A Stone Age spear: 250000 years ago

An elephant dies, in what is now Germany. It has between its ribs a shaft of yew. The point has penetrated the elephant's hide because it is hardened, by heating in a fire. It is a spear, dating from the Lower Palaeolithic era - the earliest human weapon to have been discovered.

As soon as humans separate from the apes and begin to walk on two feet, they no doubt hurl sticks and stones at each other. Equally a wooden branch or a chunk of rock is a natural tool for bludgeoning an animal to death. But such weapons are used as they are found. A sharpened spear - useful for throwing or prodding, in war or the hunt - is in a different category. The long story of the arms race begins.

The arms race: from 250000 years ago

There are two obvious areas in which progress can be made in the improvement of primitive weapons, or Flint technology. One is the sharpness of the point of a missile, increasing the damage done when it reaches the target. The other is the force with which it can be propelled, extending its range and impact.

Stone Age man discovers that a sharp flint can be attached to the end of a spear, or else can be set at right angles into a wooden handle to be used with a chopping motion. One such point has been found embedded in the skull of a bear, which came to a violent end about 100,000 years ago in the Mediterranean region (near what is now Trieste).

Stone Age man also finds ways of increasing the power of a human arm. The most obvious is by extending its effective length. This is the principle of the sling for throwing a stone. It is impossible to know when the sling was first used (made of vegetable fibres or animal skin, it will not survive for the archaeologist), but its power is attested in the biblical story of David and Goliath. Slingers play an important role in warfare throughout ancient history. Spear-throwing devices, known from about 14,000 years ago, are more sophisticated weapons of the same kind.

But the greatest advance in projecting a missile is achieved with the bow.

The bow and arrow: from 15000 years ago

The sudden release of stored energy, when a forcibly bent strip of wood is allowed to snap back into its natural shape, is more rapid and therefore more powerful than any impulse of which human muscles are capable - yet human muscles, at a slower rate, have the strength to bend the strip of wood.

The principle of the bow is discovered about 15,000 years ago. Bows and arrows feature from that time, no doubt both in hunting and warfare, in the regions of north Africa and southern Europe. The wood is usually ewe or elm. Stone age technology is capable of producing sharp flint points for the arrows, often with barbs to secure them in the victim's flesh.

The impact of metal: from 7000 BC

Flint can be shaped into a blade, but only a fairly short one - a dagger rather than a sword. The next development in man's armoury must await a major technological revolution, the Working of metal. Not until the introduction of artillery, in the 14th century AD, will there be another change of comparable significance in the story of warfare.

Copper, the first metal to be adapted to human purposes (from about 7000 BC), is too soft to be of much benefit in combat. Knives and sickles for practical use in the village are the typical copper implements, though battle axes and even helmets of copper are known. But the discovery of bronze, in about 2800 BC, transforms the situation.

Bronze is sufficiently rigid to form an effective sword blade; it will take a sharp edge; and, a matter of great importance with such a precious commodity, it can be reused.

Bronze implements are made by casting. If a sword shatters, the pieces will be melted and used again. Archaeologists have unearthed early hoards of Bronze weapons and tools including lumps of shapeless Bronze, melted down and stored for future casting. And casting solves what has been one of the basic difficulties of weapon manufacture in Stone Age technology - how to fit the sharp part to the handle.

The casters of Bronze can make spear points with a hollow projection, into which the wooden shaft of the spear will fit snugly and securely. Sword and dagger can be produced with a projecting spike or haft, round which a hilt can be built up in a suitable substance for the warrior to grip. Axes will come from the mould with a hole already in place for the handle.

For small objects, such as spear points and axe heads, this is a very flexible technology. Weapons can be made wherever a small furnace can be set up, to bake the clay moulds and melt the Bronze alloy.

Early civilizations

Suits of armour: from 1300 BC

Bronze can be used for protection, as well as for weapons of aggression.

