Want to wander through the wonderful and terrifying world of artillery guns through the medium of miniatures? This ﬁeld has captured the imagination and inventiveness of countless inventors and crackpots.
When you explore its history, from the earliest madfaas of the Arabs popping a stone up into the air to the modern monster of the German “Dora” of the 1940’s World War II, it seems strange that so many great minds should be so, should we say, obsessed with making better ways to kill people. In the later days of artillery, art gave way to efficiency and guns became mere pieces of machinery that worked for one purpose. In the early days, however, even in making these grim engines of destruction, the artistry of the people involved couldn’t be quenched and cannon barrels were cast with carvings of mythical heroes, dragons, inscriptions and anything the maker’s fertile mind could conceive.
Today, while many small countries are engaged in numerous relatively minor brush ﬁre wars where artillery still plays a part, the old fashioned method of artillery has given way to the newer and more effective way of warfare by means of aircraft and rockets. So many artillery guns became a history. Let’s learn more about it, feasting our eyes on the works of such marvelous miniaturists as Valentin Pavlow, George Johnson, Lewis Pruneau, Shepard Paine, Alex Roth and Ralph Koebbeman. Look at these illustrates and see the artistry and inventiveness that went into these projects.
Ever since he first stood on a ledge and threw a rock down on the skull of a sabertooth tiger, man has spent a great deal of time, effort and thought on projectiles and artillery. Naturally, the cave man didn’t think of the problem in those terms. All he wanted to do was to bounce a bigger stone off the tiger’s skull from a greater distance, the tiger was jumping and snapping too close to our hero’s heels for comfort. Even after the tiger became discouraged after a few more knocks on the noggin and wandered off, the thought stayed and grew. Through the years, centuries and ages, the idea kept growing, with a steady procession of ideas: spears, slings, bows and arrows, crossbows, catapults, ballistas, trebuchets, gonnes and ﬁnally, cannons.
Also, man has always felt the need to protect his home territory from intruders. As soon as he came up with an advance in his weaponry against animals, he immediately realized that if a spear or an arrow would keep a tiger away from his cave, it should do the same for a human intruder. As it turned out, the more civilized he became, the less need there was to worry about the animals but the more need there was to worry about the encroaching humans. So, he needed to work out more effective arms. As man gathered into larger and larger groups, families, clans, tribes, towns, cities, city-states and ﬁnally nations, so too did the hostile people around gather into larger groups. Now, it is a matter of simple common sense that the larger the group you have in front of you, the more damage you can do with faster, larger missiles. And that was the way man’s inventive mind went – more weight, more speed, fewer enemies!
And how miniature guns have appeared?
At the same time that he was busy developing bigger and better ways to do away with his fellow men, man was also learning that it pleasured him to make miniature replicas of various items that he used in his daily life. No doubt, this started as a way to train children, so they were given toys, which were small versions of items that they would use when they were grown. A pull toy in the form of a wheeled horse was excavated in Sumeria, which would date it about 4000 BC. Ship models have been found in many ancient Egyptian tombs and tombs of many other races have been found with miniatures of one kind or another in them. As trade grew and skilled craftsmen blossomed, miniatures were used as sort of salesmen’s samples, because they could be carried much more easily than, say, three or four suits of armor, this certainly would have been the case with cannons, and some of the miniature guns now in collections started out as salesmen’s samples. Other miniatures were made by apprentices of master craftsmen as a form of a ﬁnal examination to prove to their boss that they were capable of fine enough work to qualify them as master craftsmen! Making a miniature was a more difﬁcult test of skill than making a large piece and besides, it saved material, a matter of no small import in those days.
So we have two things that have fascinated mankind, practically since man crawled out of the swamps or dropped from the trees – artillery of one type or another and models of one type or another, let’s combine them and talk about miniature guns. Along with the talk, let’s also look at some model cannons.
How the artillery guns of the ancients worked
The pre-gunpowder artillery of the ancients consisted of engines of war or “gyns”, such as the catapult, ballista, espringal and trebuchet. Their history is a little vague and somewhat confusing because the history of the times is somewhat confused. One factor that compounds the problem is the variety of names that were used for basically the same guns. While the four named above are the four main types, there are over thirty different names for these four engines, and, to compound the confusion, different historians called the same machine by totally different names, for example, one would say “catapult”, the next would say “ballista”, the third would say “scorpion” and the fourth would say “onager”. For our purposes, and because most authorities agree on these nomenclatures, a machine that throws rocks by means of a single arm will be called a catapult, a machine that throws darts or arrows by means of a bow-like arrangement Will be called a ballista, a machine that throws darts by “spanking” them with an elastic member will be called an espringal and one that can cast very great stones by means of levers and weights and the force of gravity will be called a trebuchet.
