trebuchets vs walls

Zip

Jan 2018
766
San Antonio
The trebuchet didn't have the drastic effect on fortification design that cannon did; that tells me they weren't all that destructive to walls.
 
Oct 2011
550
Croatia
first time i heard that a trebuchet was "disadvantaged " to a ballista in terms of damage done
In terms of damage done for size. But since trebuchet can be much larger, that does not really matter. Where main advantage of ballista lies is in its accuracy, which allows it to be used as a suppression weapon, whereas with trebuchet you are lucky to hit the wall itself.

The trebuchet didn't have the drastic effect on fortification design that cannon did; that tells me they weren't all that destructive to walls.
Obviously not as much as the cannons were, but that does not mean there was no compensation for trebuchets at all.
 

Kirialax

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
4,959
Blachernai
Obviously not as much as the cannons were, but that does not mean there was no compensation for trebuchets at all.
I wonder how significant the trains for early cannons were, and how much they cost? Counterweight trebuchets are fairly complex machines that require specialist knowledge, so I wonder how often they were actually employed. I'm not an expert on the west, but it does seem to me from what little I know that they tend to be associated with the campaigns of kings and great magnates. It might not be worth the expense of resdesigning many fortifications if the odds of actually facing a counterweight trebuchet are low.
 

Zip

Jan 2018
766
San Antonio
I'm not an expert on the west, but it does seem to me from what little I know that they tend to be associated with the campaigns of kings and great magnates. It might not be worth the expense of resdesigning many fortifications if the odds of actually facing a counterweight trebuchet are low.
Originally cannon were also the weapons of kings and great magnates and many early artillery fortifications (meaning those intended to both resist and mount cannon) of the late 15th and early 16th Centuries were in areas threatened by kings such as border regions (Salses in southern France is a Spanish built fortress that is transitional from medieval to artillery) and in the Italian states threatened by France. And the fortifications of Rhodes, where the Knights of St. John were threatened by the Sultan.

Often existing medieval fortifications were modified by lowering and thickening the walls, increasing the width of ditches and the addition of artillery towers, angle bastions and outworks. Such modifications can be seen in Italy at Siena and Lucca.
 
Last edited:
Oct 2011
550
Croatia
I wonder how significant the trains for early cannons were, and how much they cost? Counterweight trebuchets are fairly complex machines that require specialist knowledge, so I wonder how often they were actually employed. I'm not an expert on the west, but it does seem to me from what little I know that they tend to be associated with the campaigns of kings and great magnates. It might not be worth the expense of resdesigning many fortifications if the odds of actually facing a counterweight trebuchet are low.
Early cannons I believe had to be disassembled to be carried around, much like trebuchets, although they obviously had an advantage of having fewer parts. And as Zip mentions, they were costly enough to be utilized primarily by the kings. This might be an interesting read (disregard the "fantasy" part, it is actually a historical overview of strategic impact of fortifications).

I am not much of an expert on the West either, my main interest is Roman Empire / Byzantine Empire / Hungarian-Ottoman - Croatian-Ottoman wars. Only recently did I start reading up on the Hundred Years War.
 
Mar 2016
77
Germany
It's difficult to get reliable sources about the effects of throwing artillery. The reports are mostly, as far as known to me, not very precise about the part the throwers played for the success. Maybe mechanic throwers were the first super weapon lost to the humnas because of incompetence; at least I once had a discussion with someone who was of the firm opinion, backed by some data (out of context unfortunately), that trebuchets lost importance only because they were so complicated and expensive while superior to early cannons and our ancestors too dump to build and use them further. I heartily disagreed.

Anyway, there are some clues:

Walls before the latest quarter of the 15th c. AD were usually quite high and relatively thin. They were such capable of defend against direct assaults and ladders and protect buildings inside. From that time on a new style of fortification with thick and slower walls, first in Italy, then throughout Europe, came into fashion. It is quite probable that the old throwing artillery could not defeat most of the high walls, while the newer cannons could. A different explanation is that ancient and medieval people were stupid...

Cannons were used in siege warfare since the middle of the 14th c. AD but without a sudden extreme effect. This might have been related to bad powder, extreme costs of production and debatable performance, mainly because of the use of stones as projectiles. The siege of Harfleur by Henry V. in 1415 was one of the first where cannons took over the work almost entirely. Trebuchets were mentioned but more as a rudimentary means to destroy things in the town. After the siege the fortifications were destroyed so much by the cannons that the English had to search for a better place to defend and stay during winter, leading to the march to Calais (and the battle of Agincourt). Constantinople was conquered in 1204 and 1453 AD. In 1204 the walls were not destroyed by projectiles but in 1453 there were.

There is a interesting dictum by a Spanish chronicler I once read about (of course I forgot his name) about the final battles of the Reconquista against Grenada. The Muslim kingdom prior allegedly was nearly invincible because of the landscape and the strong fortifications. The chronicler wrote that thanks to the the new powder artillery the fortifications fell with a speed never experienced in earlier times.

