Gunpowder and Plate armor

History and Historical European Martial Arts in the Codex Martialis

Gunpowder and Plate armor

Postby Galloglaich » Sat Dec 17, 2016 6:30 pm

A parallel history of gunpowder and plate armor (work in progress)

Part 1: A "short" history of armor and gunpowder weapons

The mail byrnie
For nearly two thousand years, the ultimate armor panoply for a European warrior consisted of an iron or bronze helmet, and a short sleeved mail shirt made of small riveted iron rings. This was invented either by the Celts or by someone in Central Asia, but it was found throughout Europe and the Middle East by around the 5th Century BCE. Mail armor was rare, at least initially, and it was usually restricted to the political and military elite. But the Romans started producing it in large amounts for their legions starting around the 2nd Century BCE ('as Lorica Hamata'). This armor, along with an iron or bronze helmet and a shield, was quite effective in protecting it's owner.

But it did not cover the whole body, so the most common method of dealing with armor was to go around it, although there were also special armor-piercing weapons such as solid iron javelins (soliferrum, et al, useful but only at short range) and iron tipped javelins like the Roman pilum. Mail didn't protect well against crushing weapons either and blunt weapons such as maces, already widespread in Asia, began to arrive in Europe. Significantly the mace was the symbol of authority for military leaders, kings, and warlords. Arrows too, probably posed some threat, particularly from the powerful composite bows of the Steppe archers such as the Huns, but it's unclear how much. Certainly the incomplete coverage of torso and head only armor meant that arrows could still cause injuries.

More complete armor panoplies already existed outside of Europe, notably in Persia and Central Asia. These included mail armor reinforced with lamellar, splint and plates, used by heavy cavalry called cataphracts or clibinarii going back at least to the 3rd Century AD, or maybe earlier. This armor was heavy but made the wearer nearly impregnable to period weapons. The only way to reliably deal with this kind of cavalry was to pull them off their horse such as with a lasso. But it's worth noting cataphracts were not nearly as dangerous or versatile as medieval knights - they did not charge at speed for example and couldn't control their horses as well, and their heavy armor further limited their capabilities.

1000 AD European Armor begins to evolve
Suddenly, after 15 centuries or more, around 1000 AD, armor in Europe began to change from the basic panoply known to the Romans and the Celts. The basic mail shirt was extended down to the knees and toward the wrists. Mail coverings for the head and neck, and chausses for the lower legs became popular with heavy cavalry by the time of the Crusades in the 1090's. This meant that it was no longer easy to simply attack around armor, and it contributed to the invention of armor-piercing weapons, starting a kind of arms race between offensive and defensive equipment. Stiffeners began to appear in the 1100's, sometimes hardened leather, sometimes brass, and sometimes plates of iron, in addition to textile armor worn both over and under the mail panoply. Something called 'doubled mail' was also being worn at this time, though we aren't sure what it is, the invulnerability it conferred on Latin Crusaders alarmed both the Byzantines (like Ana Comnena) and the Arabs (like Usamah Ibn Munquidh) who described it in period histories and personal letters.

Weapons too, began transforming around this era. Innovations in saddles, stirrups, and horse breeding meant that the couched lance could be used in a full-speed charge, making for a much more dangerous weapon. Maces and war-hammers spread rapidly, longbows and the bows of the steppe nomads were becoming more powerful, and a new and dangerous type of crossbow became widespread in Europe, spreading consternation which famously reached some Church synods. This was a unique new type of crossbow with a short powerstroke and a very heavy prod (the bow part of a crossbow) which shot short, heavy bolts. This weapon may have been able to punch through mail.

Gunpowder arrives in Europe
Gunpowder weapons, probably grenades or bombs thrown by catapult, arrived in Europe with the Mongol Horde in 1241, where they helped win the battle of Savo river for the Mongols. The first records of firearms being used against Europeans was in what is now Spain in 1248, and Christian forces continued to face guns and cannon, mainly in sieges, on an increasing basis throughout the second half of the 13th Century. The secret of gunpowder was deciphered in Europe, acquired or perhaps independently invented possibly as early as 1248, but certainly by 1267. Yet it was probably another generation before Europeans were making and deploying their own cannon and firearms. By the last quarter of the 13th Century, gunpowder weapons were widely known in Europe and were increasingly widespread.

Armor began to improve enormously from almost exactly this point. In the early 14th Century. Integrated coat of plates (wisby coats, jack of plates, brigandine etc.) worn over mail, became the normal torso protection for elite troops in the early 1300's, and shaped iron plates to protect the limbs and entire body were integrated into armor panoplies. New infantry weapons with armor-defeating properties such as the halberd, large two-handed maces and morning stars, and pike-like spears proved decisive in a series of large battles in the late 13th and Early 14th Centuries (notably Courtrai / Golden Spurs in Flanders in 1302, Bannockburn in Scotland in 1314 and Morgarten in Switzerland in 1315). Up to the second quarter of the 14th Century, firearms may not have been very widespread in Latin European armies, but they were clearly in wide use by the Moors and the Mamluks, particularly during sieges, therefore armies fighting in the Mediterranean zones were already facing this threat from as far back as the 1250's. The unique Latin European type of crossbow also continued to improve and was becoming a truly formidable weapon in this period.

Whether or not this meant armor was improving because of gunpowder or mostly these other threats isn't clear at that early of a date, but by the mid-14th Century both firearms and anti-personnel cannon, including multi-barreled volley guns (also called ribaulds, ribaldequin or organ guns) were clearly ubiquitous enough, and powerful enough, that they were posing a real threat to armored cavalry and infantry, especially during sieges.

By the mid 14th Century solid iron breastplates were common, and steel armor was beginning to be produced in certain production centers like Milan. Light cannon and volley guns were starting to become decisive in some important battles, and firearms were part of most if not all of the more elite armies, including both royal armies and urban militias from the larger and wealthier towns. Heavier cannon (bombards) were starting to show success against fortifications, while important innovations such as breach loading, pintle mounting and cast bronze gun barrels made smaller and medium sized cannon much more effective on the battlefield.

Enter the Czech Heretics
By 1400 firearms were starting to move out of siege warfare and into the open field. Military manuals of the day, such as Conrad Keysers famous Bellifortis, show a wide variety of firearms, cannon, and new war machines such as war-wagons. It was not however until the Hussite Wars of the 1420's that both cannon and firearms entered the open battlefield in an operationally decisive manner. The Czechs, threatened by a massive Crusade from nearly all the rest of Latinized Europe, deployed a variety of new and very improved weapons, including a refined version of the early hand-gonne which they called a 'pistala' (giving us the name pistol) and a small, wheel mounted field gun which they called the houfnice (which gave us the name howitzer).

These gunpowder weapons, along with other innovations such as heavy militarized two-handed flails, went to war in and among special war-wagons. War wagons had already been known and appear in records and military manuals as far back as the 13th Century, but the Czechs innovation was to deploy them with as many guns and heavy crossbows as possible, using them as a kind of mobile siege warfare. The new Czech method was wildly successful, allowing them to decisively smash a series of Crusades, to the utter consternation of the Pope, the Holy Roman Emperor and numerous European Kings and Dukes. Then after the Crusades had faltered, when their neighbors still refused to make peace, the Czechs went on brutal punitive raids called 'beautiful rides' throughout the region with their columns of war-wagons, until finally the Pope was forced to agree to a kind of live and let live arrangement with the Prague Compacta in 1432.

The Czech gunpowder revolution swept through Europe in the second and third quarters of the 15th Century and led to a surge in the dissemination of firearms and a sharp increase in their production. Though nobody else quite matched the Czech successes on the battlefield, war wagons and other similar technologies were spreading fast from Central Europe into Southern, Northern, and Eastern Europe, and production of firearms and light cannon was becoming much more standardized. Certain towns such as Prague, Nuremberg and Hamburg began producing firearms of reliable quality and at a pretty large volume. The Venice Arsenal added firearms and gunpowder to their manufacturing processes at this time, both for their own and affiliated mercenary armies, as well as for export. Wealthy Kings in the West began to purchase gunpowder weapons at an increasing rate from the Italian, German, and Flemish production centers.

The Golden Age of Armor dawns
At the same time, the demand for plate armor of the highest quality was increasing exponentially. Substantial improvements in larger bloomery forges and some of the first coal fired blast furnaces, along with the further spread of existing water-powered machines such as the catalan forge, led to vast quantities of cheap and relatively high quality iron becoming available in Europe. Meanwhile innovations in armor production methods (from as simple as the draw plate and the vice to complex water-powered machinery like trip hammers) and well-organized systems of subcontracting and advanced manufacturing techniques were pushing costs downward. North Italian cities, especially Milan and Brescia, were producing steel armor of very high quality at an ever increasing rate, and began marking their armor with 'proof' dents from guns as well as crossbows. The high quality and reliability of their armor meant that Milanese harness became a hot commodity and the Italians dominated the export market for armor. Milanese and Brescian armor was available in markets in England, France, Poland, and Spain. However south-German production centers were also starting to become competitive with the Italians at this time, making lighter "Gothic" harness hardened by new processes, as the first tempered steel armor began to become available from towns like Augsburg, Ulm and Nuremberg.

Armor panoplies were cheap enough in this era that it was a requirement for citizenship in most Central European towns to own at least a torso and head protection, and most full citizens owned full harness. Even wealthier peasants could own armor harness.

