Projectile Throwing Engines
Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey
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History of The Catapult - Catapult Facts

 INTRODUCTORY NOTES

trebuchet,  however  large,  as  worked  merely  by  a  counterpoise,  and  that  of  an  engine deriving its power from the elasticity of an immense coil of tightly twisted 
sinew.

It is certain that if the latter kind of engine had survived in its perfect state 
the introduction of cannon would have been considerably delayed, for the effects 
in warfare of the early cannon were for a long period decidedly inferior to those of 
the best projectile engines of the ancients.

Notwithstanding  many  difficulties,  I  have  succeeded  in  reconstructing, though  of  course  on  a  considerably  smaller  scale,  the  chief  projectile  throwing engines  of  the  ancients,  and  with  a  success  that  enables  them  to  compare 
favorably,  as  regards  their  range,  with  the  Greek  and  Roman  weapons,  they 
represent.

Still,  my  engines  are  by  no  means  perfect  in  their  mechanism,  and  are, 
besides, always liable to give way under the strain of working.

One  reason  of  this  is  that  all  modern  engines  of  the  kind  require  to  be 
worked to their utmost capacity, i.e. to the verge of their breaking point, to obtain 
from them results that at all equal those of their prototypes.

A  marked  difference  between  the  ancient  engines  and  their  modern 
imitations, however excellent the latter may be, is, that the former did their work 
easily, and well within their strength, and thus without any excessive strain which 
might cause their collapse after a short length of service.1

The oft-disputed question as to the distance to which catapults and ballistas 
shot their projectiles can be solved with approximate accuracy by comparing their 
performances as  given  by  ancient  military  writers with  the  results  obtainable 
from modern reproductions.

While treating of this matter we should carefully consider the position and 
surroundings of the engines when engaged in a siege, and especially the work for 
which they were designed.

As  an  example,  archers,  with  the  advantage  of  being  stationed  on  high 
towers  and  battlements,  would  be  well  able  to  shoot  arrows  from 270 to  280
yards.  For this reason it was necessary for the safe manipulation of the attacking 
engines that they should be placed at about 300 yards from the outer walls of any 
fortress they were assailing.

As a catapult or a ballista was required not only to cast its missile among the 
soldiers on the ramparts of a fortified place, but also to send it clear over the walls 
amid  the  houses  and  people  within  the  defenses,  it  is  evident  that  the

1 Again, though my largest catapult will throw a stone to a great distance it cannot throw one of  nearly the weight it should be able to do, considering the size of its frame, skein of cord and mechanism. In this respect it is decidedly inferior to the ancient engine.

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INTRODUCTORY NOTES

engines  must  have  had  a  range  of  from  400 to  500 yards,  or  more,  to  be  as serviceable and destructive as they undoubtedly were.

Josephus  tells  us  that  at  the  siege  of  Jerusalem,  A.D.  70 (‘Wars  of  the 
Jews,’  Book  V.  Chapter  VI.),  stones  weighing  a  talent  (57 0 lbs. avoirdupois) 
were thrown by the catapults to a distance of two or more ‘stades.’

This  statement  may be  taken  as  trustworthy,  for  Josephus  relates  what  he 
personally  witnessed  and  his  comments  are  those  of  a  commander  of  high  rank and intelligence.

Two or more ‘stades,’ or let us say 2 to 2 0 ‘stades,’ represent 400 to 450
yards.  Remarkable  and  conclusive  testimony  confirming  the  truth  of  what

A FORTIFIED TOWN BEING BOMBARDED BY A CATAPULT.

FIG. 3.--A FORTIFIED TOWN BEING BOMBARDED BY A CATAPULT.
Criticism.-The stones thrown by the besieged may be seen falling in the trenches of the besiegers.  The catapult depicted is drawn on much too small a scale.
From Polybius. Edition 1727.

we  read  in  Josephus  is  the  face  that my largest  catapult though  doubtless  much  smaller and less powerful than those referred to by the historian throws a stone ball of 8 lbs. in weight to a range of from 450 to nearly 500 yards.

It is easy to realize that the ancients, with their great and perfect engines 
fitted with skeins of sinew, could cast a far heavier stone than one of 8 lbs., and to 
a longer distance than 500 yards.

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INTRODUCTORY NOTES

Agesistratus,1 a  Greek writer  who  flourished  B.C. 200,  and  who  wrote  a 
treatise on making arms for war, estimated that some of the engines shot from 3 .
to 4 ‘stades’ (700 to 800 yards).

Though  such  a  very  long  flight  as  this  appears  almost  incredible,  I  can 
adduce no sound reason for doubting its possibility.  From recent experiments I am 
confident I could now build an engine of a size and power to accomplish such a 
feat if light missiles were used, and if its cost were not a consideration.

A SIEGE CATAPULT (WITHOUT A SLING).

FIG. 4.-A SIEGE CATAPULT (WITHOUT A SLING).
From Polybius.  Edition 1727.

1 The writings of Agesistratus are non-extant but are quoted by Atheneus.

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