WEAPONS. A Pictorial history
Proof Armor, Arbalests and Breechloaders (1400-1500)

This seems to have been a century, not of innovations but of refinements and improvements. Armor, crossbows, guns, all were improved. The complete plate armor of the knights grew to be very fancy but it was also very good. The thrust of the cloth-yard arrow and the punch of the crossbow bolt demanded good metal to resist them. Presently the armor became so heavy that a man once down was helpless.

The joints of armor came to be made very tight to resist rapier thrusts. There's a story of some knights whose enemies came upon them unhorsed, supine and helpless and undertook to finish them off with daggers. Their points could find no crevice in the tightly fitted armor through which to reach a vital spot; so an ax was borrowed from a woodcutter and the fallen heroes were broken up like lobsters!

The needed resistance of armor was determined by "proof" and when it had been proved and marked, it was known as "proof armor." The test was the very practical one of shooting at the metal plates from a fixed distance with a crossbow of known strength. Where the bolt hit the armor a little key-shaped mark was stamped on the metal. For double proof which was tested at closer range, two marks were made.

Many suits of plate armor from this period and later are preserved in museums, and it's interesting to note in passing that nearly all of them are too small for a modern man to wear. There are exceptions: a suit in Windsor Castle which belonged to Henry the Eighth looks easily big enough to cover two men and a small boy.

Tournaments were now more popular than ever and a lot less dangerous. A heavy wooden barrier about three feet high was now built down the middle of the lists and each knight had to keep to his own side of it. This eliminated the collision of the horses and saved a lot of good horseflesh. The lances now were made of light, brittle wood which let them shatter easily, and the knights found that they were hurt less if they didn't try quite so hard to stay in the saddle. As an aid to dismounting, the cantles of the saddles were lowered so a man could slide over his horse's tail and clang down into the dust with no worse injury than a few bruises.

As the century progressed the barriers became higher, until they were so high that the knights could barely get a poke at each other across them. At the same time, the tournament helm reached its ultimate size and weighed about thirty pounds. The extremes of play-acting and display which went on in connection with tournaments at this time have no place in a book about weapons.

The English knightly swords changed not at all, but in France, toward about the middle of this century, the big slashing sword began to give way to a narrow blade which was exactly the right tool for slipping into the joints of armor. This sword was the predecessor of the rapier. When a striking weapon was needed, the French knight resorted to a clout with his mace. Real war was becoming a grimmer business. Though in theory it was considered impolite for common soldiers to shoot at mounted gentlemen, in practice the common soldiers were doing more and more of it—and with relish. At Agincourt in 1415, the English longbow against great odds once more flattened the ironclad might of France and the prestige the archers gained began to extend to other classes of foot soldiers.

Infantry became important enough to wear armor. Nearly everybody had a headpiece of some kind and followed his fancy or his luck at looting, in the matter of body protection. Breastplates were now common and so were shirts of mail. The invention of wire drawing brought the cost of mail down. Brigandines, which were leather or cloth jackets closely studded with metal scales, became very popular; and for those who could afford nothing better, there were quilted jerkins.

The infantry was becoming divided into specialist groups. Aside from the archers and culverin men, there were javelin throwers, sword-and-buckler men and men with pole arms. The Saxons had used their long-handled bills at Hastings. In time the hooked blade sprouted a couple of spikes and other long-handled weapons appeared with a variety of heads. The three principal ones were the poleax, the oxtongue and the glave. Pictures are better than words to describe them. The poleax was literally a battle-ax on a long pole; the ox-tongue was a spear with a two-edged blade for a head; and the glave was a big knife blade with a pole for a handle. Pole arms were useful against cavalry and in any close fight. One of their major jobs was protecting archers, arbalesters and gunners while they were reloading.

The military flail was also used by foot soldiers. It was simply two stout sticks swiveled end to end. One stick served as a handle while the other was thrashed about to do what damage it could. It seems, somehow, that if a man had to go into a fifteenth-century battle, he might wisely choose some other weapon than the flail.