Corned powder
Another major development occurred some time in the second quarter of the 15th Century with gunpowder. Up to this point, gunpowder easily separated out into it's three main components (charcoal, saltpeter, and sulphur). At some point in this period, it's not clear precisely where or when, soldiers and military support personnel began to process gunpowder by wetting it with alcohol and filtering it through sieves, creating pellets of uniform size. This made gun powder, or black powder, much more useful and reliable. Powder with larger "corns" could be used for large and medium cannon, medium grain could be used for firearms and smaller cannon, and very fine powder for use as priming powder. It also became possible to pre-measure black powder in little cloth or paper pouches for firearms, and larger sacks for cannon, which you can see in art for example in Swiss illustrated chronicles by the mid-15th Century. All of this made gunpowder weapons more reliable and lethal. They spread further and wider in this era.

The dawn of the Early Modern Era
Starting in the 1420's, as the Ottomans were putting increasing pressure on the land routes to China via the all-important Silk Road, so vital to the European economy, the Portuguese, Spanish, Genoans and others started exploring down the coasts of Africa and out into the Atlantic. They discovered the islands of the Azores, Maderia, the Canaries and other remote sites, and found new sources of gold and ominously, non-Christian slaves available on the African coasts. By the 1450's the Portuguese King Henry the Navigator organized the systematic school for navigation and spread of the technologies of new types of sailing vessels (the Carrack and the Caravel) which would come to dominate the rest of the world. The ground was set for the European conquest of the 7 Seas.

Both gunpowder weapons and the best types of personal body armor the world had ever known, and ever would know for centuries, spread very rapidly from the mid 15th Century through the 1520's. For great authoritarian powers of Western Christendom and Central Asian Islam, armor was a problem. Spain and Portugal began to absorb and influx of wealth from the new lands over the Western horizon, but Spain in particular also had aspirations to conquer much of Latin Europe - Italy, Flanders, and the Holy Roman Empire. The flow of silver from Peru and Mexico, and spices from the Philippines and China filled their coffers, and gave them the ability to finance and almost endless series of wars. And yet they found their aspirates frequently thwarted by small but resourceful city-states and mercenary companies.

Spanish arms, traditionally a bit lighter than those of Central Europe or Italy, were more than sufficient to handle most of the warriors they were encountering in the Americas and South Pacific, but to face well-armored German cavalry or Italian Condottieri, they reorganized their armed forces in this period. Among other important innovations, Spain developed the heavy arquebus or musket, a fearsome man-portable cannon which had to be used with an aiming stake. Three thousand kilometers to the East, the Ottomans sent a shockwave throughout Christendom when they conquered Constantinople in 1453 (though in reality they were just seizing it from the Venetians and Genoese who had already taken it over from the Byzantines centuries earlier). The Sultan had plans to expand their already considerable holdings in Southern Europe much further, and conquer all of the wealthy and troublesome Latin nations and convert them to Islam by the sword. The Ottoman armies too, needed a better tool to handle the armored warriors of Latinized Central Europe, their expansion having been blocked for nearly a century by the well-funded Fekete Sereg or Black Army of Hungary (so named for their ubiquitous blackened body armor). The Ottomans came up with a long barreled firearm which in effect, was the same thing as the Spanish invention - the musket. Muskets could reliably pierce armor at least at close ranges. Recognizing the value of the new weapon, the Ottomans converted their hard core Janissary slave-soldiers from archery to musketry in little more than a generation.

The rise of the Atlantic facing powers of Portugal, Spain, France, England, and near-total sealing off of the old Silk Road trade routes by the Ottomans combined to contribute to the decline of Central and Southern Europe in the Early Modern era. The Holy Roman Empire was taken over, through marriages and elections financed by Preuvian silver and Columbian gold, by the Hapsburg family which had also become King of Spain. Italy was invaded repeatedly in the 16th Century by Spain, France, the Holy Roman Emperor. Genoa, Milan, Florence and many other states fell to direct or indirect foreign control. Only Venice remained strong and independent, but they were forced to spend most of their considerable resources (and 3,000 ship navy) fending off the Ottomans. Flanders, once the light of northern Europe, came under Spanish domination and fell into a rapid decline. Germany was rent by the religious wars financed by Spanish treasures from the Americas, and many of the old armor production centers in South Germany in particular such as Augsburg went into decline.

The collapse of the armor-making industries had already begun by the 1530's. The armies of the Atlantic powers, now controlling vast world-Empires, were larger and less skilled than the elite but expensive and difficult to control mercenaries of Germany, Switzerland, Flanders or Bohemia. Equipment, including both guns and armor became much simpler. Even though such technologies as rifled barrels, the wheel-lock, breach loading firearms, tempered steel armor and many other astonishing innovations already existed in the 15th Century, their use rapidly declined to the status of curiosities for the ultra-elite, as the urban middle classes and country yeomen declined in status, while the princes, at least those who could tie themselves into the transatlantic and transpacific cash-flows, achieved Roman Emperor levels of wealth and power, unheard of during the Middle Ages. Many of the most astonishing technical innovations of the Late Medieval periods wouldn't be back on the battlefield in any significant way for 300 years.

Armor in the era of Pike and Shot and the 30 Years War
By the 17th Century, the type of light, tough, tempered steel harness which had been popularized by Augsburg's armorers was no longer cheap or widely available. The armorers families from Augsburg had moved to the elite royal armories in Innsbrook and Greenwich England, and were making armor for kings and princes instead of for burghers and mercenaries. The industry in Milan had also shrunk to a much smaller size and specialized in making parade armor, again for princes. Armor for ordinary troops was increasingly made of simple wrought iron rather than steel, and yet the threat from firearms was greater than ever. Muskets from this period could generate as much as 3000 joule of energy, and pistols for cavalry, now quite larger and sophisticated, featuring clockwork wheel-locks, could hit hard as well especially at short range. In order to combat this, armor got much thicker. Armor in the late 15th Century might be 3mm thick at the breastplate or the front of the helmet, whereas by the 17th armor that was 6mm thick in the same areas was not unusual. This could protect against pistols but the harness was now so heavy it was almost impossible to carry around, especially for infantry. Whereas an entire Gothic harness of 1470 might weigh 40 or 50 lbs, a three- quarters or half-armor from 1630 could be as much as 100 lbs, and a single breast plate might be 40 lbs on it's own.

This meant that troops, especially infantry, hated wearing or even carrying armor around. It still helped in combat so their commanders forced them to wear it, but it increasingly became a struggle. The new preference was for the 'buff coat', animal hide and textile armor which was light enough to get around in.

The decline and disappearance of armor
Armor was in sharp decline in use especially by infantry as early as the 1550's. By the 1650's it was definitely still around the battlefields but it was clearly on the way out. It lingered, mainly for cavalry and mainly limited to breast plate and helmet, into the Napeleonic era, and probably disappeared completely in the 1850's. By WW I the steel helmet had reappeared, and today body armor is back again as well. The reasons why it came and went may have as much to do with political and economic systems as with technical ones. Ultimately, a series of factors spelled doom for armor.

* Cannons were the first major threat. As they gradually became more ubiquitous and more maneuverable on the open battlefield, they ended the era of invulnerability of the armored man.
* Infantry firearms were a problem too, but armor kept up surprisingly well for a long time. Though the heavy musket proved able to pierce armor at least at shorter ranges in the early 16th Century, it was still a fairly rare weapon on the battlefield, and armor did provide some substantial protection.
* Pistols and their short-arm cousins were another major problem but the best armor could protect you. Cavalry were taught to shoot at their enemies mounts, or at the faces and thighs of their enemies.
* Larger armies meant cheaper gear was needed, and armies from 1550-1650 had much more cannon fodder. Cannon fodder didn't need armor.
* The collapse of the armor making industries. Late medieval armor production in the major centers such as Augsburg and Milan was at a very unique 'sweet spot', it utilized highly skilled labor and was of extremely high quality, while simultaneously thanks to complex subcontracting systems and the use of water-powered automation and other machines, made in what amounted to mass production levels. Thus it was affordable. but this system was fragile. Under pressure from the same Atlantic powers who were raising the vast armies which would fight the religious wars of Europe, the Free Cities and City States which produced the kit could not keep up, and the unique situation ended, along with the original Renaissance culture that made it possible.

The fall of the city-state, and the rise of the Absolute Monarchy
The big picture is that armor made economic sense for small expensive armies made up of skilled labor for two reasons: 1) As a regional prince with his personal retinue of courtiers, bodyguards and henchmen, you couldn't afford high casualties. Same for an independent polity such as a Free City or a City-State, or a Condottieri captain with his elite mercenaries - these fighters were valuable skilled labor and hard to replace. 2) Individual burghers, mercenaries and knights were similarly heavily invested in their own survival, and if they had the wherewithal, they would equip themselves with the best armor they could get to improve their odds. In the chaotic stateless or failed state zones of Northern, Central and Southern Europe, many mid-level warriors, especially those associated with the most successful princes, or the wealthy, thriving City States and Free Cities of the era, did have the means to kit themselves out quite well.

With the rise of the State, culminating in 1648, powerful monarchies with international empires fielded vast armies made up of basically unskilled labor, (backed up by an economy built on slave labor overseas). The urban burgher and independent country gentry were both squeezed very hard in this era - so they had much less money for fancy equipment of their own. Wealth and power accumulated at the top, and status conferred to members of the Royal court. By the 18th Century even common soldiers were wearing powdered wigs as if they were aristocratic courtiers, because the only avenue to power and status was through connection to the Monarchy. And yet these men were armed and equipped by the Kings they served - and the Monarchies didn't see the need for expensive equipment beyond a simple matchlock musket. The decline of the armor industry meant that highly sophisticated tempered steel harness was no longer affordable, while the thick iron panoplies of the 30 Years War were too heavy to be practical for many troops of that era.

