This spring we celebrate 10 years as a formal association, even though we’ve been around in various forms since 2003. This, we intend to celebrate! We have already sent invitations to loads of 14th century groups and if you haven’t been invited yet, it is probably because we forgot. Contact us and we’ll see what we can do! Maybe we’ll meet at the party?
After the war between Albrecht of Mecklenburg and Margareta (read more here), Albrecht and his son was imprisoned at castle Lindholmen in the region of Skåne in southern Sweden. In July 1394, after lengthy negotiations, it was agreed that the two Mecklenburgers should be set free for a ransom of an immense sum of money, equivalent to about 8 000 kilos (more than 17 600 lbs) of pure silver. In short, they were to be released for three years, in which they had to come up with the money, and the city Stockholm was to act as a kind of deposit. Stockholm was the only city in Sweden still controlled by the Germans and hence a thorn in Margareta’s side. During those three years, Stockholm was to be superintended by a group of Hanseatic cities (Königsberg, Elbing, Thorn, Danzig, Reval, Greifswald, Lübeck and Stralsund), as the cities had agreed to act as guarantors for Albrecht. For their troubles, Margareta should pay them an annual sum of 2 000 mark for the three years they administered Stockholm. Also, the cities Rostock and Wismar (the heartland of the Mecklenburg dynasty) should help out with considerable sums of money – 1 000 mark per year.
The 20th of May 1395 the cities met in the neighboring fishing towns Skanör and Falsterbo, at the southwesternmost tip of Sweden and they agreed about their respective contributions to the mission, in wider terms. Here, they also came to terms with Margareta that the king and his son Erich were to be set free the 29th of September. It was agreed that Greifswald, Stralsund and Lübeck should send half of the personnel, equipment and provisions needed. The Prussian cities (the five remaining of the eight) should send the other half.
As an aside, 1395 is a year where the so called Vitalian brotherhood (a group of pirates) starts to take up more and more of the Hanseatic League’s agenda; in September it is decided that a peace keeping/pirate hunting fleet consisting of 11 ships and 1 000 men at arms is to be set up until 1396 to address the piracy problem. 1396 the pirates are mentioned in almost every meeting held by the Hanseatic League, which gives an impression of the situation in the Baltic region.
The Skanör-Falsterbo agreement above states that the eight cities in total should send the following personnel and equipment to take control of Stockholm:
- 80 good men at arms in full armour (in this case this included torso protection other than chainmail)
- 60 good crossbowmen with their weapons and including equipment
- 12 barrels of crossbow bolts
- 8 stone guns (bigger cannons)
- 2 lead guns (smaller cannons/hand guns)
- “A lot of gunpowder, which is needed for that” [the guns]
- 60 good crossbows including levers and windlasses
- Two good gunnery masters
- Two crossbow makers
In addition, the cities sent large amounts of food; in short, everything that was needed to survive was to be shipped to Stockholm, including different food stuffs and tools.
About two months later, in the middle of July, the cities met in the Teutonic order castle of Marienburg/Malpork, where more exact guidelines for the mission are drawn. The troops shipped to Stockholm from the Prussian cities (Königsberg, Elbing, Thorn, Danzig, Reval) are:
- 38 men at arms
- 22 crossbowmen
- 8 guns of different types, including powder, lead for making shot and peripheral equipment
- 1 gunnery master
- 1 crossbowmaker
- 30 crossbows
- 4 barrels of crossbow bolts
- Peripheral equipment for the crossbows
In the Marienburg meeting it was stipulated that each soldier should be equipped according to the following lists:
Each crossbowman should have:
- 60 good bolts with tips
- 3 crossbows (!) – one big, one middle sized and one small
- A chainmail
- A “chest” – probably a coat of plates
- A mail coif
- A iron hat
- Plate gauntlets
- A shield
Each man at arms should have:
- A “whole plate armour and what belongs to it”:
- A hood (most likely a helmet)
- A coat-of-plates
- Arm protection made of leather
- A “vorstal” – probably lower arm protection made of steel
- Leg protection
- A shield
Curiously, nothing is mentioned of which weapons a man at arms should bring. Perhaps it didn’t matter, as long as they were armed. I have found no similar lists for Stralsund, Greifswald and Lübeck, but most likely those cities sent a similar number of soldiers with similar equipment.
