The Spanish tercio was the premier infantry unit of the late 15th and 16th century, as exemplified at their one-sided demolition of the French army at Pavia in 1525. The tercio was a mixed unit of pike and shot, where the shot took the form of the arquebus. The pikemen provided an impenetrable barrier behind which the gunners would have time to reload (30-60 seconds, or more) and fire in deadly volleys. With excellent defensive capability and excellent firepower in the short to medium range, tercios were regarded as nearly invincible for a century.

The pike was used in a similar fashion as long ago as Alexander and his sarissa-wielding phalanxes. Crossbows were used in Europe from the 11th century at least, and in China earlier.

In an alternate Earth with no technological changes from our own, is it possible for a crossbow and pike formation to achieve battlefield dominance in the 15th century (before the age of the arquebus)?


Possible reasons for the crossbow not being more highly esteemed in the 15th century include:

  • Social and political dominance of heavy horsemen
  • The best crossbows are made of steel, and steel weapons are expensive by the thousands

Some relevant information about crossbows:

  • The Genoese heavy crossbow of the 15th century weighted 18 lbs, had a pull of 1200 lbs, a range of 450 yards, and a reload time of 1 minute with a windlass.
  • The is no good hard data on accuracy, but a crossbow was probably less accurate than a bow and more accurate than the later arquebus.
  • The crossbow is claimed to be able to penetrate armor at 200 yards. A test of a modern bow against chain mail showed penetration from a 108 J arrow (this is the 70 lb pull, modern bow in the tests) at 20 yards. A replica 850 lb pull crossbow had firing energy of 147 J (3rd post down); so we could assume that a 1200 lb crossbow could reach maybe 200 J. The drop off of energy over distance is an open question.
  • Keep in mind also that the English longbow isn't producing any more energy than this, yet was effective against heavy cavalry at Crecy, Agincourt and other battles. A knight is just as well stopped by killing his horse, even if his plate mail resists all bolts.
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    $\begingroup$ the armies of the hispanic kingdoms did use pike,swordsmen, levy and crossbow combined formations, the wide usage of crossbow both in sea and land being one of the major keys to aragonese predominance on the mediterranean. $\endgroup$
    – CptEric
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 15:49
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    $\begingroup$ According to an archery champion I heard, it is actually impossible to aim with a medieval longbow, due to how much tension you have to put in the damn thing. Which shouldn't be a problem for the mass-volleys they used it for. On the other hand, a heavy crossbow with support can be aimed, and was indeed much more precise than an early arquebus. $\endgroup$
    – Eth
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 16:14
  • $\begingroup$ @CptEric Do you have some more evidence of that? Sounds like a good answer. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 16:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Eth The present tense suggests he meant that the amount of training needed is impractical for modern people who do not really need longbows for anything. And the amount of training needed really was pretty extreme even back when it was a weapon of strategic importance. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 17:14
  • $\begingroup$ @VilleNiemi Given that he is a professional athlete at an international level, I doubt the amount of training is a problem here. The type of training may be, as modern bows are, among many others, much lighter. However, I have the impression that much of the training went into being able to repeatedly fire the damn thing, let alone while keeping it high enough to fire at long range. $\endgroup$
    – Eth
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 17:21

7 Answers 7


To add on to AlexP's excellent answer, there is some historical precedence for pike-and-shot formations using crossbows to provide the shot: The Swiss.

While Swiss in the early Renaissance are known primarily for their pikemen, Swiss pike formations in the 15th century were regularly supported by crossbowmen. During the Italian Wars, at least ten percent of Swiss infantry formations were composed of crossbowmen (source). These were deployed in skirmish lines outside the pike formation, providing harassing fire while being able to retreat behind the pikemen if needed. This is not unlike the tercio, which used shot-armed wings to provide supporting fire to the main body of pikemen.

The tercio, like other early pike-and-shot formations, was not inherently reliant on the use of firearms to be effective. It was the combination of large numbers, strong discipline, and tactical independence that made them effective. Tercios were large formations able to move at surprising speed, and employ both pike and shot optimally in reaction to enemy movement.

While crossbows may not be as effective as arquebuses, and thus a crossbow-armed tercio will likely have more pike and less shot, the basic concept of the tercio still holds valid.

The issue with the alternate-history scenario, as AlexP noted, is that standing armies of well-trained and well-disciplined troops (as opposed to ad hoc levies, or smaller bands of mercenaries) only came to be economically practical at the same time that firearms began to displace crossbows.


Tercios are Renaissance and Early Modern, crossbows are Middle Ages.

