About the Stonebow in the Medieval and Victorian Periods

Added 21 March 1998

[Stonebow string]

There are a number of weapons similar in design to the crossbow. A ballista for example, is basically a very heavy crossbow used as a light siege engine. Of the portable off-shoots of the crossbow though, the stonebow was debatably the most common. Depending on the source, the stonebow was first mentioned in Europe in the 14th. century (Paterson, p. 92), or it was developed circa 1500 (Payne-Gallwey, p. 158). [Early Stonebow]
A child's stonebow that typifies early stonebow designs (circa 1300-1500)
(Click to enlarge)

Regardless of it's provenance, the first stonebow was relatively weak, with a draw weight circa 50 pounds. The horizontal range of these light-powered bows was only around 20 meters. Obviously, such a bow could only be used for sport, and never for battle. Even the more powerful versions developed in later years never saw combat. The most significant design difference between the crossbow and the stonebow is the tiller. The tiller of the stonebow is curved downward between the latch and the prod. This design modification was made to accomodate the double string of the stonebow. [Early Stonebow] The stonebow has two strings (as shown above) in order to allow for a pocket (at left) to place the stone, pellet, or bullet into. The early stonebows had a twine pocket. Another design difference is related to the low power of early stonebows. The trigger/release mechanism is a star pattern, which can only be used for weak bows. Due to the weight variability of stones, clay balls or steel bullets were most used with stonebows.

As mentioned, the stonebow was used for sporting purposes only. It was primarily used to kill small game animals such as birds and rabbits. It was also used to practice at marks. Stonebows were used by both men and women.

[Stonebow being spanned]A more powerful version, sometimes referred to as a latch, was introduced in Germany around 1600. It had a slim steel bar for a stock with a built-on lever for spanning (at left). These stonebows were approximately four times more powerful than their predecessors. [Crosstree]The double string was introduced, with cross-trees to hold the strings apart (at right). According to Paterson (p. 93), these were usually made from ivory or horn, but occasionally from brass. The cross-trees on earlier stonebows were usually made of wood (Paterson, p. 93). The cord cradle of previous designs was replaced with a leather pocket. Early models of the improved stonebow still only had a "V" rear sight.

The stonebow reached it's height of popularity between 1760 and 1810. The designs of the period, as well as later versions, remained popular even after the invention of the gun, probably due to their silence when shooting. Unfortunately, this trait made the stonebow a good weapon for poachers.

By 1800, the stonebow is more accurately called a bullet-shooting crossbow due to various design changes. These changes included greater power, a better lock, and an improved lever for bending the bow. These new bows were apparently only used in England.
[Late model Stonebow]
Bullet-shooting crossbow (circa 18th. century)
For more information on stonebows, I would recommend the following books: A Guide to the Crossbow by W.F. Paterson, and The Book of the Crossbow by Ralph Payne-Gallwey. The Paterson book has some good historical information, but for an abundance of technical information, the Payne-Gallwey book has no equal that I have found. In the later are excellent schematics and drawings of every aspect of the stonebow, along with descriptions of how to make each part of the stonebow.

[Stonebow string]

Payne-Gallwey, Ralph, "The Book of the Crossbow", published by Dover Publications, Mineola, New York, 1995. ISBN 0-486-28720-3.

Paterson, W.F., "A Guide to the Crossbow", published by the Society of Archer-Antiquities, 1990. No ISBN.

[Stonebow string]

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