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An Assyrian battering ram attacking an enemy city.


A battering ram is a siege engine originating in ancient times to break open fortification walls or doors.

In its simplest form, a battering ram is just a large, heavy log carried by several people and propelled with force against an obstacle; the ram would be sufficient to damage the target if the log were massive enough and/or it were moved quickly enough, i.e. had enough momentum.

In a more sophisticated design, a battering ram was slung from a wheeled support frame by ropes or chains so that it could be much more massive and also more easily swung against its target. Sometimes the ram's attacking point would be reinforced with a metal head and vulnerable parts of the ram might be bound with metal bands. Many battering rams had protective roofs and side-screens covered in materials, usually fresh wet hides, presumably from the animals eaten by the besiegers, to prevent the ram being set on fire, as well as to protect the operators of the ram from enemies firing arrows down on them by allowing them to seek shelter within the battering ram structure. The image of the Assyrian battering ram shows how sophisticated attacks and defenses had become by the 9th century BC. The defenders are trying to set the ram alight with torches and have also put a chain under the ram. The attackers are trying to pull on the chain to free the ram, while the aforementioned wet hides would protect against the fire. The first confirmed use in the Occident was when the Spartans attacked Platea. The first use in the Mediterranean Sea with siege towers was in the 409 BC with the Selinusmarker siege.

In castles, defenders attempted to foil battering rams by dropping obstacles in front of the ram, such as a large sack of sawdust, just before it hit a wall, by using grappling hooks to immobilize the log, by setting the ram on fire, or by sallying to attack the ram directly.

Some battering rams were not slung from ropes or chains, but were instead supported by rollers. This allowed the ram to achieve a greater speed before striking its target and was therefore more destructive. Such a ram, as used by Alexander the Great, is described by the writer Vitruvius.

Variations on the battering ram included the drill, the mouse, the pick, and the siege hook. These were smaller than a ram and could be used in more limited spaces.

Battering rams had an important effect on the evolution of defensive walls.

Historical battering ram usages include:
  • Destruction of Jerusalemmarker
  • The Crusades
  • The fall of Romemarker
  • The siege of Constantinople


There is a popular myth in Gloucestermarker that the famous children's rhyme, Humpty Dumpty, is about a battering ram used in the siege of Gloucester in 1643, during the English Civil War. However, the story is almost certainly untrue; during the siege, which lasted only one month, no battering rams were used, although many cannons were. The idea seems to have originated in a spoof history essay by Professor David Daube written for The Oxford Magazine in 1956, which was widely believed despite obvious improbabilities (e.g., planning to cross River Severn by running the ram down a hill at speed, although the river is about 30 m (100 feet) wide at this point).

A capped ram is a battering ram that has an accessory at the head (usually made of iron or steel and sometimes shaped into the head and horns of a ram) to do more damage to a building.

Modern use

A modern battering ram.
Battering rams still serve many different roles in modern times. SWAT teams and other police forces often use small two-man metal rams for opening locked doors and effecting a door breaching. Other modern battering rams include a cylinder in which a piston gets fired automatically upon impact, which enhances the momentum of the impact significantly.

Notes

  1. Tucidides, II, 76.
  2. Diodorus the Siculus, XIII, 43-62.


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