In Mycenae, from about 1300 BC, a warrior will ride to war in his Chariot. He may wear a bronze suit of armour, though leather almost certainly remains the normal form of protection. This is the period of warfare reflected in Homer's iliad, but the gleaming suits of armour described there are the stuff of heroic fantasy. Reality, in so far as it survives, is altogether clumsier - closer to Ned Kelly than Achilles.

The earliest known suit of armour comes from a Mycenaean tomb, at Dendra. The helmet is a pointed cap, cunningly shaped from slices of boar's tusk. Bronze cheek flaps are suspended from it, reaching down to a complete circle of bronze around the neck. Curving sheets of bronze cover the shoulders. Beneath them there is a breast plate, and then three more circles of bronze plate, suspended one from the other, to form a semi-flexible skirt down to the thighs. Greaves, or shinpads of bronze, complete the armour.

The Mycenaean warrior's weapons are a bronze sword and a bronze-tipped spear. His shield is of stiff leather on a wooden frame. Similar weapons are used, several centuries later, by the Greek Hoplites.

The composite bow: from 1500 BC

In about 1500 BC a much more efficient form of bow makes its appearance. It is the short curving bow, familiar in art as Cupid's bow. It is known, from its method of construction, as the composite bow.

Its secret, providing much greater power from a smaller and lighter weapon, is that it is built up from layers of materials which react differently under tension or compression. On the front side of the bow (away from the archer) lengths of animal tendon are glued; they will be stretched when the bow is bent. On the inner side are strips of animal horn, usually bison, which will be compressed.

The composite bow fires a light arrow (the archer can carry as many as fifty in his quiver) with accuracy up to 200 yards. It also has the enormous advantage of reaching only from the head of the archer down to his waist.

This makes it a very convenient weapon in two new forms of warfare which are developed in the 2nd millennium BC in Mesopotamia and in neighbouring regions to the north and east - fighting from a Chariot and Fighting from horseback. The composite bow will have a long history in warfare, though associated more with Asia than with Europe. As late as the 19th century AD it is still the weapon of certain Manchu regiments in the Chinese army.

The range of weapons now available will not be much altered, apart from improvements in material or design, until the arrival on the battlefield of gunpowder. Some, such as the conventional bow and the sling, have descended straight from the armoury of Stone Age man. Other are still visibly his weapons except that their edges or points are now bronze rather than stone or wood; this is true of the mace (in essence a primitive club), the battleaxe, the spear and the arrow. But the bronze dagger is incomparably better than Stone age weapons, and the bronze sword is an innovation. So is the composite bow.

These, for centuries to come, are the arms of both infantry and cavalry.

Men of steel: from 1100 BC

A major technological development extends the arms race, when bronze gives way to iron. Bronze is a relatively precious metal because one of its constituents, tin, is scarce. Iron, by contrast, is the most abundant metal in the earth's surface.

Once man has discovered how to harden Iron into steel (in about 1100 BC), the technology is in place for a rapid escalation of warfare. Soon the armies of the world will be able to put into the field a far greater number of soldiers, armed to devastating effect and at relatively little cost.

The first iron army to make extensive use of iron weapons, and to devastating effect, is that of Assyria - notorious from the 9th century BC for its brutal successes in an unceasing campaign of aggression against its neighbours.

But more primitive societies can be heavily armed too in the age of iron. By the 8th century BC the people of the Hallstatt culture of central Europe (predecessors of the Celts, and great workers of iron) are providing themselves with superb swords, which they take with them to their graves. Of unprecedented length, these weapons are well adapted both for thrusting and slashing, with a sharp point and a keen cutting edge.

Battering rams and siege towers: from the 9th century BC

Fortified towns arrive with civilization, and sieges are as old as organized warfare. But siege implements are simple until the Assyrians.

