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!