Let's say you're a medieval lord with 5,000 knights, men-at-arms and peasant levies you've decided to attack and conquer a lesser lord who has 1,000 fighting men of similar abilities. If you line your guys up and fight out in the open, you'll crush him. But the coward/sensible leader does not do this and instead holds up in his castle, which has high walls and heavy gates to keep people out, a large supply of rocks to drop on the heads of people trying to climb said walls, safe vantage points to shoot at attackers before they get to the walls and graineries, larders, wine cellers an cisterns which can keep his troops fed for months. You have several options available to you. You can try to storm the castle while your guys are shot and get rocks and burning sand dropped on them. You can try to starve them out, which is going to take months, suffer casualty's from raids and camp sickness, lower morale as people are away from the friends and family and incur massive opportunity costs as the peasant levies could be farming, or you could employ Siege Weapons.
Note that while most siege weapons were used offensively against fortifications, some could be used defensively, whether against infantry formations or to destroy enemy siege weapons.
Types of Siege Weapons
One of the oldest and simplest siege weapons, the Battering Ram is, at its most basic, a log that men use to try and break down a door or section of wall. Over time people got ideas like swinging it from ropes to make it easier to smash into enemy fortifications, an iron cap on the log to help it smash through tougher materials, and strong roofs to keep the men inside from being crushed by falling rocks, scalded with boiling oil or shot by arrows. Notably under Roman law, any defenders who failed to surrender after the first ram touched their wall were basically fair game. You could throw in the towel before then, but afterwards if the Romans won they would kill you, enslave your wife and loot everything you owned.
One day a Greek man looked down at his crossbow and thought "what if I made it bigger?". They came with two designs: a ridiculously large Oxybeles (which was essentially a larger version of the gastraphetes crossbow with wooden prods), later known as a scorpion (which was commonly used as anti-siege-weapon weapon mounted on fortifications) and an "even bigger mounted crossbow" called the ballista (which replaced used coiled rope for torsion rather than wooden prods). Adding a windlass turned chain and a hopper magazine resulted in the Polybolos. Contrary to popular belief ballista is not an oversized crossbow - as the tensions, stresses, and material resistances scale differently and cause huge wooden bows to break and huge metal bows to deform from straining under such pressure. Thus Greeks devised a system that uses twisted ropes in which bow arms are fixed to store energy to the point it can hurl spear-sized bolts with enough power to break gates and warship hulls. In Roman times, the ballista was said to be terrifyingly effective in terms of both accuracy (to the point of picking off individual soldiers) and power (with tales of it piercing armored warriors and leaving them impaled to a tree).
- Polybolos: roughly meaning “multi-bolt thrower” in Greek and also known as a "repeating ballista," the Polybolos more often resembles a big crossbow than a ballista since the arms are fixed to the "stock" and don't twist around to fire it; though some versions do use arms wedged into tense bundles of twisted ropes like regular ballista. The repeating ballista was fired by turning a wheel connected to a chain drive forward to cock it, then turning it the other way to load it again from a hopper on top of the stock and fire it. Turning the wheel at the back of the crossbow counterclockwise pushed a sliding plank called the mensa (like that from the Gastrophetes/Oxyboles) forward. Once driven forward sufficiently, the latch claws at the back of the plank are pushed up by a lug under the plank and hold the drawstring in place. Then, turning the wheel clockwise drew the drawstring back as the plank slides backwards. At the same time, the motion of the plank drives a screw threaded pole (in contact with the plank by a block with a sliding nut) to rotate and load a bolt (via a built-in notch on the rod) onto the body of the plank from the hopper on top. Pulling the wheel back to the very end will bump the latch on another lug that triggers the latch into releasing the drawstring and firing the bolt.
- Springald: Also known as the "skein-bow," it was the transitional successor to the Ballista before the arrival of cannons, the Springald began replacing it in the 11-12th century. While it used coiled rope and torsional power to fire bolts, rocks, and even containers of Greek Fire, it physically differed visually by looking like a cubical scaffold with the arms swinging inward rather than outwards like the ballista.
Serving as highly accurate artillery (multiple stories exist of single soldiers getting sniped by bolts), Ballista was used by both the Greeks and Romans and later through Medieval times, for a long time coexisting with early gunpowder artillery until development of cannon technology made it obsolete. Not only were cannon barrels relatively simple to cast and maintain, but they were not as finicky or vulnerable to humidity or weather compared to wood and rope.
Using weights and levers, ancient and medieval people found they could throw rocks, balls of metal or whatever else they had handy into walls to knock them down. If they had dead bodies handy, they could fling them over the walls of an enemy city and wait for them to get sick and die, as the Mongols did. Alternatively, a pot of incendiary liquid or something soaked in oil being lit on fire and then thrown over the wall to start fires worked nicely, as did explosives.
- Mangonel: One of the more basic types of catapult and probably what you think of when you imagine one. What actually constitutes a 'mangonel' is a little unclear, as there is not set historical definition for the type of weapon the name describes. They had an impressive range, able to hit targets over 1000 feet away.
