Crossbow-Care-art - 9/25/10
"Care and Feeding of a Medieval Crossbow" by Lord Siegfried Sebastian Faust.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
This article was first published in issue 20 of "The Oak", the Arts and Sciences Journal of the Kingdom of Atlantia.
You can find more work by this author on his webpage at: http://crossbows.biz/
Care and Feeding of a Medieval Crossbow
by Lord Siegfried Sebastian Faust
Medieval crossbows require a fair bit of maintenance and tweaking to ensure that they can be shot accurately and safely. Also, crossbows can be very finicky about their ammunition. This article will discuss the various parts of a crossbow, possible malfunctions, how to fix them, and tips for finding the correct ammunition.
I. The Prod
The prod (or bow section) is the most important part of the crossbow. Problems with the prod, especially its mounting, can cause all sorts of difficulties.
I.a. Loose Bridle or Bow Irons
The most common problem you will have with a crossbow is the loosening of the bridle, or bow irons. Let’s look at the bow irons first.
If you have bow irons, you should become familiar with to tightening them often, because they tend to work loose as you shoot. You should check them each time you go out to shoot and regularly while shooting. Luckily, they are designed to be easily tightened. Simply knock the wedges on either side of the crossbow in towards the stock to tighten it. Usually, using two hammers to hit both sides of the irons at the same time easily accomplishes this task. If your bow irons are loosening far too fast for your own purposes, the wedges may be too smooth. You can remove the wedges and use a file or sandpaper on them to rough them up a little bit and make them hold better.
More commonly, a crossbow will have a cord binding, known as the bridle. This binding may be made of many different materials: linen, rawhide, sinew, nylon, etc. But in all cases, the basic principle remains the same. The cord wraps many times around the prod on both sides, passing through a hole in the stock. Another cord (usually of different type) wraps around the bundle of cord on each side of this to tighten it down, gaining a mechanical advantage.
As time wears on, and the strands stretch and reposition themselves, the bridle will become loose. If you can pinch the bridle just behind the prod and move it slightly, then the bridle probably needs tightening. If it is loose enough that the prod can wobble in its socket, then the crossbow will have accuracy problems. If it is so loose that the prod wobbles a lot, or moves side-to-side, then shooting becomes a safety problem, as the bolt may go in unpredictable directions.
To tighten the bridle, take some cord (artificial sinew works well), and start wrapping this cord around the existing wrapping, towards the prod, pulling it tighter. Multiple techniques may be used: wrapping it in a spiral like a string serving; tying it off at either end and spiral wrapping; or tying a running knot. Any method that pulls the binding tighter and won’t slip will work. I prefer the running knot, in which you pass the string under the bridle, then back through, forming a half hitch. Reverse the direction and repeat until the bridle is tight. Make sure that you tighten both sides equally, and don’t go too far on a side at one time, or you can actually to tip the prod and will not be able to tighten the other side properly.
Also note that the stirrup of a crossbow, when bound on, can become loose. This is perfectly fine, and completely safe, since the stirrup doesn’t even need to be there. Usually, the stirrup fastens onto the crossbow with a completely different set of cords than on the prod itself. This way, the stirrup can loosen without the prod loosening. (The main point is that it is the prod that matters.) As long as the prod remains tight, it doesn’t matter how loose the stirrup becomes. That said, you can tighten the stirrup the same way as the whole prod binding. You can also choose to wrap some cord around the upper sections of binding that hold only the stirrup to pull them snug.
I.b. Tipped Mounting
A tipped mounting occurs when the prod is at an angle to the stock, with the tips at different heights in comparison to the shelf. This configuration causes the string to come off the shelf at different angles on either side. A small amount of tipping will not cause a problem. A severe amount can cause accuracy issues, as well as making one side of the string serving wear much quicker than the other. If the bridle is slightly loose, the angle can sometimes be fixed by firmly but gently tapping the prod with a rubber mallet to force it into place, and then tightening the bridle. Otherwise, the only way to fix this problem is to remove the prod and remount it square.
