1400-1590: Ottoman weapons II


Armour and weapons of an Ottoman Sipahi cavalryman, circa 1550, on display at the Musée de l’Armée in Paris, France.



The feudal-based sipahi cavalry were a core feature of Ottoman armies from the Fifteenth through to the late Eighteenth centuries. The sipahi’s were professional mounted warriors granted a land fief in trust from the Sultan. The income from this fief allowed the sipahi to maintain his horse, weapons and equipment, and in return he had to be available for military service whenever the Sultan required it. On mobilisation sipahis from the same region were formed into units of up to 1000 horsemen each. By the Sixteenth century it is estimated that the Ottoman army could put 40,000 sipahis into the field. Originally raised from Turks in Anatolia the sipahi system was also extended into the new territories and populations of Ottoman controlled Europe – ‘Rumelia’ – as the Empire grew.

At the peak of their strength the sipahis were the spearhead of the powerful Ottoman armies that invaded the Balkans, conquered all of southeast Europe and struck fear across the rest of the West. The superior discipline, organisation and size of these armies compared to their European opponents made them all but invincible for the better part of three centuries of warfare. Only with the defeat of the last Ottoman attempt to capture Vienna in 1683 was the Ottoman threat to Europe finally broken.


The Ottomans soon learned of this strategy. In 1501, a French fleet sailed to the Aegean and laid siege to the fortress of Mitylene on Lesbos. The commander of the fleet, Philippe de Cleves, was a theoretician of war and, in particular, of the use of firearms on galleys. He was able therefore to disembark his troops successfully under the cover of galley fire and to bring up his artillery against the fortress. Here, the mobility and effectiveness of his cannon particularly impressed the two Ottoman authors of a report on the siege, who commented also on the French use of iron cannon balls. The siege in the end failed through poor organisation of the assaults rather than through deficiencies in artillery.

The Ottomans very quickly learned the lessons of Charles VIII’s Italian campaign and of the French assault on Mitylene. Within a decade they had abandoned the use of the monster gun as the mainstay of siege artillery and begun to adopt French techniques in the manufacture and use of cannon. Spandounes, writing in 1513, remarked on the change:

In the past, they had only large artillery, which they transported with the greatest trouble in the world. They carried the said pieces and recast them in the field where they happened to be. However, not long since, a large number of sailors and other men of war, even cannoneers and founders, have gone to Constantinople, and ever since King Charles came to Naples . . . these have shown them as much how to manufacture and mount artillery as to how to use it.

Other sources confirm what Spandounes says. A record of the Imperial Gun Foundry in Istanbul between 1522 and 1525 shows that 97 per cent of cannon – that is 1027 pieces – manufactured during these years were small to medium-sized guns. Similarly, an inventory of the weapons store at Belgrade in 1536 shows that, out of 485 guns, 82 per cent consisted of small cannon. The Ottomans did continue to manufacture and use large cannon – basilisks – but in small numbers relative to lighter pieces. This is the impression, too, that emerges from the Savoyard Jean Maurand’s account of the gun foundry in 1544. Here, outside the building, he saw `a large number of cannon of all sorts: forked cannon, culverins, field pieces, basilisks, mortars and [the light cannon known as] esmirigli and versi.’ It was, however, still the very large guns that impressed him most. He comments especially on the eleven basilisks, and on the mortars which the Ottomans had used in the siege of Rhodes twenty-two years earlier. These were so large that `a man could enter the mouth cavity by kneeling’. By Maurand’s time, however, Ottoman artillerymen used basilisks not as a main weapon, but as a supplement to the lighter batteries, to bring down already weakened walls. For example, at the siege of Famagusta in 1571, Pietro Bizari describes an Ottoman battery as `having seventy-four battering guns, of which four were of terrifying and disproportionate size, known generally as basilisks’.

