Crossbows and Medieval Weaponry

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Highlighting Historical Romance with Alyson McLayne on crossbows and the Highlands.

Most writing requires some research, and if you write historical romance, like I do, it requires a significant amount—especially if specific historical events, like the Wars of Scottish Independence, and real characters, like William Wallace, impact your story.

While I didn’t have the Scots fighting the English in Highland Betrayal, I still had to research life in the Highlands in 1452. A lot of the basics (food, clothes, castles) I already knew from my previous books in The Sons Of Gregor MacLeod series—Highland Promise and Highland Conquest.

Book 3, Highland Betrayal, focuses a lot on my heroine Maggie’s excellent marksmanship. Therefore, I had to deepen my research on medieval weapons.

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Not only does Maggie have an archery and dagger throwing contest with the hero, Callum, she also shoots a crossbow from the castle wall to a tree, trailing a rope from the bolt. Then she rides the rope to freedom on a pulley, in order to escape her evil cousin.

The most interesting research I did was definitely on the crossbow. I had to know what it looked like, how it worked, how heavy it was, how accurate it was, and how far it could shoot. I found this fascinating YouTube video on which I based a lot of my information:

The particular crossbow being featured has a 1250 pound draw weight which is determined by how far back you can safely draw the string. There are several ways to do this:

  1. By hand, but you’d have to have incredible strength to pull the string over the nut—even if you’re using both hands.
  2.  By a lever called a goats foot lever—one end anchors into place on the stock, then you hook the string at the other end and use the power of the lever to pull the string back.
  3.  By a windlass, which cranks the string back over the nut.

Maggie uses a windlass crossbow. The windlass is a removable device with rotating handles that attaches to the back of the crossbow’s stock. Cords hang down from the device and a metal hook catches the bowstring. Maggie then places the bow upright on the ground, slips her foot into a metal stirrup on the front of the bow, and winds the windlass with her hands to draw the cords upward, which draws back the drawstring like a winch.

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Photo by Thomas Quine [CC BY 2.0 (]

Once the string is secured over the nut, Maggie unhooks the windlass and sets it aside. She then raises the crossbow, adds the bolt, and aims it like a rifle, pulling the trigger to release the string and shoot the bolt.

In the video, the bolt travels 235 yards!  Certainly far enough for Maggie to escape the castle from a high turret.

She’d have only one shot at it. If she missed the huge tree that stood about three hundred paces from the castle wall, she couldn’t imagine she’d have the strength or time to drag the bolt and rope all the way up to try again. Or that Irvin’s men wouldn’t notice it as it scraped across the stone.

So she’d made sure to come up here during the day whenever she could, playing the shot over and over in her mind, knowing exactly where she had to stand, the precise angle of her arms and turn of her hips required to hit the trunk—directly above a small platform built into the tree that had once been a lookout. She knew the trajectory of the bolt as if she was standing there in broad daylight.

She could make this shot with her eyes closed. She had to.

It was a dangerous escape route, but it would take her the farthest away from the castle in the least amount of time.

And she prayed it would work—without killing her in the process.

Finally, she pulled her crossbow and windlass from the bag. Pointing the bow down, she slid her foot into the metal stirrup at the bottom, then attached the windlass at the top, its rotating handles and cords hanging down. After hooking the cords over the bow’s string, she cranked the handles, which winched the cords and drew back the string.

When the bow was set, she lifted it onto the merlon in front of her and laid the pointed bolt, rope attached, in a groove on the top of the stock. Ready, Maggie looked out into the darkness.

She’d planned meticulously over the last few months: she’d planted daggers all around the keep, the dungeon, and the bailey; she’d packed bags of clothes, weapons, and food, so she could run at a moment’s notice; she’d hidden ropes in several rooms, including the one she’d used to escape from her bedroom tonight; and she’d cultivated relationships with a few people she thought she could trust.

But if she missed this one shot, that would all be for nothing.

She stepped into place, closed her eyes, and breathed deeply to calm herself, then raised the crossbow.

For the fourth book in the series, Highland Captive, I got to research all about building a cathedral in 1453. Now that was cool!

About the Book

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Laird Callum MacLean vowed to marry Maggie MacDonnell. But when his father’s apparent suicide makes him laird of his clan, Callum must unmask his father’s killer before bringing Maggie into his dangerous home. 


Maggie’s home isn’t any safer. When Callum fails to return, Maggie does what any resourceful Highland lass would do. She escapes—and finds herself toe-to-toe with Callum, who’s determined to fulfill his promise. Maggie can’t bring herself to trust him with her heart again. But with a traitor still at large, they must rely on each other in every way, or their clans—and their love—will be destroyed.



About the Author

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Alyson McLayne is a mom of twins and an award-winning writer of contemporary, historical, and paranormal romance. She’s also a dog lover and cat servant with a serious stash of dark chocolate. After getting her degree in theater at the University of Alberta, she promptly moved to the west coast of Canada where she worked in film for several years and met her Prop Master husband.

Alyson has been nominated for several Romance Writers of America contests, including The Golden Heart, The Golden Pen, The Holt Medallion, The Orange Rose, Great Expectations, The Molly’s, and The Winter Rose.

Currently she is writing HIGHLAND THIEF, the fifth book in her historical romance series, The Sons Of Gregor MacLeod, for Sourcebooks.

She and her family reside in Vancouver with their sweet but troublesome chocolate lab named Jasper. They’re also patiently awaiting the arrival of their newest fur-babies—Russian Blue kittens named Shadow and Emerald.

Please visit her at and look her up on Facebook or Twitter @AlysonMcLayne. She loves chatting with her readers!

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