Feb 8, 2013

Weapons & Warriors: The Hand-Cannon of the Hussites

Art by TL Jeffcoat
I’m going to discuss a couple things about the Hussites today. The main focus is the Hand-Cannon, but I want to start with the War Wagon, also known as a Wagenburg. These things are pretty straight forward and are the primary reason the Hand Cannons were so successful. It’s a wagon with a big wooden box on it. Holes are cut out so the crossbowmen and gunners could poke their weapons out and shoot the charging enemies. The Hussites would ride these wagons close to the where the enemy was setting up camp or marching and then would form circles or squares with several wagons. They tied the wheels together with chains and then placed shields and pikemen behind the chains to keep anyone from trying to charge through. If anyone was foolish enough to barge through these openings, they would probably have their head caved in by the flail wielding farmers waiting to begin the counter attack.

Counterattack? Yes, the Hussites weren’t the typical army of the 1400’s. They weren’t trained soldiers and they weren’t led into battle by a king. They did have an amazing general, who used tactics he possibly learned while fighting with the Tartars. It didn’t hurt to also have some of the best gunsmiths in Europe as part of the movement. Once their enemies attempted to flee, the Hussites would charge out into the field using cavalry to flank the fleeing soldiers and the men with flails and pikes to kill everyone trapped. The Hussites weren’t known for taking prisoners. This is pretty much how the first Crusade against them ended.

Art by TL Jeffcoat
In the 1400’s, guns were still in their infancy stages and didn’t look much like the guns of today. They really looked more like the cannons you see in pirate movies, except on a much smaller scale. They were expensive and slow firing, so militaries avoided them until the matchlock was invented in the 1500’s. The crossbow was also expensive, but was easy to handle and more accurate than the guns being developed at this time. The longbow was still the prime ranged weapon, but resources for making good bows were dwindling and the only people who could use one effectively trained all their life. Farmers, crafters and merchants just don’t have time to practice for years. Instead, most people who could afford them turned to the crossbows.

The Hussites took it one step further. There was a large number talented gunsmiths living in the region and many of them were angry about their religious leader being executed by the church. When the Hussite general began the construction of many war wagons, he envisioned arming them with small cannons. The gunsmiths took that same idea and made cannons small enough to be held in a hand.

These Hand Cannons were propped on a pole to help with aiming and to free a hand to ignite the gunpowder. There was an additional pole to hold the cannon stead without touching the barrel itself after firing. The concept is pretty much the same as standard cannons. The barrel was a hollow iron tube, with a tiny hole at the rear. The barrel was first loaded with a package of gunpowder, and then an iron ball, rocks, or anything else that fits snuggly inside. Then the Hand Cannon was pointed at its target. The gunner inserted the heat using either coals, matches or a heated iron rod. The Hand Cannon was the first introduction to portable firearms used in mass and the knights and soldiers that faced the Hussites often had no idea what they were getting into.

The Hussites weren’t a chivalrous bunch. They had no issues with not fighting fair. They parked their wagons within range of their enemies and then opened fire with their Hand Cannons. It didn’t even matter to them if the other army was ready for battle. They fired until the Crusaders charged them. Once the knights charged, the Hussites would aim their hand cannons on the horses more than the men. Once the enemy forces were running away on foot, the Hussites charged in. Without horses, the knights became easy targets for the heavy flails.

The first Crusade ended with a massacre of knights. When the second Crusade began, the knights began a siege on a city in the Hussite territory. Once they heard the Hussite army was on the march towards them, they fled the country. The second Crusade ended before it even began.

The Pope of that time seemed to struggle with the idea of adapting against the Hussites and sent two more Crusades against the Hussites, and both failed utterly. In fact, the Hussites began raiding any neighboring countries that supported the Crusades. It wasn’t until the Hussites split over religious differences and then fought each other before they were ever defeated. 

I hope you enjoyed this edition of Weapons and Warriors, click here to view the entire catalog of weapons and cultures. Thank you, see you next week.

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