Trebuchet vs Catapult vs Ballista: 11 Critical Insights

Trebuchet vs Catapult vs Ballista

Ballista vs Trebuchet vs catapult are all siege warfare engines but have some differences from which they gain some unique identities and characteristics. They are primarily used in the mediaeval period, around 400 BC to the 18th century. Trebuchet, catapult, ballista are ballistic weapons that throw projectiles like a boulder, burning charcoal, heavy darts etc. In this article, we will see the differences between Trebuchet vs catapult vs ballista and how it works? Their construction, etc.

Difference between Trebuchet vs Catapult vs Ballista

Trebuchet Catapult Ballista
It is a mediaeval siege engine and successor of catapults. Catapults are the earliest siege machines in human history. and successor of catapults. Catapults are the earliest siege machines in human history. Ballista is the modern type of catapult
Mechanical advantage of a lever is used to throw projectile Catapults used torsion or tension in the skein to throw a projectile. Ballista also use torsion to throw the shot
It has a very long arm to hurl a projectile. Its arm is not as long as trebuchets. Ballista uses two levers, fixed in a twisted spring, to throw
Its long arm is pivoted on an axle in unequal proportion. Catapult arms one end is fixed in a twisted spring, and another lot have a bucket to carry projectile. It is more like a giant crossbow like structure, and both of its levers, one end, is fixed in springs. 
It can throw heavy objects to a very long distance. It can not throw heavy projectiles. It can throw heavy objects to a very long distance It can not throw heavy projectiles It can only throw small bolts and arrows specially made for it called darts
d 50 to 200 kg or more. It can throw a thing in 50 to 150 kg range. Ballista are not designed to throw heavy projectiles
It is a long-range engine but not precise in target hitting. It is not a long-range machine but very precise at target hitting It is a long-range machine, exact in target hitting, and it can fire almost double to that of bow
It has two type
1- Traction Trebuchet
2- Counterweight trebuchet
It has four type
1- Trebuchet
2- Mangonel
It has three type
1-Bontrager ballista
2- Roman ballista
3- Heavy ballista
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  • Trebuchet:
    • Uses a counterweight to launch projectiles.
    • Has a long range.
    • Uses a sling to launch projectiles.
  • Catapult:
    • Uses tension or torsion to launch projectiles.
    • Has a medium range.
    • Uses an arm to launch projectiles.
  • Ballista:
    • Similar to a crossbow in design.
    • Uses torsion to launch.
    • Shoots bolts or stones.

What is Catapult?

A catapult is a machine used to hurl projectiles using stored potential energy in the form of tension or torsion. Catapult is a predecessor of Trebuchet, originated in China around the 4th century. Catapult is also used by an Indian king named Ajatshatru of Magadha against Lichhavis.

trebuchet vs catapult
catapult Image credit:

The construction of the catapult is straightforward. Mainly made up of wood and reinforced with metal, leather, ropes and other materials. Parts of catapult are as follows, wood arm, skein, strings, bucket, projectile or payload, frame, etc. In a catapult, the arm is fixed in a twisted skein placed at the front side of the frame. Wheels are attached to the frame to carry the weight.

In catapult, energy is stored in the form of tension or torsion with the help of ropes or skein. This potential energy is build up by using human power. When the wooden arm is pulled downward, the potential energy gets stored in the elastic rope or skein in the form of torsion. A restraining string holds that stretched arm. With the sudden removal of that restraining rope, the payload gets hurled to a great distance.

What are the four types of catapults?

Many empires used catapults for an extended period. They were the most significant siege engines of that time. As they are used worldwide, they have many versions. Nowadays, the term catapult is more likely recognize as a domain of certain types of weapons that works as a projectile launcher, with the help of stored potential energy in the form of torsion or tension. It mainly has four different types, which are

  1. Trebuchet
  2. Mangonel
  3. Onager
  4. Ballista


A trebuchet is a catapult that uses potential energy stored in the arm, built by doing work against gravity, to throw the projectile. It works on the principle of the lever. Trebuchets are enormous and heavy structures to carry on a battlefield, so they are mostly made on the same site they will mount

trebuchet vs catapult
Trebuchet Image credits:

Trebuchet has a long arm attached to an axle fixed high above the ground by a strong frame and is unequally divided into two parts. Heavy mass is attached to the short side of the arm, and a sling is attached to the long arm. In Trebuchet, the mechanical advantage is generated by making the sling side arm longer than the opposite side.