I.c. Too Much/Too Little Shelf Drag
Shelf drag refers to the string’s pulling down on the shelf of the crossbow. With too much shelf drag, indicated by the string’s coming down at a strong angle from the shelf, the crossbow will function; however, the crossbow will be less efficient than it could be, and the string serving will wear out very fast.
Having too little shelf drag can cause the crossbow to misfire. This problem can be detected by noticing the string hovering above the shelf at rest, or by looking at the tips of the prods when cocked to see if they are pulling the string above the shelf. Either condition can cause the string to jump over the bolt, potentially destroying the bolt or sending it tumbling only a few feet in front of you.
The only way to fix these problems is to remove the prod, change its socket to correct the angle, and then remount it.
I.d. Off Center
A crossbow prod that is mounted off center will cause the crossbow bolts’ back ends to be kicked at an angle, making them to go off target and wobble in flight. Two ways can determine if it is perfectly centered. The first is to measure the distance of the prod from tip to stock on both sides and ensure it is the same. The other method is to use a bow square (or other square) to check that the string is perfectly perpendicular to the groove in the stock. You can sometimes fix a deviation by again using a rubber mallet, or if needed, removing and remounting the prod.
I.e. Brace Height
The brace height of a crossbow equals the distance between the prod and the string at rest. You should ensure that this distance is close to that recommended by the manufacturer of the crossbow/prod. The average brace height of an SCA crossbow is around 3 1/2". (This is the recommended height for any steel prods made by Master Gladius, which comprise the bulk of reenactment crossbow prods.) Up to a half-inch of difference in this measurement is acceptable. You can change the brace height by twisting your string tighter or looser, as needed. In the worst case, you can acquire a new string of the proper length.
II. The Trigger
The trigger assembly must be kept in working order. Otherwise, the crossbow may not fire, or worse, may misfire when you least expect it. Because of this potential danger, never point a loaded crossbow at anything you don’t wish to shoot.
II.a. Notch Locks
The notch lock style crossbow has one of the simpler styles of releases. It consists of a ledge cut into the shelf into which the string is pulled back. A lever, either on the top or on the bottom, pushes a pin upwards that forces the string off the ledge.
A few things bear watching with notch lock crossbows, mostly with the ledge itself. First you want to make sure that the ledge is very smooth; otherwise it will rub on the string and eventually eat the serving. You can sand it with very fine sandpaper (work your way up to 400 grit), and rub a little bit of beeswax into it to help with lubrication.
Next, check that the shelf angles backwards slightly. If it does not, then the string may jump off the shelf by itself. Conversely, if the string is having problems coming off the shelf, then you may want to file the lip of the shelf slightly, which should help the string leave.
A claplock is a late-period lock style similar to the notch lock. The difference is that the ledge angles forward so that the string easily leaves, and a piece of metal holds it in. Maintain the ledge as described for the notch lock, taking the different angle into account. The angle should be just enough so the string leaves the notch when under pressure. If the angle is too great, the crossbow will not fire; and an angle that is too small will place too much pressure on the clasp mechanism and cause it to fail.
II.c. Rolling Nut
The rolling nut was the most common form of crossbow lock in the Middle Ages. This type consists of a cylindrical nut that rotates in a socket with two prongs to hold the string. The trigger contacts the bottom of the nut, in a reinforced section called the sear. When the trigger is depressed, the nut can roll freely, and the string is released.
One common problem is the nut’s not rolling freely. It jams, usually in a forward position after firing, and takes considerable effort to turn it backwards. Most often this problem occurs because something clogs the socket that holds the nut, or the nut is too large. Either way, you need to remove the nut (usually by cutting away the sinew holding it in place, or removing a bolt or screw) and check the socket. If it is free of debris, then you can sand the nut slightly to reduce its size and allow it to turn more freely. Some people also use powdered graphite to lubricate the nut, although it tends to leave a black streak on the shelf of the crossbow. Do not use any grease or liquid-based lubricant on the nut, as it will soak into the wood and cause it to swell and lock the nut tightly.
