The origin of the expression "to have shot one's bolt"

agliagli

Senior Member
French
Hello,

I am not sure I am writing in the accurate section, but I am curious about the origin of the expression "to have shot one's bolt".

Thank you in advance.
 
  • palomnik

    Senior Member
    English
    I can't provide any supporitng evidence for this, but I believe that it comes from firearms.

    The English word bolt means, I think, "culasse" in French. To shoot your bolt means to use up all your bullets - by extension, to use up all that you have.
     

    addps4cat

    New Member
    USA, english
    Sounds like a crossbow. Crossbows could only shoot once, and after that, you'd have to wind up the crossbow for several minutes before you could fire again. Also the projectile is called a crossbow bolt while guns use bullets.
     

    AugustusFo

    New Member
    English
    Hello,

    I am not sure I am writing in the accurate section, but I am curious about the origin of the expression "to have shot one's bolt".

    Thank you in advance.
    The bolt is an internal sliding rod in a bolt action rifle. It has an external handle which is pulled back by hand to discharge a cartridge out through a slot in the side of the gun. A new bullet can then be inserted through the same slot after which the bolt is pushed forward again to close the slot and to push the new bullet into position for firing.The bolt takes the back force of the bullet when it is shot. The saying jokingly implies that you have shot all your bullets plus the bolt, but in reality a rifle cannot shoot its bolt.
     

    Awwal12

    Senior Member
    Russian
    Sounds like a crossbow. Crossbows could only shoot once, and after that, you'd have to wind up the crossbow for several minutes before you could fire again. Also the projectile is called a crossbow bolt while guns use bullets.
    I must note that "several minutes" is an exaggeration. Even a ballista could theoretically launch two projectiles every minute; for a heavy siege crossbow with a winch, operated by one man, the maximal rate of fire would be roughly the same. It would be even higher for average field crossbows (usually spanned by stirrups, belt hooks or various levers), though their rate of fire still was 2-3 times lower than for English longbows (which made crossbowmen particularly vulnerable to direct cavalry attacks). Theoretically it could refer to using crossbows in cavalry, as a part of the proto-reiter tactics when some cavalrymen armed with crossbows were approaching enemy lines, making single shots from their crossbows and then retreating (as they were practically unable to reload while riding on horseback).
     

    jimquk

    Member
    British English
    I would guess that the reference could be to a crossbowman lying in wait to ambush an enemy: once he's shot his bolt, the element of surprise is gone: if he didn't hit his target first time, he's in trouble.
     

    Awwal12

    Senior Member
    Russian
    I would guess that the reference could be to a crossbowman lying in wait to ambush an enemy: once he's shot his bolt, the element of surprise is gone: if he didn't hit his target first time, he's in trouble.
    That seems plausible. Especially taking into account that reloading isn't too fast indeed and most typically you also need to stand up to reload.
     

    Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I think the point is that if a crossbowman has shot his last bolt he is defenceless - or at least he can no longer function as a crossbowman, though of course he may have some other weapon at hand.
     

    Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    ...though their rate of fire still was 2-3 times lower than for English longbows

    In battle a longbowman would plant his arrows in the ground, not take them from a quiver like in a Robin Hood film. In practice at home when well fed and relaxed, a longbowman could pick up and notch an arrow, draw the bow, take aim and release the arrow in less than ten seconds (if modern tests are reliable). Under the stress of battle or after a long march it would be different. Drawing a longbow requires a lot of effort and fatigue would soon set in so that the rate at which arrows were fired would slow down. Even so, longbows were the machine guns of their time!
     

    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    I think the point is that if a crossbowman has shot his last bolt he is defenceless - or at least he can no longer function as a crossbowman, though of course he may have some other weapon at hand.
    That how I understand it as well. Several languages have similar expressions, like German "sein Pulver verschossen haben" (having shot all one's [gun]powder).
     

    Awwal12

    Senior Member
    Russian
    In battle a longbowman would plant his arrows in the ground, not take them from a quiver like in a Robin Hood film.
    It was a typical manner of using them, but surely not universal. Quivers were a necessary part of any longbowman's equipment anyway, and the point is that the rate of fire could be easily maximized in combat when necessary (and their rate of fire was actually pivotal for disarraying and repelling cavalry charges), especially taking into account that longbowmen didn't aim much until the enemy was really close.

    Under the stress of battle or after a long march it would be different
    Obviously - that's why experienced mercenaries were always valuable. Still, all that applies to crossbowmen too.
     

    Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    It was a typical manner of using them, but surely not universal. Quivers were a necessary part of any longbowman's equipment anyway, and the point is that the rate of fire could be easily maximized in combat when necessary (and their rate of fire was actually pivotal for disarraying and repelling cavalry charges), especially taking into account that longbowmen didn't aim much until the enemy was really close.


    Obviously - that's why experienced mercenaries were always valuable. Still, all that applies to crossbowmen too.

    There would be a difference between a battle where there was time for the bowmen to prepare their defences and otherwise get ready and, say, hunting or a skirmish.

    One of the main differences between longbowmen and crossbowmen was that the former required long training starting as a boys. There were laws requiring males of a certain age to practice archery "at the butts". An English or Welsh yeoman bowman would instruct his son who would be given longer and longer bows as he grew up. Drawing a longbow is as much a matter of technique as strength and is best grown into. Strength is needed not only to draw the bow but to keep it drawn until ready to fire. No technique is needed to set a crossbow, just instruction on how to do it. Once a crossbow is set it stays set on its own until the trigger is pulled. In short, longbowmen needed a culture to produce them while crossbowmen did not.
     

    Awwal12

    Senior Member
    Russian
    One of the main differences between longbowmen and crossbowmen was that the former required long training starting as a boys.
    It seems usually exaggerated. A modern dedicated archer doesn't really need decades of training to make an aimed shot from a 75-kg longbow replica. There's, of course, one important part: he's also usually bigger than an average Englishman of the 15th century, and he eats better food. So, ultimately, skilled archers were a limited resource and English kings were aware of that. Crossbows, however, had exorbitant prices, and only a very rich lord or city was able to use comparatively large masses of crossbowmen.

    The main *tactical* difference was the much higher rate of fire for longbows, at the cost of somewhat lower penetration. The latter was mostly irrelevant against heavy cavalry anyway - the horses were the main target usually, since plate armor, which was massively introduced by the end of the 14th century, was almost invulnerable to both arrows and bolts, if we exclude heavy siege crossbows. And by the time when the horses themselves got massively armored, longbows were already largely replaced by firearms.
     

    Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I am not saying that decades of training were required, just that it was thought best to start young to learn the technique. It was presumably a bit like athletic field events where technique is as important as strength. It also seems to have been thought necessary to keep your skill honed.

    The best armour would stop arrows, but not all combatants were of course wearing the best quality armour. Horses tended to be best protected at the front and were not so well protected at the sides. If a knight was unhorsed he was vulnerable to being put out of action by foot soldiers who moved in quickly.

    Tactics were of course all important as is the case in employing any weapon. It also pays not to be overconfident and impetuous - see the Battle of Agincourt.
     

    AugustusFo

    New Member
    English
    But a crossbow can. The projectiles of a crossbow are called "bolts".
    I thought about that, but a crossbow shooter carries many bolts, and the saying is not "He has shot his bolts", but "bolt" singular. Also, although slower to reload than a comparable bow, it still takes less than 10 seconds to reload a crossbow, so shooting one of many bolts would not mean that the shooter's battle or hunt was over. A rifle, though has only one bolt which, if somehow shot, would mean the shooter was done. Anyway, you might be correct. I always just assumed that it referred to a rifle bolt.
     

    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    Late medieval crossbows had become extremely powerful, armour breaking weapons; more powerful than early muskets. But that made reloading them a difficult and time consuming task takes more than a minute, which makes a crossbowman effectively defenceless.

    That is at least the explanation you find if you search a bit. But explanations for idioms should indeed be taken with a grain of salt as there are rarely primary sources available and popular explanations are often folk etymological interpretations that have been copied so many time that people have stopped to question them.
     

    Awwal12

    Senior Member
    Russian
    Horses tended to be best protected at the front and were not so well protected at the sides.
    Even from the front the most typical combat protection of a horse was close to zero in the mid 15th century (just chanfrons, basically). Apparently, until the end of the 15th century barding was used almost exclusively in tournaments, likely because it was making cavalrymen too slow in combat, quickly fatiguing the horses. Even on various depictions of the battle of Pavia (1520s) we don't see any horses fully covered by plate armor (though we do see them regularly on the depictions of tournaments).

    more powerful than early muskets
    Again, only if we include heavy siege crossbows (which weren't the most typical weapons of this class - they were, indeed, too heavy and unwieldy for field action). Muskets were developed as heavy armor-piercing firearms from the beginning (and were very successful in piercing full plate armor, effectively rendering it impractical very soon); by "early muskets" you must mean arquebuses, I presume.
     
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