When we think of early firearms then we usually think of the Arquebus or the musket. The latter came into use during the late 16th century and remained a dominant weapon on battlefields around the world well into the 19th century.
We do however usually not think of knights and the Middle Ages when we talk about firearms. But that is a mistake!
Hand-held firearms existed in Europe as early as 1399 so they coexisted with knights for centuries making it likely that knights occasionally used them. And in the early modern period mounted Pistoleers like the German Reiter used wheellock pistols and Plate armor similar to that worn by medieval knights.
Let`s take a closer look!
When were black powder and firearms first used in Europe?
The origins of black powder can be found in 12th century China where it was (contrary to popular belief) not only used for firecrackers. Instead, it seems like hand cannons that used black powder as a propellant were used in China as early as the 13th century.
The knowledge of producing black powder and its potential for military purposes quickly spread to Europe. Once again the contacts between Christians and Muslims in contact areas like Sicily or Al-Andalus (the Iberian Peninsula) were crucial for bringing knowledge to Western Europe. You might have wondered why I chose the words „once again“. Well, much of the ancient Greek and Roman knowledge that was lost in Western Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire survived in the East and was eventually translated into Arabian.
The Muslim expansion then brought that knowledge to areas where Christians and Muslims coexisted (like Sicily or Al-Andalus). There these Arabian books were translated and the knowledge once again spread over Western Europe. For more information about what knowledge (and what other items) were brought (back) to Western Europe through the Muslim expansions, I would like to recommend you my article here.
With that in mind, it should not come as a surprise that the knowledge of the production of black powder came to Europe in the shape of a book written in Arabic that was then translated into Latin, the medieval speech of science and knowledge.
Black Powder in medieval Europe
While black powder was first used in China in the 12th century, the first book describing the production of black powder appeared in Europe during the late 12th or early 13th century. That means that it didn`t even take a hundred years for the knowledge of the production of black powder to spread from China to Europe! A true sign of how medieval international trade and knowledge transfers happened in a time when most of us would not think it was possible.
Aside from ancient recipes (like the recipe for Greek fire, the napalm of Antiquity) the Liber Ignium, a Spanish recipe book translated from Arabic in the late 12th or early 13th century, also presents a recipe for black powder.
A medieval recipe for the production of black powder from the late 12th to early 13th century recommends the mixture of 6 parts of Salpeter, 2 parts of Charcoal, and 1 part of Sulfur (all finely grounded).
So that proves that the knowledge of how to produce black powder was available in Europe as early as the early 13th century although Roger Bacon, an English Franciscan monk, only mentions the use of black powder for firecrackers.
However, it would not take long until black powder was also used in a military context.
Early firearms in medieval Europe – development, use, and effectiveness
While the Chinese already used black powder and early versions of firearms during the 13th century, the Heilongjiang hand cannon was used by the Chinese in a battle in 1287 or 1288 making it the oldest hand-held firearm in the world, the first use of firearms in Europe can be found in the early 14th century.
The first firearm ever used in Europe was the Pot-de-Fer („Iron pot“) which was first used in 1324 at the city of Metz. The Pot-de-Fer was a bulbous iron-cast bottle with a narrow neck that was loaded with black powder and fired large iron bolts. And while that weapon was so heavy that it had to be rested on a frame it was still the direct precursor of the early types of hand-held firearms that were soon developed.
So it should not come as a surprise that at the end of the 14th century, not even 80 years after the first use of the Pot-de-Fer, several different types of early hand-held firearms were developed.
The oldest hand-held firearm that was found in Europe is the „Handbüchse“ from 1399 which was found in the castle Tannenberg in the German state of Saxony. That bronze muzzleloader was 33 cm (13 in) long and had a caliber of 17 mm (66,9 cl).
The use of these very early firearms was probably more psychological, the damage they could inflict was rather limited. However, that didn`t stop the English at the Battle of Crecy (1346) to use several early versions of canons that were similar to the Pot-de-Fer.
