The Sling in Medieval Europe
Reprinted with permission from Chris Harrison and the editor of the Bulletin of Primitive Technology.
The simple sling is often neglected when reviewing the long history of ranged warfare. Scholars typically focus on the simple thrown spear (javelin), atlatl, throwing axe, bow, and crossbow. However, in experienced hands, the sling was arguably the most effective personal projectile weapon until the 15th century, surpassing the accuracy and deadliness of the bow and even of early firearms.
Ranged weapons have played an important role in organized warfare since its inception. Some of the earliest uses of military formations are depicted in Neolithic cave paintings, where archers are seen in a line (Ferrill, 1985). This strategic grouping meant the collective firepower of the unit was greater than the sum of its individual parts (Ferrill, 1985). Because Neolithic clans were small, perhaps a few hundred people at most, the use of formations in infantry combat occurred considerably later. It was not until the dawn of civilization, when surplus food and goods could support armies, that infantry numbers grew large enough to merit the use of shield walls, columns, and other formations.
As armies grew in size and complexity, units became increasingly specialized, fulfilling a particular need on the battlefield. Ranged units were responsible for sending showers of missiles into enemy ranks to thin the line and break up the opposing shield wall. This barrage caused confusion and demoralized the enemy. Soldiers then took advantage of any openings or weaknesses in the shield wall, punching through, and potentially splitting the opposing force, allowing the enemy to be flanked or encircled. (Hawkins, 1847; Korfmann, 1973; Ferrill, 1985; Grunfeld, 1996; Underwood, 1999; Nicholson, 2004) Ranged units were sometimes positioned on the flanks, so enemy advances were met with a brisk hail of missile attacks. This helped break up the advancing force into a disorganized charge, that the solid line of defenders could more readily defeat. (DeVries, 1956) Ranged units were also used for a variety of secondary roles, such as cutting off supply trains and covering retreats (Ferrill, 1985; Grunfeld, 1996).
Warfare in medieval Europe was not that dissimilar from conflicts of antiquity; the use of infantry, cavalry, ranged troops, and other peripheral units persisted. Armor and tactics also remained similar until the widespread adoption of cannons and firearms in the 16th century. The medieval period is of interest because this traditional style of warfare reached its pinnacle of development. Over the course of this martial evolution, new technologies and military tactics began to relegate the role of the slinger to that of an auxiliary soldier and ultimately removed it from the battlefield of medieval Europe. Imperialism eventually spread these innovations to the rest of the world, sealing the sling’s fate.
In order to understand the sling’s eventual demise, it is important to consider the weapon’s contemporary counterparts.
The spear was a versatile weapon, intended to be thrown or used in a thrusting manner. Its simple design made it inexpensive and easy to produce, and little training was needed to become proficient. It was likely to have been the first projectile weapon, and is still used today in many parts of the world. The Roman version, called a pilum, remained the standard infantry weapon for more than a thousand years, testifying to its effectiveness (DeVries, 1956). However, because it is thrown by hand, its range is limited. Although the maximum range is around 45m, its effective range is considerably less, perhaps 15m (Ferrill, 1985; Underwood, 1999). This meant that forces had to engage at close range. The development of the atlatl, or spear thrower, and other, more advanced ranged weapons, was likely a direct result of this limitation.
The throwing axe, like the spear, is thrown by hand and has similar limitations. The effective range is around 12m, allowing the weapon to be used only just before hand-to-hand combat commenced (Underwood, 1999).