The history of gunpowder weapons and armor seem to have been closely linked in Europe. At the very least, they can be said to have followed parallel patterns of innovation and production growth right up to the 16th Century. Though technical challenges continued to increase for armorers, gunsmiths too found their work cut out for them. Ultimately the massive economic and political changes of the Early Modern period may have had as much to do with the disappearance of armor (and of many other types of material culture in the same time period) as any technical factor. Armor continued to improve and keep pace with developments in firearms right up until the massive social disruptions of the early 16th Century, which permanently changed the political and economic maps of Europe, and put an end to the original Renaissance in Italy and Flanders. The return of armor to the battlefields of the late 20th Century perhaps has to do with armies getting smaller and more expensive, and armor itself getting cheaper and more effective. But armor-piercing weapons are keeping up, and the see-saw between weapons and armor has also returned.

Part 2: A longer and more detailed history of armor and gunpowder weapons

This reiterates the above with much more detail and supportive links and imagery.


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Although these guys look like 14th Century French knights, complete with horse armor and barrel-helms, they are actually Sassanid cataphracts from the 6th Century AD.

Mid 13th Century through the early 14th (circa 1250 - 1325)

Gunpowder arrives in Europe
Though the Mongols brought black powder weapons of some kind with them in the Battle of Mohi in 1241 , (probably bombs or pyrotechnic catapult projectiles), one of the first recorded experiences of actual firearms by Europeans was written in 1262, when King Alfonso X of Castile was besieging the Moorish stronghold of Niebla in what is now Spain. The Moors used the new “boom stick” weapon effectively, to the dismay of the besieging Spaniards:

"..The Arabs threw many (iron) balls launched with thunder, the Christians were very afraid of, as any member of the body hit was severed as if with a knife; and the wounded man died afterwards, because no surgery could heal him, in part because the balls were hot as fire, and apart of that, because the powders used were of such nature that any ulcer done meant the death of the injured man...
.. and he was hit with a ball of the thunder in the arm, and was cut off, and died next day: and the same happened to all of those injured by the thunder. And even now the story is being told amongst the host..."


Gunpowder was invented by the Chinese possibly as early as the 9th Century during Alchemical experiments intended to create potions of longevity. It's utility for weapons was gradually realized and it was in widespread use by the 11th Century in siege warfare, both for pyrotechnic fireworks weapons and an early form of primitive hand gun called the fire lance. The technology of the fire lance was established by the 11th Century, but had not changed much by the time the weapon arrived in Europe in the mid-13th Century.

The Mongols acquired gunpowder and gunpowder weapons during their initial invasions of China in the early 1200's, though they did not know it's secret. Mongols conquered Russia in the 1320's, and won two key battles in Poland and Hungary in 1241, using gunpowder weapons of some kind in the latter, they were not involved in many major sieges in Latin Europe after that. By the 1250's, the Mongols were invading the Middle East and brought firearms with them. These were quickly acquired and figured out by the Mamluks, who disseminated the secret of Black Powder and the Salt of St. Peter throughout the Muslim world by 1260. It appears to have reached the Moors in Spain, where a fierce battle was taking place between Islamic and Christian warlords, by 1248.

The Moors used cannon and firearms in several documented battles in this period:

1248 Moors use cannon in the Siege of Seville
1259 City of Melilla (North Africa) is defended by cannon
1260 Mamluks use fire-lances or hand-culverins (called midfa by the Arabs) against Mongols in the battle of Ain Jalut in an ambush after a feigned retreat. A major victory for the Mamluks. This is one of the first recorded uses of firearms outside of a siege context.
1262 Siege of Niebla, Moors use cannon
1280 Siege of Cordoba, gunpowder weapons are used
1303 Mamluks use hand guns against Mongols
1306 Siege of Gibraltar, gunpowder weapons are used.

One of the reasons the Moors may have so quickly adapted firearms in Spain is that they were already having trouble dealing with the armor of the Latin European troops.

The Fire Lance
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The fire lance was a primitive firearm, or combination firearm / pyrotechnic device, consisting of a small metal barrel on the end of a stick or a pole. Seeing one shot looks a little bit like a fire extinguisher going off.

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Chinese Demon using a fire lance in a 10th Century painting. Both fire lances and hand grenades were in use in China by this point.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fire_lance

This is an excellent video showing test firing of a few variants of the fire lance against ballistic gel targets in 2009:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XMzZ3CPgMrg

Armor in the mid 13th Century
When gunpowder weapons first arrived armor was already in transition from just mail to mail reinforced by hard plates. The reasons were probably a combination of the couched lance and the crossbow, both of which had been around before but were becoming more dangerous and had probably reached the point of being able to pierce mail. So they began to add plates to stiffen or reinforce the mail armor at key points like on the abdomen, as you can see in this 13th Century armor here:

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Roger Bacon decodes the deadly mystery
Latin Europe did not remain very long in the dark about firearms however. Within a year or two of their use by the Arabs, scholars in Europe began to learn of the secret and began conducting their own experiments. It is probable that several people were actively investigating many leads, but the first person to leave records that we still have available was the English Franciscan Friar Roger Bacon, who first described a formula for gunpowder in encrypted form in 1248, and then in Siege of Niebla he described it "in the clear" in the Opus Majus in 1268, as part of a formula for making firecrackers:


“We have an example of these things (that act on the senses) in the sound and fire of that children’s toy which is made in many diverse parts of the world; i.e.
a device no bigger than one’s thumb.
From the violence of that salt called saltpetre together with sulphur and willow charcoal, combined into a powder so horrible a sound is made by the bursting of a thing so small, no more than a bit of parchment containing it, that we find the ear assaulted by a noise exceeding the roar of strong thunder, and a flash brighter than the most brilliant lightning.”


1248 Roger Bacon may have released a gunpowder formula in encrypted format in a poem (or maybe not)
1268 Roger Bacon publishes gunpowder formula 'for firecrackers'
1280 Hasan Al Rammah writes the gunpowder formula in Arabic
1280 Albertus Magnus describes gunpowder weapons in a book

Another important document related to the development of Gunpowder was the Liber Ignium, an anonymous Latin document attributed to someone named "Marcus Graecus", certainly a pseudonym. It's unclear when this book first arrived but most scholars put it sometime in the late 13th Century. Interestingly, it shows up as part of the fencing manual 3227a. The Liber Ignium has important information on how to process saltpeter, which helped to correct a major problem with early gunpowder, in many cases it was being (accidentally) made with calcium nitrate instead of potassium nitrate, and the former easily becomes inert when wet. Potassium nitrate properly made, is the single most important ingredient for not just gunpowder but all pyrotechnic weapons and devices.

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Instructions for mixing gunpowder from the 3227a

"saltpeter is a mineral of the earth, and is found as an efflorescence on stones. This earth is dissolved in boiling water, then purified and passed through a filter. It is boiled for a day and a night and solidified, so that transparent plates of the salt are found at the bottom of the vessel."

Cannon in the late 13th -early 14th Century
By the late 13th Century, gunpowder weapons of various kinds seem to have arrived in Europe. The early adopters were, as in so many things, the Italians, and the first recorded mentions of gunpowder weapons by Latinized forces in Europe was in 1298 at the battle of Korcula in Croatia. The Venetians and Genoese listed "Bombadieri" in their payroll lists. These may have been grenadiers, or special troops who used cannon or firearms.

Further north, Flanders was arguably the second most important center of culture and technology after Northern Italy, and it was there, in the Free City of Ghent in 1313 where cannon was recorded in the town armory, as "bussen met kruyt" - cannon with powder. This is probably a generation after they were introduced. There is a report in Flanders again in 1324 of cannon in use at the siege of Metz, then down in Italy again in Florence in 1326, and Scotland in 1327. In Lucca in Italy in 1341 there is a mention of a 'thunderer' and an 'iron cannon to fire iron balls' which sounds like a reference to a weapon more advanced than the primitive firepot.

Cannon seem to show up at an accelerating rate in the major battles and wars of the era. In the 100 Years War from 1338 at Perigord, Edward III has ten cannons at Cambrai in 1339, uses cannon at Aiguillon in 1345 and ten cannon at Calais again at 1345.

Cannon in the 13th and early 14th Century were very primitive, more like the cliché of the medieval cannon, though by the 1330's they began to improve. One type of early cannon was the 'firepot', which looked like this:
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An early 14th Century Swedish Cannon, the Loshult Cannon. This is the typical 'fire pot' type of early cannon. Limited range, questionable reliability, but they could do real damage at close range, for example against a castle gate.

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A modern replica of the same cannon, showing how it may have been used and may have looked in 1325

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Depiction of a cannon from 1326

Firepots shot a special type of arrow, of which we have a couple of preserved specimens.

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Early 14th Century cannon, forged iron

By the third quarter of the 14th Century however, cannon that shoot iron or stone balls seem to have arrived. Cannon in this early era were short ranged, risky to use, and being heavy and cumbersome, hard to get into position. But they seem to have already had some kind of useful role on the battlefield.

Improvements in armor
As the 13th Century came into an end and gave way to the 14th, armor rapidly got better in terms of ergonomics, coverage, and strength. Cap-a-pied harness of iron was becoming the norm for cavalry and armor was increasingly common for infantry as well (usually most of the body except for the legs). Torso protection was still often coat of plates, brigandine or some other combination of textile and iron plates, but solid breast plates were just around the corner.

