the 12th century. The trebuchet is probably the engineering marvel of entire medieval period. Trebuchets were the only known exception to the rule that ancient artillery was technically superior to medieval artillery. The trebuchet was not only the engineering marvel of medieval Europe, but also, it probably hastened the end of the medieval period. It did this by simply ending the usefulness of medieval fortifications, or castles.

The primary difference between the catapult and the trebuchet was that the catapult used elasticity as its power source while the trebuchet used a counterweight for power. This was an advantage in earlier times when elastic materials were difficult to obtain. Another enormous advantage of trebuchets over catapults is that trebuchets did not have a stop position to the mechanism and this greatly reduced wear and tear on the machine. Counterpoise siege engines largely replaced the catapult by the middle of the 13th century.

Although nearly anything could be thrown by a trebuchet, the preferred ammunition was spherical stone shot that could be as large as 300-pounds, or 135-kilograms, according to modern estimates. The counterweight of a large trebuchet could be as much as 10 tons, or 9100 kilos, and the throwing end of the arm could be 50 feet, or 15 meters long. Some trebuchets had a hollowed out cavity to hold the ammunition while others used a sling. Slings increased the range substantially and it is believed that they had a range of at least 300 yards, or 275 meters. Another feature that increased the range of the trebuchet was the addition of wheels. It is believed that the trebuchet was remarkably accurate and it could do serious damage to fortifications of the period. Many of the medieval castle ruins attained that state because of the trebuchet. Small trebuchets were used to clear archers and crossbowmen from defensive positions.

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