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Old 15th January 2014, 01:37 PM   #1
Matchlock's Avatar
Join Date: Sep 2008
Location: Bavaria, Germany - the center of 15th and 16th century gunmaking
Posts: 4,310
Default Dating Earliest Barrels: the Importance of the Position of the Touch Hole

Many arms historians, me included, will basically attribute a high priority to the position of the touch hole in dating a 14th to 15th century barrel. This is all the more important as those earliest barrels hardly show any other clear and defining criteria. On a close second view, however, each barrel does provide further criteria that have proven their reliability in 40 years of my own research studies. With those four decades of my work in the back of my mind, I now feel sufficiently reassured and wish to finally share my dating criteria as there are more relevant factors to barrels than merely touch holes.

Let's start out with the oldest known barrels. From both the illustrations in the Holkham (1326) and Christ Church (1326-7) manuscripts by Walter de Milemete, we are familiar with the basic vase-shaped round copper-alloy (bronze) barrels which marked the very beginning of firearms. Two household clay jugs of ca. 1300 in the Museum of London, if one neglects their handles, denote the everyday use of that basically obsolete Romanesque sense of style. So far, the famous Loshult gun, dating from ca. 1340-50, has remained the only real firearms find to prove that those illustrations were quite exact. Its touch hole is situated on top, near the rear end of the barrel, drilled or struck quite small and round, with no special accentuation to it by either a hollowing or a raised wall, but for the first time in history that oldest barrel does show another criterion: a flat brim or swamping of the bronze at the muzzle section where reinforcement makes sense. The rear end is rounded, unlike that of a vase which is of course flattened to provide a stand.
The Loshult gun is 30 cm long, its maximum outer diameter is 11 cm at the rear end and 4.7 cm at the muzzle, the irregular bore is 3.6 cm and provided firing gun arrows.
The fact that both illustrations by Walter de Milemete made the barrels appear much bigger than the Loshult gun is owed to the fact that, before the introduction of correct perspective in about 1500 by both Leonardo da Vinci and (north of the Alps) by Albrecht Dürer, medieval artists tended to magnify the most important persons or objects in their representations.

No other earliest bronze barrel has been known so far. The next-in-line instances and earliest known finds of wrought-iron barrels date from ca. the 1360-70's. They comprise the unusually large number of ca. 30 nearly identical short and round, but not stout, barrels wrought of wound band-iron that were found on the battleground of Aljubarrota in Portugal (today's view attached).
That battle took place on 14 August 1385 and was fought between the Kingdom of Portugal and the Crown of Castile. Forces commanded by King John I of Portugal and his general Nuno Álvares Pereira, with the support of English allies, opposed the army of King John I of Castile with its Aragonese, Italian and French allies at São Jorge place, between the towns of Leiria and Alcobaça, in central Portugal. The result was a decisive victory for the Portuguese, ruling out Castilian ambitions to the Portuguese throne, ending the 1383–85 Crisis and assuring John as King of Portugal.

One of those historical Aljubarrota barrels is in the author's study collection (attachments) and I attached (sadly poor) images of another. We may safely imagine them to be employed fixed to a long and thin wooden stock by the means of two flat iron bands.
Its length is only 13.4 cm, the maximum outer diameter is 4.3 cm at the rear, the touch hole is struck irregularly, ca. 2.5 x 3.6 mm and located 1 cm in front of the rear end, the 'bore' at the slightly swamped muzzle is 2.7 cm but I am sure that is was not drilled, just fire-wrought.

By the end of the 14th c., the stylistic sensitivity of the Gothic period had finally taken over and the short, stout barrels were now shaped either hexagonal or octagonal, with a slightly swamped accentuation of the muzzle. The round touch hole still was in most instances rather small and located on top, close to the rear end of the barrel.

In the author's collection there is a small, stout barrel of ca. 1390-1400, octagonal over its length.
This High-Gothic barrel is 16.3 cm long, the maximum diameter of 6.2 cm is at the flat rear end, the round touch hole is located 4.4 cm in front of the rear end (!) and measures 8 mm in diameter; it seems to have been struck in the white-warm iron and has a slight hollow to it, the bore has been drilled out quite irregularly somewhat later in its working life to 2.7 x 2.9 cm (!), and looking down the length of the bore one can clearly see where the center of the drill entered the bottom.
A very similar but heavier and longer barrel with the very same touch hole criteria is in Fernando's collection:

'Nando, my dear friend,
could you please check the bore of your barrel whether is has been drilled, if it is also of irregular diameter at the barrel walls, and if the drill has left a pointed mark on the bottom?
After all, our two detached barrels, and two more in the Bern museum, both mounted in later stocks, still are the only known surviving samples of what must have been a mass production at the threshold to 1400! I'm afraid though that most of them were crudely altered and transformed to little noisemakers like firecrackers and saluting guns (German: Böller) in the Alpine regions for the centuries to come. Those that met a luckier fate, like ours, were probably just used as door stoppers.

