So as we know, a crossbow was an overpowered weapon in Medieval Ages. It is a kind of a game-breaker, as it could be operated by a untrained and unskilled person and penetrate armor on short distances. Suddenly, a peasant could take down an armored knight just like that. Nobles feared the crossbow and that is even why the Church banned its use.

Is there any other way the whole idea of a crossbow could be restricted/prevented/banned/silenced than just banning its use on the grounds of "your soul is going straight to hell if you use it against a fellow christian" ? (Considering our medieval setting doesn't have a powerful religious organization with influence as christian Church had in medieval Europe.)

Is there any way this invention could be prevented altogether?

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    $\begingroup$ crossbows were around long before medieval times, Romans used a big one called a ballista, but they got it from much older weapons $\endgroup$ – Kilisi May 21 '17 at 23:34
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    $\begingroup$ Picts used them ever earlier and in handheld form. $\endgroup$ – Mormacil May 21 '17 at 23:39
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    $\begingroup$ the Greeks had the ancestor the gastraphetes en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gastraphetes $\endgroup$ – John May 21 '17 at 23:45
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    $\begingroup$ Preventing the development of rudimentary metal working would prevent them from having something strong enough to use as a release mechanism, but that'll probably bork your whole setting. Preventing commoners from having access to metals might do it. It's not completely bizarre to think of a ruling class working overtime to ensure that the ways and means of obtaining and shaping metals is under their exclusive control, as long as the ore veins aren't just laying around everywhere like they sometimes actually were. $\endgroup$ – Sean Boddy May 22 '17 at 6:46
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    $\begingroup$ @SeanBoddy That only works for platearmor defeating crossbows. Greeks and Chinese made their crossbows out of wood. $\endgroup$ – Mormacil May 22 '17 at 9:21

12 Answers 12


You are putting far too much stock in the crossbow as a weapon, depending on where development is at for it. There are distinct disadvantages to the cross bow.

  • It's more complicated to manufacture and therefore more expensive. It also needs specialized bolts for the particular model.
  • While it takes no training, the person loading it is vulnerable and the rate of fire is much, much lower than a regular arrow. While it can be a devastating weapon, being vulnerable is an important consideration.
  • For actual warfare,the crossbow gives more of a straight shot rather than an arched shot. While this is advantageous against a single opponent, on the battlefield if your men are between you and the enemy, it's more difficult than say, a long bow. (This is why an untrained man can use it--it's more point and shoot than a regular bow, although angled shots can be utilized in certain circumstances).

True, it takes less training to use, and goes through armor, but it often took a team of people in order to use it--to defend the archer, and to load it. (They would often have two crossbows on hand, one that was being loaded by another member of the team and one that was being fired, and they would trade between).

But as to the main question, could it be prevented altogether? No. It's an early invention and it would not make sense for it not to exist. However, there are ways to limit access, which have nothing to do with the church.

  • Crossbows are expensive and rare. So are the bolts.
  • Taverns and cities don't allow them in city limits without a license. The right to bear arms is given to a limited number of people.
  • It's only allowed for warfare, issued by the local lord and you would only be allowed to keep it under special circumstances.
  • No crossbow maker wants to issue a crossbow to just anyone. OR they only do so in batches when a lord orders them for warfare.

Treat them a bit like guns in your setting. Socially and otherwise. In the country, everyone has guns for hunting and such, but carrying a gun around in a city, or a school campus is like to result in panic and/or questions. We know not to do it, generally. Add to that the fact that they are hard to conceal...

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    $\begingroup$ +1 If crossbows had been such a great thing, we'd had heard of many battles decided by crossbow power, just like we know of many battles were more number of/more accurate/more powerful guns were the sole key for victory. Crossbows were much more feared because of its potential use as a sniper weapon during peace times than because of its performance at battle. $\endgroup$ – Rekesoft May 22 '17 at 10:04
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    $\begingroup$ To be fair, the Qin dynasty used crossbows to more or less take over the known world. $\endgroup$ – Sean Boddy May 22 '17 at 12:34
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    $\begingroup$ I don't know much about the Qin dinasty, but I haven't found any references about any of their battles being won by crossbows alone - or mainly. Actually, the wikipedia page on the Qin dinasty taks about the "legalist doctrine" - chosing pragmatism and ruthless eficacy over honor traditions - and advanced logistics as keys of their success. It also mentions "having the most advanced weaponry of their time", but it doesn't single out the crossbows as anything special. $\endgroup$ – Rekesoft May 22 '17 at 13:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Mormacil I question your assessment of the speed of a longbow - a trained bowmen could easily fire off multiple shots in rapid succession, especially as part of a volley where accuracy was less critical than the sheer volume of arrows let loose. $\endgroup$ – Isaac Kotlicky May 22 '17 at 15:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Rekesoft Yes, it was more a sniper weapon than it was a deciding factor of war. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby May 22 '17 at 15:46


