A Sporting Crossbow, or Halbe Rüstung, 17th century

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Item ref: 3910

  • Germany, possibly Dresden.
  • Steel, iron, fruitwood, palisander wood, staghorn, hemp fibre, textile.
  • 63.5 x 49 cm


Private collection, United Kingdom

For the purpose of practical mobility this crossbow was built to relatively compact proportions which enabled its easy handling by both mounted sportsmen in pursuit of game animals and those engaged in the prestigious target competition known as ‘Shooting at the papegi’ (or popinjay, the English corruption), the latter having been particularly popular throughout the Saxon territories. Within the German classification of crossbows this example was referred to as Halbe Rüstung (‘half-sized equipment’), its size distinguishing it from the less widely used heavy full-sized sporting type, Ganze Rüstung, which had its origin in warfare, and also from the lighter type known as a Schnepper.

Of particular technical note, this crossbow was built on a sophisticated snap lock release system, still innovative in the early 17th century, together with an efficient set-trigger mechanism. These were Germanic developments of the mid-16th century, each gaining increasingly widespread adoption throughout the 17th century, and culminating in their universal adoption in the delicate rococo Schnepper of the 18th century hunting grounds.

The very long angular trigger of the 15th and 16th centuries has been retained now to act solely as an effective guard for the small trigger and set-trigger projecting towards its rear. A pivot safety-catch is fitted off-set at the front of the trigger-guard, placed to internally disengage the release sear from the arm of the tumbler. The small trigger and its secondary set-trigger were by the early 17th century commonly used for sporting rifles, their measured gentle pull providing a greatly improved aim, and their corresponding application to the crossbow was an obvious improvement over the comparatively violent release of the long trigger and its coarse mechanism. Unlike the firearms application, however, the trigger mechanism of the snap lock crossbow was more complex, with each spanning the internal components were required to be pushed into their cocked or set position by the insertion of a separate pricker or cocking pin; the aperture for the pin is framed by a rosette engraved on the veneered upper surface of the present tiller, behind the backsight.

In further confirmation of this crossbows’ early period of use, east-Asian palisander wood forms a veneer over the sides of the tiller, so adding exotic figured red tones to the construction. Set against the palisander, the delicately engraved but emboldened white staghorn veneer which covers the tillers’ upper and lower surfaces forms a masterly and well-ordered contrast, characteristics also exemplified in the finest stringed musical instruments of the period.