The soldiers going to Stockholm had to swear a sacred oath when signing up for service:
Dys yst der wepenere unde schuczen yet unde buchsenmeystere unde bogenere. Wir sweren und geloben uch, borgermeisteren, ratmannen unde der ganczen gemeyne der stede Thorn, Elbing, Danczik unde Revele, daz wir hern Hermanne van der Halle, euwirme houbtmanne, und unsern eldesten getruwe und gehorsam will zin in bewarynge, in wache, in were des huses, veste und stat Stokholm, unde in alle anderen dingen, des uns van in bevolen wirt; unde van dannen nicht to scheydende, ee ir uns orlob gebit unde andere in unse stat sendit. Das en wille wir nicht lassen durch lib noch durch leyt, daz uns Got zo helfe unde dy heylighen.
This is roughly translated into:
This is the oath of the men at arms, the crossbowmen, the gunnery masters and the [cross?]bowmakers. We swear and promise you – the mayors, the council and all the common people of the cities Thorn, Elbing, Danzig and Reval, that we will be true and obey herr Hermann van der Halle, our noblest commander, when it comes to guarding and caring for the houses, castle and city of Stockholm, and in all other things he will command us; and therefore not to let anyone in [to Stockholm] without permission, in good times or in bad, so help us God and the Saints.
Pay, benefits and conditions
The tour of duty for the soldiers going to Stockholm was to be 18 months long, as suggested by a meeting the 19th of August, 1395.
The soldiers from the Prussian cities were paid both in fabric and in money. The men at arms was to be paid in 6 ells (1 ell = nearly 60 centimeters) of black and brown fabric (probably 2 ells wide) from Dendermonde (in Flanders), from which they should make “wide coats and hoods”, where the black should be on the right side and the brown on the left. The crossbowmen should have hoods in the same colors, plus parcham (a fabric consisting of both linen and cotton) for their jacks/gambesons. The pay also consisted of 5 marks in coin per year for the crossbowmen and 10 marks per year for the men at arms. It is not clear whether similar conditions applied to the contingents from Stralsund, Lübeck and Greifswald, even though it is probable.
In excess of this, the soldiers would probably have had free food, drink and lodgings. But like always, it seems the pay for the contingent was too little and too late. In comparison to other missions (i.e. on peace keeping ships) the pay wasn’t exactly good. In April 1396 a League meeting in Marienburg states that men at arms that goes on the peace ships without their own armour shall have 1/3 of one Mark each week. If we presume that the peace keeping mission lasted for a year (which it probably didn’t), the participating men at arms would earn more than 50% more per year than their colleagues in Stockholm. On the other hand, the peace keepers didn’t receive any fabric, but this doesn’t cover the difference.
That might be why the superior commander of the Stockholm mission, Hermann van der Halle, made complaints about “uncomfortable” individuals in the force; it could have something to do with the talks at a League meeting the 31st of December, 1396, where the gathered representatives decide to postpone the question of “pay for the men at arms that have been posted in Stockholm this year” to an upcoming meeting.
It seems the garrison commander had trouble making ends meet. Van der Halle sent frequent letters to his superiors asking for the most basic commodities to be shipped from Germany, which indicates the contingent couldn’t easily get hold of locally produced food; for some reason the force couldn’t even use the mills in Stockholm and had to grind their grain to flour via a hand mill.
This, among other things, were ordered from Germany to be delivered to the garrison: Apples, honey, onions, beer, pork, many different kinds of fish, bread, turnips, vinegar, salt, mustard, different kinds of oil (which could also have been used as fuel for lanterns), flour, malt, hops, peas, horseradish, apples and garlic.
Among the finer foods (probably reserved for the commanders) can be found: rice, almonds, raisin, wine and spice.