The second most common problem happens when the crossbow will not remain cocked. This issue usually presents itself at first when the crossbow dry-fires itself just after cocking. After that (or after a few more fires), it will not remain cocked, as the nut will roll freely. The usual problem is that the sear and/or the front of the trigger have been worn round, and therefore will not lock together properly any more. Remove the nut and trigger, and try to file them flat again. While this action usually works on a rounded trigger, it is often very hard to do on a rounded sear, which will sometimes require the making of a new nut for the crossbow.
III. The String
The string on a crossbow takes a lot of abuse – not only at the tips, where it is constantly under many pounds of pressure. Crossbows are known for eating their center serving regularly. (And some crossbows are hungrier than others).
III.a. Center Serving
The center serving of a crossbow constantly wears as it drags across the shelf, as well as on the nut or notch. All crossbowmen need to become proficient at redoing a center serving. A center serving for a crossbow must be as tight as possible to make sure that it wears slowly. Use a serving tool and follow the directions that come with it. It is recommended that you place two or three layers of serving on the center of your crossbow strings. This way, if one layer breaks through during a competition, you can quickly pull its remains off and continue shooting on the under-serving until you get a chance to fix the string. I also highly recommend using braided fastflight serving, as it will greatly increase the lifespan of the serving.
III.b. End Loops
The end loops of a crossbow string take almost as much abuse, but most of the wear can be avoided. First of all, I recommend that the end loops be double-served. Again, it is important that this be as tight as possible. Either braided or twisted fastflight serving will prevent them from breaking through. The other suggestion for maximum string life is to place small leather patches or disks around the string prong on the prod, so the string rests on the leather. This cushioning will protect it from any sharp edges on the prod that may cut the string.
IV. The Ammunition
The only rule of thumb that seems to apply to crossbow is that each crossbow has its own taste in ammunition. Make test bolts of different types – about two or three of each type will do – and fire them all. See which ones your crossbow seems to send the straightest, with least wobble, the most consistently, and with the best aim points. Find that, go with it, and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise as long as the bolts are still flying well from your crossbow.
Just about any good straight piece of wood will do for a crossbow shaft. Commercial arrow shaft material of cedar, pine, chundoo, etc. will work nicely. Crossbows are not really affected by spine weight, because of the shorter length of their bolts. What does matter is their strength. Choose one of the heavier draw weights for the shaft diameter that you are using. It is important that they have the same spine, mostly for weight reasons. All your bolts should have the same weight. The closer the bolts weigh to each other, the closer they will group. You can use hardwood dowels for your crossbow shafts, but for accuracy you will want to ensure equal weight and straightness.
The lengths of the shafts are a personal preference. In general, the longer the shaft, the more stable the bolt will be in flight; also, it won’t bury as easily in a target, or blow through. However, the longer bolts will cost more, as two crossbow bolts can’t be made out of one arrow shaft. Some crossbows shoot the shorter bolts fine; some work better with the longer bolts. Some people also like the longer bolts because it gives them a better aiming point in front of their crossbow.
The diameter of your shafts is partially based upon your crossbow and also falls under personal preference. Your crossbow may be set up to only accept certain diameters of bolts, and you will need to determine this. The first check is to see how big of a diameter will fit inside the fingers of the nut. If you want a wider shaft, you will either need to file the prongs wider apart or file the sides of the ends of your crossbow bolts narrower to fit inside the nut. You always want to make sure that the bolt contacts the string.
Secondly, examine where the string of your crossbow crosses the end of your bolt. Optimally, it should cross right in the center of the bolt, where it has the most surface area to grab. If it hits the bolt below center, then you either need to use smaller diameter bolts or serve the string with more layers to thicken it to the right dimensions. Otherwise, the string can pass under the crossbow bolt, causing the bolt to flip up in the air and tumble only a few feet in front of you.