They pay special attention to the battering ram. Soldiers in Early sieges swing a heavy timber ram against a town gate. They are vulnerable to missiles or heated oil from above. Under the Assyrians the ram becomes an engine. It is suspended from the roof of a timber structure, which in turn is mounted on wheels so that it can be pushed into position. Protected within this contraption, soldiers can swing the ram relentlessly against the gate. Archers, in protected turrets on top of the engine, exchange shots on almost equal terms with the defenders on the walls.

A siege tower is trundled towards a besieged town on the same principle as the mobile battering ram, but with a different purpose - to provide a platform as high as the town or fortress walls, from which the invaders can launch an attack.

In the 4th century BC engineers in the armies of Philip of Macedon and of his son, Alexander the Great, build mobile siege towers which can be taken on campaign. They also develop the Catapult which becomes the principal siege weapon of both Hellenistic and Roman armies.

Greece and Rome

Classical armour: 7th century BC - 4th century AD

The armour of the classical world, worn by the infantry of Greece and Rome, is more familiar in design than almost any other (except perhaps the armour of a Mounted knight in the Middle Ages) because it features on so many Greek vases and Roman sculptures.

The Greeks set the pattern, later simplified by the Romans, when they evolve the heavy armour of the Greek citizen foot soldier - known as the Hoplite.

The armour of the Hoplite is a bronze helmet (the famous Greek helmet with a long narrow bridge down the nose), a corselet from shoulders to hips (usually in leather with bronze over the chest), bronze grieves (guarding the shins), a round shield (wood reinforced with iron), a long spear with a sharpened iron tip and a short double-edged iron sword.

Variants of this equipment can be found at this time in other armies. The hoplites are revolutionary not for their equipment but for the way they use it - massed together in the famous Greek Phalanx (which has Mesopotamian origins).

The Phalanx is a slow-moving but almost irresistible force, with a lethally sharp front edge. It consists of a solid block of men, usually eight ranks deep but often more. Each rank marches close behind the one in front. The first three ranks hold their spears horizontally, pointing them forward, so that three staggered spear points precede each man of the front rank. The men in the rear hold their spears upright in readiness.

Each Hoplite is protected partly by the shield of the man to the right of him. It is in his interest to make sure that he keeps safely behind it, and this gives the Phalanx its only vulnerable characteristic. The left of the line tends to fall back and curve away.

The first aim of every Hoplite, as the opposing ranks meet, is to jab his spear point through the opposing shields to find any gap of flesh unprotected by an enemy's armour - such as neck or armpit. But if the opposing ranks break, the spear is abandoned for the Hoplite's other weapon - the short two-sided sword, with which he will attempt to slash the unprotected top or back of an opponent's legs.

Once disaster has turned into flight, the weight of the Hoplite's armour becomes a major disadvantage. Now the Greek light infantry, poor relations to the Hoplite, come into their own, pursuing and spearing the defeated.

The Phalanx undergoes a few tactical developments over the centuries. Its tendency to drift backwards on the left is brilliantly exploited in the 4th century by Epaminondas (see the tactics of Epaminondas). Preliminary assaults on the opposing Phalanx by slingers and archers become standard practice. And Hoplite increases the weight of the Phalanx by doubling its depth to 16 ranks and arming the hoplites with spears of 6 or 7 yards (6 metres) in length - enabling the first five ranks to use their spears in the initial charge.

But these are only modifications. The next real advance in European infantry tactics must wait for the Alexander the great.

Arms of the Roman legionary: from the 4th century BC

In a Roman army the long heavy spear of the Greek hoplite is replaced by a javelin. The Roman foot soldier flings this as soon as he is in close contact with the enemy. He then gets to work with his short thrusting sword, the most characteristic weapon of the Roman legionary.

The Roman helmet is simpler than the Greek version, with more of the face exposed. And the Roman shield is rectangular, with a slight curve so that it hugs the body. Held edge to edge above the head, these shields can form a roof to protect soldiers carrying out a siege - the famous Roman testudo or 'tortoise'.

