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Hunting crossbow

German armorer

Germany 1595

Material: Wood, iron, and bone

Size: 62 cm long

Review by gherardo turchi

An ancient and valuable hunting crossbow, of a richly bone-inlaid wood, made in those flourishing workshops active in Southern Germany in 1582.

The crossbow has a real 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 one for the bow.

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 noblemen’s approach to fighting; they were traditionally on horseback, thus having a good chance of staying alive out of the fight.

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

Since it was not 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 armorer 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 noblemen 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 had a real growth in hunting weapons decoration, introducing the application of plaquettes made of bone or ivory, on which phytomorph motifs were engraved, such as branches and leaves, masks, spirals, and zoomorphic figures up to real miniature hunting scenes.

This decoration was typical of master armorers, 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 1595 with an inlay in its lower part, opposite to the backsight, this crossbow has a large inlaid decoration along its entire central body; it has large geometric fret-pattern decorations and leafy motifs engraved on the bone inlays, which are onto the high and low polished parts. These last are a counterpart to the rich anthropomorphic figures and to the architectural festoons placed on its sides, which resemble the drawings used for iron-perforated and embossed decorations. 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 noble coat of arms engraving made on the shoulder belt plate, witnessing the noble family ordering it and whose name we do not know, but that gives special historical importance to this work.

Finally, this work is equipped with forged iron and turned wood 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, in the second half of the sixteenth century.

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