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Many of articles here speak of people or places from Classical Antiquity, and we even discuss the ancient buildings that remain there or the battles fought. While we even venture to know the process of how the Exercitus Romanus (Roman Army) was victorious (for the most part), but we have usually overlooked the weaponry involved.
Today that’s not the case as we explore the gun of the Ancient World, the classic sling!
A sling is a projectile weapon typically used to throw a blunt projectile such as a stone, clay, or glandes plumbeae (lead sling-bullet). Also known as the Shepherd’s Sling, this personalized weapon has a small cradle or pouch in the middle of 2 lengths of cord.
The sling was inexpensive and easy to build. It has historically been used for hunting game and in combat. Today the sling is of interest as a wilderness survival tool and an improvised weapon.
Known to Neolithic peoples around the Mediterranean, the sling is likely much older. It is possible that the sling was invented during the Upper Paleolithic at a time when new technologies such as the spear-thrower and the bow and arrow were emerging.
Whereas sling-bullets are common finds in the archaeological record, slings themselves are rare. This is both because a sling’s materials are biodegradable and because slings were lower-status weapons, rarely preserved in a wealthy person’s grave.
The oldest known extant slings from the Old World were found in the tomb of Tutankhamen, who died about 1325 BC. A pair of finely plaited slings were found with other weapons, probably intended for the departed pharaoh to use for hunting game.
Flax and hemp resist rotting, but wool is softer and more comfortable. Braided cords were used in preference to twisted rope, as a braid resists twisting when stretched and thus improving accuracy.
The overall length of a sling varied based on the range a slinger needed to hit, with a longer sling being used when greater range was required. An average sling would be about 2 to 3.28 ft in length.
At the center of the sling was a cradle or pouch. This was either formed by making a wide braid from the same material as the cords or by inserting a piece of a different material such as leather.
Typically diamond shaped, the cradle would fold around the projectile in use. Some cradles have a hole or slit that allows the material to wrap around the projectile slightly, thereby holding it more securely.
At the end of one cord (called the retention cord) a finger-loop was formed, while at the end of the other cord (the release cord,) it was a common practice to form a knot or a tab. The release cord will be held between finger and thumb to be released at just the right moment.
The simplest projectile was a stone, preferably well-rounded, and most likely from a river. The size of the projectiles can varied dramatically, from pebbles massing no more than 1.8 oz to fist-sized stones massing 18 oz or more.
Projectiles could also be purpose-made from clay, which allowed for very high consistency of size and shape to aid range and accuracy. Many examples have been found in the archaeological record.
The best ammunition was cast from lead (looking like an almond) which were widely used in the Greek and Roman world. For a given mass, lead, being very dense, offers the minimum size and therefore minimum air resistance.
Why the almond shape was favored is not clear, but it may provide some aerodynamic advantage. Itś just as likely that the shape was easy to extract from a mould, or it would rest in a sling cradle with little danger of rolling out.
Almond shaped leaden sling-bullets were typically about 1.4 inches long and about 0.79 inches wide, massing approximately 0.99 oz. Very often, symbols or writings were moulded into lead sling-bullets.
As a reminder of how a sling might strike without warning, examples of symbols included a stylised lightning bolt, a snake, and a scorpion. Writing might include the name of the owning military unit or commander or might be more imaginative: “Take this,” “Ouch,” and even “For Pompey‘s backside” added insult to injury, whereas dexai (“take this” or “catch!”) was merely sarcastic.
A skillful throw requires just one rapid rotation. Some slingers would rotate the sling slowly once or twice to seat the projectile in the cradle.
One made an overhand throw in a motion similar to bowling a cricket ball. This is relatively accurate, instinctive and quite powerful.
Facing 60 degrees away from the target, with slinger stood with his non-throwing hand closest to the target. With the target at the 12 o’clock position, a right-handed thrower would orient his body toward 2 o’clock, with the arm rotating vertically in the 12 o’clock plane.
The coordinated motion was to move every part of the body (legs, waist, shoulders, arms, elbows and wrist) in the direction of the target in order to add as much speed as possible to the stone. The slinger released the projectile near the top of the swing, where the projectile would proceed roughly parallel to the surface of the earth.
There were also sideways releases, in which the swing goes around. However, these throws made it very easy to release the projectile at a slightly wrong time and miss the target.
Ancient peoples used the sling in combat. Armies included both specialist slingers and regular soldiers equipped with slings.
