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Sling (weapon)

A sling is a projectile weapon typically used to throw a blunt projectile such as a stone. It is also known as the shepherd's sling.

A sling has a small cradle or pouch in the middle of two lengths of cord. The sling stone is placed in the pouch. Both cords are held in the hand, then the sling is swung and one of the two cords is released. This frees the projectile to fly on a tangent to the circle made by the pouch's rotation. The sling derives its effectiveness by essentially extending the length of a human arm, thus allowing stones to be thrown several times farther than they could be by hand.

The sling is very inexpensive, and easy to construct. It has historically been used for hunting game and in combat. Today it still interests sportsmen as a survival tool and as an improvised weapon.

The sling in antiquity

Origins

The sling is an ancient weapon, the origin of which is lost in antiquity. It is certain that slings were known to Neolithic peoples around the Mediterranean, but it seems likely that the sling is much older. It is quite possible that the sling was invented during the Upper Paleolithic at a time when new technologies, such as the atlatl and the bow and arrow, were emerging. With the exception of Australia, where spear throwing technology such as the woomera predominated, the sling became common all over the world, although it is not clear whether this occurred because of cultural diffusion or independent invention.

Archaeology

Whereas sling-bullets are common finds in the archaeological record, slings themselves are rare. This is because the materials from which slings are made are biodegradable and because slings are low-status weapons that are rarely included in a wealthy person’s grave where preservation might be more probable.

There are exceptions. The oldest known extant slings were found in the tomb of Tutankhamen who died about 1325 B.C.. A pair of finely plaited slings were found among a number of other weapons. The sling was probably intended for the departed pharaoh to use for hunting game. Image of sling from the Tomb of Tutankhamen

Another Egyptian sling was excavated in El-Lahun in Al Fayyum Egypt in 1914 by William Matthew Flinders Petrie and now resides in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. It was found alongside the remains of an iron spearhead and thought by Petrie to date from about 800 BC. The remains are broken into three sections and not quite complete. Although very fragile, the construction is clear: it is made of bast fibre (almost certainly flax) twine; the cords are braided in a 10-strand elliptical sennit and the cradle seems to have been woven from the same lengths of twine used to form the cords. Image of the Lahun sling and reconstruction by Burgess

Ancient representations

Representations of slingers can be found on artifacts from all over the ancient world, including Assyrian and Egyptian reliefs, the columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, on coins and on the Bayeux Tapestry.

Written history

The sling is mentioned by Homer and by many other Greek authors. The historian of the famous retreat of the Ten Thousand, 401 BC, relates that the Greeks suffered severely from the slingers in the army of Artaxerxes II of Persia, while they themselves had neither cavalry nor slingers, and were unable to reach the enemy with their arrows and javelins. This deficiency was later rectified when a company of 200 Rhodians, who understood the use of leaden sling-bullets, was formed. They were able, says Xenophon, to project their missiles twice as far as the Persian slingers, who used large stones.

Ancient authors seemed to believe, incorrectly, that sling-bullets could penetrate armour, and that lead projectiles, heated by their passage through the air, would melt in flight. In the first instance, it seems likely that the authors were indicating that slings could cause injury through armour by a percussive effect rather than by penetration. In the latter case we may imagine that they were impressed by the degree of deformation suffered by lead sling-bullet after hitting a hard target.

Various ancient peoples enjoyed a reputation for their skill with the sling. Thucydides mentions the Acarnanians and Livy refers to the inhabitants of three Greek cities on the northern coast of the Peloponnesus as expert slingers. Livy also mentions the most famous of ancient skillful slingers: the people of the Balearic Islands. Of these people Strabo writes: And their training in the use of slings used to be such, from childhood up, that they would not so much as give bread to their children unless they first hit it with the sling.

The late Roman writer Vegetius, in his work De Re Militari, wrote:

Recruits are to be taught the art of throwing stones both with the hand and sling. The inhabitants of the Balearic Islands are said to have been the inventors of slings, and to have managed them with surprising dexterity, owing to the manner of bringing up their children. The children were not allowed to have their food by their mothers till they had first struck it with their sling. Soldiers, notwithstanding their defensive armour, are often more annoyed by the round stones from the sling than by all the arrows of the enemy. Stones kill without mangling the body, and the contusion is mortal without loss of blood. It is universally known the ancients employed slingers in all their engagements. There is the greater reason for instructing all troops, without exception, in this exercise, as the sling cannot be reckoned any encumbrance, and often is of the greatest service, especially when they are obliged to engage in stony places, to defend a mountain or an eminence, or to repulse an enemy at the attack of a castle or city.

