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Eighteenth-century warfare demanded bigger blasts

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, War, Weapons on Friday, 31 January 2014

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This edited article about guns first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 536 published on 22 April 1972.

Battle of Fontenoy, picture, image, illustration

Battle of Fontenoy during which the Duke of Cumberland's six small galloper-guns saved the British army from disaster, by Severino Baraldi

There are some weird and wonderful weapons in the Artillery Museum at Woolwich outside London, and one of the strangest is the “Leather Gun.” The barrel is a copper tube bound with rope and covered in leather. It may have belonged to King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden who made good use of these strange “leather-guns” during the Thirty Years’ War, though other countries used them as well.

No one is certain who invented leather-guns. A good claim could have been made by a Scotsman named Robert Scott. He died in 1631 and there is a monument to him in London’s Lambeth Church. It says that the inventor “. . . bent himself to travel and studie much and amongst other things invented the leather ordinance and carried to the Kinge of Sweden 200 men . . .” Unfortunately for Scott, an Austrian gun-maker also arrived at the Swedish court and got the credit for Gustavus Adolphus’s revolutionary artillery.

Scott had a nephew named Weems and he cashed in on leather gun-making during the English Civil War. Colonel Weems seems to have earned quite a fortune from his leather-guns and by 1643 he had become Lt. General of Ordinance and Train. Weems’s cannon could be drawn by one horse and this lightness, plus their cheapness, made them very popular. On the other hand they wore out quickly and sometimes got so hot during a battle that they went off of their own accord!

The Parliamentarians’ light artillery also had another advantage over heavy iron guns; they did not need so many animals to pull them. Even that dashing Royalist, Prince Rupert, had to throw some of his best cannon into the Thames to stop them getting captured. He just didn’t have enough horses to tow them away.

When the brilliant Duke of Marlborough came on the scene some decades later the British Army’s artillery was still in a sorry state. Marlborough was a great general and fully understood the importance of gunnery. The whole organization of trains of artillery was brought up to date and new ideas adopted. Uniforms were standardized, as was equipment. Some trains even included portable boats as well as guns, ammunition waggons and blacksmith’s forges on carts. Yet even in Marlborough’s “modern army” half the men in every train were civilian drivers hired with their horses to pull the guns. The poor discipline of these civilian drivers may have been one reason for the creation of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. The Fusiliers guarded the artillery trains, but they also had to keep an eye on the panicky drivers if the battle started to get dangerous.

Though 18th century cannon look much like those of the 17th century, they were really much stronger. In each country gunfounders were trying to improve their army’s artillery. In England there were none more famous than the Fuller family of Heathfield in Sussex. Fuller guns were so good that foreign makers started putting the Fuller initials, “JF,” on the trunions of their guns just as the real Fullers did. Needless to say, this annoyed Messrs Fuller of Heathfield!

Meanwhile the Duke of Marlborough’s highly trained artillery-men were planting their “linstocks” in the battle-scarred soil of Blenheim, Ramillies and Malplaquet to blow the French from the field of battle. Linstocks were pointed poles that held a burning match. They stood away from the guns to save stray sparks from igniting the gunpowder as the guns were loaded. Portfires, which held a smaller and faster match, were lit from the linstocks then carried to the guns. As soon as the cannon was fired the portfire was extinguished.

Field artillery grew ever more important, but most cannon were still heavy and slow. That’s where the galloper-guns came in. These were small, but by having their trails shaped like the shafts of a cart they could be harnessed to a horse and galloped at high speed to wherever needed. Marlborough had galloper-guns, but their moment of greatest glory came after Marlborough’s death when, in 1747, the British found themselves up against Marshal Saxe of France at the battle of Fontenoy. This time the French won the day, but the Duke of Cumberland’s six small galloper-guns, with their speed and manoeuvrability, saved the British army from disaster.

Even though artillery was important it was the infantryman’s musket that dominated the battlefield. The British soldier carried his famous Brown Bess musket for well over a hundred years. It first appeared at the start of the 18th century. Wars passed by and the Brown Bess’s walnut stock and brown barrel, “pickled” to counter rust and glare, blasted its way into history.

All smooth-bore muskets were inaccurate, but few were more inaccurate than Brown Bess. Bullets rattled or “chattered” down the barrel when fired and the gap between the lead shot and the sides of the barrel was so great that a British soldier could almost load without using a ramrod to shove down his cartridge. But what did inaccuracy matter when armies just stood a hundred yards apart and shot each other to pieces? Brown Bess’s bullets were so loose and loading so easy that six shots could be fired in one minute, a murderous rate of fire for those days.

If infantry were caught with their muskets empty they were almost helpless. In earlier days the pikemen had defended them, but then the bayonet was invented. The first types were plug-bayonets and were simply jammed down the barrel. This of course meant that the musket could not be fired, so someone thought of the ring-bayonet to fit around the barrel. It was a fearsome weapon but tended to fall off when the musket was fired. This problem was at last solved with the socket-bayonet. Even with rapid rates of fire and bayonets for an emergency, gunsmiths still tried to make a gun shoot without pausing. In 1718 James Puckle, a London solicitor, came up with a most ingenious idea. He called his gun a “Defence” and it was at least a hundred years ahead of its time.

With one barrel and a circular magazine of eleven chambers, turned by a handle and replaced by a ready-loaded magazine when empty, Puckle’s gun could fire almost non-stop. On the 31st of March 1722, he demonstrated his “machine-gun” and according to the “London Journal” fired sixty-three shots in seven minutes during a rainstorm. Puckle even designed a special magazine to fire square bullets at the infidel Turks, but the authorities still refused to take him seriously! Three of Puckle’s guns survive and one of these stands in the Tower of London where it never fails to amaze every visitor.

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