Author Topic: Early gunpowder weapons again  (Read 202 times)

Erpingham

  • Society Member
  • Posts: 4852
  • Country: gb
  • Interests: Medieval warfare, Old School, home made rules
Early gunpowder weapons again
« on: March 26, 2019, 02:05:10 PM »
We discussed ranges and accuracy of early firearms at some length in a previous thread but I happened to pick up a book on shooting guilds and their targets (obscure, eh?) in a bookshop at the weekend.

It contains the useful snippet that a shooting competition was held in Leipzig in 1500 for crossbows and guns.  Shooters were required to put 20 shots into a target "2.5 ells long and wide" at a range of 300 ells.  A Leipzig ell was 22.24 inches (0.56m).

So a target 1.4 metres square at a range of 170m.
  • Anthony Clipsom

Patrick Waterson

  • Administrator
  • Society Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 6629
  • Country: gb
  • Interests: Pretty much everything to do with warfare, especially how military systems actually work.
Re: Early gunpowder weapons again
« Reply #1 on: March 26, 2019, 06:09:38 PM »
At a competition like this firearm users would probably mix their own powder or source it from the most reliable supplier they could find, and they would almost certainly cast their own shot in an effort to obtain near-perfect roundness and a good fit to the barrel of their firearm.

Military grade powder and ammunition would vary from country to country and might result in considerably less accuracy at 185.33 yards than the weapons used by competition shooters.

Just a thought.

Out of interest, does the book mention who won the competition?
  • Patrick Waterson
"History is not merely what happened; it is what happened in the context of what might have happened. Therefore it must incorporate, as a necessary element, the alternatives, the might-have-beens." - Hugh Trevor-Roper

Erpingham

  • Society Member
  • Posts: 4852
  • Country: gb
  • Interests: Medieval warfare, Old School, home made rules
Re: Early gunpowder weapons again
« Reply #2 on: March 26, 2019, 06:27:23 PM »
Fair comments.  Competition standards and field conditions are different beasts.  But it does give us another contemporary figure to work with.  At this sort of range, just hitting a large target was considered a fair challenge.

As to who won, alas, the book doesn't say  :(
  • Anthony Clipsom

aligern

  • Committee Member
  • Society Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 2319
  • Country: gb
Re: Early gunpowder weapons again
« Reply #3 on: March 26, 2019, 07:46:07 PM »
The advantage of battlefield conditions is that the handgunners are not being attacked by a 1.4 metre square piece of cloth. Instead they are shooting at an advancing unit which may well be slightly taller than 1.4 meters and crucially much wider. It will also be deeper. Hence, a man might be targeted and not hit , but a soldier 3ither side of him or in a rank behind might well be struck. It would be interesting to know the likely percentage of hits on the cloth, but if that were say 50% then the actual strikes on the unit might well only be reduced by 25% , those bullets going over and under rather than misses to the side.
Powder quality is a fair point, but wouldn’t the soldier be casting his own bullet anyway? I suggest that the useage of bullet in medieval battles was unlikely to run beyond that carried by tge gunner into battle. 
One definite negative is fouling due to the imperfectly milled powder of the period, however, that is likely to have affected shooting accuracy less as it will occur as the forces close.....i.e  when the distance has lessened.
Seems to me that handguns were likely to have been much more accurate than is traditionally assumed.
Roy
Roy
  • Roy Boss

Jim Webster

  • Society Member
  • Posts: 3588
Re: Early gunpowder weapons again
« Reply #4 on: March 27, 2019, 06:44:29 AM »
We have an advantage with discussions on handguns in that we have better figures for the accuracy of later weapons. So we know the earlier weapons are most unlikely to be noticeably better than the later ones.
  • Jim Webster

aligern

  • Committee Member
  • Society Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 2319
  • Country: gb
Re: Early gunpowder weapons again
« Reply #5 on: March 27, 2019, 09:46:05 AM »
Its more a matter that most of us would have thought that for a handgun or early arquebus ( we are talking 1500 here) hitting a target at 170-185 metres would have seemed a remarkable acheivement , yet it loojs like they must have expected that the handgunners would stand a chance rather better than roulette....unless the competition was organised by the crossbow guild in order to put the bang stick wielders in their place.