The contingent, commanded by the Danzig council member Hermann van der Halle, who was appointed supreme commander of the mission, reached Stockholm and took control over it the 31st of August, 1395. The day after that, the commander of the Stralsund contingent, Magnus von Alen, arrived in Stockholm with his men. Lübeck also seem to have sent a commander – Jordan Pleskow (who maybe rather wanted to stayed at home in his house on Johannisstraße 20 in Lübeck – we’ll never know). A week later, the 8th of September, the cities promised the Stockholm burghers the same freedoms as they had under the reign of King Albrecht, and the burghers – in turn – promised to be true to the trustees responsible to administer the pawned city.
The keepers of the castle, which consisted of Albrecht supporters, among others Hinrike von Brandis and Otto von Peckatel, had been informed of the turning of the tide beforehand; the Hanseatic League wrote them a letter a month before van der Halle and his troops arrived in Stockholm. Von Brandis and von Peckatel handed the city over to van der Halle without much of a fuss.
We are presented with information that paints a picture of Stockholm castle in disrepair, and probably the soldiers were put to work to repair everything, including the lodgings that had been built by private persons in the castle. The inhabitant of said lodgings – the duke Johann von Mecklenburg (a relation to King Albrecht) asked van der Halle’s permission to remain, something he was denied.
The soldiers had nevertheless to undertake what was most likely extensive renovations; the walls and roof of the castle was in a sorry state, and the cities demanded that the renovations were kept cheap. Also, the old castle commander “borrowed” a lot of kitchen equipment and a stone gun, which needed to be replaced. To assure that the borrowed gun shouldn’t be used against the castle by the leaving force, van der Halle decided to buy it from the leaving Albrecht supporters.
A less than desirable task
Hermann van der Halle didn’t seem too happy with his task. His letters back to his superiors are full of new requisitions as the victuals always ran out. Already the 19th of September, 1395, the council of Marienburg addressed van der Halles requisition for onions, garlic, herbs, fruit, honey, cod, beer, wine – and “6 or 8 big hounds, that we need so well for the castle”. Seven days later the council at Marienburg addressed a second requisition of malt, barley, more beer and wine, flour, fish, vinegar, onions, more dogs, two big ships to defend against the Vitalian brotherhood, wooden boards, (lots of) shovels and brick trowels.
In June 1396 we learn that Stockholm castle had been divided between the Stralsund forces of Magnus van Alen and the forces of Hermann van der Halle, where the Stralsunders were using the tower for their needs and the other troops occupied the courtyard (probably in the buildings erected by duke Johann von Mecklenburg) plus a cellar belonging to the keep, as they had agreed on that this was the best way to defend the castle.
However, it seems the stay in Stockholm wasn’t only hard work; the Vitalian brotherhood was increasingly seen in and around the city – both as visitors (even as guests of the Stockholm council during wintertime, something that worried van der Halle) and as pirates. In April 1396, the cities asked van der Halle to send what troops he could spare to the peace keeping mission against the brotherhood being set up by the League.
In June he reported that “a good hundred” members of the brotherhood, that had spent the winter in Stockholm, finally set off for Russia under the command of eight commanders in eight freight ships and with “gunner boats”. Van der Halle made them promise not to go after the Hanseatic merchants or cities in Livonia before they left.
In August the same year, van der Halle reported several incidents involving the pirates and merchant sailors; the situation was clearly becoming more and more dangerous for the Stockholm detachment.
Furthermore, some things indicate that the commander didn’t quite trust all of his men, as he asked his superior’s permission to send some of them home: “if they don’t please me, I want to [be allowed to] tell them: ‘Go home!'”.
It seems Hermann van der Halle was also worried about the agents of Margareta; the queen invited him to meetings several times during 1396, but he never left his post. Even when the queen sent her envoy, Sten Bengtsson, to visit Stockholm, he had to announce his visit some day ahead to be let inside the gates. The queen’s envoys also demanded (according to their view of the peace treaty) that he should open the gates to 300 Swedish burghers that had been banished from the city due to their lacking loyalty to King Albrecht. Van der Halle asked his superiors for orders concerning this, but had a hard time stopping the said burghers from coming and going to the city.
By this, we can assume that the soldiers of the League was in a constant state of readiness.
