Give the Gift of Amazon Prime


An extract from Armies of the Middle Ages, volume 1
by Ian Heath

[Based on A Handgunner from Konrad Kyeser's military treatise 'Bellifortis', 1405]
68, 69 & 70.      HANDGUNNERS

Handguns evolved from the small bombards used in the ribaudequin, a type of early organ-gun (see page 157). The earliest documentary evidence of the handgun dates to 1364 when the city of Perugia ordered 500 portable bombards 'of only a palm's length' that were to be fired from the hand. The very same year the town of Modena had '4 little bombards for the hand'; it seems fairly certain, in fact, that the original invention of the handgun took place in Italy. In England the term 'handgonne' appears in 1371. Augsburg had 30 'hand-cannon' in 1381, while Froissart's reference to bombardes portatives being used against the Liègeois in 1386 is an early mention of their use by the French. As the Perugian source shows, all these early handguns were small, the earliest being only 8-18″ long, and in order to be used they had to be first fitted with wooden handles, 'after the fashion of pikes' as an English source of the 1370s tells us. This arrangement can be seen quite clearly in figure 69. To be mounted this way involved the barrel, usually either forged in iron or cast in bronze or latten, being made with a socket. Alternatively the handle widened out at the end and the gun was set into it and banded down with iron hoops, in fact looking very much like the elevating portion of figure 154. A number of 14th century handguns of this type, still with their original handles, have in fact survived to the present day. Small handguns weighed only 10-15 1bs, but the largest could weigh up to 90 or even 135 lbs.

The terminology used for early handguns is a little confusing. In Italy schioppi soon came to predominate as a generic term for handguns, and in England handgonne fulfilled the same purpose. The most misleading term, however, is the 15th century French 'arquebus'. This evolved from the German term Hackenbüchse ('hookgun'), which the English corrupted to 'hackbut', the Italians to archibuso and the Spaniards to hacabuche; in its French form of arquebus it was to become the almost universal term for handguns by the late-15th century. In the past it has generally been thought that the hook referred to was the stout peg under the barrel (see figures 70a and 71), which was hooked over a wall, parapet, stand or whatever in order to absorb the recoil. However, it now seems more probable that the term instead derived from the hook-shaped serpentine trigger mechanism described under figure 114.

Another 15th century term for handguns, but of the longer or heavier varieties, was coulverines à main, or hand culverins. 'Culverin' was derived via the French colubra from the Latin coluber, meaning snake or serpent, and indicated a variety of light cannon that in its smaller calibres was clearly capable of being used as a portable firearm. Figure 68, from Konrad Kyeser's military treatise 'Bellifortis' of 1405, depicts such a gun. The equipment of Rouen's English garrison in 1435 included 29 culverins that are described as ad manum plus tripods and other stands for them, probably such as that shown here. Note the firing stance, with the iron-shod butt of the gunstock braced against the ground.

[70 based on Feuerwerkbuch, Germany. Royal Armouries, England.]
[70a perhaps based on the Eyb Kriegsbuch.
Universitätsbibliothek Erlangen-Nürnberg MS B.26, f.276r.

Figure 69 is from a Burgundian ms. of c. 1470 but could almost be from a century earlier. He is depicted in typical 15th century firing position, with the stock resting on his shoulder, though even as late as the end of the century some pictures still show handgunners with the gunstock instead held underarm, which must have made the gun very hard to aim. The advantage of the latter position, of course, was that it left one hand free to apply the match (usually a red-hot wire or a slow match), an operation seemingly achieved here by some sort of spring mechanism operated by the left hand. Because of the obvious difficulties involved in simultaneously holding, aiming and firing a handgun without a trigger, a handful of mss. and a late-14th century tapestry show handguns being operated by two men; in the tapestry the gun is held over the shoulder in both hands by the gunner while the second man (called a collineator or gougat) fires it by means of applying - unusually - a hot coal to the touch-hole. In the ms. depictions, on the other hand, the gougat usually uses a match, and in addition is sometimes shown with a rammer, rammers being illustrated in use at an early date. An iron rammer of 1399 has even been found alongside its latten barrelled gun, but where such rammers were kept remains something of a mystery. Certainly one surviving handgun in the Prague National Museum, probably of the 15th century, has a short ramrod (the barrel being only 11½") through 2 rings to the left of the stock below the barrel.

Figure 70 dates to c. 1440. The majority of early pictures of handgunners show them relatively heavily armoured, even where the archers and crossbowmen around them are not, probably because the handgunners, if they hoped to be effective, had at first to approach much closer to the enemy. However, by the second half of the 15th century the most usually worn was a helmet and aventail, with occasionally breast and back plates with fauld. 15th century Milanese handgunners were equipped with helmet, breastplate, handgun, sword and halberd; possibly the last doubled as a rest for the gun. The handgun held here shows the shaped gunstock that had evolved during the early decades of the 15th century, probably brought about by the gradual lengthening of the barrel itself as manufacturing techniques improved. 70a is a slightly longer-barrelled alternative with the stock still located in a socket like the earlier pole-handled types, which also remained in service until at least the 1480s.

Next: 71. MOUNTED HANDGUNNER in Armies of the Middle Ages, Volume 1 by Ian Heath
See also Burgundian handgunners in 'History of Alexander the Great' by Quintus Curtius Rufus, Bruges, Southern Netherlands, c.1468-1475. British Library, Burney MS 169.