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Child's hunting crossbow

  • Place of origin:

    Germany (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1600 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Wood with engraved staghorn, steel

  • Credit Line:

    Bequeathed by Mr John George Joicey

  • Museum number:

    M.223-1919

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 62, The Foyle Foundation Gallery, case 10

This small crossbow was for training a child to master one of the most common weapons of the late 16th century. Crossbows were used in war, hunting and target shooting, all activities children were expected to master by adulthood.

Crossbows generally fired small, wide arrows called bolts (or ‘quarrels’) with a range of heads designed for specific purposes. Bolts with warheads of heavy forged steel were designed to pierce armour and fell horses. Others used in hunting had fine chisel-shaped or forked heads for severing the hamstrings of large game, or blunt wooden heads for stunning small animals without damaging their skins and for knocking birds out of trees. Some crossbow bolts, common in Russia, were pierced so that they whistled through the air terrifying enemy horses and slowing their cavalry charges. Other bolts were in the form of socketed arrows whose stems were packed with incendiaries which when fired in unison rained fire down on besieged troops and castles.

Crossbow makers in many European towns were affiliated as a separate group of craftsmen, ‘the Crossbowmen.‘ By the 16th century the great craft centres such as Nuremberg and Augsburg in southern Germany were producing crossbows with elaborate carving and inlaid, engraved staghorn. The combination of steel bow, often beautifully etched with mythological or biblical designs or with hunting and war scenes and the wooden stock, equally lavishly ornamented, brought together the armourer and the furniture maker for the same productions.

Crossbow have struck fear into people for centuries. Maximilian I claimed he could slay a stag at 200 yards and that a man could be killed at more than twice the distance.

Crossbows had several advantages over early firearms especially when hunting. They were almost silent, did not require cleaning regularly and if the bolt missed its target a trained dog could duly fetch it for re-use.

Physical description

Steel bow, undecorated, with original rope fixing and suspension ring with wooden stock partially covered with staghorn and engraved with arabesques and picked out with infill, with scenes including on the right, a man firing a musket while dogs chase a wild boar in a forest, and, on the left, horsemen and dogs chasing deer through a forest.

Place of Origin

Germany (made)

Date

ca. 1600 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Wood with engraved staghorn, steel

Dimensions

Length: 42.3 cm, Width: 35.9 cm, Depth: 8.9 cm, Weight: 0.56 kg

Object history note

This crossbow was given to the Museum in the J.G. Joicey Bequest of 1919. Its history prior to Joicey's ownership is unknown.

Historical context note

A crossbow is a more rigid form of the traditional bow in which a wooden stock (or tiller) replaces the archer’s arm and is fixed at right angles to it. The bowstring is pulled back under extreme tension (using a separate spanning device such as a windlass or cranequin) until it is held in a notch set in the stock and the projectile is fired using a trigger. Crossbows were used in war, hunting and target shooting, all activities children were trained in from a young age and expected to master by adulthood.

Crossbows generally fired small, wide arrows called bolts (or ‘quarrels’) with a range of heads designed for specific purposes. Bolts with warheads of heavy forged steel were designed to pierce armour and fell horses. Others used in hunting had fine chisel-shaped or forked heads for severing the hamstrings of large game, or blunt wooden heads for stunning small animals without damaging their skins and for knocking birds out of trees. Some crossbow bolts, common in Russia, were pierced so that they whistled through the air terrifying enemy horses and slowing their cavalry charges. Other bolts were in the form of socketed arrows whose stems were packed with incendiaries which when fired in unison rained fire down on besieged troops and castles. Some crossbows were designed to fire stones or pellets at small game.

The crossbow probably originated in China around 2000 years ago. It was not commonly used in Europe until the late 10th century, and until the common use of firearms in the 16th century, was only rivalled as a projectile weapon by the longbow. Crossbows were much used in England for defending fixed positions such as castles, towns and ships. They were also used for hunting large game until well into the 17th century.

The introduction of steel, replacing horn, for the bow in the 14th century increased the range of crossbows and encouraged their construction in a variety of sizes. This child’s bow would still have been able to shoot targets at fairly long range.

Crossbow makers in many European towns were affiliated as a separate group of craftsmen, ‘the Crossbowmen.‘ By the 16th century the great craft centres such as Nuremberg and Augsburg in southern Germany were producing crossbows with elaborate carving and engraved staghorn. The combination of steel bow, often beatifully etched with mythological or biblical designs or with hunting and war scenes and the wooden stock, equally lavishly ornamented, brought together the armourer and the furniture maker for the same productions.

Crossbow have struck fear into people for centuries. The Byzantine Historian, Anna Comnena (1083-1153) condemned it as ‘verily a devilish invention’ and ‘a truly diabolical machine’: ‘the wretched man who is struck by it, dies without feeling anything, not even feeling the blow, however strong it be’. (Dawes, Elizabeth A., Anna Comnena's Alexiad , London, 1928) In 1139, the 2nd Lateran Council decreed that the crossbow was ‘a weapon hateful to God and unfit to be made use of among Christians.’

Tests carried out in the 1950s on crossbows of the European 15th century type showed that, depending on the size of the bow, the bolts had a maximum range of between 300 and 350 metres and were most effective up to 100 metres. Maximilian I claimed he could slay a stag at 200 yards and that a man could be killed at more than twice the distance.

Crossbows had several advantages over early firearms especially when hunting. They were almost silent, did not require cleaning regularly and if the bolt missed its target a trained dog could duly fetch it for re-use. They were slower to become hunting weapons than war weapons as traditional close-contact hunting on foot or horseback, with hounds, sword and spear required more skill. Many rigid rules governed the use of crossbows and there were particular stipulations as to their use for sporting purposes. Target shooting at popinjays (wooden parrot-like birds) on church steeples was popular in many German towns, accompanied by festivities and much rule-bound ceremony governing safety.

Crossbows were used in war until around the mid-16th century when they were gradually replaced by firearms. They remained popular however up to the 19th century for hunting and target shooting.

Descriptive line

Hunting crossbow for a child, the stock covered with engraved staghorn hunting scenes, Germany, ca. 1600

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Wilson, G.M., European Crossbows: A Survey by Josef Alm (1947), translated by H. Bartlett Wells, Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds, 1994, Reprint 2001, ISBN 0 948092 20 3
Blackmore, Howard L., Hunting Weapons, Barrie and Jenkins Ltd, London 1971, Chapter 5, pp. 172-215
Blair, Claude, European and America Arms c.1100-1850, B.T. Batsford Ltd., London, 1962, pp. 34-38
Laking, Sir Guy Francis, A Record of European Armour and Arms Through Seven Centuries, Vol. 3, G. Bell & Sons, London, 1920, pp. 130-144
Dawes, Elizabeth A., Anna Comnena's Alexiad , London, 1928

Labels and date

Arms and Armour Galleries

HUNTING CROSSBOW
Stock covered with staghorn engraved with hunting scenes. Made for a child.
GERMAN; about 1600
J.G.Joicey Bequest
M.223-1919 [to 2002]

Materials

Steel; Wood; Staghorn

Techniques

Carving; Engraving

Subjects depicted

Arabesques; Men; Forest; Boar; Dogs

Categories

Sport; Children & Childhood; Arms & Armour; Arms & Armour; Death; Entertainment & Leisure; Games; Metalwork; Tools & Equipment

Collection

Metalwork Collection

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