The Development of Projectile Weapons: Ancient Catapults

  • John Forge
Part of the Research Ethics Forum book series (REFF, volume 1)


One of the first projectile weapons was the sling; there is evidence of slings dating from about 10,000 BCE. The sling is a very basic weapon, consisting of a piece of cloth or hide to which two unequal strings are attached. A small shot is placed in the sling, which is then whirled about the head and one of the strings released in the direction of the target. An important innovation occurred at about 6,000 BCE, when it was found that conical shot was more accurate than round shot, and the first manufactured ammunition was made from baked clay from 5,000 BCE. The sling was a dangerous weapon; Alexander himself was only saved from death by his helmet when hit on the head by a slingshot during the siege of Kyropolis in 329 BCE. The bow and arrow is even older than the sling, with cave paintings of bows dating back to the Palaeolithic (Rihill 2007: 13). Composite bows, made of wood, sinew and horn, smaller and more powerful than the ‘self-bow’ constructed from a single piece of wood, appeared in the fourth millennium BCE. I resist the temptation to date the beginnings of weapons research with reference to any of these innovations regarding the bow or the sling – I expect some case could be made if only the evidence was available, but the precise date at which weapons research began is not something that needs to be established here. However, when the sling and bow evolved into the catapult, and especially with the advent of torsion artillery, it is clear that weapons research had arrived. In this chapter I will say something about catapult technology in order to show that weapons research has been around for a long time. The development of this technology will also help us understand just what weapons research is. Moreover, there are four remarkable treatises on the catapult written between the third century BCE and the first century CE by Philon, Biton, Heron and Vitruvius which amount to the first weapons design manuals. To conclude, I will outline the evolution view of technology, and illustrate it with reference to the catapult. To set the scene I recount one of the best-known episodes in the ancient world of military technology skilfully deployed to thwart a powerful enemy.


Evolution View Reliable Machine Bake Clay Weapon Research Greek City State 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • John Forge
    • 1
  1. 1.History and Philosophy of ScienceThe University of SydneySydneyAustralia

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