You could certainly have a world in which there were no materials suitable for building a crossbow, although this might make regular bows and arrows also impossible to build, and might require significant deviations from a typical medieval fantasy setting.

A Lack Of Adequate Crossbow Making Materials

For example, you could have a world in which there were no good supplies of the kind of wood suitable for making a crossbow (e.g. consider the kinds of wood available in Hawaii, or the Sahara desert, or Death Valley, or Greenland, or "Waterworld", or an everglades scale swamp with no big trees that make suitable wood). In a world with only bamboo, or only shrubby small and thin woods, if any, or no wood at all, it would be very hard to build a crossbow.

(This is probably the best "hard science" solution.)

In a close variant of this possibility, it would theoretically be possible to make a crossbow, but the materials would be so expensive, that it would be far cheaper to train people to use other kinds of projectiles.

Or, maybe there is an absence of the kind of plant or animal fibers that are suitable to stretch for enough pounds of draw to make a crossbow or bow viable as a weapon.

In variants of that possibility, maybe it is so hard to stretch the bowstring fiber relative to the draw strength involved that no one is strong enough to pull it and no one has figured out how to use simple machines to draw the string, or maybe the only fabric that is suitable for use as a bow string can only be used once after which it loses all elasticity.

An Environment Hostile To Inventing A Crossbow

You could also have a world in which the utility of a crossbow was so low that nobody would bother to invent them.

For example, imagine a place that is almost always fogged over (e.g. in a mountain top cloud bank or an exaggerated version of London), or a place so dark that only firefly-like glowing plants provide illumination for very short ranges. In that environment, long range weapons would be useless.

Or, maybe the local atmosphere is so thick to the point of being almost gelatinous, or has such a strong gravitational field, that projectiles swiftly slow down even when propelled powerfully. Of course, this would profoundly influence a whole host of elements of your world.

A Lack Of Demand In A Militarized World

As implied in the question and noted in another answer, for many purposes, a crossbow is inferior to a bow in the hands of a skilled practitioner.

A crossbow can still have utility if you have lots of untrained peasants and you want them to fight with projectile weapons. But, if your world is full of places like legendary Sparta, where every able bodied person was trained for war from early childhood, the crossbow would fill a need that didn't exist, and no one would invent one.

Alternately, there might be an alternative that is just better in all respects than a crossbow that is easily to use. For example, maybe someone invents a "tandem bow" that requires one unskilled strong person to draw and notch, and another skilled person who need not be physically strong to aim, and each sub-task is much easier to teach than having one person do everything, that outperforms a crossbow in all respects.

Effective Countermeasures

There could also be countermeasures easily available that makes a crossbow an invention that isn't worth the trouble.

Maybe your world has a special kind of cork that is easily and cheaply produced and easily applied to armor, that functions like Kelvar and easily absorbs the blow of arrows and crossbow bolts distributing the energy harmlessly across the entire body of the person wearing the armor.

Or, maybe your world has extremely fast, easily trained and loyal companion birds to soldiers who are capable of rushing out and grabbing arrows and crossbow bolts with their beaks in the blink of an eye.

Or, maybe it has giant companion frogs who sit on a soldier's shoulders who can shoot out their tongue and grab arrows or bolts out of the air.

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    $\begingroup$ ...or an environment hostile to crossbows. Bowstring is sensitive to insect damage and the three "M"s: mold, mildew, mice :) $\endgroup$ – jvb May 22 '17 at 5:24
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    $\begingroup$ Swarms of hostile beavers roam the land, destroying all wooden weapons that dishonor Margula, God of lakes and woods, by adding to them metals. $\endgroup$ – The Nate May 22 '17 at 8:55
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your inventive ideas and the answer :) I really appreciate this. $\endgroup$ – Jotunn May 23 '17 at 2:16

No. As Kilisi mentions the Romans employed a ballista, for all intents and purposes an oversized crossbow. But it's not an isolated invention either. Crossbows have been used all over Europe and Asia.