Roy
  • Roy Boss

Erpingham

  • Society Member
  • Posts: 4852
  • Country: gb
  • Interests: Medieval warfare, Old School, home made rules
Re: Early gunpowder weapons again
« Reply #6 on: March 27, 2019, 09:52:15 AM »
Quote
Seems to me that handguns were likely to have been much more accurate than is traditionally assumed.

And perhaps more accurate earlier.  The earliest two gun target shoots the book notes were in 1429 and 1430, though no details of ranges and targets are mentioned.

Another point on the comparison between the performance of shooting guildsmen as against common soldiers is the amount of practice.  Guilds shot every week and, while not everyone would be at every practice, there were rules about failing to shoot well.  In Gotha, in 1442, any brother who did not hit the target once in 4 weeks was fined.  As a contrast to our skilled target shooters, we might note the performance of the 16th garrison soldiers mentioned in the previous thread, only four of twenty-three of whom managed shots within five feet of the mark at 80 yds, partly because there wasn't any system of training in place (and, because they were Elizabethans, the government was stingy with powder).

Add : The role of shooting guilds and societies is perhaps something to consider when looking at the effectiveness of continental armies missile function.  We often talk about longbow practice in England but most towns had their shooting guilds, with bows, crossbows and handguns.  They were a bit of a social elite - you had to have money to pay your dues - so relatively small in number compared to the citizen body as a whole but skilled and with a sense of upholding the city's prestige. 
« Last Edit: March 27, 2019, 10:07:33 AM by Erpingham »
  • Anthony Clipsom

Patrick Waterson

  • Administrator
  • Society Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 6629
  • Country: gb
  • Interests: Pretty much everything to do with warfare, especially how military systems actually work.
Re: Early gunpowder weapons again
« Reply #7 on: March 27, 2019, 10:02:21 AM »
We have an advantage with discussions on handguns in that we have better figures for the accuracy of later weapons. So we know the earlier weapons are most unlikely to be noticeably better than the later ones.

Yes.  I would go so far as to suggest that firearms c.AD 1500 were on the whole as inaccurate as generally supposed, but the targets they faced on the battlefield (especially pike blocks) more than made up for any lack of accuracy.

And now to qualify 'on the whole'.  While according to this site the principle of rifling was invented in AD 1498, it was not actually applied to firearms until 1540 and hence would presumably have missed the 1500 competition.  The accuracy of a smoothbore depended upon quality of powder, conformity of shot and length of barrel; the longer the barrel, the more accurate the weapon.  The Ottomans in particular issued their best infantry with long-barrelled weapons, beginning the jezzail tradition which lasted up to the 20th century.

Arquebuses ('hagbuts', hook-guns) were initially provided with a hook for resting on a wall or battlement to assist with accuracy (taking the weight of the weapon and perhaps some of the recoil).  One may observe that such an addition would be superfluous if the gun were inherently hopelessly inaccurate.

So there may be something in what Roy says about the weapons themselves being more accurate than is generally supposed.  The other half of any missile weapon equation is the training and doctrine of the users.  If a man cannot shoot straight, he is wasting a straight-shooting gun.

Musket users (like many generations of propellant-weapon soldiery) had a tendency to shoot high.  I would not be surprised if matchlock arquebusiers had a similar tendency, although this would be ameliorated by the lower muzzle velocity of their weapons.  We may also wish to consider exactly what doctrine was: were arquebuses of c.AD 1500 used as direct-fire weapons or initially as indirect volley fire weaponry?  Such depictions and accounts as we have for the 16th century suggest that the norm was to use files of arquebusiers for successive delivery of direct fire, each man shooting and stopping to reload while the next man walked past him to shoot.  The practice of advancing files as they fired might do much to get clear of that great enemy of battlefield accuracy, smoke, or at least to keep it thin enough to see through.

