We like to ask the Big Questions at Tor.com, so naturally we seized on a discussion that was recently posed at Quora: which is better, a catapult or a trebuchet?
Like so many big questions, the answer is complicated, but can be most easily summed up by saying, BOTH. First you have to give serious thought to your needs. Do you want to attack a fortified tower? Or do you want to shoot darts at an opponent up to 700 yards away?
If you really want to hurl something massive at a tower or fortified stoned wall, and you’d like to keep your distance, the trebuchet is the way to go. Eric Lowe, classics major and historical European martial arts instructor, explains:
A catapult’s maximum weight tops out at about 180 pounds; trebuchets top out at about 350. Second, compared with a torsion engine, it’s a fairly robust machine. Lastly, for a given weight of stone, the trebuchet has a longer range. The big ones there, of course, are the maximum projectile weight and range. When your objective is to smash stone fortifications, being able to throw bigger stones from farther away is certainly a desirable trait.
Haven’t we all said this to ourselves, at some point in our lives? Now if you’re looking to, say, attack a wall that is bristling with flesh-based human guards? Human guards that are susceptible to stabbification? Then what you might want is a dart-hurling catapult, since, as Lowe continues:
“Catapult” itself means shield-piercer. The things were originally designed to project darts of a size that no bow could shoot, with a range that no bow could match. The common thread among the three engines I illustrated is what’s called the “torsion spring,” the twisted skein of animal sinew that you see the arms stuck into. You can get a low-power demonstration of the idea by placing a pencil into the loop of a rubber band and then twisting the rubber band; when you let go, the twisted skein of rubber band makes the pencil whip around. That principle, writ large, is how a catapult works.
[These types of catapults were] used to snipe individual soldiers off of fortification walls from far beyond bowshot (the longest range attested for a dart-thrower is 700 yards; the longest achieved by modern reconstructions something like 400—still way beyond the effective range of any bow ever made). You can imagine how accurate, long-range anti-personnel fire could be quite useful in a siege, both to suppress defenders and simply to demoralize them.
Yes, I suppose that would be rather demoralizing…
Learn more about the Treb/Cat debate over at Slate!