Ancient Slingers

The underrated snipers of ancient times

Origins and principle

The ancient slingers were probably as old as warfare itself. Prehistoric battles would probably have involved weapons and skills already used for hunting, and others improvized for the task. Javelin, spear, mace, and... rock. Throwing a rock could be deadly, no doubt, depending of its size, nature, and strenght of the launcher. But in the end, it's still a short range, low velocity projectile. Throwing the same projectile at larger distances implied a simple mechanic, but a wonder of basic engineering: The "leverage". By using an intermediary and applying the right impulse, led to an artificial demultiplication of human force; Its the base for, basically, industry as a whole. Leverage was used for a wonderful ancient weapon, called atlatl in south america but used also in Africa and Asia under other names. Basically a shaft and propeller, which upon release, artificially augmented the javelin's initial speed. Basically it was a propeller, throwing a projectile. Basic, but efficient to increase both range and velocity. Still, it depended of the arm's movement, and a single one, to operate, so it was not optimum. The ancient Greeks and Romans used it mainly for sport and hunting, as ankule or amentum. There is no clue of their use in battle. But the principle remains valid to this day, it's even the principle for Tank warfare's APFSDS rounds.

And therefore, sometime, somewhere, someone saw that placing an object into a "recipient", like a bag, and slinging it caused the latter to move sideways (centrifugal force). Perhaps a rope failed, or the used just failed to keep one, and the load was projected, fast. We will never know the events that brought our this idea to fruition, but in the end, one started to have the idea of propelling a pebble with ropes, and later leather, or both, making a pouch. A the centrifugal force turned this fairly cheap and simple contraption, into a killing machine. Make no mistake her, also they were underrated, slingers were truly deadly. Given modern reconstitutions by specialists and ancient texts, we have a relatively precise idea of how they were effective, less about their tactical use. But let's put it straight, the sling was perhaps the most cost-effective, deadly range weapon of the ancient times. It was relatively simple to master, more than a bow, required less labor-intensive work to make, its projectiles were basically found everywhere, and likely to never run out of ammunition, and its range and hitting power was unparallel, at least before the introduction of firearm. Only crossbows reached comparable velocities, but the projectile still needed to be manufactured.

The sling as a weapon:

Rather dramatic depiction of David vs. Goliath, or how a slingshot made a king.

The sling was probably only "civilian" in its use, by Neolithic peoples around the Mediterranean, and probably for some time before someone had the idea of using it in battle, probably during the bronze age. Oldest depiction yet was from Çatalhöyük, circa 7,000 BC. Shepherds were those most frequently using it. The range of the projectile and ease of use meant they could dissuade a wolf, fox, lynx or any predatory threatening its herd. As it was finalized, the sling comprised a small cradle, or pouch, in the middle of two lengths of cord. One was held firmly, and the other extremity was held more loosely as it was to be released after the giration of the ensemble reached a sufficient speed. The most famous sling "kill" is find is the Christian old testament: The story of David, first king of judea, and the giant phillistine warrior Goliath. It testifies the use of slings in warfare during this time, probably 5,000 BC at least. The earlist types were probably the simple three strand "pouch" was very simple but the projectile could fall out prematurely. It seems obvious that a leather pouch was soon required. It had a greater contact area but but made release timing less consistent. The best solution was to use two narrow leather bands, the best compromise. The pointy release end of a sling could be supersonic and as a whip, emit a clacking sound, making the sling conspicuous and one one-time use in an ambush, like the arrow, it was best fired up close, as the targeted troops had no time to realize and prepare. Using a pop-ball release end, threaded, was a better solution, both for the user's fingers and discretion (it stayed subsonic). Arrowhead could also be made silent, and therefore keeping an abushing party in a forest hidden for some time, while peppering the enemy.

