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Artillery: 14th - 16th century

The most significant development in the story of warfare is the use of gunpowder to propel a missile. There has been much debate as to where the first experiments are made. Inconclusive and sometimes mistranslated references from early documents appear to give the priority variously to the Chinese, the Hindus, the Arabs and the Turks.

It is likely that the matter can never be resolved. The earliest incontrovertible evidence of artillery is a drawing of a crude form of cannon in a manuscript dated 1327 (now in the library of Christ Church, Oxford). There is a reference to a gun mounted on a ship in 1336, and the possibility of cannon of some kind in use at Crécy and Calais in 1346-7.


The problem confronting early makers of artillery is how to construct a tube strong enough to contain an explosion which will propel a missile out of one end (or, in other words, how to make a gun rather than a bomb). An early solution gives us our word 'barrel'. The tube is built up of metal strips welded to each other along their straight edges - just as a barrel is constructed of similar strips of wood. This rather fragile structure is given greater strength by being encased in a series of tightly fitting metal rings.

With luck, a round stone (or later a ball of cast iron) will hurtle from the open end of this tube when gunpowder is ignited behind it.


The laborious loading and firing of such weapons limits their effective use to sieges - either inside a castle defending an entrance, or outside lobbing heavy objects at the walls. The size of the missile rather than its speed is the crucial factor. A breakthrough in this respect, in the late 14th century, is the discovery of how to cast gun barrels from molten iron.

Cannon, during the next two centuries, become progressively larger. There are some impressive surviving examples. Mons Meg, dating from the 15th century and now in Edinburgh castle, could hurl an iron ball, 18 inches in diameter, as far as a mile. The even larger Tsar Cannon in Moscow, cast in 1586 with a bore of 3 feet, weighs nearly 40 tons. Mobility is not one of its features.


One of the most remarkable of early cannon is a proud possession of Mehmed, the Turkish conqueror of Constantinople. Before his final attack in 1453 he terrifies the inhabitants by trundling close to their city a massive 19-ton bombard of cast iron. It requires 16 oxen and 200 men to manoeuvre it into its firing position. Once there, it settles down to a slow but devastating bombardment. A stone weighing as much as 600 pounds can be lobbed against the great city walls. The rate of fire is seven stones a day.

In this same same year, at Castillon in France, another potential of gun power is demonstrated - in the effect of light artillery on the battlefield.


Hand guns: 14th - 17th century

Portable guns are developed shortly after the first cannons. When first mentioned, in the 1360s, such a gun is like a small version of a cannon. A metal tube, up to a foot long, is attached to the end of a pole about six feet in length - an early and very basic version of the barrel and stock of a rifle.

The gunner has to apply a glowing coal or a red-hot wire to a touchhole in the loaded barrel, and then somehow get far enough away from the explosion. There is clearly not much opportunity for rapid aiming. Most such weapons are probably fired by two men, or are carried to a new position and fixed there before being loaded and ignited by one.


Refinements follow surprisingly fast. During the 15th century the barrel of such weapons is lengthened, giving more reliable aim. The wooden stock acquires a curve, so that the recoil raises the barrel rather than driving backwards with full force. A length of rope known as a 'match' replaces the hot coal or wire for igniting the charge in the touchhole; it is soaked in a substance which causes it to burn with a steady glow.

And a device called a 'lock' is developed - a curving arm of metal which holds the glowing match and will plunge it into the touchhole, when a pull on a trigger releases a spring. The 'matchlock' becomes the standard form of musket until the arrival of the flintlock in the 17th century.


The flintlock: 16th - 18th century

From the middle of the 16th century there are attempts to ignite the powder in the pan of a musket by means of a spark rather than from an already burning match. The flintlock is poised to replace the matchlock.

In a flintlock the spark is created by striking a sharp flint obliquely against a surface of slightly roughened steel (the device is already in domestic use in the tinderbox). Just as the trigger in a matchlock brings down the smouldering match, so it now uses the same action to strike the flint down sharply above the pan with its charge of gunpowder.


European countries develop their own differing versions of the flintlock. The one which eventually becomes standard is designed in France in about 1610 - possibly by Marin Le Bourgeoys, whose name is on a flintlock in the private collection of Louis XIII.

The French flintlock has the advantage of a halfcock position (with the gun ready to fire but safe), and its method of directing the spark into the pan proves reliable. By the 18th century it is the standard musket throughout most of Europe and in the American colonies. Spanish armies are the only ones to retain their own variety of flintlock, known as the miquelet.


