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Ballistic Technologies of Antiquity
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Historical accounts of the Trebuchet


The Malvoisine Petraria

(Pronounced Mal-Vwa-zin Pet-rare-ee-ah)

In June and July of 1191, Richard the Lionheart (King of France) laid siege to the city of Acre as part of the medieval Crusades.

The King concentrated on constructing siege machines and placing trebuchets [petrariae - literally, stone hurler)] in suitable places. He arranged for these to shoot continually day and night. He had one excellent one which he called "Bad Neighbor" [Malvoisine]. Its continual bombardment partly destroyed the main city wall and shattered the Cursed Tower. On one side the Templars' trebuchet wreaked impressive devastation, while the Hospitallers trebuchet also never ceased hurling, to the terror of the Turks.

Besides these, there was a trebuchet that had been constructed at general expense, which they called "God's Stone-Thrower". A priest, a man of great probity, always stood next to it preaching and collecting money for its continual repair and for hiring people to gather the stones for its ammunition. This machine at last demolished the wall next to the Cursed Tower for around two perches' Length [11 yards or 10 meters].

The count of Flanders had had a choice trebuchet, which King Richard had after his death, as well as another trebuchet which was not so good. These two constantly bombarded the tower next to a gate which the Turks frequently used, until the tower was half-demolished. Besides these, King Richard had two new ones made with remarkable workmanship and material which would hit the intended target no matter how far off it was. . . . He also had two mangonels [traction trebuchets] pre- pared. One of these was so swift and violent that its shots reached the inner streets of the city meat market.

King Richard's trebuchets hurled constantly by day and night. It can be firmly stated that one of them killed twelve men with a single stone. That stone was sent for Saladin to see, with messengers who said that the diabolical king of England had brought from Messina, a city he had captured, sea flint and the smoothest stones to punish the Sara- cens. Nothing could withstand their blows; everything was crushed or reduced to dust.


The Stirling Warwolf

During a siege of Stirling Castle in 1304, Edward Longshanks (Edward the first, King of England) ordered his engineers to make a giant trebuchet for the English army, named "Warwolf". With one blow, Warwolf leveled a section of wall, successfully concluding the siege of Stirling Castle.

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Definitions

Catapult

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.

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

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.

Trebuchet

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.

Ballista

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".