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!