Ancient Engineering
Ballistic Technologies of Antiquity
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What is a catapult?

There are many types of Catapult. In modern times, the word catapult can be used to describe any machine that hurls a projectile. This can include a slingshot used to hurl pebbles, a machine that launches airplanes off aircraft carriers, and of course, the ancient weapons of smash destruction!

An Aircraft Catapult

An Onager Catapult
A Slingshot Catapult

There are many different kinds of ancient catapults. The three major types are the Ballista, Onager and Trebuchet.

The Trebuchet is probably the oldest type of catapult. It was invented either by the Chinese or in the middle east. If you look at an Egyptian shadouf, it looks very much like a trebuchet, and it's easy to imagine that the trebuchet was inspired by the shadouf. Shadoufs have been around since the beginning of recorded history.

A shadouf is just a long pole balanced in the middle, with a weight on one end and a rope attached to the other end with a bucket tied to it. It's easier to pull something down that to lift it up, so people use these shadoufs to lift water from irrigation trenches. (They pull the rope down, and the counterweight pulls the bucket full of water up.) If someone had slipped and let go of the rope, an empty bucket could be flung high and far by the counterweight. A clever perrson might see the weapons potential in this.

Trebuchets were used mainly as lobbing machines to spread fire and diseased corpses, as well as a lot of solid missiles, over the walls of castles to rain down on the inhabitants. They were very effective!

The next oldest type of catapult is the Ballista. This machine was deliberately invented by the Greeks, around 800 BCE. Ballistae were even mounted on warships and used to hurl fire onto other ships.

The Romans took the ballista, used it, and then improved in in the Roman way to create the Scorpion, and then the Onager. Not much is known about how these machines really looked, but our best guess is something like this one.

Onagers were used right up to the middle ages alongside the Trebuchet, when gunpowder and the Cannon were invented and eventually replaced the catapults.

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A catapult is any kind of device that shoots or launches a projectile by mechanical means. In England, a catapult is what we call a slingshot in the US. A catapult is also the part of an aircraft carrier that launches airplanes off the deck.

But for our purposes, a catapult is any of the ancient types of artillery, including Onagers, Scorpions, Trebuchets, Ballistae, Springalds, Coullards, Bricoles Perriers and more.

But most people tend to think of a catapult as the one-armed torsion machine used by the Romans. This is also known as the Onager or Mangonel.


The word Mangonel derives from the ancient Greek word "Manganon", literally meaning "engine of war". The Romans called it a Manganum. In pre-medieval French the word Manganum was changed to Manganeau, and the English changed that to Mangonel in the 1300s.

The history gets a little sketchy in the middle ages, but some historians believe that "mangonel" was shortened to the word "gonnel" about the same time that cannons were being developed, and later still, "gonnel" was shortened to "gun." And still today, in the military a "gun" is strictly a piece of big artillery.


Onager is originally the name for the wild Asian donkey. This donkey bucks like a bronco if anyone gets too close to it, and it is known to kick stones at people and predators too. So when the Romans needed a name for their one-armed torsion catapult, they called it the Onager!

The Onager (catapult) has a single arm that is powered by a large skein of twisted ropes. The ropes were usually made from hair or sinew for their elastic properties.


The word "Trebuchet" is originally French, and meant something like "to fall over or rotate about the middle" as in a see-saw rotating on its axle. It also seems to have meant a big, heavy beam. Today a Trebuchet is any kind of catapult that is powered by a massive counterweight on one end of an arm, and a sling on the other end. This includes Perriers, or "traction" trebuchets which are powered by a mass of people pulling one end of the arm with ropes.


This is a two-armed torsion device invented by the Greeks. It works similar to a crossbow, but instead of a flexible bow, it uses two stiff arms powered by twisted rope skeins like an Onager. The ballista predates the Onager by several centuries and was used to hurl stones (lithobolos style ballista) and also bolts or darts.

Obviously, this is where we get the word "ballistic".