Art of the Catapult: Build Greek Ballistae, Roman Onagers, English Trebuchets, and More Ancient Artillery

Art of the Catapult: Build Greek Ballistae, Roman Onagers, English Trebuchets, and More Ancient Artillery

3.6 5
by William Gurstelle

View All Available Formats & Editions

Whether playing at defending their own castle or simply chucking pumpkins over a fence, wannabe marauders and tinkerers will become fast acquainted with Ludgar, the War Wolf, Ill Neighbor, Cabulus, and the Wild Donkey—ancient artillery devices known commonly as catapults. Building these simple yet sophisticated machines introduces fundamentals of math and physics


Whether playing at defending their own castle or simply chucking pumpkins over a fence, wannabe marauders and tinkerers will become fast acquainted with Ludgar, the War Wolf, Ill Neighbor, Cabulus, and the Wild Donkey—ancient artillery devices known commonly as catapults. Building these simple yet sophisticated machines introduces fundamentals of math and physics using levers, force, torsion, tension, and traction. Instructions and diagrams illustrate how to build seven authentic working model catapults, including an early Greek ballista, a Roman onager, and the apex of catapult technology, the English trebuchet. Additional projects include learning how to lash and make rope and how to construct and use a hand sling and a staff sling. The colorful history of siege warfare is explored through the stories of Alexander the Great and his battle of Tyre; Saladin, Richard the Lionheart, and the Third Crusade; pirate-turned-soldier John Crabbe and his ship-mounted catapults; and Edward I of England and his battle against the Scots at Stirling Castle.

Editorial Reviews

Children's Literature
This book combines the history of catapults with detailed instructions on how to build working models of seven historic weapons with evocative names like Ludgar the War Wolf, God's Stone Thrower, and the Wild Donkey. One model becomes a game, "Basket-Pult." Catapults have been studied for many years by both scientists and historians in order to try to understand the whys and wherefores of ancient wars. The Syracusean Greeks must have shocked their enemy when they changed the face of warfare by using the first known catapult in battle in 399 BC. The catapult took on many forms in succeeding centuries as soldiers strove to improve its destructive capabilities. It was used to hurl at the enemy a variety of things from stones to burning tar to dead cows to dung to messengers' heads. Eventually when cannons became effective weapons, catapults were no longer useful. Along with telling the stories of catapults' ingenious use in warfare, this book, discusses the principles of physics that make catapults work. It also gives the reader clear, detailed instructions with a series of exploded diagrams for making working models of catapults. The first chapter lays out the principles of safety that should be followed by anyone attempting the projects and each set of directions contains cautions as well. The book features a time line, drawings, maps, glossary, bibliography, and index. The author is a professional engineer who has been researching and building model catapults and ballistic devices for more than 20 years. 2004, Chicago Review Press Incorporated, Ages 12 up.
—Janet Crane Barley
School Library Journal
Gr 5 Up-This collection of 10 working catapult projects offers a fascinating look at world history, military strategy, and physics, related with an engaging yet lighthearted touch. This historical context makes the projects all the more interesting. The working model of the Macedonian Ballista is cool, but even more so when one learns the role that catapults played in the campaigns of Alexander the Great. Instructions are clear, with full materials lists, helpful diagrams, and no skipped steps. Saw and drill are often required, along with hardware store purchases such as PVC pipe or specifically sized wood. Some of the finished results are large, such as God's Stone Thrower, a 5' x 5' construction with considerable flinging power, while a couple are smaller, tabletop-sized models that still propel successfully. Since the ultimate object is to fling things through the air, there is repeated emphasis on safety, including a first chapter entitled "Always Be Careful," an "adult supervision required" statement for every construction, and repeated warnings within the text. As for projectiles, water balloons, peanuts, and plastic cows are mentioned among "suitable ammunition," rather than the venomous snakes, cattle manure, or severed heads referred to in the historical portions. There's excellent booktalk potential here, and lively reading even for those who never get around to constructing a catapult.-Steven Engelfried, Beaverton City Library, OR Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date:
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Sales rank:
File size:
10 MB
Age Range:
10 - 14 Years

Read an Excerpt

The Art of the Catapult

Build Greek Ballistae, Roman Onagers, English Trebuchets, and More Ancient Artillery

By William Gurstelle

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2004 William Gurstelle
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-56976-677-4


Always Be Careful

The catapults and related projects described in this book have been designed with your safety foremost in mind. However, as you try them out, there is still a possibility that something unexpected may occur. It is important that you understand neither the author, the publisher, nor the bookseller can or will guarantee your safety. When you try the projects described here, you do so at your own risk.