The foot soldiers in their maniples form the centre of any Roman line of attack. Cavalry and light infantry give support on the wings, particularly in the later centuries. It is a military system which proves well suited to conquer and control most of Europe, north Africa and much of the Middle East. The legions, and the great network of Roman roads which they build and march upon, are the backbone of the empire.

But by the 4th century AD there is a military threat of a kind unfamiliar to the legions - heavy cavalry, which Rome's horses and horsemen are at first ill-equipped to confront.

Ingenious devices

The crossbow: 3rd century BC

A great technological advance in weapons is made in China, in the 3rd century BC, with the invention of the crossbow - a device enabling a bowstring to be tensed well in advance of the shot being made, so that the archer is in effect carrying a loaded weapon. It requires an intricate piece of metal, which the Chinese - with their exceptional skill in the Casting of bronze - are well equipped to provide. This is the lock mechanism, restraining the bowstring until it is released by pressure on a trigger.

There are crossbowmen in the terracotta army of Shi Huangdi. The Crossbow in europe is unknown as a hand weapon until the 10th century AD, though a static version of it is used by the Romans in the form of the Ballista.

The catapult and ballista: from the 4th century BC

The principle of the catapult is that of torsion - energy stored in a tightly twisted substance. (An old-fashioned toy aeroplane, with the propeller turned by an elastic band, works on the same principle). In Greek and Roman times the materials to be twisted include natural fibres and the tendons and skins of animals.

One end of a wooden throwing arm is held in these thongs, tightly twisted by soldiers on a winch. The other end of the arm has a basket-shaped hollow in which a heavy stone can be placed. It is winched down to the ground against the pressure of the thongs and is pinned in place. When the pin is removed, the arm snaps upright and the stone is hurled.

By Roman times the catapult has become highly effective - in the damage it can inflict on all but the sturdiest wall, and also as a weapon of terror. Massive stones, lobbed among the defenders of a town, are likely to be extremely unnerving. Modern research, using a reconstruction of the Roman design, suggests that stones of about 50 lbs (20 kg) could be lobbed as far as 400 yards.

Roman soldiers also winch tight the cord of a large wooden bow, mounted on a heavy base. Known as a ballista, this engine is in effect a stationary version of a Crossbow. It fires a heavy spear, sometimes flaming to start a fire in the besieged town.

By the 4th century AD Roman legions each have as many as ten catapults and sixty ballistae. The Roman gunners have one essential secret, now lost. For the heavy catapults to remain effective, the elasticity of their cords must be maintained. In modern replicas no way has been discovered of achieving this.

This is perhaps the reason why European armies of the Middle Ages develop a catapult in which a heavy weight replaces the effect of torsion. Suspended from the shorter end of the throwing arm, the weight projects the basket and the ammunition in a rapid arc upwards and forwards as soon as it is released. This form of the catapult, known as the trebuchet, is the last significant siege engine before the arrival of Artillery.

Greek fire: AD 674

In 674 a Muslim fleet enters the Bosphorus to attack Constantinople. It is greeted, and greatly deterred, by a new weapon which can be seen as the precursor of the modern flamethrower. It has never been discovered precisely how the Byzantine chemists achieve the jet of flame for their 'Greek fire'. The secret of such a lethal advantage is jealously guarded.

Contemporary accounts imply that the inflammable substance is petroleum-based, floats on water, and is almost impossible to extinguish. It can be lobbed in a canister. But in its most devastating form it is projected, as a stream of liquid fire, from a tube mounted in the prow of a ship. Sprayed among a wooden fleet, its destructive potential is obvious.

Middle Ages

The knight in armour: 8th - 14th century

The Franks acquire Stirrups by about 730. They also develop exceptionally heavy horses (the breeds of northwest Europe are the ancestors of the carthorses later used for haulage and ploughing). With Stirrups and a powerful horse, the medieval knight is ready to take the field.

