|Ancient Sling Techniques|
|During the summer of 2003 I made slings inspired by the ancients Greeks to find out some of their capabilities. I thought I'd share some of my findings here for those who've always wondered what the hell they're like! Slings have been in use for as long as we can document these things, they are the tool-in-trade of shepherds to scare off wild animals, but with a life-time of use can be used with accuracy and force. A sling is simply a length of leather or cord with a pouch to hold a small stone or lead 'bullet'. The sling is whirled in a circle and then one end of the string is released to let the stone or 'bullet' fly toward the target. In ancient history slingers were used as light skirmishers, troops which had no armour or weapons but who rushed in toward an army to pepper them with stones, then flee into the hills. My kind of fighting!!
I made two slings, one with a suede pouch and two braided cord arms, the other out of stout black leather. Both just reach to the ground if I hold them loosely in my hand read to shoot. The arms are both about 60cm long. One ends in a loop which goes around my middle finger. I hold the end of the other arm between thumb and forefinger - acting as a 'trigger'. The stone goes in the pouch, and after a wind up I release my thumbtip grip and the stone sails through the air - the loop keeps the sling attached to my hand.
I live on the coast, so I've got in quite a bit of practice over the last couple of weeks, the beach is great - unlimited ammo and a wide open target area with no chance of hitting passers by!
Technique: overarm or underarm? I've been concentrating on underarm so far. Three 'wind-ups' and a sharp release. My first shots were crazy wild, everything hangs on the timing of the release. With practice I could sling stones quite accurately in a single vertical plane, but getting them on target is something else. First impressions - the sling is damn hard - way harder than first picking up a bow!
I picked out a big boulder at 20-30m or so and started working on that, and got a few hits on it, but so many misses. Because timing of of the release cable is critical, I've started just using one 'wind up', simply swinging the sling up and backwards, and as it passes my ankles bring it up for a powerful release. Timing a release that way is easier, with less to think about and the ability to put more power into one shot.
I'm still refining my aim! I hear practice makes perfect. Well, I intend to practice.
Then there's distance. My 9-year old son (who is quite short for his age) was merrily using my cord sling, but he likes to go for height, with some impressive slings! He got the knack in seconds. I was impressed. I was going for accuracy. My range was initially pretty poor. I'm not extactly super strong, my most accurate slings occurred at about 30-40m, but I can loft a stone maybe 60m with some limited accuracy. My furthest cast so far has been 85m with a light pebble. I've read that 100m + is do-able for a practiced (or strong!) slinger, however. I've tried overarm releases a few times but my range reduces even further (though it's supposed to be more accurate).
I've heard of very experienced slingers hitting animals and stuff, but to me, 100 slingers chucking stones at a unit of spearman would be OK. Even I could do that and run away! The stones may not kill, but from height will hurt alot more. Lead shot of course goes further and is able to penetrate skin (the Romans had an iron instrument for removing them from the body) but I had pebbles not lead shot. Greeks used to practice with river pebbles, and save lead shot for battle only.
I notice that the heavier stones certainly shift! You can get a heavy stone out alot further, but you reach a critical weight where range begins to dive. You have to find that weight of stone that gives you enough momentum, but not so much weight that it reduces your range. Plus accuracy drops a little because you're slinging harder, and its harder to time your release as easily.
The sling wraps up into a pocket. Weight is negligible. My preferred stones weigh 60-100g or so - hard to say. There is a 'snap' as the sling releases but it is very quiet. The sling gets alot of wear and tear, threads come undone, leather tears, bits move around. Its good to have a spare.
That's my slinging experience these past few weeks! In summary, I'd prefer a bow! But the slings can be knocked up in an hour, carried in a pocket, repaired on site, and ammo is free (if you don't mind short range attacks). Its just accuracy and range. Both are increased with lead shot (by what factor I don't know, but 100m for lead shot is not exceptional in historical annals). The sling just requires training. That's why all slingers were recruited shepherds, primitive tribes who used the sling day in day out. The Baleaeric slingers and Rhodians were famed, and travelled the length of the Mediterranean Sea as mercenary slingers. This indicates that a) slings were greatly valued in war, and b) the weapon was difficult enough to use that specialists were needed. When these tribes died out or were urbanized, I reckon slinging fell by the wayside, never to be revived. Of course other cultures outside of the classical orbit have continued to utilise the sling.
The Staff Sling
The staff sling was a Greek weapon called a fustibalum, essentially a leather or cord sling on the end of a pole. The pole is whipped over the head and down, bringing the sling up high and releasing the stone at the height of the movement. It is, in essence, a hand-held trebuchet. I used a 5' broom handle, carved a ring near the top then chopped the very end into a sloping point. I used multicoloured (and funky!) boot laces for the 80cm arms of my sling and tied one end around the carved ring. The other end had a loop which just sat loosely at the end of the staff. My pouch was made of stiff and very wide belt leather. I tried a larger shammy leather pouch, but it flopped around uselessly most of the time. This smaller, firmer pouch is easier to use, but cannot successfully hold very large stones.