Spandounes attributes the Ottoman adoption of the French style of artillery to the import of foreign technicians. His observation must, in part at least, be true, given the ease with which military technology crossed cultural boundaries. The Ottomans had probably acquired their earliest knowledge of artillery in the Balkans, before contact with the Genoese had familiarised them with Italian techniques of manufacture and use. Mehmed II’s cannon manufacturer, Urban, was Hungarian, practising a craft that had probably spread to Hungary from south Germany. In 1456, the German gun founder Jörg of Nuremberg entered the service of the King of Bosnia. When Mehmed II conquered Bosnia, he took Jörg prisoner and employed him as a cannon founder until his flight to Vienna in 1480. Spandounes indicates that this traffic in craftsmen continued in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, a point which Maurand confirms with his statement that there were forty or fifty Germans manufacturing artillery pieces in the Foundry. At about the same time as Maurand, the French ambassador D’Aramon claimed that many `French, Venetians, Genoese, Spaniards and Sicilians’, whom the Ottomans had captured on land and sea, worked in the gun foundry. In the mid-sixteenth century, too, the French traveller De Nicolay made the claim that the Jews who had migrated to the Ottoman Empire after their expulsion from Spain, brought with them a knowledge of artillery manufacture.

The importance of these foreign gun founders and artillerymen in the service of the sultan was that they represented a route for the transmission of technology: artillery manufacture and use was an international business. They were, however, a minority. Most of the men responsible for the manufacture, maintenance and use of artillery were members of the Corps of Gunners, a body which had perhaps come into existence in the mid-fifteenth century, when artillery came to form a regular and important element in siege and battlefield tactics. By the sixteenth century the main source of recruitment to this corps was through the Collection. Lists of gunners, however, also indicate the presence of native born Muslims and Christians, with a tendency, as the century progressed, for Muslims to outnumber Christians. The Corps of Gunners, therefore, provided a body of native expertise, while the employment of foreign technicians was a means for the acquisition of new technical knowledge.

Most Ottoman cannon were cast from bronze. The transition from wrought iron which seems in the main to have occurred during the mid-fifteenth century, was, however, gradual. As late as 1514, in his enumeration of Ottoman cannon on the Chaldiran campaign, Menavino records `two hundred large bronze bombards and one hundred iron ones’. The accounts, however, of the gun foundry in Istanbul from between 1522 and 1525 suggest that, by this time, Ottoman artillery pieces were exclusively bronze. This was still the case when when Evliya Chelebi described the foundry over a hundred years later, in the 1660s. Copper for making bronze was available from within the Empire, in particular from the mines in Kastamonu in northern Anatolia. The other component in the alloy, tin, seems to have been rarer, and some, at least, was imported. The foundry accounts, however, show that the manufacturers supplemented the supply of new ore with scrap bronze. This came to the foundry especially in the form of obsolete cannon, from the stock in the sultan’s garden or directly to the foundry wharves. Other bronze items, such as old pitch cauldrons, supplemented the supply of obsolete and faulty guns. 37 Iron cannonballs, introduced probably after the French siege of Mitylene in 1501, the Ottomans manufactured not at the gun foundry in Istanbul, but at the centres of iron production, notably Samokov in Bulgaria.

Similarly, it was the availability of saltpetre that seems to have determined the sites of the mills for producing gunpowder, with the main centres of production in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Buda, Temesvar, Belgrade, Thessaloniki, Gallipoli and Istanbul in Europe, in Bor in Anatolia, in Aleppo, Baghdad and Yemen, and in Egypt. The Empire was, it seems, self-sufficient in saltpetre, except occasionally when hostilities were prolonged, such as during the war with Iran of 1578-90, or the Austrian war of 1593-1606. The Treasury attempted to monopolise production by ensuring that, whenever a new source of saltpetre came to light, it became part of the sultan’s personal estate. Sulphur, on the other hand, was less abundant. The conquests of Süleyman I (1520-66) in eastern Anatolia brought the beds in the district of Van and Hakkari under Ottoman control, and further supplies were available from near the Dead Sea, and from Melos and Moldavia. Nonetheless, it was still necessary to import sulphur, especially from Iran. The third ingredient of gunpowder is charcoal. In most places this was easily available, but some areas of production were virtually treeless, forcing the manufacturers to find alternatives, such as shrub roots, mimosa and tamarisk in the Sinai Peninsula. The process of refining saltpetre also consumed a huge amount of fuel, but for this, anything combustible would serve.

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