A mounted knight in armour, usually of mail (also known as chain mail), is to a large extent protected from the archer's arrow or the spear of the footsoldier, while his own long lance is a lethal weapon against any opponent. Its thrust no longer depends on the strength of an arm. Seated in a shaped saddle, with his feet in Stirrups and the lance held firm against his body, the knight drives home the point of the lance with the full forward impetus of his horse.

Both horse and armour are expensive, so warrior status is now reserved for the ruling class; and with faces concealed inside armour, devices on helmet and shield are essential to identify friend from foe. Painted armour happens also to be a glorious way of advertising one's lineage. It is no accident that possession of a 'coat of arms' is a distinguishing mark of European aristocracies.

Such a system of warfare is ideally suited to feudal societies. The mounted knight holds sway in Europe throughout the Middle Ages until new weapons in the 14th century - such as the pike and the longbow - restore some measure of advantage to the humble infantry.

A weapon of mass destruction: AD 1139-1346

Pope Innocent II and the second Lateran council take a firm stand, in 1139, against a weapon which they consider morally unacceptable in its devastating capacity to kill. It is the Crossbow, invented in China in the 3rd century BC and first recorded in use in Europe in a battle at Hjörungsvag in Norway in986.

The pope and his cardinals make one distinction in this early attempt at arms control. They specify that the weapon is unacceptable in warfare between Christians. They are pontificating a few decades after the success of the First crusade. The implication is clear. The weapon of death may be turned against Muslims.

The Crossbow proves effective on crusade. Indeed Richard I wins one of his Victories over saladin, at Arsuf in 1191, largely because of the effect on the Muslim forces of the bolts fired by his crossbowmen. Each bolt, about ten inches long with a square metal head tapering to a point, can be shot with sufficient force to pierce contemporary armour at a range of up to 300 yards. The weapon's limitation is its very slow rate of fire.

The papal embargo fails to stop the spread of the Crossbow among Christian armies. It is familiar on European battlefields in the 12th and 13th centuries. Mercenaries from Genoa in particular are famous as crossbowmen - until they confront a new and faster weapon at Crécy in 1346.

The footsoldier

A new age of infantry: 14th century AD

After many centuries when horsemen dominate the battlefield (whether the heavily armed Knights of Europe or the swift Mongols of the steppes), the early 14th century sees the reassertion of the foot soldier.

Partly this is due to new weapons - the English longbow and the Swiss halberd. But the change also involves the return of very ancient tactics. The Greek phalanx, with the long spear introduced by Alexander the great, is revived to devastating effect by Swiss peasants armed with pikes.

The longbow: AD 1298-1346

The longbow, probably developed in Wales during the 12th century, derives its range, accuracy and power of penetration from two characteristics.

It is about 6 feet long, giving a much greater acceleration to the released arrow than is possible from a shorter conventional bow. And the craftsmen make it from strips of yew cut where the hardened heart of the tree joins the sap wood. The different qualities of the two types of wood complement each other, combining tension and compression as in a Composite bow.

The length of the English bow makes possible a heavier arrow, a yard in length, with greater power of penetration. A trained bowman can shoot between six and ten arrows a minute, with considerable accuracy to a range of 200 yards.

The power of the longbow is first demonstrated in 1298 at Falkirk, where an English army defeats the Scots. But the Scots are mainly unmounted spearmen; the battle is fought round the edges of a boggy marsh; this is an unromantic event which does little to spread the fame of the new weapon. That must await another half century until English bowmen come up against the mounted chivalry of France at Crécy in 1346.

The fighting begins at Crécy with a direct confrontation between English longbowmen and Genoese crossbowmen, employed as mercenaries by the French king. The English, outnumbered by the French, occupy a defensive position on a slope overlooking a small valley. The battle begins when the French king orders a line of crossbowmen to advance on the English position, with mounted knights following behind them.

The English outshoot the Genoese, who need to pause to crank their crossbow after each shot. When the Genoese retreat in panic, they become entangled with the advancing French cavalry. The resulting chaos offers an easy target to the bowmen on the hill.

