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Eric Crosson

Mrs. Schaub

English, 10:15

11 May 2007

Trebuchets and Other Siege Engine

During the middle ages, or the era from about 750 to 1600 C.E., many fortifications

known as castles were built. These castles gave protection to kings, princes, dukes, earls,

other nobles, and sometimes peasants. The purpose of a castle was to protect towns from

marauding kings and their plundering armies. The castle's massive stone walls,

sometimes over 40 feet high, were a highly discouraging sight to any attacking army.

However, if the right machines were built, even these gigantic stone structures could be

reduced to piles of rubble. Starting with the Greeks, many machines, called siege engines,

were designed. Which one was the most effective during a siege?

If a king wanted more land or wealth, or simply entertainment, he would go out and

attempt to capture a castle. There were many different ways to do this. One could simply

storm the castle, hoisting ladders against the stone walls, and attempt to overrun the

defenders with sheer numbers. With this tactic, many people were killed, and as

technologies progressed, the approaching army could be demolished as the castle’s

archers unleashed waves of arrows (Donnelly 45-49). A safer method was to dig tunnels.

Starting far away, out of arrow range, a hole would be made by workers called

miners. The miners would tunnel their hole towards the castle wall, and destroy the castle

from the safety of being underground. They would take torches to a castle’s wooden

support beams before rejoining their army. When the support beams grew too weak to
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hold up the weight of a castle’s wall, the wall would collapse, bringing down the wall

with it. This would leave a gaping hole in the side of the wall, allowing the attacking

army to pillage the castle. (Donnelly 12-15).

A king could also try to bribe or threaten the castellan, or owner of the castle. If

the castellan could not be persuaded to change sides, then spies were often sent into the

building. Their goal was either to open the gate, allowing the attacking army to slaughter

the unsuspecting defenders, or simply sabotage the defending castle’s supply of food and

water. This would force the castellan to surrender (Gurstelle 9-11).

Along the same lines, one’s armies could blockade the castle, and prevent any

supplies from reaching the castle. When the castle’s supplies ran low, or their food and

water were depleted, the castle’s inhabitants were forced to come to terms with their

opponents (Donnelly 18-12).

The last way to capture a stronghold was to bombard it night and day with siege

engines. These monstrous machines hurled heavy stone rocks at the castle’s walls, and

could quickly reduce the castle to nothing but pebbles (Donnelly 92).

Much like modern artillery, siege engines came in many different varieties. The first

type to be invented was the tension siege engine. A now-unknown engineer developed an

over sized arbalest (the term for a medieval crossbow) that was so powerful that a man

had to brace the ‘gastrophetes,’ or ‘belly bow’ against his stomach to cock it. Then the

archers loaded a bolt (the name for the arrows that a crossbow or gastrophetes shoots)

that was up to 24 inches long (Donnelly 92). When the archer pulled the trigger, the catch

was released that held back the bow, and the natural spring of the bow (made from

leather or horn) shot the bolt approximately 250 yards (Gurstelle 18-19).
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The next piece of artillery that was invented was the torsion engine. Around 399

B.C.E., the ruler Dionysus the Elder hired the best military thinkers from all around.

Together, they came up with the idea of using the energy produced from the tightly

wound coils of rope to propel large bolts enormous distances. Because the torsion

engine’s power came from coils of rope, this type of siege engine was called the torsion

engine (Gurstelle 19-20). The first model was called the ballista. The ballista used two

coils of rope placed vertically to store energy. First, the coils were wound tight, twisted

many times. Two sticks were inserted into the coils of rope. Then, a string was attached

that connected the two sticks. The string was pulled back, locked by a trigger. This

motion also retracted the two sticks. Finally, the bolt was loaded. When the trigger was

pulled, the string was released, and the coils of rope unwound, flinging the two sticks and

the string that they were attached to forwards at a great speed. The string pushed the bolt

forward with it, shooting the bolt a remarkable distance (Gurstelle 22-24).