Cartridges: 17th - 19th century

The efficiency of the flintlock mechanism is accompanied by a similar improvement in the loading of a musket. In the early years of hand-guns the soldier carries a powder flask, from which he tips a small charge of gunpowder into the pan of the gun and then a larger quantity down the barrel - following it with a round metal ball and sufficient wadding to hold it in place, before ramming the whole charge tight with his ramrod.

During the 17th century time is saved by providing the soldier with the correct charge, together with the ball, wrapped in a paper tube - the whole package being called a cartridge.


On the battlefield the soldier bites off the end of the paper tube, tips a small amount of powder into the pan of his flintlock and then pours the rest down the barrel, following it with the remains of the cartridge (the ball and the paper) which he rams tightly home.

This remains the standard procedure on the battlefield as long as muzzle-loading muskets are in use. Only in the 19th-century does it finally become obsolete, supplanted by breech-loading guns and metal cartridges with internal percussion caps.


The bayonet: 17th century

Somewhere in France in the early 17th century (and very probably in the region of Bayonne, which would explain the name of the new weapon) a dagger is adapted for insertion into the barrel of a musket. With the addition of this steel blade the musketeer can transform his weapon into a pike, for thrusting into the enemy at close quarters.

These first bayonets are awkward to use. Plugging into the barrel like a cork in a bottle, they are hard to remove if stuck in too firmly. Yet they will drop out, or even worse stick in the body of a stabbed opponent, if loosely inserted. Moreover the bayonet has to be removed from the barrel before the musket can be used again for its proper purpose.


The necessary improvement is proposed by Louis XIV's military genius, Vauban. Instead of a bayonet handle which pushes into the muzzle, he devises a ring fitting which slips over the end of the barrel. He adds a stud on the barrel and an L-shaped groove in the bayonet sleeve, so that the weapon can be locked firmly into position.

This socket bayonet is introduced in the French army in 1688. By the early 18th century it is adopted in all European countries. With modifications over the centuries, it remains an essential attachment to the infantryman's rifle up to modern times.


Percussion: from1807

Alexander Forsyth, a Scottish clergyman who enjoys shooting wildfowl, finds that the flash from his flintlock often alerts the sitting ducks which are his target. Sometimes they even fly away or dive before his ball reaches them.

Searching for a priming substance which will ignite without a spark, he discovers that potassium chlorate will do the job if struck a sharp blow. He successfully builds himself a fowling piece which fires by percussion. When his gun comes to the attention of the military, he is installed in the Tower of London to continue his experiments. By 1807 he has shown that his powder will work in any size of musket or cannon. His discovery is a turning point in the story of gunfire.


Forsyth's compound makes possible the development of the breech-loading bolt-action rifle which eventually becomes the standard infantry weapon - after many other inventors have also made their contribution.

The value of breech-loading is the time saved in inserting the cartridge into the breech (the back end of the barrel) rather than down the muzzle. Experiments in this direction go back to the 17th century, when a breech-loading musket is produced in Italy (possibly invented in Florence by Michele Lorenzoni). Practical versions are later developed in Britain by Patrick Ferguson (in 1776) and in the United States by John Hall (in 1811).


These are all flintlocks, and the clumsy firing mechanism reduces the advantage of the faster loading system. The first really effective breech-loading rifle is made possible by Forsyth's system of percussion. It is developed from 1827 in Germany by Johann von Dreyse.

Dreyse's extremely influential weapon, adopted by the Prussian army in 1848, has several new features. It uses a needle-like point to pierce the cartridge and strike the percussion cap, giving it the name 'needle-gun' (a short and blunt version of this needle later becomes the pin, the standard percussion device).


The Dreyse rifle also introduces the bolt, another standard feature of subsequent rifles. In this first application the bolt is merely a quick way of opening the breech and ramming in the next cartridge.

The eventual double-action bolt (pulling out the empty case when drawn back and inserting the live bullet on the forward movement) has to await the invention of the self-contained metal cartridge, with the percussion cap in its base. The first bullet of this kind is patented in 1846 by a Paris gunsmith named Houiller.


With these various elements, beginning with percussion, the standard rifle of the infantryman is in existence; its 20th-century form is merely a refinement. The principle of rifling (cutting grooves within the barrel to cause the bullet to spin for a straighter trajectory) has been experimented with since the 15th century. It comes into its own once ways are found, mainly during the 18th century, of making the bullet fit tightly in the barrel.

The obvious next development, in use by the 1870s, is the magazine, loaded with several bullets, which can be clipped on below the breech of the rifle. Beyond that there lies only mechanization - in the automatic rifle and the machine gun.


This History is as yet incomplete.


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