Today the battle between the Biblical “David and Goliath” is used to describe a fight between an underdog and a large power believed unbeatable and highlights how the lesser opponent can still come out on top. The encounter is described in the First Book of Samuel 17:34-36 and was probably 1st written in the 7th or 6th century BC while describing an event that may have occurred centuries earlier.
The sling, which could be easily produced, was among the earliest weapons devised after the club—and it was the choice for shepherds fending off predatory animals.
It is unclear what type of projectile David may have used, but it was likely more than just stones picked up from the ground. Eons before firearms, someone discovered that specially created “sling bullets” had an advantage in the weapon’s accuracy. Recently, a 2,200-year-old Greek sling bullet was discovered near the modern Israeli city of Yavne. The Israel Antiquities Authority said in a statement that the sling bullet found in Yavne’s major archaeological site is 4.4 centimeters (1.7 inches) long.
What makes it particularly unique is that it bears the Greek inscription “Victory for Heracles and Hauron” — leading to speculation that it was an attempt at psychological warfare directed at its enemies. What makes this find somewhat timely is that the Greek soldier who may have carried the particular sling bullet may have faced the Jewish Hasmonean troops during the battles that would become part of the story of Hanukkah!
“Sling bullets are always a good find, especially if they have writing on them,” explained noted ancient warfare expert Dr. Roel Konijnendijk of the University of Oxford. “Sometimes they were cast or inscribed with the name of the army commander, or an insult to the enemy, or simply a word like ‘Catch!’ or ‘Ouch!'”
This particular inscription makes it a truly special find.
“The exciting thing about this sling bullet is the names inscribed on it clearly used by someone in direct reference to where it was found asking for the assistance of the patron gods,” added Dr. Graham Wrightson, associate professor of history at South Dakota State University.
“It was common for slingers to inscribe things on their bullets just as soldiers in WWI inscribed things onto their bullets and painted things on bombs. It adds a little psychological boost for the firer,” said Wrightson.
The rough date of the sling bullet, it may have been made during the Maccabean Revolt, when part of Judea rose up against the Seleucid Empire.
“The revolt was prompted by the brutal repression of Judaism by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV and his repurposing of the Temple in Jerusalem as a temple of Zeus. The Jewish reconquest of Jerusalem and reconsecration of the Temple in 164 BC is the origin of Hannukah,” said Konijnendijk.
More Than a Field Stone
The sling bullet recently found in Israel was made of stone, but by that point, lead had become the preferred material for sling bullets, as it was easier to work with. However, stones were still cheaper and thus didn’t disappear from the battlefield.
“In the story of David and Goliath, David’s projectiles are stones (1 Samuel 17:40). This was a favored weapon of shepherds—like David—from poorer parts of the ancient Mediterranean,” noted Konijnendijk. “A sling could be a decent improvised weapon for someone who could not afford heavier equipment since all you needed was a strip of cloth and a rock. With years of practice, though, it could become a very dangerous and feared weapon in its own right.”
While it likely took some “practice,” those who were skilled with the sling became some of the earliest “shock troops” in the history of warfare.
“People from remote and mountainous places who specialized in using the sling—like Rhodes, or Ambrakia in Western Greece, or the Balearic islands—were prized mercenaries,” said Konijnendijk. “These specialists would cast lead bullets if they had access to the metal since it allowed them to outrange archers and pierce armor and shields.”
Even as more advanced weapons were developed, the sling still had a place on the battlefield—filling a role that might later be described as light infantry.
The weapons were certainly not as deadly as the pistols that were to come centuries later but had a rate of fire faster than early muzzleloaders.
“Those so armed were usually skirmishers, preliminary to rushing phalanxes or legions,” suggested Dr. Edward M. Anson, professor of history at the University of Arkansas. “They, like archers, did not win battles but they could disrupt infantry lines.”
However, the weapon was also used by civilians, including shepherds like David, during antiquity, as it was essentially the only projectile weapon that was widely available. Even as many may have relied on the stones that were lying around—as David may have done—slingers often crafted their own projectiles.
These certainly had an advantage.
“The pre-shaped bullets went further and faster because they were aerodynamic like a modern bullet,” said Wrightson. “Skilled ancient slingers who practiced from boyhood like David were capable of hitting a man between the eyes, downing moving horses, and generating enough force for their bullets to penetrate some armor and shields.”
This made the slingers long prized by soldiers on the battlefield from prehistory through to medieval times.
“The length of practice required made them fewer than simple archers or javelin throwers, but they were prized on a battlefield and their accuracy and range could outpace most archers, perhaps excepting Cretan archers,” Wrightson explained. “Practice was easy to do, you just wrap the sling around the projectile and swing it as now. The skill as with any ranged weapon was adjusting for wind, distance, speed, angle, and knowing how to let one strap of the sling go while holding onto the other.”
The Modern Slingers
Given that it is a simple weapon, there are still those who are mastering the skills of the sling. They have an advantage of course in that a few companies, such as Readyman.com, are even selling modern sling bullets, which are actually larger in size than those used in antiquity. And while more expensive than modern small arms ammunition, the molded plastic bullets can be used repeatedly if recovered, and it is far easier to “reload” the round.
Moreover, while some states and local municipalities have specific restrictions on “slingshots,” there are generally no laws against slings. But like a baseball bat, it would be in how one actually uses it that could be a problem.
Yet, as a historic weapon, the sling is simple and effective with the right skills.