Spoiler: show
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The Great helm of Hans Rieter of Kornburg, circa 1350, displayed in the Germanic National Museum in Nuremberg

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mid-14th century iron cuirass, with textile covering. Front, side, and back (inside) view.
Last edited by Galloglaich on Tue Jan 17, 2017 6:30 pm, edited 73 times in total.
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Gunpowder and Plate armor - Mid to Late 14th Century

Postby Galloglaich » Sun Dec 18, 2016 3:04 am

The mid to late 14th Century

Gunpowder weapons take off in Europe
From this humble beginning, cannon advanced rapidly in this period, while firearms at first simply proliferated, but incremental changes and improvements began to take hold as various regional manufacturing centers for firearms became established in Europe. These included the big city states in Flanders (Ghent, Bruges, Ypres, Lille) Venice, Florence, Milan and Brescia in Italy, Cologne and Strasbourg in the Rhineland, Berne and Zurich in Switzerland, Nuremberg, Ulm and Augsburg in South Germany, Prague in Bohemia, and Lubeck, Hamburg, Brunswick, Breslau, Krakow and Danzig in North Germany and Poland. The sudden surge in gunpowder weapon innovation and production at this time is so striking that it is believed by some historians to be part of the "Little Divergence" which was the precursor to the "Great Divergence" in which European States came to dominate the world in the 18th and 19th Centuries.


Mid- to Late 14th Century handguns
Firearms in this era had short barrels and often a two-stage or chambered construction, due to the nature of the type of powder typically used in this era, sometimes called 'serpentine' powder. Due to the way the powder burned, barrels had to be short to endure the pressures. The chambered interior shape of the barrel, with a narrow tube opening into a larger tube with the bullet in it, allowed the earlier type of powder to burn more efficiently.


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Touch-hole firearms from the Bellifortis, 1405

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Cast bronze hand gonne from Sweden, circa 1360- simple but beautiful design, featuring a touch hole, socketed for mounting on a pole

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Cast iron Dutch hand-cannon with octogonal barrel and touch-hole (this may have been ship-mounted, possibly on a pintle mount)

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Cast bronze gun barrel for a hand-culverin, found in the well of a German castle at Tannenburg that was destroyed in 1399. The chambered or two-stage design may have been to allow the slower burning 'serpentine powder' of this era to burn more efficiently.

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Diagram of the internal structure of the tannenburg gun, showing the increasingly sophisticated design. The bullet is 13mm. During testing this gun performed better with the (theoretically less efficient) period gunpowder formula. This gun fired at a velocity of 350 m/s achieving an impressive muzzle energy of 1400 joules. It achieved about 1200 joules and 300 m/s using modern black powder

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The 'Mörkö Gun' from Sweden, bronze, dated to 1390. This is a very simple weapon but also clearly very well made. The hook is used to steady over a wall or the gunwhale of a ship, side of a wagon, etc. The touch hole is on the top right under the head. Modern tests interestingly show this gun works better with the older gunpowder formulas for the day.

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Replica of another similarly beautiful cast bronze gun from Gdansk, dated at around 1385.

More details about testing these weapons in this excellent blog here


New types of cannon
Cannon design advanced rapidly in the 14th Century. New cannon-making techniques, forging barrels in a hoop and stave style and casting them, the latter mostly still in bronze at this point, begin to make cannons more effective, accurate and reliable. Barrels got a bit longer, tolerances get tighter, more portable and manageable rigs, including the first crude wheeled carriages made the guns themselves more manageable. The first cannons were probably only suitable to attack gates or doors, or other nearby, static targets. By the 1320's, cannons which could hit targets at some distance, aimed at towers etc., and could do substantial damage were spreading rapidly across the battlefields of Europe. Their main use was still in sieges, but by the 1340's they seem to have also found a role in the open field, typically set up in the main camp of a larger army as part of the camp defense. By the 1380's guns were beginning to be mounted on carts and wagons, as well as rafts, ships and boats, and new design types made them dangerous to individual warriors.

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Left, replica of a 14th Century cannon. Right, detail of a late 14th Century Flemish painting showing a cannon (wielded by demons) note the removable breach

Though these new cannon still look crude and are not really recognizable by today's standards, the 'firepot' type of cannon is now a thing of the past, and cannon are no longer just for knocking down gates. Cannon development proceeeded along two lines, light and medium cannon on the one hand (including volley guns, see below) and huge bombards on the other. The earliest versions of swivel mounts and pintle mounts made smaller cannon much easier to aim, and the invention of the removable breech allowed for rapid firing, though these were all new technologies. By the late 14th Century light and medium Cannon began to be mounted on wagons and boats. These were basically antipersonnel weapons and posed a major challenge to armorers as they were difficult to protect against.

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Bombard made in Cologne, Germany in 1377. Made of heavy wrought-iron hoops forge-welded together, it shot a shaped stone ball 200 -300 meters, and was capable of cracking the stone walls of castles and fortified towns. This was used by Cologne to destroy the castles of Robber Knights


Meanwhile the new technology of the bombard proceeded cautiously forward. The Bombard was a replacement of the old firepot, a heavy cannon designed to be able to knock down the very walls of fortifications. Early bombards were risky to use because of their immense power and the early stage devleopment of their iron and bronze construction. Only the most sophisticated city-states seemed to make these, notably Ghent, Bruges, Florence, Venice, Milan, Brunswick, Cologne Danzig and Nuremberg all forged impressive bombards in the late 14th Century. Some of the Flemish and German-made guns were put into the field by France or England during the 100 Years War.

Volley guns
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Crude drawing of a volley gun or ribaldequin from the Bellifortis military manual, circa 1405. Weapons like this were in use from the 1320's.

One of the first type of cannon to be used effectively in the field, as opposed to just in sieges, was the volley gun, sometimes called a ribauld or ribauldequin, (as well as by a slew of other Flemish, German, and Italian names). These were carts or platforms with multiple handgun-caliber guns (meaning for this era, roughly 12mm-25mm) bolted on to them, with the barrels positioned close together so that they could be fired all at once or in-series.

As usual, Flanders and Northern Italy are the early-adopters of this new technology and they very quickly get a slew of technical problems ironed out and get them into the field, where they quickly make their presence felt. Volley guns were listed among the armaments used by Edward III at Calais in 1345. The use of volley guns and their overall role tends to get downlpayed in many popular histories of artillery, firearms or warfare, but they seem to have quickly established a niche where they were used in large numbers from an early date.

At the siege of Ghent there is a record that there were 200 carts mounted with guns. Some were described as "ribaulds' as 'high wheelbarrows, banded with iron, with long iron spikes sticking out from the front, which they were accustomed to wheel along with them'. Bruges records show 'new engines which men call ribaulds' ('niewen enginen die men heet ribaulde'). At a battle near Verona in 1387 the Italians used 144 of them grouped together in three tiers.

Using these volley guns was no-doubt tricky but they seem to have been effective when they were positioned in a useful way and used by competent gunners (experts). Though these were muzzle loading guns, a volley of 50 or 100 or 200 gun barrels going off in rapid succession, or even all at once, could be extremely devastating to a concentration of cavalry, a group of men charging toward the wall holding scaling ladders, or an advancing column of heavy infantry, or to men lined up along the top of a castle wall. These "muzzle-loading machine guns" were antipersonnel weapons par-excellence and undoubtedly contributed to the urgent need to improve the protective capabilities of body armor.

Armor in the mid-to late 14th Century
Solid breast plates are becoming much more common, and completely articulated harness is now increasingly the norm, especially for heavy cavalry. Costs for armor are going down and certain urban centers are becoming major exporters of armor, notably Italian towns like Milan, Venice and Brescia which have an early dominance of the market, but also increasingly South German towns such as Augsburg, Nuremberg, Brunswick and Ulm.

Armor in this period is often worn with a textile covering, both to enhance it's protective value particularly against lances, crossbow bolts and bullets from firearms, and also to protect the armor itself from dents.

This is the era of the rise of infantry and new more skilled and professionalized infantry (including mercenaries and urban militia) bring new weapons like the newest variants of crossbows and firearms, as well as armor-piercing hand-weapons like the Halberd, bill, glaive-guisarme, poll axe, war-pick and so on, which also pose an increased challenge to armorers to provide protection to their wearers.

Armor is starting to be 'proofed' by armorers by shooting it with 'small' and 'large' crossbows and marking the dents.

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Three examples of 14th Century harness, with both shaped iron plate and combined textile / plate (brigandine) protection.

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Soldiers manhandling Christ, from the Czech Grudziadz Polyptych, believed to be by the Master of the Trebon altarpiece. This is from the 1390's
Last edited by Galloglaich on Mon Jan 09, 2017 5:34 pm, edited 31 times in total.
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Gunpowder and Plate armor - Early to mid 15th Century

Postby Galloglaich » Sun Dec 18, 2016 3:07 am

Early to Mid-15th Century

With the dawn of the 15th Century both firearms and cannon begin to improve at a very rapid pace, almost a revolutionary pace. They also begin to spread rapidly across Europe and by 1400, very few armies lacked firearms. The most advanced armies also had a variety of antipersonnel cannon and other gunpowder weapons which they were adept in the use of and capable of getting into position quickly and efficiently. Outside of Europe, while the Mongols and Mamluks were fairly slow to adapt to gunpowder weapons beyond rudimentary (and mostly siege related) levels, the Ottomans were keeping up with the Europeans and making their own striking new advancements in cannon and firearms technology.

