Siege Weaponry: A Primer for Writers

TrebuchetThe sound of steel clashing against steel rings in the distance. Smoke billows into the air, carrying the horrid stench of the battlefield. Through the fluttering tent entrance a muddied, bloodied, messenger runs in.

“Commander, we have their fortress surrounded…”

The commander rises from his plush, velvet seat, and adjusts his belt.

“Splendid!” he exclaims. “Storm the keep! Take no prisoners!”

“Erm, that’s all right and good, but, milord, if I may – “

“No time, we must swarm them now!” he shouts as he slams his hands down upon the table, chicken legs bouncing up.

“You do realize the gate is shut, don’t you?”

“Shut?” His brow furls as he draws his hand across his chin.

“Indeed, milord.”

“Well, that’s rude.” He says as he places his hands on his hips. “We are guests, after all. No wonder we went to war with these heathens!”

Hey! They have walls! Now what?

A crucial part of medieval warfare was the invention and application of siege weaponry on the battlefield. No one is getting in anyone’s castle without some kind of ingenuity, hence… castles. From the simple ladder to the grandeur of the siege tower, each held their niche in the meat-grinder that was the medieval battlefield.

Sieges are interesting. Imagine a sandcastle. You know, the one your three year old made with one of those plastic molds. Look at it, their greatest achievement, and it’s already half-collapsed on itself and about to be drowned by the ocean. Now imagine a sandCASTLE. You’re not going to hear your daughter cry about how it got washed away this time – no, you will not stand for it. So you dig, mightily and wide. Create a mighty moat that the ocean will divert into. You construct the walls thick and wide, with wet sand and shells packed on so much that you have mermaids getting rent quotes from you. Actually, make that TWO walls. Yeah, you think you’re tough getting over that first wall, well think again, Poseidon! This one bad mother isn’t going anywhere this high-tide.

Until some jerk comes along… and kicks it.

A siege was not an overnight affair such as the Battle of Helm’s Deep. Castles were not designed to be washed away in one tide. They were meant to last, and outlast whatever could be thrown at them – literally and figuratively. There are many ways to take down a castle, and you might have to exhaust every one of them to get inside.

Sieges were long, costly, and very effective… at getting people killed. One could either batter their enemy into submission with the mighty hurled stones of the trebuchet and catapult until their fortifications were naught but dust and rubble, or they could surround the fortification entirely, cutting off supply lines in and out of the area, and starving the defenders into submission. Or, if you’re a real nasty prick, you’d do both.

On the petrary!

The biggest and baddest juggernauts of medieval artillery: the great stone hurling siege engines. If you’ve ever played Age of Empires, your first thoughts are TREBUCHETS, TREBUCHETS, TREBUCHETS. If there’s a wall in your way, or a tower that you don’t think should exist, have your engineers set one of these bad-boys up and watch as you hurl 200 pound stones at your enemy. They have the power to reduce cities to rubble.

Do you even lift?

Trebuchets are practically giant slings that use a heavy counterweight to propel whatever massive object you desired with great force. Attached to the short arm heavy lead or a ballast box filled with whatever you can scrounge up (usually some type of earth) would be dropped downward, sending the long arm that carried the sling forward, eventually releasing your ammunition.

But trebuchets were the evolutionary result of much tampering and altering to the catapult of ancient times.

The onager was once such ancestor. Its very name spawned from the kicking action of a wild ass (not your college roommate, either). Using torsional force stored from strong, twisted rope or sinew, this much smaller machine would hurl its sling with deadly force. Once fired, the operators would have to crank the ropes or sinew back before firing. Its relatively close range made operating this siege engine a bit dangerous, so the engineers went back to the drawing board.

The mangonel was a much closer relative. Similar in appearance and operation, the mangonel was a true engine of war. Instead of a heavy counterweight like the trebuchet, the mangonel would rely upon the strength of a team of men to propel its ammunition. With a mighty “Heave-ho!” they laid waste to enemy walls and defenders. The mangonel had much more force behind it, and with a well trained crew, could devastate the battlefield. Sure, any mindless rabble could operate this beast, but they jeopardized their own lives and those of their comrades if they were unable to tame its power.

