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Defending Your Castle: Build Catapults, Crossbows, Moats, Bulletproof Shields, and More Defensive Devices to Fend Off the Invading Hordes

Defending Your Castle: Build Catapults, Crossbows, Moats, Bulletproof Shields, and More Defensive Devices to Fend Off the Invading Hordes

by William Gurstelle

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A man’s home is his castle, or so the saying goes, but could it withstand an attack by Attila and the Huns, Ragnar and the Vikings, Alexander and the Greeks, Genghis Khan and the Mongols, or Tamerlane and the Tartars? Backyard Ballistics author William Gurstelle poses this fascinating question to modern-day garage warriors and shows them how to build


A man’s home is his castle, or so the saying goes, but could it withstand an attack by Attila and the Huns, Ragnar and the Vikings, Alexander and the Greeks, Genghis Khan and the Mongols, or Tamerlane and the Tartars? Backyard Ballistics author William Gurstelle poses this fascinating question to modern-day garage warriors and shows them how to build an arsenal of ancient artillery and fortifications aimed at withstanding these invading hordes. Each chapter introduces a new bad actor in the history of warfare, details his conquests, and features weapons and fortifications to defend against him and his minions. Clear step-by-step instructions, diagrams, and photographs show how to build a dozen projects, including “Da Vinci’s Catapult,” “Carpini’s Crossbow,” a “Crusader-Proof Moat,” “Alexander’s Tortoise,” and the “Cheval-de-frise.” With a strong emphasis on safety, the book also gives tips on troubleshooting, explains the physics behind many of the projects, and shows where to buy the materials. By the time they’ve reached the last page, at-home defenders everywhere will have succeeded in creating a fully fortified home.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“You know that one book you’re allowed to have on a desert island? Take this. You’ll need it, if you're going to defend it!” —Ziya Tong, host, Daily Planet

“Ever feared that raging Viking or Mongol invaders are about to attack your home? Gurstelle eases those concerns with a perfect blend of history and how-to, from building a battering ram-proof door and a house-surrounding moat, to making an updated version of Da Vinci’s catapult. I haven’t felt this safe, or productive, in centuries.” —Mike Senese, Executive Editor, MAKE

"Some designs lend themselves to science projects and would appeal to high school students as well as general readers. Practicality aside though, this book is a delight… readers will learn some military history while having a good time." —Library Journal

“A fascinating journey for historians and makers alike. Neither of these elements are too focused on, leading to a very balanced and fun read.” —FactoryTwoFour

“Gurstelle has done the research, so it isn’t just the engineering but the history behind it that you take away… That’s what separates this from a doomsday prepper’s guidebook.” —DoItYourself.com

Library Journal
Want to be safe in the coming apocalypse? Gurstelle, author of several books of delightful destruction (Backyard Ballistics; The Art of the Catapult), delves again into historical context to help readers defend their homes. Practicality takes a backseat, however, as this is just an excuse for making more historical weapons and constructs. Thrown in with defensive moats, palisades, and smoke bombs are some offensive devices such as catapults and a battering ram. These projects range widely in level of sophistication. Instructions are balanced with historical background and many would require adult supervision. Some designs lend themselves to science projects and would appeal to high school students as well as general readers. Practicality aside though, this book is a delight. VERDICT Few of these projects would be useful in warding off marauding Huns or postapocalyptic hoards, but readers will learn some military history while having a good time. Recommended just for the fun of it.

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Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
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Defending Your Castle

Build Catapults, Crossbows, Moats, Bulletproof Shields, and More Defensive Devices to Fend Off the Invading Hordes

By William Gurstelle

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2014 William Curatelle
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61374-685-1



How far would you go to protect yourself, your family, and your stuff? Most likely, your answer is something along the lines of "well, as far as I have to." It's always been this way, since the first Neanderthal cave dweller barred access to his abode by pushing a large rock in front of the entrance.

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who have stuff and those who want to take other people's stuff.

This book describes methods, machines, and mechanisms for defending your home — your castle — from all sorts of bad actors: city sackers, pillaging pirates, bad guys, trespassers, brigands, hajduks, thuggees, dacoits, and every other organized, semi-organized, or anarchic band of evildoers seeking to bring mayhem and destruction to peaceful, law-abiding people like you.

