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Crossbow History

Spanish philosopher George Santayana is widely credited with the observation that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The point is, we are wise to study history and learn from our mistakes, lest we repeat them. Unfortunately, human nature and time often dim our recollection and change our perspective.

From medieval times to the modern day, crossbows have provoked the ire of many traditional archers. But history has proven we shouldn't be too hasty to dismiss these efficient weapons. (Mark Anderson Illustration)

In medieval times, the conventional bow and arrow was a specialized weapon that required considerable practice and effort to become proficient. In militaristic cultures, which was just about every culture back then, bowmen were often considered an elite class. They were separate from and superior to the plebeian foot soldiers, though being of uncultivated ancestry they were still below the aristocracy. An army led by heavily armored noble knights, reinforced by the great unwashed foot soldiers and backed up by elite archers was a formidable force, for a while. And in their leisure time, the elites held title to all the land and all the game that lived upon it for their pleasurable pursuits.

Then along came the crossbow, a device that — though complicated to build — was relatively easy to operate. Suddenly, the common foot soldier had a weapon capable of felling an armored earl, duke or viscount. Though this represented a tremendous military advancement, it was an affront to the aristocracy and the elite classes, mostly because it leveled the playing field, literally making all men equal. In 1139, Pope Innocent II issued a judgement against "...the deadly art, hated by God, of crossbowmen." And elitists looked down on these deadly artisans in much the same way that, centuries later, highly trained redcoat soldiers of the British Empire scorned American minutemen for their ignoble practice of hiding behind trees and stone walls while shooting at their enemies. The world was changing, and the crossbow may have played a small part in a much larger revolution.

It was, after all, the ancestors of those American patriots who first fled the Old World and its feudal system seeking a new world and a new life where a person's status was not bestowed upon them simply by birthright. Land could be owned by anyone with the ways and the means to procure it, and an even more radical concept was implemented where fish and game were considered common property, something all citizens had an equal right to procure.

Modern-Day Traditionalists

Today, the longbow, the recurve bow and even the compound bow are still considered specialized weapons that require considerable practice to be proficient. And in hunting cultures such as ours, archers are sometimes considered to be of an elite class, though that distinction is often self-imparted. They (we) sometimes consider ourselves separate from and superior to the plebeian foot soldiers who now, instead of lances and pikes, carry shotguns and rifles in pursuit of a public resource.

That class distinction was fairly clear until along came the crossbow to once again muddy the waters. Suddenly, the common foot soldier had a weapon, complicated to build but relatively easy to operate, capable of felling the mighty stag, at close range and with only stick, string and stock. It was an affront to the elite classes, mostly because it challenged what they viewed as their unique entitlement to a portion of the public resource. Ironically, that is the same sentiment expressed by traditional archers upon the emergence of compound bows.

You can argue ad infinitum that the crossbow is not archery tackle; but it is. It is a string, cables and wheels attached to limbs that are attached to a riser. You pull that string back, converting your mechanical energy into potential energy stored in the limbs. You load an arrow then release that string with a trigger (or trigger release), converting stored energy in the limbs into kinetic energy in the arrow. And there's no gunpowder.

The real question is, so what? When I ask my fellow biologists their opinion on crossbows, most are surprisingly indifferent. "A dead deer is a dead deer," they say. And to an objective biologist, it doesn't, and shouldn't, matter how it got to be dead. It then becomes a political and social question.

New Kid on the Block

For a long time, firearms hunters pretty much held a monopoly on North America's game animals. Then along came recreational bowhunters who fought hard for and earned a sliver of the pie. Out of that came a subset of compound bowhunters who then wanted and got a full slice, despite the protestations of their more traditional forbearers and the gun-toting plebes.


Now there's a new kid at the table, an orphan unclaimed by archers or gun hunters (though truth be known he's more closely related to us) who, like Oliver Twist, merely wants a little more. But there's only so much pie to go around.

The rub then becomes how to partition that pie equitably to all those seated at the table, all of whom own an equal share. Where deer populations cannot withstand additional hunting mortality, adding more hunters with more efficient weapons may not be advisable. That's an easy one. But when we start inequitably affording privilege to special interest groups we start down a precipitous rapid that leads us away from the reason our ancestors first jumped on the boat and sailed across the pond to establish a new nation.

Crossbows aren't for everyone, nor should everyone who uses one automatically be granted an equal portion of the wildlife resource without careful and diligent consideration. But we also need to afford some consideration to those who may choose to use a different weapon than we do, because when it comes to a fight over protecting our hunting heritage, we're going to need every archer, every knight and every foot soldier.

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