The Mighty Staff Sling


So this week I have decided in the run up to Camp Loch Lomond 2013 I would talk a little about one of the more obscure weapons that participants train with, the fustibalus. I first developed an interest in this weapon when studying Vegetius De Re Militaria as part of my classics course in it he makes the first known mention of the weapon four times across the text.

“This was also the post of the archers who had helmets, cuirasses, swords, bows and arrows; of the slingers who threw stones with the common sling or with the fustibalus; and of the tragularii who annoyed the enemy with arrows from the manubalistae or arcubalistae.”[1]

“The archers and slingers set up bundles of twigs or straw for marks, and generally strike them with arrows and with stones from the fustbalus at the distance of six hundred feet.”[2]

“Cities and fortresses are garrisoned by such men as are least fit for the service of the field. They are provided with all sorts of arms, arrows, fustibali, slings, stones, onagri and balistae for their defense.”[3]

“Slingers with round stones from the fustibalus and sling killed both the men who guided the elephants and the soldiers who fought in the towers on their backs.”[4]

So what is this weapon that is accurate against a bundle of straw at 600ft, capable of use by any inhabitant of a city, able to effectively target and bring down elephant troops  yet seems largely forgotten about by history.

In essence it is exactly as its name in English describes it, it is a sling on a staff or a staff-sling. When I was describing it to a friend last night the best description I could manage was that it is effectively a human powered trebuchet. In the AHA we have used these since 2008 and they have rather been a staple of our Loch Lomond Camping event, where they are used as a method to teach volley firing, group missile tactics and are central to the march-and-shoot event. The reason we are so fond of them is they cost next to nothing to make (for a beginners one), even the slowest of students become effective with them after 30 minutes of training and their ammunition is lying all across Scotland in the form of stones.

I have worked with almost all of the missile weapons that were available to the pre-gunpowder soldier and have found none to be as simple, cheap and easy to make and teach as the staff-sling. So today I decided to look a little bit further into their history and have been able to locate a surprising number of illustrations of them in use. I really think this was the every mans weapon and I hope you enjoy this analysis of the pictorial sources.

I should note that sadly to my knowledge there are no extant examples of the staff-sling as they are made from wood, twine and leather and for these materials time is not favourable.

Figure 1: Eustace the Monk, Matthew Paris, Chronica Majora, II, fol. 52r (56r)

To begin with let us look at one of the most famous pictures of the staff-sling in use. This image is a depiction of the Battle of Sandwich (1217) by Matthew Paris. The individual being killed is the infamous pirate Eustace the Monk, but of course for our purposes we want to look at the individual on the far left of the image. Here we see a depiction of a rather simple staff-sling in use, it has a pouch with relatively short cords and the pouch is loaded with a clay pot, I read one suggestion that this was perhaps filled with quicklyme which was used as a blinding form of chemical warfare in the medieval era. The stick is lightly curved and probably 3-4’  (~1 meter) long. The slinger is in the prepared to loose position and will loose his sling by bringing it up in an ark over his head, at which point the loop of the left most cord holding the pouch will slip off the staff and send the pot towards the enemy.

Figure 2: ‘The Siege of Damietta during the Fifth Crusade’ Mathew Paris, Chronica Majora, XVI, fol. 55v

This second image again comes from Mathew Paris’, Chronica Majora and it depicts the Siege of Damietta during the fifth crusade. Once again we see naval staff-slingers but this time they appear to have longer staffs for their slings and for the most part their slings are straight except for the hook on the end over which the release cord loops. One is in the loading at rest position, we found when instructing this position is naturally taken when one has loaded their weapon and is awaiting the command to loose. The further away slinger appears to be mid-sling and both slingers have rocks in their slings rather than pots this time. One amusing thought is that the only person smiling in the picture is the slinger in motion who is clearly enjoying the use of his staff sling.