The big imprint of powder artillery (and handheld guns) after about 1450 to 1475 AD could be co-related with the great improvement of black powder by new manufacturing methods (e.g. graining), the use of bronze casting and the use of iron projectiles.

When you compare the physical performance, throwing artillery was at a disadvantage. While they could throw very heavy stones, the speed and as such energy of the projectiles were limited . The trajectory was very much hyperbolic which meant that the energy could not work in the best way against the base of the walls. The powder artillery could achieve flatter trajectories and so bring more of it's energy to work.

From some cannons rough performance data is available. While trebuchets (which were probably much stronger than ancient torsion artillery) could throw huge stones up to 400 or 500 metres (albeit in a very uneffective trajectory), big guns could shoot big stones seemingly up to 1500 metres. Effective combat distances were of course much shorter. Later iron projectiles were much lighter than the huge stones but achieved more energy due to higher speed and could destroy wall fragments better.
 
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Zip

Jan 2018
766
San Antonio
In the 1490s Charles VIII of France invaded Italy with a train of new state of the art cannon with light bronze barrels on mobile carriages and that fired iron shot. A couple of Medieval Italian forts were reduced in shockingly quick time and this was a big wake up call for the Italians who then got very serious about developing new forms of artillery fortifications. Some of the notions were already existing such as thick low walls behind ditches but the Italians developed a system bringing together low thick walls, angle bastions (which not only provided spacious firm platforms for defensive cannon but also eliminated dead ground at salients and along the curtain), outworks such as ravelins, and the glacis and covered way.

A sketch I made of a cross section of an artillery fortification.
D9AF4879-CC96-43AC-AE19-5B50C61ECD20.jpeg
 
Last edited:
Jan 2016
1,146
Victoria, Canada
The trebuchet didn't have the drastic effect on fortification design that cannon did; that tells me they weren't all that destructive to walls.
I definitely can't speak generally, but I've seen speculation that the particularly densely-spaced towers of Manuel Komnenos's late 12th century walls of Kotyaion were designed as a defence against the newly-widespread counterweight trebuchet:





Curtain walls might crumble without much effort, but getting through a 7 meter thick tower was going to be less than easy. Then again, Manuel's new walls at Blachernae are a bit more traditional, so perhaps there's other factors at play:



 
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sculptingman

Ad Honorem
Oct 2009
3,693
San Diego
Guys- do the math.
Trebuchets didn't kill people- the things the trebuchet HIT killed people. Its a physics problem. Ever seen one of those thingies with the hanging steel balls that transfer momentum back and forth? That trick only works because the steel balls are So Very Hard that the energy transfer is extremely efficient. Build one with rubber balls and its not nearly as effective.

Trebuchets were not aimed at people, but at walls and buildings. A Stone hitting another stone is a near perfect trasnfer of energy.
If a stone from a trebuchet hit the parapet of a castle, The other side of the stones making the parapet would shatter into a thousand sharp shards of stone.

They DID bring down walls, even very thick walls, because of HOW thick walls were built. Thick walls were made by building two THIN walls a dozen feet apart and filling the space between with rubble. If you shattered out a section of the outside stone wall, then the rubble interior would SPILL out like so much sand. This would leave a nice hole thru which your next shot would sail to break out an even larger section of the inner wall.

The resulting pile of spilled rubble would form a Ramp up to the breach. This is how jerusalem was taken, thru breaches in the several sets of walls created by roman ballista.

Cannon did the exact same work, just a lot faster with a much more portable device. Only then did castle walls stop being tall ( hard to climb ) and start being LOW and ridiculously thick earthen works faced with stone.
 
Oct 2011
550
Croatia
Guys- do the math.
Trebuchets didn't kill people- the things the trebuchet HIT killed people. Its a physics problem. Ever seen one of those thingies with the hanging steel balls that transfer momentum back and forth? That trick only works because the steel balls are So Very Hard that the energy transfer is extremely efficient. Build one with rubber balls and its not nearly as effective.

Trebuchets were not aimed at people, but at walls and buildings. A Stone hitting another stone is a near perfect trasnfer of energy.
If a stone from a trebuchet hit the parapet of a castle, The other side of the stones making the parapet would shatter into a thousand sharp shards of stone.

They DID bring down walls, even very thick walls, because of HOW thick walls were built. Thick walls were made by building two THIN walls a dozen feet apart and filling the space between with rubble. If you shattered out a section of the outside stone wall, then the rubble interior would SPILL out like so much sand. This would leave a nice hole thru which your next shot would sail to break out an even larger section of the inner wall.

The resulting pile of spilled rubble would form a Ramp up to the breach. This is how jerusalem was taken, thru breaches in the several sets of walls created by roman ballista.

Cannon did the exact same work, just a lot faster with a much more portable device. Only then did castle walls stop being tall ( hard to climb ) and start being LOW and ridiculously thick earthen works faced with stone.
Keep in mind that rubble was often (but not always) mortared, so it would not spill that easily. And the reason why walls were filled with rubble was precisely to prevent that transfer of energy you are talking about: rubble acted as a shock absorber.