Biblical Accounts of Slings

The sling is mentioned in the Bible, which provides what is believed to be the oldest textual reference to a sling in the Book of Judges, 20:16. This text was thought to have been written about 1000 BC, but refers to alleged events several centuries earlier.

The Bible also provides one of the more famous slinger stories, the battle between David and Goliath from The First Book of Samuel 17, probably written in the 7th or 6th century BC, describing events alleged to have occurred around the 10th century BC. In this story, the shepherd David, unarmoured and equipped only with a sling, defeats the warrior champion Goliath with a well aimed shot to the head. The story serves to emphasise two important aspects of the sling: it is a low-status weapon, but in the hands of an expert it is not to be underestimated.

The sling was the weapon of choice for shepherds in the field due to its usefulness for fending off other animals. This fact is reflected in The First Book of Samuel 17:34-36 as David convinces Saul to let him fight Goliath on behalf of the Israelites. Saul must have been convinced of his great skill with the sling for he knows if David is defeated so is the Israelite army. The sling may have been a low-status weapon among the Philistines but it was a perfect weapon for the Israelites for it required little resources and was easily produced. Due to this fact this was a commonly used weapon by the Israelite militia. Use of the sling is also mentioned in Second Kings 3:25, First Chronicles 12:2, and Second Chronicles 26:14 to further illustrate Israelite use.

Combat

It is clear that many ancient peoples used the sling in combat and that organised armies included specialist slingers as well as equipping regular soldiers with slings as a back up weapon. As a weapon, the sling had several clear advantages. In general, a sling bullet lobbed in a high trajectory can achieve ranges approaching 600m — significantly farther than what could be achieved by bows in any period, including the famed longbow. Arrows were typically loosed along relatively flat trajectories that seldom managed to send them beyond 100 meters. The current Guinness World Record distance of an object thrown with a sling stands at 477.0 m, set by David Engvall in 1992 using a metal dart. Larry Bray held the previous world record (1982), in which a 52 g stone was thrown 437.1 m. Modern authorities vary widely in their estimates of the effective range of ancient weapons and of course bows and arrows could also have been used to produce a long-range arcing trajectory, but ancient writers repeatedly stress the sling's advantage of range. The sling was light to carry and cheap to produce; ammunition in the form of stones was readily available and often to be found near the site of battle.

Caches of sling ammunition are frequently found at the sites of Iron Age hill forts of Europe. 40,000 sling stones were found at Maiden Castle in Southern England. It is proposed that Iron Age hill forts of Europe were designed to maximise the effectiveness of defending slingers.

The hilltop location of the forts would have given the defending slingers the advantage of range over the attackers and multiple concentric ramparts, each higher than the other, would allow a large number of men to create a hailstorm of stone. Consistent with this, it has been noted that, generally, where the natural slope is steep, the defences are narrow and where the slope is less steep, the defences are wider.

Construction

A classic sling is braided from non-elastic material. The classic materials are flax, hemp or wool; those of the Balearic islanders were said to be made from a type of rush. Flax and hemp resist rotting, but wool is softer and more comfortable.

Braided cords are used in preference to twisted rope because a braid resists twisting when stretched. This improves accuracy.

The overall length of a sling could vary significantly and a slinger may have slings of different lengths, the longer sling being used when greater range is required. A length of about 120 cm (4 ft) would be typical.

At the centre of the sling, a cradle or pouch is constructed. This may be formed by making a wide braid from the same material as the cords or by inserting a piece of a different material such as leather. The cradle is typically diamond shaped and, in use, will fold around the projectile. Some cradles have a hole or slit that allows the material to wrap around the projectile slightly thereby holding it more securely; some cradles take the form of a net.

At the end of one cord, a finger-loop is formed; this cord is called the retention cord. At the end of the other cord it is common practice to form a knot; this cord is called the release cord. The release cord will be held between finger and thumb to be released at just the right moment. The release cord may have a complex braid to add bulk to the end, this makes the knot easier to hold and the extra weight allows the loose end of a discharged sling to be recovered with a flick of the wrist.

Polyester (Dacron (TM)) is an excellent material for modern slings, because it does not rot or stretch and is soft and free of splinters.

Modern slings are begun by plaiting the cord for the finger loop in the center of a double-length set of cords. The cords are then folded to form the finger-loop. The cords are plaited as a single cord to the pocket. The pocket is then plaited, most simply as another pair of cords, or with flat braids or a woven net. The remainder of the sling is plaited as a single cord, and then finished with a knot. Braided construction resists stretching, and therefore produces an accurate sling.

