[Weapons 101] Trebuchet – Traction & Counterweight – Medieval Equipment

Trebuchets Traction Counterweight Medieal Weapons 101

[Weapons 101] Trebuchet – Traction & Counterweight – Medieval Equipment

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T-oFIGt8j0Y

Intro

“The word ‘trebuchet’ has been used for convenience to designate the rotating-beam siege machines, in the full knowledge that other terms were also used in the Middle Ages, and that the question of nomenclature remains unresolved.” (Hill, Donald R.: Trebuchets, in: France, John: Medieval Warfare, p. 271)
Now, since we covered that part, let’s get started. There are basically two types of trebuchets, the traction trebuchet, which was operated by men pulling ropes and the counterweight trebuchet, which provided the necessary force by using a counterweight.

Traction Trebuchet

Let’s begin with the traction trebuchet, which is an older and simpler design. It is assumed that it is a Chinese invention and made its way to Europe via the Arab world around the 9th century. (France, John: Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades 1000-1300, p. 119; Hill, Donald R.: Trebuchets, in: France, John: Medieval Warfare, p. 271-272) It was the dominant form of artillery in Western warfare during the period of 1000 to 1300 AD. (France, John: Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades 1000-1300, p. 119)
The traction trebuchet was a rather simple construction, the frame was static and connected to the dynamic beam with an axle. On one end of the beam was a nest, sling or other element for holding the payload attached and on the other end several ropes for men pulling down the beam in order to provide enough force to propel the payload. The beam was divided into two arms by the axle. (Hill, Donald R.: Trebuchets, in: France, John: Medieval Warfare, p. 274)

Some numbers

According to Donald Hill the most detailed account for traction trebuchets are from Chinese sources and he mentions the following numbers that are also similar to Arabic sources, but take them with a large grain of salt: (Hill, Donald R.: Trebuchets, in: France, John: Medieval Warfare, p. 274)
The relation in length for the long and short parts of the beam was 6:1 or 5:1 for light machines and 2:1 or 3:1 for heavy traction trebuchets. (Hill, Donald R.: Trebuchets, in: France, John: Medieval Warfare, p. 274; France, John: Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades 1000-1300, p. 119)
Now, the number of ropes in the illustration is not correct, they were usually around 40 to 125 ropes and pulled by 40 to 250. Yet, the highest given number in the records was up to 1200 men, which sounds ludicrously high. Thus, although it was a rather simple machine, the handling required quite some training and coordination. (Hill, Donald R.: Trebuchets, in: France, John: Medieval Warfare, p. 274 & 280)

The range of traction trebuchet was around 78 to 120 meters (255 ft – 390 ft). Whereas the payload was quite varied from 1 kg up to 59 kg (2 lbs to 130 lbs). (Hill, Donald R.: Trebuchets, in: France, John: Medieval Warfare, p. 274 & 280)

Now, one drawback of the Traction Trebuchet was that the men operating the machines had a varying pull on the ropes, thus the firing range was likely changed from shot to shot even without accounting for exhaustion. (France, John: Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades 1000-1300, p. 121) Something that was not the case with the Counter-weight Trebuchet, so let’s take a closer look at it.

Counterweight Trebuchet

Hill states about the Counterweight Trebuchet:
“This machine appears to have been invented somewhere in the Mediterranean area in the late twelfth century, and to have spread outward very rapidly from its point of origin into norther Europe and western Islam. But the question of the exact provenance of the invention, whether in Europe or in Islam, is not resolved.” (Hill, Donald R.: Trebuchets, in: France, John: Medieval Warfare, p. 275-276)

The Counterweight Trebuchet was more complex, instead of men pulling down the beam, another axle with a counterweight was fixed on the end of the beam. Furthermore, a mechanism for pulling down and fixating the long arm was added, which was usually a winch. (France, John: Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades 1000-1300, p. 121) The counterweight was filled with stone, sand, lead or other heavy material. (Hill, Donald R.: Trebuchets, in: France, John: Medieval Warfare, p. 276-277) Another major factor was the use of a long sling, which was not unique to the Counterweight trebuchet, but more on this later.

The beam ratio of the Counterweight Trebuchet was also around 5:1 or 6:1. From what we know it seems that counter-weight trebuchets were used with heavier missiles. From a 14th century siege (Tlemecen) marble missiles were recovered, the largest had a weight of 230 kilograms (510 lbs). There are other accounts for other sieges giving a value of about 250 kg (560 lbs). But the usual weight was probably more around 45 to 90 kg (100 to 200 lbs).

Now, let’s look at the range, there are no proper accounts according to Hill, but he assumes that 275 m (900 ft) should be correct. (Hill, Donald R.: Trebuchets, in: France, John: Medieval Warfare, p. 277-278) Whereas another scholar notes that modern replicas suggest a range in the order of only 100-120 m, which would be about the same as the traction trebuchet. (France, John: Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades 1000-1300, p. 123)

Why did it took so long?

