Greetings my friends, I hope you are all well :)
I don’t know whether it’s my morbid outlook on life but when I think about history, the first thoughts I have and how I remember historical periods, seem to be by the many terrible and/or violent things which have happened due to “mankind’s” well er…..due to “mankind’s” nature, sadly. I know there are many great people and discoveries which have come down through history too, like those of Archimedes, Isaac Newton, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein and many others; brilliant composers and musicians such as Bach and Mozart (Mozart was writing symphony’s from about eight years of age) and wonderful painters like van Gogh, Monet and Rembrandt. It is however, the brutal stories of war, conquest and persecution which I remember mostly; the violent dark ages, the Norman conquest, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Reformation, the witch hunts and the World Wars, to name but a few…..
Even as I was going through my small collection of musket and pistol shot the other day, I was again reminded of the bloody times and millions of people who must have died because of this lethal innovation and its eventual development into the modern assault rifle. I realised soon enough that the beginning of the story goes way back to probably Greece in the 7th Century or even before, further back in history than I imagined, at any rate. This is but a flavour, a glimpse of a few brief moments in history but hopefully, it may also serve as a platform for further investigation.
If one wants to start at the beginning of war-fare by fire and read up on the fascinating discoveries of how we [mankind] probably first arrived at the primitive version of the hand cannon, called a fire lance, then here’s a list of Wikipedia pages which may wet one’s appetite and provide a place to start:
- Greek Fire.
- Fire Arrows.
- Fire Lance.
Gun powder (potassium nitrate, sulphur and charcoal) or black powder as it is also known, was first thought to have been used in China around the 9th Century but initially, the properties of these ingredients were an accidental discovery whilst seeking an elixir to prolong human life and in the early stages, it was only used in fireworks.
It was probably as early as the 10th Century that black powder was first used for military purposes, in the form of the fire lance. A tube filled with gun powder and sometimes metal shards or darts, was attached to the end of a spear and used as a type of exploding javelin which was thrown at the enemy after ignition. If hit, the enemy would be showered in exploding gun powder, damaging projectiles and then the spear itself but the first significant documented use of such weapons, did not occur until the defence of De’an County, China, in 1132.
I suppose firing or igniting the fire lance was a rather risky business, especially the early types which had barrels or tubes made of bamboo. Some of these most probably exploded in all directions when fired but nevertheless, facing several hundred or several thousands of these weapons for the first time, must have been an awe-inspiring and shocking experience to an invading enemy. Eventually, barrels were cast in bronze, which made things a lot more user-friendly and facilitated the next stage of development for this “gun”.
Hand cannon – Yuan dynasty (1271 – 1368).
Hand cannon – Bellifortis manuscript, China (1405).
Courtesy of Wikipedia.
The Hand Cannon.
Cannon/Bombard/Gonne/Gun (Gun is a modern term given for a later development).
With improvements in the development of the fire lance and the explosive yield of black powder, a new era in gun ware-fare was about to be born with the introduction of the hand cannon. Probably first used in 13th Century China but quickly spreading throughout Europe (Europe probably already knew the recipe for gun powder – Roger Bacon’s Opus Majus and Opus Tertium 1267).
Originally fired by two people, one to hold the “stock” and aim the cannon, the other to ignite the powder through a small hole in the top of the breech with a piece of rope, a hot piece of coal, a stick or similar but if the stock or cannon was propped against/on something, then it could be fired by just one person. Extremely inaccurate and weighing anything from about 1.5kg to 15kg, the firer just aimed the weapon in the general direction of the target and hoped for the best; the closer they were, the better.
These developments allowed for more effective projectiles to be fired from the tube, including balls of metal or sometimes stone, the range of which was much improved; tactics for battle slowly began to follow a different course but at this stage, cannon power and ammunition still had difficulty penetrating body armour. Of course, this soon changed and the demand for “artillery” such as the hand cannon and other firearms, increased dramatically on the battlefield.
Large bronze cannon (breech-loading) of the type used by the Ottoman Empire in the conquest of Constantinople (1453). Courtesy of Wikimedia.
By the 14th Century, the hand cannon was being used in Europe and the Middle east but other developments such as corned powder, the slow match and the flash pan, facilitated the next stage of development of not only cannons but the musket and other small firearms…..
Arquebus – Topkapi palace, Istanbul (unsure of date).
Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Thought by many as the true forerunner of the musket and most widely used from about 1500 – 1700, pinning down the original development of the arquebus was rather vague, probably in China or Europe. They were documented a being used in some numbers in Hungary from 1458 and exhibited a revolutionary firing mechanism. It was called the “matchlock”, a dramatic improvement as far as lighting the powder was concerned as it took away the need for performing this task by hand, or firing the weapon with two people. Using these weapons in the field became much easier.