Hermann van der Halle’s successor, Albrecht Russe, arrived in Stockholm in the beginning of October 1396, accompanied by an experienced old fighter and diplomat, sent by the Elbing council. His name was Claus Wulf and he had commanded soldiers since at least 1386. Likely he was sent to command the Elbing contingent, under the command of Albrecht Russe. Russe assumed command over the garrison and no sooner, Hermann van der Halle borrowed 100 marks from Russe and left in the first ship available. More than a year later he is still struggling to get the League to pay him what it owed him for his expenses in Stockholm.
If Albrecht Russe thought he would have an easy time, he was mistaken. He had to deal with the same troubles that pestered van der Halle. He hadn’t enough men, although he had too much men to feed them properly, he had to address the issue with “uncomfortable” and probably bored and restless personell and he was working at a place where he was less than welcome by the populace and by the pirates.
However, he seems to have had his ear to the ground, as he picked up a subtle warning about events waiting to occur during the summer of 1397. When commanding Stockholm castle, Hermann van der Halle had feared that a Swedish nobleman named Algot Magnusson had struck some kind of a deal with the Vitalian brotherhood. His fears seems not to have been ungrounded, as a man came to Russe, warning him of an imminent danger. The 28th of June, a big fleet of the brotherhood arrived in Stockholm, issuing demands. One can imagine the commotion in the castle when the 100 or so soldiers at some hours notice tried to ready the defenses against a force that was 1 200 men strong. Later, Russe told his superiors that he and his men had been nowhere close to ready or strong enough, and that the city would have fallen if the brotherhood had attacked.
In January 1398, Russe complained that Margareta didn’t send money for the upkeep of Stockholm, as agreed. At the same time he asked for provisions (as always) and to be relieved of his post the upcoming easter. In the agenda of a late February League meeting the participants urge that Rostock and Wismar should pay what they owe for the keeping of Stockholm. Money was, as usual, a problem.
In May 1398 a meeting at Marienburg decided that every city involved in the mission should send 3,5 Mark worth of victuals per soldier from the city in question – a grand total of 300 Mark. This is a bit interesting as it gives us an approximate number of the garrison. At this time it seems the force in Stockholm was about 85 men strong. Maybe some of the “uncomfortable” elements were sent home?
After this, the annals of the Hanseatic League doesn’t mention the Stockholm garrison much. The times Stockholm are mentioned, it is regarding its surrender to Margareta.
During the spring of 1398, Margareta corresponds with the cities about her accession of Stockholm. The 12th of August she states that if King Albrecht hasn’t payed his ransom by the 24th, she will ask him to surrender Stockholm to her. The 29th of August, she – along with her son Bogislav (now king of Sweden) – grants Stockholm all of its previous rights; as history tells us, the king couldn’t come up with the money. The contingent from the Hanseatic League leaves the city the 29th of September and Margareta takes over. The mission is accomplished and the soldiers return home – or sets off to find the next filled purse, perhaps as part of the ever ongoing war against the Vitalian brotherhood.
The supreme commanders from Prussia
Hermann van der Halle
When the cities’ troops first arrived in Stockholm – in August 1395, they were supervised by the Danzig council member Hermann van der Halle, as mentioned above. He was sworn in as hovetman the 1st of August, where he specifically asked that his mission as commander over Stockholm should last no longer than a year.
He had the responsibility to keep Stockholm safe, which was easier said than done. Hermann van der Halle’s letters often include reminders to his superiors that he was promised to be relieved of his post after one year; it is clear that he is not very happy in Stockholm. Maybe it had something to do with the people he was forced to work with; in July, 1396 he thanked his superiors for the long asked for permission to send “uncomfortable” individuals home. Probably he was referring to members of the Thorn contingent – he made complaints about them at a League meeting in March 1397.
The 15th of June 1396, his supervisors sent him an eagerly awaited letter – he was to be relieved – as promised – by the Thorn council member Albrecht Russe. The 3rd of September he seemed somewhat anxious to learn that Russe had fallen ill in Lübeck. In the end of the same month, van der Halle himself fell ill, and as he experienced that he was of no use to the garrison, he desperately asked his superiors to send another commander as soon as they were able.
He seems to have pulled through, though, as he was present at a League meeting in Marienburg, the 31st of December, 1396.
