Thursday, August 14, 2014

Lo, the lowly slinger

Maybe it's because my name is David, but I've always had an affinity for slingers in wargames. There's something intriguingly primal about smiting your foe with a rock, even one flung from a distance using mechanical aid.

In every ancients wargame I play, whether big-battle style or skirmish, I make sure that I take any slingers I can get from the available troop types in an army list. These figures are also among first ones I paint. In fact, it's always a matter of deep chagrin for me when I get interested in a range of ancients figures only to discover that they left out our friend the slinger. So, this post is my humble paean to a humble weapon.

The sling in warfare through the ages

Slings are one of the earliest known weapons, being essentially an extension of throwing a rock by hand. Though likely used first for hunting, they became common in prehistoric warfare. They go back to Neolithic or even Paleolithic times. Like the earlier developed atlatl, the sling was an application of the principle of mechanical leverage long before Archimedes invented defined it.

Petroglyh of slinger from Çatal Hüyük ca. 7500 BC
Evidence for the use of slings can be found in the archaeological record in places all over the world, mostly from pictographic evidence. However, evidence from skulls dating from Mesolthic and Neolithic times show indentation wounds that must have come from stones that were hand thrown or slung.

Petroglyph of slingers from the island of Naxos, ca. 2000 BC
There is also physical evidence. Even though slings, which are made from organic material, don't survive over time, slingstones do. However, slingstones can be difficult to identify. Unless the sling bullet is formed from clay or otherwise shaped, it's difficult to say that a roundish stone found at an archeological site is a projectile rather than just a rock. Excavations of the Neolithic/Early Bronze Age city of Hamoukar in Syria have uncovered more than 1300 projectiles that were apparently used in the violent overthrow of that city.

Clay sling bullets in situ at Hamoukar, Syria ca. 3500 BC
In the ancient world, slingers were either highly regarded as elite missile troops or generally despised because they used a peasant weapon—yet one with great asymmetrical effect, as Goliath of Gath learned to his dismay.

You're laughing now, but wait for it...
Slingers appear in Homer where the Locrians are said to have "...trusted in bows, and slings of well-wound sheep’s wool, the weapons they brought to Troy, and with these they fired missiles thick and fast, trying to break the Trojan lines." (Iliad XIII)

Slingers on a silver rhyton from Mycenae
The Israelite tribe of Benjamin had a corps of 700 deadly-accurate left-handed slingers, as related by Judges 20:15-16. Assyrian wall reliefs showing the siege of the Judean city of Lachish in 701 B.C. depict slingers to the rear of archers, which has been interpreted to mean that slingers outranged them. It could also mean that the slingers used a high enough trajectory to shoot over ranks in front of them. It's interesting that in no ancients rules I'm aware of are slingers allowed overhead shooting, nor do they out-range bows.

Assyrian slingers form up behind the archers
Recovered slingstones from Lachish show what a wallop these things could inflict. The large size may also be due to their use in a siege rather than in the field.

Slingstones bigger than meatballs
In the Anabasis Book 3:3, Xenophon relates how his troops suffered from the Persian slingers and bowmen. The Greek missile troops consisted only of Cretan archers and some peltasts with javelins. The Persian archers out-ranged the Cretans (perhaps because they used composite vs. simple bows) and the Persian slingers outranged the Greek peltasts. After a fruitless attempt to drive off the Persian missile troops, Xenophon enlisted from among his ranks 200 Rhodians, whose skill with the sling was legendary, to become an elite corps of slingers. Because they used lead bullets in their slings, versus the fist-sized stones of the Persians, the Rhodians far outranged and neutralized the Persian slingers.

Rhodian slingers continued in use by Greek armies; Pyhrrus had a corps of 500 of them at Heraclea. Hannibal employed slingers from the Balearic Isles in his campaigns in Italy. Rome employed both Balearic slingers and Rhodian slingers after these areas came under their control. Some lead sling stones recovered from archaeological sites have inscriptions on them in Latin or Greek that say things like "catch!" or "take this!" A practice not dissimilar to writings on ordnance in modern times.

Roman slingers from Trajan's column ca. 113 AD
Slings continued in use through the Dark Ages and into the Middle Ages. The Prophet Mohammed was wounded in the face by a slingstone at the Battle of Uhud in 625. The sling gradually fell out of use in Europe during the middle ages, although it was retained at least into the 14th c. in Spain.

At the Battle of Kappel in 1531, Swiss soldiers carried stones in their pockets to use as close-range missiles. Although not an example sling use, it still shows how the ballistic use of stones could have an effect. The Swiss stone-throwers were credited with stopping a cavalry charge at one point. (Kappel, by the way, was the battle where the Swiss reformer heretic Ulrich Zwingli was killed. He was badly wounded and found on the field where he was finished off by an enemy captain fighting for the canton of Unterwalden named Fuckinger—no doubt from Fucking, Austria (the comma here is important!).

The Spanish conquistadors in the 16th c. encountered slings in the hands of the Aztecs and Incas whom they conquered. These missiles were more feared than the native arrows and javelins because, unlike those weapons, the slingstones had deadly effect against the armored Spanish troops. There is evidence that Coronado's men used slings themselves—in addition to their arquebuses and crossbows—in his 1540 Cíbola expedition in the American southwest.