- Onager: A siege weapon commonly used by the Roman Legions, employing the torsional tension of twisted rope and the whip-lash effect of a sling to hurl very large projectiles. Onagers were mainly designed for attacking fortifications from within the confines of other fortifications (as in Roman-style siegecraft), and thus were quite short-ranged. Confusingly, some onagers are mangonels, but not all mangonels are onagers.
- Trebuchet: The big daddy of catapults, it was the biggest, most destructive and longest ranged catapults in history. This was the go-to weapon for sieges until gunpowder became practical. Unlike most catapults, which used torsion to power their throwing arm, trebuchets instead used a weight and gravity to do the trick.
- Floating Arm Trebuchet: A normal trebuchets when fired has a weight on short end of the throwing arm and a rock attached to a sling on the long arm, both ends swing in Arcs as its fired and the weight and throwing arm both curve. The Floating Arm Trebuchet on the other hand is very different. Unlike a normal trebuchet, the floating arm has the throwing arm attached to wheels that roll freely in a channel. The weight is lifted up, straight up (unlike a traditional trebuchet where the weight is moved along an arc), which pushes the throwing arm back on the channel. When fired the weight drops straight down, the arm rolls forward and the throwing arm is whipped forward as its weight makes it rotate on the axis very quickly. If you're thinking "Gee that sound complicated for medieval engineering", then you're not wrong. The Floating Arm Trebuchet is a modern design used mostly as an engineering student project. It may not even be that practical a design on its own merits since Yankee Siege II, A traditional Trebuchet design was the record holder in the 2013 "Pumpkin chunking contest" beating out multiple floating arm designs (although that may be because increasing the range requires a greater drop distance, which then risks damaging the track from the impact of the arm).
- Grenade Catapults: In the first world war (yes we are talking about a catapult designed used in the Great-freaking-war) soldiers had a problem. Namely they did not have any accurate way to deliver explosives. Artillery hit hard but were better at shelling the snot out of an enemy position then hitting one strong point, meanwhile hand grenades had accuracy but only about as much range as you could throw them. To solve this problem the answer was the use of slings and rifle grenades for short (but past throwing range) distances and the invention of small infantry mortars able to lob explosive accurately at a medium range. These however took time to design, test, produce, train with and deploy, and soldiers on both sides needed a solution NOW. The German solution was a weapon called the wurfmaschine, literally called the 'throwing (wurf), machine (Maschine), it was a spring powered catapult that could hurl grenades about 200 m (220 yd) away. In response the British invented the Leach trench catapult (Which was more slingshot then catapult but they called it a catapult so it's going on this page darn it!) which was about as good at throwing grenades. The French took an oversized crossbow, named it Sauterelle (grasshopper) and used that. While phased out as soon as newer weapons arrived (specifically, mortars that could actually be carried by hand into a trench rather than the big honkers seen in previous eras), the various WW1 grenade catapults are a quirky addition in the history of siege weapons.
Sometimes the best answer to a large wall is to simply go over it. The siege ladder was invented with this in mind, allowing men to climb over the walls.
- Sambuca: Like a siege ladder, only built for D-Day. They let roman soldiers on ships charge up onto the walls of enemy citys.
If a Siege Ladder didn't work, the solution was to make it bigger and with protection. Siege Towers allowed men to climb up without having to worry about anyone attacking them from the sides or simply knocking the ladder over. There were also platforms on top to allow archers to fire at the defenders.
A good way to weaken enemy walls was to dig under them, weakening the foundation and making them more prone to fracturing and collapsing. What sappers would usually do is once they were certain that they were directly underneath the enemy’s walls, they’d stash a whole lot of flammable materials and douse it with pig fat (not live pigs, they’re significantly less flammable and more prone to running away) then set everything on fire to collapse the supports and cause a cave-in. It was a dangerous job, but it was effective, so long as the enemy didn’t catch on and start counter-mining. Would-be attackers would oftentimes be literally smoked-out and suffocate if they were discovered. Cave-ins were also rightly feared.
As modern cities typically have tunnel systems running through them (e.g. for subways, access to water pipes, smuggling), sapping and mining still see some use in urban warfare situations where a heavily fortified building needs to be brought down but anti-aircraft defenses prevent the use of bombers to do so. Moreover, sapping was used extensively by both sides on the western front in WW1, where a team would dig a tunnel until they were underneath the enemy's trenches, and then dig out a cave which was then filled with explosives. The explosions from these dug-out mines were some of the largest non-nuclear explosions mankind ever produced, with some of largest being noticeable as far away as London and Cologne. As a result, extensive countermeasures existed too; you could listen to the walls with a stethoscope or place a bucket of water on the floor of a trench, whose surface would ripple from the microvibrations of the enemy digging underneath. If someone noticed the enemy, a counter-tunnel would be dug underneath and filled with a smaller amount of explosives to bury the enemy in their tunnels. Some of these explosives-filled mines were both never cleared of explosives nor detonated when originally intended, and so remain dangerous to this day; in 1956, one of these mines detonated after it was struck by lightning, and the resulting explosion produced a crater that was 40 meters wide and 20 meters deep.