Ammunition

The simplest projectile was the humble stone, preferably well-rounded; suitable ammunition may frequently be found in a river. The size of the projectiles can vary dramatically in size from pebbles weighing no more than 50 g (2 oz) to fist-sized stones weighing 500 g (1 lb) or more.

Projectiles could also be purpose-made from clay; this allowed a very high consistency of size and shape of the shot that would be an aid to range and accuracy. Many examples have been found in the archaeological record.

The best ammunition was cast from lead. Leaden sling-bullets were widely used in the Greek and Roman world. For a given mass, lead, being very dense, offers the minimum size and therefore minimum air resistance. In addition, leaden sling-bullets are small and difficult to see in flight.

In some cases, the lead would be cast in a simple open mould made by pushing a finger or thumb into sand and pouring molten metal into the hole. However, sling-bullets were more frequently cast in two part moulds. Such sling-bullets come in a number of shapes including an ellipsoidal form closely resembling an acorn - this could be the origin of the Latin word for a leaden sling-bullet: glandes plumbeae (literally leaden acorns) or simply glandes (meaning acorns, singular glans).

Other shapes include spherical and, by far the most common, resembling the shape of the shell of an almond nut - like an American football that has been squashed so that it has an elliptical rather than circular section. This shape is sometimes referred to as biconical, although this really fails to convey the subtlety of the shape.

The ancients do not seem to have taken advantage of the manufacturing process to produce consistent results; leaden sling-bullets vary significantly. The reason why the almond shape was favoured is not clear: it is possible that there is some aerodynamic advantage, but it seems equally likely that there is some more prosaic reason such as the shape being easy to extract from a mould or that it will rest in a sling cradle with little danger of rolling out.

Almond shaped leaden sling-bullets were typically about 35 mm (1 3/8 in) long and about 20 mm (3/4 in) wide weighing approximately 28 g (1 oz). Very often, symbols or writings were moulded into lead sling-bullets. Many examples have been found including a collection of about 80 sling-bullets from the siege of Perusia in Etruria from 41 BC, to be found in the museum of modern Perugia). Examples of symbols include a stylised lightning bolt, a snake, and a scorpion - reminders of how a sling might strike without warning. Writing might include the name of the owning military unit or commander or might be more imaginative: "Take this," "Ouch," and even "For Pompey's backside" added insult to injury, whereas dexa (catch!) is just sarcastic.

Julius Caesar writes about clay shot being heated before slinging, so that it might set light to thatch.

The sling in medieval period

Europe

By the Middle Ages the shepherd's sling was largely militarily extinct. The staff sling (see below) continued to be used in sieges and the sling was used as a part of large siege engines.

The sling continued in use for the hunting of game.

The Americas

The sling was known throughout the Americas.

In the ancient Andean civilizations such as Inca Empire slings were made from the wool of the Llama. These slings typically have a cradle that is long and thin and features a relatively long slit. Andean slings were constructed from contrasting colours of wool; complex braids and fine workmanship result in beautiful patterns. Ceremonial slings were also made; these were large, non-functional and generally lacked a slit. To this day, ceremonial slings are used in parts of the Andes as accessories in dances and in mock battles. They are also used by llama herders; the animals will move away from the thump of a stone. The stones are not slung to hit the animals, but to persuade them to move in the desired direction.

The sling was used for hunting and warfare. One notable use was in Incan resistance against the conquistadores. These slings were apparently very powerful; in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, historian Charles C. Mann quoted a conquistador, who said that an Incan sling "could break a sword in two pieces" and "kill a horse However, they were usually ineffective against conquistadores in plate armour.

Variants

Staff sling

The staff sling, also known as the stave sling, consists of a stave (a length of wood) with a short sling at one end. One cord of the sling is firmly attached to the stave and the other end has a loop that can slide off and release the projectile. Staff slings are extremely powerful because the stave can be made as long as two meters, creating a powerful lever. Ancient art shows slingers holding staff slings by one end, with the pocket behind them, and using both hands to throw the staves forward over their heads.

The staff sling has a longer range than the shepherd's sling, and is at least as accurate, but requires two hands so the user could not carry a shield. It is generally suited for longer range targets. The staff itself becomes a close combat weapon in a melee. The staff sling can throw heavy projectiles a much greater distance and at a higher arc than a hand sling. Staff slings were in use well into the Age of Gunpowder, as grenade launchers; and were used in ship-to-ship combat to throw incendiaries as well..

