Although it has a history going back thousands of years, the crossbow disappears from the record in Europe by the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and did not appear again until the 11th century. Traditional bows were seen at the time as the weapon of choice, primarily because they could release far more missiles per minute than a crossbow could, but gradually the crossbow improved both power and range, and by the 15th century was a highly valued weapon in any European army, particularly when it came to sieges (both in attack and defence) where the rate of fire mattered less. Crossbowmen were valued more highly than men-at-arms, and paid more as a result. In armies with many mercenaries, such as those of the Dukes of Burgundy, these respected soldiers appeared in large numbers.
Our top row shows the four crossbowmen in this set. Unlike many such figures, most of these men are holding their weapon horizontally, perhaps already loaded and just looking for a target. A fourth man is in the process of loading his crossbow, or more specifically in spanning it (drawing the string back so it is ready to be loaded). We much liked all in this small collection of poses.
For a set titled ‘crossbowmen’ it is more than a little strange that half the figures are nothing of the sort, but are instead arquebusiers. Our second row shows these men, and again we have a selection of men loading or using their weapon. The 15th century saw a great rise in the use of such troops as the weapons gradually improved, and ultimately they would replace the crossbow in the military altogether. Again we thought all these four poses were very good and natural,
The form of dress such men would wear would be the same for both weapon types, and is quite well reflected here. The labelling of helmet styles is always a contentious issue, but here one man wears a kettle hat and the rest have various styles that would be described as sallets or open-faced barbutes, all of which are appropriate for the subject. One man has a solid breastplate and two others have visible mail, but the rest mostly have padded aketons or gambesons. This would seem a reasonable mix for such men, and of course no one has any limb armour. Instead all the men wear the usual hose on the legs, apparently with separate boots. The styles of clothing vary greatly, some having short puffy sleeves and other the fashionable false sleeves down the back, but everything looks good. The men carry an array of knives and swords as sidearms, the crossbowmen have their quiver of bolts and the arquebusiers have powder horns and bullet bags. Several also carry a buckler shield on their belt. So from the accuracy point of view this set presents no problems.
On the face of it the sculpting too looks good, but a closer examination reveals some problems. In general the detail is good, as are the proportions, while both clothing and textures such as mail and fur are well done. However the transformation from sculpt to figure has introduced a number of failings. First, there is a fair amount of flash here. This is not evenly spread over all the figures, so some seams are pretty good but others are far from it. Also one of the bucklers has a large piece missing, presumably where the plastic did not properly fill the mould, although it could also be an error during the pantographing. That same process also accounts for another problem, which is with the third figure in the top row. On his waist he carries a sword hilt - not a blade or scabbard, but just the hilt. A mark on his coat makes it clear that originally he was sculpted with a complete sword, but this seems to have fallen off before the mould was made, making it look silly.
The woe goes on. The three crossbows held horizontally are quite small, having a width of about 7mm. This is not wrong for the period, when smaller crossbows, particularly those of steel, were in common use. However the reason such weapons are rarely depicted this way in plastic figures is because the mould cannot reach the inner part of the bow, and this set is no exception, so instead each bow is a sort of long ellipse which reminds us very much of the shape of a spitfire’s wings. The man spanning his weapon does not suffer the same of course, and his bow is wider too, but like the rest of them his crossbow lacks both stirrup and hanging ring. Certainly there were crossbows with neither (which limits the available means of spanning them), but we were surprised to find no stirrups at all in this set. Two of the crossbowmen clearly have a cranequin but the other two have no visible means of spanning their weapon.
Moving to the handgonnes, two of them seem to have more of a stock and also a serpentine trigger, so are later models than the other two, which are straight and seem only to have a match that must be applied by hand. Since both were common during the century, and often seen together, this presents no issues. We thought all the weapons were quite long by the standards of the day, but not necessarily too long to be authentic. Like the crossbowmen many of the gunners have a cross of St Andrews, the Burgundian field sign, on their clothing, but in several cases this is missing one of the four arms of the cross – another bit that fell off before the mould was made?
Finally we come to the pavises, the large shields used particularly by crossbowmen to protect themselves while they reloaded or waited for a target. The four here are of various shapes but all are reasonable in size, shape and design. Each has some engraving on, imitating the painted designs such shields often had, which has been nicely done. As can be seen, three have a small base when in fact a pavise had a spike which was driven into the ground, and a support to keep it upright. Naturally such models cannot duplicate that, so the bases make sense (the fourth pavise is deep enough to stand on its own).
Sadly there is one more complaint, and this time it is about the way some of these man stand. The first figure in the top row has been sculpted leaning far to the left, as if avoiding something passing him to the right. The figure does stand – just – but this is an odd pose to choose and is not apparent in our photograph. Conversely, the last figure in the second row is sculpted leaning well forward and to the right, and again has to be persuaded to stand at all on his base. We are all in favour of poses that are fluid and not stiff, but at least make sure the base is big enough to cope with them!
For a set of crossbowmen (Burgundian or otherwise – only the cross of St Andrews identifies them as such), there is a surprising number of men with no crossbow here, and even those that have one have no apparent bolt loaded. More to the point, the various apparent failings during the manufacturing process mean these largely accurate figures are something of a let-down. Add to that the lack of stirrups and we were not impressed with this set, which would have benefited enormously from proper quality control at the factory.