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A Formidable Ancient Weapon - Rean Steenkamp

"As Goliath approached, David ran out to meet him and, reaching into his shepherd's bag, took out a stone, and hurled it from his sling, and hit the Philistine in the forehead. The stone sank in, and the man fell on his face to the ground. So David conquered the Philistine giant with a sling and stone." 1 Samuel 17 verses 48 to 51 as told in The Paraphrased Living Bible.

When reading this well known Biblical story, one tends to regard David’s sling as a shepherd boy’s home-made weapon, more or less in the same range as the small hand catapult or “kettie”, used by boys to fell small animals like hare and fowl. Not many people realise that the sling was in fact a major weapon of war that was in some respects more effective than the bow and arrow.

David’s killing of Goliath is often thought of as a "lucky shot", but according to German archaeologist Dr Manfred Korfmann, writing in the journal Scientific American, the sling was in fact a very dangerous weapon that was widely used in warfare and was indispensable in many situations. It was used in Europe and the Near East from the Bronze Age until about the 17th century. In contemporary sketches depicting orders of battle, the slingers are shown placed right behind the archers. The sling was a major part of the fighting force of the day, and through the ages were held in high regard by powers such as Mesopotamia, Persia, Greece and Rome.

Although David is the best-known sling user in the Bible, he is not the only one. In Judges 20:16 we read that 700 specially chosen men from the clan of Benjamin could all sling accurately “to the width of a hair, something many infantrymen today cannot do with a modern rifle. 1 Kings 12:2 tells about King David’s special sling corps, the members of which had to be ambidextrous throwers. In Chronicles 3:25 we read that Israeli slingers played a decisive role in the war against the Moabites, and 2 Chronicles 26:14 tells about King Ussia personally gathering stones for a sling.

In classical history, reference to slings and slingers are also plentiful. Korfmann tells of a battle between Greece and Persia in 401 BC, when the Greeks nearly lost because they had a shortage of slingers. Xenophon the Athenian, who had to lead 10 000 Greek Infantrymen to safety after a part of the Greek army had fled, also realised the value of slingers. During their first day’s march they were so hampered by enemy archers and slingers that they only travelled about 5 km. That night Xenophon said to his captains: “We need slingers immediately, as well as cavalry. I am told there are Rhodians among us who can sling further than the Persians.” The probable reason was that the Persians used stones, whereas the Rhodians used lead missiles. The lead would give a longer range because it would have a higher density, which would mean less air resistance for the same mass. Also, the lead missiles would be more accurate, because they were cast and fairly symmetrical in shape. The relatively asymmetrical shape of the rocks would tend to cause eccentric forces in an airstream, and these would pull the missiles of to one side. Xenophon got 200 men from his own ranks who could hold their own against the Persians. According to Xenophon they could sling a missile further than the Persians could reach with their bow and arrows, even though the Persians at that time were reckoned the best archers in the world.

The Roman military historian Vegetius (ca 400 BC) recommends a practising range of 180 m for archers. This says something for the armourers of the day, considering that even a modern bow and arrow are not acceptably accurate beyond a range of about 200 m. Yet even in King David’s time slingshots were accurate at ranges of 250 m. Xenophon reports a range of 400 m, but one must keep in mind that at that range a slinger probably aimed at a group of soldiers and the slingstone did little damage at impact.

There were two basic types of slings: the hand sling, called funda in Latin, and the stick sling, called fustibalus. The stick type was mostly used in Greek and Roman times, but remained a popular assault weapon until well into the Middle Ages. Even after the invention of gunpowder, stick slings were used for throwing grenades. Hand slings had a longer range than stick types.

The inhabitants of the Balearic Islands to the east of Spain were well known for their abilities as slingers. According to the Greek historian Polybius, the islands derived their name from this ability of its inhabitants: the Greek word ballein means to throw. The islanders used a sling of three different lengths, depending on the range they had to achieve.

According to the Bible, David used a round pebble when he fought Goliath. It seems likely that such pebbles or stones were also used in war at the time, although archaeological research has not been able to prove it. It is also known that missiles of sun-baked clay were sometimes used. The clay missiles found by archaeologists are exceptionally heavy for their size, i.e. they have a high density. They are also of the same basic shape, ranging from round to oval. A consistency of size, shape and weight made it easier for the slinger to achieve a high accuracy, since he then had to adjust his aim for range only. Clay missiles with a probable age of 7 000 years have been found in Hassuna in Iraq.

In classical Greek times, perhaps even earlier, the lead missile appeared. The Romans used lead missiles that were cast in a foundry and carried inscriptions. Usually the inscriptions was the number of the slinger’s army unit, the name of the county, or the name of the commanding general. However, some missiles show interesting variations with inscriptions like “Take that”, “A Greek blow”, “Your heart for Gerberus”, or simply “ouch”.

Missiles from different eras and different counties showed considerable difference in weight and size. For example, missiles found in the near East varied from 13 g, a mere pebble, to 185 g – a fair sized stone. Balearic missiles were sometimes 63 mm in diameter – about the size of a tennis ball.

An impressive range of formidable ammunition do not yet make a practical weapon. For the weapon to be effective, it must also be accurate. So how accurate was the sling?

In addition to the biblical account of David and Goliath and the hair’s breadth standard mentioned in Judges 20:16, there is much documentary evidence from Greek and Roman times concerning the accuracy of the sling. According to Livy, the Roman historian, the Aegean slingers were the best. They could not only hit an enemy in the face at will, but on any particular part of the face!

The famed Balearic slingers apparently owed their ability to dedicated practice from a very early age. According to the historian Diodorus, mothers in the Balearic islands would place a piece of bread on top of a pole, and the young slinger was not allowed to eat it until he has knocked it off with his sling. Balearic slingers carried three slings wrapped around their heads – a long slim sling for long shots, a short one for close targets and a middling for medium distances.

Korfmann writes that a missile leaving a sling could easily attain a velocity of 100 km/h, or about 28 m/sec. Vegetius wrote that sling missiles were more effective than arrows against soldiers clothes in leather, since they did not need to penetrate the leather in order to cause bruises. Should the soldier wear no protective clothing, the missile would penetrate the body easily up to a range of about 100 meters. Indeed, Celsius, a medical writer from Greek and roman times, gave detailed instructions in his "De Medicina" on how to remove lead and stone missiles from the bodies of soldiers.

Taking nothing from David’s achievement when he defeated the giant, it is clear that he had a very dangerous weapon in his hand when he approached Goliath. David knew what he was doing and it was Goliath who misjudged his opponent, not knowing that the boy was in fact armed with a more advanced weapon than his own sword and spear.

- Rean Steenkamp

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