How To Throw Rocks Really Far: A Fustibalus
by Jehanne de Wodeford

Originally a West Kingdom Royal Arts & Sciences Championship entry, October 4, 2008

A 13th c. depiction of the Battle of Sandwich by Matthew Paris shows a slinger (far left) preparing to lob a jar, probably filled with flammable material

I first encountered the fustibalus, or staff-sling in 2000, in another kingdom. Our local knight marshal (who was also serving as the kingdom KM at that time) is the sort of man who would pick up a broken arrow, an old tree branch and put together a functioning atlatl in about five minutes – then ask if he could try to “shoot” a royal round with the thing.

At some point he’d discovered the existence of the fustibalus as a medieval weapon and thought it might be fun to experiment with. He turned up one afternoon with a 5 foot long piece of rattan to which the top section of a Gatorade bottle had been attached by two pieces of string. The plastic bottle section was the perfect diameter to hold a tennis ball. It was hideous, but it worked, beautifully. Everyone wanted to try it – and did. Then the plastic broke.

The beauty of the fustibalus – even that anachronistic prototype - is that a slinger with five minutes’ training can throw effectively with it. In fact, we discovered that anyone of any size and physical condition could throw with a sling. If anything, people who had played baseball with any regularity were at a slight disadvantage because they tended to try to swing with a lateral motion rather than a vertical one. To make a long story short, our local group fielded a squad of slingers to be the “experimental sport” of Pennsic 28. Our army was unable to hold the abbey long enough for our unit to see very much action, but it was an interesting experiment.

A fustibalus operates in the same manner as the throwing arm of a trebuchet. One end of the sling is attached to the staff. The other end has a loop that hooks over the staff end so that it can release at the correct moment. To prevent the payload from slipping out of the sling before launch, a couple of stitches at the edges of the sling’s sides are generally sufficient to give it a slight cup shape.

Various re-enactors and hobbyists have experimented with staff slings of different sizes. A short staff of 3 feet long or so might be suitable for the close quarters of ship-to-ship combat. My first staff sling was about 5 feet long and I could effortlessly throw a tennis ball 100 or more feet.

In the Matthew Paris illumination at the top of this article, a slinger is shown preparing to throw a vessel into an enemy ship. The pose, with both hands up over the head, is consistent with effective form. A right-handed slinger begins with the loaded sling behind the right shoulder. Raising both hands above one’s head, the slinger brings the staff forward to vertical with a brisk snap. This allows the missile to release from the sling without being driven downward into the ground too early by the slinger’s follow-through. If one is familiar with the motion of a trebuchet, this movement imitates it.

Fine-tuning may be accomplished by adjusting the length of the sling to the preference of the slinger. The Grey Company’s website shows fairly long slings, while I prefer a shorter arrangement. Range may also be adjusted by moving ones grip up or down the staff.

Various internet sites (most frustratingly unsatisfactory) indicate that the exact age and origin of the fustibalus is not known. However, it appears to have been mentioned in a 4th century CE military text, De Re Militari, by Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus:

“In the rear of these two lines were the ferentarii, light infantry and the troops armed with shields, loaded javelins, swords and common missile weapons, much in the same manner as our modern soldiers. This was also the post of the archers who had helmets, cuirasses, swords, bows and arrows; of the slingers who threw stones with the common sling or with the fustibalus; and of the tragularii who annoyed the enemy with arrows from the manubalistae or arcubalistae.”[1]

 In a later entry, he mentions the effectiveness of fustibali against elephants:

"But among the ancients, the velites usually engaged them. They were young soldiers, lightly armed, active and very expert in throwing their missile weapons on horseback. These troops kept hovering round the elephants continually and killed them with large lances and javelins. Afterwards, the soldiers, as their apprehensions decreased, attacked them in a body and, throwing their javelins together, destroyed them by the multitude of wounds. Slingers with round stones from the fustibalus and sling killed both the men who guided the elephants and the soldiers who fought in the towers on their backs. This was found by experience to be the best and safest expedient. At other times on the approach of these beasts, the soldiers opened their ranks and let them pass through. When they got into the midst of the troops, who surrounded them on all sides, they were captured with their guards unhurt."[2]

I have not been able to substantiate the claim on one site in which Renatus supposedly mentions ranges of up to 600 feet. This seems high to me based on my experience, however, a dead tennis ball is not a rock. I suspect that my range would improve somewhat with sufficient practice and smaller, heavier missiles.

(As a side note for dog lovers, these are great for playing “Fetch” with Your Best Friend.) 


Photographic evidence of the author’s one and only Pennsic battle, using one of the Gatorade-bottle-and-rattan slings.


The twisted mind of Sir Tanaka Raiko, to whom this page is dedicated.

The Grey Company Trebuchet Page, The Treb Files Part 1: The Staff Slings and Hand Slings (2007)

Digital Attic: De Re Militari


Stefan’s Florilegium: Slings


Project Goliath: Staff Sling Page (2007)


[1] Digital Attic: De Re Militari Book II: The Organization of the Legion  2007

[2] Digital Attic: De Re Militari Book 1II: Dispositions for Action (2007)

Copyright 2008 Lisa A. Joseph

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