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Old 1st July 2012, 11:45 AM   #1
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Join Date: Sep 2008
Location: Bavaria, Germany - the center of 15th and 16th century gunmaking
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Default Gun Arrows, ca. 1330-1570

We must assume that in the childhood days of European fireams, which was the early 14th c., the first ammunition employed were arrow projectiles, their design taken over from bolts and arrows for devices like the catapult (Blide) and the bow and crossbow.

Of course some modification had to be done: the diameter of the arrow haft increased in comparison with bow arrows and crossbow bolts (quarrels), the flights were now made of iron and moved forward on the haft; the rear section had to be wound with a cord binding for a tight fit with the muzzle in order to minimize gas loss, and the bottom of the arrow had to be reinforced by a pinned iron plate, to prevent it from splintering.

We do not know whether an additional kind of sabot was used between the powder load and the arrow, e.g. a wooden plug. We should keep in mind though that in the earliest days, black powder was comparatively inefficient due to its recipe, and because it was fine 'meal powder'; hence the barrels probably had to be filled for two thirds to three quarters of their length, with the projectile located near the muzzle! In any case, the flights of a gun arrow had to stay outside the muzzle!
Aiming of course was not very effective then but on the other hand, and well up into the 19th century, military tactics were not primarily confined to close aiming but rather concentrated on sending a hailstorm of projectiles into the mass of enemies.

The two oldest illustrative sources on gun arrows are illuminated miniatures in manuscripts by de Milemete:
the 'Holkham ms': De secretis secretorum, 1326, Bodleian Library Oxford, ms 458, and the 'de Milemete ms': De nobilitatibus, sapientiis, et prudentiis regum, 1326-7, Christ Church Oxford (top attachments).

In both depictions we see a vase-like gun (pot de feu), most probably of cast bronze, at the very moment right before the ignition by means of a linstock clamped with a piece of matchcord or tinder, and with an arrow protruding from the muzzle - but not yet leaving it.
In the older illustration of the two, a group of people seemingly show great respect to the act of ignition, standing back with their bodies bent backwards; the igniting device seems to be a glowing iron put directly in the touch hole at the rear.
In the second illumination, an additional fuse is seen placed in the touch hole, with the gunner's linstock touching it.

What nobody seems to have noticed so far: in both miniatures the tip of the arrow head is sharply pointed, and characteristically flared in the older picture. Most important though is the fact that in the second illustration, the thin-pointed arrow head clearly consists of several clasps comprising a glowing incendiary mass. Although this mass is not depicted in the older illustration the flared, fragile shape of the tip suggests that it is definitely not a conventional strong piercing tip but must be an incendiary arrow solely designed to get stuck in straw or wood.
Thus the earliest gun arrows actually were incendiary arrows, fired at the roofs of a besieged town - which also makes more sense regarding the poor ballistics of these arrows, due to their heavy heads!

A cast-bronze vase-shaped gun barrel very close to those pictured by de Milemete has become famous as the world's oldest known gun, the so-called Loshult gun, and is now preserved in the Statens Historiska Museet Stockholm, inv.-no. 2891 (attachments).
It is generally dated ca. 1330-50 and measures 31 cm overall, at a weight of 9.050 kilograms; the bore at the muzzle is 36 mm narrowing down to 31 mm on its way to the rear, which seems ideal for firing arrows featuring a cord binding for a tight fit in the muzzle, to minimize gas loss.

After these records of 1326-7, it takes almost one hundred years to find the next-in-line illustration of a gun arrow - at a time when lead and iron projectiles, first appearing as clod shot chopped off a bar, had established themselves long since. After all, the earliest records of clod shot are from the Netherlands, 1375:

It is also possible that clod shot was used as a sabot for gun arrows.

This second-oldest illustration, also depicting a - rather tiny - vase-shaped gun, is from the Streydpuech (Book on War), ca. 1410-30, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, P 5135, fol. 9v (b/w line illustration, next-in-line attachment).
What is most remarkable about this illustration is the fact that, for the first time ever, the arrow head is now depicted looking like that of an average crossbow bolt: stout and pointed, obviously designed to pierce metal, and without an incendiary mass!

It is only shortly after this instance that the same metal piercing type of gun arrows reoccurs, now fired from two Cerbottana guns, with lead balls (!) used as sabots for the arrows: in a sketchbook by Mariano Taccola, De ingeneis, ca. 1440; Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, Clm 197, fol. 50r (line drawing, attached).

The next chronological instance is in Roberto Valturio, De re militari, 1466, fol. 79v, re-issued many times after. Most remarkably, in his depiction of the arrow head, Valturio has recourse to the earliest design of the incendiary arrows of 1326-7, obviously equiped with four clasps comprising a burning mass! The arrow is fired from a gun forming an integral part of a giant wheeled siege engine, in the shape of a fantastic dragon (color attachment).

