This weapon can punch an inch deep into corrugated iron but many role players never use it

I haven’t done a weapon post in a while, because I like to bring something to the table that might not be common knowledge. As much as I could wax lyrical about basic sword fighting techniques or go on at length about my favourite kind of axe, it’s all stuff that most gamers will be familiar with.

What doesn’t get that much attention though is the humble sling. I can see why, as most fantasy role playing games are set in a time period pretty similar to that of the dark ages through to the high medieval period, and at that time, slings were nowhere near as common as they once were.

There are very good reasons for this in pure historical terms, but few of them translate well to a role playing game. For instance the time it would take to become proficient with a sling was far too long. Most people who knew how to use them to full effectiveness trained since they were children. Although medieval bowmen also practiced from a young age, it wasn’t as necessary to be competent with the weapon. In game terms this shouldn’t be a big deal though, as time spent to master skills is a little bit more abstract.

Ok, ok the bow is superior for massed infantry but does that matter?

In terms of using a weapon for warfare, the bow is superior as it’s easier to arrange for massed ranks to volley fire. The sling, by its very nature is tricky when it comes to getting more than a handful of people to loose their shot in unison. But since standing in massed ranks firing arrow after arrow is hardly what most people would expect out of a role playing experience, this again shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Finally – before we get to the good stuff – warbows and crossbows were excellent to shoot from behind cover. They were especially good when it came to firing through loopholes in walls. Doing this with a sling is pretty much an impossibility.

There are a fair few excellent reasons to use the sling more in RPGs though. Firstly the range and damage of a sling – firing optimal ammunition – is at least as good as a bow and arrow. Average range is roughly 150 metres by someone without a lifetime of practice, but the world record by a skilled user is considerably longer. The velocity of a lead shot is also greater than an arrow in flight. This means that accuracy is improved as it can be fired at a slightly more direct angle rather than a large arc.

Arrows do have a slight edge when it comes to penetration though, as they have a smaller point of impact and are much more likely to pierce flesh and armour. Don’t think that I’m selling the sling short, although a shot is unlikely to punch through armour they can still do a massive amount of blunt trauma damage. Based on anecdotal evidence a lead shot can punch an inch deep dent into corrugated iron. Just imagine what that would do any flesh beneath the metal armour. You don’t need to imagine too much as we know from historical documents that the ancient Roman army surgeons had a special set of forceps used to extract shot that was embedded into combatant’s flesh.

So, we have a ranged weapon that matches if not exceeds the longbow in terms of range and damage, and it is also a damned sight easier to make it, as is the ammunition it uses. An effective sling is made from natural fibres such as hair and flax, which is pretty easy to come across almost everywhere. Although it is time consuming to weave a sling, once you know how to it, practice will reduce the time taken to make more. And compared to the time required to make a compound bow or to treat the wood necessary for a warbow, it was really very little time at all.

What about ammunition?

As for ammunition, well basically you can just pick up something that would suffice from the ground. Any small stone will do the job, but if you can find them, stones that have been smoothed by river water are far superior as the smoothness makes them more aerodynamic. The ideal shape is not unlike an Rugby ball, as this allows the shot to sit snugly in the sling pouch, and aids in the aerodynamics by putting on spin on the shot. What you really want though is a lead shot. Because it is a denser material it will better velocity and be much more likely to cause an injury. The fact that each shot can be cast to a desired shape is also very important.

If you’re just picking stones up from the ground then each shot will need to be made differently to take into account the changes in weight and size of the stone. As mentioned above the density of the lead means that you can will do more damage when you hit, but it will also have a better range and accuracy and too. And if you want to have some fun, it is possible to cast your own personal message onto a lead shot. Historical examples include the Legion number of the soldiers loosing the shot, and some slightly sillier ideas like, “catch!”, and “beware your teeth”.

In conclusion, for a single user wanting something quick and easy to use and obtain ammunition for, the sling is pretty perfect. Maybe not ideal within the enclosed spaces of a low ceiling-ed dungeon corridor, but out in the wild, there’s a reason that they were used for centuries to hunt with.

 Editors note: this article was first published on shortymonster.co.uk

About the author

Shorty is a well versed and travelled gentleman gamer, with no particular favourites in regard to system or setting, playing or GMing. However, he is enthusiastic and experienced. It is this experience, both as a long time player and GM, that he takes advantage of on his blog.

Comments

  1. says

    This was a grand distraction! I spent well over and hour wandering the various links and posts of Shorty Monster.