One of the biggest troubles, of course, was the fact that very few people in those days could write, and those that could lived the rather sheltered life of a scholar or priest. Warriors, on the other hand, who knew about such guns — how to make them and operate them — were too busy bashing heads in to have time to write about them, even if they had the skills to do so. And the engineer corps of those days didn’t work from blueprints. They worked from the practical knowledge of what worked last time and how the old-timers told them the “gyns” were built in the old days. One result was that often an historian or an artist would be trying to describe a machine that had been torn down, destroyed or abandoned three or four hundred years before from a description that might have passed through twenty people. It is like the game “gossip” where the ﬁrst player whispers a statement to the next player. After the statement is thus passed around the group, the end statement is so absurdly different from the beginning statement that there is usually no connection at all between the two. So it was with the descriptions of these engines. Also, the historians of those days were more apt to write about the glorious feats of their leaders than the technicalities of the equipment. It is always easier to be vague than speciﬁc. If a writer didn’t know what he was talking about, it was always a relatively simple matter to tell how “certain skilled men did lash together many large timbers, making a marvelous machine that did throw huge stones of 30 talents weight upwards of two miles, causing much damage so that none could stand against them”. The artist of those times did much the same thing. If he wasn’t sure of some mechanical detail, he could always turn the engine so that the particular part was not seen.
Another favorite ploy was to have a worker or soldier stand in front of the part so that it couldn’t be seen. Or he could draw whatever his fertile imagination could dream up and he could be quite sure it would be accepted, simply because there was no one around knowledgeable enough to dispute it. This the artists did with a vengeance. I’ll venture to say that at least half of the guns pictured in the old manuscripts would not work if made the way the drawings showed them.
Thus the miniaturist can take some liberties with the way he builds his models, (at least with these ancient engines) and no one can positively say he is wrong. As long as the modeler uses what is known about these engines, about how the power was stored up and released, how the slip hook worked, etc., along with some common sense, his miniature is just as authentic as the next person’s.
Catapult: the first artillery gun
Possibly the earliest form of artillery was the stone throwing catapult, powered by the torsion of twisted strands of various materials. Such catapults were known to the ancient Greeks and Romans, one story much quoted being that the women of Carthage sacriﬁced their hair to make skeins of rope to power catapults when the city was besieged by the Romans. True or not, skeins of rope or sinews, which were twisted to force an arm against a stop, powered the machines. These ropes were twisted so tightly that in one relatively small reproduction made by an Englishman at the end of the last century (it threw a ten pound stone about 350 yards), it was impossible for four strong men to pull the arm away from the stop when the machine was wound up and ready to start. At this point, a powerful Windlass would pull the arm back ninety degrees to a horizontal position, a stone would be placed in the pocket at the end of the arm, which would then be released by some sort of trigger and the arm would crash against the stop, sending the stone on its way.
Catapults threw stones in the ten to ﬁfty-pound category, with a range of from 300 to possibly as much as 500 yards. The ancients had secrets that modern man hasn’t been able to solve. The torsion skeins the old machines used to propel the stones were never used at full power. They would be wound up to possibly three-fourths power, and would “loaf” through their work, putting stone after stone in the same area all day long. To achieve the same results, as far as weights and distances are concerned, modern experimenters have had to wind their machines up to approach the breaking point and after only a few casts, the skeins would be stretched so much that the range would go down. So much for modern know-how!
Generally, the missile of choice was a stone, but on occasion, other missiles were used for this gun. One such occasion would arise when one leader would send an envoy into the enemy camp with a letter demanding surrender. If the enemy leader decided the terms were unacceptable, he was apt to have the hapless envoy’s head cut off, the letter demanding surrender nailed to the skull, the head placed in the arm of a catapult and the whole sent ﬂying back into the other camp. Such a procedure was considered to be tantamount to a rejection of the surrender terms.
The dart-throwing ballista was sometimes pictured as being made in the form of a large crossbow with a solid bow of wood or metal, but most of these machines worked using the same principle of propulsion as the catapult.
They were made with two arms, each of which was powered by twisted skeins of cordage. Using two arms enabled the makers to use shorter and lighter arms which cut down the weight and inertia of the arms, thus making a faster, more responsive cast. The use of two skeins made it possible to get more power since each could be almost as large as the single skein of a catapult.
The power of these machines was remarkable! The bolt they shot was from four to six feet in length, two to three inches in diameter, with a metal head and “feathers” of wood or leather. A metal collar at the butt prevented the wood from splitting from the force of the bow string and the whole javelin weighed from six to ten pounds. These would be used by the largest war ballistas and would be thrown from 400 to 500 yards.