Now, at first look, it may be quite surprising why it took so long to develop the counterweight trebuchet, after all, it seems just a simple improvement, but Hill argues that is not the case. He notes:

“What is in fact surprising, when one comes to consider the dynamics of the counterweight trebuchet, is that it ever became a useful engine of war at all.” (Hill, Donald R.: Trebuchets, in: France, John: Medieval Warfare, p. 280)
Why is it a complicated design? One of the main difference to the traction trebuchet is the fact that a lot of force is applied on the beam, when the trebuchet is readied and held in position. Whereas the traction trebuchet had the force only applied for a short amount of time. Thus, the counter-weight trebuchet had to be constructed with a stronger beam, which reduces its effectiveness quite considerably. Yet, one would assume that proper calculations or laborious trial and errors of various variations could produce an effective counterweight-trebuchet. Yet, Hill notes that without the addition of a long sling, there was no possible combination that would have made it feasible weapon. The long sling, basically provided an almost weightless extension of the beam, thus providing the additional force that compensated for the increased weight of the beam. (Hill, Donald R.: Trebuchets, in: France, John: Medieval Warfare, p. 280-282)
Although, the counterweight-trebuchet was quite a feat in engineering, its influence on warfare was limited and the balance between offense and defense was not altered significantly. (France, John: Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades 1000-1300, p. 123)

Traction vs. Counterweight Trebuchet

Let’s take a short look at the main differences of the Traction and Counterweight Trebuchets:
(France, John: Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades 1000-1300, p. 123-124; Hill, Donald R.: Trebuchets, in: France, John: Medieval Warfare, p. 275-279)

The main advantages of the traction trebuchet were that it was faster and cheaper to build and needed no specialists, unlike the counterweight trebuchet. It was also easier to transport and had a higher rate of fire. Yet, during operations it needed a large amount of manpower.
The main advantages of the counterweight trebuchet were its ability to fire larger stones and require less manpower during operations. The major drawbacks were it a complex machine and required specialists that were rare and few.

In terms of operating, it depends to a certain degree on the perspective, which one was, Hill notes the following:
“The first [traction] required greater skill in handling, the second in design.” (Hill, Donald R.: Trebuchets, in: France, John: Medieval Warfare, p. 279)
But John France notes:
“The construction and operation of the counterweight-trebuchet was the province of specialist engineers, who were not always available, and it was ponderous to transport.” (France, John: Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades 1000-1300, p. 123)
Hence, it really depends how one defines as handling and/or operating. I assume if one includes maintenance into handling that the counterweight trebuchet was harder to handle.
Overall, both types of trebuchets were used together during sieges. Looking at their advantages and disadvantages, traction trebuchets were probably used for throwing light missiles, whereas the counter-weight trebuchets used for heavy stones.

Effectiveness

Which brings us to the next point, the overall effectiveness of trebuchets.
In movies and computer games Trebuchets are often shown as weapons that can destroy city walls and towers easily. Yet, this depictions seems to be a big over exaggerated.
John France notes:
“Uninterrupted action by massed forces of large machines would surely have smashed masonry in time, but the conditions in which large numbers of such machines could be gathered and operated were relatively rare, and before the end of the twelfth century there is little evidence of artillery smashing the main masses of castles and walled cities.” (France, John: Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades 1000-1300, p. 120)

Another aspect in attacking walls was, that the quality of the stones was very important, because if the stone shatters on the wall, the damage is quite limited. Thus, sometimes stones were transported a long way:
“At Acre, Richard used very hard stones brought from the West, which were so unusual that they were specially shown to Saladin.”” (France, John: Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades 1000-1300, p. 124)
[Siege of Acre (1189-1191)]

One can expect that only a limited number of these special stones were available and used. Furthermore, Hill assumes that light trebuchets were used to throw missiles into the city, whereas the heavy trebuchets were used for attacking the walls. (Hill, Donald R.: Trebuchets, in: France, John: Medieval Warfare, p. 284) Thus, counterweight trebuchets with hard stones were probably used against fortifications, whereas traction trebuchets were used to attack softer targets like buildings.

It is assumed that the usage of heavy missile throwers was far greater in siege warfare in the Middle East than in Western Europe. (France, John: Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades 1000-1300, p. 124)

Note that trebuchets were not only used in the offense, quite on the contrary, there were also used effectively by defenders. Since they could be mounted on towers they would also outrange the attacker’s machine. Defenders used trebuchets against siege towers and the enemy artillery, thus providing what we would call counter-battery fire nowadays. (France, John: Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades 1000-1300, p. 120)

Summary

To summarize, there were two main types of trebuchet that were used during the middle Ages. The traction trebuchet, which was a rather simple design were the force for firing was provided by men pulling down ropes. And the more complex counterweight Trebuchet were the force was provided by a counterweight, although it gives a rather simple impression, it was a quite complicated machine once you dive into the dynamics of it.
By the way if the concept of the traction trebuchet is too odd for you, you might check out the following real life video of one and for those who want to rebuild one in the sandbox game besiege, there is also at least one video.

[Check out this Video of a small modern rebuild of a real life traction trebuchet]

[Check out this video of a rebuild of traction trebuchet in the game Besiege]

Sources

Hill, Donald R.: Trebuchets, in: France, John: Medieval Warfare 1000-1300.

France, John: Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades 1000-1300

Nicolle, David: Medieval Siege Weapons

Contamine, Philippe: War in the Middle Ages

Ohler, Nobert: Krieg & Frieden im Mittelalter

McCotter, Stephen: Byzantines, Avars and the Introduction of the Trebuchet

Chinese Symbol for Invention

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