After reading this book's title, you could be thinking that the projects and advice contained in this book are perhaps eight centuries out of date. Well, maybe they are. Certainly, the world is at least a bit more civilized now than it once was, and the threat of marauding hordes banging down your doors has lessened over time. But — and this is a big but — it has not gone away. Although we are currently experiencing the longest sustained peace between the largest and most powerful countries in history, things could always go haywire, and in a hurry. If that happens, few things will be as important as knowing how to mount a powerful and well-considered defense of your home and property. Protecting your castle is now, and always has been, a vitally important skill set.

There have been assaults on homes, villages, towns, and cities since the dawn of human civilization. Perhaps the earliest recorded siege is the destruction of the walled city of Jericho by Joshua and the Israelites in about 1350 BCE. Joshua's technique included blowing trumpets and marching around the walls while holding the Ark of the Covenant. Apparently this worked, because the walls, reads the Bible, did fall, allowing the Israelites to sweep into the city. The only Jerichonian to survive was a single woman to whom Joshua owed a debt of gratitude.

Such violence was all too common in ancient times. For example, diagrams and hieroglyphics on tomb walls in Egypt recount an ancient siege of the Hittite city of Dapur by King Ramses II in the 13th century BCE. Using scaling ladders, bows and arrows, and other implements of warfare particular to the earliest known wars, the Egyptian invaders were able to breach the walls and conquer the poor Hittites, causing them to exclaim, "We were crushed under your sandals and your might has penetrated our land!"

"Yes, but," you still may say, "that was then and this is now. I have no need to provide for my own defense. Why, I can call the police, or if worse comes to worst, the army will protect me." Perhaps you are correct. But again, perhaps not. On the night of April 24, 1184 BCE, the citizens of Troy slept soundly, feeling confident that their army and leaders would protect them from the Greek adventurers who stood outside the city walls. But at night, Athenian soldiers crawled out of the Trojan Horse, a large hollow statue that the city's leaders had stupidly brought inside the city walls, unaware of what and who were sitting silently inside. The spies opened the gates to the invaders and by morning, Troy had fallen.

In every century, groups, countries, and tribes of people have invaded other groups. Such invasions have been as dependable and as constant as death and taxes. In Defending Your Castle, ideas for protecting your homestead, school, or workplace against threats of many types are provided. There are two main themes to the book. The first covers projects and concepts related to real, material threats to your well-being. The concepts, ideas, and thinking processes detailed are suitable for use in a wide range of situations that I hope you never experience.

The second theme is more imaginative and probably a bit more fun. It attempts to answer a theoretical, yet still important, question. To wit, if you were attacked by a fierce, wild horde of Mongols, Vikings, Huns, Macedonians, or similar group, how could you protect yourself? It is (to me at least and since you bought this book, probably to you as well) an interesting question. To answer it we'll delve into the history of these peoples and explore their tactics with an eye to staying out of trouble. This section is a combination of science, hands-on DIY technology, history, and a special type of history called counterfactualism that seeks to explore what-if scenarios of our past.


One of the oldest and yet most popular tropes in fiction is that of "alternative history" stories. Basically, such stories are based on speculation about what the world would be like if instead of x happening, y had happened. For example, how would the world be different if the Confederacy had won at Gettysburg, if Ottomans conquered Vienna in 1683, or if the "divine wind" had not blown Mongol invaders away from Japan's seacoast in 1281?

The earliest example of alternative history fiction I have found comes from the Roman writer Livy. His book Ab Urbe Condita (The city of Rome since it was founded) was written just after 9 BCE and is a monumental work, covering the history of Rome from its legendary founding by Romulus and Remus in 753 BCE to the death of Emperor Nero. For the most part, it is similar in form and tone to most classical Roman history works. Dense with dates and names, there are lots of accounts of the accomplishments the city's leaders and piles of impenetrable detail about heavy infantry battle tactics and cavalry charges. While history scholars may find it an interesting work, and certainly important, most readers would find it a dull slog indeed. There's little in it that's novel or terribly gripping. That is, until one reaches the ninth book in the series. For in book 9, paragraph 17, Livy does something no one had done before. He changes history, figuratively and literally.

After describing another in a long line of battles and sieges, Livy departs from his factual but dry retelling of the Second Samnite War and makes a sudden left turn into historiography's hall of fame: a writer goes "counterfactual" for what is likely the first time in written history.