If the crossbow string is higher than the center of the bolt, then you probably need to use thicker bolts, or possibly remove some layers of center-serving, if you have more than two on the string. If this adjustment is not done, then the string can jump over the bolt, smacking the bolt downward, destroying it, or sending it weakly a few feet in front of you.
Beyond that, the diameter is a personal preference. Some people prefer thicker, and therefore heavier bolts, which tend to be more stable but drop significantly at longer ranges. Others prefer thinner, lighter bolts, which can be a little more erratic but tend to have a very flat trajectory.
Per SCA rules, you will need use some form of point that won’t cause damage to the targets, usually a target point, field point, or bullet point. The selection of which type of point to use is based completely on personal preference.
The one issue that does matter is getting a proper weight balance. You want your bolts to be tip-heavy, which helps them to stabilize in flight properly. Assuming that you are using fairly heavy shafts, a good starting point with which to test is a 125gr point on a 5/16" shaft, and the 145gr or 165gr points on the 11/32 or 23/64 shafts. From there you can experiment to see what feels best to you.
You don’t want to shoot too light of a bolt from a heavy-poundage crossbow; you will prematurely end the life of the prod, because the bolt will not be able to absorb all the power that the prod has to deliver. For example, a heavy 5/16" bolt with a 125gr tip is the lightest thing you should shoot out of a 125lb crossbow.
SCA rules allow for great flexibility in fletching materials for bolts. Besides the normal feather fletches, bolts can have parchment, wood, leather, or any other period fletching material. However, the most common and useful is the feather.
Crossbow bolts tend to have between a 2 1/2" and 4" feather, set as far back on the bolt as possible without it interfering with the lock mechanism or the string. The fletches should have some amount of angle set to them to help the bolts spin and stabilize. As long as the bolt sits solidly in its track, don’t worry about having too much angle to the fletches. The bolt doesn’t really have time to spin until it has already left the crossbow. At that point, the spinning of the bolt will help keep it from wobbling.
A number of different fletching styles are used on the crossbow bolt. The most common is the 2-fletch, with a fletch on either side of the bolt at a 180 degree angle. Another period style of fletching is a 3-fletch, which has a vertical fletch coming straight up at a 90 degree angle to the other two. Finally, there is also a 4-fletch design that is sometimes affectionately called a “hedgehog”. In this style, two equally-spaced fletches on the top of the bolt are set between the original two fletches. In other words, it is like a 6-fletch flu-flu arrow, but with two fletches removed. There are also some more modern styled crossbows that have a deep channel under their track that allows for a traditional arrow style 3-fletch bolt, where one fletch is dropped vertically down into the channel.
V. Other Topics and Tips
Many crossbowmen use beeswax or harder wax to lubricate the shelf of their crossbow. This step not only increases the speed of the string, but also stops it from wearing so badly. If you do this, take care not to get any wax in the bolt channel, on the bolt itself, or on the center of the serving. Only use a very small amount; too much can cause problems.
Take care of your stock. If it has been lacquered, check and make sure that it hasn’t cracked or chipped. Most crossbows are finished with oil (tung oil, linseed oil, etc). With these finishes, you should give the crossbow a light rubdown each year of use with the same oil to help keep it from drying out.
In the SCA, you choose a 'persona' for yourself. A new name and identity from out of the middle ages to help focus your reinactment. My persona is Lord Siegfried Sebastian Faust, a 16th century German Landsknecht (a fancy name for a mercenary who wears wild clothing). I first heard about the SCA probably around 1990 or so, but didn't end up finding them and joining until 1995. Since then I have dabbled in many aspects of the SCA: fighting, cooking, brewing, sewing, etc. But the one topic that has grabbed me the firmest is doing archery with a crossbow, and therefore, making the crossbows as well.
In the real world, Eli White is a computer programmer who works for digg.com. He grew up in West Virginia, and now lives in Maryland, and while he enjoys 'normal' hobbies such as playing video games and hanging out with friends, his true passion is for the Middle Ages.
Copyright 2005 by Eli White, PO Box 3883, Frederick, MD 21705. <siegfried at crossbows.biz>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited. Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.