Culverin and Arquebus: The First Models of Handheld Firearms

The invention of gunpowder and the active development of artillery gave rise to an entirely new type of weapon - handheld firearms.

21/11/2023 - 10:39

In this historical brief from, we will delve into the precursors of modern firearms.

The earliest samples of firearms, which can be broadly classified as handheld, were created in China, where they emerged in the 12th century. This weaponry consisted of hollow bamboo barrels sealed at one end. The barrels were filled with gunpowder, and upon ignition, the force of the gunpowder gases expelled small lead projectiles called "tuhoxian."

The Mongols adopted this weapon from the Chinese, followed by the Arabs, who cast barrels from copper or bronze. In the course of further modernization of the "Chinese weapon," the Arabs developed their firearm - the "mudaf," which was a metal tube with a wooden tip affixed to its rear end, akin to a primitive stock. During firing, the user could hold this tip in their hands or brace it against the ground. In the 13th century, the Arabs used "mudafs" in their warfare against the Spanish, spreading firearms across Europe.

In the armies of European countries, "mudafs" underwent significant modifications. Primarily, the weapon's weight was notably reduced by diminishing the caliber and thickness of the barrel walls. As a result, the firearm weighed approximately 5-6 kilograms. Moreover, Europeans started affixing the barrel to a short shaft made of wood or metal, akin to a rifle stock. By pressing such a stock against the chest or shoulder, aiming became more convenient.

Despite these firearms' somewhat imprecise shooting, warriors armed with them inflicted significant damage on their adversaries. The weapon could pierce knightly armor from a distance of 25-30 meters. In European armies, this type of handheld firearm acquired the name "Culverin."

The loading of a culverin took place at the muzzle. Initially, the gunpowder charge was measured, poured into the barrel, compacted, and loaded with round stones or lead bullets. As the bullet diameter was smaller than the barrel's, it was additionally wrapped in cloth.

The ignition of the charge occurred through side-drilled ignition holes using a wooden stick soaked in saltpeter. After the shot, the entire process was repeated.

A mechanism that significantly enhanced handheld firearms emerged in the early decades of the 15th century, known as the flint lock. In this mechanism, the charge was ignited using a match cord, which automatically lowered to the ignition hole. Now the rifle could be firmly held with both hands while aiming.

Subsequently, the rifle's stock shape was also improved, made sloping, allowing the shooter to rest the firearm against their shoulder and absorb the recoil. Simultaneously, this facilitated aiming by aligning along the barrel, which noticeably extended in length. This firearm acquired the name "arquebus."

However, despite the noticeable improvement of the arquebus, handheld firearms continued to lag behind artillery. The firearms were heavy and "temperamental" and, most importantly, fell short in terms of rate of fire. For instance, while one shot could be fired from an arquebus, a crossbowman could release three arrows, and an archer - six.

The military's trust in handheld firearms was only restored in the 16th century with the advent of the musket era. They were much more manageable, equipped with a trigger and sights for aiming. Furthermore, the increased caliber and barrel length significantly enhanced the weapon's firepower. While an arquebus bullet could pierce 2mm knightly armor at a distance of 30m, a musket bullet could penetrate armor at a range of up to 200m.

Handheld firearms continued to evolve further. Rifles, pistols, and automatic weapons emerged. In our next historical excursion, we will continue the narrative on the evolution of firearms.

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