(I) digress more than is necessary from the order of the narrative or by embellishing my work with a variety of topics to afford pleasant resting-places, as it were, for my readers and mental relaxation for myself. The mention, however, of so great a king and commander [as Alexander the Great] induces me to lay before my readers some reflections which I have often made when I have proposed to myself the question, "What would have been the results for Rome if she had been engaged in war with Alexander?"

How different, indeed, would the world, 400 years after Alexander's army marched, have looked to Livy?

Quite a lot, apparently.

Livy wrote that he was certain that had Alexander marched west to Rome instead of east to Persia, Rome's legions would have triumphed over the Macedonians. Alexander's huge influence on the world, including the Hellenization of European culture, the rise of the Levantine Ptolemaic kings, and the chastening of Persian influence in the Mediterranean, would not have occurred. The world, surmises Livy, would be a completely different place. Perhaps he's right or perhaps he's not, but that's beside the point; Livy's sudden and novel what-if digression adds spark and interest to the page and makes his book one for the ages.


Given a few facts and making use of the knowledge of human nature, all manner of thought-provoking alternative histories can be written. Since Livy's initial foray into counterfactual history writing, thousands, if not millions, of authors and thinkers have asked and speculatively answered similar questions. The popularity of such postulations is obvious now; they are clever techniques for probing the relative importance of a historical person or event.

For the most part, this is the stuff of novels and history textbooks. But more recently, counterfactualism is seen in modern types of media. Counterfactual and alternative history movies are popular and frequently successful. From Back to the Future to Planet of the Apes to Groundhog Day, counterfactualism is a popular fictive technique.

As you may expect, the Internet is filled with this as well. One well-known counterfactual meme kicked around the Internet asks: could a single US military battalion, with its modern firepower, communications, and training, defeat the entire Roman army? The question itself is interesting and easily lent itself to all sorts of juicy counterfactual analysis. So much so, that the idea became the basis for websites, books, endless comments on websites, and even a cable television show. Defending Your Castle explores the premise of a similar alternative history question: given modern knowledge of construction techniques and materials, could you successfully defend your home — your castle — from a horde of Hun, Viking, or Mongolian invaders?

The stories, histories, and projects that follow explore a variety of ideas for adding security to your castle (the word castle being a catchall phrase to describe your house, your camp, your neighborhood, your school, or any place of refuge).

If you've paged through this book a bit already, you have likely noticed some fairly off-the-wall projects. For example, building a moat around your suburban home or adding observation towers to your backyard are provided as food for counter-historical thought — unless you're really distrustful of your neighbors! On the other hand, some projects are quite practical, depending on your needs and desires. Take a look at recent newspaper headlines, and I think you'll agree there are many people who just might benefit from a Kevlar backpack or hidden book safe. Many of the other projects reside in a gray area, straddling the not-so-well-defined border between useful, interesting, and fanciful.


Let's conduct a thought experiment.

Take a moment and imagine looking out your front window and spotting a horde of men in front of your house, apartment, dormitory, or campsite. This group — a large, dirty, and noisy one — behaves in a manner that leaves little doubt that it is up to no good. A closer look through binoculars reveals the men are not particularly well equipped. The situation is confusing, worrisome, and a little baffling.

In this situation, as in most alternative history stories, the question of how this came to be doesn't really matter. Perhaps these people are remnants of a post-nuclear-war apocalyptic society, or they are the poor mutated remnants of a people scourged by a terrible, infectious disease, or maybe they are scared and confused Mongols accidently caught in a time warp and transported to the present time and place. Why they are here doesn't matter; what does matter is how you now choose to handle this situation.

The projects and historical vignettes in the chapters that follow are designed to provide the information and techniques you need to defend your castle and turn away modern-day thugs, brutes, hooligans, and other contemporary threats.

Ahead, you find many projects, each carefully designed and researched. There are myriad ways to accomplish an end, though, and there may be better methods and techniques for moat building or catapult construction than are provided here. What is here will go far to get you started, not just in defending your home, but also in learning to build interesting things and developing a new appreciation of history and science.

Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, and Attila were all famous leaders who amassed giant empires. Theirs are household names. But although hardly known today, there were some defensive geniuses who stood up to and turned these invaders away. Flavius Aetius was a Roman general who sent the Hun army running at the Battle of the Chalons. Count Odo of Paris, who we'll meet in a later chapter, commanded a mere 200 men but successfully fought off a vastly larger Viking attack on Paris in 885. Even the Mongols, the most fearsome and successful of all history's invaders, were once turned back by a now nearly forgotten Korean general named Pak So.