Subsequent charges by the French cavalry meet a similar fate in a battle which continues until nightfall. The next morning some 1500 French knights and esquires are found dead on the battlefield together with large numbers of more humble soldiers.

The English longbow proves itself at Crécy the most effective long-range weapon of its time. It dominates the field in subsequent battles of the Hundred Years' War such as Poitiers and Agincourt. But near the end of the war, at Formigny, the bowmen meet more than their match in the new form of French artillery. The weapon of the future, clumsy and awkward though it is, wins the day.

Swiss pikes and halberds: 14th - 15th century AD

The power of a citizen army of footsoldiers, demonstrated so forcefully in ancient Greece, is proved again two millennia later by the peasants of Switzerland. The similarity extends beyond the passion of free men fighting for their patch of land. It includes tactics and even weapons.

The Swiss adopt the Greek formation of the Phalanx, a tightly cohesive square of men. And they borrow from the armies of Alexander the great the exceptionally long spear which prevents an enemy from coming in close.

The Swiss spear or pike, some 20 feet long, improves in one respect on Greek technology. Its steel point projects from a long metal sleeve, preventing a mounted knight from slashing the wooden shaft.

The Phalanx with its pikes at the ready is a defensive body, bristling like a hedgehog. When the enemy begins to falter, the Swiss change to offence. For this too they have a devastating weapon, perfected by themselves - the halberd. The pike can only prod an assailant. The halberd is much more versatile, as the Swiss footsoldiers prove triumphantly at Morgarten, in 1315, when they trap a Habsburg army in a narrow mountain defile.

The Habsburg knights, mounted and in armour, rely on the thundering weight of a charger to mow down the opposition. In the confined space of Morgarten, they find themselves at the mercy of the Swiss halberdiers.

At the end of each 8-foot halberd there is a sharp metal point; this can jab like a spear. Below the point to one side is a hook; this is used to grapple a knight and drag him from his horse. Below the point on the other side there is an axe blade; with a heavy sweeping blow, at the end of the long handle, this will cut through armour and sink into limb or neck. With this lethally adaptable weapon the Swiss footsoldiers bring down the Habsburg cavalry.

After Morgarten and other similar successes the massed Phalanx of infantry, reintroduced by the Swiss, becomes once again a standard part of battlefield tactics. It is extended in Spain into the massive 'Spanish square' which combines men armed with pikes, swords and muskets.

Meanwhile the Swiss farmers have discovered in their martial skill a new profession. They begin to hire themselves out as mercenaries - in a long tradition of which there is an echo, even today, in the Swiss guards of the Vatican.


Artillery: 14th - 16th century AD

The most significant development in the story of warfare is the use of Gunpowder to propel a missile. There has been much debate as to where the first experiments are made. Inconclusive and sometimes mistranslated references from early documents appear to give the priority variously to the Chinese, the Hindus, the Arabs and the Turks.

It is likely that the matter can never be resolved. The earliest incontrovertible evidence of artillery is a drawing of a crude form of cannon in a manuscript dated 1327 (now in the library of Christ Church, Oxford). There is a reference to a gun Mounted on a ship in 1336, and the possibility of cannon of some kind in use at Crécy and Calais in 1346-7.

The problem confronting early makers of artillery is how to construct a tube strong enough to contain an explosion which will propel a missile out of one end (or, in other words, how to make a gun rather than a bomb). An early solution gives us our word 'barrel'. The tube is built up of metal strips welded to each other along their straight edges - just as a barrel is constructed of similar strips of wood. This rather fragile structure is given greater strength by being encased in a series of tightly fitting metal rings.

With luck, a round stone (or later a ball of cast iron) will hurtle from the open end of this tube when Gunpowder is ignited behind it.

The laborious loading and firing of such weapons limits their effective use to sieges - either inside a castle defending an entrance, or outside lobbing heavy objects at the walls. The size of the missile rather than its speed is the crucial factor. A breakthrough in this respect, in the late 14th century, is the discovery of how to cast gun barrels from molten Iron.

