What is a Handgonne ?

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Handgonnes -from the Middle English word ‘gonne’ and possibly the old Norse ‘gunnr’, “war”- were a number of hand-held firearms designs used around the world during the Middle Ages.
They appeared in their earliest form in China around the 13th century as a simple barrel at the end of a haft, being an improvement on the earlier fire lance. In that configuration, gonnes are sometimes called tiller guns, and were generally cradled under the user’s arm like a couched lance to be fired.

These early firearms were often used defensively in European siege warfare by the mid-14th century, and around 1400 some of them became fitted with hooks to put over a city or castle’s wall and absorb recoil. This seemingly minor improvement gave us the German word Hakenbüchse, leading to hackbut and eventually arquebus, a name that then stuck around to designate most hand-held firearms of the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance.

The final touches to turn these simplistic ‘hook guns’ into early modern arquebuses came from fitting them with crossbow tillers, which later evolved into proper stocks for shouldering the weapon, and then in the last quarter of the 15th century to fit them with triggers for the first time in the form of a serpentine. Handgonnes before were fired by holding a slow match or heated piece of wire to a touch-hole or flashpan at the back of the barrel ; the serpentine lock simply held one such piece of slow match, made of a piece of hemp or flax cord treated with saltpeter, in a mechanism inspired by crossbow triggers.

This first type of matchlock mechanism was improved upon in the 16th century, possibly by the Portuguese, and turned into the snap matchlock where the serpentine was held in place by spring tension until the trigger was squeezed.
From then on arquebuses were slowly refined in shape, size and conformity to equip armies from Europe to Japan and Ethiopia.

Related Vocabulary

  • couleuvrine: from the French ‘couleuvre’, a type of snake, usually refers to longer bronze guns. Later refers to artillery pieces.
  • double hackbut: from the German ‘Doppelhaken’, “double hook”, refers to a type of large arquebus fired either from a wall or a small wheeled rest.
  • touch-hole: the hole in the barrel used to ignite the powder charge within. It is often accompanied by a flash pan, a small pan where priming powder is poured to more easily and reliably fire the gun.