The French word is fustibale.

Kestros

The kestros (also known as the kestrosphendone, cestrus or cestrosphendone) is an intriguing sling weapon mentioned by Livy and Polybius. It seems to have been a heavy dart flung from a leather sling. It was invented in 168 BC and was employed by some of the Macedonian troops of King Perseus in Third Macedonian war.

Catapults

The trebuchet is a gravity powered siege engine which uses the energy stored in a raised weight to rotate what was, again, a staff sling. It was designed so that, when the throwing arm of the trebuchet had swung forward sufficiently, one end of the sling would automatically become detached and release the projectile. Some trebuchets were small and operated by a very small crew; however, unlike the onager, it was possible to build the trebuchet on a gigantic scale: such giants could hurl enormous rocks at huge ranges. Trebuchets are, in essence, mechanised slings.

Slings today

The sling is used today as a weapon primarily by violent protestors, launching either stones or incendiary devices, such as Molotov cocktails. International Brigades used slings to throw grenades during the Spanish Civil War. Similarly, the Finns made use of sling-launched Molotov cocktails in the Winter War against Soviet tanks. Slings have been used in the 2008 disturbances in Kenya.

The sling is of interest to athletes interested in, for example, breaking distance records. The best modern material is a polyester twine (trade name Dacron). Dacron is strong, smooth, immune to moisture and never rots.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the current record for the greatest distance achieved in hurling an object from a sling is: 477.10 m (1565 ft 4 in), using a 127 cm (50 in) long sling and a 62 g (2.12 oz) dart. This was achieved by David Engvall at Baldwin Lake, California, USA on 13 September 1992. Those of a more traditional bent may prefer the Guinness record for slinging a stone: 437.10 m (1434 ft 2 in), using a 129.5 cm (51 in) long sling and a 52 g (1.8 oz) ovoid stone, set by Larry Bray in Loa, Utah, USA on 21 August 1981.

The principles of the sling may find use on a larger scale in the future; proposals exist for tether propulsion of spacecraft, which functionally is an oversized sling to propel a spaceship.

How to sling

For a conventional throw, one does not make multiple rotations of the sling, a proper slinging action requires just one rapid rotation. The more times you swing it, the less likely it is that you'll hit your target.

(Some slingers will rotate the sling slowly once or twice to seat the projectile in the cradle.)

One makes an overhand throw, using the sling to extend one's arm. The motion is similar to bowling a cricket ball. This is relatively accurate, instinctive and quite powerful. One faces 60 degrees away from the target, with one's weak hand closest to the target. The coordinated motion is to move every part of the body, legs, waist, shoulders, arms, elbows and wrist in the direction of the target in order to add as much speed as possible to the stone. One releases the projectile near the top of the swing, where the projectile will proceed roughly parallel to the surface of the earth.

Another method of release said to be favoured by slingers firing into grouped or massed targets is an underhand throw. The motion is similar to that of throwing a softball. The trajectory arc is relatively high. The thrower stands 60 degrees away from the target, and takes one step forward from the trailing foot, letting the sling swing forward. Range is said to be increased with this method, sacrificing accuracy. Several historians have conjectured that this was the most commonly used method in ancient warfare due to its practicality.

There are also sideways releases, in which the swing goes around. These throws make it very easy to miss the target by releasing the projectile at a slightly wrong time. Other slinging methods can be seen, but many authorities deprecate them.

The clumsiest part of using a shepherd's sling is to regain control of the release cord. Conventionally, the loop of the retention cord is placed around a finger of the strong hand. Several projectiles may be held in the weak hand. After the release, an expert will continue the motion. The cradle will catch around a stone held out with the weak hand, so that the end of the release cord swings back to the strong hand retaining the loop. Just after the knot begins to swing, slightly before the knot reaches the strong hand, one drops or throws the projectile toward the ground with the weak hand, starting into the next release. Some people braid the end of the release cord around a weight to help perform this maneuver. With this method, a skillful user can throw an aimed stone every few seconds in a cyclic coordinated movement, until the weak hand is empty.

Footnotes

See also

Further reading

  • Burgess, E. Martin, "An Ancient Egyptian Sling Reconstructed", Journal of the Arms and Armour Society, 2.10 (June 1958), pp. 226-30
  • Dohrenwend, Robert, "The Sling. Forgotten Firepower of Antiquity", Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Vol. 11, No. 2 (2002), pp. 28-49
  • Richardson, Thom, "The Ballistics of the Sling", Royal Armouries Yearbook, Vol. 3 (1998)

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