Nevertheless, such plain and round wrought-iron barrels were made as long as the 1450's, mostly in Eastern Europe, especially in Czechia and Poland, and in Alpine regions. By the turn of the century, ca. 1400, handgun barrels got notably longer and more slender. The socketed barrel of the oldest known handgun in the word, a tiller gun of ca. 1400-10 and in the author's collection, measured from where the socket ends, is 32.2 cm long, of hexagonal outer shape, the touch hole showing no hollowed surrounding and situated immediately before the socket, 3.8 x 4.7 mm, the barrel only slightly swamped at the muzzle where the maximum outer diameter is 3.9 cm, at a the bore of 2 cm; the overall length of the gun is 125.6 cm. The hook is a working-life addition of ca. 1430, put on with a sleeve and riveted at the underside; its beginning is 10.4 cm backwards of the muzzle.

In the 1430's, the iron first barrels with integral fire-welded recoil hooks on the underside seem to have appeared, and such hooks were added to older barrels the way just described. As one of the many results of my four decades of closest research and studies, the famous earliest gun in the Historisches Museum Bern, Switzerland, generally known as the Bern gun, cannot have been stocked with its present hook before the 1430's. The barrel of course is the oldest part and dates from ca. 1390-1400.

As I stated before, the Bohemian Hussite Wars of the 1430's in Czechia produced great numbers of long guns, among them many wrought-iron haquebuts, with the hooked barrels of many of them still surviving. Attached please find a colored drawing of ca. 1440-50 depicting Hussites in an armored carriage (war waggon) overwhelmed by Silesian forces, and haquebut barrels in Czech museums. The touch hole on these barrels is still situated on top, the general shape of the barrel is round or octagonal to round, with no notable swamping at the muzzle (image attached).

In the second half of the 15th c., and till ca. 1500, haquebut barrels sometimes had integrally wrought long and slender iron tillers, their rear end mostly shaped as a grip frame. We know of some Nuremberg made instances in the Bavarian Army Museum Igolstadt, ca. 30 km west of where I live, and of 14 surviving pieces in the Gothic town hall museum of Hasselt, Overijssel, The Netherlands (see attachments).

By ca. 1460, the octagonal outer shape of the barrel had been well established; the touch hole now began to slightly make its way to the right, at the beginning located on the first edge next to the top flat clockwise. At the same time it becomes notably larger, and diameters of 1.5 cm are not rare to find, although they must have resulted in a significant loss of gas. From that time on, similarly huge touch holes became common on most barrels. Also, the position on the first edge next to the top flat clockwise, in many cases remained the same until the end of the 15th c., especially in Alpine regions like Austria and Tyrol. I attached a barrel at a dealer who dated it 'ca. 1460' based on the position of its touch hole. The shape of the muzzle section, however, is the latest, 'youngest' stylistic criterion and therefore crucial for correctly dating any barrel, and the 'Maximilian' style crown-like muzzle hollowed between the spikes is a clear indication of ca. 1490-1500.

The presence, position and shape of sights are another important dating criterion on barrels. They first appeared around the mid-15th c. starting with a raised rear fire shield behind the touch hole on top of iron barrels, incised with a small central slot for aiming (attachments). At about the same period there was just a very subtle small raised portion of the swamped muzzle that acted as the first preliminary stage of a foresight. On my earliest Nuremberg/Passau barrel of the 1460's, a very rare instance of a hog's back barrel (Schweinsrückenlauf), an edge instead on top of an octagonal barrel fulfills the function of both sights over all its length. My next-in-line Passau barrel, bearing the earliest known city mark of Munich according to Erasmus Grasser's design of 1477 together with the date 1481, is the second-oldest dated handgun barrel in the world:

(after I discovered this barrel dated 1417 just a few days ago:

It has a fully developed rear sight, most probably dovetailed, with a central slot over all of its height (ca. 1.5 cm), right on the base (rear end) of the barrel, and one edge of the heavily swamped octagonal muzzle section acts as a foresight.