When you think of that as being in the neighborhood of a quarter of a mile or more, it becomes quite a feat. One historian tells of a ballista bolt transﬁxing and pinning a Chieftain in armor to a tree trunk after he had climbed the tree for observation. Another tells of several soldiers being pinned by one dart shot by a ballista. A general riding by suggested, with grim black humor, that they be carried to the kitchen since they were already spitted and ready for roasting. The ballista, unlike the catapult could, with relatively minor changes, be used for hurling stones. One advantage that it had over the catapult was that it was easy to aim and to change the direction of its discharge. Large catapults weighed two tons or more and one of their main chores was to pound at one certain section of wall for a long time.
Since it was difﬁcult to lift up the front end of a catapult or swing it around, which was necessary to do to change the range or direction, thus a ballista had certain advantages over a catapult.
The espringal was not too popular as an engine of war as, for example, the catapult or the ballista. It is not mentioned in the historical accounts nearly as often as the other two guns and pictures are rather few and far between. It shot a dart or javelin by means of a springy arm being bent back after which the arm was suddenly released, permitting it to strike the butt of the dart, thus projecting it forward. In the model pictured, the arm is made up of three strips of wood to give it ﬂexibility, but it is possible that the arm was made up of a great many strips to increase its springiness, and to prolong its life.
The arm is wound down by means of a Windlass and when it reaches its maximum power is released by means of the slip hook. While it is being wound down, a soldier Climbs the ladder on the side of the frame and places a javelin in the trough of the holder with the butt end projecting well back of the frame. When the arm is ready it snaps forward and “spanks” the end of the javelin, forcing it forward at great velocity. The javelin can be aimed to a certain degree by raising or lowering the trough that it rests in. While not visible in the picture, the support that holds the end of the trough rests in a series of notches so that it can easily be raised or lowered. The espringal can also be swung in an arc from side to side, since the unit pivots on the main beam and can be pushed one way or the other with the help of the wheels at the back.
The start of the middle ages saw the invention of the last of the siege engines before gunpowder propelled missiles began to take over. This was the trebuchet. Where the previous guns had depended on the elasticity of some material, such as wooden arms, rope, animal sinews or hair, the trebuchet worked using the force exerted by gravity. A long lever was pivoted so that one side of the lever was very long and the other side was very short. On the long end, the missile was hung, and on the short end, a huge weight was hung. When the missile was pulled down, the weight rose in the air and when the missile was released, the weight fell and the missile was projected forward. A good analogy would be the teeterboard act in the circus. The slight young man stands on one end of the teeterboard and the heavy man jumps down on the other end of the board. When the force of gravity, as represented by the heavy man, hits the end of the board, the missile, as represented by the lighter boy, is tossed to the shoulders of another man.
This, then, is a crude example of the workings of a trebuchet. These were tremendous machines! The pole or “virge” on which the weights were hung could be as long as 38 to 50 feet, and were usually made up of a single tree trunk. The weights varied with the size of the machine, being anywhere from 10 tons up to as much as 50 tons. Possibly 100,000 pounds sounds more impressive. Or picturing 25 large automobiles hanging from one end of the beam might give a better idea of the forces involved. A heavily timbered box was built to hold the weight, which consisted of boulders or sand or both. One trebuchet built by Phillip of France had a box for a counterpoise that was 12 ft. X 8 ft. X 12 ft. deep.
With a trebuchet, the missile was always thrown from a sling. The sling was exactly like the hand sling a soldier of those times would use, only on a much larger scale. It was made up of ropes and cables, and was about one-third as long as the throwing portion of the virge. One end was securely fastened near the end of the virge and the other end was slipped over a hook on the end of the virge. At the end of the sweep of the virge, the one end of the sling would slip off the hook and the missile would be on its way. The sling, in effect, made the arm longer and doubled the machines capabilities. According to historians, these guns could throw stones weighing from 300 pounds to as much as 1200 pounds. Their maximum range seems to have been about 300 yards, certainly not more than 350 yards.
In some parts, they acquired the name of “disease machines” because of the unusual missiles some leaders used. Dead horses and dead soldiers, friend and foe alike, were tossed over city’s walls to rot and spread disease. A. French historian, Varillas, tells us “at his ineffectual siege of Carolstein in 1422, Coribut caused the bodies whom the besieged had killed to be thrown into the town, in addition to 2000 cartloads of manure. A great number of the defenders fell victims to the fever which resulted from the stench and the remainder were only saved from death by the skill of a rich apothecary who circulated in Carolstein remedies against the poison which infected the town.”
With the greater capacity of the trebuchet, the leaders added a new twist to the peace envoy system. They no longer had to behead the hapless envoy. Instead, they tied the letter around his neck, trussed him up with ropes, put him in the sling of the engine and threw him back into the city. As Froissart tells us: “to make it more serious, they took the varlet and hung the letters around his neck and instantly placed him in the sling of an engine and then shot him back again into Auberoche. The varlet arrived dead before the knights who were there and who were much astonished and discomﬁted when they saw him arrive.”
Resourse: “The Wonderful, Wacky, Terrible World of Artillery in Miniature” by Ralph Koebbeman