The first time the ballista was used, when Dionysus the Elder and his Syracuseans

attacked the Motyans, the historian Diodurus recorded that the Motyans counterattacked

the Syracuseans, but were “held back by a great quantity of flying missiles (Donnelly

94).” Dionysus and his troops won the battle. Soon word of the ballista and its success

spread far, and it was incorporated into most armies’ artillery. The ballista worked

wonderfully during most attacks, but was flawed in that when rope is moistened, it

stretches. Since the tightly wound rope is what gives the ballista its power, if that rope

stretched, the ballista could not shoot. Even the morning dew was enough to render the

ballista useless (Gurstelle 23).

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Another type of torsion engine was the mangonel. Most people picture a mangonel

style siege engine when they hear the word ‘catapult.’ Instead of having two vertical coils

of rope, like the ballista, the mangonel has one coil of rope placed horizontally (Donnelly

97). The coil is wound around a support beam and the throwing arm. Then, the throwing

arm is pulled back the opposite way that the rope was wound, further adding to the rope’s

potential energy. A release pin, or a trigger, is clamped onto the throwing arm, or the arm

that flings the missile (Gurstelle 19-21). A missile is placed in the throwing arm’s sling,

and when the trigger is pulled, the ropes unwind rapidly, flinging the throwing arm

forward until it hits the crossbar that stops the throwing arm (Donnelly 95). However,

since the missile isn’t attached to the throwing arm, inertia keeps the missile flying

straight towards the target with deadly accuracy.

Some time later, around 500-600 C.E., Chinese engineers came up with the idea of

using human power to launch rocks using a lever. A two hundred and fifty man pulling

crew, or a team of horses could easily launch stones weighing between 120-135 pounds a

distance of more than 255 feet (Kagay). The traction engines, powered by humans or

animals, were dependable in all weather, and could be reloaded very quickly. Instead of

winding back the ropes, pulling back the string, locking the trigger, loading the bolt, and

finally aiming, like you had to do with the ballista, you could launch stones very fast with

traction engines (Bullock). All that was needed to reload was to pull down the lever and

place a rock on top (Donnelly 98).

Last to be invented, the gravity engine, or trebuchet, used a large counterweight

instead of human or animal power to launch stones. Since the trebuchet was only a lever,
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it could be replicated on a very large scale. The law of diminishing returns does not apply

here, because simple machines are different from ropes or bows.

The law of diminishing returns is a law purporting that “When one of the factors

of production is held fixed in supply, successive additions of the other factors will lead to

an increase in returns up to a point, but beyond this point returns will diminish.” - Anne

Robert Jacques Turgot (Donnelly 54). In other words, if you bend back a bow five

degrees, you might get the bolt to fly ten feet. But if you bend the bow back ten degrees,

it will not send the bolt flying 20 feet. Instead, it might only fly 15 feet, because most of

the strength has been used just to start pulling back the bow (Gurstelle 22), and because

the bow does not distribute force evenly (Bullock).

This boils down to the fact that trebuchets can be built larger than any other siege

engines, and that they can throw much larger, heavier rocks that can do vast amounts of

damage. Also, since the trebuchet’s counterweight does not change in between shots, it

can throw rocks of equal weight against a wall at the exact same spot every time. Even

traction engines cannot do this, because sometimes the pulling teams pull with varying

strength (Gurstelle 21). When the soldiers tire out, or when a new shift comes in, the

stones they shoot may fly a lesser or greater distance, respectively (Donnelly 54). With

one hundred plus pound rocks hitting the exact same spot on a castle wall, that wall will

grow weaker much quicker than if rocks were to hit at different places every time

(Donnelly 99). This meant that if armies were to use trebuchets while attacking castles,

those castles could be captured faster, saving time, soldiers, and money (Gurstelle 45).

Another factor that made trebuchets superior to other siege engines was the fact that

they could fling almost anything that fit into their sling. Records show that many items
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have been shot using trebuchets. This list includes rocks, people, severed heads,

messages, iron arrows, buckets of molten lead, baskets of venomous snakes, hornet’s

nests, diseased and deceased animals, the attacking army’s camp trash, clay pots with

suffocating gas, flaming barrels of oil, Greek fire, and cattle manure (Gurstelle 26-27).

Over two thousand cartloads of cattle manure were shot over the castle Carolstein’s walls

at the siege of Carolstein (Gurstelle 26-27).