Here is more on it:

A great number of perfectly preserved Nuremberg-made wrought-iron haquebut barrels, more than 30 of them, are kept in the Oberhaus-Museum Passau in Lower Bavaria, some 130 km from where I live.
They can largely be divided in four groups.
The oldest of them were made in about the 1460's; they are generally slender and octagonal, with semi-large touch holes on the first right edge slightly hollowed at the lower brim, and a short, flat, accentuated muzzle ring next to a slightly withdrawn section of the barrel immediately before the swamping begins, forming sort of a flat snout (German: Schweinssrüssel-Mündung). Of course this slight withdrawal is an implication of the swamping process done by the gunsmith, with only the muzzle warmed to white heat.

Two highly important historical pieces among them, with a third one sold from that museum during WW II (together with one sample of the 1460's and ca. 1500 barrels respectively, which are all now in the author's collection), are struck with the date 1481, of slender octagonal shape throughout and their small (ca. 1.5 to 2 mm) touch holes already located on the right flat, and surrounded by a preliminary 'pan' hollowing with a raised lower brim, for applying with the thumb a lime water solution of a black powder igniting mass intended to set there. Thus the haquebuts could be kept at the armory loaded and primed until the day of their service when a touch with the read-hot igniting iron or a glowing matchcord/rope fuse sufficed to set off within a second. This I know for sure because the touch hole on my 1481 barrel was not visible; it was hidden by some black mass that I thought was some later inadequate stuff (like chewing gum, as it had been exhibited in a museum), so I scratched at it a bit. It was only at that very moment that it fell to small black pieces right before my eyes that I realized what I had destroyed: the original 500 year-old igniting mass!!! Who could have expected that?!
Moreover, that barrel still contained its black powder load, which of course I saved, beneath a thick layer of candy wrappers that generations of museum attenders had disposed of ... The ball had obviously rolled out at some previous point in the barrel's 533 years of history.
Some other Passau haquebut barrels denote by their shape that they were made in about 1480 as well.
All barrels of that ca. 1480 group have in common the heavily swamped, bell-mouthed muzzle section that allowed an easy loading procedure, especially when more than one ball were employed as shot. This is another sample of the importance of the shape of the muzzle section in dating. The rear sight is located at the extreme rear end of the barrel, the base when regarded as an architectural column; it is a block sight with a central vertical slot all the way down to the top flat. With cast-bronze barrels, it stayed in this position until the end of their era, as I will point out. On wrought-iron barrels after ca. 1510, this block sight tended to move forward towards the muzzle step by step until by ca. 1530 it was often located about two to four centimeters forward of the rear barrel end, and had transformed into a rectangular, edged tube with a horzontal lid, and in many cases a small, pierced sighting blade for individual aiming could be exchanged by moving it in and out from the side!

My earliest matchlock arquebus, the stock ca. 1520's, features a small, older and re-used bronze barrel of ca. 1490 which already has a tiny sighting blade mounted inside its founded rear block sight! A singular instance of the pursuit of optimum aiming at the turn of the Gothic to the Renaissance period 514 years ago!

The third group of Nuremberg haquebut barrels in Passau consists of a number of rather short, thick and stout barrels dating from ca. 1490-1500, and identically illustrated by Jörg Kölderer in the Tyrolean 'Armory Inventories' for Maximilian I, who was then king before becoming emperor in 1508 (attachments). They are round throughout, anticipating the new Early-Renaisssance style, their huge touch hole (ca. 1.5 cm) located on the right side and fitted with a pronounced hollowed and rounded sort of primitive pan. This form of a hollowed touch hole seems to be the immediate precursor of the laterally attached pan, at first without a pivoted swiveling pan cover which was first employed on cast-bronze barrels in ca. 1490-1500 (cf. a barrel in the Royal Armouries Leeds, and a French bronze haquebut wall gun barrel with additional trunnions in the museum of Grandson Castle in Switzerland.
The 'Maximilian' barrels in Passau are, like all other barrels from the Maximilian's Tyrolean armories, further characterized by the so-called 'Maximilian' crown's head muzzle section (German: Krönlein-Mündungskopf), separated from the rest of the round barrel by a short raised and often roped freeze, forming an octagonal crown with indented sections between the eight crown spikes. Once more, the importance of the shape of the muzzle section in dating a barrel is verified.
Some of that group of short barrels have rather small (ca. 2 cm) and extremely irregular bores that were left the crude way the gunsmith made them by folding the barrel around a hardened iron pattern and fire-welding the 'seam', and were not drilled afterwards. Such a sample is in the author's collection. So all it could fire was shot.