The Picts have been known to use a crossbow for at least as long and that one was handheld. Still the Greeks are likely even earlier. They even constructed large repeating crossbows in 200 B.C. In China they had a handheld repeating crossbow around 200 A.D. In fact the handheld crossbow was a standard infantry weapon in China before even the Roman Empire was a thing.

However a sliver of hope for you. It was never developed in the Americas. I'd argue that this is largely because they never really left the Stone Age. Which is totally at odds with your medieval setting.

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ 200 AD for Chinese handheld REPEATING crossbows, but China had handheld REGULAR crossbows we have found made of wood and brass dating to 400 BC. The Art of War by Sun Tsu mentioned crossbows well before this time, possibly before 500BC. $\endgroup$ – Ronk May 22 '17 at 7:43
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah that last mention about crossbows before the Roman empire was about China, kinda butchered that before I went to bed. $\endgroup$ – Mormacil May 22 '17 at 9:19
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    $\begingroup$ Would lack of metal do the trick? $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak May 22 '17 at 10:05
  • $\begingroup$ No metal at all? Probably though I'd argue no metal would lead to a stone-age civilization akin to mesoamerica and not a mediëval society. If they have access to limited amount of bronze the greek design works fine. You can probably go with hardwood as well though I bet it would fail more often. $\endgroup$ – Mormacil May 22 '17 at 11:48
  • $\begingroup$ With no metal, you wouldn't need the stopping power of the crossbow, which is one of its advantages over the bow. $\endgroup$ – Marshall Tigerus May 22 '17 at 20:19

Use another tool, Honor.

I also agree that the physicality of making this simple machine cannot be denied--especially if you desire short or long bows in your world. However, you don't have to resort to strict authoritarian rule to abolish them from your world. Use a societal/social honor system.

"Crossbows are dishonorable. Only a coward would use them, and we don't abide cowards in our society." he said to his eager apprentice.

"But even a peasant could easily use one to defend his country!" the apprentice insisted.

"Even the lowliest peasant has training with sword and bow, and would die with either in his hand before setting grip on one of those contraptions. Only the (insert ancient society name here) have ever used anything like that, and they were wiped clean from the lands--all of them. What for, you ask? For using those things and tipping them with poison, even. Cowards, the lot of them. Speak no more of it!"

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    $\begingroup$ That's the easy way to die an honourable death while a group of peasants with crossbows take your country under the leadership of a man with no such qualms. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix May 22 '17 at 9:01
  • $\begingroup$ This is why knights got their asses handed over by Genghis Khan. $\endgroup$ – Mephistopheles May 22 '17 at 9:01

No one thought of it

There is one very simple answer. No one has thought of it. If you are re-writing history anyway, this would be a very simple answer. It is amazing how extremely simple ideas will go undiscovered/un-thought of.

Examples being the internal combustion engine, which was used as far back as the Romans for sawmills and mining, but no one thought to put it in a vehicle.

Or silk, which is just silk worms and water, but legend has it, it took a worm accidentally falling into tea in order to invent it.

Native Americas never really invented the wheel (though wheels were used as toys) nor the arch nor copper, bronze, steel, gunpowder weapons etc. Just because it is simple doesn't mean it is easy to think of and invent it.

  • $\begingroup$ The Wikipedia page for the internal combustion engine cites the ancient use of cranks and connecting rods. It says nothing about the Romans using an internal combustion engine for anything. $\endgroup$ – David K May 23 '17 at 12:05
  • $\begingroup$ They used the concept, not the ICE itself as we know it, which was sort of the point I was trying to get at. The way I remember it from history class, they would turn the crankshaft which would cause the pistons to pull water, so sort of backwards from the way a modern ICE in a car works. $\endgroup$ – theinvisibleduck May 23 '17 at 16:51
  • $\begingroup$ There's a huge difference in technology between a piston that pumps water and a piston driven by combustion inside the same cylinder. You might as well ask why nobody built an electric power grid for thousands of years after wires were developed. It wasn't a failure of creative application of technology; the necessary technology to be applied simply didn't exist. $\endgroup$ – David K May 23 '17 at 18:41
  • $\begingroup$ They had a Steam Engine of sorts(en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aeolipile) and pistons and rods. In my opinion knowing that, a crude ICE doesn't seem like a big jump. How hard it would be to do is obviously debatable, but is less relevant to this question than that the components for the idea existed. $\endgroup$ – theinvisibleduck May 23 '17 at 20:00
  • $\begingroup$ In the same sense, the medieval Chinese had the technology for a moon shot. Which is to say, they didn't really. There's "hard to do" and then there's "inconceivably hard until we develop the necessary metallurgy and other techniques for a few centuries" hard. $\endgroup$ – David K May 23 '17 at 20:16

