Ethnographic Arms & Armour

Ethnographic Arms & Armour (
-   European Armoury (
-   -   How late 15th to mid 16th century guns were aimed, in historic illustrations (

Matchlock 2nd December 2008 03:23 PM

How late 15th to mid 16th century guns were aimed, in historic illustrations
12 Attachment(s)
Highly interesting variations.


Matchlock 2nd December 2008 03:29 PM

12 Attachment(s)
On we go.

Matchlock 2nd December 2008 03:41 PM

12 Attachment(s)
And on ...

Matchlock 2nd December 2008 03:56 PM

12 Attachment(s)
And on ...

Matchlock 2nd December 2008 04:09 PM

11 Attachment(s)
And on ...

Matchlock 2nd December 2008 04:14 PM

3 Attachment(s)
Some of these won't attach. I don't know what's wrong.


Matchlock 2nd December 2008 04:27 PM

10 Attachment(s)
Two more.

fernando 2nd December 2008 05:21 PM

Hi Michael,

Fantastic pictures ... thanks a lot for showing them.

Now, can you coment on left hand aimers ?

Is it because:

1 - Some of the pictures posted are inverted (which i doubt) ?
2 - There was a period, or an arsenal, where guns were made with their action on the left side, causing the owners to aim from the left ?
3 - Some of these guns in the pictures were eventualy made for left hand owners ?
4 - The drawing/painting author found it more interesting to portray it that way, not caring for that "detail" ?

Thanks for your enlightening.

Matchlock 2nd December 2008 06:53 PM

Hi, Fernando,

Thanks for commenting, and nice to hear of you again.

I consent to your points 1, 3 and 4, either way.

Actually inverting left and right, and cyphers as well, is quite common in Gothic and Renaissance art. It is supposed that the artists just did not care or, as you pointed out, did not know exactly what the lock mechanism looked like. You even find that phenomemon in 18th and 19th century paintings - and, sadly enough, with modern museum displays exhibiting guns with their counter lock side turned to the viewer. E.g., in the Maximilian inventories, many guns are depicted with their serpentines attached to the barrels (!) - now how cute is that? They just did not care.

Nothing is known to me about aiming left-handed intentionally. Only one single gun with a (part replaced) left hand snap tinder lock mechanism, ca. 1500, is known to have survived; it is preserved in the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum.


fernando 2nd December 2008 09:21 PM

Hi Michael

Bedanken Sie sich bei Ihnen für die Erklärung.

I hope the translating engine makes sense :eek:


Matchlock 2nd December 2008 10:51 PM

Hi Fernando,

The "translating machine" sure made everything perfectly clear, and believe me: it's highly appreciated across some oceans over here in Bavaria this very early morning!!!

That's just so nice, buddy - answering back in German - thanks a million times!!!

Looking forward to any further comments - they are so much rewarding, believe me ...

Keep gettin' me going!

A very special good night is sent out to all of my forum buddies out there,


Matchlock 2nd December 2008 11:11 PM

Hi, Fernando,

May I add these:

:) ;) :cool:


Chris Evans 3rd December 2008 04:20 AM

Hi Michael,

Wonderful contribution - Thanking you very much.


Matchlock 3rd December 2008 07:53 AM

Hi, Chris,

Thanking you very much,


fernando 3rd December 2008 11:06 AM

Hi Michael,

Thanks for the :) ;) :cool: .

Can you now coment on the the gun/stock positioning for the aiming/shooting ?

Thinking these would be all, and not necessarily by chronological order ...

1 - Propped by all kinds of devices, like stands, hooks, forks and the like.
2 - Hand self held, away from the body.
3 - Under the arm.
4 - Against the chest.
5 - Against the cheek.
6 - Over the shoulder.
7 - Against the shoulder.

... Assuming # 1 and 2 (at least), are not actual aiming positions, but instead more like a protective way, to avoid the thing blasting in your face ?
... or just because actual aiming was not yet in people's minds ?

Come on, teach us something :cool: .


Matchlock 3rd December 2008 02:06 PM

Hi, Fernando,

Actually I graduated from University 26 years ago to become a teacher but hardly ever worked in that profession. So I see my part among the forum community not as teaching but rather sharing my knowlegde and archives. :) ;) :rolleyes:

I fully agree with all the possibilities that you noted.

The main thought behind the elongated 14th to early 16th century butstocks was in fact the intention to be in "safe" distance, just for the worst case when the gun would burst. We have a nice saying in German: "Weit ab vom Schuss sein", meaning to be far away from something dangerous. Schuss, of course, means a shot ringing out.