In the 15th and 16th century, these firearms were developed further into the Arquebus and later muskets. And these weapons had several advantages over the longbow which they eventually replaced on the European battlefields. Here you can find out more about the 5 reasons why firearms replaced bows.
Did knights use guns?
Ok, so knights coexisted with firearms for several centuries. But did knights also use firearms or did knights just suffer under the use of firearms? And to what degree did knights suffer under firearms?
Let`s find out!
We often assume that knights and firearms did not cross ways. But as presented above that was not the case. And not only were a couple of early canons (similar to the Pot-de-Fer) used in the Battle at Crecy, here you can find out more about the casualties at the Battle of Crecy and the average casualty rates of medieval battles in general.
In the 16th century, basically at the turn from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period, the thickness of breastplates of good knightly armor was doubled to 4 mm because of the growing threat that the Arquebus posed.
And while the 4mm plates offered decent protection against projectiles from an arquebus one of the main benefits of firearms (that eventually led to them replacing bows) was that the potential damage was no longer dependent on the muscle strength of the soldier. So soon even the 4 mm strong steel plates would no longer stop projectiles shot from an arquebus or musket.
But how common were these early firearms? We can get a good idea of that when we look at the city of Frankfurt.
In 1431 the city of Frankfurt ordered 403 „Handrohre“ (early firearms) in the city of Nuremberg. The citizens of a late medieval city had to aid in defending their city and had to have weapons for that purpose. It seems like the city of Frankfurt planned on equipping those citizens who until then had to fight with crossbows with firearms.
That tells us that early firearms were used by infantrymen (which kind of makes sense because they were muzzleloading and that is quite difficult (although not impossible) when riding a horse). However, knights were members of a social class of warriors who prided themselves on their horsemanship and who fought on horseback in most cases.
So it seems likely that during the Middle Ages firearms were mostly used by infantrymen who had previously been equipped with other ranged weapons like bows or crossbows and that knights only occasionally used firearms, for example during a siege.
Here you can find out more about how medieval sieges worked and why firearms were especially useful in the context of a siege.
But while knights probably only used firearms on rare occasions that does not mean that they did not suffer under the effectiveness of these firearms even when they were wearing the highly effective plate armor.
One prime example of a knight suffering under the effectiveness of early firearms is Götz von Berlichingen, a German Imperial knight who lived between 1480 and 1562 right around the turn from the Late Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period. Aside from being known for participating in many feuds (and temporarily being the involuntary leader of a rebel army in the German Peasant`s Wars), he is also known for his nickname Götz with the Iron hand.
And that nickname brings us right back to the early types of firearms and their effectiveness against plate armor.
In 1504 the German Imperial knight Götz von Berlichingen participated in the siege of the city of Landshut where his right hand was almost completely ripped off by a cannonball from a field snake, a small caliber cannon, despite him wearing plate armor. The prosthetic Iron hand that he got in the aftermath earned him the nickname Götz with the Iron hand!
As mentioned, one of the main advantages of firearms over guns is the ability to disconnect its effectiveness from the muscle strength of the soldier shows. Here you can find out more about the other advantages of firearms over bows.
But even though plate armor would not effectively protect a man against the cannonball of a field snake or similar caliber firearms plate armor would still be used for quite some time (actually even Napoleon used Cuirassiers who wore breastplates). Here you can find out more about the 9 secrets that made Napoleons’ armies so successful.
And also during the Early Modern Period the plate armor that had also been used by knights was still used (although the men within the armor were usually no longer members of nobility).
A prime example of that are the German Reiter.
In the early modern period, pistoleers like the German Reiter used multiple single-shot, muzzle-loaded wheellock pistols. While not being knights in the sense of members of nobility these mounted German Reiter still used plate armor that was also used by knights. So heavily armored early modern cavalrymen were armored like late medieval knights and equipped with firearms (pistols).
For more information on plate armor and its effectiveness, I would like to recommend you my article here. And if you have ever wondered whether or not the sword was really that common during the Middle Ages then you might want to check out my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
J. R. Partington: A history of Greek fire and Gunpowder (Cambridge 1960).
Marcus Graccus: Liber Ignium as comburendos hostes