A crossbow is a special type of bow. The flexible limb (lath or bow) is attached transversely to a central stock. The lath is also referred to as the prod in the US. The string is drawn back by manual or mechanical means and is held in position by a catch such as a rotating nut or peg. They were used in open warfare, sieges and also for hunting.
The weapon can be loaded with a crossbow bolt or quarrel, which is basically a stick or metal rod, perhaps with feathers, parchment or leather to stabilise the quarrel in flight. The heads were frequently much larger than arrowheads and consisted primarily of bodkin style points. The laths for these bows, were initially made of wood, later a composite of materials including horn, and later still, steel.
An alternative to the crossbow is the stone or pellet bow which shoots a small pellet or rock. These are however are relatively rare and may have only seen use in hunting.
To fire, the user just aims the stock in the direction of the target, and pulls the lever which releases the string.
It is a very powerful weapon with crossbows with wooden laths having draw weights estimated up to 350lbs and steel lath crossbows having estimated draw weights of up to 1500lbs, but reportedly had problems in cold weather. Early crossbows were drawn back by hand, but progressed to being drawn up using bow hands and held down by a foot. A goat's foot lever was also used to span the crossbow and very powerful crossbows used a small windlass. A cranequin (system of gears) was also used but seemed to be limited to primarily to hunting. A poorly drawn crossbow lacks accuracy but the high strength of the crossbow makes it a devestating weapon.
Crossbows in the SCA
Archers may also find that they are required by state, territory, province or federal laws to hold a license or permit for their crossbow. This is particularly important to check when going to any event outside your normal group, e.g. interstate or international.