You are perfectly right as well in assuming that accurate aiming was not really the most important thing in war in those time periods; it sufficed to fire into a mass of enemies - which was characteristic of all warfare as long as muzzle loaders were in use. Actual aiming in those days was important only when practising on targets or when hunting.

Interesting enough, the earliest forms of sights arise in about 1460 and develop quite rapidly from then. In the early 16th century, which is the age of Maximilian I, we find fully developed back-sights at the extreme rear of a barrel and blade or bead fore-sights at the muzzle. The farer the back-sight moves forward the younger, i.e. more modern, is the barrel. By the mid 16th century the back-sight has moved forward from the rear by ca. 8-10 cm, and it will have moved another 10 cm by the beginning of the 17th century.

Honestly, I do not understand why. In my opinion, the farer the distance between the sights, the more accurate the aiming. Anybody prove me wrong?


Pukka Bundook 3rd December 2008 02:08 PM

Hi Fernando,

No, I can't teach anyone anything, so am not about to try!
...but on one picture, the firer appears to have his eyes shut and looking away from his gun!......All very natural with the great heavy gun he is firing!

Figuring exactly how these guns were held is rather difficult for us, as artists were not always familiar with actually firing guns, yet the basic principles are very well shown in these pictures.

Michael may hold the key here, as his original gunstocks may have wear areas to show How they were held. (Areas of the stocks more "polished" through handling. then again, if they were but little used, this may not be the case.)


Good morning, Michael.

You answered Fernando whilst I was writing my post, so would like to comment also;
It makes a lot of sense,...keeping a good distance from the part that might explode!
Re. the back sight;
Yes, the further apart, the longer the sighting radius, so in theory the more accurate.
the earlier sights tend to be peep or tube sights, and these work better when close to the eye, but Can you tell me Micheal, if the later sights you mention, (the ones further up the barrel)
Are these later sights open 'V' types?
If this is so, this Also makes sense, as the eye cannot focus on a close-to the-eye open sight, And the front sight, And the target,...all at roughly the same time, so a 'V' must be further from the eye,to be used accurately.
(with the tube sight, the eye merely looks through the tube, and automatically centres the for-sight in the tube and, on the target.

Hope this makes sense!!

All the best!


Matchlock 3rd December 2008 04:02 PM


Actually, the earliest sights of the 1460's were V sights though they were really U shaped.

V-shaped sights show up in the early 16th century and from ca. 1520-1550, sometimes as late as 1600, tubes are shoved over them! So there is hardly any tubuluar "back-sight" without an actual V sight hidden beneath. Sometimes, on barels from the 1520's, you will even find two V sights one after the other and of different sizes, meant for a long focussing tube. These tubes got lost quite often, as is the case in my Nürnberg harquebus; as you will see, the one at the GNM retains its staged brass tube whereas in mine just the dove tailed V sight base is present. I really should replace the tube some time.

My Straubing harquebus never had a tube, you can tell because the external sides of its V sight are not cut to receive a tube. Tubes had mostly become oldfashioned by the 1540's.

Thank you so much for explaining the basal physics of sighting, I was not aware of that. I am a philologist.


fernando 3rd December 2008 04:18 PM

Hi Richard,

Originally Posted by Pukka Bundook
...Figuring exactly how these guns were held is rather difficult for us, as artists were not always familiar with actually firing guns, yet the basic principles are very well shown in these pictures ...

I wasn't ( necessarily) referring to the pictures, but to the actual positions had by gun holding through time, specialy when accurate aiming appeared.
The different stock holding stages: chest, cheek, over shoulder and shoulder front, together with their respective stock designs, must have followed an ergonomic evolution, joining conveniences like sustaining the firing impact and a permanent improving aiming intention.
... if i make myself understood.

fearn 3rd December 2008 06:23 PM

Hi Matchlock,

Neat sequence, thanks!

Hi Fernando,

I think we're saying the same things, only I'll do it a little more verbosely.

To start with, the guns probably have horrible accuracy and (most likely) a somewhat unpredictable firing time, because the powder wasn't standardized, and you might end up standing there for a while, and who knows where the ball (or whatever) is going to go. Or, for that matter, whether the gun is going to burst on you.

Now, I'm quite sure the soldiers of the time knew all about aiming weapons. That they didn't bother with too much aiming says that they didn't think it was worthwhile with the original guns. It's something like a scattershot mortar, at this point. It's a psychological weapon, not so much in the "terrify the primitives who haven't seen a gun before mode," but in the "they've got so many resources that they can waste them on soldiers with firearms" mode. Supposedly, arrows are scarier anyway, because you can see them coming, so an inaccurate gun is basically a statement about showing off new technology and resources, less about scaring the yokels (that's my opinion, anyway). It's something like the way the US Army is currently deploying it's single "Zeus" laser in Iraq.