The Thorn council member Albrechts Russe (or “Albrecht Rusze” as he spelled it himself – an indication of his perhaps Russian descent) was appointed council member of Thorn 1393. This might well have been his first commission, where he acted as a representative for the city at various League meetings. During his career he also acted as a bailiff, mediator and solicitor, as well as councillor and mayor in the same city. He acted as a diplomat during various diplomatic postings, and was probably also a shipowner responsible for Thorn’s trading relations with Poland. A heavy weighter, no doubt.
In 1396 it is decided that he is to succeed the commander of the Stockholm garrison, Hermann van der Halle. The 14th of September 1396, Russe sends word that he plans to depart from Wismar to Stockholm the 29th of September. It is probable that he arrived in Stockholm less than a week later, which means his predecessor could take the first boat home and the heck out of Dodge during the first days of October.
Russe assumed command at the most critical period of the Hanseatic administration of the Swedish capital. The evening of the 29th of June, 1397, a fleet of 42 ships and 1 200 men, commanded by “Otto von Peckatel [former commander of the Stockholm garrison], Sven Stur, Crabbe, Egkart Kale, Kawle and other commanders that I do not know” reached Stockholm. It was a fleet belonging to the Vitalian brotherhood. It had sailed from Gotland where King Albrecht’s son Erich had put up his headquarters, along with several notable nobles – among others the duke Johann von Mecklenburg who was evicted from his house in Stockholm castle in 1395. This means that Erich von Mecklenburg took active part in the piracy that Margareta, the Teutonic order and the Hanseatic league was trying to thwart, even though he was released on bail. Perhaps this was his way to raise money for the ransom. Either way: talk about stirring the pot…
Russe sent a letter to his superiors recounting what had taken place that evening. Its contents were read out and addressed at a League meeting in Danzig the 2nd of July, three days later.
The two sides met at a small isle outside Stockholm to parlay. The fleet commanders demanded to be let inside the city, but the officials of Stockholm refused. The fleet then demanded 10 000 loaves of bread and 20 “last” (= 200 plus barrels = more than 43 000 liters) of beer. The commanders of Stockholm refused a second time, and the fleet commanders asked to buy the commodities they needed. Again they are refused; the Stockholm officials suspected treason as Albrecht Russe had received a warning some time earlier.
He tells his superiors:
A good man came to me and told me to guard the castle well – or be in dire hardship. Then I told him: “My dear friend, can’t you speak your mind?” He said that he couldn’t tell me. He kneeled, and put two fingers on a brick, and spoke thus: “Brick! I tell you this, as God and the Saints help me: Stockholm is betrayed!” He rose and reached his arms towards the sky and spoke: “So help me God until my last day – what I have sworn here is the truth!” He would tell me nothing more.
After this, Russe asked for more provisions and reinforcements (“good people”) as he believed Stockholm to be in real danger. However, the fleet departed and left Stockholm alone. The League responded by ordering that one of the gates in Stockholm should be walled shut, perhaps as part of the defenses against the brotherhood.
Like his predecessor, Albrecht Russe constantly asked to be relieved, which makes you wonder what kind of a place Stockholm was. In late summer 1397, the League sent him a letter and told him that he, in time, was going to be relieved from his post by a representative from Elbing. It is uncertain if he ever was relieved or if he remained on his post until the mission in Stockholm ended.
I found this forum thread, showing a lot of cool stuff; above all the fire arrows and arrows used in pot-de-fer-cannons, such as described/linked to in these posts:
The earliest firearms didn’t use granulated powder, but finely ground. Previously, I have posted a link about slow burning powder, where a guy (the same one as in these clips?) argues that a gunner had the time to ignite his powder, take aim and wait for the actual shot.
These movie clips show that principle, which indeed makes it possible – if not probable – that handgunners acted alone, although other evidence suggests they also could have acted in pairs.
Good article, plus links, on the early 15th century Feuerwerkbuch.
We could start this text by telling you about the Chinese origin of black powder, as can be found on dozens of pages on the web. But we won’t, because it’s not relevant. This article is about the use of handgonnes and black powder during the European middle ages, and that is a whole other thing. So we’ll start at black powder as a phenomenon.