Most of the projects and plans contained here are safe for children in late grade school on up to adult. But a few of the projects result in powerful siege engines with projectiles that can move pretty fast. So you should be aware that each city, town, or municipality has its own rules and regulations, some of which may apply to a few of the projects described in this book. Further, local authorities have wide latitude to interpret the law. Therefore, you should take time to understand the rules, regulations, and laws of the area in which you plan to carry out these projects. A check with local law enforcement can tell whether the project is suitable for your area. If not, there are plenty of other places where all of the items here can be undertaken safely and legally. If in doubt, be sure to check it out!

General Safety Rules and Suggestions

These are your general safety rules. Each project may also have its own specific safety instructions.

1. The building projects described here run the gamut from simple to complex. The purpose of most of the projects in this book is to build a device that throws something. So, some of the projects contained here should be supervised by adults.

2. Read the entire project description carefully before beginning the construction process. Make sure you understand what the project is about, and what it is that you are trying to accomplish. If something is unclear, reread the directions until you fully comprehend it.

3. Some of the projects call for the use of hand tools or power tools. All tools must be used according to manufacturer recommendations. Saws and chisels are sharp so handle them with caution and under adult supervision.

4. The area in which the catapult and related projects are operated must be cleared of ALL items that can be damaged by projectiles, flying objects, and so forth.

5. Keep people away from the firing zone near catapults, trebuchets, ballistae, slings, and flingers. Use care when transporting, aiming, and firing, and always be aware of where the device is pointing.

6. Wear protective eyewear when appropriate.

Please, remember this:

1. The instructions and information are provided here for your use without any guarantee of safety. Each project has been extensively tested in a variety of conditions. But variations, mistakes, and unforeseen circumstances can and do occur; therefore, all projects and experiments are performed at your own risk. If you don't agree with this, then put this book down and find another activity that is more suitable.

2. And finally: there is no substitute for your own common sense. If something doesn't seem right, stop and review what's going on. You must take responsibility for your personal safety and the safety of others around you.

All of the projects in this book require adult supervision and each has its own unique safety requirements as well. Watch for these icons, so you know what to expect:

* Use protective eyewear

* Swinging arm alert: Watch out for moving arms or levers

* Sharp and/or heavy tool advisory: Project requires use of saw or hammer

* Flying object alert: Use care when aiming and firing


The Science of Siege

From the earliest days of organized warfare, armies have always had three basic types of fighting units. These include first infantry units that consist of men on foot who attempt to advance and take land and position against enemy forces. Second, cavalry units consisting of faster moving, highly mobile combat groups support the infantry. In past times, the cavalry used horses to make them speedy and mobile. Today the cavalry have given up horses for tanks. And some armies today use something called "air cavalry," or the equivalent of flying tanks — heavily armored helicopters. And last, there are artillery units, groups of highly trained soldiers that set up and fire big guns to destroy fixed military targets such as buildings and encampments.

Modern artillery units are made up of howitzers, cannons, and rocket-firing batteries. The artillery soldiers are different from the infantry and the cavalry. First of all, they are not particularly fast moving or mobile. They go to a particular location, set up their guns, and then fire away. Second of all, they are especially effective against fixed targets — buildings, bridges, gun emplacements, and so forth.

Before the days of gunpowder and iron or steel cannon barrels, siege engines (catapults) were the artillery of the ancient armies. They were the primitive yet elegant equivalents of the cannons and howitzers used in modern armies. And, like cannons, siege engines weren't very mobile compared with the infantry soldiers or cavalry. In fact, the larger catapults, such as big trebuchets, would take weeks, sometimes even months to assemble in place. They had a narrowly defined but very important job to do. They were used to break down the walls of castles in a siege.

Warfare in Ancient Times

There were two broad kinds of military action during the age of catapults — the pitched battle and the siege. A pitched battle was just what it sounds like — soldiers on a battlefield, running, using their weapons, accomplishing specific objectives, hopefully under the direction of their commanding officers. If they were successful, they would gain territory and advantage and, in the process, defeat the opposing army. Certainly, ancient warfare was tough and brutal. Hand-to-hand combat, frontal assaults, skirmishing — these were the simple tactics employed in pitched battles from the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C.continuing through the time of the Roman Empire, and on into the Middle Ages. Many of these tactics of ancient warfare are still used in warfare today.

