Russian Artillery of the 16th Century

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Russian Artillery of the 16th Century

The Czar Cannon

Also known as the Great Mortar of Moscow, the Czar Cannon was cast of bronze in 1586 and was the last and the largest of the bombards. Cast by master metalworker Andrei Chokov for Czar Fyodor I (b. 1557; r. 1584-1598), son of Ivan the Terrible (b. 1530; r. 1547-1584), the great gun has never been fired and is now exhibited in Moscow. Already an anachronism when cast, it is, however, a masterpiece of the bronze-caster’s art and is awe-inspiring in its scale (al- though it would probably burst if actually fired). The Moscow cannon is 18 feet long, weighs more than 40 tons, and is 36 inches at the muzzle. Essentially a straight tube, it is decorated with equestrian portraits of Czar Fyodor and has four handles molded into each side to aid in transporting its bulk. Although originally designed to fire grape shot, the Czar Cannon is now exhibited with four large balls weighing approximately 2,000 pounds each and rests on a huge, decorative gun carriage.

Classification of Sixteenth – Century Cannons

Although seemingly infinite variations existed, the evolving standardization of cannon types offered some rudimentary consistency in defining artillery according to its design, ammunition, use, and nationality. As a general rule the various European powers shared ba- sic designs with inevitable regional differences, such as the Spanish tendency to field heavier guns of similar type to those of England. By about 1550, King Henry II of France had made the significant step of standardizing his guns’ calibers, a move that greatly simplified ordnance manufacture and supply. Typical French artillery types of the period included the 5,200-pound, 10.5-foot-long Cannon, firing a 33-pound ball; the 11-foot-long, 4,000-pound culverin 15-pounder; and the 7-foot-long, 410-pound falconet, the smallest category, which fired a 12-ounce ball.

In 1544, Germany’s King Charles V attempted to impose some standardization on his artillery by limiting standard gun types within his artillery train. These included cannons firing 40-pound balls, the 24-pounder cannon moyane, 12-pounder culverins of two varieties, two models of 6-pounder culverins, and a light 3-pounder falcon. In Holland, Prince Maurice of Nassau moved to increase the efficiency of his ordnance by ordering the standardization of his gun types to 6-pounders, 12-pounders, 24-pounders, and 48-pounders. The issue of one standard carriage type capable of accepting any of these gun tubes further simplified Dutch artillery logistics.

By the end of the century Germany had emerged as the leader in artillery design and production, and in 1592 the Spaniard Luis Collado attempted to classify guns according to the Germans’ system. Collado thus identified long-range guns such as culverins and sakers as first-class guns, and fortification battering cannons as second- class pieces (technically, the only “true” cannons of the period); pedreros, mortars, and bombards used to fire heavy stone shot against ships and to defend fortifications were third-class. Collado further subdivided these primary classifications into numerous subgroupings based on size and caliber.

The amount of metal used in manufacturing cannons was a constant concern for cannon makers as they strove to maintain the lightest possible guns without sacrificing safety. A key factor was the amount of gun-metal used-bronze being more flexible than the relatively brittle cast iron and thus requiring less metal in comparatively sized pieces. The thickness or “fortification” of the bore’s walls became another form of gun classification. English gun founders, for example, rated cannons on an ascending scale of fortification as “bastard,” “legitimate,” and “double-fortified.” The fortification of a particular gun determined the amount of gunpowder used in individual charges and thus directly affected the effective range of each piece.

The second-class reinforced cannon proved one of the most effective guns of the period, with a range and destructive power to rival those of the culverin. The so-called 60-pounder was one of the most popular sizes, as it was imminently versatile, rugged, and, despite its classification, fired a potent 55-pound shot. As they often fired lighter stone balls and required less powder, third-class guns often mounted barrels of lighter weight.

Gun founders also reduced the weight of guns by incorporating a powder chamber of somewhat smaller diameter than the bore. The only significant flaw inherent to early chambered guns lay in the tendency of less experienced crewmen to mistake the outer rim of the chamber for the rear of the gun while ladling powder, thus emptying the gunpowder at the chamber’s mouth. The Spanish attempted to alleviate this problem by introducing a chamber with a tapered or bell-shaped mouth known as the encampanado. The Spanish cañon encampanado was one of the finest guns of its day, as it was both light and capable of long-range, accurate fire. One of the smallest artillery pieces of the period, the robinet, was generally strapped atop a simple wooden stock and used as an antipersonnel weapon mounted on castle walls or on ships to repel boarders. A surviving example of Austrian origin is held in the collection of Fort Nelson in England and made around 1570. It is of approximately 1.5-inch bore and fired a 1-pound ball. An inscription on its barrel alludes to the small yet deadly nature of its shot: “I am forsooth an uncouth peasant- who tastes my eggs won’t find them pleasant” (Norris, 122).

Russian Artillery

During the reign of Ivan IV the role of Muscovite artillery, organized under the Pushkarskaya liba ( ‘gunnery house ) , increased significantly . In 1547 the gunners-who lived separately from other troops but were nevertheless part of the streltsi – became a independent formation called the naiad. In 1581 a special pikaz or regiment of pushkarski (from pushka, gun) was formed. In 1558 ambassador Fletcher had written: No one sovereign of Christendom has so many guns as them, which is proved by their great number in the Palace Armoury in the Kremlin… all cast from bronze and extremely beautiful. The campaign dress of gunners varied but was similar to Russian folk costume and to the kaftans of the streltsi; however the artillery kaftan was shorter, being called a chug kaftan. At first artillerymen also used traditional mail armour, helmets and vambraces. Their winter uniform was a Russian folk polushubok or sheepskin coat.

At this period Russia had many talented gun – founders, such as Stepan Petrov, Bogdan Piatoy, Pronia Fedorov and Kashpir Gunysov. Kashpir’s pupil Andrey Chokhov became the best known of them all; he cast his first gun in 1568, his second and third in 1569, and all were sent to strengthen the defences of Smolensk . Chokhov’s first known large calibre siege gun was cast in 1575, and was again sent to Smolensk. Today 12 of his guns are still preserved (he made over 20), seven in the State Museum of Artillery in St Petersburg, three in the Moscow Kremlin, and two in Sweden since being captured during the Livonian war. Each of Chokov’s guns was named, including the Vixen (1575), the Wolf (1576), the Persian (1586), the Lion (1590), and King Achilles (1617). In 1586 he produced a huge gun, decorated with the figure of Tzar Fedor Ivanovich riding a horse, which came to be known as the ‘Tsarushka’ and which now stands in the Moscow Kremlin. Nevertheless, the widespread idea that Russia concentrated on the production of large guns during the 16th century is incorrect. Many different types of gun were cast at that time, to be used by field armies and in timber fortresses along Russia’s extensive frontiers.

Their special skills made the pushkari or gunners men of high value, who received large wages in cash, bread and salt. On the other hand, their role was not considered very honourable, since it required considerable experience without any guarantee of success. Consequenty the streltsi often refused to serve as pushkari, and this branch of the military profession became more hereditary than the others. Such gunners frequently showed great devotion to duty. For example, outside Venden on 21 October 1578 during the Livonian war, the Russian artillerymen, unable to bring their guns safely off the battlefield, actually hanged themselves on ropes attached to the barrels.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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