In medieval Sweden gunpowder was called just “pulver”, wich translates into “powder”. There are quite a few old powder recipes still around, and the ones that suits our selected historical period
are referred to as, for example, Rouen, Lille, Rothenburg and Marcus Graecus. They all use the same ingredients, but the amounts differ. In the table below, they are compared to a modern “perfect”
Tests made at the Middelaldercenter in Nyköbing, Denmark show a correlation between higher muzzle velocity and higher amount of salpetre. The ingredients were ground up and mixed, resulting in a so called dry mixed powder. This can be used as it is, but it will be more effective if mixed with alcohol, shaped into bars or pellets and then ground again, producing wet mixed powder or meal powder. The alcohol dissolves the salpetre, and lets the tiny sulphur crystals divide and evenly on the grains of charcoal, making the powder burn more even. It is important to note that there has
been some debate about the use of alcohol in medieval gunpowder, as distilled beverages is barely known at the time. However, sources speak of a “Henricus Brännewattnmakare” (Henricus, maker of burnt (distilled) water, meaning a producer of alcohol) in the city of Lund in the 1350’s, wich means that alcohol was in use at the time. If it was used to make gunpowder we do not know. Sulphur could be collected in volcanic areas in Iceland or Italy, while salpetre was produced by collecting dung and urine from livestock, and processing it, to extract the salpetre. Charcoal was abundant in medieval society.
The name of our group contains the word “Bössor”, and in modern Swedish “Bössor” means some sort of handgun like a rifle or shotgun. In the middle ages the term “bössa” (sg.)/”bössor” (pl.) is applied to both handgonnes and cannons. In other words there are two different types of “Bössor” in the fourteenth century, and it can be used as a very rough measurement regarding calibre and purpose; “Stenbössa” – firing stones, and “Lodbössa” – firing lead shot. The “Stenbössa” seems to stand for larger calibre – possibly a cannon, whilst the “Lodbössa” seems to have had smaller calibre – possibly a handgonne.
The handgonne and the medieval cannon fired mainly lead shot (“lod”), stone balls, “grape shot” or arrows. The use of arrows is a bit peculiar – it doesn’t seem to have any obvious advantages in comparison to stone balls. One theory is that the cannon presented an alternative to the so called ballista (a siege engine for firing huge arrows), and that gunpowder was just another method of propelling the projectile. The lead shot was probably cast by the gunner himself, using a cast made of sand stone, soap stone or bronze – as there was no fixed system for calibre, each man had to provide for himself.
The grape shot (Swe: kartesch) , which turned the handgonne or cannon into sort of a shotgun, was used against people and animals (like war horses) at close range. Virtually anything could be used as grapeshot, but shards of flint seem to have been common, as the razor sharp flint shards inflicted massive damage. The grape shot could be free loaded, or put into a triangular container for bigger guns; the Museum of Medieval Stockholm displays some of these, found on a sunken ship. When fired, the walls of the “pyramid” fall away some distance from the muzzle, thus giving the grape
shot a longer effective range before it disperses.
There is an ongoing discussion about the effectiveness of the medieval handgonnes. A lot of people claim the handgonne was a weapon with a mere psychological effect; that the smoke, sound and fire scared enemies, and that the weapon really didn’t have any tactical use. A battlefield is a horrifying place, with death, fear and suffering all over, and even if loud bangs, smoke and the smell of sulphur probably would increase the chaos and confusion, it wouldn’t make a whole lot of difference. Furthermore, soldiers would not have gone into battle time and again with a weapon they didn’t trust, and was just for “show”, a city would not have bought 500 of them, and the handgonne would not have developed into what it is today. Let’s take a closer look at what a handgonne is really doing.
One of the differences between the handgonne and other ranged weapons of the age is that arrows and crossbow bolts are that the latter do cutting damage, similar to knives or other edged weapons. They harm by puncturing or cutting organs and limbs. The area affected is small, about the size of the arrow head. This means that you have to hit a vital organ or nerve-centre to put an opponent out of action. There is more than one account of people continuing to fight even when pierced by several arrows. The handgonne on the other hand does kinetic damage. The projectile from a handgonne doesn’t pass through the target as easily as an arrow would, and this means it transfers more of its motive energy into what ever is being hit. The motive energy affects a larger area of an opponents body, as it sets the fluids and fat in the human organism in vibrating motion, which in quite a few instances can injure vital organs. How big an area affected depends of the velocity and weight of the projectile – the higher the weight and speed, the worse the effect.
