Things that go boom! Part 10: More Artillery Weapons

JCab747's picture
October 17, 2020 - 12:44pm

“The first stone-throwing engines used in Europe and the Near East were adaptedfrom earlier arrow shooting machines. The gastraphetes, or katpeltikon, which was invented around the start of the fourth century BC, is typically judged to have been the earliest of these arrow-shooters. It was little more than a composite bow mounted on a wooden stock and operated by a mechanized draw and release. This defensive weapon quickly developed to incorporate a winch, increasing the potential energy that could be drawn from the bow.”

--Artillery in the Era of the Crusades: Siege Warfare and the Development of Trebuchet Technology, Michael S. Fulton, 2018

An adventurer in the Star Frontiers universe could conceivably encounter adversaries using weapons as primitive as a Roman-style ballista – essentially an mounted crossbow – to American Civil War era rifled cannons or rail guns, capable of hurdling projectiles hundreds of kilometers.

Joe Cabadas

JCab747's picture
October 18, 2020 - 1:00pm

Although the rules say that a character with the environmental skill can only make “bows, axes, clubs, knives and spears,” maybe this only applies to lower levels. Maybe a higher level character (3+) could make a simple catapult? Or even a trebuchet? That would be up to the game referee. Or, perhaps one would need an Ancient Artillery Weapons skill to know how to make and fire a catapult or trebuchet?

Similarly, imagine a character encountering an old gunpowder cannon. Even if that character had a projectile weapon skill – or the artillery skill given in Part 9 – could they safely use and fire such device without training from someone who knows how to use it? That would be doubtful. And, old gunpowder artillery weapons were prone to misfires or even blowing up!

Ancient Artillery

“Even before the advent of the cannon, catapults and trebuchets hurled massive stones that could shatter castle walls, bringing sieges that could last for months to an end in a matter of days.”

--The Havoc Journal, 2017

Greek Gastraph?t?s. The earliest known crossbow-like siege engine was the Greek gastraph?t?s (which roughly translates as “belly-shooter”). Invented sometime before the fourth century B.C., it was a bit longer but much stiffer than a normal bow. The soldier would set the backend of the device against his belly. Then, with the use of iron claw, he would exert his entire body strength to pull the bow string back to get the weapon ready to fire.

Heavy and slow to use, it is believed that these were primarily defensive weapons and fired over walls. Later versions would be equipped with a windlass, but they were still called “belly-shooters.”

The gastraph?t?s fired wooden bolts with sharp metal points that were about a meter long and 3.6 centimeters in diameter. The bolts could penetrate the armor and shields of their day and even wooden stockades.


Greek belly-shooters could also launch near-round stone shot. Weighing anywhere from 5-25 kilograms, the stone shot were fired at a high trajectory and sailed some 45 meters. Although inaccurate, the missiles from these weapons could eventually batter down anything but harden stone structures.

Some larger stone-throwers included one from Isidorus of Abydos, an ancient military engineer. It had a bow that was described as being about 4.6 meters long and 30 centimeters in diameter. It could fire 18 kilogram stone shot.

Another large ancient catapult (a ballista) was designed by Archimedes for a large merchant ship. This weapon could fire a 5.5 meter long bolt or a 78 kilogram stone to a range of 185 meters. While the device was probably very inaccurate, a hit could smash through the decks of ancient ships, probably inflicting enough damage to sink them.


Joe Cabadas

JCab747's picture
October 18, 2020 - 1:16pm

Roman Ballista. After the Roman Republic conquered the ancient Greek city states in 146 BC, one of the spoils of war included the ballista. This weapon had been created during the time of Alexander the Great.

initially called a catapulta by the Romans, the ballista became a highly accurate weapon. It’s maximum range was about 460 meters, though its effective range was much shorter. By the time of Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain and the conquest of Gaul in 55 BC, the tried-and-true ballista helped win numerous battles. By the fourth century AD, the largest ballista could throw a dart more than 1.1 kilometers.

With the fall of the Roman Empire, Europeans were unable to build and maintain these siege machines. They fell back into using an older designs such as the onager and the mangonel. By the Middle Ages came the advent of the trebuchet.

Joe Cabadas

JCab747's picture
October 19, 2020 - 1:02pm

Onagers and Mangonels. The onager or “wild ass” was the heaviest ballistic weapon in the Roman arsenal. It had one massive perpendicular wooden arm with a sling at the end. The arm was winched down into the loading position. When the soldiers released the arm, it would rocket into a vertical position, with its motion stopped at a desired angle by a crossbeam. The weapon would buck – thus giving it its kicking donkey nickname – while the stone projectile was hurled along a parabolic path toward its target. 

Another Roman-era torsion-powered siege weapon was the mangonel. The main difference between the onager and the mangonel is that the mangonel has a bowl rather than a sling. This means that the mangonel could launch several small projectiles instead of one.  

Joe Cabadas

Berberdes's picture
May 31, 2022 - 11:18pm
Sometimes, you've got to be sure you're prepared for anything. Today's lesson is all about things that go boom! As always, we'll start with the most basic of booms: the pistol. We'll also learn a bit more about bomb mechanics. Finally, we'll cover one of the most complex weapons yet: the crossbow. Of course, this doesn't mean there's no more info on artillery weapons! So, let's get started! welcome to another episode of Things that go boom! This series of blog posts is all about the weapons you can use in Aarklash: Legacy. In this latest episode, we're going to take a look at crossbows and what makes them different from their older brothers, the bows.