"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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