Working of Trebuchet

 Trebuchets works on the principle of the lever. In lever, you gain a mechanical advantage by applying small input force to the longer side. Here axle works as a fulcrum. In a Trebuchet large amount of counterweight is attached to a smaller arm, and you gain the potential energy by lifting that counterweight against gravity. Sling is attached to the tip of a long side, and its one end is fixed to the arm of the Trebuchet, and the other end is hooked to the associate, so it gets free when the arm and sling reach maximum hurling angle.

The long arm of the Trebuchet is lowered down by pulling it down manually with the help of winches and doing work against gravity. The sling, fixed to the long arm by one end, gets loaded with projectile and laid on the ground. Now the Trebuchet is in a loaded condition. As we trigger the Trebuchet, the short arm with counterweight goes down due to gravity, and the long arm goes up in the air with a loaded sling. As it reaches maximum hurling angle hooked sling gets free, and the projectile starts its journey towards the target

Trebuchets are mainly made for throwing heavy objects as a projectile to break the walls of a castle or forts. There are limitations on how much weight a trebuchet can throw. Trebuchets can throw a shot to a significant distance, its range is higher than the catapult, but it is not as precise as a catapult.

Types of Trebuchets

There are mainly two types of trebuchets

  1. Traction trebuchets or Mangonal trebuchets-

These trebuchets are the predecessor to counterpoise trebuchets. These are not as effective as counterweight trebuchets because only raw human power is used in these trebuchets to swing the arm.Counterweight trebuchet or counterpoise trebuchet. The meaning of mangonel is a catapult run by a man.

  • Counterweight or counterpoise trebuchets-

       These trebuchets are highly effective, have a high range, and can through heavy projectiles. In this type of trebuchets, very heavyweight, maybe around 70 to 80 times more severe than the projectile, is used to run the machine. This weight is attached to the smaller arm of the Trebuchet and used to throw the shot.


In general, it is like a giant crossbow one can fire big arrows (darts), bolts, stones to a considerable distance. It is the most advanced version of the catapult. Its firing range is more significant than an average bow, almost double that of it. The largest stone threw by ballista is nearly 1100 m weigh around 78 kg.

Ballista is mainly made up of wood and iron. It has two levers fixed in the spring of skein, which are set in a wooden frame. A slider is mounted on top of the frame. The trigger mechanism fitted in the rare side of ballista in which one hook type structure is there, which is joined to a winch present on the end of the frame through a rope.

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Image credit-“ballista” by Observe The Banana is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Working of ballista

Ballistae works on the principle of elasticity. The elastic skein springs present on the frame are twisted to provide torsion force to the lever of a ballista. When you draw the drawstring backwards with the help of winches, the potential energy gets stored in the machine. The trigger system holds that stretched drawstring. After loading the projectile in a slider, the ballistae is ready to fire. When you trigger the ballistae, the stored potential energy gets converted into kinetic energy, and the projectile takes off from the slider towards its target.

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“Ballista” by arw49 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Range of Ballista

      A simple projectile motions concept is convenient to find the range of a ballista. We know that in projectile motion, the projectile’s velocity is resolved in two components, one along the x-axis and another along the y-axis. Rate along y-direction is changing due to gravity, while along the x-axis is constant. So by using kinematical equations, we can find out the period of flight. And when we get the period, we can easily find out the distance covered by a projectile by multiplying velocity and period. As it is a linear motion, we get the range of a ballista.


R = V2 sin θ/g


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“Onager” by Gauis Caecilius is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Onager is one of the types of catapult. It has only one arm, which is attached to the frame through a twisted skein. When the arm of the onager is lowered manually with the help of winches, the torsion in the skein also increase, and that increased torsion provides the necessary torsion force to throw a projectile. It is a Roman siege engine, and its construction is very similar to that of a catapult.


Is trebuchets better than catapult?

We have to consider many aspects before answering this question, such as the location of the battlefield, use purpose, and properties of siege engine, etc. here, we will discuss properties that make a trebuchet better than a catapult.
Trebuchets are a lot better than catapults, but as we discussed earlier, trebuchets are more like a ranged weapon. It Is good at lifting heavy weights and throwing them to an extensive range. The catapults are precise weapons but do not have long-range and can not lift a heavyweight.

Trebuchets are good against fortifications and can easily break the walls of castles. Trebuchets are mainly placed at higher positions like on top of a hill or tower of a fort to gain a tactical advantage.

