“Trebuchet” vs. “Catapult”: Is The Difference A Toss-Up?

Welcome to the Trebuchet and Catapult Helpline. If a large projectile is currently hurtling toward you, move out of the way before reading any further. For all other inquiries, we’re glad to help.

So, a large boulder has just been hurled at you with a medieval-looking contraption and, understandably, you want to know what it is. Or perhaps you find yourself desiring to fling an enormous pumpkin an absurd distance. Do you need a trebuchet? A catapult? Are they the same thing?

They are and they aren’t, but don’t worry—we’ll break down the differences in the design, physics, and functionality of trebuchets and catapults. Caution: heavy facts incoming.

Quick summary

A catapult is a machine for hurtling projectiles. There are different kinds, but the most common involves a long arm pulled back and then forcefully released to launch a large object. A trebuchet is a specific type of catapult that’s gravity-powered—it uses a counterweight that pulls down and rapidly raises another part that then flings the object from a sling.

What is a trebuchet?

A trebuchet is a machine for hurling projectiles using a sling. The defining characteristic of a trebuchet is its use of the power of gravity. Designs vary, but a trebuchet typically consists of a platform, a pole with an attached sling containing the projectile, and a counterweight—an even heavier object that is hoisted up and then dropped, raising the pole and creating the force necessary to launch what’s in the sling. (In early versions of the trebuchet, that force was created by soldiers pulling down on the contraption, instead of by a weight.)

Trebuchets were historically used in what historians sometimes call siege engines, a weapon used to break down massive structures, like castle doors or walls. The word engine refers to a piece of military machinery, and siege refers to an assault on a city or fortress. Invaders would park their trebuchets outside of an enemy castle and hurl huge rocks (among other things) to destroy the structure.

Trebuchets have been used for centuries, including in ancient China. Their use spread to Europe by the 1100s. Today they are strongly associated with the medieval period in Europe.

A trebuchet is just one type of catapult—other forms of catapults were used long before trebuchets were invented.

Where does the word trebuchet come from?

The word trebuchet has been used in English since the 1300s. It comes from a Middle French verb meaning “to overturn” or “to fall,” from tre(s), “across” or “over,” and buc, “trunk of body.” The word bucket is based on the same buc root and, in fact, another (much less common) word for trebuchet is trebucket.

What is a catapult?

A catapult is a machine for hurling projectiles. There are multiple versions that use different techniques and designs. The word catapult is most commonly associated with the kind in which a long arm flings a projectile through the power of released tension created by a twisting mechanism—the arm is pulled down and then released so that it springs forward and hurls the object into the air. Specific versions sometimes have names, such as mangonel, onager, and ballista.

Use of catapults is first recorded around 400 BCE in both China and Greece. Many threw stones, but some were designed to fling darts or spears. The version known as the trebuchet came later and was used until the advent of gunpowder weaponry like the cannon. The word catapult is more well known and more likely to be used in a general way to refer to any machine resembling one.

Is the direction of something thrown from a catapult a concave or convex arc? Learn what each means here.

What else does catapult mean?

Catapult also has a few other meanings. In the UK, the word can refer to what’s known elsewhere as a slingshot. Catapult can also be a verb meaning “to hurl something with a catapult” or “to launch or spring up quickly,” including in a figurative way, as in The song catapulted her to stardom.

Where does the word catapult come from?

The first records of the word catapult in English come from around the 1570s. It comes from the Greek katapéltēs, from kata-, “down,” and the verb pallein, “to hurl.”

What is the difference between a trebuchet and a catapult?

A catapult is a machine for hurling objects a long distance, and it can come in different forms, including the version that’s the classic one in popular imagination, in which a big spoon-like arm is held under tension and then released to launch a projectile. A trebuchet is a specific version of the catapult that uses a counterweight to create the force to fling an object from a sling at the end of a pole. All trebuchets are catapults, but not all catapults are trebuchets.

You'll be singing the tune of someone in the know once you learn the difference between fiddles and violins.

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