The Complete History of The Battering Ram

Key Point: A battering ram is a heavy siege engine used to break down fortified doors or walls by repeatedly striking them.

Today we are taking a look at battering rams. You will see what a battering ram was. How they were used and who used them. And how surprisingly, battering rams are actually still in use today.

As always before we begin with the history of the battering rams we have to answer an important question, to get you up to speed. What is a battering ram? And how were they used?

A battering ram is a siege weapon used as far back as 2000 B.C. by the ancient Egyptians. It’s a weapon made from wood and later iron, that was designed to penetrate weak points in enemy fortifications. Which were usually doors or gates to the city. The effectiveness of the battering ram came from harnessing the momentum of a heavy object and focusing it on a single point. By doing that a large amount of pressure was applied to a single point. Doing that repeatedly leads to a breach in the fortifications.

That was the short version of it. Now let’s go into a little more detail. Starting with the history of the battering ram.

The History Of The Battering Ram

Battering rams have been around for a long time and they have an interesting history in warfare, going all the way back to ancient times. The ancient Egyptians were the first known users of battering rams, using them around 2000 BC. They used it to break down the walls of their enemies’ fortifications. Their rams were attached to sleds and were operated by groups of soldiers.

Battering ram in use

Not ones to be left behind the Assyrians also used battering rams in their military campaigns, going back as far as the 9th century BC.

Their rams were made of wood and were operated by teams of soldiers who would swing the ram back and forth to gain momentum before striking their target. The ability of the Assyrians to use innovative siege weapons was one of the reasons why they managed to conquer an Empire of that size.

Then came the Greeks, always looking for ways to improve their weapons and outdoo other civilizations. They added metal tips to their battering rams and reinforced the shaft with iron bands, making the weapon more durable. Adding metal tips to the end of the battering ram increased the density thus the piercing power. We will get into the kinetic aspect of battering rams a little later.

But it was the Romans who really took battering rams to the next level. They developed the “sambuca” ram, a specialized version of the weapon that could be used to breach walls and gates by exerting force at an angle. And who said physics cant be put to good use? You will see why the angle of the battering ram also played a part.

The Battering Ram In Medieval Times

If we jump to the medieval period. Siege weapons such as the catapult or a trebuchet were often used to do the same job as the battering ram (you can see the difference between the two here).

But even with the advent of other siege weapons, battering rams were still used by armies during the Crusades and other medieval campaigns. For example, the Crusaders used battering rams during the Siege of Jerusalem in 1099 and in their subsequent conquests of other cities in the region.

Its Decline

As with every weapon from history. The use of battering rams started to decline.

With the invention of gunpowder weapons, battering rams lost their effectiveness in siege warfare. Cannons and other artillery could breach walls and gates much more quickly and efficiently. This, along with changes in siege warfare tactics, meant that other methods of attacking fortifications, such as mining and sapping, became more common.

If You Wish: You can see here the 7 disadvantages of the battering ram that accelerated its downfall.

Now, that we got the history part out of the way. Proceed with how the function of the battering ram. Or how the battering ram worked.

How The Battering Ram Worked

Here you have a 47-second video demonstrating how the battering ram worked.

Video showing the workings of a battering ram

The basic design of a battering ram is simple. It’s a long, heavy beam or shaft (usually) with a metal tip on one end. The other end of the shaft would be held by a team of soldiers who would use their collective strength to swing the ram back and forth. So, why do that? Well here is why …

The idea was to build up momentum before striking the target. The metal tip would absorb the shock of the impact and help to break through the fortification. The effectiveness of the battering ram was dependent on the strength and coordination of the team operating it. Soldiers operating it needed to be well-trained and work together to generate enough force to breach the wall or gate.

The operation of a battering ram always required a team of soldiers. Their numbers vary depending on the size and weight of the ram. Small rams could be operated by a dozen or so soldiers, while larger ones might require a team of several dozen or even hundreds of soldiers. The team would work together to swing the ram and build up momentum before striking the target.

To simplify this simple weapon even further.

It was basically a heavy object, that was swung from one end to the other. And since the heavy objects in movement have momentum things get interesting. If you channel this momentum into a single point you can exert tremendous force onto a single point thus causing a breach in the enemy’s fortifications.

Design Of The Battering Ram And Materials Used To Make Them

The basic design of a battering ram remained relatively consistent across regions and time periods. It was a long, heavy beam or shaft with a metal tip on one end, and sometimes reinforced with metal bands or struts. The other end of the shaft was held by a team of soldiers who would use their collective strength to swing the ram back and forth, building up momentum before striking the target.

While the basic design was consistent, some variations emerged in different regions and time periods. The Greeks, for example, reinforced their rams with iron bands to make them more durable. The Romans, in addition to adding wheels to their rams for easier maneuvering, also designed specialized rams like the sambuca that could be used to breach walls and gates by exerting force at an angle.

So, Why Was The Angle Important?

The angle of the ram allowed for more of the ram’s weight to be transferred into the object being struck, rather than just relying on the momentum of the swinging motion. This increased the force and effectiveness of the ram, making it more likely to breach a fortification successfully.

The Materials Used To Make A Battering Ram

The materials used to make battering rams varied. In ancient times, rams were often made of wood, which made them susceptible to wear and tear. The Assyrians, for example, used rams made entirely of wood. However, the Greeks and Romans used metal for the tips and reinforcements of their rams, making them more durable.

During the medieval period, wood remained the primary material used for battering rams. However, the wood was sometimes reinforced with metal or even covered in animal hides for added protection.

Overall, while the basic design of battering rams remained the same, some variations across time and regions existed particularly in the materials used for reinforcement and in specialized designs for different siege situations.

Now, despite it being a cheap and effective way to breech walls it was still outdated when gunpowder weapons came along. You would think that would be it, right… that battering rams would go extinct. Well, not quite.

The Battering Ram In Modern Times

Battering rams continue to be used in modern times by law enforcement and military special forces. These modern battering rams are designed to quickly breach doors and gates of buildings during raids or hostage situations.

Modern battering rams, used by law enforcement, are typically made of heavy-duty metals such as steel or titanium, making them more durable and resistant to damage. They are often fitted with shock-absorbing handles and grips for improved control, and may also include hydraulic or pneumatic systems to increase their force.

So, why do police and other law enforcement agencies use battering rams?

Law enforcement agencies use battering rams to gain entry to buildings in high-risk situations, such as when a suspect is believed to be armed and dangerous or when hostages are being held inside. Military special forces also use battering rams as part of their tactical entry procedures, to quickly gain entry into enemy compounds or buildings.

While the use of battering rams in modern times terribly outdated. They work. They allow for a quick and forceful breach of doors and gates, which can be critical in situations where time is of the essence and lives may be at stake.

In Conclusion

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you learned a thing or two. If you wish to continue learning I suggest taking a look at my article right here comparing the two great siege weapons the trebuchet and a ballista.

Take care!

Source: In The Medieval Fortress: Castles, Forts and Walled Cities of the Middle Ages, 138-155