The bow, developed around ten thousand years ago, was a major advance in ranged warfare (Ferrill, 1985). Early bows were capable of achieving ranges approaching 100m, although the effective range would have been less (Ferrill, 1985; Underwood, 1999). Later bows incorporated two notable technological advances. The development of the composite bow in the second millennium B.C. was perhaps the most significant innovation. Scholars differ on the weapon’s effective range, with estimates between 100 and 275m (Wise, 1976; Ferrill, 1985; Underwood, 1999). The second innovation, the longbow, is often attributed to the Welsh, but archeological evidence shows it was already in use in other parts of Europe, mainly in the north, as early as the Dark Ages (DeVries, 1956; Underwood, 1999; Bradbury, 2004). The weapon gained renown during the Hundred Years’ War, where English forces scored a series of decisive victories (DeVries, 1956; Martin, 1968). There is debate about the longbow’s capability in warfare, with a maximum ranges of 275m - 400m, with an effective range of about 200m. An experienced archer could fire ten to twelve un-aimed arrows a minute. (DeVries, 1956; Wise, 1976)
The bow had several disadvantages when compared to the sling, the foremost being its complexity. The composite bow was made from layers of wood or horn, carefully glued together, to make a pliable but strong material (Ferrill, 1985). The bend in a longbow stave required the bowyer to select a piece of wood such that the back of the bow was sapwood while the belly was heartwood (Underwood, 1999; Bradbury, 2004). The elastic sapwood and hard heartwood acted as a natural composite. These two bow varieties required skilled craftsmanship and time to produce (Snodgrass, 1967). Armies that equipped their soldiers with bows did so at considerable expense.
Although a vast improvement over spears and throwing axes, the bow still had a limited effective range. Arrows, with their flight vanes (feathers), experienced considerable air resistance during flight. At a range of 50m, an arrow’s penetration power was 75% of that at 10m. Although estimates vary, some scholars argue that at 120m, arrows would be mostly ineffective, especially against armored troops (Underwood, 1999). However, others note the longbow was effective up to 200m, and sometimes capable of piecing mail armor at this range (DeVries 1956; Wise, 1976).
The crossbow started to become commonplace in European forces during the early 13th century (DeVries, 1956; Martin, 1968). The weapon originated in China sometime during the 5th century and diffused westward to the Roman Empire, appearing most frequently in a larger form known as the ballista (Bradbury, 2004; Nicholson, 2004). The crossbow underwent several developments, borrowing advances from the bow, as the high medieval period began. At first, the bow stave was made from wood, which allowed the weapon to be cocked by hand (Bradbury, 2004). However, a more powerful, composite material started to replace wood by the 13th century (DeVries, 1956; Wise, 1976; Bradbury, 2004). The additional stave strength also meant the weapon required enormous strength to arm. The problem worsened when composite staves were replaced by steel versions in the early 15th century (Wise, 1976; Bradbury, 2004). As a result, crossbows now required mechanical components to aid in cocking the bowstring. Even the simplest of these devices required significant time to operate (DeVries, 1956; Wise, 1976; Bradbury, 2004).
The complexity of the later cocking mechanisms meant manufacturing costs were high (Wise, 1976). However, the biggest drawback was the slow reloading time; sometimes less than two bolts a minute could be fired, depending on the version (Devries, 1956; Wise, 1976). However, the sluggishness, when compared to the bow, was seen as an acceptable tradeoff for the power gained (DeVries, 1956; Nicholson, 2004). Crossbows, especially when firing special armor- piercing rounds, could easily penetrate mail and lamellar armor at ranges of 100m, and even plate armor with a lucky shot (DeVries, 1956; Wise, 1976; Nicholson, 2004). Their maximum range approached an impressive 350-500m (DeVries, 1956; Wise, 1976; Bradbury, 2004). Accuracy was superior to that of the bow because the solider could cock the weapon, and then use the stock to aim with no physical exertion (DeVries, 1956). The speed of the bolt meant the soldier had to worry less about gravity, allowing most shots to be fired directly at the target.
