Ancient Slinging Techniques

While conducting research for my dissertation (The Arsenal of the Hebrew Kings and Their Neighbors), I was able to follow up on a question that my advisor had once asked me: How were slings used in antiquity? In other words, what technique was used to generate the centrifugal force needed to propel the stone across the battlefield?

In general, the modern assumption is that the sling was twirled in a horizontal circle over the archer’s head. For example, Rivka Gonen in her 1975 book Weapons of the Ancient World states, “A stone was placed in the pocket [of the sling] and then swung round and round above the head; when sufficient centrifugal force had been generated, one of the thongs was released, discharging the stone at a high speed towards its distant target” (p. 42).

This technique was apparently used by the Egyptians in the 12th century B.C. There is a famous relief at Medinet Habu that depicts a battle between the Egyptians and the Sea Peoples during the reign of Rameses III. Within this relief, there are a handful of slingers. Positioned high in the “crow’s nest” of the Egyptian ships, these slingers are depicted in the act of twirling their slings over thier heads, as shown below. (Image taken from Nelson, “The Epigraphic Survey of the Great Temple of Medinet Habu,” in Medinet Habu–1924-28, p. 27). This also seems to be the technique used by a slinger depicted in a relief from Tell Halaf in northwestern Mesopotamia that dates to the 10th or 9th century B.C.

Egyptian Slinger from the Medinet Habu Relief

However, the slings in the reliefs of the Assyrian kings Sennacherib (705-681 B.C.) and Ashurbanipal (669-629 B.C.) are not depicted horizontally. In general, they are depicted as hovering vertically (or almost vertically) over the head of the slinger. An example of such an Assyrian slinger on the Lachish Relief can be seen here (see Fig. 30a). Elsewhere on that relief, a Judean slinger is also depicted with his sling in this position. When slingers use the twirling method described above, the sling is never in such a position, so another method must be proposed.

It would appear that during the late Iron Age the slings of Assyrians and Judeans were used by swinging the whole arm in a wide, vertical circle. Based on the consistent angle of the slings in various Assyrian reliefs, it appears that the slinger’s arm was swinging forward at the top of the circle. The slinger’s arm is always depicted as vertical or almost vertical, and the sling (when it is not depicted as directly in line with the arm) is almost always depicted as trailing slightly behind the arm, away from the slinger’s front side. So it seems that after the slinger loaded his weapon, he would move his arm down and backwards in a sweeping motion and would swing the sling vertically over his head. (Imagine a professional baseball pitcher using a sling to pitch a ball and you have the general idea.) This motion may have occurred only once or may have been repeated several times to build up momentum. At the crucial moment, one of the thongs was released and the projectile was launched toward its target.

So the archaeological evidence indicates that there were at least two slinging techniques used in the ancient Near East: a horizontal rotation over the slinger’s head, and a vertical rotation similar to an overhand pitch. If we stop to think about it, it should not surprise us that different slinging techniques developed at different times and in different places. For a tool as simple as a sling and stone, some diversity in its use was bound to occur.


13 thoughts on “Ancient Slinging Techniques

  1. Hi Seth,
    I believe that the reliefs of the Assyrian king Sennacherib are as a freeze-frame photo depicting the horizontal rotation above the head, before release of the slingstone. There are no examples of reliefs showing the arm in the downward position while the vertical rotation was occurring. It's all in the wrist! The centrifugal force created by a horizontal rotation above the head would far exceed that of any vertical rotation of the entire arm. I agree that there must have been some diversity (David was a left-handed, underhand slinger!) but these reliefs depict the vertical rotation. Thank you for a thought provoking article.

  2. Seth,

    Have you made any attempts to sling in the "alternative" manner you are suggesting?

    It seems to me you have read more into the depictions than intended by the artists.

    There are a number of problems with the suggested vertical slinging method. A few examples: there is no way a vertical motion could produce anything similar to the velocity of a horizontal motion; the angle of projection would be less effective than a horizontal motion; and the time to generate "projection speed" in the vertical motion would be significantly longer than the horizontal motion.

    With only those weaknesses of a vertical model considered, I would be surprised if any successful army would implement the vertical method over the horizontal.

    Finally, the horizontal method is so much more bio-mechanically natural, it would be surprising that warriors would adopt a less natural and weaker method when going into battle.

  3. A B and Craig,

    Thank you for your comments, but I still disagree.

    I agree with A B that the reliefs of Sennacherib (and other Assyrian kings) are "freeze-frame" depictions of a sling being used in battle. As such, I believe the evidence is on my side.

    First of all, the Assyrian slings are typically depicted at angles that range from 45 to almost 90 degrees. If they were being twirled in a horizontal circle, such an angle would not occur. If the slings were moving horizontally, they would have been depicted parallel with the ground as they are in the reliefs at Medinet Habu. The steep angle of the slings indicate that they are being rotated in vertical circles.

