Artillery Through the Ages – Albert C. Manucy

Looking at an old-time cannon, most people are sure of just one thing: the shot came out of the front end. For that reason these pages are written; people are curious about the fascinating weapon that so prodigiously and powerfully lengthened the warrior’s arm. And theirs is a justifiable curiosity, because the gunner and his “art” played a significant role in our history. THE ANCIENT ENGINES OF WAR To compare a Roman catapult with a modern trench mortar seems absurd. Yet the only basic difference is the kind of energy that sends the projectile on its way. In the dawn of history, war engines were performing the function of artillery (which may be loosely defined as a means of hurling missiles too heavy to be thrown by hand), and with these crude weapons the basic principles of artillery were laid down. The Scriptures record the use of ingenious machines on the walls of Jerusalem eight centuries B.C.—machines that were probably predecessors of the catapult and ballista, getting power from twisted ropes made of hair, hide or sinew. The ballista had horizontal arms like a bow. The arms were set in rope; a cord, fastened to the arms like a bowstring, fired arrows, darts, and stones. Like a modern field gun, the ballista shot low and directly toward the enemy. The catapult was the howitzer, or mortar, of its day and could throw a hundred-pound stone 600 yards in a high arc to strike the enemy behind his wall or batter down his defenses. “In the middle of the ropes a wooden arm rises like a chariot pole,” wrote the historian Marcellinus. “At the top of the arm hangs a sling.

When battle is commenced, a round stone is set in the sling. Four soldiers on each side of the engine wind the arm down until it is almost level with the ground. When the arm is set free, it springs up and hurls the stone forth from its sling.” In early times the weapon was called a “scorpion,” for like this dreaded insect it bore its “sting” erect. FİGURE 1—BALLISTA. Caesar covered his landing in Britain with fire from catapults and ballistas. The trebuchet was another war machine used extensively during the Middle Ages. Essentially, it was a seesaw. Weights on the short arm swung the long throwing arm. FİGURE 2—CATAPULT.

FİGURE 3—TREBUCHET. A heavy trebuchet could throw a 300-pound stone 300 yards. These weapons could be used with telling effect, as the Romans learned from Archimedes in the siege of Syracuse (214-212 B.C.). As Plutarch relates, “Archimedes soon began to play his engines upon the Romans and their ships, and shot stones of such an enormous size and with so incredible a noise and velocity that nothing could stand before them. At length the Romans were so terrified that, if they saw but a rope or a beam projecting over the walls of Syracuse, they cried out that Archimedes was leveling some machine at them, and turned their backs and fled.” Long after the introduction of gunpowder, the old engines of war continued in use. Often they were side by side with cannon. GUNPOWDER COMES TO EUROPE Chinese “thunder of the earth” (an effect produced by filling a large bombshell with a gunpowder mixture) sounded faint reverberations amongst the philosophers of the western world as early as A.

D. 300. Though the Chinese were first instructed in the scientific casting of cannon by missionaries during the 1600’s, crude cannon seem to have existed in China during the twelfth century and even earlier. In Europe, a ninth century Latin manuscript contains a formula for gunpowder. But the first show of firearms in western Europe may have been by the Moors, at Saragossa, in A.D. 1118. In later years the Spaniards turned the new weapon against their Moorish enemies at the siege of Cordova (1280) and the capture of Gibraltar (1306). It therefore follows that the Arabian madfaa, which in turn had doubtless descended from an eastern predecessor, was the original cannon brought to western civilization. This strange weapon seems to have been a small, mortar-like instrument of wood.

Like an egg in an egg cup, the ball rested on the muzzle end until firing of the charge tossed it in the general direction of the enemy. Another primitive cannon, with narrow neck and flared mouth, fired an iron dart. The shaft of the dart was wrapped with leather to fit tightly into the neck of the piece. A red-hot bar thrust through a vent ignited the charge. The range was about 700 yards. The bottle shape of the weapon perhaps suggested the name pot de fer (iron jug) given early cannon, and in the course of evolution the narrow neck probably enlarged until the bottle became a straight tube. During the Hundred Years’ War (1339-1453) cannon came into general use. Those early pieces were very small, made of iron or cast bronze, and fired lead or iron balls. They were laid directly on the ground, with muzzles elevated by mounding up the earth. Being cumbrous and inefficient, they played little part in battle, but were quite useful in a siege.

