Springalds versus Ballistae – What is the Mechanical Difference?

This is not a historical lesson with dates and events, but a mechanical lesson to explain the physical differences between these two magnificent ancient artillery weapons.

Springalds and ballistae are both “catapults” that loose either spear-like bolts, Greek fire or round stones. The major difference between them is in how they hold the power necessary to launch these projectiles. I would like to start by clarifying the definition of the word “catapult” because many people confound that word with “mangonel.” A catapult is any stationary device that uses built-up tension to fire or, in more accurate terms, loose or shoot a projectile. Like ballistae and springalds, a mangonel is a certain kind of catapult. So do not picture a mangonel every time you hear the word catapult like I did for many years 🙂

Springalds (also known as espringals)

ballista compared with espringal

how do springalds operate

Like many arbalests or heavy crossbows, springalds use devices known as windlasses to build-up tension in skeins, bow arms and draw cords. However, springalds have inward-facing bow arms and ballistae have outward-facing bow arms. A springald, at first glance, may look odd because they are not as common in movies and video games as ballistae are. Some springalds look very similar to ballistae (their only difference being in which direction the bow arms face) but other springalds, like the example below, look like bizarre wooden cages.

the difference between a ballista and a springald or espringal

Whatever the design, a springald can always be differentiated from a ballista by gandering at the bow arms. Ballistae have outward-facing bow arms that are always facing outwards even when they are not bearing tension; they simply look like over-sized crossbows on mounts. Springalds, on the other hand, when they are not bearing tension, have smaller arms that face forwards and they do not face inwards until accumulated tension bends them inwards and towards the operator using the windlass. It is easy to see how these rectangular springalds on wheels would be better for besieging whereas the mounted ones that look like ballistae would be better for defending because they can aim down from turrets and bastions.

Ballistae

ballista vs springald

We’ve already done a sufficient comparison for there is not much difference between these two famed weapons of ancient war, but it may be good to cap off what we’ve learned by briefly comparing a ballista to an arbalest. An arbalest is either a cranequin crossbow or a windlass crossbow. Below I will show a picture of a cranequin crossbow so you can see just how similar it is to a ballista and also how different it is from a springald.

similarities between crossbows and ballistae and springalds

See how the bow arms of the crossbow and ballista face outwards while the springald has bow arms that face forwards until tension brings them inwards? If you see the difference, you now know what separates a springald from a ballista! Yay! Now let’s do a little test: what type of catapult is the bolt thrower in the scene of the Greek siege at the top of this article? Is it a springald or a ballista?

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LitHEMA Short Story: “The Siege Within”

A MOTHER DUCK’S webbed feet flapped up an arrow-riddled bogside. The light of the moon and stars made the mud of the bogside blue. The bog itself was a pit of blackness. A score of screaming horsemen completed a circuit around the bog. The mother duck pronked back down the slope in fright, flapping her wings, quacking desperately. A train of yellow ducklings answered her, chirping and chirping, kicking and kicking through the blackness toward their mother’s voice. Looming high above them all was a crooked siege tower filled with men, groaning and creaking, taking volley after volley of arrows and bolts from the distant castle walls. Yelps of cessation filled the night with a palpable misery.

A dying man fell from the top of the tower and splashed in the water beside the train of ducklings. In the throes of the splash, the baby ducks resembled yellow petals tossing in a rapid river. The man’s screams turned into bubbles as he drowned in his armor. The ducklings kicked and kicked away from his flailing arms, swirling in waves of madness.

On the bogside, the mother duck craned her head to show her babies a nervous eye and quacked. Then the screaming cavalry completed another circuit and their galloping hooves kicked up a splash of mud that pushed the mother duck into the water where she’d come from. Soon she was floundering with her ducklings again, quacking at their chirps in the waves. She bit one of her babies by the scruff of the neck and used her wings to gather others. As she quacked at a few who had been tossed far away, she caught eye of a passing sparkle.

