Bullet-Shooting Crossbows

A Dissertation by GT

Added 15 April 2000

[Stonebow string]

After a series of conversations with a person I will refer to only as "GT" regarding a bullet-shooting crossbow in his possession, he sent me an interesting e-mail about learning about this strange contraption that he had. I found it highly entertaining and informative, and wanted to share it with you (with his permission, of course). The disclaimers have been made at GT's request, after further conversations with him.

[Stonebow string]

As I have said, I absolutely love it when truth is stranger than fiction. After years of looking at a small crossbow with no string and a sort of small harpoon that somehow just did not fit or make any sense, my wife ends up inheriting it from her Father. I wish he was here to learn what I have learned because I know he would be just tickled.

We had it appraised by one of the very best, Eric Vaule, from Connecticut. He was the first person who knew it was a "stonebow". He just told me that it had a pouch that held a stone or lead pellet and that is as much as he would tell me. He can be really rude-like and blunt, but he has actually been very helpful and treated me well for the most part. He has recently been involved with the Museum Of Modern Art (MOMA) in some antique arms displays, and he is involved with The Gun Report magazine, which is all about the collecting and history of weapons. They are always looking for articles and I should develop one about this piece and how it works. [AUTHOR'S NOTE: It should be understood that in a world of arms appraisers, who I hear are dropping by the wayside because none of them want to guarantee things anymore, I think that Mr. Vaule is the best you could find. Encourage folks to subscribe to The Gun Report. They are in Aledo,IL. they are the best. Mr Vaule does the arms values list for them. He can also help you get what you want, especially if you want something fine.]

So time goes by and the thing is only two feet by eighteen inches, so it doesn't take up much room, but it is like having a car with no wheels, or the Brooklyn Bridge with absolutely no wires on it. It just doesn't make any sense. So I just set it aside and worked on Colts and Harpers Ferry Rifles.

Once I got a newsletter from Dixie Gun Works and they showed the Queens Armourer visiting their store. I got his name and called the British Consulate in Chicago and got the address of the Queens Armourer in the Tower or something, I forget, and I wrote him a nice letter and asked him what he knew about a stonebow marked Randoll Warden, and he wrote me a very nice letter telling me that he had never heard of a stonebow and didn't know anything about it. [AUTHOR'S NOTE: I went back and found the answer that I got back from the Queen's Armourer, and he said that he had heard of stonebows, but he realised that he did not know that much about them. He gave me the name of two books to consult, one of which is the Ralph Payne-Gallwey book, from which you sent me the info. He said that the stringing (I hope that is the correct word since I am somewhat new to this) that he had done was intended for display purposes and that he would refer me to a man in Switzerland who would guarantee his work. Rather than tell you his name I will just lay in the weeds on that for now. Got it if you need it. I suspect that could get expensive. I am in the process of buying Ralphs old book.]

Some day I am going to write a thing about RARITY. There are 6 billion people in the world. 5 of them know who Michael Jordan is. He is a big businessman with a personal trainer, Right? Not even the Queens Armourer knows what a stonebow is.

Wonder what would happen if you showed up on Antiques Roadshow with it.

So, just for the heck of it, I went to the web. A fellow could make some fast friends among kindred spirits out there. There is a guy someplace in England that did not know. There is a guy in Arizona who showed an interest, got back to me, even had comments from another guy, who I think sells crossbows, who said he made a stonebow once and shot himself in the eye with it and it wasn't funny. These fellows told me that I should get a copy of Ralph Payne-Gallwey's "The Crossbow" or "The Book Of The Crossbow" which was published in 1907 (three years before my father was born) and still in print. (!)

wolfsoul asked if I would like him to copy the pages and mail them to me, and I answered that, frankly that would be a big help.

Now one saturday afternoon I got the thing out and just looked at it. I had already spent some time once just trying to figure out just how it would shoot a stone, or lead pellet. Forget the harpoon, spear, arrow, I now knew that it was a 50's Antique Dealers B.S. Want a cute harpoon?

I did figure out how you cocked it, and how the catch released and where the trigger was, and the wild and crazy antennae out front was the sight. The thing that intrigued me was the emphasis on the sights. With sights like these, are we talking a regular repeating accurate weapon?

So I had some twine with beeswax all over it that I got from Warshawskys once to restitch the leather seats on the old MGB GT that CJVT drove for ten years and we just kept. I took the twine and made a bow string, and I had a little loop behind it, but I could not figure out how it would hold a lead ball. I figured I could 'smoke it' as Captain Aubrey would say, but I really would like to find out how they did it 'then'. I did make a string and it is as thick as your finger with all the whipping on it, and you could cock the steel bow and even release it. This stuff can be a bit frightening, since I was told that this piece was from about 1780 and who knows what kind of steel they pounded out back then. But I knew that I had not figured out the way the pouch was strung and I would most like to know how they really did it back then.