Crumbled and Corned powder
Changes to the way gunpowder was processed starting in the early 15th or late 14th Century, both in terms of chemical composition and how it was dried, meant that gun barrels could be made much longer which improved accuracy. By around the 1440, corned powder began to be produced. Up until the advent of corned powder, powder had to be mixed daily in the field, because when it was jostled and moved around it would separate out into it's component chemicals (saltpetre, charcoal, and sulphur). Corned powder was made by wetting it with alcohol and pushing it through a sieve or mesh. This made pellets of even size, which had an added benefit in that it allowed for the grading of powders. So in addition to having powder that was ready to go and much more reliable, it could also be graded for use as primer, for small and large firearms, grenades, small, medium and large cannon (larger pellets being necessary for larger cannons) and so on.

Firearms of the early to mid 15th Century

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Mid-15th Century hand-gunners, holding their guns, with gunstocks that are recognizable as gunstocks by today's standards, carried upside down on their shoulders (this is commonly portrayed in the Swiss Chronicles) Bern Chronik, Diebold schlling (left), a hand-culverin with a serpentine from the Codex Vindobana, 1411 (right). Note the casting of probably lead bullets in the lower-right..

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Hand culverin with serpentine, 1430. Alamannic-Swabian, Ms Rh hist. 0033b, Swiss Central Library, Zürich.

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Realistic model of a 15th Century Blast Furnace. Note the use of shallow canals to bring in the charcoal fuel and ore. The growth of the iron and bronze industries with facilities like this springing up all over Europe contributed to the lower prices of iron and other metals, and an increase in the general dissemination of both firearms and armor.


Innovations in firearms
After nearly four centuries without much change anywhere in the world, firearms suddenly began to evolve in Europe. The innovations of match cord, the new serpentine device, the hook, and new methods of forging and casting that allowed for much tighter tolerances all made firearms much more efficient and lethal. Firearms were no longer made to spray a shower of sparks and pebbles, but to shoot a single projectile, carefully sized to fit the gun barrel. Bullets are shaped stone, lead, or iron. Though these still look crude and simplistic, and superficially similar to the 14th Century firearms, they are actually quite different in several important ways:

    Better production standards - Better more homogeneous metals, tighter tolerances, more even and smooth surfaces all led to better performing firearms.
    Longer barrels - Longer barrels, as much as two or three times as long as 14th Century weapons, directly correlated to better accuracy
    Integrated hooks - For the longer 'hand-gonne' firearms of this era, integrated hooks made them more accurate for shooting when supported by the gunwhale of a ship, a wall, the side of a wagon etc.
    Short tillers - Guns with short, crossbowlike tillers also arrived in this era, being smaller and more manageable they were something like a "proto-carbine"
    Covered touch-holes - Hinged covers for touch-holes allowed the primer to stay in place when the gun was being jostled around for example by running, fighting, or leaping for cover.
    Match cord - The slow match was invented some time in the early 15th Century. This was usually hemp or flax cord dipped in potassium nitrate or sodium nitrate, which would burn about 1 foot per hour. This meant that it was no longer necessary to keep a hot brazier of coals burning to use your gun, a huge advantage in their use especially out in the field beyond siege situations.
    Serpentine locks - Many firearms of the day used the new serpentine locks, a simple lever clamped to a piece of smoldering match cord, which made the weapon much easier to handle - it was no longer necessary to hold a hot iron wire in one hand and the gun in the other, or to have a second person touch off the gun while aiming. The gunner could aim and ignite the gun alone, simultaneously.
    Rifling - A handful of weapons with rifled barrels appear in the early 15th Century, we have a record of one being confiscated at a shooting contest in Augsburg in 1401. Hard to tell how many were made but any firearm with a rifled barrel was likely to be much more accurate than smoothbore weapons.
    Early paper cartridges - Because of the existence of corned powder, it was now possible for gunners to pre-measure powder for shots, wrapped in paper with a separate smaller portion of finer powder reserved for primer. This led to much faster shooting times. It was the pre-cursor of the modern bullet cartridge

Individually, each of these innovations was a marginal improvement, but taken together, along with the vastly increased ubiquity of firearms on the battlefield, it amounted to an order of magnitude more of a threat from firearms.

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Two handguns, late 14th Century, a little bit ahead of their time and indicative of weapons which were starting to become more common from the early 15th C. You can think of these as something like sawed off shotguns.

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Czech style "pistala", note the touch-hole, the hook, and the relatively long barrel. Though crude in appearance this is a formidable, large-caliber, long-barreled firearm.

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Mid 15th Century German hand-gonne, .70 caliber. Note the hinged cover on the touch-hole, which is in the open position. See full image here

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15th Century German or Czech hand-gonne. See full image Here

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15th Century hook-gun or proto-hackenbusche / arquebus, from a Danish museum

The firearm and the shooting festival
The culture of shooting and cultivation of the skill at a high level was vastly improved during this period when firearms began to be included in shooting contests sponsored by towns and princes. To the existing shooting guilds of St. George and St. Sebastian (for marksmanship with crossbows and archery with bows), new guilds for shooters dedicated to saints like St. Barbara became common in towns in Flanders, the Rhineland, throughout Central Europe and into Northern Italy. The culture of firearms increased rapidly as the social and financial rewards for good shooting improved.

Cannon of the early to mid 15th Century
Various very important technologies for early cannon, some of which did not become widespread in the West until centuries later, were all established in the late 14th or early 15th Century in Central Europe, Flanders and Italy. The breach loader, the wheeled carriage, pintle-mounts, the new houfnice or field howitzer of the Czechs, the trestle gun and the feldschlange (representative of a whole family of accurate long-ranged field guns) and of course, the bombard, all came into their own among the technologically advanced zones of Europe. The Italian City-States, the Free Cities of Flanders, the Rhineland, the Hanseatic North and extreme South Germany (Augsburg et al), and many towns in what are now Sweden, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia, all produced and fielded cannon on a significant scale.

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Culverin, Strasbourg circa 1460 (estimated). This is a small / medium caliber weapon (3-5 cm caliber) designed for accuracy. Note the long elegantly shaped barrel aiming brackets

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A 'feldschlange', a type of medium culverin, these would usually be 9-12 cm caliber.

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Breach-loading Culverin, German mid 15th Century


The medieval Supergun
One of the more extraordinary developments in this period was the 'supergun', truly massive bombards whose size would not be rivaled again for Centuries. These behemoths could rapidly break down walls, sink ships or break up enemy troop concentrations, but they were hard to get into position, dangerous to use and could only be shot at a slow rate. Nevertheless, these things which could be thought of as strategic or at least operational weapons, quickly changed the face of warfare in Europe. Old type castles fell like so many bowling pins to the advancing armies of the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy who put these formidable weapons into action. They helped the French win the 100 Years War (a conflict that we might be led to believe they lost based on the way the history of it is typically presented in English) and forced a revolution in the design of fortifications. It did not have much relevance to body armor except in how it changed the strategy of siege warfare. Sieges could now be much shorter if one side had these kinds of weapons and the other did not. The Ottomans also put these to good use and their massive bronze guns quickly turned castle after castle into rubble in Southeastern Europe, as their armies marched inexorably closer to Vienna and their ultimate goal, Rome. They built one massive gun in the 15th Century, designed by a German or Hungarian gunsmith, which could blast holes in ships trying to move through the Dardanelles. Though crude by today's standards, it was so effective the last time it was used in action was in the 1800's when it severely damaged several British ships trying to enter the Black Sea.

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The Dardanelles gun

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An Ottoman cannon with a 'screw breach' cast in 1464

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dardanelles_Gun

This interesting character seems to have built the Ottoman beast

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orban


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Dulle Griet ("Mad Meg", named after the Flemish folklore figure Dull Gret) a massive wrought-iron bombard forged by the city of Ghent around 1420, the bore was 64 cm, it fired a 340 kg stone ball which could knock down city or castle walls. When a weapon like this was fired, it created a boom which would be heard (and felt) for miles around. This was powerful sorcery indeed.

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Pumhard von Steyr, a massive bombard or siege-mortar built by the Hapsburgs in Styria, Austria, circa 1415. Caliber 80 cm, fired a stone ball 690 kg 300 meters

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Faule Mette ("Lazy whore") a massive bombard forged by Brunswick in 1411. Forged at a time when Brunswick was under serious threat from regional princes, this extremely potent (if cumbersome) bombard remained in use until the 18th Century. On 1 November 1717, the Faule Mette reportedly shot a 341 kilograms (752 lb) stone ball 2,442 metres (8,012 ft). A weapon like this made it virtually impossible to approach the city with something like a siege tower or to set up artillery in front of it's walls, without being wiped out.


Volley guns
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Two illustrations of volley guns from 15th Century documents. These have long barrels and wheeled mounts. Easy to get into position and comparatively accurate compared to the earlier types. These are essentially muzzle-loading machine guns.

Though the volley gun dates back to at least the 1350's, it was in the early 1400's that it came into it's own.

Armor of the early to mid 15th Century
Armor continued to get better designs and vastly improved metalurgy. Steel harness was now a routine (if higher end) offering in Milan, and in Augsburg they were increasingly producing tempered steel. Armor is so well made now, and of such good (iron, and increasingly, steel) material, that it is no longer necessary to cover it with textiles to help prevent dents and holes, nor to wear a full mail hauberk underneath. Sometimes people still do, but the lighter 'white harness', and it's close cousin, the weather-proofed 'black harness' are now much more common.