Trebuchets have been the dominant siege engine since their invention. Trebuchets are

reliable in all weather, can launch stones vastly larger than other siege engines, and are

more accurate than anything the world has ever seen. However, trebuchets did die out.

The last recorded successful use of a trebuchet was in 1480, used by the Greeks

against the Turkish during the Siege of Rhodes (Gurstelle xi). It was written that the

Greek’s trebuchet did far more damage that the Turk’s cannons (Donnelly 99). After that,

trebuchets were all but forgotten.

The last recorded use of a trebuchet in battle was in 1521, when Hernando Cortez

used a trebuchet while attacking Montezuma and his army. When Cortez’ cannons were

running out of gunpowder, one of Cortez’ soldiers had claimed that he was taught how to

build a trebuchet by an Italian engineer (Gurstelle xi). He was hailed by his fellow men,

and immediately tried to construct a trebuchet. However, the sling was made too short,

and when the trebuchet was fired, the large stone ball projectile flew straight up. The

missile descended, only to destroy the trebuchet. Later, Cortez ordered the machine be

taken apart in disgust (Donnelly 104-105), and the man was never mentioned again.

The only reason that trebuchets were longer used is the development of gunpowder.

When gunpowder was first introduced to Europe, sometime around 1326 C.E.,
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gunpowder was expensive, unreliable, and just as deadly to the users as the people on the

other end. Early cannons were large, and shot arrows wrapped in leather (Gurstelle 122).

The gunpowder they used was expensive, and as it was transported, heavier elements of

the powder sifted to the bottom (Donnelly 110-111). This meant that the gunpowder had

to be shaken and remixed right before it was loaded, costing valuable time. The bronze

that early cannons were made out of was also technologically crude. Bronze casting was

unreliable, and the enormous stress that cannons were forced to endure usually resulted in

cracks, causing many cannons to explode (Donnelly 112). Cannons were by no means

accurate, and the metal balls that they could shoot were costly.

However, kings loved cannons. They were fun, loud, and the sight of a hundred

cannons spewing fire combined with the tremendous roar they created helped frighten

most armies into hiding (Architectus). They also helped boost a king’s royal image.

Cannons were extremely costly; having cannons meant that the attacking king had

money. They were also fun and scary- increasing the reputations that most kings wanted

to have (Gurstelle 148-149).

At first, cannons were only incorporated into an armies’ artillery, but as they

progressed, they began to replace trebuchets, ballistae (plural of ballista) and mangonel,

and traction siege engines. Cannons were most effective against castles when they were

first created, because castles that had high stone walls (a major defense against

trebuchets) were now a bigger target for cannons. When a cannonball hit the wall, tons of

rubble tumbled down, helping to fill the moat beneath it. This allowed soldiers to move

closer to the castle without sparing men to bring dirt to accomplish the same job that

cannons could (Donnelly 96).

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Cannons were also significant in signaling the start of a siege. Usually an arrow

was fired into the gate of a castle, saying that the army outside of the castle’s walls was

ready for battle. Now, a cannonball was used, and it often took the whole door with it

(Gurstelle 150).

During the middle ages, siege was an important part of warfare. It allowed people

like Alexander the Great and Dionysus the Elder to influence civilizations and initiate

cultural diffusion. Sieges affected history, helping to form the world and the geographical

and political boundaries that we know today. One of the biggest factors that decided the

outcome of the siege was the placement of siege engines (Gurstelle 56). Because the

trebuchet was dependable in all weather, was more accurate than other type of siege

engine, and was able to be constructed effectively on enormous proportions, the trebuchet

was by far the most effective siege engine ever invented.

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Works Cited

Architectus, Darius. “A Very Brief History of Siege Engines.” 16 March, 2007


Bullock, Tom. “Some Experiments with Trebuchets.” 16 March, 2007


Donnelly, Mark and Daniel Diehl. Siege: Castles at War. Dallas, Taylor Publishing Co.,


Gurstelle, William. Art of the Catapult. Chicago, Chicago Publishing Press Inc., 2004

Kagay, Donald. “The Circle of War in the Middle Ages.” 17 March, 2007