Before people worked out how to make cannons that were better at killing the enemy than whoever was using them, they would sometimes use Petards. Their job was to run up to enemy walls with barrels of gun powder or other primitive bombs, light the fuse and run like hell, letting the explosion take down the wall. Most of the time this ended up killing the Petard as well, hence the phrase "hoisted by his own petard"
A Korean gunpowder weapon used defensively against large armies. Take a bunch of long arrows, attach small rockets to each arrow, load each of them in a tube, stack the tubes tightly in an open frame, and fire all of them at once out of a portable box container on a fixed cart. A single launcher could fire as many as 200 arrows. Such overwhelming firepower made attackers think twice about charging defensive positions. While reloading them was a time consuming nightmare, they served as a good psychological deterrent and volley weapon from defensive positions.
Named Historic siege engines
Warwolf: Thought to be the largest Trebuchet ever built, it took 30 wagons to transport it, putting at between 300–400 feet tall and it took over 50 people over three months to build it. Used in the Siege of Stirling castle by king Edward the scotts were so scared of the thing they tried to surrender, but the king was like "nope" and he wanted to see his weapon at work. Records show it threw over 300 pound stone balls and leveled a section of the castle's wall.
Helepolis: not to be confused with "Heliopolis", or Suncity, the Helepolis was a greek seige engine who's name means "Taker of Cities". Actually it was a type of siege engine, but it was more then just a siege tower. It was tank! It was built like a siege tower only with multiple catapults at each level of the tower, it could roll up to a castle wall, firing all the while, while solider manning dart throws on top could clear the walls for soldiers in side to jump out of the moveable tower.
Seige Weapons are still useful into modern times. However they are used a bit differently than their middle age counterparts.
Originating in the 17th century after descending from early cannons. The Howitzer is still the go to indirect fire weapon for infantry in the 21st, and will continue to be so until Railguns become smaller and more portable.
Comes in all shapes and sizes. A few of the more noteworthy types:
- TNT: TriNitroToluene. Also known as dynamite. More powerful than gunpowder, more stable than nitroglycerin. Dynamite comes in sticks and and is ignited using an electrical charge from a plunger device. Just a few well-placed sticks can blast rocks with ease.
- Plastic Explosives: Explosives made from a flexible material, such as C4. Can be molded into any shape and stuck on any surface with a bit of duck tape. Stick the primer in, then remotely detonate when you’re a safe distance away.
- Thermite: this compound produces a jet of molten iron when ignited, rather than exploding outright. Great for cutting through thick surfaces, or destroying gun barrels/sensitive equipment.
- Detcord: A type of plastic explosive that’s optimized for dynamic entry. Comes in a rope shape for easy bundling and placement; stick it on a wall in an outline of the hole you want to make, or sandwich a rolled up bundle between two bags of water to create a powerful door-knocking explosive.
- Shape Charge: explosives placed around an inverted metal cone. When ignited, the cone collapses into a jet of molten metal, concentrating the explosive power into a fine point to punch through armor. Commonly used in anti-tank rounds, though portable versions exist.
- IED: Short for Improvised Explosive Device. Term coined by the US military during the invastion of Iraq in the 2000s, that covers basically anything that goes boom and isn't covered by traditional military lingo or adheres to any standardized model of bomb or land mine. As the name tells, these are mostly improvised explosives made from a bewildering range of materials, from pipe bombs that are made by filling a solid steel pipe with some C4 or dynamite to more volatile and/or unreliable things like artillery shells equipped with a fuse or just a solid tube filled with ammonuiumnitrate (found in many fertilizers).
- Land Mines: Landmines are essentially small explosive containers that are buried and set off by someone or something stepping on them. Mines are primarily used to prevent an enemy setting foot in areas you don't want them to or force your enemy to march into a direction of your choosing. The major hassle of Land Mines is that they are buried en masse and remain actively dangerous until they are either set off or defused - often long after a conflict has ended. This has lead to anti-personnel mines being outlawed by every major country in the world, although some smaller armies and the US still keeping some of them in stockpile.
These were explosives in a tube used mainly to clear obstacles such as mines, barbed wire, and barricades. They came in handy if you couldn't otherwise dismantle said obstacles properly, such as if you were storming an enemy position under fire and needed to create a clear path very quickly.
Thanks to the creation of explosive payloads, one of humanity's oldest weapons still sees occasional use as an indirect fire weapon. Slings first returned to use during the Great War when hand grenades did, and saw use during the interwar and into the Spanish Civil War and into the World War II concurrent Winter War where the Finns used sling fired projectiles to kill tanks. Grenade launchers have largely replaced them in industrialized forces, but they continue to see use among those not as well armed.
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