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Crossbows, Golden Eagles, and Verisimilitude

How I get sideways, learn a lot, and get nothing done.

Research in fiction is key to accuracy, plausibility, and verisimilitude – but it’s also a depthless as Kaidas1, a bottomless pit that sucks you waaaay in. I know this to be true because, time sink though it is, I love research with a fierce and terrible love. Research is one of the biggest reasons I seem to never get anything done.

Here’s an example. Crossbows. I had a character in a story carrying a crossbow. Let’s make sure this Genoese mercenary is written properly. I know early crossbows (which of course you’re aware were once outlawed by the Pope2) did not use a trigger in the modern sense of the word, they used a lever-like latch to loose (not fire) their projectiles.

Leonardo da Vinci Crossbow diagram

The humble crossbow, as depicted by Leonardo da Vinci


What’s the name of that lever, thought I. What would the guys carrying them call… Oh, interesting, they were the Balestrieri genovese. Anyway, what would they have called it?

To the library I go (thank you Google Books and Gutenberg Project, for devouring even more time than my physical shelves could on their own).

Let’s see…anatomy of an early crossbow. They were originally developed in China, were seen in other cultures…eventually popular in the West, the arbalest (knew that already), cranequin and windlass (knew that), the “Paynim” (Moslems) called it the qaws Ferengi, or “Frankish bow” during the crusades (didn’t know that); they used composite bows, which Crusaders met, thus prompting Europeans to build crossbows of composite (laminate) material…

Hell, everyone loves a good crossbow — Bob Herzog was doing it looooong before Daryl Dixon made it cool.

Wait, the Chinese built a “repeating” crossbow, the Chu Ko Nu, and you know who else build composite bows? The Mongols. Unlike the Europeans, they drew and loosed with a thumb draw. Their bows were often made of bamboo, horn, and sinew in layers, and could take over a year to build. Hunting or making war from horseback, Mongolians would —

Mongolian horse archer composite bow thumb draw.

A Mongolian horse archer of the late 19th century.


Whoa, did you know Mongolians of the Bayan-Olgii hunt with eagles? The Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and other ethnic groups have hunted with eagles since the days of the Khans? Not gyrfalcons, golden eagles. They still do. Often from horseback. Kazahk burkitshi sometimes begin training captured eaglets as pre-teens. A stooping eagle can dive at over 150mph. That’s a ten to fifteen pound object (with big damn claws) striking at over half again the speed of a fastball. They’ve taken goats, reindeer, wolves, and other prey.

“Our ancestors had three comrades,” say the Kazakh, “Swift-foot, tazy,and bürkit.” (That’s, a fine horse, a Taigan sighthound, and a golden eagle).

Kazakh Eagle Hunters of the early 1900s.

Somewhere in Mongolia, c. 1900.

Kazakh eagle hunter of today.

Somewhere in Mongolia today.


You think it’s just exaggerated rumor, that talk of these birds killing large animals, but there are numerous confirmed reports of eagles killing domestic cattle in Arizona and New Mexico…

Wait, WTF was the name of that crossbow trigger thing again?

 Read more about the Mongolians in Audubon Magazine if you’re interested.

Or read one of these books.

Eagle Hunting in Mongolia


That’s all I got for now. Go forth and conquer.


1Kaidas: the name of a chasm of unknown depth near Mt. Taygetos, in Greece. There, according to both Thucydides and Strabo, the Spartans hurled prisoners and convicts, at least until around 400BC. Ask me how I know – and how little that has to do with what I was originally researching in the first place. 

2Artem autem illam mortiferam et Deo odibilem ballistoriorum et sagittariorum, adversus christianos et catholicos de cetero sub anathemate prohibemus. Ask me how I know.

3Genoese mercenary crossbowmen were present during the First Crusade and the Battle of Agincourt, which I remember from Dr. Lomax’s classes at TU, but were you aware they could be so effective that captured crossbowmen had their fingers cut off after the Siege of Parma? Ask me how I know.

I could go on, but I need to understand hobnails and a medieval infantryman’s ability to road march.