Date completed: June 14, 2003

Handgonne are one of the earliest forms of firearms. It was not until the second quarter of the 14th-century that they began to appear in manuscripts and ordinance list on a regular basis. During their early days, handgonnes (or handgyns) were not very powerful or physically effective. They appear to have been more of a psychological warfare tactic. Loud noises bright flashed and billowing smoke could send even the braves knight fleeing in horror, especially if it was the first time he had ever witnessed such a display. There are illuminations from China depicting just such psychological attacks. Several bulls /yaks have what look like huge bottle rockets tied to their sides jetting smoke and flames while they stampede towards an approaching army.
     Illuminations show us a progression in which handgonnes seem to have evolved from arrow throwing cannon. Since the main projectile of the day wee arrows, this is a logical progression to start from. The image below is taken from one of the most popular scenes of it’s kind.

Cannon with springel (cannon arrow), De Nobilitatibus, Sapientii et Prudentiis Regum, 1326

While alchemists learned more efficient was to mix gunpowder, engineers made forms of the cannon more portable. One of the ways they did this was to mount it to the end of a pole. The firing end was angled towards ones opponent while the other end was wedged between the ground and either ones foot or a separate brace of some sort.

Making gunpowder, priming pole mounted handgonne,
Codex 34, Imperial Library, Vienna, 1410

Pole mounted Handgonne, Belli Fortis, 1400

Primitive handgonnes incorporated other weapons of the day as well. Occasionally a hook was banded around the weapon near its barrel. This addition was beneficial in two ways. The first was to add an easily portable brace; simply hook it around a tree, wall, dead body, etc. and it transferred the recoil to the bracing object rather then the user. The second benefit was in response to the slow speed of reloading these great weapons. By the time you prepared a second shot, your opponent could be on top of you with a sword or the likes. This added hook allowed the weapon o be used as a great war pick. The mass of the cannon barrel coupled with a long moment arm and ridge spike could pierce chest plates, helms or any other defense with ease.

Early, one piece, iron Handgonne, found in Vedelspang, 1400
It’s origin is believed to be Danish or German, Tøjhusmuseet, Copenhagen

It was not long before true portability came to firearms. This portability brought with it increases in threat and effectiveness through mobility. Serpentine locks freed the hand once reserved for the slow match. This also allowed the shooter to use that hand to better steady or aim the handgonne. This new firing mechanism also aided accuracy in the fact that the likelihood of the match contacting the flash pan and touchhole faster. The faster the gonne fired, the less chance it had to drift off target while the shooter was shielding his eyes from the blowback. Because of the nature of this weapon, the shooter had to turn his head away, or at very least closes his eyes, just before the match cord contacted the primer in the pan. If he did not, he ran the risk of being blinded or burned by the backfiring flash and powder residue. The serpentine lock was very effective for touching off the weapon while minimizing the time the enemy was out of the gunner’s sight.

Oldest know illustration of a serpentine lock, Codex Vindobana
3069, CIRCA 1411, Austrian National Library, Vienna

The advent and progression of handgonnes caused the downfall of armors such as white harness (plate armor). Armor buyers demand proof of the effectiveness of their armor against this new and menacing weapon. The word “proof” became the catch phrase in almost every sale. The proof mark, or more accurately, bullet dent, was the wearers guarantee a piece of armor would stop a bullet. Many surviving harnesses (pieces of armor) have proof marks on them to this day. Armor became thicker and heavier and handgonnes became lighter and more powerful until eventually armor was all but obsolete.

General Fabrication:

This handgonne as made with a bit of improvising on my part. Not many individuals have the equipment necessary to cast iron or forge a cannon barrel, so we are left to our own devices. Once again my forge has proven itself to small for the parts I needed to make, i.e. the serpentine lock. I used an Oxy-acetylene torch held in a vice as a localized forge/ heat source to facilitate forging the serpentine lock.

A lathe

A hand drill

Ø 0.052 drill bit

Ø 3/8” x 82° countersink


Various hammers


Various files

Sand paper

The barrel is made of hardened shaft steel and is fully functional. It is bored for a .750 caliber projectile with the appropriate clearance for a loading patch. The pan is connected to the main chamber by a 0.052 diameter touchhole very similar to a modern, black powder matchlock rifle.

Despite it’s appearance, gun black (bluing) was not used on this project. The finish was achieved by superheating the metal to a nice cherry red and, in essence, quenching it is a mixture of oil and very fine soot. It was then heated again and doused with more oil, set a blasé and coated with more soot. One last oil application was made then the barrel was once again heated to the point of combustion and held until all the free oil and soot either bonded with the steel or was totally burnt away. This process is similar to blacking wrought iron in period.


  1. A Glossary of the Construction Decoration and Use of Arms and Armor in All Countries and in All Times Together with Some Closely Related Subjects by George Cameron Stone.

  2. Armor and Weapons by Paul Martin

  3. Treasures from the tower of London: An Exhibition of Arms and Armour Compiled by A.V.B. Norman and G.B. Wilson

  4. European Armor, Circa 1066 - Circa 1700 by Claude Blair

  5. Siege Weapons of the Far East (1) Ad 612-1300 (New Vanguard, 43) by Stephen Turnbull, Osprey Publishing

  6. Illuminated Manuscript leafs


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