A catapult is any one of a number of non-handheld mechanical devices used to throw a projectile a great distance without the aid of an explosive substance—particularly various types of ancient and medieval siege engines.

The name is the Latinized form of the Ancient Greek "καταπέλτης" - katapeltes, from "κατά" - kata (downwards, into, against) and "πάλλω" - pallo (to poise or sway a missile before it is thrown). [Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, "A Greek-English Lexicon" [ at Perseus] ] The catapult appears to have been invented in 399 BC in the city of Syracuse during the reign of the tyrant Dionysius I [ "The Catapult: A History", Tracy Rihall, 2007] . Originally, "catapult" referred to a dart-thrower, while "ballista" referred to a stone-thrower, but the two terms swapped meaning sometime in the fourth century AD.Fact|date=November 2007


Greek and Roman catapults

The early history of the catapult and the crossbow in Greece is closely intertwined. The historian Diodorus Siculus (fl. 1st century BC), described the invention of a mechanical arrow firing catapult ("katapeltikon") by a Greek task force in 399 BC. [Diod. Sic. 14.42.1] Duncan Campbell: "Greek and Roman Artillery 399 BC-AD 363", Osprey Publishing, Oxford 2003, ISBN 1841766348, p.3] The weapon was soon after employed against Motya (397 BC), a key Carthaginian stronghold in Sicily. [Diod. Sic. 14.50.4] Duncan Campbell: "Greek and Roman Artillery 399 BC-AD 363", Osprey Publishing, Oxford 2003, ISBN 1841766348, p.8] Diodorus is assumed to have drawn his description from the highly rated [Eric William Marsden: "Greek and Roman Artillery: Historical Development", The Clarendon Press, Oxford 1969, ISBN 978-0198142683, p.48f.] history of Philistus, a contemporary of the events then. The date of the introduction of crossbows, however, can be dated further back: According to the inventor Hero of Alexandria (fl. 1st c. AD), who referred to the now lost works of the 3rd century BC engineer Ctesibius, this weapon was inspired by an earlier hand-held crossbow, called the "gastraphetes" ("belly shooter"), which could store more energy than the Greek bows. A detailed description of the "gastraphetes", along with a drawing, is found in Heron's technical treatise "Belopoeica".Duncan Campbell: "Greek and Roman Artillery 399 BC-AD 363", Osprey Publishing, Oxford 2003, ISBN 1841766348, p.4] [Stanley M. Burstein, Walter Donlan, Sarah B. Pomeroy, and Jennifer Tolbert Roberts (1999). "Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History". Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-1950-9742-4, p. 366] A third Greek author, Biton (fl. 2nd c. BC), whose reliability has been positively reevaluated by recent scholarship, [M.J.T. Lewis: "When was Biton?", "Mnemosyne", Vol. 52, No. 2 (1999), pp. 159-168] described two advanced forms of the "gastraphetes", which he credits to Zopyros, an engineer from southern Italy. Zopyrus has been plausibly equated with a Pythagorean of that name who seems to have flourished in the late 5th century BC. [ [ Peter Kingsley: Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1995, p.150ff.] ] [Lewis established a lower date of no later than the mid-fourth century (M.J.T. Lewis: "When was Biton?", "Mnemosyne", Vol. 52, No. 2 (1999), pp. 159-168 (160)). Same de Camp (L. Sprague de Camp: "Master Gunner Apollonios", "Technology and Culture", Vol. 2, No. 3 (1961), pp. 240-244 (241)] He probably designed his bow-machines on the occasion of the sieges of Cumae and Milet between 421 BC and 401 BC. [Biton Biton 65.1-67.4 & 61.12-65.1] Duncan Campbell: "Greek and Roman Artillery 399 BC-AD 363", Osprey Publishing, Oxford 2003, ISBN 1841766348, p.5] The bows of these machines already featured a winched pull back system and could apparently throw two missile at once.

From the mid-fourth century BC onwards, evidence of the Greek use of arrow-shooting machines becomes more dense and varied: Arrow firing machines ("katapaltai") are briefly mentioned by Aeneas Tacticus in his treatise on siegecraft written around 350 BC.Duncan Campbell: "Greek and Roman Artillery 399 BC-AD 363", Osprey Publishing, Oxford 2003, ISBN 1841766348, p.8] An extant inscription from the Athenian arsenal, dated between 338 and 326 BC, lists a number of stored catapults with shooting bolts of varying size and springs of sinews.Eric William Marsden: "Greek and Roman Artillery: Historical Development", The Clarendon Press, Oxford 1969, ISBN 978-0198142683, p.57] The later entry is particularly noteworthy as it constitutes the first clear evidence for the switch to torsion catapults which are more powerful than the flexible crossbows and came to dominate Greek and Roman artillery design thereafter.Duncan Campbell: "Greek and Roman Artillery 399 BC-AD 363", Osprey Publishing, Oxford 2003, ISBN 1841766348, p.8ff.] Another Athenian inventory from 330-329 BC includes catapults bolts with heads and flights. Arrow firing machines in action are reported from Philip II's siege of Perinth (Thrace) in 340 BC.Eric William Marsden: "Greek and Roman Artillery: Historical Development", The Clarendon Press, Oxford 1969, ISBN 978-0198142683, p.60] At the same time, Greek fortifications began to feature high towers with shuttered windows in the top, which could have been used to house anti-personnel arrow shooters, as in Aigosthena. [Josiah Ober: "Early Artillery Towers: Messenia, Boiotia, Attica, Megarid", "American Journal of Archaeology", Vol. 91, No. 4. (1987), S. 569-604 (569)] In Roman times machine known as an arcuballista was probably similar to the crossbow. [ [ Dictionnaire des antiquites grecques et romaines] ] Alexander the Great introduced the idea of using them to provide cover on the battlefield in addition to using them during sieges. Projectiles included both arrows and (later) stones.