Only more than a century later we find another illustration, and seemingly the last on this topic, showing a Spanish musketeer of ca. 1570-80 firing an incendiary arrow from his matchlock musket (attachment).

In summing up the illustrative sources, it seems that the primary use of gun arrows over the centuries was throwing fire in a parable across town walls by incendiary arrows, the delicate but sharply pointed tips getting stuck in the roofs thatched with straw or wooden shingles, causing an inferno in the narrow-built medieval town.
Gun arrows with stout, pointed metal piercing heads not containing an incendiary mass are not recorded before the early 15th c. and, due to their poor ballistics, seem to have seen only very limited service.

Now, what about surviving gun arrows?

For a couple of years, one of two sensational extremely fine and authentic specimens of an earliest type of incendiary gun arrow has been in the author's collection: the pointed head constructed of four clasps retaining much of its original incendiary mass wrapped in raw linen, the matchcord probably originally attached now missing. The oaken haft retains two thin iron flights (damaged), much of a fragile cord binding in the rear section, probably of hemp, and an iron reinforcing plate pinned to the bottom.
This incendiary gun arrow closely corresponds to those illustrated by de Milemete in 1326-7, and the construction of its haft, flights and reinforcing iron bottom plate is consistent with the few other remaining gun arrows which, however, are of later type.
The incendiary mass seems to be largely the same used in contemporary quoits and incendiary arrows for crossbows:

What is remarkable is the fact that the socket of this arrow head is not attached by a nail but just put on the pointed haft, as is the case with crossbow bolts! When the wood was still fresh this certainly provided a tight fit but as the wood has shrunken it is loose now, just like on most crossbow quarrels (see attachments).

On July 3rd, 1987, the author attended the collections at Burg Eltz by special appointment, and still holds a written document to prove that he was the first to actually identify eight original gun arrows preserved there (following attachments).
Some of their heads are missing but all remaining heads are of the characteristically stout, pointed, metal piercing shape known from crossbow bolts but not recorded for gun arrows prior to ca. 1400. Most Eltz specimens retain their original hemp binding, their iron flights and pinned iron reinforcing bottom plate.
Three of the Eltz gun arrows are interestingly equiped with three iron flights each: two arranged the usual way, and the third placed in shifted position behind them.
The usual number of flights seems to have been two, just like on conventional arrows and crossbow bolts.

The one displayed at the bottom, on the photos showing the group of nine, is a modern reproduction (attachments: all author's photos of July 3rd, 1987, still showing the old display arrangement).

These gun arrows, their provenance still being unsettled, have been tentatively attributed to a historic feud taking place at Eltz Castle in 1331-2. At least one of them was claimed to have been an excavated find from castle ruins. This statement has meanwhile been disclaimed and should be seriously doubted, regarding the fact that all of these arrows are preserved in identical condition, and that organic material such as hemp would have hardly stood hundreds of years of burial. The author, on the grounds pointed out above, doubts the early dating and is convinced that they should be correctly dated 'late 14th to early 15th c.', on the grounds of the illustrative sources presented.
No earlier date can be proven for them but the sources quoted by the author suggest a date of ca. 1400 by the earliest.
For a contradictory position see W. Tittmann's theses (in German only):
An essay opposing Tittmann, by K. Leibnitz (in English):

Another specimen, larger than most of the Eltz arrows, was spotted by the author in the drawer of the reserve collection (Depot) of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nuremberg some 25 years ago, where it was regarded to be a wall crossbow bolt. At that time, the rear section even retained a remainder of a cord binding, in addition to a pinned iron bottom plate which would make no sense at all on a crossbow bolt.
The author pointed those facts out to the guy in charge, arguing that it obviously was a gun arrow - in the presence of a witness. His argument was rejected, and about ten years later he found that very same gun arrow displayed next to a wall crossbow in the Imperial Castle at Nuremberg - labeled as a crossbow bolt. The recess at the rear of the oaken haft where the binding used to be was now clearly visible but the remainder of the binding had gone! (bottom attachments).
Interestingly, the socket of the arrow head shows a piercing for a nail but actually no nail has ever entered!

Well, Nuremberg seemingly does not wish to be aware of the fact that they possess one of the rarest items of antique ammunition: a gun arrow of late 14th/early 15h c. date ...

Please also have a look at my threads on matchcord:

and on igniting irons and linstocks:

P.S. As is often the case with my computer, b/w jpg attachments of line drawings do not show up on the forum.
In case you cannot open the two line drawings of ca. 1410-30 and ca. 1440 respectively via the links given at bottom, they can be seen in Tittmann's essay - please see link provided above!


Last edited by fernando : 9th July 2012 at 07:07 PM.
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