20 August 2014

Book Review: Medieval Handgonnes - The First Black Powder Weapons

Paul Robinson delves into Medieval Handognnes, a title that goes into detail on the great-great-great grandfathers of modern weaponry.

Published on 12 APR 2011 1:03pm by Scott Parrino

This is one of the first in a new and rapidly expanding series from Osprey Publishing – Weapon! Others in the series include the Thompson Sub Machine Gun, Katana – the Samurai Sword and Sniper Rifles, with upcoming titles on the AK47 and the Colt 1911 Pistol.

This particular volume is quite precisely focused – handgonnes, rather than pre-Renaissance firearms in general (although there is some overlap between the true handgonne and the early arquebus which is touched upon in the book). I have to say that as someone who wargames the late Medieval period I had always just thought of early handheld firearms as much of a muchness! The author, Sean McLachlan, brings out very clearly that this type of thinking is extremely woolly (typical wargamer) and also that there was considerable overlap between the handgonne and the arquebus. I had always assumed that one gradually took over from the other (which is more or less true) but (erroneously) that as more “modern” types came along older types were discarded. Apparently the handgonne stayed in frontline use right up until the very late part of the fifteenth century.

The book discusses the evolution of the handgonne and its tactical use. It also goes into a lot of detail about the manufacture and preparation of gunpowder (and how that process developed over the years). This could be a quite dry area but the author gives us enough detail to be informed but does not get so technical as to put the more general reader off.  I found it all quite fascinating. The author also sets out to answer the $6 million question – why did handgonnes (and handheld firearms generally) catch on when they were slow to load, dependent on an inexact and expensive process for manufacturing a key element (the gunpowder) and apparently wildly inaccurate! All this compared to rapid fire of the longbow and the penetrative power of the crossbow. I won’t spoil the answer but it is an interesting multifaceted one. I would only say that the author seems to concentrate a little too much on the lack of penetrative power (relatively speaking) of the longbow and not enough on the fact that it was the weapon of a craftsman and required a complete social (not just technical) infrastructure to support it as a weapons system. And it was this that most other countries found difficult to replicate compared with the handgonne.

The book also gives two examples of how the handgonne was used in different conflicts as the weapons system evolved – these are the Wars of the Roses and the Hussite Wars.

The original artwork in the book (the thing I guess most Osprey books are famous for) is limited to only two plates (both double spreads). One is a night attack on Constantinople by the Ottomans during the siege of 1453, the other is of an attack on a Hussite Wagonburg. Both are competently executed by Gerry Embelton and his son Sam.  And show Handgonnes in action.  I have to say that the Constantinople one has the Ottoman attackers in the foreground and they are armed with Arquebuses. It is the Byzantines that have the handgonnes and as they are in the background the view of their weapons is somewhat limited. Artwork is always a matter of taste and I thought the Constantinople plate good but not outstanding in either execution or subject matter whilst the Hussite one won me over with its energetic representation of a small part of a Medieval battle!

However the other illustrations more than make up for the lack of original artwork; most pages having full colour reproductions of contemporary manuscripts etc.  Many of these are drawn from the famous Schilling Chronicle which shows the Medieval Swiss army at war and also its Burgundian opponents. Also there are two double page photo layouts showing the loading and firing by modern day re-enactors of a handgonne and an early arquebus. These are both clear and helpful in setting out the process, a real plus point for the book. I have to say I wouldn’t fancy going through that rigmarole whilst the enemy was bearing down on me!  There are also plenty of colour photos of surviving handgonnes which again help illuminate the subject matter.

Overall I thought this was an excellent volume that covered the subject matter in an informative and non technical way. I also must say that in a book this size (80 pages including the Index) Mr McLachlan packs a great deal in. For those wishing to look in more detail at the subject there is an excellent Bibliography to start you off!  This book certainly made me think a lot more about how we treat firearms on the wargames table. 

Available now in paperback from Osprey Publishing priced £12.99.

Written by: Paul Robinson, Staff Writer