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Warfare Through the Ages Roman, Greek, Japanese, etc. Topics cover all manner of pre-modern warfare and empire-building and crushing.

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Old 28 Jun 15, 07:49
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Shooting without gunpowder - down the ages

In the history of warfare the gun is a relatively recent innovation and for thousands of years the conventional means of striking an enemy at a distance was either to throw something at him (a stone, slingshot or spear) or to loose an arrow from a bow. Once the gun began to be adopted as an infantry weapon the old traditional means of flinging projectiles were quickly abandoned. This occurred even when the gun’s superiority over weapons such as the long bow was debatable. A study carried out by a British Army officer in as late as the last years of the eighteenth century reported that over a range of two to three hundred yards a company of trained archers armed with the English long bow could loose more arrows (and with greater accuracy) than a similar number of soldiers armed with muskets could get off shots. He urged the British army to re adopt the long bow, the British army decided to stick with the musket.

The English bowman, so potent at Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt, came from a particular class of society, one peculiar to England (and its borders the Wedlsh Marches) in the middle ages. The comparatively well off freeman (later to metamorphose into the yeoman farmer and the rural middle class) was not a prominent feature in mainland Europe. The typical English freeman was comparatively well fed, had a stake in maintaining the existing social order and possessed some leisure time. As such he was sturdy enough to pull the exacting long bow, did not represent a threat to the establishment of the day and had enough time to undertake the many hours of exercises and practice necessary to obtain proficiency with the weapon. An English long bowman would begin training at about the age of eight and might be proficient by eighteen. He would then attend compulsory archery practice one day a week until he reached middle age. The peasantry of mainland Europe were overwhelmingly serfs and, contemporary accounts suggest, much poorer fed than their English counterparts. Even if they had had the strength and leisure time to become proficient long bowmen the idea of having a substantial section of their peasants armed and trained with weapons that could fell an armoured knight would have been a black nightmare for most of the European nobility.

Firearms changed the picture. A musket man could be trained in weeks not years and whilst he would still need to be fit he would not need the same well developed arm and wrist muscles that characterised the long bowman. The milling of gun powder was carefully controlled by governments, as was the manufacture of military long arms. Except in frontier areas, such as the American colonies, the possession of such weapons was primarily limited to official bodies such as regular armies and navies. So much had society changed by the beginning of the nineteenth century that the British army had nowhere from which it could have recruited bowmen, even if it had been minded to do so.

Military archery still persisted but not in Europe. In Japan, after a flirtation with the musket in the fifteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the gun was abandoned until the middle eighteen hundreds. It may be that it was considered inconsistent with the culture of the Samurai. The long bow still played a part in Japanese warfare but so also did the crossbow. This weapon also remained in use in China and Korea until the beginning of the twentieth century. The crossbow had been a part of the Chinese military armoury for over two millennia, such weapons, like their European counterparts, were single shot bows firing short bolts (quarrels). However sometime in the seventeenth century a Korean development spread into China. This was the repeating crossbow known as the chu-ko-nu. The chu-ko-nu had an effective range of about 80 yards (72 metres) and fired steel tipped bamboo arrows (sometimes poisoned). These were held in a box magazine on top of the bow. Pushing the cocking lever forward engaged the bow string and pulling it back drew the string, cocking the bow and dropping an arrow from the magazine into the launching groove. The chu-ko-nu was often operated from a rest and was particularly suited for use as a defensive weapon (from the wall of a fort for example).

Chu-ko-nu’s were used in the first Sino Japanese war of 1894 and during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. It is also possible that Tibetans resisting the Younghusband expeditionary force employed them in 1903. They were no answer to military repeating rifles.

Air has been used as a propellant for about as long as has the bowstring. Blowpipes firing darts (usually poisoned) have been a favoured hunting tool in many parts of the world probably since the Stone Age. Sometimes they have been used as a weapon against other humans. In some parts of the world they have been a weapon chosen by assassins such as the Japanese Ninjas; being silent and relatively easy to conceal. They have also been used as an ambush weapon and as recently as 1999 were used by pro Indonesian militia in East Timor. The use of blowpipes in ‘conventional’ warfare is rare although in 1511 the forces of the Sultan of Meleka (in what is today Malaysia) made use of the blowpipe when resisting Portuguese troops under Alphonso d’Alberqueque. Later, in 1541, in Peru Indians opposing the Spanish expedition led by Francisco de Orellana also made use of the blowpipe.

