Hunt crossbow

German gunsmith

Germany, the end of XVI / the beginning of XVII century

Material: Wood, iron, and bone

Size: 72 cm. long

review by gherardo turchi

An ancient and valuable hunt crossbow, made in a richly bone inlaid wood, realized in those flourishing workshops active in Southern Germany, at the end of the sixteenth century.

The crossbow has a very ancient history. It is certain, however, that it followed the invention of the bow, to increase its power and range. Its use was initially sporadic and not decisive for the outcome of the battles, perhaps due to the technical difficulties encountered in its manufacture and, above all, due to manufacturing costs.

Greece and China claim the invention of the crossbow. Both cultures likely invented it independently, although it is not clear which one of the two used it first.

The use of the crossbow in Europe continued uninterrupted from the classical era until the period of greatest popularity, between the eleventh and the sixteenth century; soldiers then abandoned it in favor of firearms. The most popular crossbowmen were from Genoa and Pisa [1].

Until the appearance of the first firearms, the crossbow was the most devastating weapon that a single soldier could use, not to mention the compound or double-curved bow. It had in effect a penetrating power, which pierced the knights’ armors. Furthermore, the training for its use was shorter than the bow one.

The crossbow had a longer loading phase than the bow. In practice, this resulted in the need to secure a shelter during the loading phase; the long loading was balanced by the considerable distance of engagement, greater than the normal bow or the longbow ones, but not of the compound or double-curved bows.

The crossbow involved a considerable change in the battle strategies, but above all, it changed the nobles’ approach to fighting; they were traditionally on horseback, thus having a good chance of getting alive out of the fight.

As mentioned, with the advent of firearms in battlefields, the use of crossbows in the war field soon lost its function and moved to hunt, a field where this weapon was widely used from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century.

Not being it necessary to make such weapons for war any longer, thus saving on decorations, which were superfluous in battle, where they only needed to be offensive, all this allowed gunsmith workshops to indulge their art in decorating these weapons, making real works of art for hunting.

Hunting was the real keystone, allowing the crossbow to settle in the vault of heaven among sublime silent weapons. The greatest nobles only used to try their hand at the noble art of hunting, and precisely those who could afford to pay a lot for increasingly rare objects, refined in decoration and inlay.

The sixteenth-century showed real growth in hunting weapons decoration, introducing the application of plaquettes made of bone or ivory, on which phytomorph-like motifs were engraved, such as branches and leaves, masks, spirals, zoomorphic figures up to real miniature hunting scenes.

This decoration was typical of master gunsmiths, active usually between northern Italy and southern Germany; there it was easier to find deer bones or antlers, used for the applications and decorations.

This work belongs to that period. Dated between 1580 and 1610, this crossbow has a large inlaid decoration along its entire central body; it has large masks and monsters such as stylized dolphins and dragons resuming the appearance of boars, typical of the Italian decorative art of the early seventeenth century. Some geometric decorations such as fret pattern and leaf motifs engraved on the bone inlays are similar to the patterns used to realize the openwork and embossed iron decorations, as far as style and elegance are concerned. Those decorations, applied on the most important weapons of the seventeenth century, will reach their height a hundred years later in a decorative current, known as Baroque.

A very rare detail is the viewfinder made of forged iron, an accessory applied mainly on those crossbows made for precision hunters, the latter usually belonging to the great nobility.

Finally, this work is equipped with a spiral- decorated fretwork loading jack; this was a very rare accessory, as these objects were often lost or replaced over the centuries.

This crossbow is in an excellent state of conservation; it is an important addition to the catalog of silent hunting weapons made in Southern Germany, at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries.

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