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A Medieval Warfare Expert Explains the Crossbows on ‘Game of Thrones’

Could Euron really kill a dragon? Could he even come close to hitting one? And how long would it take to make those darn things?

HBO/Ringer illustration

Euron Greyjoy has joined some elite company in Game of Thrones’ final season. No, I’m not talking about how, along with a couple of Lannisters, he’s one of the few men in Westeros to ever share a bed with Cersei Lannister. It’s even more impressive than that: This eyeliner-loving pirate has slain a dragon.

In the antepenultimate episode of the eighth season, Euron’s armada—each ship equipped with large ballistas—ambushed Daenerys Targaryen and her fleet when they arrived at Dragonstone. With the deadly precision of John Wick, Euron pierced Rhaegal—Dany’s dragon who’d taken a liking to Jon Snow as his rider—three times and sent the poor fella careening into the depths of the Narrow Sea. In the ensuing chaos, Euron then pointed his impressive weapons at Dany’s ships, eviscerating them with ease, marooning Dany’s crew, and taking her trusted adviser Missandei prisoner, later to be executed by Zombie Mountain. (If you’re wondering why Dany forgot about the Iron Fleet, or about how she has Yara Greyjoy in her corner—well, same.)

The moment was a crucial blow to Dany’s cause; another potential instigator in her alarming and rapid turn toward some serious “Mad Queen” vibes. Rhaegal’s death also allows the show to even the playing field a bit as we approach another epic confrontation. Cersei may lack those precious war elephants, but she’s got 20,000 sellswords from the Golden Company; Dany now has just Drogon, a few Unsullied, and soon, the remainder of Jon’s army from the North. It should be a fun fight. But beyond Rhaegal’s death being preventable, how absurd were the circumstances?

All stills via HBO

Disregarding that this is a fantasy series where ice zombies and dragons exist, Euron shot his shot from, like, above 500 feet and killed Thrones’ equivalent of a nuclear weapon. With a big crossbow. To understand the historical precedent for such an impressive feat—if one even exists—I hopped on the phone with Kelly DeVries, a professor at Loyola University Maryland who specializes in medieval warfare, and who participated in the Thrones Season 5 DVD feature “The Real History Behind Game of Thrones.” We discussed crossbow usage in medieval history, Euron’s epic moment, and whose forces have the upper hand heading into Sunday night’s episode.

Given that Westeros is likened to the Middle Ages, is there a historical basis for using crossbows?

During the Middle Ages, crossbows were used extensively, especially for defense fortification. I mean, you saw the large ballistas they were using. Those were a little fantastic, but the crossbow—the crossbow that Bronn has—is similar. His appears to be able to reload rather quickly, [however]. We’d never see any of those in the Middle Ages. Leonardo has a fast-loading crossbow in one of his drawings that tried to indicate what it might be to have a fast-loading crossbow, but nobody ever built one.

Aside from slaying dragons on Thrones, what other uses would giant crossbows have in a battle?

Those type of weapons, the ballisti, they go back to ancient Greece and are used extensively by the Romans. I’ve seen a recurved ballista bow, similar to the ones used on Westeros—it’s a little bit smaller. It has a long history. They’re very different, not nearly as powerful as the ones the show portrayed. They never, for example, fired or shot large metal bolts. Of course, at the same time, nobody in the Middle Ages had to bring down a dragon or any other flying things, so they wouldn’t have needed that much power.

But they’re fairly powerful. We have stories from Josephus about how the Romans used them, and there’s one where it literally pinned somebody to a tree, in almost a cartoon-like fashion. There’s another one that says it was firing not a bolt, but a ball, and hit a pregnant woman and caused her to give birth, and so forth. Some of these stories are probably a little embellished.

Euron and his forces take out Rhaegal with three hits from a considerable distance. How difficult would it be to hit a moving target from that distance? Is it even possible to do that given their resources?

No [laughs], that’s the short answer. Both cases, no. The ballisti that we know of, the larger ones—they might’ve had that distance, they certainly would not have had that accuracy. To be able to hit three [times], even on a large dragon, would’ve been rather difficult. Of course, at the same time, I’m not sure that anybody would ever fall for that type of an ambush if they had dragons to be out scouting, which they would certainly think knowing they were facing a navy from the enemy side.

There’s a lot of problems with history with that whole thing. I think that was one of the first times I felt really cheated by Game of Thrones—to have such a mediocre defensive stunt pulled and not seen by the people who are supposed to be superior military intellects. I was not entirely thrilled with that whole part of that episode, and the large crossbows taking out the dragon like that. They wouldn’t have had the ballistic power, they wouldn’t have had the aim. It’s hard to aim a crossbow and it would’ve been hard aiming a large ballista like that, certainly because the shot would have to be so powerfully delivered that with the kickback you couldn’t really judge where the crossbow bolt would end up.

