A torsion catapult, or mangonel, is a type of catapult used frequently in Medieval siege warfare. The mangonel works by twisting up a rope as tight as possible on the end of a throwing arm. When the torsion in the rope is released, the throwing arm shoots whatever it is holding with great speed and power.
Rope Spring Power
The torsion catapult was invented by the ancient Greeks around 300 BC. The torsion catapult is based on the concept of the rope spring -- a rope coiled so tightly that it produces tremendous power when released. A torsion catapult looks much like any other type of catapult, with a throwing arm attached to a large base to provide stability and a large wooden beam to stop the throwing arm so that it shoots the projectile rather than slamming into the ground. Between the two sides of the catapult base is a length of rope, which can be wound tighter and tighter by a winch. This is what provides the torsion for the catapult.
Although they had actually been invented centuries before by either the Greeks, torsion catapults or mangonels were not widely used in early Medieval warfare. Their first known use in England was in the Siege of Dover in 1216. From this point on, however, they were widely used. A mangonel was extremely powerful, capable of hurling a rock the size of a human head at the speed of 100 mph and for distances of up to 1,300 feet.
The mangonel was generally used to throw large rocks but could also be used to throw a wide variety of other items, depending on the ingenuity of the user and the availability of materials. Hot sand, when thrown, would find its way between the gaps in the armor of a defending knight. Diseased corpses could be hurled to spread infection in the enemy camp -- an early form of biological warfare. Burning tar could be thrown as a medieval equivalent of napalm.
The torsion catapult did have some disadvantages. If the rope spring got too wet, it wouldn't work, so any day of heavy rain could earn the defenders of a besieged castle a day of respite from the attacks of the mangonel. In addition, the accuracy of any siege weapon depends on determining a precise range from which to shoot. However, the mangonel didn't shoot with consistent power because no one could be certain to put the exact same amount of torsion on the rope each time it was used. The mangonel would not be effective at consistently striking the exact same target such as a particular tower in a castle.
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