These weapons used many different things for ammunition. While stones seem like the go-to, these devices could fire multitudes of different weaponry. Such as clay balls with incendiary material within them, or even, dead bodies.

Death and Decay

One of the most deadly weapons of the siege were the dead. No, not the walking kind – the limp, rotted, fly-ridden kind. You know: the “ripe” kind. What better way to honor them than to throw them at their slayers.

In the cramped confines of the garrison, with havoc all around, and food on short supply – food that gives your body what it needs to fight on – disease could consume it like wildfire. An early form of biological warfare, using the rotting corpses of the fallen was not only resourceful, but effective. And what better way to demoralize and horrify those standing against you?

Love my Goat

There’s something about a steel-capped battering ram in the shape of a ram’s head that just beckons, “I’ve come here to kick ass and chew bubble gum, and I’m all out of bubble gum.” Sometimes simpler is better, or just, effective.

You close your door, I open it. You lock your doors, I break the lock. You bar your doors, I ram them down with a host of men behind me.

Not only are these things designed to splinter Vahalla’s gates, but they can crumble the masonry of walls and towers.

I am over-glorifying it. Simply, a ram is a huge log carried by a bunch of guys who really want to break things down. But that doesn’t mean it can be improved, right? I mean, Pong was pretty fun. Now we have Dragon Age: Inquisition and Counterstrike. They’re all entertaining.

At first, it truly wasn’t much more than a massive log with a reinforced cap hefted about with ropes and chains by a dozen men. But, after realizing arrows were killing said men, the engineers went back to the drawing table and put a roof over their heads; some even slanted or curved to deter arrows and spears more effectively. And wheels beneath their feet. Metal and hides soon covered the roof, so that it was more flame-retardant. Eventually, battering rams evolved into some sort of medieval tank.

But the will to live is stronger than a log. Simply put forth some type of obstacle in its path, and you have stayed the beast. Or, get ahold of the chains the attackers swing it from, and you put quite the damper on their party. Keep it dead in its tracks and send some of your finest to clear it out, and your gate will stay shut.

You’re driving me ballistic!

Maybe hurling stones from God’s hand isn’t your thing. Or bashing your way through might be a bit too jarring for you. Maybe you’re more of a finesse person. If so, have I got some toys for you! How does impaling a dragon out of the sky from atop your tower’s battlements sound? Has a nice ring to it doesn’t it?

Ballistae, while not quite catapults, served amongst them for a very long time. It was a highly accurate type of weapon that earned its stripes while in service to the Roman Empire along many of its victories across the ancient world. The ballista made the excellent anti-personnel weapon, using torsion power much like the onager. It was the literal sniper rifle of the Roman Empire, albeit a tad on the larger scale, but its power was unmatched nonetheless. Both sides of the siege made use of this weapon, and the higher your tower, the further your bolt traveled.

Ballistae resemble crossbows on steroids, usually mounted atop battlements or even upon horse-drawn wagons such as the carro-ballista. These emplacements offered terrifying range and accuracy over simple bows.

Weather affected this weapon greatly, however. Overnight there is a downpour and the rain soaks the torsion springs. Even the constant sea-breeze carrying the humidity of the ocean could cause the springs to falter. And after much use, its springs would eventually decay in elasticity. If the cords were to slacken, you’d have an expensive paperweight on the battlefield. And having enough supply to repair and replace these on long sieges could be quite costly, lest your commander was watching his gold purse.

Its terrifying reign upon the battlefield did not span far into the middle ages, because why would you lug these mighty machines that required many men to operate and maintain, when you could equip all of your men with a much more effective crossbow? Or deploy the much simpler springald, which operates similarly but used more durable horsehair ropes – making it a greater candidate for naval warfare as well. It’s a shame – I really wanted to see those massive, flaming javelins light up the night sky… and the roofs of my enemies.

In the land down under…

So suppose your artillery operators are all blind, shooting wildly into the forests and hills? Or perhaps there are no forests, thus no timber to construct these great machines. Then what? How do you suppose you’ll breach that castle wall? You are stubborn on getting in there, aren’t you?

There are ways, my child. Dark, dirty ways…
Start digging!

