DAN SPENCER: Hello. I’m Dan Spencer. I’m here at the Royal Armouries at Fort Nelson near Portsmouth. And I’m here with Nicholas Hall from the Royal Armouries and we’re here to talk about medieval guns. So Nicholas, if you could tell us a little bit about this gun. How would it have been made?
NICK HALL: A gun like this was a major undertaking. It was usually built by several mastersmiths with a lot of assistants and could take several weeks, depending on its size. And the construction is extremely clever. It has a barrel inside here. There are lots of long staves, we call them, because it is a little bit like a wooden barrel. And these staves, long strips of metal, are not attached to each other at all. There is actually no way of attaching them to each other. But they’re held together with the bands, bands or hoops around the outside. And the way this was done was to forge these rings, of wrought iron, of course.
So you start with the strip, bend it around very accurately, and hammer weld it together. But the accuracy with which these were made is fascinating because they’ve all got to be pretty well the same size and just too small to go on to the staves, which would be held together temporarily, probably around a wooden former. And so they’re heat it up one by one, gun would be built vertically, and the bands are dropped on and hammered down if necessary as they cool.
DAN SPENCER: Yes, so we have a barrel and the power chamber. Can you tell us a little bit about its function and how it was used?
NICK HALL: As you can see, Dan, the barrel is quite large in diameter for its length and it fired a large stone ball. And then, at the breach end, there’s a very dramatic step down in size. And this, what we call the chamber, it’s the bit that holds the powder. But the barrel is really to direct the projectile, at least the way I conceive it. But the force of the powder is developed in the chamber. So the chamber actually has to be a lot stronger.
This is why I think there were quite a few smiths involved and where the mastersmith was really an incredibly advanced technical expert because your welding and forging of the powder chamber has to be absolutely perfect or the gun will burst.
DAN SPENCER: So how did they moved these guns?
NICK HALL: Well, it was fitted with three lifting rings and there are manuscripts that show the kind of three legged gin we would call it, but basically a kind of tripod that had a block and tackle on it that you could lift the gun. Then the lifting tripod would have to travel with it or another one would have to be made at the destination to lift it off. And I think for firing, it would be normally on a different kind of heavy timber framework. And often we seem to see in the documents that there’d be a massive support at the back to control recoil.
DAN SPENCER: So with these sorts of weapons, how do you date them?
NICK HALL: The only really secure method the dating is either the gun has a date on it or you can securely link it to a document.
DAN SPENCER: So I take you from what we say, guns of this particular era are relatively rare. Can you say something about why you think that is?
NICK HALL: These big medieval guns are fairly rare. But I sometimes wonder if the survival rate isn’t all that bad.
DAN SPENCER: So what sort of range do these weapons have? Quite often the chronicles talk about guns being wheeled very close to the walls. What sort of effective range do you think?
NICK HALL: In terms of attacking, say, a medieval town, I think you would need to get fairly close and I’m thinking 50 metres wouldn’t be too close. And you’d also need to be able to go on hitting the same bit of wall quite a few times.
DAN SPENCER: Thank you for sharing your passion with us, Nicholas.
NICK HALL: Thank you, Dan. It’s been a pleasure.