The usual way to evaluate the damage done by modern firearms is to see how many joule of energy it transfers into its target. The higher the amount of transferred energy, the bigger the damage to the tissues of the body. Tests have shown that the energy transferred by a handgonne is about 1000 joule – a modern assault rifle transfers about 1100. Handgonnes also worked like a charm against the armour of professional soldiers and knights. As these were mainly adapted to cope with arrows and sharp weapons, the sheer power of a projectile from a handgonne would strike an unlucky target to the ground, and with great possibility severely injure him, or at least make him unable to continue the fight.
To have a closer look at how effective handgonnes really were, visit Ulrich Bretscher’s page about handgonnes.
Range and accuracy
Surely, the short barrelled handgonnes would not outshoot a longbow? Perhaps not. The above mentioned Middelaldercenter did some scientifically recorded test firing of a replica of the Swedish Loshultbössan in 2002. It was fired several times with different kinds of gunpowder, based on the recipes above. Also, some shots were fired with modern gunpowder. Different projectiles were used; the handgonne was loaded with 50g of gunpowder, and fired at an angle of 40 degrees. The range of the shots averaged between 600 metres up to 950 metres. Two shots travelled over a 1000 metres, with 1100 being the longest, using modern gunpowder. The muzzle velocity was between 150-250 metres per second. This shows that handgonnes could match longbows as far as range is concerned.
The accuracy of the early firearms might not be excellent, but not totally worthless either. According to Ulrich Bretscher’s experiments, an inexperienced hand gunner would score about 80% hits at a man sized target at a distance of 25 metres, but as the weapons fire a round projectile with the help of non consistent gunpowder from a short barrel, the conditions for marksmanship is limited at the least. The handgonnes, however, seems to have been used mainly in greater engagements, where the target was not an individual but a couple of hundreds in a unit. Even a blind shooter would probably hit someone in a unit of hundreds of spearmen.
From the early examples to later specimens
So what do we know about this? To be honest, not a whole lot, especially when we are talking about Scandinavia. This has a lot to do with a great fire in the seventeenth century, when the royal castle of Stockholm was burnt to ashes, along with a huge pile of medieval documents. This forces us to use sources from the rest of Europe. Applying theory, we might be able to get a decent picture.
We know that the Europeans have known about black powder since about 1260. Roger Bacon comments on it, but as far as he is concerned, it is only fit for amusement. He is possibly referring to fireworks. In 1326 the Italian city of Florence orders a manuscript (De Nobilitatibus, Sapientis, et Prudentia Regum), written by Walter de Milemete, said to be a member of the English clergy. The text is believed to be copy of an already existing volume, and shows the earliest known picture of a firearm. We see a gunner standing by a vase shaped gun lying on a table. This so called “pot-de-fer” cannon is loaded with an arrow projectile.
1334 cannons are involved in the defence of Meersburg in south west Germany. Next we hear of an English ship carrying guns in 1338. The battle of Crecy in 1346, also saw guns in action. The guns mentioned above, is with great probability cannons rather than handgonnes. In 1360 the Rathaus of Lübeck explodes, probably due to fault handling of gunpowder. Lübeck was a centre for mercenaries, and as all sorts of Germans, mercenaries and merchants, regularly travelled or even moved to Sweden, the use of gunpowder and it’s companion the handgonne, would have been well known in Scandinavia by the time of the Rathaus explosion. In 1362 the Italian city of Pergua purchase 500 handgonnes, giving us a trace to how many handgonnes were used. In the same year, Kristoffer, the son of the Danish king, Valdemar Atterdag, is struck in the jaw by a projectile believed fired by a handgonne, and dies from it the year after. Ten years later, handgonnes are mentioned in a Danish manuscript, and gunners are employed by the German city of Hamburg from at least 1360. 1395 firearms are first mentioned in Swedish sources, when the Swedes “borrow” a big gun from the Germans administering the castle in Stockholm.