Gunpowder, developed by the Chinese in the 8th or 9th century, began to be used for military applications in the early 1400s. Manuscripts recovered in Ghent, Belgium indicate that primitive forms of ordnance were being used as early as 1313. By the 1320s, simple cannons were used in both sieges and city defense (Wise, 1976; Bradbury, 2004; Nicholson, 2004). At first, cannons were cast with extraordinarily thick walls to withstand the explosive forces in the chamber (Wise, 1976). This made the cannons heavy and unwieldy. By the 1370s, advances in gunpowder, metallurgy, engineering and logistics meant cannons were favored over than the best of the old siege engines, such as the trebuchet (Nicholson, 2004). By the late 1500s, cannons could reach ranges of 320 - 450m, and fire about four rounds an hour. However, it is important to note that the payload was sometimes one hundred kilograms or more. (Wise, 1976)
Handguns first appeared in the mid 1300s, but were little more than miniature cannons (Wise, 1976). The weight and recoil meant the weapon had to be braced on the ground and aimed in a high trajectory. The loading time was considerable and the accuracy poor (Wise 1976). However, continued development soon produced less cumbersome versions, including the venerable musket. By the 15th century, the handgun was an established weapon and wreaking havoc on medieval battlefields (DeVries 1956; Wise, 1976; Carman, 1999; Bradbury, 2004). Maximum range of 15th century firearms was around 400m, with an effective range of about 200m. The weapon was exceedingly slow to reload at first; a good gunner could load and fire about eight rounds an hour.1 These early handguns had the penetration power equal to that of the longbow, but were essentially useless at ranges of more than 50m, due to their poor accuracy. However, in close- range volleys, the weapon was formidable (Wise, 1976; Nicholson, 2004). By the close of the medieval period, the handgun had become the supreme ranged weapon, as it easily penetrated the once invulnerable plate armor of the High Middle Ages.
1] For reference, muskets in the 1800s took about 20 seconds to reload. (Ferrill, 1985)
The sling was one of the first projectile weapons, developed as early as 10,000 B.C. (Korfmann, 1973; Ferrill, 1985; Grunfeld, 1996). Slingers played an important part in the Persian, Greek, Roman, and various Mesopotamian armies, and were considered to be equal to or better than bowmen (Hawkins, 1847; Korfmann, 1973). Although used most extensively in Europe and the Near East, evidence of its usage can be found throughout the world, with the notable exception of Australia (Korfmann, 1973). There are several Pacific Island, Andean, and Mediterranean cultures which maintain strong slinging traditions to this day through contests and historical recreations.
The weapon was inexpensive and easy to make. Sinew, plant fibers, animal hide, hair, and many other materials could be used for the cords and pouch. Unlike a bow, which required specialist skill to produce, a sling could be made by anyone. The sling of the late Paleolithic is basically identical to the modern sling because the design is so simple. The major focus of innovation was the sling’s payload. Stones from riverbeds were popular as their polished, smooth exterior caused less air resistance than angular rocks, which improved accuracy and range. However, no matter how selectively these were collected, the shape of natural stones varied. This meant the slinger had to compensate for changing projectile weights, reducing overall accuracy. Near Eastern armies began supplying their slingers with uniform projectiles, made from baked-clay or carved stone, by the end of the 7th millennium B.C.. At first, these were spherical, but by 3000 B.C., biconical or ovoid projectiles were discovered to be superior. The latter two types would orient point first and spin through the air like a bullet or American football. (Hawkins, 1847; Korfmann, 1973; Ferrill, 1985; Carman, 1999) This improvement increased range dramatically, much as barrel rifling did for firearms. The point first orientation also increased penetration ability. By Hellenistic times, projectiles were being cast in lead, increasing the density more than eight times (Walker, 2004). Since the projectile was roughly the same size, air resistance remained the same. However the increased mass meant it suffered less from the effects of drag. These lead projectiles were also far cheaper than arrows or bolts, making slings cost effective (Wise, 1976). A good slinger could fire more than twelve rounds a minute.
Arrows (and crossbow bolts) have great penetration potential because the entire mass of the projectile is concentrated in a thin cylinder directly behind a sharp point, which has a small impact area of about 0.08cm. In contrast, early sling projectiles were roughly spherical, with no defined tip. The impact area was much larger, about 1.9cm, severely reducing the projectile’s ability to penetrate flesh or armor. (Gabriel, 1991) These projectiles typically weighed about the same as arrows, so the sling had no advantage in payload mass (Korfmann, 1973; Gabriel, 1991; Richardson, 1998a; Skobelev, 2000). However, it should be noted that projectiles as large as a fist, perhaps half a kilogram or more in mass were sometimes used in slings (Hawkins, 1847; Korfmann, 1973; Wise, 1976; Ferrill, 1985; Xenophon, Anabasis, 3.3.16).