Although the use of air as the propellant in a gun appears to have been a sixteenth century innovation, there are some stories suggesting that Greek artisans in ancient Alexandria produced a missile throwing device that worked using compressed air. That the Alexandrians had an empirical knowledge of compressed air is not in question, they certainly built musical organs that worked using this. However compression was achieved by means of hydraulic cylinders and the organs were relatively large. Any missile throwing device based on the same principles would have been large and static. The ancient Alexandrians were known throughout the Ancient World as builders of complex and exotic novelties operated by combinations of water and air pressure. Such devices including automata, singing birds and very elaborate fountains were intended for the gardens of wealthy Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. It is possible that a device that threw things might have been regarded as an interesting plaything; it could not have been a serious weapon.

Leonardo DaVinci certainly produced drawings of an airgun (but whether one was built is another question). Some sources suggest that in 1560 Hans Lobsigner produced a an air rifle by modifying an existing firearm and went on to build a number of such weapons. Certainly by the 1580s airguns were being produced in a number of European countries and one such weapon still exists in a Danish museum. The early air guns used a spring loaded bellows to compress the air, later a piston replaced the bellows. By the early seventeenth century compressed air reservoirs were used, these were charged using a pump and could be used for a number of shots before being recharged. Air weapons were primarily used for hunting; the lack of a flash from the ignition of priming and their silent operation meant that game was not scared away. Where an air reservoir was used it was possible to fire a number of shots in rapid succession before reloading. Such weapons were expensive with their complex mechanisms having to be made by hand by skilled craftsmen. Although they were as powerful as many contemporary firearms they were much too costly for general military use. They did have an attraction as an assassin’s weapon, their silent operation coupled with a multiple fire capability could allow an attacker to get off a number of shots before being detected. A dissident ex soldier from the Parliamentary army planned to use an air gun for the assassination of Oliver Cromwell in 1656. Miles Sindercombe intended to rake Cromwell’s coach as it passed through Shepherds Bush, much like a 1920s Chicago gangster spraying a rival’s car with a Thompson machine gun. The attempt was foiled by a change of route by Cromwell’s driver (Sindercombe later attempted to use a roadside bomb – it failed to explode).

Over a hundred years passed during which air guns remained the province of rich hunters but at the end of the eighteenth century (in 1790) Austria had equipped a unit of Jaeger with repeating air rifles with the butt containing the air reservoir.. The guns were the invention of Bartolemeno Girandoni an Italian ex clockmaker whose first gun had appeared in 1779. Some 1,500 were produced. Some fantastic claims have been made for the rate of fire and range of these weapons, it has been suggested that 500 men could fire 300,000 rounds in 30 seconds and be deadly at a range of 150 yards. These claims are just that, fantastic. Firstly the effective range of the weapon was 100 yards but only for the first ten shots fired, after that the pressure in the reservoir had dropped so much that the next ten shots would only be effective at 80 yards. After that the range dropped so drastically that the reservoir had to be recharged if the gun was to remain effective. Charging the reservoir required over 200 vigorous strokes with a heavy hand pump. Even with a fit soldier this could take over six and a half minutes, loading more rifle balls into the magazine would take perhaps another minute. This meant that whilst the soldier with an air rifle could loose off 20 rounds in a minute it would be another seven and a half minutes before he could repeat this. The hourly rate of fire for 500 men would therefore be about 75,000 rounds. As an alternative to having each soldier pump up his own reservoir wheeled pumps driven by a hand turned wheel were introduced in the ratio of one every ten men and runners were supposed to supply the troops with fresh recharged reservoirs. This would substantially reduce the flexibility and manoeuvrability of the unit.