Figure 3: ‘The Expedition of Holofernes’, Catalan Roda Bible, MS. Lat. 6, fol. 134r, Bib. Nat., Paris

In this image we can see a pair of staff slingers depicted, each is making use of rocks roughly the size of a man’s head in their sling to fend off a besieging force. The slings have staffs that are ~5’ (~1.2 meters) in length and we can see that they are also making use of longer release cords. I believe the longer release cords is due to this not being a naval image thus the slinger will have more room to conduct their throw. These slingers are also making use of a position whereby the hands are separated on the staff which I find is the more natural starting position. Personally I prefer to use the sling much like chopping wood  with an axe where my hands start separated and then come together during the movement.

Figure 4: “Interior of the Guard Room (fresco)”, Italian School, (15th century) / Castello di Issogne, Val d’Aosta, Italy

I am very sorry but I have not been able to find a source for these last two images but a helpful post on one of the slinging forums was able to at least somewhat date the above image
“guess: S. Germany, ca. 1520 ?

Landknecht sitting round a table, in their civilian clothes. At one end, a drunken fight involving a Katzbalger and a pewter pot.

Above the table, weapons– the tools of these violent men. Parts of breastplates. Halberds and guisarmes (vel sim). 2 crossbows (one with crank, one with goat’s foot). Quiver for crossbow bolts. Powderhorn for handguns– I think the longthings with cloth covers are probably two-men hand guns (which might take the date of this to ca. 1475 ?) “[5]

*EDIT* Many thanks to Brandon Heslop and Benjamin Bradak for helping me source this image, it is a Fresco on the walls of Castle Issogne in Italy. It shows the city guard although some sources have made comment that it shows an inn. Another mystery solved thanks to the HEMA community 🙂

Anyway I think this is a wonderful image showing many different pieces of a Landsnecht’s kit. Naturally thought we will focus in on the staff sling which I have taken the liberty of reposting a clearer picture of below:

So we can see that the sling has very long cords with a woven pouch loaded with a large rock. The release mechanism for this sling is different in that it appears the top of the staff has a slit cut into it (like an arrows nock) and the release cord slides into the nock and is held by a knot. I must be honest I have never tried a sling like this but fully intend to next week at camp so I will report back on how this works. The butt of the staff angles up the way in the opposite direction of the sling which  probably allows the slinger to get a greater arc and not risk the staff slipping from ones hands. This is a fascinating example that is quite different from the other images.

Finally we have an image that appears to show a woman using the staff sling  to defend a castle against an undrawn besieging force. Her sling is most similar to those in the ‘Expedition of Holofernes’ above in that the pole is ~5’ (1.2 meters) and the sling has mid length cords with a pouch holding a rock. I have trained many girls to use this weapon and for the most part they are just as effective as their male counterparts. I have found strength does not have a great effect with the smaller stones, this would perhaps change with some of the larger rocks but I imagine, perhaps wrongly, that as long as the stick can handle the weight most people, both men and women would be effective in the throw. Again this is something I will perhaps check next week and mention in my follow up post on this subject.

So that was an ever so brief look at the staff-sling which although obscure is a wonderful and effective weapon. Next time I post I will give details for making your own basic sling but if you are desperate for one sooner then look out as Corsair’s Wares will have some very nice staff-slings made by me going on sale around the 6th of June.

If you have come across images or mentions of the staff-sling, fustibale or fustibalus in your reading please share especially if you can source the mention and also if someone has a source for the images I was unable to source then I would love to be able to add it for other readers benefit.

Until next time please pray that we get good weather at Loch Lomond and perhaps browse Corsair’s Wares and make an order to support the continuation of the Encased in Steel blog.

[1] Vegetius, De Re Militaria, Book 2 Sect X, Drawing up a Legion in Order of Battle

[2] Vegetius, De Re Militaria, Book 2 Sect XVI, The Drilling of Troops

[3] Vegetius, De Re Militaria, Book 3 Sect III, Care to Provide Forage and Provisions

[4] Vegetius, De Re Militaria, Book 3 Sect XXII, Armed Chariots and Elephants


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