Ancient weapon, modern war

The Vietnam War saw the advent of some of the 20th Century’s most deadly and sophisticated weapons. These included the latest Soviet surface-to-air missiles that protected North Vietnamese cities and the USS Long Beach (CGN 9), the world’s first nuclear powered guided missile cruiser, which the U.S. Navy deployed in the Tonkin Gulf.

For all its modern technology, the Vietnam War also employed weapons of the most ancient and simple design. These included everything from punji sticks, which were nothing more than sharpened pieces of bamboo, smeared with feces to induce infection, to the renowned Montagnard Crossbow.

The Montagnards (the name is derived from French for people of the mountains) were various groups of indigenous people who inhabited the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Fiercely independent, they lived outside the mainstream of Vietnamese culture and society, and many practiced Catholicism taught to them by French Missionaries. This put them at odds with the Communist North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies, and made them a natural ally and asset to U.S. forces. They were heavily recruited and welcomed with open arms by the U.S. military and performed invaluable services, especially alongside U.S. Special Forces teams. As U.S. Soldiers trained and became familiar with the Montagnards, they became familiar with their crossbow.

Totally out of place in a world of M1 carbines, M16s and AK-47s, the crossbow is believed to date back more than a thousand years. Yet in the hands of a skilled marksman, it remains a surprisingly effective weapon.

An outstanding weapon for hunting small game, its light weight and virtually silent operation made it ideal for a quiet kill. Easy to use and easier to repair, it could be very lethal, especially with its arrows dipped in poison. Under the right conditions, and with a need for covert operation, it could also be lethal when used against a human target.

These crossbows became synonymous with the Montagnards and were often sought out by GIs as souvenirs to bring back to the States, especially by those who served with the Montagnards.

The Montagnard crossbow pictured above was brought back from Vietnam by U.S. Army Veteran Joe Fornelli, and now hangs on display at the Italian American Veterans Museum.

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Steve Corbo

A founding member and corporate secretary of the Italian American Veterans Museum, Steve Corbo is the museum’s curator and a military consultant for Fra Noi. He has served for 25 years as president of S.A. Corbo & Associates Inc., providing professional liability insurance to health care providers. The son and nephew of World War II veterans and a passionate military historian for over 50 years, he has written and published articles on a variety of topics, including military history, and serves as the military consultant for Fra Noi, the Chicago-area Italian-American magazine.

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