The point of the tercio is that it was a combined arms unit; it had similar numbers of pikemen and musketeers, and all pikemen and all musketeers had to have uniform equipment. In the times when crossbows were viable weapons it was not feasible economically to equip as many crossbowmen as ordinary footmen. In those times, crossbowmen were quite usually mercenaries, usually Genoese, who came with their own equipment. When it became economically feasible, it was too late -- man-portable guns had become widespread. There was no window when crossbows were cheap enough to allow the formation of powerful combined arms units, and at the same time arquebuses were not available.

Medieval armies had unbelievably severe economic (and logistic) constraints; they were ephemeral constructions, because no king had enough revenue to maintain a standing army other than a token force of bodyguards. As a consequence, there was no professional infantry; the only professional fighters were mounted noblemen, who were never that many. Tercios were professional and very well drilled infantry, which did not exist in the time of crossbows. You cannot make a tercio out of newly conscripted peasants; like with the Macedonian phalanx, the pikemen and musketeers had to be drilled and drilled to be able to move in a massive compact formation, to keep unit cohesion, to obey orders, to hold the line no matter what.

Moreover, tercios were an offensive force. Their purpose was to defeat the enemy's infantry and take the field, while resisting attacks by enemy's cavalry. There were small combined arms units in the Middle Ages, but they were mostly defensive. The main role of crossbowmen was to protect cavalry.


Tactically, a pike and crossbow combined arms unit would have been effective during the Middle Ages. Too bad that nobody had enough money to equip and maintain such a large force of infantry as a professional standing army.

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Jan 31, 2018 at 22:27

No reason, aside from crossbows being out of fashion by the time the Tercios were officially created in the 1530's.

Actually, the first proto-tercios carried crossbows.

There's a quote from one of the Ordenanzas in 1497 (that I can't seem to find a full reproduction, dang):

Repartiéronse los peones en tres partes. El uno, tercio con lanzas, como los alemanes las traían, que llamaron picas; y el otro tenía nombre de escudados; y el otro, de ballesteros y espingarderos

(from the Spanish wiki https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tercio)

It describes the organization of a unit. Three parts: Pikemen, in the fashion of the Germans (or the Swiss?); sword & shield men (rodeleros); and the last third being crossbowmen and espingarderos (an ealier firearm).

This would soon evolve. The swordsmen third would be dropped and the crossbows and espingardas would be quickly substituted. By the time of Pavia (1525) only arquebuses and escopetas are mentioned.

As per AlexP's answer, the hurdle is not the equipment but keeping the organization and drilling in a time when crossbows were relevant.


The medieval Hispanic kingdoms of the Crown of Aragon (K. Aragon,K. Mallorca,K. València & the Catalonia princedom) did use crossbows as the key to support infantry or the navy.

The Royal galley of Peter IV had a defensive armarment, as stated by the late XV century re-edition of the royal navy ordinances, of 30 medium steel-arm crossbows, 64 dozens of medium bolts, 25 dozens of heavy bolts, 8 heavy crowssbows with loading mechanism, 100 pavise shields with the king's insignia, 34 round shields, 125 8ft pikes, 4 partisan spears, 86 long pikes, and 136 cuirasses.

The same king ordered in 1361 to the Jaca armoursmiths to hand to the royal armoury the amounts of:

  • 33,000 crossbow bolt heads
  • 500 pavise shields
  • 500 spear heads
  • 300 pike heads
  • 200 cuirasses
  • 200 helmets
  • 200 neckguards
  • 250 heavy crossbow bolt heads

Not only that, he also ordered specifically to enlist experienced crossbowmen.

En abril de 1361, desarrolló una función similar Lope de Gurrea, quien envió a dos escuderos por orden del rey a Jaca, Barbastro y Aínsa para acordar ballesteros. Mediante pregones, varios corredores publicaron que recibirían salario quienes supieran tirar con ballesta y decidieran aceptar la convocatoria

In real life

A group of reenactors I know has been recovering for the last 3 years the equipment of the XIII and XIV century Aragonese armies, and have made a small compendium of comparisions between their current equipment, based on archaeological finds and in the descriptions, texts, or imagery.

enter image description here

enter image description here

these paintings are placed in the El tinell room, Royal palace, Barcelona.

enter image description here

To finish, here are the mechanism, loading systems and structure of a XIII century aragonese crossbow.

enter image description here

I have to find yet the book that depicts and describes formally the strategies, (can't remember the name right now), but the idea basically was that they ordered the infantry to march in columns of two to three rows of shield and spear men, followed by several rows of pikes, with crossbows behind and on the flanks, and light infantry with them on the flanks.

