When Was The Crossbow Invented? A Guide to It’s History

When Was The Crossbow Invented? A Guide to It's History

The crossbow is an ancient weapon that has played a pivotal role in shaping the history of warfare and hunting.

With its impressive accuracy, power, and ease of use, the crossbow revolutionized military strategies and altered the course of numerous battles.

Though its use has waned with the advent of gunpowder weapons, the crossbow continues to captivate enthusiasts and historians alike.

This article delves into the intriguing history of the crossbow, from its early origins to its modern resurgence.

We will explore the timeline of its invention, the key innovations that contributed to its development, and the ways it was employed in warfare across different civilizations.

As we journey through the centuries, we will also examine the factors that led to the decline of the crossbow and how it has managed to maintain a presence in contemporary times.

Join us in uncovering the fascinating story of this formidable weapon and its lasting impact on the world.

When Was The Crossbow Invented?

Determining the exact date of the crossbow's invention is challenging due to the gradual evolution of bow and arrow mechanisms.

However, the earliest known crossbow-like weapons date back to around the 4th or 5th century BCE.

These early weapons, such as the Chinese Ballista (Gastraphetes) and the Chinese Repeating Crossbow (Zhuge Nu), were invented independently in ancient Greece and China, respectively.

These early devices laid the groundwork for the development of more advanced crossbows seen in later civilizations, such as the Roman Ballista and the medieval European crossbow.

Ancient Origins: Early Crossbow-like Weapons

The crossbow is a powerful and sophisticated weapon that has been used in warfare and hunting for thousands of years. While the exact origins of the crossbow are difficult to pinpoint, evidence of early crossbow-like weapons has been found across various ancient civilizations. Some notable examples include:

The Chinese Ballista (Gastraphetes):

The Chinese Ballista, also known as the Gastraphetes, is believed to be one of the earliest crossbow-like weapons in history. It dates back to around 4th century BCE and was invented by the ancient Greeks.

The Gastraphetes was a large, handheld crossbow that used a mechanism similar to a crossbow to launch arrows or bolts.

It was powered by a composite bow and featured a stock and trigger mechanism.

The name “Gastraphetes” means “belly-bow,” as the user had to press the weapon against their belly to draw the string back.

The Chinese Repeating Crossbow (Zhuge Nu):

The Chinese Repeating Crossbow, or Zhuge Nu, is another ancient crossbow-like weapon that dates back to around the 4th century BCE.

It was invented in China and is named after the famous strategist Zhuge Liang, who is credited with improving the design.

The Zhuge Nu was unique because it could fire multiple bolts in quick succession without the need for the user to reload each time. This made it a formidable weapon in ancient Chinese warfare.

The Roman Ballista:

The Roman Ballista, developed around the 3rd century BCE, was a torsion-powered siege engine that operated much like a giant crossbow.

It was designed to launch large projectiles, such as stones and heavy darts, over long distances.

The Roman Ballista was used extensively throughout the Roman Empire, and its design was adapted and improved upon by various cultures.

The Medieval European Crossbow:

The medieval European crossbow emerged around the 10th century CE and became a popular weapon for both warfare and hunting.

It featured a horizontal bow mounted on a wooden stock and used a mechanical trigger mechanism to release the bowstring.

European crossbows typically used steel for the bow (also known as the prod), making them more powerful and efficient than earlier designs.

Crossbows played a significant role in medieval warfare and were often employed by both infantry and mounted soldiers.

These early crossbow-like weapons highlight the ingenuity and innovation of ancient civilizations. They laid the foundation for the development of more advanced crossbow designs that would go on to play a significant role in warfare and hunting throughout history.

Timeline and Key Innovations of The Crossbow

The crossbow has a long and storied history, with various innovations and improvements made throughout the centuries. Here's a general timeline and key innovations of the crossbow:

4th-5th century BCE: Early crossbow-like weapons

  • Chinese Ballista (Gastraphetes): An ancient Greek handheld crossbow that used a composite bow, stock, and trigger mechanism.
  • Chinese Repeating Crossbow (Zhuge Nu): An early crossbow developed in China, capable of firing multiple bolts in quick succession without reloading.

3rd century BCE: Roman Ballista

  • The Romans developed the torsion-powered Ballista, which was used as a siege engine to launch large projectiles over long distances.

10th century CE: Medieval European Crossbow

  • The European crossbow emerged, featuring a horizontal bow mounted on a wooden stock and a mechanical trigger mechanism. Steel bows, also known as prods, made these crossbows more powerful and efficient.

12th-13th century CE: Windlass and Cranequin

  • Innovations like the windlass and cranequin were introduced to help draw the increasingly powerful crossbows. These mechanical devices made it easier for soldiers to load and fire heavy crossbows.

15th-16th century CE: Arbalest

  • The arbalest was a late medieval European crossbow with a steel prod, capable of delivering considerable force. Its high power and accuracy made it a popular weapon in warfare and hunting.

17th century CE: Crossbow decline

  • The widespread use of firearms led to the decline of the crossbow, as guns offered superior range, accuracy, and ease of use.

While the crossbow is no longer a prevalent weapon in modern warfare, it remains a popular choice for hunting, sport, and recreational archery. The crossbow's historical significance and technological innovations have made it an important part of human history.


As we have explored throughout this article, the crossbow has left an indelible mark on the history of warfare, hunting, and society.

From its ancient beginnings in China to its widespread adoption and subsequent decline in medieval Europe, the crossbow has demonstrated its versatility and adaptability over time.

The crossbow's innovations and tactical advantages forever changed the way battles were fought, leveling the playing field for untrained soldiers and altering the course of history.

Its impact can still be felt in modern times, as enthusiasts continue to appreciate the weapon for its historical significance, technological ingenuity, and the challenges it offers in hunting and sport.

Despite the decline of the crossbow in the face of gunpowder weapons, its legacy endures as a testament to human innovation and the ever-evolving nature of warfare.

As we look back on the rich history of the crossbow, we are reminded of the ongoing quest for power, precision, and efficiency in the tools we create, and how the lessons of the past continue to shape our present and future.