Arrow-guides, Pellet-bows and Crossbows
by David Nicolle

An extract from The military technology of classical Islam by D Nicolle

Volume 1



Arrow-guides, Pellet-bows and Crossbows
       In the early Middle Ages the Muslim world seems to have made almost as much use of various mechanical and pellet-bows as did Europe. Many seem to have had eastern origins, but there is, nevertheless, little evidence to suggest that they came to Europe


via Islam. Indeed, in many cases the Europeans seem, perhaps only marginally, to have made the first widespread use of such weapons. An exception to this general oriental origin for unorthodox bows may be the pellet-bow. Naturally, such a weapon is generally only recognizeable in illustrated sources by the fact that its users carry bags for pellets rather than quivers for arrows (Fig. 177 H) or, in much later sources, by the very detailed nature of the art (Fig. 646 ). The pellet-bow shot small stones or lead pellets and was primarily a hunting weapon. It was, in fact, employed by Muslim warriors from al Andalus for just this purpose while raiding Sardinia in the 8th century.149 Only later does the pellet-bow appear in some boisterous horse-play in mid-9th century Iraq,150 and for hunting in the Ḥamdānid Jazīrah.151 Meanwhile pellet-bows remained popular in al Andalus at least until the 11th century.152
       If the pellet-bow was a hunting weapon of perhaps western origin, the arrow-guide was definitely a war-weapon of eastern invention. It may, perhaps, have first been mentioned in the hands of those Sassanian troops who faced the Muslims in Iraq in the mid-7th century.153 Known as the nāwak in Persian and the ḥusbān in Arabic, the arrow-guide perhaps had an Iranian origin. Traditionally, this weapon

149. Ibn ʿAbd al Ḥakam, op. cit., pp. 100-101.
150. Al Masʿūdī, op. cit., vol. VIII, p. 17.
151. Canard, "Quelques aspects de la vie sociale en Syrie et Jazīrah au dixième siècle d'après les poètes de la cour Ḥamdānide," p. 187.
152. Pérès, op. cit., pp. 350-359.
153. Al Balādhurī, op. cit., vol. I, pp. 362-363.


was believed to have been invented on the Transoxanian frontier, though by Muslims, for use against Turkish raiders who would otherwise pick up their foes' arrows and shoot them back.154 Certainly, the arrow-guide-could only have originated in an area where the thumb-draw was normally used, for in this style of archery an arrow passed to the right of the bow, rather than the left as in the European finger-draw. Thus an archer's left hand could hold both his bow and his arrow-guide.155
       The nāwak or ḥusbān continued to be used in eastern Islam and was, by the late 12th century, certainly employed by horsemen among whom it was considered by one author to be too common to warrant a detailed description.156 Such weapons may, of course, have been used in this manner for centuries.
       The true hand-held crossbow poses a more difficult question. It was almost certainly invented in Asia, perhaps by the aboriginals of southern China157 many centuries before the period under review. Crossbows were being used as infantry weapons on China's Central Asian frontier in the 8th century,158 and may even have been known in the ʿAbbāsid Caliphate and Sāmānid Khurāsān a century or so later,159 Thereafter the weapon was recorded, under its various

154. Faris and Elmer, op. cit., pp. 124-126.
155. McEwen, op. cit., p. 76.
156. Al Tarṣūṣī, op. cit., pp. 110-111; al Tarṣūṣī, in Boudot-Lamotte, op. cit., p. 144.
157. B. Laufer, Chinese Clay Figures, part 1, Prologomena on the History of Defensive Armor, (Chicago 1914), p. 215.
158. Cahen, "Les Changements techniques militaires dans la Proche Orient médiéval et leur importance historique," p. 118.
159. Cahen, "Djaysh," pp. 504-509; al Khaṭīb al Baghdādī, in Vasiliev, op. cit., vol. II, p. 78; Firdawsī, op. cit., pp. 1280 and 1327-1328.


names, in most parts of Islam, and by the 12th century even in Byzantium.160 Nevertheless, there are problems stemming not only from terminology but also from the obvious fact that a form of heavy, mounted crossbow for use in siege warfare had been known in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds. Various forms of large, frame-mounted siege crossbows were subsequently used in Islam, such as the qaws al lawlab, zanbūrak, ziyār and perhaps also the nīm charkh kushkhanjīr, although the earliest Muslim references to such weapons that I can find date from the late 12th century. These mention the zanbūrak161 and ziyār162 (Figs. 167 A to 167C). Were the first hand-held infantry crossbows of western Europe, and most importantly of Iberia, developed from Romano-Hellenistic heavy types, or did they spring from lighter crossbows of more immediate Asian origin that were already in use in Islam? This is a question that has yet to be adequately answered.163 Similarly, the available pictorial evidence does little to clarify this issue, either in an Islamic or a Mediterranean context (Figs. 83, 131, 167C-D, 287, 513, 531, 544, 545, 572, 610 and 661 ). That Islam was fully capable of improving upon the basic crossbow concept seems to be demonstrated by the above-mentioned ziyār siege-bow. Here the arms of the bow, made in two separate parts, are reinforced by "skeins" of silk and horsehair which are themselves mounted across a large oaken frame.164

160. Anon., Itinerarium Peregrinorum, pp. 47 and 53.
161. Bahā al Dīn, op. cit., p. 251; ʿImād al Dīn, op. cit., pp. 227-228.
162. Al Tarṣūṣī, op. cit., pp. 108-110 and 121.
163. J. F. Haldon, "Solinarion - the Byzantine Crossbow?" University of Birmingham Historical Journal, XII (1969-70), p. 15.
164. W. F. Paterson, “The Skein Bow,” Journal of the Society of Archer Antiquaries, VII (1964), pp. 24-27.


       It would, in fact, seem likely that lighter crossbows were favoured by Muslim warriors as they were more suited to their open and manoeuverable style of warfare. Certainly this would account for the appearance of crossbows in the hands of specifically Muslim shock-cavalry in the mid-14th and perhaps also 13th centuries.165 Such a tactical development may have been made easier by an already well-established use of the arrow-guide by Muslim horsemen.

165. Latham, "The Archers of the Middle East: The Tūrco-Iranian Background," p. 102; al ʿUmarī, Masālik al Abṣār fī Mamālik al Anṣār, pp. 146-147.

See also XLIII. On shooting with the ḥusbān, dawdan, and ‘uṣfūri arrows through the hollow of a guide
in an Arabic manuscript of about A.D. 1500 “Book on the Excellence of the Bow and Arrow”
and Appendix 14. The majra or Arrow Guide

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Index of Illustrations of Costume & Soldiers