This 'infantry caracole' technique may also explain why arquebusiers were so effective against nomad horse archers: in addition to (as Roy has observed) knocking down horses, the shooting never really stopped.  Every few seconds, another rank fired and this kept on, and on, and on.  Horse archer opponents were accustomed to infantry foes who sheeted out a volley of arrows and then paused to reload (giving the horse archers time to gallop in and shoot) or who poured out a constant erratic trickle of arrows which rarely did much harm.  But here were men using a new weapon, which every few seconds blasted down another few horses and riders in a relentless meat-grinding advance.

At the personal level, aimed fire seems not to have been taught: "Present!" was the traditional command rather than "Aim!" in the first firearm drill books of which I have any knowledge.  Early 16th century shooting thrived against massed targets, and I cannot offhand recall any tales of gunpowder marksmen from this era.  The training for and use of early 16th century gunpowder weapons suggests functional battlefield accuracy as opposed to worthwhile accuracy of individual weapons.

The Wikipedia arquebus article has a fair amount of information.  Noteworthy is the comparison to bows section, which notes that arquebus shot was considered deadly at up to 400 yards, although Smythe argued that the effective range was much less and that longbowmen at 200-240 yards would easily outshoot arquebusiers.

Elsewhere, I have seen the effective range of the arquebus given as 100 yards, which is not too dissimilar to the later musket.
  • Patrick Waterson
"History is not merely what happened; it is what happened in the context of what might have happened. Therefore it must incorporate, as a necessary element, the alternatives, the might-have-beens." - Hugh Trevor-Roper

Erpingham

  • Society Member
  • Posts: 4852
  • Country: gb
  • Interests: Medieval warfare, Old School, home made rules
Re: Early gunpowder weapons again
« Reply #8 on: March 27, 2019, 10:29:42 AM »
Quote
While according to this site the principle of rifling was invented in AD 1498, it was not actually applied to firearms until 1540 and hence would presumably have missed the 1500 competition.

Another of my small collection of books on shooting (A history of Marksmanship by Charles Chevenix Trench) tells me that ordinary handgun competitions in Switzerland were shot at 100 metres but rifled competitions were shot at longer ranges.  Examples given are Zurich 1472 230 paces, Eichstadt 1487 245 paces, sixteenth century matches between 250-280 paces.  Most of these seem to predate the application of rifling to firearms, according to the internet source  ???  Rifles and ordinary smooth bores seem to have shot separately, so I think rifles would have been mentioned in the Leipzig shoot.

Again recalling our earlier discussion on this, I recall Smythe's view that the optimum battlefield range for arquebuses was about 20 yards but I think he allowed it dangerous up to four score.  I think it was Rich who reckoned he could hit an individual man with an arquebus at 120 yards, given two goes.  There are probably continental examples out there which would help us narrow it further, if we wished.
  • Anthony Clipsom

Erpingham

  • Society Member
  • Posts: 4852
  • Country: gb
  • Interests: Medieval warfare, Old School, home made rules
Re: Early gunpowder weapons again
« Reply #9 on: March 27, 2019, 12:55:17 PM »
This article has some interesting bits and pieces of comparative material.  In general terms it agrees with what we have been saying though it has some examples new to our discussion.
  • Anthony Clipsom

Patrick Waterson

  • Administrator
  • Society Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 6629
  • Country: gb
  • Interests: Pretty much everything to do with warfare, especially how military systems actually work.
Re: Early gunpowder weapons again
« Reply #10 on: March 27, 2019, 06:37:30 PM »
Very useful article, thanks, Anthony.  I would tend to agree with its essential conclusions, notably

Quote
As you can see, the real cause of inaccuracy was the inadequate quality of soldiers.

and

Quote
So we can say that in fact it was the early modern soldier who was inaccurate, not his musket

with the caveat that the 'Magnus effect' mentioned in the article (the tendency of ball-shaped objects fired from smoothbore weapons to spin in unpredictable directions) would significantly affect accuracy at all but the closest ranges if powder and/or ammunition were of uneven quality.

Some useful ranges and numbers in the article with, as you observe, various handy battlefield examples.