During the bronze age and classic era of antiquity, slingers were invariably shepherds pressed into service for a battle. These were civilians, paid by the city-state, as well as archers and rare horsemen from the countryside, added to the hoplitic core, the base of the citizenry not only in ancient Greece, but in all city-states from Iberia to the black sea, the coast of africa to Asia minor. Assyrian and Egyptian armies made a massive use of slingers as part of their standing army, some depicted as well equipped, with sometimes sword, helmets and amour, as archers. However professional slingers were rarer in Greek and Roman culture, although their prominelty appeared as mercenaries, some gaining a fierce reputation (see below). Evidence: Of course, as it was made of perishable materials, none sling was ever found. Acheologists only found al sorts of metal bullets and projectiles. Also, we have depictions engraved on bas-reliefs, possibly paintings, and ancient authors own depictions. Some descoveries led to the description of the "one-time sling", on which the projectile was attached to the rope (like bolas), as shown in the Battle of Fucine Lake in 89 BC.

The sling was a deadly weapon, certainly to take more seriously than the bow. The projectile was heavier, and the range sometimes greater (lobbed in a high trajectory, a projectile can excess 400 metres or 1,300 ft) as well as the velocity, up to 100 mph (160 km/h). To this speed, a tailored shaped bullet can shatter bones with ease, even if the wearer had some protection. The head being the exposed, weakest and more sensitive part, semi-professional slingers soon learnt to hit it. Even a bronze helmet offered little resistance to an impact at such speed. Just recall that eastern recurved bows of medieval era would achieve up to 225 feet per second (fps) or 150mph, but in the western world in then antiquity, standard straight bows could not expect such speeds. Only medieval crossbow did better arguably, with bolts travelling at 325 - 375 feet per second. Their ancient equivalent, the gastraphetes, was around the same area as the ballista and scorpion, around 300fps achieved around (90 m/s), they were able to pierce through shield and armour, even a linothorax, able to stop arrows. The sling projectile, called the "bullet" relied on percussion shock, concussion.

Part of it was directly linked to the projectile itself, after the skills and proficience of the user: Using immediately available projectiles, as any egologist know, would reserve some surprises, as some "rocks" depending on the terrain, could be light and friable, like talc and hornfels and do not much damage than a snowball. Preferred bullet were made of lead, armor-piercing, with an optimized shape and often marked with symbols (see the roman part). They were the best projectiles, but by default, slingers used river pebbles, which had the right shape and weight, with high crystal content, or granit. Size had an impact, and projectiles the size of an egg were the upper limit. There are still practicioners of the art of slinging today, and they came to the same conclusion, part-time slingers such as peasants achieved poor accuracy, of their learnt their trade before the battle. Even after one year of daily, solid practice, hundreds of launches per week, a good slinger could hope hiting a target the size of a watermelon at 20m one of four times. And this was still the level of a child in a sling-culture such as the Balearics. With a lifelong practice, a slinger could hope hitting with consistency a torso-size target at 130 feets. Therefore it made highly unlikely than peasants were pressed into service as levied slingers, as long as shepherds and mercenaries were available. Shepherds indeed were equally skilled because of the daily protection of their flock against predators, hunting for daily sustenance, and the considerable spare time left in this activity, which could be used to increase proficience with the sling.

Legend: The balearic foner

Splendid depiction of Johnny Shumate of a Greek slinger. Note the lead, tripoint bullet and large pouch, for war.

(Work in progress)

Rhodian slingers

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Greek Sphendonetai

Thracian sphendonetai Picture: Thracian sphendonetai. Example of a Pelopponesian slinger, with its typical konos cap.

The common greek and hellenistic era slinger was used all around the Mediterranean basin. Outside professionals mercenaries, they were mostly levied shpeherds from the countryside, although some could choose to stay close to an army for whatever reason, as most shphered without herd to keep would choose; These were skills much in demand. Coming from a low social rank, the slinger was poory equipped as a warrior. The wearer had no body protection, helmet, shield, nor close melee weapon, but only what he could find on the battlefield (and his utility sknife). Therefore a slinger who served for long in any army would get his hands on a better equipment, but ip to a point. Indeed, slingers tactically needed to be vey mobile, for a simple reason. In a conventional field battle, with two armies facing each others, slingers were deployed forward of the lines, as archers and perhaps javelineers. Their role, as for each "psiloi" was two-sided: Soften the enemy just by knocking out enemy troops, and provoking an attack, especially when the army had the advantage in defence, either because of terrain, composition or tactics. They were known for their overhand technique. At short range especially, a single rotation was sufficient to hit a target at 30-40m, velocity was traded for accuracy and a faster learning curve, allowing peasants, not shepherds, to learn the trade quickly.