Is there any way this invention could be prevented altogether?

No, crossbows were around long before medieval times and they are a logical engineering extension of bows. Romans had a big one called a ballista for example but they got it from elsewhere so it's much older than that. They're thought to have been handheld before 400 BCE in Central Asia.

Forbidding them might work, but not in times of total war when all rules are thrown in the bin. Unsure that would solve your problem anyway, other bows were capable of the same piercing and were faster.

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    $\begingroup$ Following up on your answer... in order to successfully forbid a weapon, you need terrain that's completely isolated from everywhere else, inhabited by people with a strong central government and who value hierarchy and obedience. (Tokugawa Japan springs to mind.) $\endgroup$ – RonJohn May 22 '17 at 0:00

No nails screws or dowel pegs have been invented. Any wooden object has to be carved from a single piece of wood. Do you have wheels? Do you need them? mud roads or slippery rocks laid out on roads make pulling skids by animal possible without moving parts like axles to make wheels. This would mean the trigger system for the bows would be impossible.

If you have wheels, the trees for the axles have to be huge to survive the stress, because trees on your world are flexible and weak (making regular bows possible) but small axles for triggers and other mechanical parts are too brittle. Only by making them too large to be handheld would they be possible. No one wants to build a crossbow that takes 6 horses to haul... they and it would sink into the mud.

Anyone seeing a giant machine pulled by six horses would have time to move away before they could aim at you, making it very impractical. If it is to be used against a stationary castle, the fields surrounding the castle can be flooded, making the mud impassible for miles around, like a swamp. The crossbow might even float away in the current. Trenches or even tree roots could slow its journey towards you. Horses could be slaughtered or poisoned in the night by spies leaving humans to pull their awkward invention themselves. The monster contraption would have to fire whole trees as arrows, and would take 3-4 hours to load in between shots. Less range than a jousting field (Is it called a "List"?)

It would become an epic tale of failure sang by the bards for generations, a combination of McBeth and Custer's Last Stand. "The Tale of the Too-Big Bow" would be told around the campfires of warriors for 30 generations, with characters making sound effects like The Three Stooges. It would become the Anti-Tale of The Trojan Horse. People would laugh at you less if you glued feathers to yourself and jumped off a cliff trying to fly. (only to be eaten by a giant bird before you hit the ground.)

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting thoughts, but i find it hard to picture a medieval setting with the restrictions you describe. Sounds more stone-agey to me. $\endgroup$ – Burki May 22 '17 at 9:30
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    $\begingroup$ I love the part about the epic tale of failure sang by the bards for generations! :D Great read, sir! $\endgroup$ – Jotunn May 23 '17 at 2:22

Make the wood suitable for making regular bows brittle, and needs to be bundled together in stacks, making regular bows heavy.. but a crossbow would be TOO heavy. You do want regular bows in this world correct? As you are only singling out the crossbow, I assumed so. Also, the extra dimension of the handle sticking down makes them fill a larger volume of space, causing it to get easily tangled on low branches or vines.


You don't have trees or forest in your world for large bows to get tangled in? Create a wild bird that scares horses. They hunt and eat horses on the open plain, or in the desert. Anyone approaching their horse holding a crossbow will be trampled by their own steed no matter how loyal. Horses must fear them from birth, that way no one dares carry one into battle. You only have elephants in your world? No horses? Well this bird eats baby elephants too! Yes, elephants are afraid of mice, but even more of this bird! They sometimes attack in flocks, but a caring elephant mother instinctively attacks to kill the bird(crossbow) and anyone holding it or standing near it. Scared elephants are more dangerous than scared horses. It might take hours, or days to calm one down... elephant psychologist might need to be hired. The pachyderm Whisperer might need to be summoned. Anyone who live near a village caught possessing one would be put to death for endangering everyone. It would be common sense NOT TO have one. they may cause cows and pigs to stampede through town center knocking over stalls in the marketplace. Wild deer, ox or moose may also stampede through crops or tents or even the wall of an inn. Everyone hates someone holding one.. even your best friend wants you dead for holding that thing near them.