As guns become more accurate and powder becomes more predictable, aiming becomes practical, and sighting down the shaft while it's held on your shoulder is one way to do it. If you're trying for a distance shot, hold it under your arm so that it aims up and hits indirectly.

Problem is, there's this tradeoff between power/distance and accuracy. If you want to hit a target with deadly force from a long distance, you need as heavy a gun as possible to absorb the recoil (and to not burst from the explosion). To aim accurately, you need something as light as possible, so that you can hold it steady and change the aim minutely. Imagine holding a 50 pound falconet to your shoulder, for instance.... Putting a proper stock on the gun is one way to partially deal with this dilemma, because it lets the gunner absorb some of the recoil and still keep the gun aimed down the tube.

Fernando, this is what you meant by: "Must have followed an ergonomic evolution, joining conveniences like sustaining the firing impact and a permanent improving aiming intention," right?



fernando 3rd December 2008 07:15 PM

Hi Fearn,

Originally Posted by fearn
Fernando, this is what you meant by: "Must have followed an ergonomic evolution, joining conveniences like sustaining the firing impact and a permanent improving aiming intention," right?

Yes, mostly.
I was considering that, apart from the "conveniences" of sustaining the impact without missing the opportunity to aim, several variations took place, to find the most eficient and same time most confortable part of the body, to lean the gun against. This was the "ergonomic" aproach.

Jim McDougall 3rd December 2008 07:19 PM

As always, I am completely captivated by these wonderful illustrations, especially as they show us the dynamics of how these early firearms might have appeared in use. I very much enjoy being part of the class :) here in learning about these weapons, and excellent questions posed by Fernando with excellent observations and explanations by Michael, Fearn and Richard. Never having studied these firearms, it is great to have such detail brought in discussion....much better than trying to wade through technical detail in books!

From my perspective, I always enjoy looking for symbolism and clues in art, which might relate to weapons and historic perspective of the times. I hope by noting some things I have noticed it will not deviate from the course of this excellent discussion, and simply stand for reference by those who might find interest in these other perspectives.

First, I am intrigued by the allegoric theme of the artwork using the skeletons with weaponry, and other symbolic elements of the illustrations. Apparantly the theme of the dance macabre and that of the 'Dance of Death' works by Hans Holbein (the younger) in 1530-1547, and ranks of marching skeletons by Brueghel, were reflective of the allegories of death personified by animate skeletons in European art.
The terror of the deadly plagues, collectively termed 'the Black Death' in the previous century were still in the thoughts of these artists, and in noting the skeleton firing the crossbow, the allusion of death by plague was represented by being shot with arrows.
At the top of the coffin, there is a clearly marked scorpion, which apparantly in the middle ages, as 8th sign of the zodiac, 'scorpio' , represented the period of mans life which lies under the threat of death (the fall). This is but one view of the certainly more complex associations with death held by the scorpion (this one from "A Dictionary of Symbols", J.E.Cirlot, 1962,p.280) but interesting in its key placement in the painting.

It is interesting that the scorpion was a well known makers or perhaps guild marking on Italian bladed weapons from about 1530's to about 1600 (see "Armi Bianchi Italiene" Boccia & Coelho, 254,310, 447,455) which possibly referred to the deathly potential of these, much in the sense of the deadly Indian dagger 'bichwa' (=scorpions sting).

The bizarrely colorful attire of the Landsknechts has interesting note as well, as from what I understand this wild appearing clothing developed from these troops sometimes taking clothing from dead opponents, as well as items of thier own being slashed or torn in battle. These battle worn elements served as distinguishing marks of a seasoned, and presumably fierce (by the simple fact of surviving) warrior. The flamboyant colors and tattered battle clothing, sometimes even bloodied, issued psychological effect upon opponents.

It is intriguing to view these paintings as contemporary illustrations of these symbolic elements, in addition to considering the accuracy of weapon forms and components, which as noted, were often not as carefully portrayed as the detailed symbolism added by the artist.

While enjoying learning more on the firearms (such as the keen detail of noting position of the rear sight on the barrel in determining period) I just wanted to share notes on what I have taken from this wonderful art.

Thank you so much Michael! and Fearn, Richard, and Fernando for the detailed and fascinating discussion.

All the best,

Pukka Bundook 4th December 2008 02:20 PM


Wonderful contribution!

It appears we all have roughly the same amount of arms, legs, brains, etc, yet it amazes me what some can 'see' and other's don't!
Your contribution has helped immensly to round out this discussion, and filled in many blanks.


I understand perfectly what you mean abot the developement of aiming and firing.
This is a very interesting subject, and I will try and look out some information I have somewhere on accuracy.