Though longbows in the hands of experts could rule the field and guns were slowly improving, this was above all the century of the arbalest. When it was perfected, it provided a powerful bow which could be handled by common soldiers who had no special training and were not strong enough to draw a longbow. Its development happened something like this: Crossbows were made stiffer to increase their power; in the end they had to be made of steel and looked not unlike one leaf of a wagon spring. Better gear than the simple little cord-and-pulley was needed to bend them. There were two solutions to the problem and both of them were in wide use for a long time. Because of the resemblance of some of this tackle to that used for setting a ballista, an English translation made this kind of crossbow an arbalest. The word doesn't get much use and its meaning is a bit faded; since all crossbows are not arbalests, but all arbalests are crossbows.

The earlier and more powerful of the two setting-rigs was an elaboration of the cord-and-pulley system. It used four pulleys working as two parallel purchases, and did the needed pulling with a windlass which slipped over the end of the stock and was turned by two hand cranks. It could set the heaviest of bows but took its time about it, and it was a constantly tangled mess to handle. Between shots it usually lay on the ground, and out of action it was a cumbersome burden on the archer's belt.

The other setting device was also clumsy and heavy but it was a little faster, and it had at least the advantage of having no strings to it. It was known as a gaffle, a cric or a cranequin and it worked on the rack-and-pinion principle. It operated in a "gear case" which had a loop on it to slip over the stock of the arbalest. On the case was a crank which turned a small pinion inside. In its simplest form the teeth of the pinion engaged those of a long rack which passed through the case parallel to the stock of the bow. For very strong bows the advantage was increased by putting a gear between the crank-pinion and a rack-pinion. The forward end of the rack had two hooks on it to hold the bowstring. The gaffle was disengaged from the string and removed from the stock before shooting. The same lock and nut which served the simple crossbow was used on the arbalest.

The maximum range of a strong arbalest in dry weather (the range was about zero in the rain) was up to a hundred and twenty yards. To get this much the bolt had to be shot upwards at an angle of forty-five degrees. Shot level at what's called point-blank range, a bolt would carry about sixty yards. For close fighting this was an effective weapon; it could pierce ordinary plate armor and inflict a bad wound.

In addition to their use in war, crossbows were excellent sporting weapons. For this purpose they were usually light and could be set with a lever called a "goat's foot." There was also a type of crossbow called a "prodd" or stonebow which was light enough to set by hand. It fired clay or metal pellets and was especially valued for shooting birds. The later prodds had sights and double strings.

Arbalesters were generally put in the front ranks with the longbowmen behind them and shooting over their heads. The arbalester carried his own pavise strapped to his back, which he turned to the enemy while resetting his bow. His quarrels he carried in a bag at his belt and an additional supply followed the army in a cart. By and large, the arbalest seems to have been a better weapon for the defense than for the offense, though it was used for both. For loophole-shooting it was great, and loopholes came to be cross-shaped to give the arbalesters a wider range of vision. Three men working behind a loophole and shooting in turn could keep up a good steady fire. The little cubby-holes back of the slits in later castles are just big enough for three men.

In the second half of this century the culverin, though it still couldn't equal the longbow in the hands of an expert, began to crowd the arbalest in Europe. Its shape and balance were improved and it began to look more like a gun. The heavier culverins were still served by two men, the muzzle now resting on a forked stick. These heavier guns could be fired nearly as fast as an arbalest and they hit harder at greater distances, penetrating all but the very best armor at ranges up to a hundred and fifty feet.

The lighter culverins could be managed by one man alone. As the design improved the stock was curved downward somewhat and was given a broad butt which could be rested against the gunner's chest. Barrels began to be made longer which improved accuracy, though the best a man could do shooting from his breastbone was to let go in the general direction of the target. Firing was made easier by the addition of the priming pan which continued to be used on guns until the early nineteenth century. This was a little metal dish with a movable cover fastened to the gun barrel just below the opening of the touchhole, which was now drilled in the side of the barrel. Loose powder, ignited in this pan, would flash through the hole and set off the main charge.

