History, Safety, Care, and Feeding
Of Period Guns

1)A Brief History

 a) 13th Century: Chinese are using gunpowder in things like rockets and fire-lances. First hand-cannon appears in China. 14th Century: Earliest cannon, in 1326. An inventory in 1340 is the earliest reference to a portable firearm. By 1364, references to handheld firearms become common. These were miniature cannon barrels, some mounted on poles or handles, some simply built with a hook to fit over a fortification’s wall and soak up the recoil. First reference to these as “handguns”, 1386. Late fourteenth Century, slow-match – woven cord impregnated with nitrates by boiling with gunpowder.

 b) 15th Century: The stick gets shorter and thicker, mutating into a shoulder stock. Gunpowder is improved. Serpentines (pivoting metal bars with match clamps start to appear – as early as 1411 Matchlock becomes standard for 250 years. By the end of the fifteenth, matchlocks have replaced hande-gonnes. The earliest known rifle dates to about 1495.

 c) 16th Century: The last 100 years of the SCA’s period show some advances. The wheellock comes in by 1510 Hunting guns feasible – no match for the game to smell. Pistols become practical. With the advent of civilian sporting arms, rifling comes in. Firelocks come in around the 1550s, with the Snaphaunce, miquelet and dog locks. While there may be true flintlocks dating from the SCA’s period, the earliest known surviving piece is from 1607 – just out of period.

2) Safety

 a) The basics, for all guns

   i)  Always treat a gun as if it's loaded. Doesn’t matter if you just cleared it, treat it like it’s loaded anyway.

   ii) Never point it where you don’t want a hole. This includes at your own anatomy.

   iii) Finger off the trigger (or other firing mechanism) until you’re ready to shoot.

   iv) Never shoot unless you’re sure of your target and backstop. Remember, bullets go through things.

   v) Never load a piece unless you anticipate a need or plan to fire it.

 b) Muzzleloading and Blackpowder safety

  i) Black powder is flammable – watch your flames and sparks.

  ii) Always measure your charges. Pouring random amounts of powder down a gun makes it into a pipe bomb.

  iii) Check with the maker or seller, what your gun’s proof rating is. Never exceed the proof rating.

  iv) Mark your ramrod with an “empty” line. If it doesn’t go in to that line, there’s something in there.

  v) Drop a rammer down the barrel before leaving the firing line.

  vi) Blackpowder guns are just as dangerous as modern ones – they just don’t shoot as quickly.

  vii) For most period guns, you’re carrying around a burning rope, and gunpowder. Be careful.

  viii) Paper cartridges may be just out of period, but they are your friend. A brazier and open powder barrel, aren’t.

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 3)  Care and Feeding

  a) Powder Charges

    i) Granulations – Fg, Cannon; FFg, heavy musket / light artillery; FFFg, light musket; FFFFg, priming.

    ii) Charges – Start around 50 grains (about 1/9) ounce, and work up. Ball loads are MUCH lighter than blank.

   b) Loading

     i) Point the gun in a safe direction.

     ii) If it has a pan cover, fill the pan with powder and shut the cover. If it doesn’t, save a pinch of powder when pouring the main charge.

     iii) Turn the muzzle up, still pointing slightly down range. Pour in the main charge, saving a pinch for the pan if you haven’t primed already.

    iv) Ram down the charge. Return the piece to level, in a safe direction.

    v) If you have a firing mechanism, prepare it.

       (1)  Wheel or firelock – cock or span the lock

       (2) Matchlock – place the match in the jaws of the cock or serpentine

   c)   Fire.

     i) Open the pan if necessary.

     ii) Handegonne – touch the match to the priming powder.

      iii) Locked piece – pull trigger.

  d)  Handling misfires:

      i) FREEZE, for 10 seconds

     ii)  Keep the gun pointed in a safe direction

     iii) Re-prime, if necessary. Re-cock. Fire again.

    iv) If that doesn’t do it, clear the piece.

   e) Cleaning

     i) Clean with boiling, soapy water.

    ii) Oil to prevent rust.


4)  Some Illustrations:

   a) Handegonne, early 1300s: 

   b) Late 1300s: 

   c) 1411, handegonne with serpentine: 

d) Transition between handegonne and arquebus: 

e) Matchlock Caliver: 

f) Wheellock Pistol: 

5) Web Links:

a) National Muzzleloading Rifle Association: http://www.nmlra.org/ -- The largest blackpowder shooting association in the country.

b) Handgonne.com – the guy makes handgonnes, and has tons of info links as well.

c) There are a couple of groups at http://groups.yahoo.com – SCA-Gunners, and SCA-Musketeers, for example.


Major sources are experience derived from handling the above pieces. I've also gotten permission from RichGoth to use material from his (now-defunct) site. Photos are from Syke's Sutlering. The first four rules of gun safety are by Colonel Jeff Cooper, and are ubiquitous at shooting schools and ranges everywhere. I would suggest Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe. By Bert S. Hall (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997) as an excellent all-round primer.