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English style (probably made in Italy)

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German / Central European style replica (this type would probably made in Augsburg or Nuremberg, though it could also be made in Milan in the 'German style')

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Milanese style

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Black armor, in the style of the Hungarian Black Army. On the right, St's George and Florian in black armor. At least a dozen mercenary outfits, militia companies or princely armies of the 15th Century were called "black" army, "Black band" etc. etc., a reference to their blackened armor, which was probably a common method of weather proofing in this era.

The 15th Century battlefield

The battlefield in the early 15th Century was quickly becoming a complex, bewildering and very strange place. There is considerable evidence of the widespread deployment of wheeled, mobile engines of war, including war-wagons, artillery wagons, wheeled siege mantlets, carroccio, and many other more bizarre types of devices which are harder to precisely define. The weapons which show up in the military manuals of this period almost defy analysis, and were long thought to be fantastical. But increasingly, there is evidence that they seem to have been in use on a significant scale, not just by the Czechs, but by the Germans, Swiss, Swedes, Poles, Hungarians, and many others.

In addition to the 'medieval APC's' other strange devices such as kites, rockets, signalling flares, various forms of pyrotechnics including colored smoke, all kinds of musicians from drummers, flute players, bagpipes, to even mobile organs, and diabolical human scale fireworks designed to wound and kill people during sieges, were all showing up. Firearms were part of almost every military unit, used alongside crossbows, though crossbows still outnumbered them. One small militia force of about 250 men from Regensburg in 1427, deploying for the Hussite Wars, had about 70 cavalry, 70 crossbowmen, and 16 gunners, with the rest non-combatant support personnel. This may have been a fairly typical ratio, though we can assume the Czechs and their near imitators had more guns. In the same deployment they also listed several hundred special incendiary crossbow bolts along with the other ammunition and supplies.

These incendiary bolts are mentioned in many conflicts and apparently served a useful purpose. In one battle in the 1440's Strasbourg militia used them to set a village and several haystacks on fire than some Armagnac mercenaries were using for cover, burning 150 of the latter alive in the process, according to the chronicle. Infantry columns were flanked by mounted crossbowmen, who acted as scouts and skirmishers. Using new spanning devices they could reload their weapons on horseback, it would be another two or three generations before this was possible with firearms. Most armies had cannon, which were now routinely used to protect the camp, and other weapons like volley guns and smaller pintle mounted guns were often loaded on the wagons or towed behind on carriages. These too seemed to play an important role. Meanwhile amidst all this, all the warrior types of the 14th Century: spearmen, pikemen, halberdiers, archers, knights and other armored heavy cavalry, and even skirmishers armed with darts and javelins, sword and bucklers and so on still held prominent place on the battle line, now better protected by armor.

It's really hard to imagine this kind of battlefield, as it's almost never been portrayed anywhere near the reality in any genre fiction, documentary, or computer game. This is a much more complex battlefield than the pike and shot warfare of the Early Modern period, with troop types reduced to pike, cannon, and cavalry. In the early 1400's it's not at all clear what types will emerge dominant on the battlefield, and cartels such as the Hanseatic League, regional principalities, Free Cities, and hybrid States like the Teutonic Knights fielded new types of weapons and adapted new strategies at a very rapid pace.

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Mid-15th Century battle. Note cannon being used to attack fortification. Defenders shooting hand-guns. Attackers shooting hand-guns. The use of incendiary crossbow bolts by the attackers to start fires.

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A medieval army, probably urban militia, rolls out for a fight. Note the complex war-wagon or war machine in the center right, the guy operating it poses all sorts of questions for me that I can't yet answer. Note that most of the troops wear half armor (no armor on the legs) while commanders wear full armor. Note the lead cannon, pushed from behind by the horses and protected by a wooden mantlet. This is positioned to shoot either on the move or very quickly after making contact. You see this type of arrangement often in war books from this era. Also note the mounted crossbowmen, the gunners, and the use of full-sized longswords as sidearms by both cavalry and infantry.


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A striking painting showing a cavalry action from a battle in which Czech "Hussite" heretic forces smashed an army of 100,000 "baby killing" Crusaders in 1431. In addition to the speared babies, and visible Dominican monks in the lower-right in their black robes with red Crusader crosses on them (whose hopes to start the Bohemian Inquisition are sadly dashed), I love how the Hussite knight is seizing the Crusader banner in one hand while preparing to hack the head off of a Crusader with the other. Also note the use of the mounted crossbow at point blank range. This was another thing the Hussites seem to have pioneered, or at least been early-adopters of.
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Gunpowder and Plate armor - Mid to Late 15th Century

Postby Galloglaich » Sun Dec 18, 2016 3:10 am

Mid- to Late 15th Century

In the second half of the 15th Century, the trends of the first half continued at an accelerated pace. Firearms spread and were adapted, particularly in the usual more culturally / technologically advanced zones, to the extent that they were no longer just a small part of most armies, but a key element of the Late Medieval war machine. In the towns, the shooting contests for guns were beginning to eclipse those for crossbows, and the militia's strongly emphasized firearms. Most of the actual weapons still looked similar to the earlier 15th Century weapons, but they were better made, more standardized, longer-barreled, and included more of the new features. These included covered touch-holes, serpentine locks, and toward the end of the century, new mechanical matchless mechanisms using iron pyrite to generate sparks, which were the precursor to wheel-locks. Wheellocks may have been around as early as the 1480's, though they were very rare before 1500, probably only a handful of artisans knew how to make them. Other remarkable innovations such as breach-loading firearms seem to have been around as early as the 1450's. We have both a surviving example of a breach loading arquebus as well as plans for how to make one from an Italian manuscript from 1452 and another German manuscript from 1470. Rifled barrels seem to have been around though again, only made by top gunsmiths.

The war wagons and more exotic war-machines were still around in the second half of the 15th Century, but were more standardized and effective. They seem to have been used more in Central, North and Eastern Europe while pikes were more the norm further West. Gunners, crossbow marksmen and other infantry were often protected by pavise shields as well as war wagons, rolling mantlets and other forms of protection. The earthen gabion, a feature of modern battlefields, began to make it's first appearances to deal with more ubiquitous field artillery. Cannons on wheeled carriages and carried on carts were increasingly pervasive, and almost every army above a certain size carried cannon into the field. The volley guns of this era became perfected as weapons. Rigs with up to 100 barrels were deployed in battles and ambushes and took a heavy toll on enemy forces.

Naval warfare had also undergone a revolution. By the 1450's new types of multi-masted ships, the caravel and the carrack, began to explore out into the Atlantic where Maderia, and the Canary and Azores islands were quickly, discovered as Portuguese, Genoese and Venetian ships began making their way down the African coast, seeking another route to Asia. Ships had already been armed with antipersonnel cannon by the late 1300's, but in the 15th Century guns large enough to sink small ships seem to have been mounted. By the 1450's, larger cannon were routinely being put on ships as well as the usual assortment of swivel guns, hook guns and breach-loaders. Naval combat was still largely based on boarding actions, and infantry or 'marines' on ships typically fought armored.

Armor continued to improve and tempered steel armor from south German cities, particularly Augsburg, began to dominate the market for actual battlefield harness, while Milan began to increasingly specialize for parade armor. The better quality armor from this period, particularly the heat-treated Augsburg harness, was probably good protection against firearms, though firearms were certainly getting more powerful and larger barreled. New specialized armor-piercing weapons, called wall guns or 'dopplehacken' (double-arquebus) by the Germans, or arquebus-a-croc by the French, these hit harder than ordinary guns and were meant to pierce armor. It's hard to tell if they were strong enough at this point to punch through the best armor except maybe at point blank range, but not everybody had the best armor.

Significantly, the armies facing the greatest existential enemies outside of Europe at this time, the Mongols and the Ottoman Turks, made very heavy investments in both armor and gunpowder weapons in particular. In the wake of the Hussite Wars, Czech Hussite heretics, defeated by the moderates in Bohemia, were in high demand as mercenaries all over Central Europe. Fighting with their war-wagons, guns, and other traditional weapons like flails, they made up a substantial part of armies on both sides of the wars between Poland and the Teutonic Order, by Poland against the Golden Horde and Krim Tartars, and most significantly, by the Corvinus / Hunyadi family against the Ottoman Turks in Hungary. The latter formed a unique military force called the Black Army, so named for their ubiquitous blackened armor. They also famously had more guns than any army in the era.


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Two proto-hackenbusche, or arquebus hook guns, the top painted. From Maximilianisches Zeugbuch 1495

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hand-culverin with hinged cover for touch-hole. See full image here. This weapon may have originally had a serpentine (primitive matchlock). This is a very typical mid-15th Century handgun.

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15th Century breach loading arquebus. This originally had a latch or handle on the bolt and probably originally had a match lock. See full image here

Spoiler: show
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Late 15th Century match-lock arquebus, painted green with the colors of Nuremberg. The prototype for firearms for the next 300 years

Videos showing 15th -early 16th Century gunpowder weapons in action
If a picture is worth 1,000 words, sometimes a good video is worth more. Until I watched these videos I didn't fully understand the dynamism and power of Late Medieval gunpowder weapons.

Volley gun 7 barrels

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0mKVdMNcG48

Boom with slayer
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qkbSTyT1COE

Breech loading cannon

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2qycl_ozt60

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Pavises

Pavises rose to prominence on this era and seem to have provided some protection against lances, firearms, arrows and crossbows. They were in heavy use by the Czechs in particular but also by German, Hungarian and Italian infantry. They were often beautifully painted, sometimes in a provocative manner. They seem to have been made of a combination of textile and wood laminate which seems to have contributed to their protective value.