The operation of a “matchlock” arquebus, involved a slow match held in a curved metal clamp, which later became the trigger mechanism of the “gonne” proper. The match + firing mechanism (lock) = matchlock and this is a general term used for all types of weapon with this design of firing mechanism. When the string or trigger was pulled, a serpentine shaped clamp (curved metal clamp) lowered the match into the flash pan, this in turn ignited the powder in the breech. It fired a metal ball and again, with no standardization, the ammunition usually had to be tailor-made for each gun. Because of this, ammunition making tools which were suited to the bore of each individual gun, were issued to each owner so they could form extra ammunition in the field – a joyous occasion, I’ll bet!
Another development in the early 16th Century, was the “wheel-lock” firing mechanism. A complicated and skilful design but too intricate for mass production and was mainly used for élite, made-to-measure guns and guns needed for special operations (they were better made arquebus and more accurate over slightly longer distances than the easier to produce matchlock design).
The superb workmanship of a wheel-lock mechanism from a pistol made in Augsburg, probably manufactured around 1580:
Exterior of Wheel-lock mechanism.
Courtesy of Wikipedia.
One wouldn’t want to get mud or grit inside here.
Interior of wheel-lock mechanism.
Courtesy of Wikipedia.
When the trigger is pulled, a sprung mechanism incorporates a spinning steel wheel which rubs abrasively against a piece of iron pyrite, a shower of sparks is created which ignites the powder in the flash pan.
The Flintlock Musket.
By the early 17th Century and several further developments in the firing mechanism eg. the snaplock, the snaphance and the doglock etc., the flintlock mechanism was born. A tremendously important step as now the operation carried out by the “dog” (a sort of safety catch), was no longer required – the whole firing sequence (apart from priming the flash pan and loading the powder and ball) would now be facilitated by the internal workings of the lock. Many different types of weapon came to use the flintlock mechanism but the musket was the most popular and again, as in other pieces which have come before it, this was a smooth bore, muzzle-loading type weapon.
The original musket was large (from 5 – 6 feet long) and heavy (10 – 12lbs), it originally used a forked rest when discharged and fired a round lead ball. As in other “gonnes” like the smaller arquebus, the ball was slightly less in diameter than the bore, allowing for any potential build up of debris in the barrel and in this way, the ball would still be able to exit, unhindered.
Some musket balls and pistol shot.
The musket was capable of penetrating body armour at a longer range (probably up to 150 yards) and was first used for this purpose but when the weight and length of the gun had been reduced somewhat, they were more easily carried around and were used more by infantry soldiers and small skirmish type groups in closer combat than just for long-range work.
They proved very successful when deployed in a rank firing formation; one line of men fire and then they move to the back of the rank, the next line then fires and then moves to the back and so on. The front line may remain where they are or take a step forward each time it’s their turn to fire, by the time every line has fired the first has re-loaded and is ready to fire again – a continuous volley of bullets. This strategy required that the oncoming enemy was allowed to come within 50 or 60 yards or so of the lines of musketeers before the order to fire was given and at this range, the continual volley of bullets were devastating to the advancing infantry.
The famous British flintlock musket – the 1756 version long land pattern “Brown Bess”. Courtesy of Military Heritage.
The “Brown Bess” smooth bore, flintlock musket is the longest-serving firearm of the British army, used from 1722 – 1838, it reputedly had a maximum range of about 175 yards and was only replaced in 1839 by a similar musket, the only difference being the newly developed percussion cap type firing mechanism. The first Brown Bess was just over five feet long and could accommodate a seventeen inch bayonet attached to the end, making a total length of just over six and a half feet. The bore of the barrel was .75 inches diameter, or .75 caliber (cal) as it is also known, it generally fired a bullet of .69 cal to allow for the barrel fouling with powder residue.
In my view (humble though it is), one of the most important developments of all was the invention of the rifled musket by the early 19th Century: a set of grooved spirals down the internal surface of the barrel, caused the bullet to spin before exiting the gun. The spin enabled it to fly on a very straight trajectory and along with further developments in the design of the bullet, was a big leap forward in the accuracy and range of the weapon i.e. now very accurate to 500 yards or more and still deadly at over 1000.
Although true rifles had been in evidence for some time, they were not yet a viable proposition for the battlefield. They took far too long to re-load and this became more of an increasing problem as again, debris progressively built up in the barrel after each shot. This was one of the reasons why in 1853, the British “Enfield” muzzle-loading, percussion cap, rifled musket had replaced the smooth bore flintlock musket in the British army; muskets were quicker to reload and were more user friendly than rifles. Likewise, during the American civil war in the 1860’s, the American 1861 “Springfield” rifled musket was the main weapon, followed by the Enfield.
Minie balls and an Enfield on the right (bullets just over actual size).
The minie ball began to replace round ball shot from about 1830 – 1840, it allowed much quicker muzzle-loading of rifled barrels. The minie ball had a flange type hollow at the end and ribs which expanded when fired, the bullet then fit the rifled barrel more snugly and more pressure was built up in the breech, dramatically increasing the muzzle velocity and the range.
This is the story so far, the stage was now set for the development of the breech-loader and the true rifle proper, followed by the assault rifle of today. This is where the tale will continue next time. Until then, have a good week and cheerio folks…..
Regards James :)