    I can’t assuredly say my ex-army ranger/scout is going to put down his longbow and take up the sling…but he might well switch to a crossbow :)

    • says

      hehe glad you enjoyed the article Realmwright! Shorty does have some great articles and is a pretty swell guy too. Plus his knowledge on history and RPG/GMing is admirable. I’ve had the pleasure of playing in a few games along side him.

      So I’ve been thrilled to publish his articles here and recommend everyone go and read his blog :)

      All the best,
      Nate

  2. Shannon Love says

    Not sure of your source but sling bullet won’t punch through or into an inch of corrugated iron. In the Civil War, an inch of iron backed by wood was enough to stop a cannon ball so a human powered sling bullet won’t even come close to doing so.

    Slings bullets have very little overall penetrating power. Firstly, they are subsonic so their relative kinetic energy compared to a firearm bullet is very low. Secondly, the bullet has a high probability of tumbling in flight because its very hard to put much spin on it with a sling. That in turn means the bullet will likely either tumble in flight or flip sideways if it impacts on the tip. Either way, the actual contact patch formed that transmits the energy of the bullet to the target surface is almost never the “point” of the rugby ball shape but some portion of the sides. Thirdly, the very best bullets are heavy but soft lead (or gold) with carries a lot of kinetic energy but which will absorb energy deforming itself against the target while increasing the contact patch. Both will blunt penetration

    It’s very hard to punch through metal with muscle powered weapons without concentrating all the weapons kinetic energy onto a single, sharp hard point. That is why historically, there have been specialized armor piercing arrowhead.

    Instead of penetrating, slings kill by shock transmission e.g. causing a shockwave in the armor that transmits the energy of the impact through the armor and to whatever is contacting it on the other side. Slings are most effective against skulls where the bullet fractures the bone, usually without breaking the skin, and drives the bone fragments into the brain. Strikes on hard joints, ribs clavicles, sternums etc have similar effects but are seldom immediately fatal.

    (I stopped hunting rabbits and squirrels with a sling when I was kid back on the farm owing to the difficulty of getting a clean kill. Strikes on the haunches or sides would often merely visibly cripple the animal which would escape before I could reload or otherwise catch it.)

    Sling hunters always target the head and the body of a one shot kill often looks perfectly undisturbed without any skin breakage, until you touch the skull and find it all squishy. The only sign of injury is often just blood seeping from nose and ears.

    The historical limitations on slings in combat wasn’t just a matter of finding the talent although that was an issue. Every boy on the planet might have had a sling but it really takes a large sling, usually a staff sling, to reliably bring down a human. Training in those was much more rare, largely because they were military grade weapons and the local aristocrats frowned on the peasants having them.

    The major limitation on slings is the amount of room it takes to use one. The power of the sling is directly dependent on the length of its lever i.e. either the cord, a rod or a cord rod combination. Moreover, most slings operate by releasing one side of the sling throng and that length will snap out often to its full length, stricking like a whip at comrades or presenting an entanglement hazard.

    It takes at least a 6ft/2m lever to power a man killer bullet a slinger will need at least that much room either left-to-right or back-to-front. As a practical matter, they need 50%-100% more. Even the famous North African slingers who kicked the bullets with their own feet (using their legs as levers) had to have enough free space to perform a kind of hop and then a pivot kick.

    Slingers also need firm footing, more so than even archers and they can’t shoot from horseback since the sling is not rigid and the motion of the horse will distort the lever.

    The space and footing factors mean that force density of slingers was low compared to every other weapon bearers on the battle field. In melee combat, they were toast. If slingers tried to stand and hold any particular patch of ground, they would get overrun.

    D Instead they were employed much like modern snipers, as scouts, skirmishers, flank guards and harassment (especially in sieges.) Whatever, their employment, they always had to have room to spread out to employ their slings and have either protection of other types of warriors or have space to retreat.

    Those last requirements are what make the sling a poor role playing weapon under most circumstances. Slings can’t be used in doors or even in the streets and alleys of historical settlements and they can’t really be used in melee combat (which is most role playing combat.) The analogy of a sniper applies here as well. Few people would want to play a sniper who has to lug a heavy long rifle around that is useless in melee combat and any other circumstance other than firing by surprise from a distance.

    Slingers probably make better NPC weapons where their range and surprise present a challenge to players.

    • says

      Great comment Shannon, thank you for sharing with us. So are you saying that the sling wouldn’t even dent the metal? I like your analogy of the sniper, you make a good point about the type of scenarios most rpg characters find themselves in.

      I’ll see if Shorty is able to pop over and add anything to your comment :)

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