Thanks for putting me right on the early tube sights having a 'V' hidden underneath. I thought they were a type of 'peep' sight.
What I was getting mixed up with, was the slightly later 16th century cheek-stocked target shooting matchlocks, which did have a tunnel sight of sorts, but with pin-hole replaceable apertures, just like modern peep sights.
I believe the apertures were oftn made of horn or bone, and could be slotted in with the aperture hole in a differnt location to correspond to different ranges.

Best wishes,


Matchlock 4th December 2008 08:12 PM

Fernando, Jim, Richard (in alphabetic order),

Thank you all so much. You're just great.

Good night from a rainy Bavaria - and from my collection ;)


fernando 4th December 2008 10:59 PM

Originally Posted by Matchlock
... Good night from a rainy Bavaria - and from my collection ;) ...

Also raining in Portugal ... but no collection like yours :shrug:


Pukka Bundook 5th December 2008 03:01 AM

No rain in western canada, and no collection either! :shrug:

I think my brain was frozen this morning,(-20C)
when I said the apertures were made of horn,...don't know what happened, but they were made of Copper!
However did I get copper and horn mixed up? :shrug:

Matchlock 7th December 2008 03:08 PM

Tubular back-sights - an amendment

Please forgive my not being fully correct in claiming that all tubular back-sights had V sights underneath. This is really only true up to the mid 16th century. :shrug: ;)

From ca. 1550 to ca. 1600, there were tubular back-sights, of both iron and brass, that were dove tailed at the end of the barrel, in the direction of the muzzle, with no V sights at all. As they detached so easily, they are often missing with only the dove tail remaining.


Matchlock 31st October 2010 03:32 PM

Two very unusual arquebuses in a 1470's manuscript in the British Library
2 Attachment(s)
Scanned from the highly recommendable work by H.W. Koch, Medieval Warfare, London, Bison Books, 1978, ISBN0 86124 008 1, p. 152.

Jim McDougall 31st October 2010 05:27 PM

Michael, thank you so much for updating this fantastic thread!
It was wonderful reviewing the artwork and information you have so thoughtfully shared with us constantly, and reminds me how much your contributions mean here.

Also, this topic nicely addresses the question I posed to you in recent talks, why did they need sights on these early smoothbore guns, whose accuracy was typically questionable at best. It is interesting to see the intensity of these combats as reflected in these works.
In response to one of the questions from Fernando, it does seem interesting that so much attention to detail was given, yet license took over in many cases in depiction of the position and detail of locks.

Extremely interesting responses by everyone here also, especially comments on aiming and the use of the forked mounts etc. In my most limited experience with firearms, I once had the opportunity to fire a flintlock musket and can well understand concerns about having these 'explosive dynamics' close to your face. I would suspect that during the intensity and chaos of battle, there were far more incidents with exploding guns than were ever recorded or for that matter even noted in the carnage.

As far as aiming, with combat in those times largely being comprised of pitched battle in melee in huge masses of combative forces, it would not seem that aiming would be necessary with singular firearms. In the actual intensity of battle, I often wonder how much 'psychological' effect would even be recognized as the combatants reach levels of adrenalin driven fear and frenzy and these effects would diminish any such detail. The dense smoke from guns present, noise and chaos would in effect be close to insanity in perspective it would seem, and everything would seem surreal, with the thought of determined pyschological effect being hardly any more noticeable than the rest.

As always, the hardest thing in accurately studying the history of weapons is having to understand the inherent unpleasantries that there were. Just the same, it is an aspect that must be considered on occasion, and these things came to mind. Having said that, I return to the wonderful designs and colorful pageantry of the costume seen in these works, leaving the other aside.

All the best,

Matchlock 31st October 2010 06:59 PM

Thank you so much for all those kind words, Jim, :)

Yeah, while we never should forget the cruel impact of a gun - or any kind of weapon, be it hammer, sword or halberd - , as students of these items we may leave the practical aspects aside and are allowed just to try and understand, date and assign arms as objects of arts and crafts - and as an objective part of the culture of mankind.

Unlike you, my sword affiliate friend, I have fired original 400 year old matchlock muskets from my collection, as well as replicas, several times and must admit that each time it was a thrilling effect and much impressive as well. I fully agree with you that lots of accidents must have occured on the battlefields of old. This fact most probably was the reason why Jacob de Gheyn published his manual of exercise with muskets, calivers and pikes (Wapenhandelinghe) in 1608 where each single grip and loading and firing action had be done following an exact command.

All the best,

All times are GMT. The time now is 11:50 PM.

Powered by: vBulletin Version 3.0.3
Copyright ©2000 - 2018, Jelsoft Enterprises Ltd.