What is a Battering Ram?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

A battering ram is a type of siege engine used to break down walls or doors. Popular in ancient battles and medieval castle warfare, modern forms of the battering ram are still used today. Made from the trunks of enormous trees, battering rams were once the height of siege technology, and were incredibly difficult to stop once attackers reached the gates.

Medieval castle warfare often made use of battering rams.
Medieval castle warfare often made use of battering rams.

The simplest form of a battering ram is simply a large, relatively straight tree trunk. Any branches would be shaved off before using the ram in battle, and trees such as oaks or large firs were preferred for their strength. Many men would carry the ram by hand, propelling it into its target using their own strength. Some pre-prepared rams were capped with metal, to strengthen the impact and prevent the ram from shattering or breaking.

One of the problems with the early battering rams was that it could take a long time to bash a sturdy gate down. Aside from the strength of the men carrying it giving out, the long battering period gave defenders quite a while to shoot the men with the ram or pour boiling pitch onto their heads. It became clear that a more mobile form of ram was needed that would pack additional power and prevent the attackers from having to stand directly under the walls as they used it.

Originally, armies added power to the ram by placing it in a sling, which could be swung back and forth, giving the ram greater momentum. To aid in carrying it, the sling and ram were placed on a wheeled wagon. The sling, while handy, didn’t provide additional protection for the wielders of the battering ram, so eventually a covered shed was added above the ram, where attackers could hide as they worked the ram. This construct came to be called the turtle or tortoise, as the log would swing out when the carriage was moved, like a turtles head emerging from its shell.

Defenders often responded by using flaming arrows to set the sheds on fires and installing moats and drawbridges around the castle to prevent the battering ram from ever reaching the door. Some defenders would also try to pad the door from the outside to diminish the impact of the ram. This strategy was rarely successful, however, as shoving mattresses down in front of the gate would not have much affect on the blow given by an enormous oak tree.

Battering rams have been possible throughout history as a siege weapon. Artifacts from ancient cultures show that ram technology has been used since at least 900 BCE. After the castle era ended, they fell out of use somewhat, but the basic principle of the battering ram remained an important piece of warfare knowledge. Today, modern rams are often mounted on military vehicles used for forced entry, providing considerable increase in impact while protecting the passengers inside the car.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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