One of the more desperate and drastic ways on entering a castle would be by having a team of men create, in secret, elaborate tunnels that would go into and beneath the foundation of the walls. Here, they could sabotage the walls from beneath them or grant entry into the fortification. That is, if said castle wasn’t built upon solid rock.

Such plans were risky. If the defenders discovered such plans, they would counter-mine and collapse the attackers’ tunnel, burying alive whoever was in it and completely thwarting all the effort put into the tunneling. Or even more simply, conducting a raid on the tunnel would prove quite effective, and the loss of your engineers would prove a costly chess piece to miss.

Once the miners had completely undermined whatever it was they were to collapse, they would burn the away the props supporting the mine with large amounts of combustibles, plunging fortifications into the ground. If that was not an option, sapping the wall by picking away at the foundation would prove effective as well.

That’s some dedication.

Or, You Can Climb

So you’ve got your mangonels a-slingin’, your ballistae a-firin’, and your enemies a-dyin’! Now what? Time to get up and over that damn wall!

I could bore you with the exact details on how a siege ladder is different from a regular ladder you used to paint your house with last week, but I think you’d rather read about a siege tower.

One of the most dramatic creations spawned from medieval warfare was the siege tower – a great, mobile tower of wood and manpower slowly making its way to your doorstep. One most famous tower, known as Helepolis, was nine stories high. These massive structures would hold hundreds of men and protect them against the defenders until they reached the walls.

The towers would be plated with iron or covered in animal skin to prevent defenders from simply hurling incendiaries at the giant bonfire-waiting-to-happen/man-at-arms-BBQ. Some towers were even so elaborate as to be built taller than the walls, housing its own garrison of archers to fire upon the defenders. Or, or, OR… maybe even some ballistae! Yeah, and some catapults! While we’re at it, let’s throw some rims on them, too!

Why didn’t everyone just use them?

Considering the time it would take to create such a thing, you would only go to such length and expense if you had tried every other viable option. Also, if you were smart enough to install a moat around your castle, you’d never have to worry about those towers reaching your walls. Plainly, they weren’t invincible. You can only do so much to stop something like this from being burned to the ground. And if you’ve ever challenged an arsonist to burn something, well, they’re damn well going to burn it.

And with the invention of the cannon and gunpowder, well, back to the drawing board you go, and that applies to all of these machines. Great strides in technology were born from siege warfare, and the side that has the technological superiority will have the upper hand. These battles are no longer about man versus man, but man and machine versus man and machine. Warfare constantly evolves, so how does it evolve in your writing? Do you use more classical siege weaponry like the ballista, or are you all for stoning castles from hundreds of yards away?

There are many ways to take down a castle, but it is no easy feat. Sieges are long, bloody affairs. You can bring all the toys you want, but if the defenders out-wit you, then what? That starts the long and grueling test that is a siege.

But that makes for good writing. So, get to sieging that blank page!

Are you using siege weapons in your stories? If so, do you have any tips to share?

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Nicholas C. Rossis
7 years ago

Excellent post! How it could not be, with such a hilarious opening… 😀

Lorinda J. Taylor
7 years ago

Informative article and fun to read! In my termte epics, the termite people are very low tech, but there is one character who is inventive by nature, and in the course of battles he upgrades the technology – he invents the battering ram (the “mighty pounder” in their language, and also armor – wooden shields that cover the body of the insectoids, like artificial chitin. They have the wheel but have used it only for small wheelbarrows, but this character invents large wagons and even tames a reptilian ceature to pull one of them.

Tyrean Martinson
7 years ago

I’m terrible and have tried to find ways of getting around sieges – like the idea of a disguised entrance of an enemy force over a long period of time – months or even up to a year before an attack. With that idea, the attackers are both inside and outside the ramparts. What can I say? I think I have some lazy attackers in my books . . . and yet, I like books with siege engines in them. I may have to try one in the next story. 🙂

Jess Mahler
7 years ago

Don’t forget the most important weapon in a seige–treachery!

Unless I’m misremembering my history, more fortified locations were taken by traitors opening the gates than by seige weaponry pounding the wall.

Which doesn’t stop the weaponry from being really cool.

Matthew R. Bishop
7 years ago

Every fantasy writer should read this article. Including me ten years ago. Like five times.

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