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History Of The Trebuchet  - History and Mechanics of the Counterweight Trebuchet

History and  Mechanics  of  the Trebuchet See a Trebuchet Animation
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The Trebuchet
Fig. 211 - The Trebuchet

The arm is fully wound down and the tackle of the windlass is detached from in. The stone is in the sling and the engine is about to be discharged by pulling the slip-hook off the end of the arm.

N.B.- A Roman soldier is anachronistically shown in this picture. The trebuchet was invented after the catapult and the time of the Romans


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The Trebuchet
from The Crossbow
by Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey 1903

This engine was of much more recent invention than either the catapult or the ballista of the Greeks and Romans. It is said to have been introduced into siege operations by the French in the twelfth century. On the other hand, the catapult and the ballista were in use before the Christian era. Egiclio Colonna gives a fairly- accurate description of the trebuchet and writes of it about 1280 as though it were the most effective siege weapon of his time.

The projectile force of this weapon was obtained from the terrestrial gravitation of a heavy weight, and not from twisted cordage as in the catapult and balista.


From about the middle of the thirteenth century, the trebuchet in great measure superseded the catapult. This preference for the trebuchet was due to the fact that it was able to cast stones of 300 lbs. and more in weight or five or six times as heavy as those which the largest catapults could project.

The stones of 50 to 60 lbs. thrown by siege catapults would no doubt destroy towers and battlements, as the result of the constant and concentrated bombardment of many engines. One huge stone of 300 lbs., as slung from a trebuchet, would however shake the strongest defensive masonry and easily break through the upper parts of the walls of a fortress.

The trebuchet was essentially an engine for destroying the defences of a fortification , so that it might be entered by means of scaling ladders or in other ways. From experiments with models of good size and from other sources I find that the largest trebuchets those with arms of about 50 ft. in length and counterpoises of about 20,000 lbs. - were capable of slinging a Stone 300 lbs. in weight to a distance of 300 yards, a range of 350 yards being in my opinion more than these engines were able to attain.

The trebuchet made by order of Napoleon III., and described in his ' Etudes sur l'artillerie,' had an arm 33 ft. in length with a counterpoise of 10,000 lbs. weight to work it. This machine projected a 50 lb. cannon-ball 200 yards, but was so lightly constructed that its full power could not be safely applied.

The Action Of The Trebuchet
Fig. 212 - The Action of The Trebuchet

A. The arm pulled down and secured by the slip-hook previous to unhooking the rope of the windlass. B. The arm released from the slip-hook and casting the stone out of its sling. C. The arm at the end of its upward sweep
Learn more about how a trebuchet works.


Trebuchet with its Arm Being Wound Down

Fig. 213 - A Trebuchet with its Arm Being Wound
Down

Criticism.- Here we have a trebuchet with an arm
at least 60 ft. in length. An engine of such immense
sizes as this would require a score of men at its
windlass instead of a couple. The heavy stone was
placed in the great sling of thick netting which
is suspended to the end of the arm.
The sling was identical in its action with the
one given in fig. 212.


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In a book on ' Experimental Philosophy,' by J.T. Desaguliers, 1734 a curious and interesting old work on mechanical effects, the author gives a detailed calculation of the power of a trebuchet, together with plans of the engine as constructed from the writings of Vitruvius.

These drawings are, however, inaccurate, and though Desaguliers' conclusions are exact, he only allows the trebuchet a counterpoise of 2,000 lbs. which would be far too light a weight to be of any service in an engine of the kind.

The trebuchet is sometimes depicted in medieval books with an arm like that of a catapult  (i.e. with a hollow in the end of the arm in which to rest the stone), and without a sling , but this is incorrect.

The trebuchet always had a sling in which to place its missile.

The sling doubled the power of the engine and caused it to throw its projectile twice as far as it would have been able to do without it.

It was the length of the arm, when suitably weighted with its counterpoise, which combined with its sling gave power to the trebuchet. Its arm, when released, swung round with a long easy sweep and with nothing approaching the velocity of the much shorter arm of the catapult.

The weight of the projectile cast by a trebuchet was governed by the weight of its counterpoise. Provided the engine was of sufficient strength and could be manipulated, there was scarce a limit to its power. 


Numerous references are to be found in medieval authors to the practice of throwing dead horses into a besieged town with a view to causing a pestilence therein, and there can be no doubt that trebuchets were employed for this purpose. As a small horse weighs about 10 cwt., we can form some idea of the size of the rocks and balls of stone that trebuchets were capable of slinging.

When we consider that a trebuchet was able to throw a horse over the walls of a town we credit credit the statement of Stella who writes ‘that the Genoese armament sent against Cyprus in 1373 had among other great engines one which cast stones of 12 cwt.’

Villard de Honnecourt  describes a trebuchet that had a counterpoise of sand the frame of which was 12 ft. long, 8 ft. broad, and 2 ft. deep. That such machines were of vast size will readily he understood.

Leonardo da Vinci described a trebuchet for defense of a fortification and a study of  sling release in his notebooks.

The Arm Of The Trebuchet

Fig. 214 -
Front and Side View


Trebuchets Throwing Barrels

Fig. 215 - Trebuchets Throwing Barrels Filled With  Earth Into The Ditch Outside A Fortress So As  To Enable The Besiegers To Pass Over It And  Apply Their Scaling Ladders To The Walls.

Criticism - A very elaborate and fanciful drawing. The counterpoise of the nearer engine could not swing back between the uprights, and it and the other engine would each require at least six men to work the windlasses.

The barrels would not be projected 30 yards and the men working the engines would be slain by the archers on the battlements of the besieged fortress.

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For instance, twenty-four engines taken by Louis IX at the evacuation of Damietta ill 1249, afforded timber for stockading his entire camp ;3 a trebuchet used at the capture of Acre by the Infidels in 1291, formed a load for an hundred carts ; 4 a great engine that cumbered the tower of St. Paul at Orleans and which was dismantled previous to the celebrated defence of the town against the English in 1428-9, furnished twenty six cart loads of timber)

All kinds of articles besides horses, men, stones and bombs were at times thrown from trebuchets. Vassaf records 'that when the garrison of Delhi refused to open the gates to Ala'uddin Khilji in 1296, he loaded his mangonels with bags of gold and shot them into the fortress, a measure which put an end to the opposition.'  Figs 211, 212 & 214, explain the construction and working of the trebuchet.
 
 
 
 
 
 

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History and  Mechanics  of  the Trebuchet

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