One of the horsemen racing around the bog was brandishing a sword above his head. The sword shimmered in the moonlight and made the hen tilt her eyes for a better look. It was a momentary flash—a spark of determination. The man on the horse was wearing a black hauberk, and the twenty horsemen at his rear were clad in blackened plate. The silvery chanfrons on the heads of their destriers gleamed brightly like wraiths. The chanfrons turned blue and white and blue again in the moonlight, and would turn red every time they passed the siege tower.

Moments ago, shieldmen and engineers had been trying to unstuck one of the siege tower’s wheels from the mud, but the screaming wraiths had cut them all down. Now the foot of the siege tower was ablaze and the wraiths were throwing up jeers and japes at the men dying inside.

The rider in the black hauberk made another spark of determination as he galloped under the crooked tower. Dirty men were up in the wooden arrow slits, shaking their shields in anger at the circuiting wraiths below. But no matter how angrily they shook their shields, none of them were mad enough to jump down to the wraith’s level. From the castle on the other side of the warground, arrows arced over the sky and bolts hissed long and true. Some shafts cracked or glanced off the wooden tower. Others hissed through loopholes and hit marks.

The rider in the black hauberk was determined not to quit until the tower was down. After each circuit around the bog, the tower’s groans became louder, the flames higher. One man inside the tower knew he would die soon, and so he observed the ducks with love, placing his mind far away into a much more beautiful place. An arrow thudded against the wall by his head, but he didn’t flinch a bit as he stared down through a gap in the wood. He smiled at the mother duck as an image of home lingered in his mind. A bolt hissed through the gap and made his head jerk back. Mind-muddled, he got trampled by the dozens of desperate men swaying about him like hungry hounds in a kennel.

Every time the mother duck felt like she was close to gathering her babies, another body would fall from the tower and scatter them all again. And as the rider in the black hauberk showed yet another spark of determination, the mother duck made hers. Hope glistened in her watery eyes. She quacked and kicked and gathered her chicks all over again. She would not give up until her babies were safe.

One angered man in the tower had had enough. He crawled through a crevice in the wood and leaped down into the mud.

The fire at the foot of the wooden tower was roaring now, and so the surface of the bog was limned with hundreds of snaking yellow streaks. The light was dancing off the wetness, glistening and splashing around the angered man’s boots as he trudged up the muddy slope. He swung his sword at a passing horseman. The edge jounced harmlessly off the rider’s greave. Anger rising, the man swung at the next rider. At that moment he too created his own spark of determination as his sword flashed in the firelight.

The approaching rider saw the flash and directed his stallion with a push of his knee toward it.

The angered swordsman was thrown by the horse’s barded shoulder. He went rolling back down the muddy slope and lost his sword before he splashed in the water. His spark of determination had been bright; now it was gradually extinguishing for he refused to get back up. He decided to lie there and stare at the moon. He listened to the chirplings. They suddenly sounded so close. If he lied there in the water and pretended to be dead he could walk away in the morning. Such was his hope until a sudden loud snap heralded his fate. His eyes opened wide to see the siege tower tilting. It was falling right toward him. In another life he would’ve tried to swim away, he promised himself, but not in this one.

The siege tower smacked the bog’s surface, devoured the loser and created an eruption of muddy water. The ejecta filled the air for a time, then came back down in flapping heaps as the tower settled into its new place. The tower was creaking and groaning like a capsized wreck and all the while men were spewing up out of the loopholes. Swords and axes hacked away to make new exits, and one by one men crawled from the flotsam to gawp at the stars with faces raped by madness. One by one they came and one by one arrows and bolts from the commanding castle put them down again. Many slipped om the wet wood to drown in the water. A few who made it to the bogside were cut down by the circuiting wraiths. Soon the last dying man’s screams were quelled by the end of a broken lance.

The victor in the black hauberk remounted, then led his wraiths away. When their galloping hooves were far, quacks and chirps began to dominate the atmosphere. The chirps were frantic and the quacks were distressed at first, but after a time they collected and quieted and settled. The ducklings were safe with their mother, waddling up out of the bog. Within a cozy tussock at the top of the slope, they nestled under her wings and closed their eyes to sleep. Somewhere yonder, another battle was beginning. That was sure.

Here by the bog, everything was peaceful.

The End