Bows and archery

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    Here, I think Tod is demonstrating something about metal springs. I am an engineer, but not formally trained as a mechanical engineer. So, I do not know as much about metallurgy as I would like. However, I think the concept he is illustrating, as has also been discussed on MyArmoury, is that metal springs seem to have a limit to their velocity. Again, not as informed as I would like to be, but his test here seems to be leading up to this point. So, it will be interesting when he does a comparative analysis with a 1200lb crossbow – with a steel prod.

    …The latter part is important. There might have been a trade-off for armies and soldiers for why they might want steel prods or composite prods. You might get faster velocities and thus longer ranges out of a composite prod, but you might have greater safety when using a steel prod. That greater safety is most certainly one of the reasons you do not see reproductions more like Bichler’s on the market, along with a heat treated piece of steel much more easily obtained these days as well.

    Hans Hellinger

    Yeah I’ve been debating that with him for years. There is zero evidence, at least that I have seen, that steel prod crossbows performed in a manner in any way inferior to composite prod crossbows historically. To the contrary, the steel prod weapons seemed to perform a bit better except in extreme cold, for which the composite prod weapons were preferred.

    There is an assumption, which Tod embraces, that people in the medieval period routinely made dumb decisions based on fashion or politics. I think it’s rubbish.

    The theory that steel prod weapons are inferior to horn or composite prod weapons has actually arisen just in the last few years, and only, IMO, because Andreas Bichler and maybe two other people have started to be able to make composite prod weapons which are starting to approach the historically reported performance. And shoot 40% better than Tods weapons.

    This is the problem. Tod is a tinkerer. He is not a historian. He doesn’t make any real effort to emulate historical methods or practices. He does very little research. And yet he’s becoming influential on the nerds. Good for him, his videos are fun. But they ain’t science by a long shot. Especially when it comes to crossbows, his weapons only perform at about half of the historical standard.

    Keep in mind that the actual historically described characteristics of medieval swords and armor have been explained away as rubbish by engineers for years, until testing proved the historical sources to be correct. The most recent example of this was in Nova’s “Secrets of the shining knight” show where they made a high quality 16th century [plate armor] harness from scratch and it proved capable of resisting a musket ball from 20 feet. Numerous engineering types, even some who should have known better, have claimed that medieval armor couldn’t withstand firearms, let alone muskets, for the last 20 years that I’ve been following this, in spite of the historical evidence.

    Hans Hellinger

    The problem isn’t with the science behind the modern engineering mind you, it’s that they tend to oversimplify the characteristics of pre-industrial artifacts and make a lot of assumptions about how thing like weapons work. Hence the myth of the ‘sharpened crowbar’ and the confident descriptions of medieval and early modern steel as inferior to modern even mild steel, which is ludicrous. It wasn’t until we had guys like Peter Johnsson taking a deep dive into how the blades were made that this (very confidently asserted) narrative began to unravel.

    Higher understanding and deeper reckoning


    I think all of the points I’ve seen you raise are valid and worth considering. I consider myself of the school of thought that all inputs are potential datapoints, and as such, they need to be contended with in a scientific manner.

    …When I look at Tod, I see an excellent craftsman as well as someone who is also a scientist/engineer. That doesn’t mean he’s right. I think it’s great you mentioned the NOVA special – Ric was my teacher for a week, and I contend that he is the most brilliant man I’ve ever met. Note that a degree does not make one a scientist. Ric earned his mastery through his art, which is something I would wager the vast majority of “real scientists” cannot lay claim to. Even still, that does not mean Ric will hold everything you, and perhaps I, hold as newfound truth as such. Ric was not at all sold on Peter Johnsson’s geometric theories. I respect his opinion, and I am absolutely certain that not all weapons were designed in that manner. However, I also contend that I think geometric design is truly an excellent tool, and I am fascinated by the concept of someone using geometry to perform complex calculations… without ever needing to resort to equations. If you recall the write-up on my swordsmithing class, you’ve probably read my assessment on the matter yourself.

    So, I would look at it this way: Tod is acting as an empirical scientist in this matter (and there is no shame in that). It’s a rough experiment, but enough to start forming opinions from. He uses what he knows how to make, and hopefully, he will be consistent enough with his testing to establish at least some relation between what he does and makes to form some type of rational conclusion. And, that conclusion is going to be limited to the parameters he and his equipment can adhere to. Thus, his conclusions will not be the final ones – you speak of science – one of the biggest problems we have today is that the layman and even other scientists take someone’s conclusions as fact. THAT is not science, that is religion. I have no problems with religion, either, but one should never confuse it with science.

    For a disclaimer on our ancestors, I have noted to you several times before that my opinion has become that people have not changed much, only our understanding of things have changed. I have learned a LOT from you, and I have heard you make mention of how people in the past were a lot different from us in many regards. I disagree. I feel their understanding of things were different, and because our understanding of things have changed, we instead do not understand them. But, craftsmen were still craftsmen, politicians were still politicians, farmers and scientists and killers the same. Whatever people were doing back then clearly was effective for its time, but because that understanding has either been lost or has otherwise changed, we write them off, which is obviously farcical. Do I think modern steel is better? Yes, yes I do. But, people used what they had and they made it work the best it could. If there is any living evidence of this left in the world, it’s probably with the Japanese swordsmiths and practitioners. Although I’m not part of or really into that culture, why would one bother to make swords like that today, when modern materials are so much better? I think the answer is simply that the case in question is one where the optimum solution for a problem was solved within the limits of a given technology, and it has created a mythos all of its own. This is in part because it worked back then, and it still works today – the difference is that the understanding was not lost.

