I haven’t done a weapon post in a while, because I like to bring something to the table that might not be common knowledge. As much as I could wax lyrical about basic sword fighting techniques or go on at length about my favourite kind of axe, it’s all stuff that most gamers will be familiar with. What doesn’t get that much attention though is the humble sling. I can see why, as most fantasy role playing games are set in a time period pretty similar to that of the dark ages through to the high medieval period, and at that time, slings were nowhere near as common as they once were.
There are very good reasons for this in pure historical terms, but few of them translate well to a role playing game. For instance the time it would take to become proficient with a sling was far too long. Most people who knew how to use them to full effectiveness trained since they were children. Although medieval bowmen also practiced from a young age, it wasn’t as necessary to be competent with the weapon. In game terms this shouldn’t be a big deal though, as time spent to master skills is a little bit more abstract.
In terms of using a weapon for warfare, the bow is superior as it is easier to arrange for massed ranks to volley fire. The sling, by its very nature is tricky when it comes to getting more than a handful of people to loose their shot in unison. But since standing in massed ranks firing arrow after arrow is hardly what most people would expect out of a role playing experience, this again shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Finally – before we get to the good stuff – warbows and crossbows were excellent to shoot from behind cover. They were especially good when it came to firing through loopholes in walls. Doing this with a sling is pretty much an impossibility.
There are a fair few excellent reasons to use the sling more in RPGs though. Firstly the range and damage of a sling – firing optimal ammunition – is at least as good as a bow and arrow. Average range is roughly 150 metres by someone without a lifetime of practice, but the world record by a skilled user is considerably longer. The velocity of a lead shot is also greater than an arrow in flight. This means that accuracy is improved as it can be fired at a slightly more direct angle rather than a large arc.
Arrows do have a slight edge when it comes to penetration though, as they have a smaller point of impact and are much more likely to pierce flesh and armour. Don’t think that I’m selling the sling short though, although a shot is unlikely to punch through armour, the can still do a massive a mount of blunt trauma damage. Based on anecdotal evidence a lead shot can punch an inch deep dent into a corrugated iron. Just imagine what that would do any flesh beneath the metal armour. You don’t need to imagine too much though, as we know from historical documents that ancient Roman army surgeons had a special set of forceps used to extract shot that was embedded into combatant’s flesh.
So, we have a ranged weapon that matches if not exceeds the longbow in terms of range and damage, and it is also a damned sight easier to make it, as is the ammunition it uses. An effective sling is made from natural fibers such as hair and flax, which is pretty easy to come across almost everywhere. Although it is time consuming to weave a sling, once you know how to it, practice will reduce the time taken to make more. And compared to the time required to make a compound bow or to treat the wood necessary for a warbow, it was really very little time at all.
As for ammunition, well basically you can just pick up something that would suffice from the ground. Any small stone will do the job, but if you can find them, stones that have been smoothed by river water are far superior as the smoothness makes them more aerodynamic. The ideal shape is not unlike an Rugby ball, as this allows the shot to sit snugly in the sling pouch, and aids in the aerodynamics by putting on spin on the shot. What you really want though is a lead shot. Because it is a denser material it will better velocity and be much more likely to cause an injury. The fact that each shot can be cast to a desired shape is also very important.
If you’re just picking stones up from the ground then each shot will need to be made differently to take into account the changes in weight and size of the stone. As mentioned above the density of the lead means that you can will do more damage when you hit, but it will also have a better range and accuracy and too. And if you want to have some fun, it is possible to cast your own personal message onto a lead shot. Historical examples include the Legion number of the soldiers loosing the shot, and some slightly sillier ideas like, “catch!”, and “beware your teeth”.
In conclusion, for a single user wanting something quick and easy to use and obtain ammunition for, the sling is pretty perfect. Maybe not ideal within the enclosed spaces of a low ceiling-ed dungeon corridor, but out in the wild, there’s a reason that they were used for centuries to hunt with.