Therefore it was rare that an army of the time did not possessed its own "psiloi" and the opening phase of a battle was generally an exchange of vanguards. Slingers needed to be agile and fast enough to avoid being caught by a projectile if that was possible. The second reason was the intervention of cavalry, as light unprotected infantry far ahead of friendly lines was atempting target. In that case also, slingers needed to be fast. Heavy armour would go aginst this principle. Therefore, Greek and Roman slingers, as well as those of the Celts and other "barbarians" were most oftern lightly equipped to keep velocity. The Greek slingers "sphendonetai" ("sphendone" meant sling) played about the same role as archers in an opening battle, and had to withdraw quickly behind their lines as the battle progressed, of if their ran out of ammunition, which was true for javelineers and archers, but not necessarily for slingers, probably the last to leave the "no-man's land" between armies. In wartime, by default or another protection, it is likely slingers coukd have use a small shield, at least to deflect an incoming projectile, if spotted. The shield was light, with wood, leather and felt, but this combination could sometimes stop an arrow, javelin, or bullet. Army greek slingers would probably also wear an helmet if they had the chance, as slingers generally target the head. If anything, their use also had psychological effect, harassing and annoying well protected and armoured enemy soldiers. Ancient authors reported the use of singers in many occasions. One of the most famous was made by Alexander the great, known to best use its different units, a master of combined arms which will inspired a century later Hannibal. He indeed employed his Sphendonetai at the battle of Gaugamela to harass the Persian heavy cavalry. The goal was to provoke them to give fight, and he cut them off from the rest of the Persian army, charging them with the Hetairoi.

The Kestrosphendone: Polybius "dart-slinger". A late Hellenitic invention describe by the famous author of "histories", and Livy on the Roman side, repotred their use in 168 BC. by Macedonians ff King Perseus during the Third Macedonian war, against Roman legionaries. Poliybius depiction is confusing, but it appeared that a kestros (dart) was thrown by slings, longer and stronger than uusual, rather than bullets. Experimental reconstructions based on the available information gave good results but the level of skills needed were superior, an in any case this weapon disappeared, whereas the dart was still used by the Romans as the plumbata (see later). The weapon disappeared from history, as well as the one-time string to a slingstone made of lead. The advantage of the dart was to stabilized itself in flight, increasing accuracy and lowering the air braking effect of a free-rotating projectile, as it was the case usually. The range too, was important, up to 200 meters, and the heavy point was armor-piercing.

Roman Funditore

funditore Fustibalus: Or "staff sling", one of many variant of the sling. It's basically combining the lever effect with a sling to achieve greater velocities than the one-move overhand throw. It is still unknown if it was pioneered by the Greeks, the the Romans used it as reported by ancient authors. During the medieval era it was known as a fustibale (French). It consisted of a staff with a short sling at the end. One cord of the sling was attached to the stave while the other looped abd could slide off for release. Staff slings used at best the lever effect. The longer was the staff, the better the effect. The staff sling was reputed to have the same or superior range to the standard sling, but like the latter, accuracy needed skills and practice. It would aslo fire heavier missiles and was well suited for sieges, with very steep trajectories to pass above walls while the the staff could receuive a spearpoint and be used in close combat if needed. It could to throw heavier projectiles on a greater arc but will less terminal velocity (but gravity). Staff slings were maintained at least until the gunpowder age, used as grenade launchers, and in fixed or mpiunted forms for ship-to-ship combat, throwing incendiaries. The last known use of slings was during the Spanish Civil war in 1936-39, when in urban combat, belligerents used it to throw grenades over the roofs an through windows on the other side of streets. Late Empire funditore (by Johnny Shumate)

Jewish slingers

(Work in progress)

Other uses

A Thracian slinger

(Work in progress)

Sources/Read More

The ancient slinger by Edward C. Echols, J.Hopkins Univ.
Roman slingers on
Video about accuracy
on wikipedia

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