You put a stone in the pouch, hold the staff right at the end, and with all your might bring it from behind you over your head to within a foot or so of the ground in front of you. As it reaches the apex of the curve the loose loop slides off the end of the staff and the stone flies forward with some momentum. At the point of release my stones are about 12-13' high up in the air. Cool!
The noise is awesome. An ominous whoosh alot like a trebuchet. It is in fact a hand-powered trebuchet!! You must build one now!
Why? Because it threw stones alot further than my sling. And it can throw BIG stones, too. Way out to sea. I soon found the limitations of my pouch. It is sturdy, incredibly fast to reload (in comparison to the floppy pouch I'd used) and throws stones to impressive distances. There were people watching me on the beach and I like to think they were impressed with my casts !!
A couple of times, though the stone vanished. Either I'd lowered the pouch to the ground as I readied and the stone rolled out (oops), or it had fallen out because of the small pouch. I flinched, because I don't want a ton of rock smacking me on the head ...
Still - I'm happy with the pouch in a way because it's tough as hell, and the G-forces the pouch has to withstand must be immense. Same for all the knots and any stitching. On a staff-sling all of these have to be much firmer than on a sling (and they too have to be well made).
Finally, which is easier to use? Well, my wife watched my 9 year old chuck a couple of stones into the sea with the staff sling and said 'can I have a go?'. So she did. The staff sling is easier to operate than a sling, because the release is automatic, you just bring the staff down at speed. She made half a dozen cautious casts. It's still murder to hit anything with this weapon!!
How long does it take to use a sling?
Sling - 10 seconds to get the sling out, unroll it and have it loose ready at your side. To pick up a pebble at your feet, sort out your strings, wind up and shoot - 7-10 seconds. I'm sure you could go faster. And if the stone drops, or the strings get a bit twisted it might take you longer.
Staff sling - not sure. 15-20 seconds to set up and unravel the strings. From release, through loading and shooting it takes about 12 -15 seconds keeping strings separate, getting your loop balanced just right at the tip of your staff sling, checking behind you and slinging...
My Latest Slings
My last sling was made up of woven leather thong and was a (poor) copy of one made by Paul Carrick from Cohors Quinta Gallorum. This woven thong sling was based on a modern-day sling from the Sudan (ancient Nubia) used by farmers to chase birds away. Some Romanized regions also used a woven sling design (as well as simple leather pouches). A woven sling grips the stone well and wraps around it. It is likely that the Sudanese farmers have not changed the method of sling construction since they introduced the weapon, in pre-Roman times. Unfortunately this thong was abrasive and cut my finger open as well as splitting. The thong was weak material.
Instead I now have a sling made of pig leather, cut to a shape reminiscent of a pouch found at the Roman Vindolanda fort on Hadrian's Wall, with strong pigskin cords and a linen-stitched loop. It is tough, strong and a little bit elastic so I get a good cast from it. My best yet...
I've also remodelled my staff-sling, getting rid of the boot-lace and black leather-belt cut off and replacing it with braided leather thong and a scale replica of the large Vindolanda sling pouch. This is also much cooler than my first attempt!
This intriguing sling weapon is mentioned by Livy and Polybius. It seems to have been a heavy dart flung from a leather sling (or perhaps staff sling?) and was employed by some of the Macedonian troops of King Perseus. The description is quite confusing, but with the help of experimental slingers at www.slinging.org I've made a prototype:
I'm currently experimenting with its use. I can throw the dart 25-30m unaided by a sling. A good cast from a leather sling can reach a distance of 40m+, which is pretty good, but a poor range in comparison to a sling stone. I've found that 'whirling the sling around the head' cannot be done, the thing gets horibly tangled and must be kept straight and level at all times. The only two methods of casting I've so far tried are around the body from behind in a sweeping side motion, and from behind, over the head. Neither have any range benefit. I'm currently experimenting with a staff-sling version of the kestrosphendone and things are looking good!
Casting Lead Sling Bullets
I've cast lead sling bullets after the Roman fashion for research purposes, and my experiment was documented in an online article for slinging.org on this page.
When Emperor Hadrian watched Cohors VI Commagenorum, a cavalry unit, training, he comments on their ability to use javelin and also sling in battle (presumably on horseback). I intended, in the name of experimental archaeology to try this out. See my Real video here:
Real Player Video: Mounted Slinging (1.09 MB)
Historical Sling Bullets
I've collected photographs of ancient sling ammunition for my own research. Have a look at these mainly Greek and Roman lead sling stones:
Slingstone14 (27g, 33mm long)
|Sumerian slinger date approx. 3000 BC|
|Preparing to cast, with a gentle to-and-from motion to test the weight of the stone|
|Over the head and under arm to loose the stone at a distant target!|
|Readying the staff-sling...|
|And the cast, throwing the staff forward ...|
|Greek & Roman staff slinger from 300 BC onwards|
|Overhead cast for accuracy - can you see the stone in-flight?|