I was nodding off having a bit of a think about the implications of super accurate ballista fire in suppressing unruly bread lines during the later days of the Roman Empire. It’s the sort of thing I love to do when making banal justifications for why inswingers would have been such prized state secrets. You know, the kind the Romans would not want depicted on official statuary.

Last I heard it was a flogging offense if you even mentioned an inswinger off-base.

Anyway, my ruminations brought to mind an old Star Trek episode, …… the one where Captain Kirk meets the Bad Parallel Universe Spock. You can tell this Spock is the evil version because he’s the one sporting a goatee. A very naughty thing to do back in the Sixties when brainy radical types were particularly feared.

But I digress…

Eventually Bad Spock shows our intrepid Captain a nifty toy he has stashed in his boudoir. It’s sort of a TV screen that can zoom in on any of his crew and, at the push of a button, make them vanish. Permanently. The ultimate form of crowd control for the ultimate form of police state. A precise, “execution button”, as it were.

What does any of this have to do with the Ancient Romans? Flat shooting, highly accurate machines of the type we are testing would almost certainly have been used as precision sniper weapons to eliminate the unruly elements in a crowd. Weeding implements are always prized by fascists. They love all that push button efficiency.

While it is perfectly clear from the historical record that Roman ballistas were used with great effect at ranges in excess of 300-400 yards, what is less widely appreciated is their uncanny precision and penetrative power for dealing with targets under, say, 100 yards. In an urban environment they would have been unmatched at picking off the opposition. In a crowded market place, across a courtyard, in front of the main gate, anywhere a field of fire could be established, their accuracy alone would have been profoundly intimidating.

Firefly’s precision provides a visceral appreciation for this argument: Click for vid, 20111204144528(2) .

The level of suppression this would engender when integrated with other forms of crowd control, is best left to the imagination.

These would have been the days when the Bad Catapult Gods grinned large.

All the holes in this replica helmet were shot with 6516 grain bolt going 300 fps. The shots were fired in a consecutive string over the course of several days, and were made when the helmet was angled in a different position for each shot. Range was fifty yards and there were differing levels of side wind up to twenty knots.

If you have been following Firefly’s performance since the Mk. VIII limbs were installed, it is evident that an inswinger has very high levels of precision shooting capability. With long strings of 2″ groups at fifty-five yards, and projected groups of 4 or 5 inches at 100 yards (on a still day), it is not hard to see how the Romans may have valued the pruning capabilities of their carefully developed toys. Nasty, ruthless bastards that they were.

Just like Bad Spock with his execution screen, the Romans would probably have been at pains to conceal any break-through developments. I believe there is a very good reason we do not see any unambiguous depictions of inswingers in the historical record. The day to day value of deploying compact, powerful, and accurate ballisatas (esp. inswingers, they having more of these qualities than any other) would lie in their ability to snipe with reliable head-shot precision out to ranges of 100 -150 yards.

Covert tactics do not readily leave an imprint on history.

2 Responses to “Bad Spock.”


  1. Randi Richert says:

    Historically speaking, there is at least one account that as part of the treaty ending the first Dacian Revolt in 87 AD,(the one the Dacians won), The Romans were obligated to supply catapults and artificers of “the latest type” to the winners. Thus, artilleryt designs were not something given up lightly. The ten or so surviving contemporary images of artillery weapons, around 70% date from early in the iron-framer era when the design might have been considered new or secret, so they weren’t terribly shy about showing them. It’s a rather tenouous thread, but that could be one possble explanantion why the the images on Trajan’s column were so vague that the orientation of the arms cannot be discerned. They allowed only “censored” images to be shown.

    When it comes to sighting devices, the only historical reference I recall is a description that the operator sighted along the case of the weapon. Also, I don’t rememeber any mention of sighting devices on medieval weapons or even firearms/cannon until well into their development. I do know of one artifact that my imagination has construed as possibly being a crude form of ranging repeater similar in function to the Quadrant Elevation Device or QE that was on the old M48A5 tanks I used as a young trooper, but that is for much further down the path of knowledge.


  2. Nick Watts says:

    “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, and all that. I must confess though, I rather like the tenuous threads. They poke around in the dark corners where all the secrets are. Yum!

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