Armor
Armor reached it's peak around the 1520's, as an expression of not just excellent personal protection, but also as a form of Renaissance art at a pretty high level.

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Left, antique 15th Century gothic harness, Center, replica 15th Century gothic harness, Right, St. Eustace, partially armored as a knight, detail from Albrecht Durer Paumgartner Alter, 1498

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Armor of Otto V "The Magnanimous", Duke of Brunswick - Luneburg 1470


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War Wagons from the Wolfegg housebook 1480's
Last edited by Galloglaich on Tue Jan 10, 2017 11:20 pm, edited 15 times in total.
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Gunpowder and Plate armor - Early to Mid 16th Century

Postby Galloglaich » Thu Dec 22, 2016 4:16 am

The 16th Century
The 16th Century was a time of very rapid change and transition, and reflected two contradictory trends. On the one hand, all technological development in the Late Medieval or Early Renaissance culture in places like Northern Italy, Flanders, South Germany etc., which were at a very high level in the late 15th Century and continued at this same furious pace initially. To some extent you could say the creative inertia of the 15th Century did not really start to end until the 1520's. Once the Reformation and Counter-Reformation started in the 1520's, commencing the nasty series of conflicts, sectarian disputes and wars that would ultimately culminate in the 30 Years War a century later, the second trend revealed itself. That was a rapid shift in power away from the urban Renaissance centers and toward the Royal capitals of the Atlantic facing monarchies of Spain, Portugal, England, and France. Toward the end of the 16th Century (in 1581) the Dutch Republic would formally come into it's own and joined this elite group of proto-States.

As money from Slave plantations in the Caribbean, fur trappers from Canada, Tobacco farms in Virginia, nutmeg from Indonesia, Silk from China and so on began to pour into Europe, the Atlantic seagoing Monarchs financed a series of massive new wars, supercharged with vast armies of mercenaries and newly organized royal forces. The Spanish, honed to a fine edge by the culmination of seven hundred years of war in the Reconquista, proved capable of wiping out resistance in what we now call Latin America, the Philippines, and much of the Pacific rim, but after their merger with the Austrian Hapsburg family, the Spanish monarchs had plans to conquer or control much of Europe as well. They faced new challenges coping with French armored cavalry and Central / North European pike squares, knights and other mercenaries. To handle this they organized new systems to better handle Central European, Flemish and Italian infantry and French cavalry. The Tercio, the Rodolero, and a new type of gunner, the musketter were born. The Musket in particular was invented initially as an armor-piercing weapon. It was a development of the German wall gun or dopplehacken, and the French Arquebus a Croq etc., massive large caliber hand cannon which had to be shot from a stand, actually not that different in design or intent from the late WW I and early WW II era anti-tank rifles. The Ottomans, faced with the same problem of killing heavily armored troops, arrived at essentially the same invention, a huge oversized arquebus with a very long barrel that could punch through armor at short to medium range. These were becoming standard equipment for their Janissary slave-infantry.

Firearms developed rapidly in the 16th Century with the rapidly fading but still strong cultural impetus of the Renaissance. The standard firearm shape, with the shoulder stock, grip, and integrated trigger and locking mechanism (usually matchlock but also wheelocks) came into being and somewhat standardized. The wheel lock came into being, an expensive, and tricky to maintain, spring-loaded clockwork device, able to generate it's own sparks (using iron pyrite strikers) thus obviating the need for a match, was a huge leap forward in technology, but it did not come into general use. Instead it found a fairly broad niche for cavalry and mounted infantry weapons, particularly for pistols and a variety of short barreled carbine-like weapons like the petronel etc. Although most of the Flemish and Italian city-states which had been so dominant in the technological flowering of the Late Medieval period came under intense military and political pressure in the 16th Century and went into decline, the technological innovations continued apace for a while, especially in some of the still independent towns like Venice and Nuremberg. Some truly amazing technological marvels including breach loading pistols and true matchlock rifles appeared, giving the reason for calling this the "Early Modern" era. Almost every personal level military invention we can think of up to the age of Napoleon existed in this period. But increasingly, these were luxury items affordable only to the princely and courtier classes, or available only within the wealthiest and most sopshiticated of the diminishing number of Free Cities and City-States.

Toward the end of the 16th Century warfare was becoming dominated by gunners, pikemen, and cannon, but heavy cavalry of the knightly style also underwent a kind of revival. In several places in Europe, but especially in France with the Gendarme, in Germany and Holland (northern Europe more generally) the Shwarze Reiter, and in Poland with the famous Winged Hussar, new types heavy cavalry who were adapted to the emerging era of pike and shot, but who retained many of the traits of knightly men-at-arms, came to the fore and kept pace with the developments of infantry warfare. The French Gendarme were gentry who were fitted out, largely at the King's expense, with the best available armor and horses. Their horses were typically well protected too. They proved decisive and very effective in battles in Italy, Spain, and throughout the French borders with Central Europe. The Schwarze Reiter or 'black riders' were a new class of heavy cavalry in north Germany, Holland, Scandinavia and Prussia, who wore 3/4 harness armor, often blackened, and their primary armament was large pistols (or carbine like weapons such as the petronel), often as many as six in holsters carried on the horse, and swords as their indispensable backup weapon. These men were knights, gentry, yeomen, and burghers, and were often equipped by regional lords or cities, but also equipped themselves in the old feudal fashion or as part of militias or urban cavalry societies. They proved capable of defeating more traditionally armed cavalry and of damaging pike squares. Finally the Polish Winged Hussar, also gentry for the most part (members of the Szlachta, the vast Polish / Lithuanian lower nobility) but sometimes equipped by the king, proved to be perhaps the very most effective heavy cavalry of all.

The Winged Hussars combined elements of the Feudal Latin heavy cavalry, the Reiter, and of Eastern cavalry types. They were moderately armored, with torso and arm protection, sometimes some leg protection too, usually a combination of solid and overlapping plates with mail. They were extremely heavily armed, with a bewildering variety of weapons. This included a very long 18' lance, a sword (either a special type of estoc or a basket hilt sword like a schiavona called a pallasch) and a saber, and often a war-hammer, and usually between 2 and 4 pistols. Their extraordinary long lance proved capable of outreaching pikemen in many engagements. They were light enough that they seemed to be able to keep up with light cavalry much better than traditional knights could. Their ability to use pistols also helped them deal with lighter cavalry. Their forte was the charge though very much in the manner of knightly heavy cavalry. They also carried feathered 'wings', whose purpose still isn't understood. It may have been to help prevent the use of lassoes, a traditional steppe nomad method for dealing with heavy cavalry. Whatever the reasons, the Polish Hussars seemed equally capable of killing Latin troops like Germans and Eastern like Mongols, Muscovites, and the Ottoman Empire. It was the Polish Winged Hussar which ultimately saved Vienna from a massive Ottoman invasion though that was to happen much later in the 17th Century.


Bunch of interesting weapon images inside spoiler tag here:
Spoiler: show
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Maximillian's armoury 1502

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armories of Maximilian I; a watercolor by Jörg Kölderer, 1507, fol. 53b.

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Arquebus plans 1530


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A German hook-gun, with the Standard arquebus layout taking shape, the form of the modern firearm clearly visible

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Wheel lock pistol associated with Charles V

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8 barreled matchlock revolver, Germany 1580. Weapons like this wouldn't be seen again until the 19th Century.

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An even more amazing German, 16th Century wheel-lock, breach loading pistol, centuries ahead of it's time

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"Hand-mortar" 16th Century

Grenades and Grenade Launchers
Another fascinating gunpowder weapon to arrive in the 16th Century was the grenade launcher, or "hand mortar". It was pretty dangerous to use, because the grenade or bomb had to be hand-lit and you had to trust that the fuse would take the needed amount of time to go off (and not blow up immediately), that your mortar would go off and shoot the thing a safe distance away (a dud or misfire could be catastrophic) and that the impact of the mortar going off wouldn't set off the bomb, and etc. Nevertheless, a good idea is a good idea, and they do seem to have been used especially in sieges. One was even used in North America by one of the British colonies against the Indians, in one action alone in Virginia 150 grenades were fired. Though due to the risks and technical challenges, hand mortars never really took off in a big way until the 20th Century when fuses and timing became sufficiently reliable that any idiot could shoot an M.79 or an M.203, or even better, an M-19. Nevertheless, in the hands of an expert, these weapons could be quite deadly, and you still had these kinds of experts in some numbers in the 16th Century. There were fewer in the 17th and 18th Centuries but they did not entirely go away and the weapon remained in use.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hand_mortar

Grenades in general got a lot better and grenadiers, or grenade throwing troops, began to become 'a thing' in the 16th Century, though the technology of thrown gunpowder bombs existed way back, and had begun to be standardized from the mid 15th Century with the combined innovations of corned powder and the fairly reliable slow match type fuse made them a lot safer to use. As with so many other gunpowder weapons, their use was initially restricted to sieges, but by the mid 16th Century they started using them further out into the open field.