During classical times (the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans) and medieval times, as now, the soldiers used a variety of weapons in a pitched battle. In those days armies used spears, pikes, swords, daggers, slings and stones, battle-axes, clubs, and bows and arrows.

The other basic type of military action, besides a pitched battle, was the siege. When one side had a big advantage over the other side in terms of manpower or equipment, the other side could wisely choose to not meet the enemy on the field of battle, but instead retreat to the safety of a walled city, fortress, or castle. Here, within thick protective fortress walls made of limestone, sandstone, or flint, the defenders could hole up for months and, depending on the supply of food and water within, perhaps outlast the enemy encamped beyond the walls.

A castle was more than just a place of refuge. It was also the residence of a nobleman, a home base for an army, a headquarters of the area's commerce and industry, and the highest, strongest place around to beat off an attacker. Castles had walls several feet thick made of solid stone, with several different layers of architectural protection, such as walls, towers, and moats.

It was hard to capture a castle, but if that's what the military leaders needed to do, armies would try to do it. The attackers could either try to wait out the defenders and force them to surrender by starving them, or they could lay siege to the castle.

If you visit a castle today, such as Stirling Castle in Scotland, Chateau Gaillard in France, or Krak Des Chevaliers in Syria, the graceful walls sitting atop a towering hill might give you an impression that a castle was designed for a simple strategy of passive defense, a place of safety where the defenders would hunker down behind the walls and simply try to outlast the attacking army. But this was not the case.

Certainly, the castle was designed and sited to make it as difficult to conquer for unfriendly armies as possible. But beyond that, castles were designed with entry and exit doors called sally ports so that the defenders within could come and go, unseen and secretly, to engage the enemy and then quickly retreat back into the safety of the castle. And perhaps most important, since the castle controlled the high ground, the archers and spearmen within the castle could confidently prevent the movement of enemy troops on the roads and pathways that it overlooked.

Up on the ramparts — the platforms built high up on the castle walls — the defenders could look out at the attackers and shoot arrows and stones through openings called embrasures and arrow loops. For protection from the attackers, arrows and missiles, they could hide behind thick stone coverings, called merlons, or heavy wooden or metal shutters.

For all these reasons, it was just not militarily feasible for an invading army to simply bypass a castle and continue on. An unconquered castle could not be ignored — the castle would have to be dealt with before the invading troops could go any further.

So, what were the tools and tactics that generals used to lay siege and conquer a castle? There were several well-known techniques, none of them guaranteed to be successful or easy to use. One method was called a blockade, which involved simply surrounding the castle with troops and ships and preventing any food or supplies from getting in. A blockade sometimes worked, but often the garrison (the group of soldiers within a fortress or castle) was better supplied than the attacking army and could outlast the besiegers.

Another way was to use threats and bribery. The concepts of loyalty and national identity were somewhat different in ancient and medieval times than they are now. A commander could sometimes be persuaded to change sides, or maybe at least to give up, if the attackers made their threats fearful enough. The threats were usually crude and brutal — but the message was always simple and clear: surrender or else! For instance, at the siege of a castle in Crema, Italy, the attacking arm y, commanded by the German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, took captured soldiers, cut off their heads, and then played games with them, tossing the heads like footballs from hand to hand in view of the besieged in the castle. The defenders within the castle went mad with rage when they saw this; they took the prisoners they had in their control and ripped them limb from limb on the castle ramparts. What a terrible time to be a soldier!

Conversely, the castellan (the leader of the castle and the king's loyal man) might capitulate if certain promises of safety, payment, and bounty were provided. If the castellan truly was loyal and couldn't be bribed, then the besiegers might also consider gaining the castle through the use of spies or inciting a mutiny among the rest of the defenders.

If starvation, negotiation, treachery, or threats were unsuccessful, then the only way left was to make an all-out attack on the castle. Day after day of catapult bombardment could reduce even a thick wall to rubble.

Day after day, night after night, the great swinging arms of the siege engines outside the walls would pound the stone guardians of the castle. And often, from inside the walls, great stone balls would answer back from the defender's own catapults, aimed directly at the attackers' stone throwers. Eventually the walls would start to break apart under the onslaught of heavy rock missiles: first a crack, then a fracture, then a hole. Once openings appeared that were large enough to move a soldier through, the main frontal assault could begin.

On a commander's order the troops would rush toward the castle, shouting a war cry. An attack on a castle or fortress involved a short but furious battle, with soldiers attacking holes in the walls with picks and hammers and rushing through as soon as the openings were large enough. Simultaneously others would charge the wall with scaling ladders and attempt to climb up and over the castle walls to engage the defenders in direct and bloody combat. These were desperate fights indeed.