Today, I get a fat package in the mail from Brian, and as I drive to Clarendon Hills, CJVT reads it to me. It is unbelievable. It is so complete. This Payne-Gallwey fellow talks about the stonebow being something that was used in Italy, France, Germany, in the 1600's, but that the Bullet Shooting Crossbow is peculiarly English and was popular from 1800-1840. There is page after page of diagrams showing the weapon and how you use it and HOW TO STRING IT! What a guy this Ralph. He says that often you see these weapons in a country house and most times they are missing their string. Then he shows how it should be and a lot more.

He says they are for shooting "Rooks", and sometimes Rabbits. We drove a long ways discussing what a Rook might be. I say they are Pidgeons. Now just think about this. Back in 1830 you did not have Pizza places and Taco Bell, and yet at dinner time you were likely to come up hungry. If you kept some Pigeons and you wanted to EAT THEM, just how were you going to catch them and dispatch them so you could turn them into a meal. Are you going to run at them with a bag? Hit them with a stick?

You are hungry now. So you use your fine little stonebow to zap a few. I have no idea how they got the feathers off, Orvis now has a "Duck Plucker" that goes in your electric drill. We just buy our food at Dominics. Pretty soon we might buy our food at Target, when they get their gormet food departments up and running. (You think I'm kidding).

This is how you went out and got dinner in 1830. Ralph says you could shoot four shots a minute and that you could knock down several before the old Rooks became alarmed.

So I wrote all these words so far and now I will get to the point. You should see the way these guys rigged the string. Without the string the weapon looks like the Brooklyn Bridge without any wires. Let me try to describe it.

It starts out as TWO strings One up one down, going from one tip of the bow to the other. Halfway from the tip to the center, on each side, is a maybe, 1" (get this) vertical Ivory spacer, all whipped in, called a 'crosstree'. It's a spacer. In the center is two loops, one from the top string and one from the bottom. One comes down and one comes up and they are whipped together, and that is what the hook, or catch that holds the string back for firing, attaches to. If you can imagine that between the top loop is a piece of leather, added later and sewn in, that goes down and goes around in between the bottom loop. Imagine that when you attach the hook or catch to the appropriate place and begin to draw the string back, that the double string, from the crosstrees to the center starts to 'v' as it comes back. This squeezes down the leather 'pouch' and immediately holds the lead ball. So You load in the lead ball right at the start. You can carry the weapon with the ball in but uncocked until you need it and then finish cocking and then shoot. They talk about a 1/2 oz lead ball. The best distance is 25 yards. Ralph says the thing will shoot 300 yds if held at a 45 degree angle.

The fascinating thing to me is the sights. There is an antennae thing in front that gets a string with a bead as a front sight and the rear has a peep sight. Apparently you should be able to hit a playing card at 25 yards 8 out of 10 times.

I intend to restring this thing just as it should be, thanks to Ralph and Brian, and I may even look for Rooks. Now I must find out how Rooks were prepared. I had Squab once on an Airliner in the late 50's and Maybe Rook is as good as that. I will hold that thought as I pull out the feathers. [AUTHOR'S NOTE: The first time I looked up Rook in my old Websters, I must have been distracted and I did not see it. Today I went back to look up Rookery and there was Rook also. It is, "an abundant European corvine bird (Corvus frugilegus) about the size and color of the American Crow. So now I am wondering if they are just blasting them or if the Brits liked to eat Crow. Folks do swat bugs and blast varmits.]

If you have stayed with me this far you now have rare knowledge. You know more about English weapons than the Queens own men. In a world of 6 Billion, how rare is that?

This small weapon is very interesting. If you can imagine that Young Rook Pie is a fine dish, and if you sing that nursery rhyme about four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie, and if you read what Payne-Gallwey says about hitting a playing card 8 out of 10 times at 25 yards, and that you could shoot several young rooks before the old Rooks became alarmed, it sounds like the whole thing comes together as a food getting tool.

Some things are just rare. Ask any person what they know about Rooks and you will hear that they have heard of them but do not really know what they are. This whole thing is a tiny slice of old history that I am not sure I fully understand. Before this is all over I may even decide to try eating rabbit and squirrel, because there sure aren't any Rooks in Illinois.

Thanks Brian, I will let you know, soon.

[Stonebow string]

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