Even with simple ammunition, the sling was surprisingly effective. Slingers could achieve faster “muzzle” velocities than archers, and their projectiles suffered less air resistance during flight than arrows, conserving more kinetic energy until impact. An experienced slinger could throw projectiles at speeds over 90m/s, while the longbow could fire arrows upwards of 60m/s (Gabriel, 1991; Richardson, 1998a). When projectile masses were equal, the 50% speed advantage of the sling equates to a 125% increase in kinetic energy (because the velocity value is squared). Despite this, the penetration of an arrow was still greater because the tip is roughly 24 times smaller than the side of a typical, spherical sling projectile. The impact force of a sling projectile was applied to a larger area during contact, making it unlikely to penetrate flesh, though the collision could cause internal bleeding and even crush bones (Ferrill, 1985; Grunfeld, 1996). Historical demonstrations of this power have crept into literature, providing unique, first-hand accounts of professional slingers in action. For example, during the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire in the 15th century, an observer recorded that an Andean slinger could shatter Spanish swords or kill a horse in a single hit (Kormann, 1973; Wise, 1980). Vegetius, a Roman writer in the late 4th century, observed in his famous Epitoma Rei Militaris:
A quote from Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian from the 1st century A.D. is also revealing:
The more modern, biconical lead projectiles would impact point first, like an arrow, reducing their impact area to around 0.3cm. Although still larger than the tip of an arrow, this was a significant improvement over the previous spherical design. Penetration ability was increased tremendously, allowing sling projectiles to penetrate flesh more readily. (Grunfeld, 1996)
Contemporary figures confirm this, including Celsus, a Roman medical writer from the 1st century B.C.. He describes in his De Medicina that:
Reports of estimated range of the sling varies in recent literature. This may stem from the inability of historians to find individuals who can properly demonstrate the sling. The bow, crossbow and firearm, if operated correctly, will produce the same effect the weapon had hundreds of years ago. However, the sling requires tremendous skill, and only people who have had extensive training can claim to match the ability of ancient slingers. Existing literature quotes ranges as little as 150m to as much as 500m (Demmin, 1964; Hogg, 1968; Korfmann, 1973; Wise, 1976; Connolly, 1981; Ferrill, 1985; Richardson, 1998b). Larry Bray set the Guinness World Record for a stone cast with a sling in 1981, achieving an impressive range of 437m (Norris, 1985). In retrospect, Mr. Bray believes he could have surpassed 600m mark with a better sling and lead projectiles (Bray, Personal Communication, March 21st, 2004). Presumably, professional slingers of antiquity who trained from childhood and relied on the weapon in battle could achieve even greater distances, perhaps approaching 700m.
The accuracy of slingers was also remarkable. In Livy’s History of Rome, which was completed in 9 A.D., he states,
Strabo, a Roman historian born in 64 B.C. commented on the famed Balearic slingers:
Vegetius, Florus, and other classical writers confirm this Balearic tradition and their remarkable proficiency. The Bible also mentions another legendary group, the Benjamites, noting, “every one could sling stones at an hair breadth, and not miss.” (Judges 20.16)
The handgun is considered the greatest ranged weapon to have emerged during medieval times. However, the weapon did not eclipse the sling immediately. Handgun accuracy remained poor until the introduction of barrel rifling in the 1800s. This allowed the sling to continue to be used by some cultures effectively against firearm-equipped troops almost until modern times. One writer noted that the power of the sling in the hands of an Aztec warrior was “only slightly less than that [of a Spanish firearm]” (Korfmann, 1973). A scholar writing about the Tanala tribe of Madagascar explained “at 50 yards slings are as dangerous as firearms in native hands.” Also, an observer on a French archeological expedition in the 1900s recorded the details of a conflict with natives in Iran, noting that they had “poor-quality muskets, pistols, lances, and far more dangerous slings.” (Lindblom, 1940)
The sling was not limited to firing stones and man-made clay or lead projectiles. Indeed, anything that could be thrown by hand could be cast with a sling to much greater ranges. The sling would have been popular for early grenades.2 For example, bottles of quicklime were used in an early form of chemical warfare, as they created a cloud of choking and blinding dust upon impact. Pots with combustible liquids, like the infamous Greek Fire, were likely exchanged in naval and siege warfare with slings.3 (Wise, 1976) Another variety of sling, called a kestrosphendone, could fire arrows (Hawkins, 1847; Richardson, 1998b).