The impure powder of early days would so foul up a hand-gun barrel that it had to be cleaned after every shot. This was the chief reason for the slow rate of fire from guns and the reason archers made jokes about gunners. The Germans then had an idea. They cut grooves on the inside of a gun barrel to give the dirt a place to accumulate, out of the way of the bullet. These grooves were just straight "ditches" from one end of the barrel to the other; years later they were given a spiral twist, called rifling, and served another purpose entirely. Before the fifteenth century was out the matchlock had been invented, but it was not of great importance at first.

The enormous bombards still threw stones, There was no way to allow the big guns to recoil when they were fired. They were fixed in a wooden frame strong enough to keep them where they were. This would have been possible only with the fifteenth century's weak powder.

The operation of large cannon was left in the hands of civilian experts for many years. They were highly paid professionals and as temperamental as emotional actresses. Like the Free Companions, they often changed sides without notice if they saw a chance to better themselves. Though the cannon could now surpass the trebuchet, it was much more costly and its rate of fire was much slower; two or three shots a day was good fora bombard. So the trebuchet remained in use and . was not abandoned entirely for more than two hundred years. Cheap and handy, it was builta bit more carefully; otherwise there was no change in it.

Now, though it didn't know it, feudalism was done for. The baron in his castle was no longer safe from attack. Four or five hundred pounds of stone plunked against his gate would knock it down, and even his thick walls could be crumbled by a bombard.

It was the Germans who finally managed to cast iron balls which would fit the bore of a cannon more tightly than stone ever did. This reduced the "windage" between the ball and the bore and used a lot more of the force of the explosion to push the projectile. About the same time purer saltpeter was produced and hence powder became much better. Stronger explosions more tightly confined were too much for the bombards; they blew up all over the place. When this danger appeared, gunners began to lay a train of powder from the touchhole along the top of the barrel all the way to the muzzle. Then the cannoneer lighted it and took himself hastily out of harm's way while the train was burning back to the touchhole.

About 1470 there was a quick trend back toward smaller cannons which could have thicker-walled barrels. After all a small iron ball with real kick behind it could do as much damage as a two-hundred-pound stone which just barely reached the target.


These smaller guns were real cannon. They fired a ball instead of merely tossing it. The bores ran from about two to four inches in diameter, and the barrels usually were long to take full advantage of the expansion of the gases of the explosion. Most of these guns were breechloaded into a hollow breechblock which was wedged in place against the breech. This didn't fit very tightly but it served at the time.

Some of the smaller guns were now cast in one piece and were mounted in frames so arranged that the angle of fire could be changed as needed. These frames had to be heavy enough to hold the gun in place when it fired. When guns go off they try to jump backwards. Modern guns are allowed to do it for a short distance and the recoil is absorbed and gradually slowed up, but in the fifteenth century all guns, even the biggest, were held rigid by timbers strong enough to take the shock of recoil.

Somebody in this century came up with the idea of holding a cannon and balancing it on a couple of lugs called trunnions which were cast as part of the barrel. With these the elevation of the shot could be controlled by resting the breech on a big wedge called a quoin, which could be moved forward or back as needed.

The problem of firing red-hot shot was solved by putting a wad of damp clay between the powder and the heated cannon ball. The Germans also invented a bomb which was a hollow iron ball filled with gunpowder, but it took a century or so to learn how to shoot one from a gun; the first ones were just tossed by hand. Fire pots were tossed too. They were pierced iron balls filled with burning oil, gunpowder and powdered metal. They didn't explode, or at least they weren't supposed to; they merely spat flames from their holes. Tossing one must have called for some dexterity.

There's a weapon of this period of which few remember anything but its name—the petard. It had little to recommend it. In essence it was an iron bucket which was filled with gunpowder and hung on the gate of a stronghold to explode there and blow in the gate. Presumably the "gunner" had to drive his own nail to hang it on and bring along his own courage for the job.