  • $\begingroup$ Oh. So that crossbow was reloaded by slightly kneeling, hooking chord with hook attached to belt and standing up? That's clever and simple. $\endgroup$
    – M i ech
    Commented Jan 31, 2018 at 16:28
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    $\begingroup$ @Miech yup, i've done it personally and it makes reloading quite quick and stress-less. way easier than by hand. $\endgroup$
    – CptEric
    Commented Feb 1, 2018 at 7:12

Only with vastly more resources, particularly highly skilled labour, than were generally available, there's no mass production in the 15th century, and no standardisation/quality control so weapons were really expensive and pretty variable in their effectiveness individually. The more complex the weapon the worse this issue was; crossbows were and are mechanically complex weapon systems making them expensive to manufacture compared to the melee weapons and armour of the day.

The thing is that the tercio is just one example of the combined arms formation, which has been around since Roman times at least, they used Javelins and Pila to give their heavy infantry ranged punch and it gave them battlefield superiority for centuries, particular techniques come and go but the idea is the same make your enemies defensive options mutually exclusive.

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Jan 31, 2018 at 22:28

The Janissary corps of the Ottoman army began using matchlock muskets as early as the 1440s. The army of Mehmed the Conqueror, which conquered Constantinople in 1453, included both artillery and foot soldiers armed with gunpowder weapons.

So, there were gunpowder weapons prior to the 16th century (primarily muskets, handcannons, and handgonnes).


Nevertheless, and more importantly, it's not always the technology that wins a war, but how effectively it's used. There are many historical instances where training, leadership, and fluid tactics have overcome much larger and better outfitted opposition (The Battle of Tolvajärvi is a great example).

In conclusion: Yes. A well trained, well funded, organized military, comprised of crossbow and pike units, could certainly achieve dominance.

Side note:
Psychological warfare can also provide significant advantages -- as long as it's not leveraged on heavily. Having an army with an intimidating appearance is one of the simplest approaches.
As an example, I made the following, extremely rough concept art (specifically for this post) for a helmet that could be made from standard leather.
It would still offer some protection, but would be easier and cheaper to produce. If it were to be coated with metal flakes, it would likely be indistinguishable from metal to enemy forces.
This is just one example of how an army, with limited funds, could still achieve the upper-hand. enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ I don't really see any evidence for your conclusion. You talk mostly about firearms, not about crossbows. Regarding psychological warfare, this seems like a trick that would only work once or twice. Once you've seen a scary helmet in battle, its a lot less scary. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 16:53
  • $\begingroup$ I was just pointing out that there were personal firearms during that time, but they were largely not much more effective than traditional, personal projectile weapons. To your point of an army being "less scary" -- that would only be true if they were easily defeated in battle. If they were the victors (or even if they lost, but killed far more men) then their appearance would carry an even greater intimidation effect than it did the first time. As I said, that was just a single example of a simple, psychological warfare approach. psywarrior.com/psyhist.html $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 17:15
  • $\begingroup$ Also, it really doesn't matter whether they're using crossbows, longbows, or slingshots. If they're effective with their weapon, and the enemy armor doesn't negate it, then it's possible for them to be effective. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 17:23
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    $\begingroup$ Terrible helmet design. If you look at helmets that were meant to be used in combat (or today in safety), you'll note they tend to be smooth and rounded in order to deflect blows, whether by projectile, handheld weapon, or falling objects. That helmet design ensures that if I take a swing at it, all the projecting edges will make sure my weapon doesn't deflect. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 20:56
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    $\begingroup$ @KeithMorrison -- It's primarily an example of an imposing visual that could be achieved with limited resources. If they were intended to be metal helmets, then I would completely agree with you. However, seeing how they're leather, I designed them to be layered (for added strength), but finned outward to be less hot. These are also meant for pikemen and crossbow men, so the goal is to keep enemies at a distance. The angles of this design are intended to offer minimal protection (deflection) against arrows, primarily if they’re facing towards the incoming fire. So, not bad for cheap. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 22:27

One of the big issues is not so much the technology available but the economics of warfare.

Medieval armies were largely based on networks of loyalty and obligation and while there were certainly highly skilled and well equipped individuals in medieval armies there was very little concept of a properly professional army.

Having a pool of well trained individuals to call on at need is one thing but maintaining professional units of foot soldiers who are well enough drilled to act in a coordinated way, especially as a single combined arms unit is quite another.

In the case of the Tercios there is a reasonable argument that it was the discipline and tactical mobility of the pike blocks which was the real source of their effectiveness and the ranged firepower was just the icing on the cake.

It is probably no coincidence that the first truly professional mercenary units were associated with the mercantile city states which defined the renaissance as these were the states which had a proper cash economy.


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