In medieval Europe the key to a man’s power was the castle or fortified town, where an outclassed army could find refuge, or a powerful army strike out to defeat an opponent. Medieval wars often hinged on sieges of such places, so there was a constant arms race between those designing ever better fortifications and those designing machines and tactics to overcome them. It is sometimes said that the coming of gunpowder weapons brought the age of the castle to an end, but in fact it simply caused the castle to evolve to meet the threat, and this set highlights another aspect that is often overlooked, that those in castles could and did also call on gunpowder weapons for their defence. The problem with early cannon was the difficulty of mobility, something static defences did not have to face, so while such weapons were a serious challenge to fortifications, they were also part of the ever-changing story of the science of static defence too.
With the opportunity for relatively static siting, allowing large calibres to be used, we were surprised by what this set actually contains - all of the weapons are pretty small calibre. The top row shows two ‘handgonnes’, weapons that could just as easily be used in the field as in defending some citadel, and the somewhat larger gun in the second row still looks pretty portable, although it would take at least two men to do so. The last gun is on a more extensive mount, and clearly looks to be in a more or less permanent setting.
Taking each weapon in turn, we begin with the two handgonnes in the top row. The first pictured has four barrels and a long shaft and is certainly a weapon that was developed and used in the medieval period. While not specifically for defence as it was relatively easy to move about, there is no reason why it should not be used in such a role, when the need to clear enemy troops from battlements might make this particularly effective at close quarters. The simple design is fine, but we have two questions. First, why is the gunner holding a flaming torch. All of this type of weapon were ignited by either a slow match (like the later matchlocks) or, more controversially, a hot wire. Flaming torches are dramatic and look good, but are not appropriate here, particularly for a weapon of this size. Second, if this man holds the torch in his right hand, then how is he supporting the bottom of the gun? The answer is, unfortunately, he is not, so the shaft hangs in mid-air. In reality more than one man would probably have manned this weapon anyway, so while the weapon is great the presentation on this figure is less so.
The second handgonne in the first row is a smaller, more conventional design. Again basicly a barrel with a wooden shaft at the end, it developed from the earlier models where the barrel resting on a wooden plank, and was easier to handle by one individual. This time we can see that the gunner has some matchcord to fire the gun, and he is resting the weapon in a slot in his shield, which is fine. Again a relatively simple weapon, but properly done here. The man himself is in a decent pose, but does illustrate the difficulty of using such weapons single-handed, so it would be more likely that he would hold and aim the weapon while another actually fired it.
The end of the first row shows a large free-standing shield, or pavise. This had long been used to shelter crossbowmen while they reloaded, and there is no reason why early handgunners would not do the same, although again, this is something needed when in the field, not on a castle wall. The shield is delicately engraved with a haloed man praying to a chalice above him, and below there is a scroll with the motto “In Vino Veritas”, which translates as “In Wine, Truth”. Generally taken to mean that one who is inebriated with alcohol tends to speak their mind with fewer inhibitions, it would be a strange motto for some great family or state to adopt, and as far as we can tell none of them did. The small community of Arcins in south-west France has this motto, but we doubt that is relevant here, and think it more likely the sculptor is having a joke with us, portraying a man praying to Bacchus rather than any Christian god.
Moving on to the second row, we find a much longer weapon which, like most of them at the time, is simply a barrel attached to a wooden support. There were no set designs at the time, and we see no reason why this sort of weapon would not have been used, but it should be said the weapon is incredibly thin, which can only be to make it as light as possible. The barrel is attached to the stand by iron bands – two near the breech and one near the muzzle, but unfortunately the sculptor seems to have forgotten to do the front band on the right hand side, so from this side the barrel looks unattached. The barrel is simply smooth, so no indication of how the gun was loaded, although at the breech would be normal. The gun is supported by a bipod, but this has been twisted almost through 90 degrees, making the whole thing very unstable, so some work required there to turn this convenience for the sculptor into something realistic. The gunner is a part of the whole piece, and again he holds the match with which he can fire the gun, but at least this time it is feasible as a one-man job.
Next to this gun are two cracking figures we enjoyed very much. The first man holds a ball for a gun, and a pick axe. Clearly he is intended to be fashioning the ball to fit some weapn, but you use a chisel for that, not a pick axe! Also noteworthy is the ball he holds is much too large for any of the weapons in this set, which would be more likely to have iron or lead shot anyway. The man next to him holds a board with gauges for various weapons so the gunners know what shot can go in what weapon, there being no standardisation at the time. Again a really useful figure, who wears an apron, suggesting he is involved in the manufacture too. However he holds an axe. Why? You don’t use an axe to fashion a stone shot any more than a pickaxe, so we found this tool baffling. However, having a man with a gauge is a great figure to have, for other, larger artillery sets available elsewhere.
In our last row we have a larger gun with a gunner about to apply a match. This time the gun is clearly not one that is easily moveable, so makes more sense in a fortification environment. This is the most sophisticated of the lot, with a well-produced stand that allows changes in elevation to be more closely controlled. Again there is no sign on the short barrel of breech-loading, so presumably it must be muzzle-loading, and it does also feel rather too thin, but a nice piece nevertheless. Unfortunately the gunner is another one about to use a flaming torch to ignite it, when we would expect a slow match to still be used on the weapon of this size (particularly as flaming torches are not a good thing to have with gunpowder all about).
The sculpting of these men and weapons is wonderful. Beautiful, crisp and clear detail and no problems with any proportions. Clothing looks natural, as do faces and hands, and the poses are great too. A little flash around the second hand-gunner is the only blemish in an otherwise perfectly clean set, and a little plastic on the first hand-gunner is the only excess plastic, and even then it is subtle.
The costume of the men is also first class. An assortment of medieval clothing and bits of armour are on show, all perfectly suitable to the roles. The two men fashioning ammunition wear no armour, although the man with the board carries a helmet, so perhaps he expects to be in the line of fire. The men carry knives, as most medieval men would, but the gunner in the bottom row is a lot more serious as he has a drawn sword (but no scabbard) and a closed helmet, so seems to be expecting trouble very soon. Lovely figures all.
We have pointed out some niggles here, of which the flaming torches are the most obvious, but this is a very attractive set that offers a lot for those with an interest in gunpowder weapons in the late medieval period. What is more, many of the problems can easily be rectified. The bipod can be twisted to the correct position, the man with the board can have his axe removed, and the flaming torches can easily be made into something far less dangerous and more realistic. The two men making shot are a treat despite the flaws, but this really nice set goes some way to bridge the gap between hand guns and full artillery pieces. Perhaps not what you might expect from just reading the title of the set, but well worth getting hold of nonetheless.