The first guns were cast in bronze. They were often vase shaped, and seems to have been used primarily in some sort of mount. They were fired by sticking a burning match or a piece of red hot iron in a priming hole or sometimes in the front end of the gun. Soon guns made of iron staves held together by iron hoops (much like an ordinary barrel) appear alongside the cast bronze guns. Welding is another known method of making guns – you “simply” take a sheet of iron and fold it into at tube, and weld the seams together. Smaller guns were mounted on wooden shafts and used more or less like rifles by “handgunners”. In England, these devices were referred to as “hand gonnes”. Some of these weapons was constructed with a hook, allowing the gunner to hook his weapon over a wall or the like, so that the recoil of the handgonne wouldn’t affect him. As some gunners operated single handedly, holding the gun with one hand and the match with the other, this support was surely appreciated. In the latter parts of the fourteenth century cannons with free chambers appear (called Föglare in medieval Swedish). This construction allowed a hugely increased firing rate, as pre-loaded chambers could quickly be inserted in the cannon. Another advantage was that the crew was not as exposed when reloading. Some evidence however, seems to point to these guns not being as reliable as muzzle loaded guns; they were more prone to explode.
1411 the first known triggers appear in sources. They are little more than just an s-shaped or z-shaped lever pivoting around its centre, not unlike crossbow triggers. When pressing the part under the stock, the upper part (holding the match) descends to ignite the primer, firing the handgonne. Some time later, the stock evolves from having been just a stick held under the arm or like a pike, with the end of the stock in the ground, or atop the shoulder, like a bazooka, into a “real” stock, made to hold against the shoulder. This model coexists with the earlier type. The barrels tend to get longer with smaller calibre.
The first known possible handgonne to survive to this day is the so called Loshultsbössan (the Loshult gun/cannon), found in the southernmost part of Sweden. It is a small 31 millimeter bore gun cast in bronze. It is dated to the middle of the fourteenth century, and has been extensively examined by Middelaldercenter i Denmark.
Another gun, Mörköbössan (The Mörkö Handgonne), found south of Stockholm, is dated to the last quarter of the fourteenth century.
A third Swedish handgonne, the Borgholmbössan, will soon be presented on this page.
How were gunners organized?
The above indicates that different forms of gunners have been around in Sweden/Scandinavia since the middle of the fourteenth century, but what it doesn’t tell us, is how common they were. They don’t appear in Scandinavian pictorial evidence until the beginning of the fifteenth century, on the brass of bishop Henrik of Finland (at the time, Finland was called “the Eastern half of the realm”, an integrated part of Sweden). We have a very vague idea of how gunners were organized, thanks to European sources; the most common seems to have been in groups, like bowmen.
Some examples: At the battle of Ravenspur 1471, 320 Burgundian gunners reportedly participated. John of Burgundy allegedly had 4000 handgonnes in his armoury, and at the battle of Stoke, the earl of Lincoln is said to have fielded 2000 handgonnes! In Scandinavia it is reported that Karl Knutsson in his campaign on Skåne, had enough gunners to organize them into one separate unit, marching under the flag of saint Erik, national saint of Sweden. Karl Knutsson is also reported to have brought “Wagon guns” (kärrebössor)on the above mentioned campaign.
The naming of guns
Christine de Pisan, a lady who wrote quite a bit on how war was to be waged in the early fifteenth century, clearly states the necessity of naming the guns and cannons. The reason for this, she claims, is that a commander would have a lot of different calibre guns to keep apart, and since the common soldier could not be trusted to remember calibres it was necessary to be able to refer to the gun by its name: “I would like Katrina placed over here, and Anna placed over there!”. The soldier would then know what gun was which, and what kind of ammunition would go with it.
The most famous guns in Sweden was “Diefulen” (“The Devil”) and “Diefuls Mater” (“The Mother of the Devil”), that protected the Stockholm Castle in the sixteenth century. The named handgonnes of Albrechts Bössor is named Örsdöder (Destrier killer), Keterlin Haverblast, Faule Agnes and Mathilda.
The other guns are yet to be named.
This article, written by Johan Käll & Peter Ahlqvist, was previously published on our old webpage.