The Origins Of The

Exactly when and where tubes were first used with a charge of gunpowder to hurl projectiles we do not know. In The Alexiad already quoted, we learn that bronze tubes were used to direct inflammable mixtures. The German

Zeitschrift für historische Waffenkunde among whose papers we find many of the outstanding research studies on early arms, states that Chinese annals for the year 1259 A.D. list the use of a "fiery powder" in bamboo tubes. Hollow tubes of wood wrapped around with hide, hemp or a similar winding and then loaded from the muzzle with alternate charges of powder and an incendiary ball are known to have been in use by the early Tartars and Arabs. These last mentioned devices operate on the system of Roman Candles, the fire at the muzzle communicating around each ball to the powder which launches it. It must be evident, however, that all such weapons were not actually guns but were, in effect, forerunners of (he modern flame thrower. 'J'hey were used to start fires, not. to penetrate by projectile force.

German writers for years have pointed to the legend of the "discovery" of gunpowder by the monk Berthold Schwartz as evidence that the discovery of the possibility of projecting lethal balls by gunpowder was made in Germany. According to the favorite version of this tale, the monk was compounding gunpowder in a chemist's mortar with a pestle when it exploded and the pestle was hurled a goodly distance. From this accident Schwartz is said to have evolved the idea of projectile force from which came the artillery mortar. Schwartz may have had such an accident and it may have been the genesis of the gun idea in Germany but from the historical record we can establish that projectile firearms were known and used in Italy and in the Low Countries long before the time of Schwartz.

While the early Saracen records seem to show quite general use of stone-throwing cannon as early as 1247 in the defense of Seville, the projecting devices may have been mechanical engines rather than cannon with gunpowder. The earliest records whose authenticity can be satisfactorily established arc those ot Italian and Flemish origin, with the Italian apparently somewhat earlier than those of the Flemings.

Whether the handgun evolved from the siege or defense cannon, was concurrent with it, or was an entirely separate development, it is impossible to establish. One can make a case from fragmentary records to bolster any one of those conjectures; but invariably the weight, of counterevidence is strong enough to prevent a positive decision. The earliest records seldom distinguish between heavy ordnance and hand guns. It is only at a later date that explicit descriptions, tapestries and drawings provide positive evidence about this phase of small arms evolution.

An excellent example of an undocumented statement being accepted as fact is to be found in the remark first made, apparently, by the German writer Auguste Demmin in his Die Kriegswaffen that the town of Amberg in Germany had a cannon in the year 1301. This claim was accepted uncritically by W. W. Greener in his book The Gun first published in 1880. Unfortunately, Demmin and Greener did not or could not document statements of this character. Their later statements about the very early manufacture of anns in Flanders also rest largely on undisclosed or unverifiable sources, and many have been seriously questioned by later researchers of the caliber of Oscar Guttman and Sir Charles Oman.

The first authentic contemporaneous illustration we have of a true cannon is in the famous Millimete Manuscript. The manuscript text is titled De officiis regnum and is a dedicatory address given by de Millimete to King Edward III on his accession to the throne in 1327 A.D. It is dated 1326. It is important to arms research because we know that Edward III was a military leader who tried to keep abreast of the war developments of his time, and that he was among the first to employ cannon on the field of battle. This manuscript is in the library of Christ Church College at Oxford, England. It has beautiful illuminations of cannon, but the decorations have no bearing whatever on the text of the manuscript! Whatever we learn we glean from the illuminations themselves. One of these vignettes shows a bottle-shaped cannon on a four-legged mount loaded with a huge "bolt" which projects from the muzzle. An armored soldier standing by the piece is firing it. against a fortress gate at close range. From the tinting of the face of the soldier, some writers have suggested that the gunner -was intended to be a Moor, indicating Saracen origin for the cannon—but this is guess-work pure and simple. The bolt (called "garrot" or "carreau") was adapted from projectiles used in earlier war engines such as the espringale; and was used in both hand guns and small ordnance of this and somewhat later times.

Some historians state that Edward III mounted two or three cannon on a small hill near Crecy, and that they played a part in the catastrophic defeat of the French.

From this point on, however, facts are easier to find. We still encounter the indiscriminate use of terms which may mean either heavy ordnance or hand guns (the Italians listing them as "bombardes," the Germans as "buchsen," the Lowlanders as "vogheleer" and the French as "qucnon" or "canon"), but the Italian and French records in particular now begin to give specific descriptions often augmented by drawings and frescoes of great clarity. Small arms which can be verified as having been manufactured in these very early times do not exist but the text and pictorial records furnish a discernible pattern of the evolution of the hand gun.

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Responses

  • derek shaughnessy
    I have been searching for what a &quot;garrot&quot; shot from an espringal was, as I am due to start building a small replica soon. Almost every site assumed that I was an assassin, and what I really wanted was a &quot;garrotte!&quot; I now find that I <br />actually have illustrations of them, but there was no caption identifying the projectile. Thank you.
    7 years ago

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