The First Breech-Loader Artillery

Guns were already essential for siege warfare, and although they were slow-firing and very immobile they had also been successfully employed on the battlefield before the 16th century, notably in the wagon-riding Czech armies of Jan Ziska, and by the French in the later stages of the 100 Years War. Early cannon were usually on static mountings, and a crane, for lifting, and wagons, for transport, remained essential parts of the artillery train well into the 16th Century (in 1527 the Emperor Maximillian still had six heavy guns like this, though his 105 lighter guns were all on wheeled carriages). Among the first guns on wheeled carriages were those used by the French in 1461, and those which the Swiss captured from Charles the Bold of Burgundy in the 1470s (and still hold).

The first fully mobile and effective field artillery appeared in 1494 in the train of Charles VIII of France when he invaded Italy, and Fornovo (1495) was probably the first battle where artillery played a really effective part. The eight-foot bronze guns were drawn by horse teams and could keep up with marching infantry. They made a great impression on the Italians whose few heavy pieces, being ox-drawn, usually arrived too late for battles and, according to Machiavlli, could never fire more than one or two shots before battle was joined.

Until the middle of the 15th century, gunpowder really was a powder, simply a mixture of the three essential components in a dry, dusty state. This mixture tended to separate into its components during travel and therefore was a very unreliable propellant for the gun operators. Then someone had the bright idea of mixing the potassium nitrate, charcoal and sulphur with water, before drying it into a solid cake. This cake was first broken up into small flakes, then screened into bits of roughly similar size, before being loaded into the barrels of the guns.

The result was a large number of burst barrels. This mixture was not only much more reliable; the entire propellant now ignited almost instantly and was much more effective than a fine powder. A much smaller volume of propellant was found to provide much greater power and range. Gunners were soon able to calculate exactly how much powder they needed to use to achieve firing maximum effect, and as a result, they stopped splitting the guns.

Until about 1450, cannon were relatively immobile. Transported only with difficulty and installed on sturdy mounts before the battle, they were lucky to get off more than a few shots before serious difficulties arose. During the ebb and flow of the battle, infantry and cavalry could wash over the gun positions several times during a fight, and whomever won kept the guns.

Improved mobility began to be seen in the mid-15th century in great measure, because this was when Swiss forces started mounting their guns on large wheels and firing them from carriages. Mobility, firepower, range and lethal effect began to influence the battle in serious ways.

In 1450, at Formigny, two culverin cannon helped French forces break the formation of English archers during battle. Three years later, massed cannon and small firearms were a decisive factor on a battlefield for the first time, routing an English force at the Battle of Castillion. Here the guns were tactically employed from carefully prepared positions as the primary force, in an intentional and devastating way.

Around 1470, the first practical breech-loading cannon were introduced. Other breech-loading cannon had been made for some time, massive weapons, the breech section of which was threaded onto the barrel. Re-loading took time and manpower to unscrew the breech, stuff it with powder and shot, then reassemble it.

The new system, called culverin or veuglaire, tended to be long, slender tubes open at each end, firing a shot about 102mm (4in) in diameter. The breech was a metal component about the shape and size of a large beer stein, with about the same capacity. This was charged with powder and ball, then installed in position at the breech. Wedges secured this crude breechblock in place and thereby prevented it from flying loose after each discharge.

Propellant gas, of course, leaked past the joints with a vengeance, but the gunners of the time were not too demanding about such things. The long bore allowed the propellant to develop its energy fully, which offset the leakage somewhat, and it also made the weapon easier to aim.

Artillery of Burgundy

Archival research was the speciality of Joseph Garnier, archivist of Dijon, who studied the artillery of the Dukes of Burgundy in the archives of the Cote d’Or for his L’Artillerie des Ducs de Bourgogne (Paris, 1895). The bulk of the transcriptions came from the Chambre des Comptes of Dijon that, as he informs, had been already studied by other scholars. He deals with Burgundian artillery from its beginnings, under the Duke Philip I the Bold (1363-1404), until the time of Charles the Bold (1467-77). Of documentary interest are the details of Louis XI’s artillery at the moment of the incorporation of Burgundy into France by the Treaty of Arras (1482). One appendix deals with artillery pieces referred to in the Chambre des Comptes’s ms. B. 11864, on whose origin Garnier is uncertain. A second one is an annotated glossary for the oldest or most difficult words. Some entries are particularly elaborate such as Canons, which is broken down into Bombardes, Bombardelle, Portier, Veuglarie, Coulevrine, Crapaudeau, Courtaut, Serpentine and Faucon. They are pioneering in European artillery study, as also is the last appendix, which contains comparative tables on the pieces mentioned with name, date, type of metal, length, weight of the piece, weight and diameter of the stone ball, weight of the iron ball, gunpowder charge and everything regarding the gun-carriages, carts and horses [attelage].

There is an illustration of the ball casting process in the German Codex Germanicus 600, ascribed to the second half of the 14th century, which shows a man handling the tongs to pour the metal into the mould. In the lower Meuse valley shot was being made at least as early as 1414 and the following year, the council of Strasburg ordered 100 cast-iron balls from that of Freyburg. In 1431 Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy (1419-1467), used cast-iron balls and in 1473 Baudouyn d’Awain, Artillery Master of Charles the Bold, cast more than 1,000 balls in Brussels. Simon Mahenard and Anthoine de Maison, iron and steel masters from Diénay and Béze (Cote d’Or) are recorded around 1478-79 as working on cast-iron ammunition. Likewise, in 1486 Jehan Ladmiral, “master gunner and iron smelter” made for Archduke Maximilian I two cast-iron mortars weighing 1,060 kg for the artillery of Burgundy.

Robert Douglas Smith

The latter’s output is mainly for iron cannon. His proposed classification of wrought-iron pieces appeared in Towards a new typology for wrought iron ordnance (1988), followed by various articles such as Identification of iron cannon (1994) and The technology of wrought-iron artillery (2000), where he groups the different types according to shape, number and position of hoops, etc. giving four main categories: “swivel-guns”, “tube guns”, “chambers” and “muzzleloaders”, the latter including two varieties: “short” and “chambered”. In each category there are up to 18 different types, defined by form and shape. This is a good attempt at classification of wrought-iron artillery but the problem is: how many pieces could be admitted without inflating the list so that it became unmanageable? It has been used repeatedly showing a need for this type of framework. Smith has brought new technologies to artillery research, such as X-ray to study construction methods, as in the case of Mons Meg in the so-called Wrought iron cannon project of 1985, amplified in Bombards: Mons Meg and her sisters (1989), written in collaboration with Ruth Rhynas Brown, where eleven iron pieces are studied.

In 2005 Smith was the co-author of The artillery of the Dukes of Burgundy 1363- 1477, written with Kelly DeVries, a prolific scholar on warfare. The work depends heavily on Joseph Garnier’s L’Artillerie des Ducs de Bourgogne, whose transcriptions of archival documentation are analysed extensively. However, it lacks the scholarship of the work of Achilles Gessler or a greater use of the chronicles of Gerold Edlibach, Benedikt Tschachtlan and Diebold Schilling. It includes a catalogue of 27 surviving pieces supposedly of Burgundian origin strongly based on Florens Deuchler’s work. Smith is also the current editor of the Journal of the Ordnance Society, created in London in 1986 with the objective of promoting and disseminating the study “of all forms of artillery” from its beginnings up to the present day.


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