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I was watching some videos on slings and was surprised by how long-ranged and powerful they could be. This test indicates its power could be similar to that of a 9mm bullet. According to Wikipedia, slings also had ranges comparable to or longer than that of bows:

A sling bullet lobbed in a high trajectory can achieve ranges in excess of 400 m (1,300 ft).[23] Modern authorities vary widely in their estimates of the effective range of ancient weapons. A bow and arrow could also have been used to produce a long range arcing trajectory, but ancient writers repeatedly stress the sling's advantage of range.

Slings were also much simpler to construct that bows, being effectively just a braided rope. Their ammunition was also plentiful (rocks) or easy to construct (lead bullets) in comparison to the complexity of an arrow.

However, they were largely phased out by the medieval era in favor of bows and crossbows. Why was this?

enter image description here

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    My guess would be lower risk of accidentally hurting your comrades, both in battle and during training.
    – Philipp
    Nov 1, 2023 at 13:20
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    here is a good article that explains why slings fell out of favor to bows and crossbows - chrisharrison.net/index.php/Research/Sling
    – ed.hank
    Nov 1, 2023 at 13:36
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    Archery was a trained skill too, but I'm seeing so much emphasis in ancient sources in how incredibly long and hard their slingers had trained that I have to suspect being good at it required much more training than even using a bow. (I know I've tried both and got passable at archery, but still completely incompetent with a sling)
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 1, 2023 at 13:58
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    It's interesting to read in @ed.hank 's link that we actually don't know how far the sling's max range is, because (unlike with bows) there simply isn't anyone alive with the amount of training required to produce the distances that were allegedly possible. With a bow, a complete novice on their first shot can at least put the arrow in a safe direction away from friendlies. With a sling you can't even guarantee that... the amount of training required to hit any kind of target with a sling seems enormously greater than with a bow. Nov 1, 2023 at 21:27
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    TLDR slings required as much more skill than bows as bows did compared to arquebusses, which they were replaced by. You could get good archers from farmers who were required to practice every holiday, as the English example shows, but to be a good slinger, you had to practice pretty much every day from early boyhood as a goat herd, like the Balearic slingers.
    – Eugene
    Nov 1, 2023 at 21:46

2 Answers 2

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Phased out? Says who?

Slings were used in European armies until the 16th century...the Castilian king had 30,000 infantry slingers in 1386...The sling was last used in Europe for military purposes at the siege of Sancerre in 1572 by the Huguenots.

Here is a lovely illustration of slingers at the Siege of Damietta in 1219, operating alongside archers and against opposing crossbowmen.

enter image description here

So why weren't armies composed entirely of slingers, rather than archers?

The sling's primary weakness compared to the bow was the high skill level necessary to use it effectively. While a true expert with a sling could use it ambidextrously and with great accuracy, that level of ability required training from a young age. Harrison proposes that there were simply fewer trained slingers to go around:

Increased cultural diffusion and urbanization in the Middle Ages meant local cultural traditions, such as slinging, were weakened...By Medieval times, there were few pockets of experienced slingers left

Additionally, the way in which troops were deployed had evolved. Ancient slingers were great skirmishers but the space required for a slinger to operate made them a poor fit for the medieval battlefield of tightly packed bodies:

It would have been troublesome to pack multiple rows of slingers into a typical medieval assemblage, where each soldier would fire over the row in front of them. Even a slight misfire, launched in front but too low, could cause friendly casualties. Archers could simply point upwards, over their fellow soldiers’ heads, and could be formed into relatively dense formations.

Compare this to the tercio, a formation that is gaining popularity at the start of the Early Modern period right as firearms become widespread (tail end of the 1490s into the 1500s). It leverages the great strengths of pike and musketry (relatively low training required) to overcome their weaknesses, by massing soldiers of both types together. Musketmen provide volley fire from a "bastion" of pikes that protect them against being run down by cavalry. It would not be easy to raise such a number of trained slingers, nor to have them operate shoulder-to-shoulder.

enter image description here

Slings got a new lease on life as the vehicle for grenades (or in a pinch, hot coals) but ultimately, like bows, they were made obsolete by rapid advancements in firearms and plate armor.

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    As an aside do you know the significance/role of the arkebusieres vs. the musketieres in this formation? Nov 1, 2023 at 23:00
  • @reve_etrange the same figure is used at the Wikipedia page for Tercio, but there's no explanation there either. If anything it doesn't fit with the rest of the article, which says things like "arquebusiers (later musketeers)"
    – Chris H
    Nov 2, 2023 at 11:54
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    To add, if bows have a lower skill requirement than slings did, crossbows had an even lower one.
    – cthulhu
    Nov 2, 2023 at 12:52
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    You made me realize that a trebuchet is essentially a large mechanical sling that requires little skill, but more people to operate.
    – Wastrel
    Nov 2, 2023 at 14:30
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    @Wastrel Aiming a trebuchet requires skill. Setting the point at which the projectile is released is tricky, from what I understand.
    – JimmyJames
    Nov 2, 2023 at 18:55
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Ranged attacks work especially well in volleys, as the concentrated firepower is likely to wound more people simultaneously, causing confusion and fear, and making it harder to regroup. A group of archers could draw their bows and fire simultaneously. Crossbows and firearms could do this even better. The sling was much harder to coordinate as the arming, aiming, and firing of the weapon was a single motion. People with different length arms and casting styles would fire at different moments, even if starting at the same time. Harrison

I'd like to find confirming resources, but this matches my hypothesis fairly well.

There are two issues here (I admit my ignorance; I'm an archer not a slinger)

  • How tightly can you pack the troops? You can pack archers much more tightly - loading, drawing and firing takes up less space than similar activities for slingers. Slinger has to have enough room to swing that stone, and to manage the loose end of the sling afterwards. DOn't want that to slap other slingers.

  • synchronized release. The act of release for an archer is ... pretty damm instant. (done right, you should almost be unaware of it). If you call "loose", the difference among archers is going to be in fractions of a second. Slingers have to wait till the stone is at the right point in the arc - unless the stones are synched, (which I find very unlikely), they're going to have to wait longer.

Others have pointed to the cost of training, which I think deserves some exploration. I'd need to explore the effort to make someone competent with the weapon vs to make someone expert. (English Longbow vs Flemish crosssbow). An interesting field for research, and I can remember the color and size of the book I'd use to start the research, but not the title or where it is on my shelves.....

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  • I definitely get the point that slingers would launch (and, therefore, the projectiles land) at different times, but how was that different than arrows? Even if all the archers released on a command, some might slip and fire early, some might have a delayed response, and the angle of launch would likely vary by several degrees across a large group, all of which results in the arrows landing at different times. I don't follow with why that's inherently bad.
    – FreeMan
    Nov 1, 2023 at 18:08
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    I can't think of any angle of launch that would result in the bulk of the volley landing more than 1 second apart - a level of coordination simply impossible with a weapon where you cannot "pull, aim, fire" on command.
    – SPavel
    Nov 1, 2023 at 18:14
  • @FreeMan, an arrow moves slowly enough that you can see it coming and dodge it, except at close range. A volley of arrows all landing in the same one-second period, not so much.
    – Mark
    Nov 2, 2023 at 0:15
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    @Mark - Dodging an arrow is not easy. Humans aren't designed to move that fast, and they're wicked hard to judge as they tend to wobble in the air
    – Richard
    Nov 2, 2023 at 21:36
  • Yeah...no one is channeling the movie "Hero" here. The main advantage of a volley is psychological.
    – SPavel
    Nov 3, 2023 at 0:10

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