The Catapult was a large military machine that was used to hurl objects such as rocks and spears. These catapults could generate tremendous force and hurl large objects over long distances. The catapult was replaced by the more effecive Trebuchet which could launch projectiles over even longer distances. The Trebuchet was also easier to build.
A Brief History of the Catapult
We typically think of a catapult as something that was used in the Middle Ages to destroy the walls of a castle. But catapults have a very long history dating long before the time of castles and they were developed and designed in many different ways by many different cultures over the centuries.
What is a catapult?
The general definition is that a catapult is a machine that stores energy then quickly releases this energy to fire a projectile. To be a “real” catapult the machine generally has to be too large for a person to carry. If we just used the storage and release of energy to define a catapult then a longbow would also fit this definition. So the size of the machine is important.
How did catapults develop?
Catapults are an offshoot of the Crossbow. Over time crossbows got larger and larger. They went from being a hand-held weapon to something called the Belly-Bows which were so large they had to be braced against a knight's belly. From there they got even larger and became something called stand crossbows where they were mounted on stands. Eventually they got large enough to be defined as something in their own right and no longer crossbows. This size change also brought about changes in how they operated.
When did the first catapults appear and where?
The earliest writings of catapults were that they originated in China around the 3rd and 4th Century BC and this type of early catapult was much like a big crossbow. They stood around 8 feet tall. True that these are catapults but the thing that makes a catapult into the machine we generally consider to be authentic is the development of the swinging arm. This is the arm that holds the bucket and projectile.
Variations of Catapults
The term “catapult” is used to define a very wide variety of large machines for hurling projectiles and some of the more common variations include the trebuchet, which is a catapult that uses gravity and a seesaw effect to hurl its projectile. Another variation is the ballista, which is similar to a crossbow and uses twisted skeins of material to create torsion as its way of storing energy for release.
The End of Catapults
With the invention and use of gunpowder and the subsequent creation of artillery the catapult became obsolete as the weapon of choice for warfare around the fourteenth century.
The Siege Arms Race - Castles, and how they were sieged developed over the centuries in a medieval style arms race. All of the siege tactics shown above were replaced by large medieval weapons. These weapons could bring down the fortress walls quickly and efficiently. But castles too adapted by building stronger, taller, and thicker walls. They even used concentric walls with walls inside walls. Once the art of explosives developed reasonably well and artillery became accurate and reliable castles fell out of favor in that they could not provide adequate defense. The castles then became more of a fortified place for royalty to live. NOVA: Medieval Siege
Some of the Means of Sieging a Castle
Catapults - A catapult was a large machine used to throw objects, often rocks, arrows, pots of fire, or even spears, at a castle. This would destroy the castle walls and buildings. When we think of a catapult the one shown here is what we envision. But more often than not the catapults used for sieging didn't have the cup that you put the thrown object into. They usually had a sling. This sling could generate more force and throw the object further with more accuracy. This sling effect was later developed into the Trebuchet. Schleich Catapult
Make your own Catapult
How to Make a Torsion powered catapult called a Mangonel:
The Table Top Troll Catapult - This is a nice little project that takes you through all the steps of making a rubber band powered catapult. It is 1 foot in length and it just takes a little wood, a rubber band and a few other things. Complete instructions, and lots of pictures showing you how to do it. Totally free project
The Popsicle Stick Catapult - This is a fun catapult project that shows the strength of the triangle. The triangle is a shape that is often used in architecture because of its strength. Geodesic domes like the EPCOT center use the geodesic triangle shape. 30 minutes and 32 popsicle sticks.
The Teeny-Tiny Popsicle Stick Catapult - Fun little project that comes with a video of me shooting a projectile into a Lord of the Rings Mug. This little catapult is great for having little competitions with friends. Build two and make a game of this project.
How not to build a catapult - I attempted to build a mangonel style catapult that uses twisted rope as a way to store the kinetic energy. It didn't work out well but still has potential. Here is a bit more about the project.
Use the Teeny-Tiny popsicle stick catapult to make this game called Storm The Castle ! See the Project here
The trebuchet was Similar to the catapult in that it was designed to throw large objects but it was more efficient than a catapult because it could be built faster and at less cost. Yet it could throw heavier objects even furhter. The basic theory of the Trebuchet was like that of a see saw. One end had a heavy weight. The other end extended much longer and had a sling where the thrown object was put. When the trebuchet was activated the heavy weight would fall and the swinging of the see-saw would propel the object. Medieval Siege Weapons (1): Western Europe AD 585-1385 (New Vanguard)
Looking for a catapult kit?
Amazon.com also has a catapult kit you can build
Catapult Kit Lay Siege To The Doghouse! Right after you build your own working medieval catapult. All you'll need is glue, scissors and a steady hand to construct this wooden, Canadian-made siege engine kit. The finished catapult stands 6" tall x 5" wide x 10" long and will toss assorted stuff (meatballs?) 15 feet or further, depending upon the stuff. Comes with detailed instructions. Note: Please don't propel small mammals, and please don't put anyone's eye out.
Backyard Ballistics: Build Potato Cannons, Paper Match Rockets, Cincinnati Fire Kites, Tennis Ball Mortars, and More Dynamite Devices Want to get a little more creative? This book is off the hook!