Crossbow vs. Gambeson armor. Who will win?
Updated: Jun 21
Is it plausible that the character of my Enemy's Keeper series, wearing a gambeson, survives the one crossbow wound he suffers? Let's find out.
(P.S. The character is never named, so no spoilers in this post)
What's a historical fantasy adventure if no one wielded weapons or got hurt? And yet, if I don't want my character to die, I had better make sure the wound is survivable.
Thankfully, there are live Youtube demos!
I was delighted to find this video from Tod's Workshop. Tod crafts his own medieval weapons and demonstrates how they work against the armor available at the time. Truly a talented man!
Above, you see how a plate-cutter arrow, fired by a 350lb draw-weight crossbow, simply bounces off a gambeson. The wearer may have a few broken ribs, but he will survive. The gambeson is composed of around 32 layers of washed linen. (I will never look at my bed linen the same way again...)
Draw-weight, by the way, is the amount of force required to pull the bowstring back. The higher the draw weight, the more powerful and deadly the bow.
Tod's channel also introduced me to different ways a crossbow can be loaded, or "spanned". In general, as the methods became more involved, the power of the cross-bow increased, but so did the time it took to reload the crossbow. And no one wants to waste time during a battle!
The simplest way of loading a crossbow is called hand spanning. The Max Draw is 150lbs (the number didn't get to appear in the screenshot). As a bonus, it works your abs...
But there were plenty of other ways to load a crossbow, and the draw-weight can get impressively high! Watch Todd's video as he demonstrates the different ways, or check out this blog post for illustrations.
Below left: a Norman man (check out that unique haircut!) spanning a crossbow by foot. Note that this early crossbow lacks the stirrup, or the metal hoop, at the end of the crossbow to facilitate loading.
Below right: another man uses a windlass.
So, what about the character in my book who gets shot? Is it plausible that he not only survived, but managed to escape a predicament? Let's first investigate the draw-weight of an 11th-century crossbow.
Page 68 of The Crossbow by Mike Loads describes a crossbow from the 1200's which has a draw-weight of only 80lbs. There's good reason to believe the Vasfians crossbows in my Enemy's Keeper series (which take place in the 11th century) had a similar draw-weight.
Of note, I never mention the Vasfian warriors using a windlass or their feet to load their crossbows because they didn't. They used the hand span method, which is a very fast way to reload arrows but did not allow for a high draw-weight.
All this to say, it is entirely plausible that my character survived getting shot in his particular situation; he was wearing a gambeson and the crossbow's draw-weight was low. The wound inflicted would have been superficial and the blood loss minimal, which is what I describe in my book, Enemy's Keeper: Healer's Blade (Enemy's Keeper Book 1) (Originally published as Forbidden Ties in 2022).
In the next blog post (now available), I will discuss why even hanging upside down for 16 hours on top of getting shot doesn't kill him. I will draw from my experience as a physician trained to do autopsies (a pathologist), cite forensic medical literature, and discuss the real life tragedy of a man who died upside down.
Overall, the human body is simply very good at... surviving.
Not only is that handy in fiction, but it's also great in real life!
What's your favorite medieval weapon? Comment and let me know!