Cannon, during the next two centuries, become progressively larger. There are some impressive surviving examples. Mons Meg, dating from the 15th century and now in Edinburgh castle, could hurl an Iron ball, 18 inches in diameter, as far as a mile. The even larger Tsar Cannon in Moscow, cast in 1586 with a bore of 3 feet, weighs nearly 40 tons. Mobility is not one of its features.

One of the most remarkable of early cannon is a proud possession of Mehmed, the Turkish conqueror of Constantinople. Before his final attack in 1453 he terrifies the inhabitants by trundling close to their city a massive 19-ton bombard of cast Iron. It requires 16 oxen and 200 men to manoeuvre it into its firing position. Once there, it settles down to a slow but devastating bombardment. A stone weighing as much as 600 pounds can be lobbed against the great city walls. The rate of fire is seven stones a day.

In this same same year, at Castillon in France, another potential of gun power is demonstrated - in the effect of light artillery on the battlefield.

Hand guns: 14th - 17th century AD

Portable guns are developed shortly after the first cannons. When first mentioned, in the 1360s, such a gun is like a small version of a cannon. A metal tube, up to a foot long, is attached to the end of a pole about six feet in length - an early and very basic version of the barrel and stock of a rifle.

The gunner has to apply a glowing coal or a red-hot wire to a touchhole in the loaded barrel, and then somehow get far enough away from the explosion. There is clearly not much opportunity for rapid aiming. Most such weapons are probably fired by two men, or are carried to a new position and fixed there before being loaded and ignited by one.

Refinements follow surprisingly fast. During the 15th century the barrel of such weapons is lengthened, giving more reliable aim. The wooden stock acquires a curve, so that the recoil raises the barrel rather than driving backwards with full force. A length of rope known as a 'match' replaces the hot coal or wire for igniting the charge in the touchhole; it is soaked in a substance which causes it to burn with a steady glow.

And a device called a 'lock' is developed - a curving arm of metal which holds the glowing match and will plunge it into the touchhole, when a pull on a trigger releases a spring. The 'matchlock' becomes the standard form of musket until the arrival of the Flintlock in the 17th century.

The flintlock: 16th - 18th century AD

From the middle of the 16th century there are attempts to ignite the powder in the pan of a musket by means of a spark rather than from an already burning match. The flintlock is poised to replace the Matchlock.

In a flintlock the spark is created by striking a sharp flint obliquely against a surface of slightly roughened steel (the device is already in domestic use in the Tinderbox). Just as the trigger in a Matchlock brings down the smouldering match, so it now uses the same action to strike the flint down sharply above the pan with its charge of gunpowder.

European countries develop their own differing versions of the flintlock. The one which eventually becomes standard is designed in France in about 1610 - possibly by Marin Le Bourgeoys, whose name is on a flintlock in the private collection of Louis XIII.

The French flintlock has the advantage of a halfcock position (with the gun ready to fire but safe), and its method of directing the spark into the pan proves reliable. By the 18th century it is the standard musket throughout most of Europe and in the American colonies. Spanish armies are the only ones to retain their own variety of flintlock, known as the miquelet.

Cartridges: 17th - 19th century AD

The efficiency of the Flintlock mechanism is accompanied by a similar improvement in the loading of a musket. In the early years of hand-guns the soldier carries a powder flask, from which he tips a small charge of gunpowder into the pan of the gun and then a larger quantity down the barrel - following it with a round metal ball and sufficient wadding to hold it in place, before ramming the whole charge tight with his ramrod.

During the 17th century time is saved by providing the soldier with the correct charge, together with the ball, wrapped in a paper tube - the whole package being called a cartridge.

On the battlefield the soldier bites off the end of the paper tube, tips a small amount of powder into the pan of his Flintlock and then pours the rest down the barrel, following it with the remains of the cartridge (the ball and the paper) which he rams tightly home.