The effective range of a musket was about 80 yards; most European armies could manage a sustained rate of fire of about two rounds a minute. A well trained regiment in Wellington’s Peninsular army could manage between three and four rounds a minute (and up to six for short periods). This would give 500 men in an ordinary European army an hourly rate of 60,000 rounds and for a crack British regiment between 90,000 and 120,000 rounds.

The air rifle was capable of very high rates of fire but only for short periods after which the soldier using it needed to retire behind cover to pump up the reservoir. This meant it was best used in skirmishing, which is exactly what the Jaeger were intended for. In this role the lack of smoke to reveal a rifleman’s position would be a bonus. Unfortunately Austrian tactical doctrines of the time was very rigid and focussed primarily on the movement of formal bodies of men and not at all suited to the effective deployment of riflemen. The expensive Girandoni guns were also mechanically unreliable if used for any length of time and from 1800 they began to be replaced by conventional flintlocks. The gun was used against the Turks and the Russians but by the time that Napoleon’s troops marched towards Vienna the air rifle had all but vanished from the Austrian service.

During the nineteenth century the air gun was primarily viewed as an assassin’s weapon. In fiction one of Conan Doyle’s villainous characters, Col. Sebastian Moran, commits murders with such a weapon and attempts to assassinate Sherlock Holmes in the same manner. Some gunsmiths produced gentlemen’s canes that concealed powerful single shot airguns. Weapons of this type were adopted by some secret services and may still be part of their armoury to this day. In London in 1978 the Bulgarian defector Georgi Markoff was fatally poisoned by being shot with a ricin pellet fired from an air gun disguised as an umbrella. The Bulgarian secret service has been implicated in this assassination. During the Second World War Britain produced some air and gas powered weapons for use by intelligence and sabotage agents these included ‘fountain pens’ that fired tear gas. It is quite probable that other very special forces around the world have access to similar deadly ‘toys’.

The Czechoslovakian armaments industry produced a military air rifle in the 1930s.What it was used for and by whom remains unknown. It is possible that it was intended for training. The modern Chinese army has used small arms with a spring-piston compressor to train more economically.
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  #2  
Old 28 Jun 15, 10:42
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The Lewis and Clark Expedition carried Girondi Air Guns along with Flintlocks. The Indian tribes he met liked them as well.

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Old 28 Jun 15, 17:22
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Pruitt View Post
The Lewis and Clark Expedition carried Girondi Air Guns along with Flintlocks. The Indian tribes he met liked them as well.

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They had one that was demonstrated to the Indians who were impressed as it shot repeatedly and as a small-game rifle.
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Old 28 Jun 15, 21:59
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Originally Posted by Pruitt View Post
The Lewis and Clark Expedition carried Girondi Air Guns along with Flintlocks. The Indian tribes he met liked them as well.

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Beat me to it. The expedition tried to conceal the fact that there was only one of the air guns in the company. After demonstrating it they wanted the natives to worry about how many weapons had that rate of fire.
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Old 28 Jun 15, 22:03
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As I recall Austrian troops equipped with the weapon were supposed to carriy more than one charged bladder of air as well as a pump to recharge them.
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Old 29 Jun 15, 04:30
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As I recall Austrian troops equipped with the weapon were supposed to carriy more than one charged bladder of air as well as a pump to recharge them.
As I said in my posting
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Old 29 Jun 15, 06:00
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To expand - the Austrian army's air rifle did not use a bladder but, as I said, a reservoir in the butt that was recharged by the individual soldier pumping hard or from a compressed air flask (steel bottle) distributed to him from a larger portable pump by a runner
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Old 08 Jul 15, 02:51
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I never knew about all this...

I really like this!
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In a discussion such as this the impact of the composite bow, both Mongol and Turkic, should be mentioned. In a global context they had a much bigger impact than the Norman/English long bow.

By the way, superb post Mark.
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Old 06 Aug 15, 12:09
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A modern version of the military grade air-rifle can be purchased from the Swivel Machine works.

Its called the 'Stealth Airrow' and has many interesting features...

http://www.swivelmachine.com/html/stealthpl.htm
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