What kinds of guns are ‘period’?
The purpose of this document is to answer that question and to provide basic guidelines for what types of firearms are appropriate for specific time periods. To this end, I will provide some discourse on the history and major steps in the development of the firearm from the time that gunpowder was first used to propel projectiles. This is not the definitive rule list on what one should carry for a period firearm if one chooses to do so. In fact, I strongly recommend that one NOT carry a period firearm to any events occurring on any school property. Modern law is VERY strict about guns on school property, even for historical re-enactors. If one wishes to carry a functional firearm on other sites one should check with the Autocrat for the particular event. As more and more persons do bear these period weapons it may become necessary for the SCA to create some guidelines as to whether functional pieces are allowed, under what circumstances, and whether there are any events at which they might be fired with powder charges but no shot. I would personally be very impressed to see functional recreations of Medieval and Renaissance firearms. I have also enjoyed participating in battle re-enactments with other historical recreation groups which allow the firing of blank charges on the battlefield to ‘kill’ an opponent. On to the history.
One of the greatest scientists of the Middle Ages was Roger Bacon, born in 1241 in Somerset, England. Between 1257 and 1265, Bacon wrote a book of chemistry called Opus Majus which contained a recipe for gunpowder. The earliest picture of a gun is in a manuscript dated 1326 showing a pear-shaped cannon firing an arrow. Crude cannons were used by King Edward III against the Scots in the following year. In general, the design of the firearm components has remained almost unchanged since the first hand-held weapons were built – except for the ignition system. The earliest guns had a simple hole in the barrel, called a touch-hole, where the powder inside the barrel was exposed. The gun was fired by touching either a burning wick or a red-hot iron to the exposed gun powder. Over the centuries, the development of more sophisticated and reliable ignition systems distinguished later period guns from earlier ones.
Early cannons were prone to bursting, and in some cases convicts were released from prison for the purpose of loading and firing cannons. The first rifled gun barrels were made in the 1400s. This early date may be surprising, but makes perfect sense when one considers that arrow makers had learned to angle the fletchings on an arrow’s shaft to make it spin as it flew through the air, giving it greater stability. This technique carried over to firearms. Rifled barrels were rare until improvements in manufacturing techniques in the 1800s made them easier to fabricate.
The following depicts an approximate timeline for the evolution of firing mechanisms. Click on each type for details.
- Hand Gonne – circa 1400
- The Flash Pan
- Matchlock – Mid 1400s
- Wheel Lock – circa 1517
- Snaphaunce – circa 1570
- Flintlock – circa 1612
- Percussion Cap – 1805
I hope that this brief history can be of some use to those of you who wish to sport firearms with your period accessories. At least you will have some idea of what type of firing mechanism is appropriate for your time period. If you acquire a functional piece, I STRONGLY RECOMMEND that you seek instruction from an experienced black powder shooter in its use and care before you even go to purchase powder and shot for it. To load one of these weapons incorrectly could result in an explosion which can seriously maim or kill you. Even using the wrong technique to pour the gunpowder into the barrel can cause an explosion. I hope that sounds frightening because the danger is very real.
To identify your antique firearms, visit http://oldguns.net/q&a.htm and provide a detailed description along with a link to photographs of your piece, especially including any manufacturing or armory stamps. For questions about this article, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lord Alfonso del Corazon Negro.
1) What kind of firearm is this musketeer using?2) What has he done to improve his chance of getting a shot off when he needs to?
Firearms, by Howard Ricketts. 1962, G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Library of Congress Catalog 62-13080
Weapons: an international encyclopedia from 5000 BC to 2000 AD. 1990, St. Martin’s Press