Saturday, February 4, 2012

So How Did They Use Those Early Guns?

I've made it a goal to post twenty-five original pieces here this year. So far, I'm a little behind--as you can tell. Watch this space to see if I can make up the shortfall.

Last time, we talked about early guns, what they looked like, and whether they really could bring down a man in armor. Today we're going to explore how the armies of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries used them.

It doesn't take much work to envision how cumbersome the early handgonnes were, and how difficult to use. Just try to imagine holding one under your arm, bracing it against your body and aiming with your left hand as you try to light the fuse with a slowmatch in your right--all while an armored knight is bearing down on you. Now try to time your shot: you have to let him get close enough that you'll probably hit him, close enough that your ball will probably penetrate his armor, but not close enough for him to stick you with the pointy end of a fourteen-foot lance. Ideally, you want to touch off your fuse when he's about fifty yards away, so your ball will catch him at about half that distance. Of course, that's assuming your hand isn't shaking too badly for you to touch match to fuse, that your fuse catches right away, that it burns cleanly, that your powder charge catches immediately (or at all).

Yeah. Wanna trade places with a medieval handgonner? Me neither.

Small wonder that these guys fought from behind cover, right? Records are a little sketchy, but they usually seem to have fought like archers or crossbowmen from behind pavises, or from behind field fortifications like trenches or ditches or pottes like at Courtrai. Or, of course, from behind castle walls.

One of the first extensive, and decisive, uses of handgonnes seems to have been during the Hussite Wars in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) from 1419 to 1436. The Hussites, a heretic group targeted for Crusades by the Church, fought from within wagon squares; they would draw up their wagons in a temporary fortress, harass the enemy with artillery until they charged, then pepper them at close range with crossbows and handgonnes. When the enemy retreated, the real killing began as the Hussites counterattacked with swords and spears and hand weapons against the flanks as the gunners and crossbowmen continued shooting them in the back.

But in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it was cannon that were really changing the face of warfare. Cannon had already been on the battlefield for a century or so--we looked at a picture of an early cannon a few posts ago--but by the fifteenth century most of Europe had recognized their usefulness. Fifteenth-century cannon came in a bewildering array of shapes and sizes, but the largest hurled balls of stone weighing nearly a thousand pounds.

It was at the siege of Constantinople in 1453 that cannon made their first real mark on history. The Ottoman Sultan Mehmet (Muhammad) II conquered the city in forty days, partly through the use of huge siege guns that could hurl 600-pound balls more than a mile. After that, few besieging armies would think of doing their work without big guns.

But huge siege guns were hard to use on an open battlefield, where their size, limited mobility, and slow rate of fire (think two to three shots per day) made them difficult to use--an army could simply get out of the way before the gun was ready to fire--and vulnerable to capture. Field armies needed mobile guns that could be fired quickly. And so field artillery, small, quick-loading, mobile guns that could pour plenty of shot into enemy armies, was born.

For most of the fifteenth century, field artillery was still slow, heavy, and clumsy; it could be transported on wheeled carriages, but not fired from them, which made moving it in the heat of battle a difficult prospect at best. But in his invasion of Italy from 1494-96, Charles VIII of France brought real field artillery: light guns mounted on two-wheeled carriages from which they could be aimed (after a fashion) and fired without dismounting. It was by no means a perfect arrangement, and it would undergo plenty of refinement over the next four centuries, but the two-wheeled carriage would remain the standard mount for field artillery until the end of the nineteenth century.

So at the end of the fifteenth century, infantry with their cumbersome handgonnes lagged behind the new mobile artillery. But not for long. Next time, we'll look at the introduction of the arquebus and musket and the age of pike and shot.

Until then....

Go get your Nerd on!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

My First Guest Blog!

I've written my first guest post, over on Defined By Acronyms's funny-fun-witty blog "The Mayhem of Writing: SAHM-Style". Want to read about a writer's life? Her real life, without all the writer-stereotype stuff? Go check her work out!

You can find my guest post here, but stay a while and check her site out. If you're a parent, or a writer, or you've ever been distracted in the middle of something important--you'll enjoy her work.

Go get your nerd on!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

I'm Coming a Little Late to This Party...

But SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act currently being fast-tracked through Congress, seems like a lousy idea to me. You can draw your own conclusions here, here, and here.

(Hint: Under SOPA, posting these links to copyrighted material could get not only my blog, but Blogger shut down.)

I'm pretty sure this law, at least as I understand it, would not survive a First Amendment challenge. But how much damage could it do to the Internet's rising talent in the meantime?

Make up your own mind. I'm going to do some more research into this.


Hat tip to Seth Godin for putting the word out about this. Thanks, Seth!

Monday, November 28, 2011

From Knights to Minutemen: Early Gunpowder Weapons

Well, it's been more than a month. I've been recovering from back surgery--I have to say it's taken longer than I expected it to. My mind still wants me to be in my late 20s, and my 40-year-old body often takes issue with that. But I'm just about ready to quit avoiding life and get back to work.

And last time, I promised I'd talk about early gunpowder weapons in this post. So here we go:

As we mentioned last time, we don't know exactly when gunpowder weapons first appeared on the battlefield. We have an illustration of a cannon from 1326, but it's unlikely the artist had ever seen a gun with his own eyes; if the gunner fired it as the picture suggests, its recoil would carry it off the table to crush his legs!

Arrow-shaped projectiles, on the other hand, seem to have been common in the earliest days of gunpowder weapons. And no wonder: arrows and similar projectiles had been the most common of missiles for centuries. It's hard to imagine such projectiles could stand up very well to the shock of being launched from cannon, however; the violence of the black powder explosion would more likely shatter the shaft than propel it with any degree of accuracy. Lead and iron balls seem to have been common by the end of the fourteenth century.

But what about the guns? Surely they weren't all vase-shaped monsters like the one in the painting?

They weren't. In fact, it's hard to generalize at all about early guns. In the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, each gun was unique in size, shape, and caliber. Bellmakers--not gunsmiths--cast them of bronze or brass one at a time with little regard for standardization. They were heavy and awkward, difficult to move and slow to load. In their first century, big guns were valuable in breaching castle walls but of limited use on the battlefield.

W.L. Ruffell has a great page on early guns, including a detailed description of how a bombard (an early type of iron gun) was made, here.

It was in the fourteenth century that the earliest small arms (guns a soldier can carry and use by himself) appeared, as well. These early guns, which we call hand cannon or handgonnes, didn't look much like today's guns, or even those of two centuries ago. If you saw one today, you might mistake it for a fancy walking-stick, as in the first picture on this page.

But it's a lot more than that. A tube of bronze mounted on the end of a spear-shaft, often with a hook welded to the barrel so the gunner could brace it against a castle wall or rock or other cover, the fourteenth century handgonne was something new on the battlefield. The way it thundered and spat smoke and flame was intimidating enough, and indeed when I was younger we thought that was its chief value--to frighten horses and men even as it did little real damage.

But recent experiments have shown otherwise. In fact, at short ranges handgonnes could penetrate any armor in use in the fourteenth century, and they could do so more cheaply than crossbows and with less training than longbows. Small wonder that guns had largely replaced crossbows and longbows on the battlefield by the middle of the sixteenth century, especially as their design improved and arquebuses replaced handgonnes as the dominant small arm.

The arquebus was the first gun most people today would recognize. Instead of being merely a gun tube on a stick, it incorporated two important advances: a shoulder-stock to improve stability and allow for aiming, and a matchlock firing mechanism to make it easier to fire. Where the hand-gunner would have to hold his gonne in one hand and his ignition source in the other, the matchlock mounted the ignition source (called a slowmatch or just match) on the gun itself, leaving the gunner's hands free to work the weapon. Now, instead of touching his match to a fuse while trying to aim at the same time, he could aim and pull the trigger, which pressed the lit end of the match against a priming pan full of powder and fired the weapon. It was far from a perfect design: it worked poorly or not at all in wet weather, and the need for gunners to carry smoldering slowmatches made working with loose powder...a delicate proposition. Still, it was a significant enough improvement that no one managed to come up with a cost-effective improvement for almost two centuries.

Next time we'll talk about how the armies of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries employed these weapons. Until then...

Go get your nerd on!