What are some similarities and differences between catapults and trebuchets?

We know that trebuchets are evolved from catapults, so there are some similarities and differences between catapults and trebuchets. Let’s see similarities and differences between catapults and trebuchets, 

Firstly we will discuss similarities

  • Trebuchets, as well as catapults, are used to hurl the projectile to a considerable distance
  • Both use stored potential energy to do the work
  • Both have arms to throw objects
  • Both are used as a siege engine in warfare

Now differences

  • Trebuchets have long range than catapults
  • Trebuchets can lift heavy weights than catapults.
  • Trebuchets are good at wall breaking, while catapults are good at precise throws.
  • Trebuchets have low precision in target hitting.
  • Trebuchets work on a principle of lever and use mechanical advantage to hurl objects. Catapults use tension or torsion in a rope to launch the Projectiles.

What is the longest distance ever achieved with a catapult?

As they are used as siege engines in ancient times, Catapults are constructed to throw objects long distances. Torsion in ropes, the weight and shape of the projectile, and air humidity are some aspects that influence the throw of the catapult.

The longest throw of catapult is recorded up to 700 yards, i.e., approximately 640 meters. Catapults are such precise long-range weapons that can hit the target accurately, which is way beyond the limit of bowshot.

Would a tank survive a direct hit from a trebuchet?

Tank is an offensive ground combat weapon that provides great mobility and protects the crew and munition. The tank can be disabled in many ways, such as breaking its tracks, penetrating its armor with anti-tank guns, etc. Let us discuss can it sustain a trebuchet hit or not.

Tanks would not survive a direct hit from a trebuchet. Because trebuchet can throw very heavy projectiles, nearly two quintals of heavyweight can hurl to a maximum range of 300 to 400 meters. If such a heavyweight hits a tank with a high velocity, it can break the tank’s armor or break the tracks.

Are catapults still used today?

In the modern world, the word catapult is more like a domain that includes things used to launch a projectile to a long distance without the help of gunpowder.

So the catapults are still in use today. A Y-shaped sling is an excellent example of catapults; similarly, aircraft catapults allow aircraft to take off in a limited space on aircraft carriers. Nowadays, catapults are not used in the militaries as a weapon. The last use of catapults as a weapon was at the time of world war 1; they are used to throw hand-grenades in enemy trenches

Who first used catapult weapons in ancient warfare?

Catapults have a very long history of warfare; almost every ancient emperor used them before discovering gunpowder. Over the period, Romans modified the structure of catapults and molded them into a trebuchet, onager, and ballista.

They were first used by ancient Chinese people around the 4th century BC. Then they are transferred to Mesopotamia and all over the banks of the Mediterranean sea. Ancient Indians also used catapults as a weapon; Magadha king Ajatshatru used catapults in his war against Lichhavis in the 4th century BC.

What is a catapult used for, and why?

Catapults are used for different purposes from ancient times to the present. Let’s discuss some different uses of a catapult and why a particular variant of a catapult is used for a particular work.

A catapult is a mechanical machine used for siege warfare. It is used in wars because it can throw objects to a considerable distance with precision without gunpowder. Catapults are the central artillery unit in any military before the discovery of gunpowder. some of the types of catapult are portable to carry on a battlefield.

Is a catapult and a trebuchet the same thing If not what are the different time periods they were used in?

Before gunpowder, ballistic devices are used to throw objects to a considerable distance in warfare. The Discovery of catapults changes the course of the medieval history period. As many emperors used the catapults over the period, catapults are developed into different variants; the trebuchet is one of them. Let us discuss the difference between catapult and trebuchet and their time period.

Catapult and trebuchets are not the same. Both are used to hurl the projectile, but both are made differently and have different tactical uses. Catapults are developed way before trebuchets in 4th-century BC, and trebuchets appear in the 12th century AD in lands around the Mediterranean sea.

Why do trebuchets use slings instead of bowls like most catapults?

Some aspects won’t allow trebuchets to use bowls to hold a projectile. As trebuchets are the successor of catapult over the period, some modifications are done in trebuchets to enhance their destructive power; the sling is one of those alterations in trebuchets.

Trebuchets are mainly used to hurl large and heavy objects to a significant distance. slings add rotation and height in a throw, which helps hurl objects to a long distance. The sling can hold any projectile in it, shape and size don’t matter, so if bowls are used instead of slings, then we have to make a projectile of bowls size and can not use any size or shaped object to throw.

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