But mostly it's the aggressors, not the defenders, whose names are remembered. In the pages that follow, we'll look at the lives and times of some of history's most successful invading hordes, as well as those who defended against them, and in so doing learn how to construct defensive strategies to protect our own castles.


Alexander of Macedon left his homeland in northern Greece with a large and well-disciplined army in 332 BCE. He marched east out of Thrace and raced through the Levant, Asia Minor, into Persia and beyond to India. Not once was Alexander's army defeated in battle.

The Mongol leader Genghis Khan was no less successful. His warriors captured a portion of the world even greater than that amassed by Alexander. From Eastern Europe to China, no person in the history of the planet commanded as great an area in terms of square miles or percentage of the world's population.

Following in the footsteps of the Mongol khans was Timur or, as he is better known, Tamerlane. He is remembered today as a brutal and predacious conqueror, unrivaled by any other in his cruelty to those he fought and defeated. The monuments he built to commemorate his successes were, like those the ancient pharaohs, giant pyramids. But unlike the brick pyramids of Cheops and Djoser, Tamerlane's pyramids were constructed of human skulls.

Western Europe in the Middle Ages couldn't catch a break. Apart from the periodic waves of aggression from its east, perpetrated by one or another group of Central Asian horsemen, it was equally threatened by seafaring raiders from the north. The Danes, or Vikings as they were usually called during their lifetimes, launched attack after attack on cities, towns, and hamlets in Ireland, England, France, Germany, and Spain. The Vikings were excellent sailors, skilled in hand-to-hand combat, and clever enough to choose easily accessible and poorly defended waterside targets. The effectiveness of these tactics earned the Vikings a formidable reputation as raiders and pirates.

In the 12th and 13th centuries came irregular waves of Christian invaders moving eastward through Eastern Europe toward Jerusalem. These were the Crusaders. While in some cases the Crusaders were chivalrous and valiant, in many other cases they were a sorry lot indeed. The bad ones (and there were many) possessed a rare type of cruelty bred from generations of crushing poverty, ignorance, and superstition. Far too many of the ill-armed, unsophisticated, and un-chivalrous Crusader warriors partially compensated for their lack of sophistication with an intense enthusiasm for rapine and plunder.

Of all the great invaders, least is known about the first great barbarian intruder into Europe. Attila was the king of the Huns, a now-little-known group of nomadic Eurasian invaders who came out of the steppes to threaten, and in some cases crumble, the ruling powers of Western Europe. Like the Macedonians of Alexander before and Mongols of Genghis after them, the Huns rarely lost a battle. But unlike Alexander and Genghis, once gone, Attila left little to remind the world of his presence.

We'll meet each of these worrisome groups, plus a few more, in hopes that understanding their history, armaments, and motivations will help prepare us for our own future battles.


Before you get started, there are some important things you need to know.

1. The projects described here run the gamut from simple to complex. Note that the purpose of many of the projects is to build a device that hurls, shoots, or throws something. Projects should always 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 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 or power tools. Use tools according to manufacturer recommendations.

4. Use care when operating, installing, aiming, and firing these projects. Seek professional guidance when necessary. Use tools, materials, and other gear in strict accordance with the manufacturer's instructions.

5. Use extreme care when using, building, or moving heavy objects.

6. Wear protective eyewear, gloves, and other safety equipment when appropriate.

7. Individual projects may also have their own specific safety instructions.


Excerpted from Defending Your Castle by William Gurstelle. Copyright © 2014 William Curatelle. 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 Absinthe & Flamethrowers; The Art of the Catapult; Backyard Ballistics; Building Bots; Notes from the Technology Underground; and Whoosh, Boom, Splat. He is a professional engineer who has been researching and building model catapults and ballistic devices for more than 30 years and is a contributing editor at Popular Mechanics, a columnist for Make magazine, and writes frequently for the Atlantic, Maxim, and Wired as well as other national magazines. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

William Gurstelle is the author of Backyard Ballistics; The Art of the Catapult; Absinthe & Flamethrowers; Building Bots; Notes from the Technology Underground; and Whoosh, Boom, Splat. He is a professional engineer who has been researching and building model catapults and ballistic devices for more than 30 years and is a contributing editor at Popular Mechanics, a columnist for Make magazine, and writes frequently for Wired, the Atlantic, and Maxim as well as other national magazines.

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