As a weapon, the sling had the advantage of its bullet being lobbed in excess of 1,300 ft. A bow and arrow could also have been used to produce a long range arcing trajectory, but ancient writers repeatedly stress the sling’s advantage of range.
The sling was light to carry and cheap to produce, while stones for ammunition were readily available and often to be found near the site of battle. The ranges the sling could achieve with molded lead sling-bullets was only topped by the strong composite bow.
Representations of slingers can be found on artifacts from all over the ancient world, including Assyrian and Egyptian reliefs, the columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, on coins, and the Bayeux Tapestry.
The sling was mentioned by Homer and by other Greek authors. Xenophon in his history of the retreat of the Ten Thousand, 401 BC, relates that the Greeks suffered severely from the slingers in the army of Artaxerxes II of Persia, while they themselves had neither cavalry nor slingers, and were unable to reach the enemy with their arrows and javelins.
Various ancient peoples enjoyed a reputation for skill with the sling. Thucydides mentions the Acarnanians and Livy refers to the inhabitants of three Greek cities on the northern coast of the Peloponnesus as expert slingers.
Recruits are to be taught the art of throwing stones both with the hand and sling. The inhabitants of the Balearic Islands are said to have been the inventors of slings, and to have managed them with surprising dexterity, owing to the manner of bringing up their children. The children were not allowed to have their food by their mothers till they had first struck it with their sling. Soldiers, notwithstanding their defensive armor, are often more annoyed by the round stones from the sling than by all the arrows of the enemy. Stones kill without mangling the body, and the contusion is mortal without loss of blood. It is universally known the ancients employed slingers in all their engagements. There is the greater reason for instructing all troops, without exception, in this exercise, as the sling cannot be reckoned any encumbrance, and often is of the greatest service, especially when they are obliged to engage in stony places, to defend a mountain or an eminence, or to repulse an enemy at the attack of a castle or city.
Now one of the Huns who was fighting before the others was making more trouble for the Romans than all the rest. And some rustic made a good shot and hit him on the right knee with a sling, and he immediately fell headlong from his horse to the ground, which thing heartened the Romans still more
Less than 2 decades after the Romans attacked Burnswark and occupied part of the Scottish Lowlands, they retreated south to Hadrian’s Wall. Some archaeologists thought the Roman Army had used Burnswark as an ancient firing range and training camp, while other researchers regarded the hill fort as the scene of a lengthy siege.
Trained metal detectorists then combed Burnswark’s hill sides and summit, producing more than 2,700 hits. Then excavations revealed that 94% of the metal detector hits were in fact Roman bullets (more than 400 Roman sling bullets and 2 spherical sandstone missiles known as ballista balls).
The archaeological then discovered a concentration of lead bullets across the entire 500-yard-long southern rampart of the Scottish hill fort, directly above one of the Roman camps. A second, smaller concentration lay to the north, along what may have been the defenders’ failed escape route.
The Roman slingers would have exacted a heavy toll, for recent experiments conducted in Germany showed that a 50-gram Roman bullet hurled by a trained slinger has only slightly less stopping power than a .44 magnum cartridge fired from a handgun. Other tests revealed that a trained slinger could hit a target smaller than a human being from 130 yards away.
In context to the Scottish siege, that is exactly the distance from the front rampart of the south Roman camp to the front rampart of the hill fort. Studies have found that the bloody assault took place around AD 140, early in the reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius.
The Romans were quite effective at coming up with new inventions or, at the very least, improving upon something other people had already created. No matter what, we know that the Romans made good use of the ancient world’s version of a gun.
Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
Burgess, E. Martin. “An Ancient Egyptian Sling Reconstructed”. Journal of the Arms and Armour Society, June 1958.
Cunliffe, Barry. Iron Age Communities in Britain: An Account of England, Scotland and Wales from the Seventh Century BC until the Roman Conquest (4th ed.). Routledge, 2005. ISBN 978-0-415-56292-8.
Dohrenwend, Robert. “The Sling. Forgotten Firepower of Antiquity”. Journal of Asian Martial Arts, 2002.
Pritchett, W. Kendrick. The Greek State at War: Part V. University of California Press, 1992. ISBN 978-0-520-07374-6.
Richardson, Thom, “The Ballistics of the Sling”. Royal Armouries Yearbook, Vol. 3, 1998.
“Bullets, ballistas, and Burnswark – A Roman assault on a hillfort in Scotland”. Current Archeology. 1 June 2016.