And even in the lore of George R.R. Martin’s books, dragon’s skin is likened to steel, and the only time something like that kills a dragon is when one is pierced in the eye. That’s a one-in-a-million shot, too.

They’re trying to build off [J.R.R.] Tolkien on that. Tolkien, his dragon Smaug, had a part of the scaling that was flawed, just around the heart, and they had to hit that with a ballista bolt. I’m afraid that George Martin wasn’t as original on this as he has been in so many other things. But we don’t know; this part of the books hasn’t been written—it’s his outline but it hasn’t been written yet. That whole sequence there—I thought, “Back it up, have I fallen asleep for some of this?” When did everybody become really stupid to fall for these kinds of stunts? Very few ambushes ever happened in the Middle Ages like that, because you had scouts out knowing where everybody was.

That does seem to be the most preventable part of all. Even if the ballistas can pierce a dragon, where are the simple scouting measures?

When William the Conqueror lands on England, I mean, he immediately knows the position of everybody, because he’s able to get that information from people through various means. We’ve got tons of spies and scouts and everything. But these sides seem to be woefully ignorant of each other.

But the show uses crossbows to a good degree. The archery choices in Game of Thrones all the way along the line have been better compared to medieval arms and armor than anything else has been.

We saw last episode that all the ships in Euron’s armada, plus the walls of King’s Landing, were fortified and fitted with these giant crossbows. Given the resources available at the time, how long would you estimate it’d take to build that many ballistas?

The question is whether somebody can do the artisanship. Building a bow is difficult; building a recurve bow is even more difficult. For mounted crossbows, it really doesn’t take that long—you just need to cut the wood and everything like that. The bow stave, that’s got to be chosen, it’s gotta be flexible enough. So if you’re using a single stave like they have, then the wood has to be very flexible, or it breaks. That’s just all it is.

I don’t think the construction of that many would take a lot of time, if you had the trained artisans to do so. When Game of Thrones showed, for example, making the weapons out of the dragonglass in the North, they did show they had a huge weapons smithery there. Clearly, the filmmakers have thought about this and have indicated, well, there is skilled labor in making arms and armor in Westeros. Maybe they’re covering their bases in that regard.

Heading into Sunday’s episode, Dany’s forces are depleted, but she still has one dragon and some of Jon’s Northern forces on the way. Cersei has the numbers and the walls of King’s Landing as protection. Who’s got the upper hand?

They have this cavalier notion about the way fortifications protect people in Westeros. For one thing, you wouldn’t take your army out and have them fight a battle out in front of walls. You’d put everybody behind the walls because they’re big and difficult to defeat. A dragon does help—I’m sure if anybody in the Middle Ages had a dragon, it may have turned the tide.

But with walls as fortification, nobody would come out of them. When the Ottomans went up to Belgrade, you didn’t have the Belgradians actually coming out to meet them. They always hung behind the walls. If we’ve got equal-sized armies, then the advantage does go to Cersei, because she’s got the big walls. But they don’t seem to indicate that. They’re like, “Oh, we’ll get into that castle really fast.” Well, there hasn’t been many sieges done, and nobody gets into a castle fast. When we saw it, it took time.

There would be no doubt the benefit would go toward Cersei, who seems not stupid enough to put her army outside and sacrifice them all. If you’ve got an army, put them behind walls; that’s what you wanna do. And you wait for the forces to come and see what they wanna do. If they’ve got mounted crossbows that could bring down a dragon, and I’m Dany and I’ve only got one left, I think, “Well, you know what? I’m not gonna do this. I think I’ll hold until I get a better advantage.”

It’s a shame she seems dangerously impulsive at the moment.

Yeah, she’s not the greatest commander. She’s had some good armies, but she sacrifices, like, her entire cavalry to the stupidest charge in the world.

The Dothraki charge looked very cool, but it did not go well.

You don’t sacrifice your cavalry and half your elite infantry because you have the notion that somehow you’re going to defeat zombies on the outside of a fortress. Some of the decisions that’ve been made—I mean, in the Middle Ages, nobody was that stupid.

It’s nice, cinematic stuff, there’s no question. I wouldn’t want an actual show about the Middle Ages—it’d be boring. They didn’t have zombies in the Middle Ages; they didn’t have dragons in the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages were pretty boring for most of its time. If you wanted to film a [Middle Ages] siege, you’d stick your cameras in there for a year until a side gave in.

Game of Thrones is cinematic. Very heroic, but pretty stupid, when it comes to military engagement.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.