On tour at the Ozark Medieval Fortress, after seeing the full-sized trebuchet, guests often ask, “How far will that catapult throw a stone?” It is really common for people to get mixed up on the Medieval war machines. There is a big difference between a catapult and a trebuchet (and, for that matter, a ballista). The ballista is a giant crossbow mounted on wheels and comes from the Greeks. The catapult is a throwing machine that uses twisted ropes (like a twisted rubber band) to power the arm and comes to us mainly from the Romans. The trebuchet is a throwing machine that uses the force of a dropping weight attached to the short end of a long arm as its power and was developed by the French. The word “trebuchet” comes from the Old French word “trebucher”, which means “throw over”.
The first trebuchets were used in the ancient world, but instead of a fixed weight for power, they used many men pulling on ropes to provide the thrust. This was the type the Franks used in the early Medieval, but by the high Middle Ages, they had made the change to a counterweight which gave better accuracy and power. Large trebuchets like the one at the Ozark Medieval Fortress had arms of 40-60 feet and could throw stones of 200 pounds for up to 300 yards (three football fields). Another aspect of the trebuchet is that it has a sling at the end of the throwing arm which adds a lot of velocity to the thrown stone.
In the Middle Ages the trebuchet was the most feared and respected war machine. They were accurate in hitting the target wall and consistent pounding by such large stones caused great damage. During the Crusades the Christian armies were known to use as many as 70 trebuchets at a time. In the 1300’s, with the coming of cannons, the trebuchet became outdated and was used less and less. The last confirmed use in war was in the 1500’s when Cortez, lacking cannons and gunpowder, attempted to use a trebuchet against the Aztecs. Unfortunately for the Spanish, the first stone hit the trebuchet itself and destroyed it. The trebuchet at the Ozark Medieval Fortress presently is not fired for safety reasons.