Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Early rifles

The first firearms developed in Europe in the 14th century were hand cannon. These crude weapons were refined during the following century through a series of modifications such as the hackbut and arquebus, some fitted with snapping matchlocks or sear-lock matchlocks. In some regions of the world, including Japan and India's North-West Frontier, matchlocks would survive for centuries, and in the hands of trained marksmen prove very effective weapons. The development of the wheel lock and snaphance in the 16th century led to the production of the flintlock, a weapon that was used until the American Civil War. During this period, sights and rifling were developed, which greatly improved the accuracy of rifles. In the 17th and 18th centuries, new technologies were introduced to allow soldiers to carry gunpowder more safely. The section also covers the muskets of the 18th century, which also saw service in the American Civil War (1861-65) and the British Army in its conquest of colonies around the world.

Hand cannon
The first firearms that appeared in the late 14th century in Europe were simply miniature cannon that were fired from horseback or from ships and fortifications. They were noisy and had a very short effective range. The invention of gunpowder was the kickstart for this new type of weapon, and although it was only gradually introduced, the use of gunpowder would change the character of war on land and at sea forever.

The Welsh longbow (shown without string here) was adopted by the English and used with lethal effect against French mounted knights at the Battle of Agincourt of 1415. The longbow was actually more accurate than most firearms until the introduction of rifled percussion-cap fired weapons in the mid-19th century.

Before gunpowder
Before gunpowder came on the scene, combat weapons were implements that could stab, cleave or batter an enemy to death, and so had to be used at close quarters. The only weapons that allowed combatants to engage at range were the crossbow and longbow. In the 15th century, skilled English and Welsh archers armed with longbows could deliver plunging fire at targets such as massed horsemen at about 180m/200yd. This type of fire was similar to that delivered by a machine gun firing at long range. As the range shortened, the fire would be direct, and the metal arrowhead with the mass of the shaft or stele behind it would take on the characteristics of a modern anti-tank shell with its long rod penetrator.

Two early hand cannons. The lip allowed the barrel of the weapon to be hooked over a parapet before it was fired. The upper weapon has a metal hook-type handle, while the lower has a more conventional butt.

The invention of gunpowder
In 1242, however, an English monk named Roger Bacon wrote down the formula for the preparation of gunpowder as an anagram or cipher. Not only did Bacon name the ingredients and the proportions then used (saltpetre: charcoal: sulphur 7:5:5) but he also described the explosive properties of the mixture. Although he gave no indication that it could be employed as a propellant, by around 1300 muzzle-loading cannon were beginning to appear. By 1364, there was documented evidence of hand-held firearms in Perugia, Italy; and ten years later firearms had become common in Europe. One of the earliest examples is in the Tojhus Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark. Constructed from iron with a long handle and simple hook, the weapon could be secured to a wall or palisade or even a tripod, so that when the operator fired it the recoil would have been absorbed by the solid structure. Another version, made from iron in the second half of the 15th century (found in the Bernisches Historisches Museum in Switzerland), has both a hook as well as a D-shaped grip for easy carriage and deployment.

Hand cannon design
Early firearms that appeared around 1375 were often called "hand cannon"; they consisted of a simple iron or brass tube with a touchhole at the top fixed in a straight stock of wood, the end of which passed under the right armpit when the gun was ready to be fired. Some versions used by mounted soldiers had a ring at the end of the stock with a cord attached, which allowed the gun to be hung over the shoulder, leaving both hands free. When the rider wished to fire it he used a forked rest, fitted into a ring on the saddle, to steady the gun. When the fork rest was not in use, it hung down in front of the rider's right leg. An example of a cavalry hand cannon dating from 1400-50, and now in the Bernisches Historisches Museum, was found in the River Tiber in Rome. It has a wrought-iron barrel with a ring to allow it to be slung from a strap over the shoulder. The wooden stock had long disappeared and has been restored.

The slow match
The match was made from cotton or loosely spun hemp, which was boiled in a strong solution of saltpetre or in the lees of wine. Kindled by a flint and steel, the match, or slow match, would remain an important piece of equipment while gunpowder weapons were in use. Ideally, the match should not burn quickly or produce sparks, nor should it be blown out by a breeze. Like a conventional cannon, the touchhole was first placed on top of the gun barrel, but afterwards it was moved to the side, with a small pan underneath to hold the priming, and held in place by a pivoted cover.

Firearms training
Although the hand cannons produced a spectacular, and no doubt terrifying bang and cloud of white smoke, the longbow and crossbow were more accurate
and deadly - and far less dangerous to use. They would remain so until the American Civil War during the mid- 19th century. Yet even early, inaccurate firearms had a distinct advantage: it was easy to train soldiers to use them, whereas the skill of using a longbow could be mastered only after expert tuition and long and regular practice. Soldiers were trained to use firearms by a series of drills, which taught them to load, aim and fire the musket. This ensured that in the smoke, noise and confusion of the battlefield they would keep up a steady volume of fire.
This early 15th-century illustration depicts the firing of hand cannons in battle. The stock is held firmly under the firer's arm, and the man in the foreground is holding the slow match in his left hand. Burning gas from the gunpowder is emitted from the muzzle and the touchhole.

Sometimes in 18th- and 19th-century actions a soldier forgot under pressure that one of the drills was to remove his ramrod after loading his weapon. If the ramrod was fired off, the musket lacked this vital component and became useless. In some European armies there were severe punishments for men who lost their ramrods.

Since muskets were smoothbore (with no rifling to direct the shot) and only accurate over short ranges, soldiers were taught to fire in volleys, at short range, delivering a blast of musket balls that produced an effect similar to a giant shotgun.

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