    Secondly, unlike the Egyptian slingers at Medinet Habu who are depicted with their elbows bent, the Assyrian slingers are depicted with their arms fully extended. This arm position would occur if the slinger was moving his whole arm in a vertical circle, but it would be unlikely to occur if he was twirling the sling in a verical circle over his head. If the slingstone was of any significant weight, the slinger would need to bend his elbow to get enough strength to twirl it horizontally. The muscles in the wrist alone would not be enough.

    Another factor worth mentioning is that the Assyrian soldiers are depicted with tall helmets. Such helmets would have made it difficult to twirl a sling horizontally above a slinger's head.

    A B also states, "There are no examples of reliefs showing the arm in the downward position while the vertical rotation was occurring." That is true, but we also need to keep in mind that the reliefs were created by artists. They were not photographs that caught slingers in different positions. These artists seem to have preferred depicting all of the slingers in the same position. The only differences between the slingers are slight variations in the angle of the slings. So the fact that we do not find a depiction of a slinger's arm in the downward position is insignificant.

    Craig raises some good points, but these too can be addressed. Regarding a vertical motion not producing as much velocity as a horizontal motion (which A B also points out), that may be true but when the projectile is a stone ball, the force generated by a vertical motion was most likely sufficient to produce significant damage on an enemy. Regarding the angle of projection, we must remember the context of these images: the slingers in the Lachish relief are helping to attack a city that was positioned far above the attacking army. In this situation, a vertical motion would probably be superior to a horizontal motion since it could more easily fire the slingstone up the slope. Regarding the longer time needed to fire the slingstone using the vertical method, it could be argued that the number of slingers (not to mention archers and spearmen) would make the delay less important, and the advantage of being able to fire up a slope may have outweighted the disadvantage of a longer delay.

    Regarding whether or not I have made any attempts to sling in the alternative method I am proposing, I must admit that I have not. But I believe that enough evidence can be found in the reliefs to support my propsal. And if you are interested, let's get together and do some experimentation. 🙂

  4. Notes from the field

    I am no archaeologist, but I have tried slinging by both vertical and horizontal methods using a woven Judean sling I bought near Bethany.

    I found the horizontal spin to be much more haphazard and difficult to control. The vertical spin seemed much more intuitive and offered greater precision, whether overhand or underhand. It also offered better control for large stones (baseball-sized and above). And, as mentioned by Seth, allowed an upward arch, as might be used in the siege of a city.

    In either vertical or horizontal slinging, more than one or two rotations caused a sharp decrease in available power and accuracy.

  5. Seth,

    The tall helmet is a problem for my horizontal theory.

    I've found this guy's videos (see bottom of this page: http://tinyurl.com/4v676ew) to be helpful in possibly supporting your theory, but he never actually gets in the position (arm and sling extended between 45-90 degrees) depicted in the still frame.

    In spite of that quibble, I'm going to say your theory is possible.

    The Internet can be such a wonderful tool . . . when it doesn't keep me from doing what I'm supposed to be doing. Like now. 🙂

    Thanks for filling the gap in Todd's absence.

  6. Seth, thanks for your comments. I have to side with Craig, though.

    My brother and I used to make slings all the time when we were kids. It's true, that when you're first starting out, it can help to move your arm a bit in a circular motion. But this cuts out a lot of the velocity (which is why beginners may move their arms). But to get a good solid throw you need to hold your arm as steady as possible as you swing the sling around your arm (like a teather ball). I imagine that's why their arms are upright in the reliefs. I highly doubt that the professional Assyrians were swinging their arms. That would have cut out a lot of the punch from their throws.

    Here's a practical reason why I doubt the swinging arm method (aside from AB's correct observation that there are no examples of reliefs showing the arm in the downward position): try swinging your arm downward with a sling in your hand and you'll see that the sling hits the ground (or grass). It simply doesn't work.

    As far as the helmets are concerned, I don't remember them being that tall. The decoration which sat on top of the Assyrian helmet found at Lachish, for instance, is only a few inches high. BUt maybe there were taller helmets (?).


  7. Not scientific, but done by a native Iranian. The travel show on Iran by Rick Steeves shows a man using a well-worn sling — and he starts the swing vertically and then he morphs it to horizontal with the throw. Hmmm.

  8. Have you been to slinging dot org?
    The slingers of Lachish are certainly using a vertical style. Their slingstones which I have seen in the British Museum are very heavy and were probably launched with the arm extended throughout the throw. Something like a cricket bowling action. The range would not have great but the impact against armour and shields would be considerable. Slinging in a vertical plane alows close spacing of troops. I have slung with two paces of separation left and right without problems.

  9. For another perspective, think girls fast pitch softball. Many of the professional level and very talented semi-pro pitch the ball over 90 mph. Add a few inches of sling length to the rotation, reduce the size (not the weight)of the projectile…

    Peace to all

    Frozen in AK


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