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Early Handguns

Early Handguns

Gunpowder weapons have been part of history for so long that it is difficult to imagine warfare without them. Yet, the fact remains there is more recorded history without gunpowder than there is with these weapons. This is something which historians of the Medieval period and re-enactment groups depicting periods from the 14th century know all too well. It is believed that the origins of gunpowder may lie in China, but no one knows with great certainty where and when the compound first appeared. Likewise, how gunpowder came to be used for destructive purposes has been the subject of great debate for centuries.

One of the earliest references to gunpowder in western chronicles appears in the works of a Franciscan friar called Roger Bacon, circa 1242, who recorded his observations in coded text. He noted the composition included saltpetre (nitre), charcoal and sulphur and its sensitivity to being ignited but does not state how he came to know the powder. It has been opined that the method of producing gunpowder may have entered Europe through the trade routes from the Middle East.

New weapons

By the first half of the 14th century, crude gunpowder weapons were in use as recorded in a document written by the Archdeacon of Aberdeen, John Barbour, who wrote how ‘crakys’ were used against the Scots at the Battle of Weardale in 1327 during the reign of King Edward III. These were cylinders secured to wooden staves having been loaded with a charge of gunpowder, which on being ignited, discharged a stone or metal projectile. These were among the first and certainly earliest forms of handgun.

By the second half of the 14th century, more of these weapons were being used across Europe and within 100 years, they were being referred to as either ‘hagbut’ or ‘hackbut’, a term derived from the German word ‘hackenbusche’ and used to describe these weapons as ‘hook guns’. This was because the wooden stave had been fitted with a metal bar to allow the user to hook the weapon over a wall when firing. The origin of the idea for this concept, which was sometimes called ‘tiller’ gun, has long since been lost, but records reveal how the design was improved and spread to other armies.

These early hand-held weapons were not so much aimed in the way we understand today, but rather pointed in the general direction of the intended target. The method of holding the weapon was a question of personal choice, with some adopting a position which balanced the gun on their shoulder. Another method was to tuck the haft of the wooden stave under their right arm, similar to the ‘couched’ method of riders holding a lance. Range and accuracy were not great and any man who was wounded by these early guns would have been very unlucky.

Improvements led to an increase in the length of these weapons and the design was refined to resemble what we would recognise today as an early form of musket. Even so, the reliability of these weapons was uncertain due to the composition of the gunpowder and there were many misfires. Early handguns were the province of one man but loading and firing were the same as the heavier artillery, with a charge of powder rammed into the barrel followed by a ball.

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We know all of this from chronicles and other records dating from the period, which are supported by illustrations made by artists at the time. There are also surviving examples of these early handguns in museums around the world to show exactly how they looked. For example, the weapon known as the ‘Tannenberg gun’, which dates from circa 1399, is made from bronze, weighs 2.5 lbs, measures just over 12” in length and is of .75” calibre. From these sources, reenactment groups have managed to reproduce these ‘hacbutters’ and ‘arquebusiers’, as the users of these weapons were known, to show them in action at displays.


There are plenty of battles in British history involving the use of early handguns from which re-enactment groups can draw on to base a scenario or display. For example, King Edward IV is known to have had ‘hand-gonnes’ in his army during his campaign in Yorkshire in 1471. Other battles include Towton, 1461, Bosworth, 1485 and Stoke, 1487. What is not entirely clear, is how many of the casualties from these battles were victims of gunshot wounds. There are many very good groups engaged in depicting the period to a high standard, including the Medieval Siege Society (www.medieval-siege-society.co.uk) and the House of Bayard (www.houseofbayard.com).

Groups such as these have often been involved in a wide range of projects covering the Hundred Years War and the Wars of the Roses, 1455 to 1485, including documentaries for television companies. The type of armour they wear has been faithfully recreated using images seen in the chronicles of the period as points of reference. Displays depicting the Medieval period are popular and frequently included in the calendar of events at sites in the care of the National Trust and English Heritage, as well as other venues.

Members who depict arquebusiers within their groups demonstrate how the handguns were loaded and fired, plus explain how they would have been aimed by simply sighting along the length of the barrel. Range and accuracy were not great and hitting any target would have been down to luck. The noise of firing would probably have unsettled the enemy ranks, especially the horses. War gamers and modellers researching material for dioramas can find such displays particularly useful as reference points to their hobbies.

Getting tooled up

Over the centuries, handguns became more common and eventually replaced archers to change the shape of battles and affect the outcome of wars. Sometimes a collector may be fortunate enough to acquire an authentic example of these early weapons to add to a collection showing the evolution into the matchlock and flintlock periods. Such items are scarce and can be quite expensive, so an alternative is to purchase a realistic-looking replica from a reputable source. One of the leading companies in this field is Hatton-based Derbyshire Arms Ltd (www.derbyshirearms.com) which specialises in producing individually hand-made replica weapons, including Medieval ‘hand gonnes’ of the ‘hook’ style up to the early matchlock and into the flintlock periods.

Derbyshire Arms Ltd has supplied replica early handguns to museums and collectors as well as re-enactors and has an international client base. The company supplies what it terms as ‘live’ replicas to allow black powder firing and ‘inert’ examples intended only for display. They can be contacted through their website and will offer advice, including information on legal requirements. Derbyshire Arms Ltd attends The Original Re-enactors’ Market, TORM, (www.reenactorsmarket.co.uk) where examples of these early weapons are displayed and staff can discuss them in person with potential customers.

How things have changed

Looking at these very basic firearms from all those years ago, it’s hard to believe that modern automatic weapons evolved from such rather crude designs. It’s not just the weapons which have changed, the ammunition is now high velocity and sighting is accurate, with laser range finders to assist snipers in engaging enemy targets at extreme ranges. When considered in such a context, re-enactment displays showing early handguns can be seen as providing a fascinating lesson which combines history with science.