The birds may not even appear in the story, just remembrances of the last time some idiot had a crossbow and what happened.

The birds may also be attracted to running herds of animals...like if the boy who cried wolf actually attracts wolf attacks? This would cause even more anger. The deer keep to the trees in small groups to avoid detection, but huddle together from fear and become easy targets, stampeding through town trampling people.... only to be followed by ferocious birds?! If these things eat horses and even a moose or elephant. Some poor human child trampled by a deer is an easy snack. The sight of you children picked apart by what can only be described as flying piranhas would make you form a lynch mob to hunt down the wielder of the crossbow, his friends, the person he bought it from, the maker, his or her family and all of their neighbors!!

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    $\begingroup$ Elephants are afraid of pigs (and noisy things), but you should be afraid of pigs too, they feel no remorse when munching on your corpse. $\endgroup$ – Mephistopheles May 22 '17 at 9:21
  • $\begingroup$ Also, these animals must be dangerously stupid. Also, and use the damn crossbows to kill those birbs, problem solved! Aside from that, footsoldiers? Anyone? Disguised crossbows? $\endgroup$ – Mephistopheles May 22 '17 at 9:32
  • $\begingroup$ If these birds moved fast enough, you could not swing a heavy crossbow fast enough to track them. Even if you do manage to hit one, they travel in packs. My larger crossbow is handheld... but jut barely. Reloading tkes longer than I would have to live if being swarmed. $\endgroup$ – Ronk May 24 '17 at 4:07

Instead of a world with no crossbows, what if your world had few/crappy crossbows?

Crossbows have existed since ancient times. There was a lower power bronze age crossbow with no mechanism where you hold the string back with your thumb. It took a long time for them to become an important military tool.

The reason crossbows became important in midieval Europe was a combination of factors. Since crossbows are most useful in sieges, an environment where siege warfare was common lead to investment into the industry and technology. Improvements in tools, materials, and manufacturing techniques made crossbows more powerful, easier to load and fire, and cheaper.

If you break that chain anywhere, by making sieges uncommon, or by stifling innovation, then crossbows remain a curious foreign thing that no one really takes seriously.


Use the Linothroax

Linothroax was an armor type, used by the ancient greeks. enter image description here

It stopped an arrow at point blank range!

It's light!

It's easy to manufacture.

Place it under the knight's plate armor and you're good to go.

Important side effects: All the archers will be screwed.

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    $\begingroup$ Most people probably don't know what a linothroax is. You should explain the terms you use and not expect anyone to follow any links, as they can get out-dated. That being said your source doesn't state that this armor would help against cross-bow bolts. It is supposed to be good against normal arrows and swords or spears according to people who built a replica. Furthermore this would just make it less likely the crossbow would be invented, not prevent it from being invented. Your last sentence doesn't make any sense. What are you implying? $\endgroup$ – Secespitus May 22 '17 at 10:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Secespitus And then what? If I want to prevent it, I'd say that magick and magick will be abundant and overpowered as hell. Then why to use crossbows, when you have mages?... $\endgroup$ – Mephistopheles May 22 '17 at 10:21
  • $\begingroup$ It is a type of linen armor, right? But can it really withstand an arrow or a bolt? I've never heard this mentioned anywhere. Also, what kind of bows are we talking about? It cannot simply withstand a power of an english medieval longbow, can it? :O $\endgroup$ – Jotunn May 23 '17 at 2:25
  • $\begingroup$ Relevant: historum.com/medieval-byzantine-history/… $\endgroup$ – Martín-Blas Pérez Pinilla May 23 '17 at 6:39

If you just want to limit the ability to use crossbows it might be a good idea to implement it as a high status weapon. A weapon that's only allowed to be used by Kings for example. Make it extremely expensive to create and the knowledge of development spread very thin between the people.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Jun 22 '17 at 14:39

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