2] The staff-sling, which was little more than a sling on a pole, became an increasingly popular grenade launcher in medieval times. However, before the staff-sling, the traditional sling would have fulfilled this role equally well. The staff-sling’s simpler operation meant it was the favored weapon by medieval armies. It continued to be used well into the 17th century (Korfmann, 1973).
3] It seems the sling continued to be used in a naval role far longer than in land combat. Some suggest that the salty spray at sea made bows troublesome, as their strings would fail. The sling did not suffer from this problem (Hawkins, 1847; DeVries, 1956; Wise, 1976; Ferrill, 1985). There is also some debate about whether the sling’s gyroscopic properties gave it an edge in accuracy on the pitching deck of a ship.
The sling’s unique combination of power, range, accuracy and versatility made it an exceptional weapon. So why is it that other weapons, inferior in many respects, would supercede it in popularity within a relatively short period? A number of factors are likely culprits, including changes in military and social organization, an evolving style of warfare, and advances in armor.
In antiquity, armies would recruit soldiers from particular regions which offered unique skills. Soldiers from Rhodes, the Balearic Islands, and several other areas were proficient in the sling from extensive childhood training. These were assimilated into the military and frequently kept together as slinging units. However, increased cultural diffusion and urbanization in the Middle Ages meant local cultural traditions, such as slinging, were weakened. Instead, European culture was homogenizing. By Medieval times, there were few pockets of experienced slingers left, certainly not enough to be organized successfully. This is probably the primary reason why the sling rarely appeared on the medieval battlefield: the lack of skillful slingers.
When looking at the evolution of ranged weapons, there is a trend towards increasingly simple operation. The sling requires enormous skill, one that can generally only be obtained with training from childhood (Hawkins, 1847; Korfmann, 1973; Wise, 1976; Ferrill, 1985). Without this mastery, a person armed with the weapon would be practically useless. The sling is exceptionally difficult to aim because it is being rotated when fired. It is common for people to fire projectiles backwards when they are first learning, meaning a high degree of proficiency is needed before they can be safely placed in a battlefield situation. On the other hand, the bow could be taught at any point in life, and be deadly with minimal experience. The bow does not suffer from the sling’s accuracy problems because of its ability to be drawn and then aimed. However, archers did have to be strong, which increased the required training time (Wise, 1976). The development of the crossbow with a mechanical device to cock the weapon enabled anyone to use it and have the ability to kill even an armored soldier at distance. The crossbow was the first true ‘point-and-shoot’ weapon, as it could be cocked and then easily aimed using the large stock. Although much slower to reload than bows, it was seen as an acceptable tradeoff for the ease-of-use gained. The shift to firearms was similar. They were even slower than the already sluggish crossbow, at least at first. However, the operation was simple and there was no physical strength needed to load the weapon. Also, its ‘point-and-shoot’ nature made someone with almost no experience immediately useful on the battlefield, and very deadly. This evolution occurred primarily because of changes in military and governmental organization. In feudal times, lords could recruit their serf population as soldiers (Wise, 1976). Many of these men were already proficient with the bow or sling, which were used for hunting game. However, by the High Middle Ages, nations and cities had developed large standing armies, which were recruited, sustained, and equipped by the government (Martin, 1968). An increasing number of these recruits were from urban populations which had far less exposure to ranged weapons. These units had to be trained from scratch and there was a high turnover. This led to the increased use of weapons that were deadlier with less training. The sling was perhaps the least effective choice of ranged weapon in this role.
The style of warfare in medieval times changed as well. There was a progressively better military organization and leadership structure, causing the direction and deployment of troops to be much tighter and more integrated. Compact groups of homogenous units became increasingly prevalent during the medieval period (Ferrill, 1985). Because of the rotational action required to cast a projectile, the sling required considerable space to operate effectively. Armies of antiquity, like the Greeks, used slingers as highly mobile and loosely structured skirmishers. It would have been troublesome to pack multiple rows of slingers into a typical medieval assemblage, where each soldier would fire over the row in front of them. Even a slight misfire, launched in front but too low, could cause friendly casualties. Archers could simply point upwards, over their fellow soldiers’ heads, and could be formed into relatively dense formations. Soldiers equipped with crossbows or firearms could also be closely grouped.
