1400-1590: Ottoman weapons I

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Great Ottoman Cannon 1453.

Once connected, the two pieces created a cylinder 5.2 metres wide – a colossal size, at the time! The set weighed about 19 tons and had a 75 cm calibre, which means it could project rocks with that diametre, weighing around 600 Kg, at a distance of over 2 Km. They had to test it and, first of all, take it out from where it was built, though.

With the help of 60 oxen and 400 men, half of which prepared a floor able to support such an immense weight, the cannon was moved to a testing area. There, it was loaded with gunpowder and a huge spherical rock that was projected over 1500 metres away and buried almost 2 metres deep! Not very precise, but hugely devastating, nonetheless. Several of these cannons were then assembled and placed in front of the wall of Constantinople. A few hours of attack were enough to ravish the defenses and take over the mythical capital of the Byzantine Empire.

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The earliest Ottoman weapon of which there is a record was the Turkish bow, fired from horseback. This was a weapon which continued to play an important role in both land and sea battles into the sixteenth century, even if later warriors lost the skill of firing it from a galloping horse. At some stage, too, the Ottomans adopted the crossbow, perhaps mainly for use in fortresses. As late as the early seventeenth century, the `Laws of the Janissaries’ notes that the Janissary Corps still maintained a stock of these weapons.

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In addition to bows, Ottoman troops carried a variety of weapons. Spandounes, for example, describes the Azabs as carrying `bows, swords, shields and some [kind of] small axe’; the Raiders he describes as using `swords, small shields and nothing else’. In the mid-sixteenth century, however, the Hungarian Bartholomaeus Georgevits equips them with `lances, javelins, arrows and iron cudgels’. The timar-holding cavalrymen seem to have been, and to have remained until the eighteenth century, adept in the use of the short sword. These troops probably, in fact, used a great variety of weapons, since the law required them to bring their own equipment to battle. They would have had, therefore, to rely on what local craftsmen could produce, and what was available in local markets. A Law Book of 1502, which regulates trading practices in the Rumelian capital, Edirne, lists bowmakers, arrow makers, and sword and dagger makers among the craftsmen of the city. It also, in specifying the minimum quality for categories of saddle, refers to a type called the `Raider’s saddle’. These clauses suggest that Raiders and timar holders bought their equipment in the city market. The law also required timar-holding cavalrymen to provide their own armour, in the form, it seems, of a helmet and light chain mail covering the upper body. A document of November, 1515, ordering a review of troops in the following spring, threatens with decapitation or amputation of an arm, any soldier without a helmet or armlet respectively. The law also required the cavalrymen to provide their own horse-armour.

The Janissaries and the cavalrymen of the Six Divisions, however, received their weapons and armour from a central supply. The manufacture and maintenance of these was the responsibility of the Corps of Armourers, a body of men which the sultan recruited through the Collection. The corps probably originated in the fifteenth century, and its numbers expanded to reflect the number of Janissaries and household cavalrymen. There were, it seems, about 500 armourers in the mid-sixteenth century, and almost 6000 in 1630. They maintained the supply of all kinds of equipment, including handguns and trenching tools for sieges. The most important military development during the period of the rise of the Ottoman Empire was, however, the introduction of cannon and other firearms. These weapons came into use in western Europe during the course of the fourteenth century and, from there spread to the Balkan peninsula. By 1378, cannon were in position on the city walls of Dubrovnik and, during the next decade, came into regular use in the Kingdom of Bosnia and also, one may surmise, in Serbia. Ottoman troops may therefore have encountered them for the first time during raids and campaigns in the western Balkans during the 1380s. However, the Ottomans themselves did not adopt cannon on a large scale until the following century. References to their use of gunpowder weapons during the reign of Bayezid I are untrustworthy. By the 1420s, however, they had begun to use cannon in sieges. Kananos, for example, in his account of the siege of Constantinople in 1422, refers to `large bombards’, which he reports as having had no effect. There are other isolated references to the Ottoman use of cannon in the first three decades of the fifteenth century, but they were not as yet an important factor in warfare.

