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Old 30th July 2009, 09:01 PM   #1
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Default Handgonne from Otepaa. Estonia

Otepää handgun- the oldest handheld firearm in the world

The earth of the Otepää hill hides the secrets of the old times and several valuable findings some of which have also been dug out under the instruction the archeologist Osvald Saare in 1950-1974. The greatest amount of valuable findings was discovered in the layer of the ruins of the medieval stone castle. The castle was reduced to ruins probably in the end of the 14th century in the course of the war between the Bishop of Tartu and the Livonian Order.

In the second half of 1396 the army of the Livonian Order sieged Otepää. They probably managed to set the castle on fire. The wooden parts of the castle evidently blazed so vigorously that even the brick walls of the buildings collapsed. Treasures were left under the ruins: the silverware of the Holy Communion from the chapel of the castle, books decorated with silver studs and pieces of rock crystals, grand suites of armour etc.

Next to those relatively rare findings the pieces of a bronze barrel that at first seems quite simple, deserves special attention. It was possible to fit the pieces together by their edges and so they reconstructed the gun that had been used more than 600 years ago ().

Originally the barrel of the gun was about 175 mm long and the caliber of its metal part was measured 18 mm, but the caliber of the gunpowder chamber was a bit bigger (). About a meter-long simple wooden stock was probably fastened to the back part of the barrel that was a bit wider at the time. The gun had another interesting addition. In casting it a cavity was left in the middle of the bottom side, it was for a special iron bar or the so-called hook. The extending tip of the latter was pressed against the wall in order to absorb recoil when firing the gun.

Gunpowder and the bullet were inserted in the breech of the barrel, then gunpowder was also sprinkled into the ignition channel on top and the handgun was ready to be used. At that time they still used a glowing iron bar or slowmatch to ignite it, although at times they already used a fuse as well. When firing the sparks, flames of fire and a good cloud of smoke flew out of the barrel and the ignition channel. Probably this is why the butt was probably rested above the shoulder (). Such a shooting position can also be seen in some pictures from the 15th century depicting gunmen.

When were the first guns fired?

The first simple guns were tested already in 1320ies in Italy, Germany, England and may be in some other Western-European countries. In approximately 1326 an English priest Walter de Milimete depicted in a few pictures of his manuscript a few vase-shaped objects laid on a bench, and a dart could be seen in the mouth of the objects. An ear-splitting bang, flames of fire and the dart that flew out probably had to leave the impression to the enemy of the intervention of heavenly forces. In written sources they have also been called the arms of thunder. Soon also bigger fire barrels or cannons were made that used stone shots.

The first guns were made based on the scarce hints found in written sources some time in the third quarter of the 14rg century. However, the drawings of those guns have not been preserved. Though different museums in the world possess altogether about 20 primitive guns both forged of iron or cast in bronze, majority of those have been obtained in accidental findings and that is why they are difficult to date. Ordinarily such firearms are presumed to originate from the end of the 14th century – the first quarter of the 15th century. Among the more precisely dated guns the oldest one was considered to be the bronze gun found in the Tannenberg stronghold in Germany that remained under the ruins when the fort was destroyed in 1399. Let’s recall however, that the Otepää gun had surely been buried under the ruins in the second half of 1396 and thus is at least 3 years older.

Who was the master?

It is very difficult to locate the place where the Otepää gun was made. Tartu, the center of the diocese, had very close connections with the hanseatic towns in Western Europe. Furthermore, at that time the governing bishop Dietrich Damerow who organized a coalition against the Livonian Order, had entered into a martial alliance with the dukes of Pommern-Stettin and Mecklenburg and the Lithuanian Grand Duke Vytautas. He even invited about 500 Vitalienbrüder (Vital Brothers) who were above all known as the pirates sailing on the Baltic Sea to come to Tartu to help.

Next to the possibilities that the Otepää gun was imported, one also has to pay attention to the gunsmiths in Estonia. One medieval document may have mentioned a firearm for the first time in Tallinn already in 1346 (using the Latin word pixis). When comparing with the closest neighbours it is a surprisingly early notice, most likely it is the oldest in the whole Northern-Europe.

In 1378 the Tallinn town council already bought a smaller cannon to protect the town. Johannes Schütten worked in Tallinn in 1381, schuttemeker Rübeke in 1386 and schuttemester Olaf Lisa only a year later – and the job titles make it undoubtedly certain that those men were responsible for shooting and taking care of the firearms. However, it is very likely that they themselves made a gun or a cannon for a change. In fact a letter sent from the town council in Riga to Tallinn on 18th November 1384 hints at it, as the letter recommends that the town council discuss the matter of not allowing townspeople to make or cast fire barrels to shoot arrows for the people living outside the town boundaries. Thus the activities of the local gunsmiths already had to have been well known in Riga.

The firearms may have been made also in Tartu. Unfortunately majority of the written sources of that hanseatic town has been destroyed in the later wars. We find an interesting notice from Latvia, however, where it has been said that in 1411/1412 Riga bought a cannon made in Tartu, and a year later bought another gun of the same origin. In is unlikely that the work of gunsmiths in Tartu brought about such widespread fame only in a few years.

Of the value of the Otepää gun

The gun under discussion differs clearly from the firearm preserved in other places. Since the Otepää one is relatively easy to date, that very fire barrel possesses a significant role in specifying the whole course of development of the hand firearms. So far the hook guns were thought to have been invented in the first decades of the 15th century. The Otepää gun definitely dates the innovation back to the end of the 14th century. Because of the way the hook has been positioned the gun under observation is completely unique – it shows the first pursuits and experiments of the masters.

Another unique feature in the Otepää gun is a small plate mounted on the surface of the gun that could have been pushed in front of the ignition channel when needed. That and the gun’s moderate weight (743 grams) show clearly that lightweight portable guns came to be used about 20 years earlier that previously thought. The unique features mentioned make one consider the possibility that the Otepää gun may have been made by a gunsmith working in Estonia.

In conclusion I have to stress that the gun examined here is definitely not the first gun in the world, but it is the oldest among the hand firearms we have today that can be dated more precisely.

Ain Mäesalu
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