The Staff Sling

(Great Weapons of the Ancient World Number 48)

The staff sling is one of the more obscure weapons of the ancient world, though it does not have the usual accompanying obscure name. It is a sling on the end of a staff. I cannot tell you how common they ever were, but they seem to have been used from very ancient times, right through into the gunpowder age.

In the picture above, you see the interesting end of my reconstruction staff sling. The rest of the weapon out of picture is just a long stick. I carved the end of the staff into a hook shape, and a little way further into the staff a groove running around it into which the loop of the fixed end of the sling could sit. The strings I made out of ordinary natural fibre string. I took three lengths of this and plaited them into the finished strings. This had the effect not only of making the strings very strong, but it also gave them a useful stiffness which meant that they were far less liable to tangle. The cup is made from leather, which has one smooth side and one rough, giving me two options when using the thing (depending on the slipperiness of my ammunition). The strings attach to holes punched in the cup, and the cup has a cupped shape thanks to two seams sewn into them, one either side, which can clearly be seen in the picture.

I made the measurements up. The cup is 5"x 9" (12.7cm x 22.85cm), the strings are 30" (76.2cm) long (plus a bit extra for the knots and loops), and the staff is 1" (2.54cm) diameter and 6' (182.87cm) long. From use of the sling, I'd say that the cup is about the right size, and the diameter of the staff correct also. Illustrations show the staffs as much like broom handles in size. As for the length of the strings, well, I wanted them to be nice and long, to give me lots of leverage, and it is easier to shorten strings than to lengthen them. If they were much longer, then when I readied myself to use the weapon, the cup would touch the ground and the stone would roll out. In fact, this has happened a few times anyway. I get the impression that if a staff slinger had a moment to choose his position, he would have a dip or even a dug pit behind him, into which he could lower the cup, for a better shot.

The size of the staff itself is a tricky one. I am 6'3" (I'm sick of all these metric conversions for Europeans, so for the benefit of all you Continentals and other foreigners out there, just understand that this is quite tall) and saw little point in having a staff of a length that suited an authentically small medieval peasant. Besides, I thought that if I started with a long staff, then I could chop it down by increments until I found the ideal length. In fact, I have never chopped it shorter, for fear that I would find that this was a mistake, and that I wanted it longer again. Despite this, it is my judgement that it is a bit too long and that with a slightly shorter one I 'd get a bit more power into my shots.

Here you see the end of the staff, bound up for transport. The string binds the cup to the head of the staff into a convenient neat bundle. It occurs to me that in close combat, a staff sling could be used as a fairly effective staff. Indeed, though I know of no historical record of this, one could even have a spearhead (perhaps detachable) on the other end of the staff sling, in case of close encounters. In ancient armies, staff slingers would either have other weapons, or would avoid close combat at all costs, but in a fantasy world of adventure, I see no reason not to combine staff sling and short spear into one weapon, although ideally one would take a moment to wind up the string and attach the spear head or take the cover off it.

I took the Metro down to Tynemouth for my first experiments. From there, I slung stones out to sea. There were plenty of stones to pick from. I quickly discovered that I could with ease sling very large stones in comparison with the ones I used with my little hand sling. I was picking stones the size of apples, perhaps a bit larger than a tennis ball, or the size of a smallish orange. Since all my shots went out to sea, I cannot tell you what range I was getting with my shots, but I doubt I was getting much further than 120 yards. Some shots might have been as little as eighty yards, but I really could be very wrong with my estimates. One thing that made me doubt my guesses was when I decided to go for accuracy rather than range, and targeted a man-sized rock that was 50-80 yards away from me. My first shot hit it plumb in the centre, bounced, flew back the way it had come, went directly over my head (missing me by several feet but I ducked anyway), and landed twenty yards behind me. Either some very strange physics was at work, or my estimates of distance were very poor.

Twice, when going for a lot of power to give me a lot of range, I dipped the staff behind me a bit lower than usual, and the stone rolled out. Since I was gripping the staff and not the strings, I did not feel them go slack, and did not realise what had happened. The next thing I knew, I had applied the amount of force to the staff appropriate for one carrying a heavy stone, and had whacked the head of the staff against the rocks in front of me. Luckily, nothing broke.

Since the ground was very rocky, I never tried a running technique, but instead always stood on a stable bit of ground and used the sling from that static position. I'm sure a bit of a run-up might help for range.

The end of the staff, showing the open loop on the free end of the string, the fixed end of the string set in the groove just below the hook, and the profile of the hook carved into the staff's end.

The end of the staff, showing the loop of the free end hooked onto the hook, and the strings pulled taut as they would be during the start of the slinging action.

I took a knife with me to Tynemouth, so that I could carve the hook into a different angle, in case I was finding that the sling released too early or late. I never needed this knife. One possibility is that I carved the perfect hook first time. My feeling is that the greatest likelihood is that the angle of the hook is not very critical. You can see from these pictures that my hook is fairly gentle and smooth. This gives me a smooth release which feels right.

Below you see a box with some highlit words in blue. By clicking on these you can download a rather large MPG movie file, which, all going well, will show you moving pictures of me on Newcastle Town Moor using my staff sling. I was on my own when taking this footage, and only had one sling stone left when I came to make this recording. This is my excuse for the fact that the head of the staff goes out of shot at the top of frame. I hope one day to get a better take of the staff sling in action. Nevertheless, you can see from the file that the technique is very easy and smooth. I should admit that the stone from the cast you see didn't go very far, because it went directly forwards, and not high into the air.

Here I have a little movie file (The framing isn't great, but it shows you how easy it is):

You can view/download the video as an .mpg file: MPG file (2159K)

The impression I get is that the main advantage of a staff sling over a hand sling is that the weight of the projectile can be so much greater, rather than that range is greatly increased. When using a staff sling, a man could not also use a shield, which is a definite disadvantage. In sieges, staff slings were used quite a bit for lobbing big stones into fortified places. In the gunpowder age, grenades were cast this way. At longer ranges, the damage a projectile does is largely a function of its mass, since it is falling out of the sky, rather than being powered forwards by the strength of the slinger.

To get a sling stone to go upwards, one would have to angle the staff appropriately. With a hand sling, one can release earlier to get stones to fly upwards, but with a staff sling one does not have direct control over the timing of the release. With a long staff such as mine, this presents a bit of a problem, because the angling of the staff increases the risk of the cup's touching the ground and the stone's rolling out. With a shorter staff, one would have an easier time of it.

Another drawback of the staff sling is that it is very difficult to hit targets that are nearby, if they are on the same level as the slinger. I am tall, and when I sweep the staff above me, the length of the staff adds to my height, and the sling then flies upwards and releases the stone above the end of the staff. So, at the point of release, the stone might be quite a long way above head height, making it tricky to hit a man standing ten feet away. A staff slinger is therefore probably not a creature of the skirmish, where men run about in small numbers, perhaps charging at exposed staff slingers. Instead I see this weapon as one to be used in defence from prepared positions, in long sieges, and in massed battles where units of troops have individual functions, and can rely on the support of other troops to keep them safe from enemy charges.

The staff sling is an easy weapon to make, and I would be delighted to hear from anyone else who has had a go with one.

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