Another well-known method was to build a movable tower that was high enough to get men over the castle walls. These contraptions, built from wood and covered with animal hides, were built just slightly higher than the castle walls. They were called siege towers, and some were so big — four or five stories tall — that acres of woodlands were chopped down to make the boards to build them. When the time was right, the commanding knights would order the siege tower rolled into place, as close to the castle as possible. Then a front-facing door would open and a bridge would be lowered to enable the fighting men to rush forward into the castle.

Sometimes the attacking army would send in miners. These were men who worked underground, spending weeks or months digging with shovels in dark and airless tunnels underneath the walls of the castle. As they dug, they would prop up the tunnel walls with timbers to prevent them from collapsing. During the time of the actual attack, soldiers could then go underneath the walls and surprise the besieged by popping up in the middle of the castle grounds. Or the miners would dig away the earth directly under the heavy castle wall. When enough dirt was removed, the wall would collapse into the hole and allow the besiegers to rush into the breach (a breach is a hole in a castle wall). Mining was one of the most effective ways to get inside a well-protected castle. Throughout history there is ample evidence that no castle could hold out for long once the miners got their picks in.

There were other more basic forms of assault as well. If brave, numerous, and motivated enough, the attackers could simply storm the fortress or castle gates or swim the moat. But most of all, the attackers would rush in through breaches in the thick castle walls caused by missiles — the large rocks hurled by the catapults.

Castle storming was difficult, exhausting, and horrifying. The men at arms must storm the castle, running and dodging missiles, holding bucklers (shields) overhead, all the while trying to climb a narrow scaling ladder. It took courage and fortitude to be a medieval fighting man. At the time of the siege, urged on by their leaders, the fighters would move to the perimeter of the fortress.

There, at the base of the walls, the attackers would shout out their war cry — "St. George! For England!" yelled the English; "For St. Andrew!" rejoined the Scots. "A Mat!" shouted the Spanish; and "Tue, Tue, Montjoye St. Denis!" cried out the French. The air would fill with the clamor of men, machines, and horses. The shouted exhortations and commands from the officers would mix with the agonized screams of the injured and the war cries of the foot soldiers, until they all combined into one great cacophonous roar of voices and clashing metal and the sound of falling walls, weapons, and men.

Certainly the siege was the most deadly, intense form of classical and medieval warfare. Under the cover of shields held overhead, the attackers would storm the walls, or rush through breaches in the walls, their arms furiously swinging two-handed broadswords and battle-axes, or charging forward with long, sharp pikes in front of them. Hot sand, boiling water, and rocks rained down upon the attackers, adding to the chaos and confusion. High up on the ramparts the castle's commander would order his archers to cut loose a deadly metal cloud of iron-tipped arrows, raining them down on the luckless attackers below. Such were the actions of desperate men in a siege, knowing full well their lives would be cut short by a single, wicked slice of hard, cold steel unless they could stop their opponents by doing the same to them first. How similar this was to a pitched battle, yet made even worse in that there was no escape, no place to retreat!


Catapults Around the World

Stories of catapults first appear in ancient Greek manuscripts. Writers and historians such as Heron of Alexandria, Ctesbius, and Philon of Byzantium provided several detailed accounts of catapults and directions for building them in their manuscripts. Later on, several Roman writers left us with excellent descriptions of their catapult artillery, perhaps most importantly the famous architect and master of the Roman Emperor Augustus's siege engines, Vitruvius. In fact, there are records and descriptions from all over the world — China, India, the Middle East — as well as Europe.

Catapults changed greatly in their appearance and construction from the time they were first used in 400 B.C. to when they were finally displaced by gunpowder cannons nearly 2,000 years later. During this long period of ancient and medieval history, catapults represented the most advanced and sophisticated application of mechanical engineering knowledge practiced. They were by far the largest, most complex, and most costly mechanical devices in the world.


Excerpted from The Art of the Catapult by William Gurstelle. Copyright © 2004 William Gurstelle. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

William Gurstelle is the author of the bestselling Backyard Ballistics and Building Bots. He is a professional engineer who has been researching and building model catapults and ballistic devices for more than 30 years.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Art of the Catapult: Build Greek Ballistae, Roman Onagers, English Trebuchets, and More Ancient Artillery 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
To below.
jawmar More than 1 year ago
Not specific details