This changed with the Hungarian wars of the 1440s. During the campaigns of 1443-4, the Sultan’s army had no field artillery. The Hungarians, by contrast, had developed battle tactics which they based on the wagenburg. This was a mobile fortress, consisting of carts chained together to provide a protective wall for troops carrying handguns, with cannon placed on the carts themselves or in the embrasures between the vehicles. The inability of the Ottoman cavalry to overwhelm these fortifications almost lost them the war. The effectiveness of this tactic is clear from the Holy Wars of Sultan Murad, an anonymous but contemporary Turkish account of the campaign. Here, the author makes Turahan advise the Sultan: `My Padishah, command the troops of Islam to withdraw from the wagenburg, because if they do not, these . . . infidels will fire their cannon and arquebuses and the army of Islam will be defeated.’ In another passage, where he describes the bravado of a Turkish captive, the author has him say to the King of Hungary: `You rely on your carts and hope that the House of Osman will attack them, and that you will repel them with cannon and arquebus. But you don’t know that they have understood your trick . . . They will not attack your carts. No, they will surround you at a distance the guns cannot reach.’ The use of the wagenburg brought the Hungarians very close to victory. In 1443, it was the winter weather and the constriction of the army at the Zlatitsa Pass that prevented their further advance. At Varna in 1444, it was the stupidity of the King of Hungary in breaking loose from his army that led to the defeat.

It was, however, a tactic which the Ottomans themselves were very quick to adopt. When the Hungarians again encountered the Ottomans at the second battle of Kosovo in 1448, they found that the sultan had drawn up his ranks behind a `castle-like’ fortification of carts and spiked shields, which the Janissaries defended with guns. Once the Ottoman army had begun to use this tactic, the Hungarians no longer enjoyed a strategic advantage, and the outcome of the battle was a decisive Ottoman victory.

During the Varna campaign, it was artillery that gave the city fell because Mehmed II’s cannon were able to open a breach in the wall. It also exemplifies the type of gun that the Ottomans favoured. What struck contemporary observers about these weapons was their size. The largest, according to the Florentine Tedaldi, threw `a stone of eleven spans and three fingers in circumference, weighing nineteen hundred pounds’, and required, according to the Greek chronicler, Doukas, a team of 60 oxen and 200 men to transport from Edirne to Istanbul. Doukas also reports that it was the work of the Hungarian cannon founder, Urban, who had left the service of the Emperor when the Sultan offered better pay. It was this cannon that destroyed the wall and allowed Ottoman troops to enter the city.

The effectiveness of this gun was clear to all observers, and it was perhaps this experience that encouraged the Ottomans to concentrate on the production of very large cannon for the rest of the century. After the failed siege of Jajce in 1464, for example, the Venetian Malipiero, reported that, before their retreat, the Ottoman besiegers threw five siege cannon, `each seventeen feet long’, into the river Vrbas to prevent their falling into the hands of the enemy. It was probably, too, the difficulty of transporting such large guns in one piece that led the Ottomans to continue the practice of casting cannon, apparently from scrap bronze, in the field. The monster gun for knocking down walls and terrorising the enemy was not, however, the only form of Ottoman artillery at this period. Descriptions of sieges record other types of artillery, notably mortars for firing into the air over fortress or city walls. It seems, too, that the Ottomans used field artillery which, by its nature, must be portable. It was, Ottoman sources convincingly claim, 32 artillery and arquebuses that secured the victory over Uzun Hasan in 1473. The use of large siege cannons was, however, a characteristic of Ottoman warfare.

By 1500, these huge guns were obsolescent. Although capable of inflicting great damage, they had two major disadvantages. First, the heat which a single shot generated limited the number of firings possible in a day. Second, the size and weight made it impossible, once it was in place, to move the cannon to a different section of the defences. These were problems which, in Europe, French artillerymen were to solve in the second half of the fifteenth century. Their solution was to use, instead of single large cannon, batteries of smaller guns. These could not deliver the huge projectiles of the monsters, but instead, by firing rapidly and in succession, could fling the same weight of shot against a defensive wall. Furthermore, this light artillery was easier to move, and so could be used against any point in the defence. The effectiveness of this new technique became clear when the French King, Charles VIII, invaded Italy in 1494.

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