The Romans started to use catapults probably as arms for their wars against Syracuse, Macedon, Sparta and Aetolia (3rd–2nd century BC).

Medieval Catapults

Castles and fortified walled cities were common during this period - and catapults were used as a key siege weapon against them. As well as attempting to breach the walls, incendiary missiles could be thrown inside—or early biological warfare attempted with diseased carcasses or putrid garbage catapulted over the walls.

Designs include the torsion-powered mangonel, onager and ballista, and the gravity-powered trebuchet.

Catapults were gradually replaced by cannon in the 14th century.

Later Use

The last large-scale military use of catapults was during the trench warfare of World War I. During the early stages of the war, catapults were used to throw hand grenades across no man's land into enemy trenches. These were eventually replaced by small mortars.

Small catapults, referred to as "traps" are still widely used to launch Clay targets into the air in the sport of Clay pigeon shooting.

Until recently, in England, catapults were used by thrill-seekers to experience being catapulted through the air. The practice has been discontinued due to fatalities, when the participants failed to land onto the safety net.


Catapults of all types and sizes are being built for school science and history fairs, competitions or as a hobby. Catapult projects can inspire children to study physics, engineering, math and history. These kits can be purchased from Renaissance Fairs, or from several online stores.

ee also

*Siege engine
*Onager (siege weapon)
*Aircraft catapult
*Mass driver


External links

* [ Catapult Plans from] featuring Catapult, Trebuchet and Science Project Plans and Trebuchet Kits (commercial site).
* [ Catapult Kits from RLT Industries] featuring Trebuchets, Onagers, Ballistae, and science project kits (commercial site).
* [ Ancient Greek Artillery Technology]
* [ Sunward Aerospace] , feature a working Catapult Model Kit
* [ Offers catapults for science projects and engineering courses on experimentation] (commercial site)
* [ Catapult Plans and Design]
* [ Medieval Catapult Articles]
* [ Chinese Siege Warfare: Mechanical Artillery & Siege Weapons of Antiquity - An Illustrated History]
* [ Video of Spring Trebuchet in Action]
* [ A modern slinging catapult for competition & entertainment] , features photos and videos of a pumpkin hurling and appliance tossing catapult
* [ The official web site of the Chateau des Baux] , catapult shootings every day

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • catapult — ► NOUN 1) chiefly Brit. a forked stick with an elastic band fastened to the two prongs, used for shooting small stones. 2) historical a military machine for hurling large stones or other missiles. 3) a mechanical device for launching a glider or… …   English terms dictionary

  • catapult — [kat′ə pult΄, kat′əpoolt΄] n. [L catapulta < Gr katapeltēs < kata , down, against + base of pallein, to toss, hurl] 1. an ancient military contrivance powered by either torsion or tension used for throwing or shooting stones, spears, etc. 2 …   English World dictionary

  • Catapult — Cat a*pult, n. [L. catapulta, Gr. ?, prob. from kata down + ? to shake, hurl.] [1913 Webster] 1. (Mil. Antiq.) An engine somewhat resembling a massive crossbow, used by the ancient Greeks and Romans for throwing stones, arrows, spears, etc. [1913 …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • catapult — index cast (throw), impel, launch (project), precipitate (throw down violently) Burton s Legal Thesaurus. William C. Burton. 2006 …   Law dictionary

  • catapult — [n] implement for shooting weapon arbalest, ballista, heaver, hurler, pitcher, propeller, shooter, sling, slingshot, tosser, trebuchet; concepts 463,500 …   New thesaurus

  • catapult — {{11}}catapult (n.) 1570s, from M.Fr. catapulte, from L. catapulta war machine for throwing, from Gk. katapeltes, from kata against (see CATA (Cf. cata )) + base of pallein to toss, hurl. {{12}}catapult (v.) 1848, from CATAPULT (Cf. catapult)… …   Etymology dictionary

  • catapult — I UK [ˈkætəpʌlt] / US [ˈkætəˌpʌlt] noun [countable] Word forms catapult : singular catapult plural catapults 1) a) British an object that children use for firing stones. It consists of a stick in the shape of a Y with a thin band of rubber across …   English dictionary

  • catapult — catapultic, adj. /kat euh pult , poolt /, n. 1. an ancient military engine for hurling stones, arrows, etc. 2. a device for launching an airplane from the deck of a ship. 3. Brit. a slingshot. v.t. 4. to hurl from a catapult. 5. to thrust or move …   Universalium

  • catapult — [[t]kæ̱təpʌlt[/t]] catapults, catapulting, catapulted 1) N COUNT A catapult is a device for shooting small stones. It is made of a Y shaped stick with a piece of elastic tied between the two top parts. [BRIT] (in AM, use slingshot) 2) N COUNT A… …   English dictionary

  • catapult — /ˈkætəpʌlt / (say katuhpult) noun 1. an ancient military engine for hurling darts, stones, etc. 2. Also, shanghai, sling, slingshot; Chiefly WA and Qld, ging; North Coast NSW, gonk. a Y shaped stick or strong wire with an elastic strip between… …   Australian-English dictionary

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