Regarding rifling and firearms, I suspect the site I referenced may have been over-simplifying; gunsmiths were forever producing novel and interesting firearms (e.g. the 17th century Kalthoff magazine repeating rifle, the 18th century Berselli magazine repeating pistol, both in an era where the single-shot muzzle loader was the norm) so it would not surprise me if the first rifled weapons actually appeared a little earlier than officially accredited.
  • Patrick Waterson
"History is not merely what happened; it is what happened in the context of what might have happened. Therefore it must incorporate, as a necessary element, the alternatives, the might-have-beens." - Hugh Trevor-Roper

Erpingham

  • Society Member
  • Posts: 4852
  • Country: gb
  • Interests: Medieval warfare, Old School, home made rules
Re: Early gunpowder weapons again
« Reply #11 on: March 28, 2019, 09:40:24 AM »
Quote
Regarding rifling and firearms, I suspect the site I referenced may have been over-simplifying; gunsmiths were forever producing novel and interesting firearms (e.g. the 17th century Kalthoff magazine repeating rifle, the 18th century Berselli magazine repeating pistol, both in an era where the single-shot muzzle loader was the norm) so it would not surprise me if the first rifled weapons actually appeared a little earlier than officially accredited.

The subject isn't well covered from online stuff I can find.  The best I can do on the anomally is that the 1498 date relates to spiral rifling.  Several places suggest straight rifling existed by the 1440s and was part of the experimentation process with early firearms.    Straight rifling apparently doesn't create spin but it does make a difference to the flight of the ball by making it more consistent from shot to shot.  However, as rifled weapons were mainly for target shooting, they needn't concern us unduly.

The training element is also what interested me.  You come across the idea sometimes that crossbows and handguns swept away longbows because they needed next to no training or practice.  While they didn't need the physical training to use, it is clearly an error to think of untrained and unpracticed men being as militarily useful as those who regularly used the weapon.

As I mentioned earlier, I'm turning over the effect of these shooting brotherhoods and guilds on the effectiveness of militia contingents.  They had a strong social cohesion and were well practised.  In our period, they enjoyed priviledges from their towns for representing them in competition but also in war.  Laura Crombie's book  Archery and Crossbow Guilds in Medieval Flanders brings out their role quite well, as well as their favouring by the Dukes of Burgundy in turn for their service on campaign.  What we seem to have are small bodies of well trained shooters, rather than semi-trained masses.

« Last Edit: March 28, 2019, 07:50:10 PM by Erpingham »
  • Anthony Clipsom

Patrick Waterson

  • Administrator
  • Society Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 6629
  • Country: gb
  • Interests: Pretty much everything to do with warfare, especially how military systems actually work.
Re: Early gunpowder weapons again
« Reply #12 on: March 28, 2019, 07:03:07 PM »
What we seem to have are small bodies of well trained shooters, rather than semi-trained masses.

Which would provide better battlefield accuracy and effect than we might expect (especially from period wargame rules).  Small numbers of shooters are indeed characteristic of armies c.AD 1500, and the fact they were employed suggests they were found to be suitably effective - provided the general in command managed to employ them in the right way.

When mass conversion to firearms took place, much of this core training and expertise seems to have been diluted.  A Polish source (sorry cannot remember reference) reckoned that when the Polish army converted from crosbows to muskets it reduced its shooting power to something like a quarter of what it had possessed previously.  (It presumably made it up, because Poland did not revert to using crossbows.)

The usual assessment of the effectiveness of these early firearms probably derives mainly from the indifferent performance of recently-raised and/or converted (and not very expert) troops rather than the much better shooting brotherhood-influenced militias.  Just a guess ...

Quote
Several places suggest straight rifling existed by the 1440s and was part of the experimentation process with early firearms.    Straight rifling apparently doesn't create spin but it does make a difference to the flight of the ball by making it more consistent from shot to shot.

That I did not know; one learns something every day. :)
  • Patrick Waterson
"History is not merely what happened; it is what happened in the context of what might have happened. Therefore it must incorporate, as a necessary element, the alternatives, the might-have-beens." - Hugh Trevor-Roper