Thursday, February 3, 2011

Trebuchets for Drug Cartels?

The cartel's trebuchet
Sounds like a charity drive, but no, in actuality there was a drug cartel (or, more likely, wannabe cartel given how much/little marijuana was involved) using a trebuchet to launch four pound packs of marijuana from Mexico over the border into the United States. First, I’m happy to see that someone other than recreationists has developed an interest in medieval technology. But a trebuchet that launches four pound packs of marijuana? My God – it would take a full day to launch skyward a truckload of weed and honestly – who thinks the border patrol won’t see a full day’s siege of America?*
Fox News covered the story (link here, but it's spotty). As did MSNBC, whose video still seems to be working here. They attached the axle and mounts to a flatbed trailer, which is sort of ingenious. Not only is it light-weight but it’s eminently portable. Larger trebuchets are a lot less mobile, but that makes sense if you're in for a long siege. It looks to me like they used some kind of bungie cords to act as the counterweight rather than actually providing one. This certainly does simplify the design, but it requires several people to pull the axle back to get enough draw to fling it very far. Other (earlier/medieval) designs took Tim Allen’s advice (I guess it was actually Tim Taylor) to give it “more power!” by providing the counterweight to give it more "oomph". If they'd actually used a counterweight, there's a lot less pulling and a lot less manpower required (which means more green for all involved!).
One thing that’s commonly misunderstood about trebuchets is that they were only capable of lofting light loads and that they weren’t used for taking down walls (this was shown on The Crusades with Terry Jones, a fantastic show if you can catch it). As a result, it's believed they were used to fling early biological and psychological warfare devices at the enemy being besieged.** But contemporary accounts of the siege of Acre during the crusades do claim that they were used to break down the walls of that city:
[B]ut the king of France rebuilt it, until by constant blows, he broke down part of the principal city wall, and shook the tower Maledictum. On one side, the petraria of the duke of Burgundy plied; on the other, that of the Templars did severe execution; while that of the Hospitallers never ceased to cast terror amongst the Turks. Besides these, there was one petraria, erected at the common expense, which they were in the habit of calling the “petraria of God”. Near it, there constantly preached a priest, a man of great probity, who collected money to restore it at their joint expense, and to hire persons to bring stones for casting. By means of this engine, a part of the wall of the tower Maledictum was at length shaken down, for about two poles length. Richard of Holy Trinity, pp 146-147
An earlier trebuchet from Histoire d'Outremer
(used this source)
Yet, catapults certainly weren’t the powerful devices we tend to think of from the fancy of old Robin Hood movies with Errol Flynn. While they could knock down walls if given enough time (as evidenced in Acre), they did commonly toss several smaller projectiles instead of the larger rocks we usually think of with the goal to create lots of smaller damage than one giant miss. Arrows were sometimes used as ammunition as well - until the widespread acceptance of the longbow, the average trebuchet could throw an arrow further than could be shot.
Medieval weapons in general tended to be more along the lines of pragmatic injury-inflicting weapons that the brute force fully destructive kind we tend toward today (tanks, howitzers, cruise missiles, tactical nuclear weapons, etc.). In the medieval mind, an immobilized enemy was as good as a dead one (you could always go back and kill them off once you’d won the battle). The really dangerous ones were the ones still walking around waving three foot pieces of steel at you. For example, broadswords weren’t, as is popularly considered, honed to a razor’s edge designed to hack off limbs – they were meant to break bones and prevent your opponent from fighting back. (The maul, mace, and flail - popular medieval weapons - certainly fall into this category as well.) When fighting an opponent wearing 500 recycled dog food cans as clothing, you can’t really “cut” anything – you have to bash and hope that your steel is stronger than theirs. Or at least it's stronger than the bones and sinew inside those dog food cans. Unless, of course, you can pull off the near impossible and get your blade into someone’s helmet.***
But to wrap up the drug cartel’s re-discovery of a thousand year old device – well done! Now if you can just all resort to cudgels and mauls instead of semi-automatic and automatic weapons maybe northern Mexico will be safer place for everyone.

* I did some calculations and at $10 per gram they were looking at launching $4500 worth of weed (street price) each toss (and admittedly - I haven't been out buying any pot recently - okay, ever - so I don't know if $10/g is a reasonable price). Looking at the packages in the video, I think they measured about 18”x12”x12” (totally scientific, I know, but I do not, admittedly, know how big four pounds of pot is - what I do know generally comes from Mary Louise Parker). Regardless, a GMC Sierra 1500 Pickup truck has a bed size of 83,626 cubic inches which could fit around 32 packages of that size. Let’s say their creative juices are flowing and they get capacity to 40. It looks like it would still take them about an hour to just fill a pick-up truck with $180k worth of weed.
** Common missiles to launch at a besieged foe included dead cattle, corpses, and the heads of the defenders that had been slain. Of course, some of these things are just as dangerous for the besiegers to handle as the besieged.
*** As happened to King Henry II of France in a jousting accident. Okay, it was a lance instead of a sword, but the idea’s the same.

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