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A crossbow is a type of ranged weapon based on the bow and consisting of a horizontal bow-like assembly mounted on a frame which is handheld in a similar fashion to the stock of a gun.
The traditional bow and arrow had long been a specialized weapon that required a considerable user training, physical strength and expertise to operate with any degree of practical efficiency.
In many cultures, bowmen were considered a separate and superior caste, despite usually being drawn from the common class, as their archery skill-set was essentially developed from birth (similar to many horseman cultures) and was impossible to reproduce outside a pre-established cultural tradition, which many nations lacked.
In contrast, the crossbow was the first projectile weapon to be simple, cheap and physically undemanding enough to be operated by large numbers of conscript soldiers, thus enabling virtually any nation to field a potent force of ranged crossbowmen with little expense beyond the cost of the weapons themselves.
A crossbow is essentially a bow mounted on an elongated frame (called a tiller or stock) with a built-in mechanism that holds the drawn bow string, as well as a trigger mechanism that allows the string to be released.
The earliest designs featured a transverse slot in the top surface of the frame, down into which the string was placed.
To shoot this design, a vertical rod is thrust up through a hole in the bottom of the notch, forcing the string out.
This rod is usually attached perpendicular to a rear-facing lever called a tickler.
A later design implemented a rolling cylindrical pawl called a nut to retain the string.
This nut has a perpendicular centre slot for the bolt, and an intersecting axial slot for the string, along with a lower face or slot against which the internal trigger sits.
They often also have some form of strengthening internal sear or trigger face, usually of metal.