Pick up a stone. Throw it. How far will it go? A fair way if you’re strong. But loop the stone into a sling and you can make it much more powerful. It’s a deadly weapon, in fact, as young David showed.
Who used a sling for the first time?
A modern David?
There is no way of knowing. But the sling was probably invented by shepherds to scare off predatory animals circling their ﬂocks.
Gradually the sling made its appearance on the battleﬁeld as a weapon of war. It let the slinger throw a stone a long way in any terrain, hilly as well as ﬂat.
It could also be fired up a slope, making it useful in assaults on fortiﬁed cities.
A slingshot: easy to make, not easy to use
The sling had the great advantage of being easy to make, and its ammunition, slingstones, was provided by nature. This was important to the Israelite tribesmen, because the Phoenicians and Canaanites, lords of the land, forbade them the use of smelting and iron-mongery. This meant that they could not produce metal weapons, a vastly limiting factor when facing an enemy with metal swords, shields and armor.
Its main disadvantage was that considerable training and experience were required to operate it with effective accuracy. It is one thing to shoot off a stone from a sling, but quite another to hit a small target at a distance – as David had to do when he faced Goliath.
What did a slingshot look like?
The early sling looked rather like a large eye-patch. It consisted of a small piece of leather or cloth with two cords attached to opposite edges.
The stone missile was placed on the material and the cords pulled taut so that the material became a kind of bag containing the stone.
The bag was held by the left hand and the ends of the two cords held together by the right.
The bag was then swung round and round several times above the head until it gained the required momentum, at which point one of the cords would be released, shooting the missile forward.
The function of the sling was often complementary to that of the bow. Whenever they were used in battle, the slingmen always served close to the archery units.
They were particularly useful in an attack on a fortified city, because they could direct high-angle fire up a steep slope.
This wall painting from the tomb of Khety shows a variety of Egyptian warriors attacking a city. The red-helmeted soldiers in the top right of the mural are the slingers.
Tell Halaf slingman. The sling was made of a pad, usually of leather, attached to two thongs. After placing the slingstone in the pad, the thongs were pulled taut, converting the pad into a bag. The slinger held this bag in his left hand and the ends of the taut thongs in his right, above his head. He then whirled the sling with his right hand round and round to give it momentum, and at the crucial moment he released the end of one thong, freeing the stone.
The Assyrians use slings
The use of the sling came fairly late to the Assyrian army, making its appearance on the monuments only in the 8th century BC, in the time of Tiglath-pileser III. Perhaps it seemed too primitive for sophisticated Assyrian tacticians, and was over-looked.
Assyrian slingers. These are offensive rather than defensive fighters, since their armor is designed to protect them from long-range weapons rather than swords and clubs.
A reconstruction of the Assyrian attack on the Israelite city of Lachish. The slingers are at the bottom of the ramp built for battering rams. They are aiming at the defenders on the walls of the unfortunate city, soon to be overrun and destroyed.