Graz armor and gun tests article:

https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/M ... 7669/22312

16th Century armor-piercing muskets
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Huge Ottoman Muskets, left, Spanish-style heavy muskets, right


16th Century Armor

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The resurgence of heavy cavalry

French Gendarme

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gendarme_(historical)

Polish Winged Hussars

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polish_hussars

German (etc.) Schwarze Reiter

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reiter

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The early 16th Century Battlefield
In a nutshell, this was the era of the ending of the Late Medieval forms of war, as ever more mobile cannon started to make war-wagons etc. obsolete in the West (though they continued in use far longer on the Eastern steppes and Latin polities neighboring them) the era of pike and shot began to emerge.

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Bohemian Hussite mercenaries fight German landsknechts and knights during the Landshut War of Succession. Leader of the German side was the fencing master and fechtbuch author Ludwig von Eyb

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Battle of Orsha, 1515. Polish knights, with Bohemian and German mercenaries, and Hungarian hussars, fight a powerful Muscovite army
Last edited by Galloglaich on Thu Jan 19, 2017 8:51 pm, edited 26 times in total.
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Re: Gunpowder and Plate armor

Postby Galloglaich » Thu Jan 05, 2017 8:15 pm

The 17th Century and later

By the 17th Century, the mass-material culture of Europe in many cases went into a general decline. Certainly this is true for military kit. Armor becomes very crudely made, was no longer of steel but instead of wrought-iron, and was as much as twice as thick as the late Medieval armor. Many weapons, especially swords, also decline dramatically in quality and become quite crudely made in this period. But they were still more than effective enough to sew death and destruction across the lands.

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Replica of a matchlock caliver, of a 1610 type

The 30 Years War
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The pressures unleashed by the swift accumulation of power by the Atlantic coast Monarchies (and that bitter rival of Spain, the Dutch Republic) combined with sectarianism and the religious fervor instigated by the printing press, onset of Syphilis, and aggressive ambitions of the Princes, and fanned into raging flames by the preaching of fanatic would-be reformers and bitter reactionaries, eventually broke out into a truly apocalyptic war in the 1620's. Though the medieval world had seen more than it's share of ugly atrocities, and these got substantially worse in the 16th Century, nobody in Europe had seen anything like the mayhem which routinely characterized the 30 Years War for more than 1000 years. Not since the Roman Empire had this level of wholesale butchery broken out. The European population actually took a substantial dip in this period, as whole cities were burned and put to the sword (like Mageburg) and religious sectarian based ethnic cleansing erupted all over the European continent, and around the world in the far flung outposts of the global Empires of Spain, France, England, Holland and Portugal.

Warfare had been simplified to the 'pike and shot' format. Cavalry was still an elite, and had better equipment than the infantry, including expensive and sophisticated Wheelock pistols, but overall quality of both equipment and training had definitely declined by the end of the 16th Century and continued to plummet through the 17th.

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Horsemans Wheelock pistol 30 years war era

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Totenkopf helment, wrought iron, mid 17th Century. These are very crude compared to artful grace of 15th or 16th Century armor. Made of wrought iron instead of steel, they also convey an aesthetic of death, stripped of all illusions of Chivalry and all pretense toward decency.
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Re: Gunpowder and Plate armor

Postby Galloglaich » Tue Mar 28, 2017 4:42 pm

Ok the production of iron,

Production of iron is fairly easy to make almost anywhere in the world for small pieces of iron. Small pieces of iron lend themselves well to making mail or lamellar, or certain types of coats of plates / integrated metal / textile armor. Iron ore is indeed everywhere but quality varies a great deal. The quality of iron production centers seem to hinge on four factors:

  1. Quality of local ore
  2. Availability and quality of fuel
  3. Quality of materials to make bloomeries / forges
  4. Industrial capacity to make large forges

Higher quality ore means less work to 'clean' it up to make pure iron. And pure iron is kind of the starting point to make decent steel. You need very pure iron to make large metal plates. Fuel is a big demand and many areas were deforested to provide fuel for the metal industry. Local materials limited how large bloomeries could be made. More sophisticated societies could make big blast furnaces which were vastly more efficient.

So for example, in the earlier medieval period (migration era through late Carolingian or early High middle) in England a lot of iron was being produced in temporary bloomer forges in large forests. This led directly to the elimination of said forests due to the constant cutting and burning of trees to make charcoal. It also polluted streams which were often used for water-wheel power and / or for sluices to wash ore and various other purposes. Eventually England used up a lot of their forests and the local authorities clamped down on the people making the iron who were often of a kind of roaming outlaw / outcast estate. More permanent iron making industrial systems in the towns existed but weren't as well developed as on the continent until the Early Modern period, though England was also making use of peat and coal for fuel on a significant scale as early as the 12th Century (when we already see regulations being passed to control smog and smoke).

In Sweden, the iron forging was done in the forests as well but along a more systematic manner in rural estates. Their iron industry seems to have benefited a great deal from the presence of local clay that had asbestos in it, making it possible to make larger blomery forges and even blast furnaces. This is actually somewhat similar to Southern India, Sri Lanka and the Punjab region where they made the famous 'wootz' (i.e. "Damascus") steel billets that were exported all over the world, except they had even more special properties in the clay they used for their crucibles including probably trace elements of vanadium and other rare metals. There is also a tribe in Africa, the Haya, that was able to make true steel as early as 50 BCE partly because they were situated near some good clay.

In Germany (including Rhineland, Swiss, Austrian etc.), Flanders and some of the Slavic Central European polities (notably Czech and Slovak, but also Polish and Hungarian and others) you saw the early development of full scale blast furnaces. This is really key, because the difference between a bloomer forge and an actual blast furnace while mostly boiling down to scale, makes a big difference in both the size and quality of the iron being produced.

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So for example here is a probably quite accurate model of a High medieval blast furnace. The tower on the left is the actual furnace. Bricks would be special fire bricks maybe with asbestos or other trace elements and manufacturing techniques to make them able to withstand high-heat. Fuel and ore come in on those small barges in the shallow canals. Medieval Central and Northern Europe had a lot of these canals which linked the various rivers. Though shallow (often as little as 16" - 24") they were sophisticated and had locks etc. The canals were almost like a medieval railroad.

A blast furnace like that could produce large billets of steel, known by various names such as these 'osmunds'


This, by contrast, is a simple bloomery forge. most iron around the world was made in little chimney's like this. Or sometimes directly in the clay-ground by digging a hole. The process is pretty simple, you put fuel in the bottom, ore in the top, light it up and let it 'cook' all knight'. The chimney provides air flow to help heat it up to very high level (you need around 2,000+ degrees). The slag melts off first, then you get a puddle of iron, as well as some higher-carbon steel depending on what you cook with it (migration era would put in wolf and bear teeth and bones, which added both carbon and some phosphorous).

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smaller bloomeries create smaller pieces of iron. Also 'dirtier' pieces depending on how good you are at it. There were also larger bloomeries which utilized mechanical air flow, but these again often depended on having the right kind of clay so you can make those really high temperature fire bricks.

This for example (from the 15th Century Schloss Wolfegg housebook) is basically a glorified bloomery, not a true blast furnace, but it can produce fairly large, high quality iron billets. Notice the bricks.

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If you have large pieces of iron it's much easier to make large swords and large metal plates. If you have small and 'dirty' pieces of iron coming out of a small and crude bloomery the your smith has to spend hours 'fixing' the iron by hammering out the slag, and then laboriously forge-welding small pieces together to make larger pieces. This means an immensely larger amount of work, with much higher chance of failure, and as Greywolf noted, a mistake can mean having to start all over again.

Especially a pain in the arse if you are having to hammer this iron yourself (as most people would in Europe prior to circa 800 -1200 AD depending where) instead of using a big water-powered trip hammer like in the later medieval world.




So if you are a Scythian nomad or a Mongol, cranking out little bits of iron to distribute around the tribe for people to make into mail or lames isn't too hard. You can make a simple bloomery forge wherever you camp out for a few weeks. You probably also know good places on your 'circuit' of roaming your territory where there are good places for example that have the right clay, wood for fuel, and a stream.


If you are a Carolingian to High medieval French Lord, you probably want to bring in a Cistercian abbey to set up a nice large scale bloomery where you can make iron, and you may have just the right spot to put it. If you are an Italian City-State or a Flemish, German or Czech Free City, you can maybe build a true blast furnace and make iron armor and weapons on a large scale, with fuel and ore and fire bricks imported from wherever you want them anywhere in the world (including wootz steel billets from India). Swedish peasant clans seem to have also been able to set up these kinds of operations.
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Re: Gunpowder and Plate armor

Postby Thaeris » Sun Apr 09, 2017 12:21 am

Jean, before I interrupt, allow me to say that your threads are epic:

Ian of Forgotten Weapons has made a few videos on early firearms - these may be of interest to anyone with a campaign set in the 1600's:

Wheel lock pistol: https://www.full30.com/video/b0c8e1963c ... 0878ecbac8

Hand mortar: https://www.full30.com/video/a494b52852 ... 664d051421

Breech-loading wheel lock rifle: https://www.full30.com/video/7424d44b41 ... 959675ca52

Wheel lock demonstration: https://www.full30.com/video/b0eacb9899 ... 9b0b1ed7dd
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Re: Gunpowder and Plate armor

Postby codex » Sun Apr 09, 2017 2:56 am

Thanks... wow awesome stuff brother! Much appreciated. Love love LOVE hand mortars!
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Re: Gunpowder and Plate armor

Postby codex » Sun Apr 09, 2017 3:05 am

By the way, to explain these particular epic posts / threads, and some others, some of this stuff are things that came out of private conversations or forum discussions, that I copied here to save for later because it almost boils down to a whole essay (just usually in need of cleanup)
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