    So, to conclude, I am going to be happy sitting back and waiting for the next run of tests, waiting for what reasonable data can be gathered, and understanding that it won’t be perfect or absolute, for nothing really is. If it was, we’d still be in the past, because the future would have no reason to happen.


    Hans Hellinger

    Well written post, but we are at odds here my friend.

    “So, I would look at it this way: Tod is acting as an empirical scientist in this matter (and there is no shame in that). It’s a rough experiment, but enough to start forming opinions from.”

    See, I really don’t agree. What Tod is in fact doing is very similar to the very early cutting and fencing tests with “medieval” swords 20-30 years ago, when what was meant by a medieval sword was a five lb re-enactment blunt made of questionable steel with the balance of a ball-pine hammer, or shooting modern compound bows at armor made of sheet metal. This is an exaggeration to make the point – but it’s not all that different in my eyes from the “Empirical” experiment that the flat earth guy did with a steam powered rocket to prove the earth was flat. Was it an experiment? In a sense, yes. Does it tell us anything about the shape of the planet? No.

    Obviously I’m not calling Tod a Flat Earther – or anything like one. I like Tod. He makes beautiful artifacts. I know he doesn’t have a crazy agenda. And yes he does experiments. But you need three things to do a proper experiment – skill to make whatever you are testing, time and space and inclination to run your test (including instruments to measure it), and some kind of grounding in the context sufficient to have a starting point. It’s this third part that Tod lacks. Not because he doesn’t have a history degree or isn’t smart enough. I and many good researchers I know lack a history degree. And I know Tod is plenty smart, he might be smarter than me for all I know. But it’s because, quite ironically since he obviously loves the kit, he’s just not interested in that aspect of it. He has essentially accepted most of the late 20th Century tropes about the medieval world (ala filthy medieval cavemen), and buys into the shorthand of the type you would see in a typical BBC or (dating myself here) History Channel documentary. And that isn’t going to get you there when it comes to medieval anything.

    When I mentioned Peter Johnsson, I’m not specifically referring to his geometrical design theories*, I was referring to his pointing out or popularizing the notion that most swords made in Europe between roughly 1200 – 1600, were not in fact like ‘sharpened crowbars’, and were not metallurgically inferior because some parts of the blade were measurably harder or softer than others; but rather that for reasons we do not entirely understand**, even though they were quite capable of producing large pieces of homogeneous steel of uniform properties***, they seem to have almost never made swords out of homogeneous metal. Rather, the sword blades were made from pieces of various different ferrous alloys – some hard, some tough, some soft, combined together for different purposes, in a manner similar to early pattern welding, which varied in the precise details depending on the type of sword it was.

    Peter showed us that a real actual medieval sword was, in effect, much more ‘like an airplane wing’ than ‘like a sharpened crowbar’. You really get this feeling if you ever handle a 15th or 16th century antique (or older).

    I suspect part of the mystery of the performance of steel crossbow prods may be down to a non-homogeneous design. Or it could also be geometry to some extent too of course.

    By the way I think modern steel IS better than late medieval or early modern steel for purposes like making drill bits, washing machines, rebar and i-beams. I do NOT think it’s better than late medieval steel for making swords or body armor. This is why all the really serious top smiths smelt their own iron, just like they did in that Nova documentary.

    Medieval steel does have some deficiencies, such as a higher slag content, but the prevalence of that particular problem has been exaggerated, and the other issues with modern steel and head treatments played down.

    you make mention of how people in the past were a lot different from us in many regards. I disagree. I feel their understanding of things were different, and because our understanding of things have changed, we instead do not understand them. But, craftsmen were still craftsmen, politicians were still politicians, farmers and scientists and killers the same.

    Again I disagree here though the distinction is subtle. The people, physiologically, are obviously the same. But the culture is very different. Even today, a farmer in France, Tuscany or Germany and a farmer in Mississippi or Louisiana are not the same. I know because I’ve met plenty of both. A craftsmen in say, 15th Century Florence or Augsburg is about as different from a craftsman today as a Home Depot machete is from the (original) Brescia Spadona. I don’t think it’s the same for the politicians, scientists or killers either, not by a long shot. There have been vast cultural changes in the last 500 years. I’d be prepared to discuss that in another thread.

    * Which by the way if you listen to his lectures or read his articles, he does not actually claim were the basis of all swords – he finds the pattern in swords from a relatively narrow range of time and place).

    ** and his theories about geometry are basically an attempt to speculate as to one set of reasons for this and some other factors of sword design from this era

    *** We know this because we have found billets of such in large quantities dating from this era – I myself have seen a literal raft of medieval iron billets (which were tested and proved to be of uniform quality) on display at the Lateneum museum in Switzerland which are more than 2m long.

    Hans Hellinger

    The difference between Tods 40 mps crossbows and Andreas Bichlers 70 mps crossbows is that Bichler spent most of his time researching ancient techniques and antique weapons, while Tod has just made what he could make and started having fun with it. It is not a difference between steel prod crossbows and horn prod. There is no historical evidence (at least that I’ve been able to find to date, and I have looked) to suggest that there was any substantial difference between the two types, in fact the steel prod weapons largely took over and they wouldn’t have adopted them if they had been inferior weapons.

    Nothing wrong with making things and playing around with them, but we should not use that as the basis to close the door on learning about actual history or the performance of historical artifacts.

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