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Howard A/son, a member of a U.S. medical team in Plei Brel Dor, South Vietnam, tries out a Montagnard tribesman's crossbow during a visit to village. Ik taM by Ken W. Purdy CANOGA PARK. CALIF A t the height of the North Vietnamese offensive, the Saigon government issued a weapons-supply order: every male between the ages of 18 and 49 in 14 Montagnard villages was to be supplied with a cross- how and arrows--poisoned, according to Walter Cronkite's report on CBS television. A strange order, on first sight, be-" cause the crossbow is the traditional weapon of the Montagnard mountain people, but still it officially reestablished the crossbow as man's oldest war weapon, invented by the Chinese more than 400 years before Christ, outlawed in 1139, used in World Wars I and II, and in Vietnam from the beginning of the conflict. (Capt. Francisco Pena, an Army medical officer, drew the first Purple Heart for a crossbow wound.) A short, strong bow mounted in a riflelike stock, the crossbow had not changed essentially in 24 centuries until a Canoga Park, Calif., electronics technician, ex-Marine David S. Benedict, began using jet-age testing equipment, including high-speed movie photography, to improve a weapon most authorities thought had reached perfection before Columbus discovered America. Benedict spent $50,000 on the project, hopes to recover the money by manufacturing his new bow. He has already sold many, some to clients as far from California as Africa, and experimental Benedict models have been combat-tested in Vietnam. The Vietnamese crossbow is simple: a short, light stock holding a heavy bow sometimes four feet long. Everything is wood, including the trigger-assembly and the string, made of bamboo. The short dartlike arrows are feathered with a cunningly folded leaf set in a slit. An expert Montagnard can walk into a forest carrying an ax and knife and come out less than two hours later with a crossbow and a sheaf of arrows. The weapon is practically silent and accurate up to about 40 yards. Perhaps because it was the first machine-weapon, the crossbow has fascinated and repeMed mankind. In the West, some have always considered it evil, as in the 12th century when the Council of Lateran forbade its use against Christians--but sanctioned it for slaying heathens! Some military commanders ordered captured crossbow- rnen killed out of hand, and even today in this country the crossbow is outlawed for hunting in* states that have allowed the regular, or long how, for years. (Arkansas was the first exception, owing to the efforts of one of the pioneering U.S. crossbow-makers, George Stevens of Huntsville.) Some archery target ranges won't allow cross- hows on the premises. As with most prejudices, there's no sense behind this one. The crossbow is jus; a bow, more accurate and stronger than the ordinary bow. Fearsome weapon Admittedly the military crossbow of the late 1400's was a fearsome weapon. It could throw its short heavy arrow --called a "quarrel" or "bolt"--450 yards, and at 50 yards it would fly through an inch-thick plank and kill a man behind it. Hitting a knight's helmet, a quarrel could knock him off his horse even if it didn't smash through his armor. The first "shaped charge" was not the bazooka shell that burned through tank armor in World War II, it was a flattened, four-pointed crossbow bolt with a wad of beeswax stuck on it. The beeswax held the heavy bolt against the surface of even curving armor for a fraction of a second, long enough to concentrate its energy on a dime-sized spot and break through. Because it had to be cocked by a windlass or a lever (a force of 1200 pounds might be needed to bend the thick steel bow), the crossbow had a slower rate of fire than the long bow, but was more powerful and more accurate. Today a Swiss maker, Gustav Schmid of Neckar, produces a crossbow that will put five shots inside a one-inch circle at 40 yards. A London David 5. Benedict has improved the crossbow after centuries by using jet- age testing equipment and photography. firm, lack The Yeoman Ltd., makes a telescopically-sighted crossbow, sold a number of them to the Soviet government. The Russians specified hypodermic-tipped arrows suitable for taking small monkeys alive. Utility companies throw lines across wide canyons by crossbow and a New York City milkman, Irving Klein, lost $100 to a crossbow-armed stickup man. Grenade tossers The British War Museum in London has on exhibit two crossbows that threw grenades in World War I, and after World War II stories of men killed by arrows were told, among them the German infantryman killed at 40 yards . by Major I.M.T.F. ("Mad Jack") Churchill of the Manchester Regiment during the retreat to Dunkirk, and the two Japanese soldiers who came around a jungle corner to find an Australian pointing a cocked 1500-pound crossbow at their belt buckles. (The Aussies used crossbows to throw fire-arrows into Japanese installations.) In 1944 the U.S. Armed Forces asked the Office of Scientific Research to design two crossbows for underground and commando work, a pistol-sized model and a rifle-type. Rubber-powered, the OSR weapons were code- named Little Joe and Brg )oe Pedal. Little |oe could be hidden under a coat and would put a heavy dart through the three inches of a New York City phone book; The Japanese once made even smaller crossbows: they could be hidden in kimono sleeves. They also made crossbows 12 feet long for castle defense. The Chinese made a repeater, and the Chinese army was still using it as lale as the Sino-Japanese war of 1895. It would fire'20 arrows in 15 seconds. Friction reduced All these crossbows, except the rubber-powered Little Joe and Big |oe, worked basically in the same way: a bow was mounted, turned slightly upward, in a thick stock which had a catch for the bowstring, a trigger to let it off, j groove for !he jrrow. Because the string, powered by a bow underneath it, pulled downward as well as forward, as much as 40 percent of its force could be lost through friction. It is this loss that the David Benedict design eliminates: Benedict cut the bow in two and mounted the arms in push-in holders on each side of, and above the stock. Thus the string runs straight down the arrow-groove almost friction-free. Benedict finally came up with a model that threw an arrow at an initial velocity of 300 miles an hour. "This is only the beginning," Benedict says. "I have more ideas in the pipeline, including pistols and repeaters, and a 300-pound bow that can be cocked by a child. I know it sounds wild, but there's a definite place in the jet age for the crossbow, and I know what it is."