Sixteenth Century Cannon
After 1470 the art of casting greatly improved in
Europe. Lighter cannon began to replace the bombards. Throughout the
1500's improvement was mainly toward lightening the enormous weights of
guns and projectiles, as well as finding better ways to move the
artillery. Thus, by 1556 Emperor Ferdinand I was able to march against
the Turks with 57 heavy and 127 light pieces of ordnance.
At the beginning of the 1400's cast-iron balls had
made an appearance. The greater efficiency of the iron ball, together
with an improvement in gunpowder, further encouraged the building of
smaller and stronger guns. Before 1500 the siege gun had been the
predominant piece. Now forged-iron cannon for field, garrison, and naval
service—and later, cast-iron pieces—were steadily developed along with
cast-bronze guns, some of which were beautifully ornamented with
Renaissance workmanship. The casting of trunnions on the gun made
elevation and transportation easier, and the cumbrous beds of the early
days gave way to crude artillery carriages with trails and wheels. The
French invented the limber and about 1550 took a sizable forward step by
standardizing the calibers of their artillery.
Meanwhile, the first cannon had come to the New World
with Columbus. As the Pinta's lookout sighted land on the early
morn of October 12, 1492, the firing of a lombard carried the news over
the moonlit waters to the flagship Santa Maria. Within the next
century, not only the galleons, but numerous fortifications on the
Spanish Main were armed with guns, thundering at the freebooters who
disputed Spain's ownership of American treasure. Sometimes the
adventurers seized cannon as prizes, as did Sir Francis Drake in 1586
when he made off with 14 bronze guns from St. Augustine's little wooden
fort of San Juan de Pinos. Drake's loot no doubt included the ordnance
of a 1578 list, which gives a fair idea of the armament for an important
frontier fortification: three reinforced cannon, three demiculverins,
two sakers (one broken), a demisaker and a falcon, all properly mounted
on elevated platforms in the fort to cover every approach. Most of them
were highly ornamented pieces founded between 1546 and 1555. The
reinforced cannon, for instance, which seem to have been cast from the
same mold, each bore the figure of a savage hefting a club in one hand
and grasping a coin in the other. On a demiculverin, a bronze mermaid
held a turtle, and the other guns were decorated with arms, escutcheons,
the founder's name, and so on.
In the English colonies during the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries, lighter pieces seem to have been the more
prevalent; there is no record of any "cannon." (In those days, "cannon"
were a special class.) Culverins are mentioned occasionally and
demiculverins rather frequently, but most common were the falconets,
falcons, minions, and sakers. At Fort Raleigh, Jamestown, Plymouth, and
some other settlements the breech-loading half-pounder perrier or "Patterero"
mounted on a swivel was also in use. (See frontispiece.)
It was during the sixteenth century that the science
of ballistics had its beginning. In 1537, Niccolo Tartaglia published
the first scientific treatise on gunnery. Principles of construction
were tried and sometimes abandoned, only to reappear for successful
application in later centuries. Breech-loading guns, for instance, had
already been invented. They were unsatisfactory because the breech could
not be sealed against escape of the powder gases, and the crude,
chambered breechblocks, jammed against the bore with a wedge, often
cracked under the shock of firing. Neither is spiral rifling new. It
appeared in a few guns during the 1500's.
Mobile artillery came on the field with the cart guns
of John Zizka during the Hussite Wars of Bohemia (1419-24). Using light
guns, hauled by the best of horses instead of the usual oxen, the French
further improved field artillery, and maneuverable French guns proved to
be an excellent means for breaking up heavy masses of pikemen in the
Italian campaigns of the early 1500's. The Germans under Maximilian I,
however, took the armament leadership away from the French with guns
that ranged 1,500 yards and with men who had earned the reputation of
being the best gunners in Europe.
Then about 1525 the famous Spanish Square of heavily
armed pikemen and musketeers began to dominate the battlefield. In the
face of musketry, field artillery declined. Although artillery had
achieved some mobility, carriages were still cumbrous. To move a heavy
English cannon, even over good ground, it took 23 horses; a culverin
needed nine beasts. Ammunition—mainly cast-iron round shot, the bomb (an
iron shell filled with gunpowder), canister (a can filled with small
projectiles), and grape shot (a cluster of iron balls) —was carried the
primitive way, in wheelbarrows and carts or on a man's back. The
gunner's pace was the measure of field artillery's speed: the gunner
walked beside his gun! Furthermore, some of these experts were
getting along in years. During Elizabeth's reign several of the gunners
at the Tower of London were over 90 years old.
Lacking mobility, guns were captured and recaptured
with every changing sweep of the battle; so for the artillerist
generally, this was a difficult period. The actual commander of
artillery was usually a soldier; but transport and drivers were still
hired, and the drivers naturally had a layman's attitude toward battle.
Even the gunners, those civilian artists who owed no special duty to the
prince, were concerned mainly over the safety of their pieces—and their
hides, since artillerists who stuck with their guns were apt to be
picked off by an enemy musketeer. Fusilier companies were organized as
artillery guards, but their job was as much to keep the gun crew from
running away as to protect them from the enemy.
FIGURE 5—FIFTEENTH-CENTURY BREECHLOADER.
So, during 400 years, cannon had changed from the
little vases, valuable chiefly for making noise, into the largest
caliber weapons ever built, and then from the bombards into smaller,
more powerful cannon. The gun of 1600 could throw a shot almost as far
as the gun of 1850; not in fire power, but in mobility, organization,
and tactics was artillery undeveloped. Because artillery lacked these
things, the pike and musket were supreme on the battlefield.
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