Clay figurine of a Meso-American slinger ca. 300 AD
Meandering nostalgic digression: I had some old Minifigs Aztec slingers from their 70s-era Aztecs range. I quite liked them, but I don't know what happened to them (as, alas, I have no recollection of how I came to lose a lot of long-lost things), but I recall them in a type of overall suit with a shield and head-gear that made them look a bit like Big Fig from the old Fig Newton commercials: Hit it, Hal! Apparently, these figures are still available, so I've ordered a few. Minifigs tells me that there's a two-week casting time and then shipping after that. I'll post an update when they come.

The staff-sling supplemented, and later superseded, the shepherd's sling that was in common use for so many thousands of years. The staff-sling simply attached one end of a sling to the end of a pole with the other end slipped over a peg at the top of the pole. Using the weapon was similar to the action of a trebuchet. Although the actual range of the staff-sling may have been no greater than the shepherd sling, it was handier for throwing larger projectiles and even incendiaries in siege or naval warfare.

Slingers in wargames

In reviewing a set of ancients rules, I always have a keen eye about how slings perform in them. I'm not really looking to see whether they perform better than bows, only that they perform differently and not be lumped into a group with bows as long-range missiles (as opposed to javelins and darts, which are short-range missiles). Unfortunately, the latter is often the case.

There are a few rays of light, however. I was pleased to find in the skirmish rules BattleLust by Columbia Games that slings and staff-slings are separate missile weapons. I even found that staff-slings are less accurate at close range than slings, but have the advantage of range and outperform the humble shepherd sling at longer ranges.

WRG Ancients (6th ed.) had separate stats for slings that gave them better effect against armored troops than bows, even if their range was shorter. The WRG 5th edition ancients rules separated staff-slings from the rest, but the humble shepherd sling was counted among the bows and javelins.

Rogue's Gallery: Slingers I have known

The following are a few of the slinger figures I've painted and played with over the years.

Balearic slingers
These are from Crusader Miniatures. I blogged about these guys earlier when they were painted for a 28mm version of Field of Glory. I abandoned the FoG project, but not the figures. I've since re-based them on single-figure stands for use in skirmish games.


Bronze Age Europeanoids
These are from Monolith Designs 40mm Prehistoric Europe range. I completed these figures as part of my Bronze Age Europe skirmish project. The Song of Blades and Heroes rules I use don't give slingers any kind of distinction; they're just like anyone else with a distant shooting weapon. Although, SoBH is versatile enough to allow my own tinkering with special slinger rules…


Greek slingers
These are some of the beautiful  figures from Foundry's World of the Greeks range sculpted by Steve Saleh many years back. I've played with these figures in my De Bellis Velitum games. Alas DBV counts slingers as any other "shooter" no different than bowmen, cross-bowmen, staff-slingers, or even the fabled Lithuanian bat-dung hurlers.


Naked Guy With A Rock (βράχος-ρίψης γυμνιστών)
One notable figure from among my Greek slingers is the bollocks nekkid guy holding a big rock (so, not actually a slinger). In one of our DBV games, he took on all comers and walked away. Legend has it that he retired with his trusty rock to an island in the Cyclades where he entertained tourists with lurid tales of taking on an army single handed with nothing but his rock and a smile.

What does one wear to a rock fight?
Rock flingin' Picts
These excellent figures, made by Black Tree Designs, were a very nice addition to my Pictish forces for Pig Wars, which are otherwise from Old Glory's Age of Arthur range. Old Glory doesn't offer Pictish slingers, so I was quite happy to find the Black Tree figures in a blister pack at The Panzer Depot stall at an Enfilade! convention long ago (so long ago that John Kennedy, proprietor of TPD, was actually at Enfilade! selling things instead of sitting it out like Achilles among the Argive ships).


On deck
I've got several other packs of slingers: Saxons, Irish, Byzantine (staff-slingers), Spartans, etc. that I'll eventually paint and get into games. I'm rather keen, now that I think of it, to do something with Aztecs and Conquistadors. I likely won't use the old Minifigs "Big Fig" slingers, but Eureka makes a nice range.

I've also got a lot of 15mm ancients still in the raw lead. Some of these are the excellent Rhodian slingers from Xyston. I just don't have an application for them yet. The mind, however, churns...

Slinging.org, etc.

While fiddling about on the Interwebs for information about slings, I discovered the website slinging.org, which is devoted to reviving the sport of slinging. The site has lots of information about modern-day slinging with links to other sites. Some of the sites linked to offer slings for sale. I couldn't resist. I ordered a split-pouch sling made of woven paracord from David the Shepherd. It's advertised as being ideal for slinging golf balls, although until I learn how to aim and control the sling, I'm sticking to marshmallows. They won't stop Goliath, but they won't go through a neighbor's window or drop some ill-fated passerby either.

Sling and sling-mallows
So far, I've only slung marshmallows around the house. My success is marginal; mostly I just alarm the cats. Part of the problem is that the marshmallows—and I even got the jumbo ones—don't have enough weight to seat properly. They tend to fly out in the wind-up. I think that once they go stale, I'll have an easier time with them.

I've also looked into getting a Balearic style sling made of woven sisal from T.J. Potter Slingmaker. This is a lot more like the ancient weapon and is modeled after the slings still in use in the Balearic Isles of Spain, where annual slinging contests are still held in honor of the islands' history of producing the finest slingers of the ancient world.

The big problem with slinging in these modern times is finding a place to sling—especially to practice—that is open and far from anything/anyone that could get hit by a stray shot. I expect stray shots to be my standard release for some time.

1 comment:

  1. A most enjoyable post.
    I remember army lists having a sling option for Roman auxiliaries and some of my fingers are armed with them (Irregular Miniatures)I really must find out more...
    The links were most interesting too.

    ReplyDelete