Ranged attacks work especially well in volleys, as the concentrated firepower is likely to wound more people simultaneously, causing confusion and fear, and making it harder to regroup. A group of archers could draw their bows and fire simultaneously. Crossbows and firearms could do this even better. The sling was much harder to coordinate as the arming, aiming, and firing of the weapon was a single motion. People with different length arms and casting styles would fire at different moments, even if starting at the same time.
More cohesive and robust economies in later medieval times lead to a surge in castle and fortification building. This meant that armies were increasingly placed in siege situations instead of face-to-face on a battlefield. The sling was an important siege weapon in antiquity. Its high rate of fire, accuracy, arching trajectory, and versatile payload made it extremely effective. (Wise, 1974; Ferrill, 1985; Grunfeld, 1996; Bradbury, 2004) However, as the style of siege warfare matured, so did the architecture of the fortifications. Bombardment by slings became less and less effective because units were garrisoned in fortified positions. The premier armaments in these battles were heavy weapons, like trebuchets and cannons, which were able to pulverize defenses so infantry could attack. Also, newer fortifications sported special slits for ranged units (bows, crossbows, firearms), allowing them to fire from protected sniping positions (DeVries, 1956). Soldiers could draw or cock their weapon in safety, and poke the tip out of the opening. Even an experienced slinger would have great trouble firing through a thin slit or hole in a cramped chamber, let alone hit an enemy. Firing from the castle ramparts would be an equally dangerous affair for a slinger. A crossbowman or rifleman could fire from a crouched, leaning or prone position, exposing very little to the enemy’s ranged units. However, a slinger must stand, and have room to get a powerful and accurate shot. This made slingers considerably more vulnerable. Furthermore, castles had limited room on their ramparts, towers, and other defensive structures. It was vital to pack as many ranged defenders into this area as possible to repel the enemy. Since slingers required more room to operate than other ranged troops, they were rarely used in defense.
Advances in armor design were perhaps the sling’s biggest obstacle. In the early middle ages, it was common for infantry to carry a shield but wear little or no armor at all (DeVries, 1956; Martin, 1968; Nicholson, 2004). The sling would have been effective against these troops. However, by the High Middle Ages, advances in metallurgy and production meant more advanced armor was being used by knights and in greater quantity (Bradbury, 2004; Nicholson, 2004). These improvements trickled down to the common foot soldier. The formation of national or city militias meant that taxes could fund troop equipment, drastically raising the average level of armor in European armies (Martin, 1968). Plate armor became increasingly prevalent during the 1300s. By the 15th century, entire suits of plate mail were used by knights. (Blair, 1958; Nicholson, 2004) While a sling projectile has considerable impact energy, plate armor was often designed to deflect hits, reducing and redirecting the force. In addition, soldiers would wear gambesons and other padded clothes underneath their armor to diffuse the force of an impact. These new innovations made the sling ineffective. Although tipped projectiles were better suited at penetration, even archers and crossbowmen had difficulty with plate armor, which ultimately lead to the widespread adoption of firearms.
The sling enjoyed more than 10,000 years as humanity’s premier ranged weapon. Its remarkable simplicity meant that by Hellenistic times, it had reached its pinnacle of development; there was simply nothing left to improve in its design. However, other weapons continued to develop, which eventually surpassed the sling in effectiveness. Better armor and tactical changes further reduced its value. This transition was slow, taking place over the last two millennia. However, it was during medieval times that an experienced slinger would find, for the first time in history, that he was simply outmatched.
The legacy of this great weapon did not end in medieval times however. While nearly disappearing in Europe, the sling continued to be used in the New World and Near East well into the 1700s. Although the sling is still being used on a small scale today, it is no longer employed by any militaries. The last recorded martial use of a sling was during the Spanish Civil War in 1936.
I gratefully acknowledge all of the members of www.slinging.org’s forum for their input and continued enthusiasm for the sport. I thank Professor Paul Gans for the opportunity to pursue this research subject. I also thank Stacey Kuznetsov, Judy Feng, and Kevin Haas for their discerning eyes during reviews.
|© Chris Harrison|