THE BOMBARDS By the middle 1400’s the little popguns that tossed one-or two-pound pellets had grown into enormous bombards. Dulle Griete, the giant bombard of Ghent, had a 25-inch caliber and fired a 700- pound granite ball. It was built in 1382. Edinburgh Castle’s famous Mons Meg threw a 19-1/2-inch iron ball some 1,400 yards (a mile is 1,760 yards), or a stone ball twice that far. The Scottish kings used Meg between 1455 and 1513 to reduce the castles of rebellious nobles. A baron’s castle was easily knocked to pieces by the prince who owned, or could borrow, a few pieces of heavy ordnance. The towering walls of the old-time strongholds slowly gave way to the earthwork-protected Renaissance fortification, which is typified in the United States by Castillo de San Marcos, in Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, St. Augustine, Fla. Some of the most formidable bombards were those of the Turks, who used exceptionally large castbronze guns at the siege of Constantinople in 1453. One of these monsters weighed 19 tons and hurled a 600-pound stone seven times a day.

It took some 60 oxen and 200 men to move this piece, and the difficulty of transporting such heavy ordnance greatly reduced its usefulness. The largest caliber gun on record is the Great Mortar of Moscow. Built about 1525, it had a bore of 36 inches, was 18 feet long, and fired a stone projectile weighing a ton. But by this time the big guns were obsolete, although some of the old Turkish ordnance survived the centuries to defend Constantinople against a British squadron in 1807. In that defense a great stone cut the mainmast of the British flagship, and another crushed through the English ranks to kill or wound 60 men. FİGURE 4—EARLY SMALL BOMBARD (1330). It was made of wrought-iron bars, bound with hoops. The ponderosity of the large bombards held them to level land, where they were laid on rugged mounts of the heaviest wood, anchored by stakes driven into the ground. A gunner would try to put his bombard 100 yards from the wall he wanted to batter down. One would surmise that the gunner, being so close to a castle wall manned by expert Genoese cross-bowmen, was in a precarious position.

He was; but earthworks or a massive wooden shield arranged like a seesaw over his gun gave him fair protection. Lowering the front end of the shield made a barricade behind which he could charge his muzzle loader (see fig. 49). In those days, and for many decades thereafter, neither gun crews nor transport were permanent. They had to be hired as they were needed. Master gunners were usually civilian “artists,” not professional soldiers, and many of them had cannon built for rental to customers. Artillerists obtained the right to captured metals such as tools and town bells, and this loot would be cast into guns or ransomed for cash. The making of guns and gunpowder, the loading of bombs, and even the serving of cannon were jealously guarded trade secrets. Gunnery was a closed corporation, and the gunner himself a guildsman. The public looked upon him as something of a sorcerer in league with the devil, and a captured artilleryman was apt to be tortured and mutilated.

At one time the Pope saw fit to excommunicate all gunners. Also since these specialists kept to themselves and did not drink or plunder, their behavior was ample proof to the good soldier of the old days that artillerists were hardly human. SIXTEENTH CENTURY CANNON After 1470 the art of casting greatly improved in Europe. Lighter cannon began to replace the bombards. Throughout the 1500’s improvement was mainly toward lightening the enormous weights of guns and projectiles, as well as finding better ways to move the artillery. Thus, by 1556 Emperor Ferdinand was able to march against the Turks with 57 heavy and 127 light pieces of ordnance. At the beginning of the 1400’s cast-iron balls had made an appearance. The greater efficiency of the iron ball, together with an improvement in gunpowder, further encouraged the building of smaller and stronger guns. Before 1500 the siege gun had been the predominant piece. Now forged-iron cannon for field, garrison, and naval service—and later, cast-iron pieces—were steadily developed along with cast-bronze guns, some of which were beautifully ornamented with Renaissance workmanship.

The casting of trunnions on the gun made elevation and transportation easier, and the cumbrous beds of the early days gave way to crude artillery carriages with trails and wheels. The French invented the limber and about 1550 took a sizable forward step by standardizing the calibers of their artillery. Meanwhile, the first cannon had come to the New World with Columbus. As the Pinta’s lookout sighted land on the early morn of October 12, 1492, the firing of a lombard carried the news over the moonlit waters to the flagship Santa María. Within the next century, not only the galleons, but numerous fortifications on the Spanish Main were armed with guns, thundering at the freebooters who disputed Spain’s ownership of American treasure. Sometimes the adventurers seized cannon as prizes, as did Drake in 1586 when he made off with 14 bronze guns from St. Augustine’s little wooden fort of San Juan de Pinos. Drake’s loot no doubt included the ordnance of a 1578 list, which gives a fair idea of the armament for an important frontier fortification: three reinforced cannon, three demiculverins, two sakers (one broken), a demisaker and a falcon, all properly mounted on elevated platforms in the fort to cover every approach. Most of them were highly ornamented pieces founded between 1546 and 1555. The reinforced cannon, for instance, which seem to have been cast from the same mold, each bore the figure of a savage hefting a club in one hand and grasping a coin in the other.

On a demiculverin, a bronze mermaid held a turtle, and the other guns were decorated with arms, escutcheons, the founder’s name, and so on.


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