9 of the Deadliest Medieval Siege Weapons | History Hit

9 of the Deadliest Medieval Siege Weapons

Richard Bevan

17 Dec 2021
A scene taken from a 13th-century chronicle of the Fifth Crusade.
Image Credit: Public Domain

For millennia, siege weapons have been used to destroy fortifications, invade regions and break down enemy defenses. The Middle Ages saw the creation of some of the most deadly and devastating siege weapons in history.

As new technologies and materials became available in the medieval period, ever more efficient and lethal tools were invented to destroy structures and inflict harm. Handcannons, a rudimentary firearm, emerged in 14th-century Europe, for example. And mobile bolt guns and battering rams were also redesigned and frequently deployed during the period.

Here are 9 of the deadliest siege weapons of the middle ages.

1. The Byzantine flame thrower

During the 20th century, the flame thrower was introduced into conflicts as a devastating hand-held weapon. But the basics of the modern-day flame thrower were pioneered 1,200 years earlier during the Byzantine Empire, where images of it are even depicted in medieval manuscripts.

It worked by blowing and sucking air from a valve in the handle which has been filled with naptha or quicklime, a substance known as Greek Fire, the ancient equivalent to napalm. The weapon was used during the middle ages to lay waste to enemy boats, turning the tide on many battles.

2. The hand cannon

Also known as the ‘gonne’ or ‘handgonne’, it was the first true firearm used in medieval times and the successor to the fire lance. What is possibly the oldest type of simple metal barrel firearms, the hand cannon required manual ignition through a touch hole. First used in China, the weapon was introduced throughout Europe in the 14th century.

Its practicality meant it could be held in two hands while a second person administered the ignition using red-hot irons or slow-burning matches. The projectiles used in the hand cannon ranged from rocks to pebbles and arrows.

3. The ballista

Sometimes known as a bolt thrower, the ballista was a siege weapon that was able to launch large projectiles at targets in the distance. Similar to a large crossbow, it used the tension of a series of springs to launch large bolts. It was first designed by the Ancient Greeks and remained popular during the Roman period, pre-dating the more effective trebuchet.

4. The trebuchet

This simple but effective siege weapon made the basic catapult obsolete as it could launch projectiles of greater weight at further distances. There were two main types of trebuchet. The first, called a mangonel, used manpower to swing the large arm and may have been invented in China in the 4th century.

The second and more sophisticated used a counterweight system to swing the arm. The main difference between the two was the force at launching projectiles. The counterweight version used gravity and a hinge connection where the earlier traction trebuchet relied on men pulling ropes attached to the shorter end of the trebuchet beam.

A city under Mongol siege. From the illuminated manuscript of Rashid ad-Din’s Jami al-Tawarikh.

Image Credit: Public Domain

5. The staff sling (siege engine)

Called the staff sling or stave, this simple weapon was essentially a handheld trebuchet, which consisted of a length of wood with a short sling at one end. They were a common weapon in Italy during the 11th and 12th centuries. The Bayeux Tapestry portrays the sling in a hunting scene.

The components were just made of a wooden staff, two chords and a pouch. One chord end was permanently attached while the other could slip off, releasing the projectile from the pouch. Its application was very much like a fishing rod, gripping the staff and throwing the sling in an upward position. Different sizes of pouches were designed for a variety of missiles from stones to small boulders.

6. The battering ram

The main aim of the battering ram as a siege weapon was to smash the fortifications of castles and other enemy structures. It was a simple large heavy wooded log that required several men to carry and swing it to break through the defenses of the enemy army.

While effective at demolishing gates or wall defenses, it did leave the men who carried it in a vulnerable exposed position, defenceless against attack from arrows, boiling water and other projectiles.

7. Bombards (cannon or mortar)

Although known to have been in existence since the 12th century, particularly in China, iron cast mortar cannons weren’t used in England until the early 14th century, when Edward III deployed them during battles with the French, such as Crecy in 1346.

Bombards were ideal as siege weapons as they were large calibre artillery weapons, designed to shoot large stone projectiles at the walls of enemy fortifications. Granite balls were also used as projectiles, as deployed by the Knights of Saint John in Rhodes.  

8. The ribauld (organ gun)

Also known as a ribauldequin or organ, the ribauld was a mobile device on wheels containing many small-caliber iron barrels set on a platform. When the gun was activated, it fired the missiles in a volley like a modern machine gun, creating a shower of iron bolts towards its target. 

Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch of ribauldequins.

9. Siege tower

Essentially a tall wooden tower on a frame with wheels, the siege tower could be pushed up against castle walls allowing attackers to climb ladders or stairs inside the tower. The robust structure allowed a degree of protection from enemy fire of arrows or other projectiles.

Due to their size, siege towers were usually used after other attempts to enter a fortification had taken place and were often built at the location of battle. First used by ancient Romans, Assyrians and Babylonians before they were introduced into Europe in the middle ages, they became increasingly sophisticated allowing up to 200 soldiers to be mobilised to strategic points as they were moved. 

Richard Bevan