David's Sling: A Piece of History - Ludwik Siedlecki

It is impossible to really know how the sling was invented. We can speculate about circumstances that caused some distant forebear of ours to come up with the idea. But it is just that, only speculation. It is also quite probable that there have been many independent inventors. What is certain is that the sling became the universal personal weapon of the common people in agrarian and shepherding societies.

And this is the very society into which the real hero of our Project Goliath was born, some 3000 years ago. You may recall that David was the youngest of many brothers and it was his job to look after the sheep. Many of his Psalms have this underlying shepherding theme. He undoubtedly would have had many opportunities and much time to develop his skills as an expert slinger preparing him for the encounter which is probably one of the most famous incidents in the Bible.

These days many historians dismiss the story of David and Goliath as myth or embellished legend at best. But the story itself is certainly not unbelievable. There have many instances in military history where a small well armed force has defeated a large and formidable one. The story is related in 1 Samuel 17. Let’s look at it in detail.

The Philistines who were the dominant military power were preparing for war against Israel. They had weapons of iron which implies that Israel generally did not, and were still using bronze. In addition they had a champion soldier. A man reputedly nine feet tall who was supposedly invincible.

In the manner of the time the armies faced off, each hoping that the other would lose heart and run. Goliath taunted the Israelites challenging them to produce their own champion to fight him in single combat. And David? He was not even there. He was too young to be conscripted into the army. But his older brothers were, and David was sent by their father to bring them food and to find out how the war was going.

When he arrived he found the Israelite army paralysed with fear. No one was confident enough to take on the giant. Evidently the Philistines were also not confident enough to launch an attack. Into this impasse came the supremely confident David. Angered by Goliath's taunts and attracted by the promised rewards of wealth and fame offered by Saul the Israelite king for the one who would defeat Goliath, he volunteered to fight.

Saul considered the situation hopeless, but swayed by David's insistence he gave in. He dressed David in his own armour but David found the unaccustomed armour too restricting and decided to discard it. Notice that only a sword and no sling is mentioned at this stage. But David took his staff and selected five smooth stones from the stream, undoubtedly chosen to give the best slinging accuracy and destructive power. It is reasonable to surmise that even David expected to have to shoot more than once to bring his enemy down. He went out to face Goliath.

Now it was Goliath's turn to be outraged. Not only was this not the Israelites best soldier, this was no soldier at all. Just an impudent youth without even a proper weapon. "Am I a dog that you come at me with sticks?" he berated David. Again no mention of the sling. Could it be that Goliath did not notice that the shepherd was armed with a sling? He himself was armed with a spear which would have been used as a stabbing weapon, a javelin and a sword which was still in its scabbard. His shield was carried by a bearer but it is probable that prior to battle he would take this in his left hand and engage his opponent in hand to hand combat.

As the Philistine moved closer to attack, David ran quickly to meet him. Whilst running, he reached into his bag, took a stone and slung it at Goliath striking him on the forehead. Whether the blow itself was sufficient to immediately kill Goliath is not absolutely clear but it penetrated someway into his skull and he fell facedown on the ground. David ran to the dying man and finished him off with his own sword. With their champion dead the Philistines ran and the Israelites had a great victory. Eventually the young shepherd with a sling became the most famous king of Israel and a great military commander in his own right.

But what is surprising is that neither Goliath, nor in fact Saul, seemed to consider David's sling as any sort of a potential battle winner. Could it be that David himself, as king, popularized it as a military weapon? If so it would be even more remarkable as the chief military use of the sling is to rain projectiles at the enemy “en masse” from a distance, quite different from the close in, precision shooting that he used to kill Goliath.

The account records nothing about the actual sling David used, the range at which he hit Goliath or other details we as slingers would love to know. But we can take a few educated guesses. Firstly, the only definite thing is that there were five stones contained in his shepherd’s bag. They could not have been too large to fit in there, probably about the size of eggs. The range - close enough to be confident of hitting Goliath in his only really vulnerable spot; his face, as the rest of him would have been protected by his armour. Yet far enough away to be out of reach of both spear and to a lesser extent the javelin. It would be important to make his first shot count as a near miss would have alerted Goliath to the danger, making it even harder to hit him subsequently before he ran out of ammunition. Probably no more than fifteen metres, using a fairly short sling, an overhand throw with minimal windup would seem likely. How else could it be done when still running? Whatever the case he must have been a brilliant exponent of the sling and whereas today we talk of a David and Goliath struggle as meaning that a large opponent has a huge advantage over a little one, perhaps it was really Goliath who was doomed from the start when confronted with the power of this amazing weapon in the hands of this amazing young man.

- Ludwik Siedlecki (a.k.a. Ausieslinger)