under siege - Medieval Siege Weapons

Medieval Siege Weapons

Just a few centuries ago, when you wanted to “sack another city/kingdom”, you had to do it through a siege. If you don’t know what a siege is, it’s basically when you get an army, and some massive tools, to mow down the city defenses of an opponent, before taking it over.

Those war techniques have obviously been rendered useless through the existence of missiles and airplane bombing. Nevertheless, we’re not discussing this for the sake of “war practicality”. Our focus here is on understanding history warfare, and how it evolved into what it is now.

And then again, it’s always food for the imagination, isn’t it? (I’m assuming you live in your head all day like me).

siege weapons - Medieval Siege Weapons

To get started, when you wanted to sack a city with an army, you pretty much had 3 options.

  1. Break or burn down the city/castle walls and doors.
  2. Dig a tunnel to either get into the city or collapse the walls.
  3. Get the army to jump over city walls.

No worries though. Those were all possibilities back then. Below, we’re going to show you the weapons needed to do any of the previous 3 jobs listed.

1. Breaking down walls and doors

During medieval times, walls were either made of wood or stone. If it was made of wood, all you had to do was burn it down. If it was made of stone, on the other hand, you needed a little more effort to do the job.

(A) Battering rams

battering ram - Medieval Siege Weapons

If you couldn’t take down the walls, then why not just go for the door? When you look at the structure of a battering ram, you’ll find that this is exactly what it was designed for.

Battering rams were usually big carrier devices, with a log in the middle that was held by a rope. Your job as a soldier was to swing that ram with the help of your comrades, providing enough momentum to break the doors down.

(B) Trebuchet

Trebuchet - Medieval Siege Weapons

If you couldn’t tear the doors down, or if the siege defenders were applying too much pressure on you, then you had to deal with the walls first. One of the tools used for this was the trebuchet, specializing at swinging heavy materials into walls, or even over walls.

Of all siege “throwing devices”, trebuchets had the furthest reach, but you usually didn’t have many on the battlefield. The thing with trebuchets is that they are one of the tallest and heaviest siege devices that were used for war.

And yet it had the furthest reach, due to the length of the swing arm, and the use of gravity for acceleration when dropping the weight-box. They also had high accuracy rates.

Personally, I think this device may have been the most effective at giving city dwellers a little scare (ha-ha).

(C) Mangonel

siege weapon mangonel - Medieval Siege Weapons

Just like trebuchets, those were also “throwing devices”, except that they had a different purpose.

Mangonels had a much lower accuracy rate than trebuchets, and yet due to the tension strings they used, they launched objects at higher speeds. As such, mangonels were extremely effective for breaking down city walls.

The average mangonel was also smaller in size than a trebuchet, especially in height. This is because you didn’t have to lift the arm of the weapon too high, to launch it through the use of a weight-box and gravity. Just to reiterate, this weapon uses tension strings instead.

(D) Ballista

medieval siege ballista - Medieval Siege Weapons

Unlike the trebuchet, the ballista is a so-called “spring” gear. Its operation is based on various mechanisms using the action of two levers on torsion springs, consisting of several bundles of twisted fibers. Early versions threw heavy arrows or spherical projectiles, like stones of different sizes.

This weapon has the highest accuracy rate and speed of all weapons mentioned here. The problem here is that its capacity to launch heavy-weight objects wasn’t very high.

In the same principle as before, two men use a winch to which the rod is attached by a rope. Once brought back to the horizontal position, the loader places the projectile into the spoon and the shooter removes the iron clip releasing the rod. The latter, attached to two springs made of wood and nerve, is driven towards the front of the machine and is locked in a vertical position by a cross-member.

Ballista - Medieval Siege Weapons

To adjust the range of the pull, it was enough to increase the thickness of the crossbar with skins or furs. The more the rod was vertical, the farther the projectile went.

This machine could also be used by both sides. Unlike the trebuchet that was in a curtain and had to send its ball over the wall (except if a gigantic platform exists in height), the ballista took place on a platform at the level of the walkway.

russian balista - Medieval Siege Weapons

Originally, the word “catapult” refers to an arrow-throwing machine, whereas the term “balista” refers to a machine that throws stones, but the meaning of the two terms was reversed from the 4th century onwards era, hence sometimes a certain confusion in the terms. The fact that the word “catapult” (which has given a verb: “catapulter”) has become a generic term, which at certain epochs indifferently designates all the siege engines of the trebuchet ballista, obscures terminology.

This weapon was mainly used to snipe those annoying defenders on the city/castle wall. It was a very effective way of taking the pressure of your army during combat.

2. Tunnel digging

Tunnel digging - Medieval Siege Weapons

Alternatively, you could just use simpler tools to dig tunnels under city walls. You had a problem though when you did that. You needed a lot of manpower to dig faster. The reason being is that the tools used were not large destruction machines like the ones mentioned previously.

In fact, the tools used for this process were usually…

(A) Spades

Spades. Because what better way is there to dig the dirt out, other than to shovel it over? Unfortunately, you could only give one spade per man, and so you needed to bring many spades along if this was ever to be an option.

(B) Pickaxes

Your second option if the soil proved to be too dry or hard for a spade. The pointed edges of a pickaxe allowed you to pierce hard soil extremely effectively, with lower effort than you would need with other gear.

3. Climbing over city walls

the siege - Medieval Siege Weapons

Without the appropriate equipment, attempting to do that would have been considering suicide. Fortunately, our ancestors weren’t exactly stupid. They knew that a good defense was needed to accomplish this effectively.

(A) Siege Towers

siege tower - Medieval Siege Weapons

Siege towers are like guarded ladders. A siege tower was basically a mobile ladder-like tower that you dragged on wheels (like every siege engine), to help you get to higher heights without harm.

A little space was needed though between the tower and city walls, to make sure that the defenders couldn’t pounce in, and attack the climbers from the top.

As a result, you had the problem of needing to jump from the top of the tower to the castle walls, once you got to the top. Luckily, a siege tower usually came equipped with…

(B) Gangplanks

Gangplanks were basically boards that connected the top of the siege tower to the top of the castle walls. Not the most elegant way to enter a city as a conqueror, but it sure was quite effective.

siege of constantinople - Medieval Siege Weapons

It’s a shame you can’t get those weapons as collectors’ items.

They’re not like 1-handed or 2-handed weapons. Those weapons are big, and really dangerous too. You’d probably need authorization to own one, and a lot of garage space too!

But hey, you could always head to a museum if you want to check one out live!

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