The last and fourth group of wrought-iron barrels kept in Passau are late haquebut barrels of ca. 1530-40, with one sample retaining its badly preserved but original stock, the snap-tinderlock missing. Those barrels are much longer than the rest, ca. 130 cm, made for so-called Doppelhaken (heavy wall guns); the barrels are three-staged, octagonal changing to two round sections, each stage separated by filed lines, and long, octagonal, swamped muzzle section. The rear stage bears a square tubular rear sight dove-tailed above the breech, and the muzzle section features a bead foresight. The relatively small (ca. 2-3 mm) right-hand touch hole is located in the center of a square pan with a rounded trough and a pivoted swiveling cover with an acorn-shaped drop-down grip (missing on most of them).

In the Army Museum of Stockholm and the Musée de l'Armée Paris there are finely preserved Nuremberg ca. 1540 haquebuts complete with their original stocks.

The next stage of ca. 1550-90 is represented by very long, slender and finely-wrought North Italian iron haquebut barrels with shaped hooks and long tubular rear sights.

Just for the principle of completeness, I wish to add that instances of hooks on wrought-iron wallgun barrels were made as long as the second half of the 18th century. And the old Gothic barrels were still used parallel to new productions, often restocked in the respective taste and combined with wheellock and flintlock mechanisms, way up to the mid-19th century when some of them saw their last service update by being transformed to percussion, like a few sold from the fortress of Hohenwerfen near Salzburg, Austria.
Those barrels, though hundreds of years old, proved resilient and indestructable, in spite of the fact that many of them got drilled out to a bigger bore! Only the strong black black powder of the second half of the 19th c. made of few of them burst, mostly bronze barrels.

And here the circle is complete. Cast-bronze barrels marked the beginning of it all. Although we have no more records of them since the Loshult gun (ca. 1350) until the so-called Tannenberg Barrel, which to some is still 'the oldest datable gun barrel, pre-1399', but which, as I have pointed out earlier, really was cast only around 1440-50, more samples are known by ca. 1460-80, and they were made as long as the mid-16th c., one sample in the museum of Verden in North Germany is even dated 1584.
Bronze barrels mostly followed stylistic criteria of their own. They seem to have been the first staged barrels, as the Tannenberg sample denotes, which does not yet have sights at all, and starting from ca. 1480 they came complete with an integrally cast rear sight on the rear end (base of the barrel, German Bodenstück) and a foresight. Foresights were an integrally cast part of the reinforced muzzle section.

Until ca. 1480, both Nuremberg and Tyrolean bronze barrels were mostly octagonal throughout, sometimes changing sides at about 40 per cent of their overall length, with pronouncedly bell-mouthed muzzles and the bore enlarged at the muzzle for easy loading. By about 1490, two-stage barrels, octogonal to round, prevailed, equiped with a short, accentuated round or octagonal muzzle section (German: Mündungskopf) with integrally cast low and narrow foresight that was as long as the muzzle section (ca. 2 cm). The rear sight was also integrally cast and rather low, ca. 8 mm high, as broad as the top flat of the barrel, and with a narrow central slot right down to that top flat.
A finely structured and filed, fully developed rectangular pan with a rounded shallow trough around the touch hole was also cast integrally, and a swiveling bronze or brass pan cover was pivoted on a horizontal bronze or iron rivet, with a finely wrought drop-down handle.
Also in the 1490's, a roped frieze (German: Schnurbandfries, Schnürlband) often emerged immediately in front of the muzzle section and in many cases stayed at least until the 1530's.
In ca. 1490, Nuremberg as the leading style designing German center, introduced a third rear stage on his bronze barrels. By ca. 1512-15, Nuremberg bronze barrels now had an elongated muzzle section (German: langer Mündungskopf) bearing a raised and rounded blade foresight that was moved back from the muzzle plane by ca. 2 cm. Our modern foresight is 500 years old! At the same time the first, rear barrel stage now beame rather short and mostly multi-sided: octagonal, twelve- or 16-sided, while the second stage was mostly round and the longest stage of the barrel. A finely preserved snap-tinderlock arquebus in the St. Petersburg Hermitage is the oldest known sample ( 5054, see attachments). Leonid Tarassuk, in Antique European and Armerican Firearms in the Hermitage Museum, 1972, no. 2 in his book, dated it 'ca. 1500, which is a bit too early; 1512-15 seems exactly correct. The stock is painted black, the right side of the buttstock bearing the red and white coat-of-arms of the Nuremberg patrician family Behaim (Pehaim).