This remains the standard procedure on the battlefield as long as muzzle-loading muskets are in use. Only in the 19th-century does it finally become obsolete, supplanted by Breech-loading guns and metal cartridges with internal Percussion caps.

The bayonet: 17th century AD

Somewhere in France in the early 17th century (and very probably in the region of Bayonne, which would explain the name of the new weapon) a dagger is adapted for insertion into the barrel of a musket. With the addition of this steel blade the musketeer can transform his weapon into a Pike, for thrusting into the enemy at close quarters.

These first bayonets are awkward to use. Plugging into the barrel like a cork in a bottle, they are hard to remove if stuck in too firmly. Yet they will drop out, or even worse stick in the body of a stabbed opponent, if loosely inserted. Moreover the bayonet has to be removed from the barrel before the musket can be used again for its proper purpose.

The necessary improvement is proposed by Louis XIV's military genius, Vauban. Instead of a bayonet handle which pushes into the muzzle, he devises a ring fitting which slips over the end of the barrel. He adds a stud on the barrel and an L-shaped groove in the bayonet sleeve, so that the weapon can be locked firmly into position.

This socket bayonet is introduced in the French army in 1688. By the early 18th century it is adopted in all European countries. With modifications over the centuries, it remains an essential attachment to the infantryman's rifle up to modern times.

Percussion: from AD 1807

Alexander Forsyth, a Scottish clergyman who enjoys shooting wildfowl, finds that the flash from his Flintlock often alerts the sitting ducks which are his target. Sometimes they even fly away or dive before his ball reaches them.

Searching for a priming substance which will ignite without a spark, he discovers that potassium chlorate will do the job if struck a sharp blow. He successfully builds himself a fowling piece which fires by percussion. When his gun comes to the attention of the military, he is installed in the Tower of London to continue his experiments. By 1807 he has shown that his powder will work in any size of musket or cannon. His discovery is a turning point in the story of gunfire.

Forsyth's compound makes possible the development of the breech-loading bolt-action rifle which eventually becomes the standard infantry weapon - after many other inventors have also made their contribution.

The value of breech-loading is the time saved in inserting the cartridge into the breech (the back end of the barrel) rather than down the Muzzle. Experiments in this direction go back to the 17th century, when a breech-loading musket is produced in Italy (possibly invented in Florence by Michele Lorenzoni). Practical versions are later developed in Britain by Patrick Ferguson (in 1776) and in the United States by John Hall (in 1811).

These are all flintlocks, and the clumsy firing mechanism reduces the advantage of the faster loading system. The first really effective breech-loading rifle is made possible by Forsyth's system of percussion. It is developed from 1827 in Germany by Johann von Dreyse.

Dreyse's extremely influential weapon, adopted by the Prussian army in 1848, has several new features. It uses a needle-like point to pierce the cartridge and strike the percussion cap, giving it the name 'needle-gun' (a short and blunt version of this needle later becomes the pin, the standard percussion device).

The Dreyse rifle also introduces the bolt, another standard feature of subsequent rifles. In this first application the bolt is merely a quick way of opening the breech and ramming in the next cartridge.

The eventual double-action bolt (pulling out the empty case when drawn back and inserting the live bullet on the forward movement) has to await the invention of the self-contained metal cartridge, with the percussion cap in its base. The first bullet of this kind is patented in 1846 by a Paris gunsmith named Houiller.

With these various elements, beginning with percussion, the standard rifle of the infantryman is in existence; its 20th-century form is merely a refinement. The principle of rifling (cutting grooves within the barrel to cause the bullet to spin for a straighter trajectory) has been experimented with since the 15th century. It comes into its own once ways are found, mainly during the 18th century, of making the bullet fit tightly in the barrel.

The obvious next development, in use by the 1870s, is the magazine, loaded with several bullets, which can be clipped on below the breech of the rifle. Beyond that there lies only mechanization - in the automatic rifle and the machine gun.

This History is as yet incomplete.
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