A singular, fine, huge and heavy, perfectly preserved Nuremberg wall gun (German: doppelter Doppelhaken), with a weight of 35 kg, ca. 1515-20, features a finely wrought five-staged bronze barrel with elongated muzzle section; filed moldings and raised, rounded scales were employed to accentuate the respective stages:
The forth, round stage is the longest, and the muzzle section bears a low blade foresight over all of its length.

With barrels staged like that, those heavy wall guns emphasized their membership of the 'family' of cannon pieces. They were employed rested on a tripod, often equiped with two wheels, and had to be served by two men who aimed and ignited the heavy piece respectively (Richt- und Feuerschütze)
That Nuremberg style of design prevailed throughout the 1520's, and by ca. 1530, the first, rear stage was often round, and the muzzle sections now often were multi-sided, in most cases octagonal. By the 1540's and 1550's those bronze pieces were rare to find and only very few samples seem to have survived the various re-melting actions of the centuries to come. The Verden barrel dated 1584 I mentioned above is an absolute anachronism and most probably the last bronze wallgun barrel that was founded. Their era was over long since, and the last bronze arquebus barrels for long guns seem tho have been founded in the 1520's. By the 1530's, we have explicit Nuremberg records proving the fact that wrought-iron arquebus barrels now dominated the market.

One last point: hooks, their shape, size and position also play a minor role in dating barrels. When an early barrel features a hook fixed with a sleeve over the barrel this may mean that the hook is a later addition. As stated, hooks normally appeared in the 1430's and were fire-welded integrally to the underside of the the barrels, their position varying from about the midst of the barrel to right beneath the muzzle. Earliest hooks are mostly rather small and triangular, but the correct interpretation of this definition requires a whole lot of experience. Hooks on tiller barrels are not normally pierced; when they are, it was usually to move them suspended on a stable pin, a tripod or a triangle for easier management in firing. On barrels that originally were fully stocked, the hook was often pierced to use it as one of the loops for attaching the stock by transversal wooden or iron pins. On heavy pieces, these pins mostly consisted of iron or iron nails.
Hooks on bronze barrels were cast integrally, mostly of flat rounded shape and often staged, structured and segmented. On the latest bronze barrels of the 1530s, hooks sometimes are placed backwards as far as the middle of the barrel. Interestingly, hooks were attached at the center of gravity of the barrel.

When dating a piece, always watch out for the latest = newest = ''youngest' of all criteria, and only when you are certain that that criterion is 'period' and not a later alteration or addition, you have found the most probable date when the item was made! All the other, older criteria - like the form, size and position of the touch hole - then are just obsolete, old-style relicts carried on traditionally.

Now that was one magnum opus. I'm totally exhausted but I guess it was worth the toil.

I regret not being aware of the fact that anybody has ever tried to set up such dating criteria so far - there is not one single instance in about 3,000 books in my library, except some preliminary outlines by Arne Hoff in Feuerwaffen (2 vols), and Hoff was sadly wrong in almost everything he tried to establish on early barrels. E.g., I went to Copenhagen to see the barrel that he stated to be dated 1515. It was a piece of the second half of the 16th c., and the cyphers 1515 are not struck like a date but rather like a later inventory no.
What I have tried to establish is all a result of my own painstaking research. Before deciding on publishing and sharing them, I have tried to verify these criteria with several hundreds of barrels I saw over the decades - in museums, private collections, auction houses, at dealers, in books and catalogs, on the internet.
My criteria have stood the test, all of them, believe me. I am my most demanding critic.

Enjoy studying,
and best,

An important request:

Please do not reply to this post for the next 24 hours, as I am planning to add many, many attachments and do not wish them to be separated from the text!

Thank you so much!
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Last edited by Matchlock : 16th January 2014 at 01:31 PM.
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