Rockets and Infernal Devices – American Civil War

Rocket used in the United States service was Hale’s. Two sizes were listed, 2¼ inch (outside diameter), weight 6 pounds, and 3¼ inch, weight 16 pounds. Ranges: at 5° elevation, 500 to 600 yards; at 47°, 2¼ inch, 1760 yards, and 3¼ inch, 2200 yards. Light iron case. War heads solid, explosive, or incendiary.

Usually fired from tubes or light carriages. Modern-looking launcher shown has adjustable front legs and sight. It was five feet long. The Hale was an improvement on the Congreve, being spin stabilized by rotation caused by three metal vanes inserted in the exhaust nozzle. The Congreve was stabilized by a long stick. Propellant was slow-burning mixture of niter, charcoal, and sulphur, forced into case under great pressure. Fissuring of packed propellant often caused irregular burning or explosion. Flight was erratic (sometimes endangering the rocket crews), and consequently weapons saw little service.

Hale Spin Stabilized Rocket

Launcher for Hale’s Rocket

Congreve Stick Rocket

From War Years with Jeb Stuart, by Lieutenant Colonel W. W. Blackford, C.S.A.

“Stuart opened on them with a Congreve rocket battery, the first and last time the latter ever appeared in action with us. It had been gotten up by some foreign chap who managed it on this occasion. They were huge rockets, fired from a sort of a gun carriage, witch a shell at the end which exploded in due time, scattering “liquid damnation,” as the men called it. Their course was erratic; they went straight enough in their first flight, but after striking, the flight might be continued in any other course, even directly back towards where it came from. Great consternation was occasioned among the camps of the enemy as these unearthly serpents went zigzagging about among them…. A few tents were fired but the rockets proved to be of little practical value…”

Ketcham’s Grenade, made in several weights:1, 2, 3, and 5 Ibs.

This percussion grenade had to land point first on the plunger, which was kept from striking the cap on the nipple prematurely by a friction spring in the side of the plunger hole. To ensure this, a wooden tail with cardboard fins was plugged into a hole in the upper end.

Hand grenades are almost as old as gunpowder itself and the name of the weapon is immortalized in the titles of many famous Continental regiments. Technical deficiencies, mainly in the weakness of the bursting charge and the means of ignition, kept it from becoming the popular and effective weapon it is today, but the perfection of the percussion cap in the mid-nineteenth century gave the grenade a new lease on life. Thousands were used during the Civil War, over 90,000 of Ketcham’s grenades being purchased by the U.S. government. There were other types: the Adams, and the ingenious but dangerous “Excelsior.” In addition, many thousands of rounds of 6-pdr. spherical case were used as grenades, either thrown or rolled down inclines after the fuse had been lit.


Patented in August 1862, this grenade consisted of an inner and outer shell of cast iron. The inner sphere, which was 2½ inches in diameter, was filled with powder and fitted with 14 nipples, on which percussion caps were placed before using. The outer shell was in two pieces, which screwed together. When striking an object, one of the 14 percussion caps was certain to receive a blow sufficient to detonate it. On exploding, both inner and outer cases would break up into many small pieces.

As there was no safety device, the bomb was exceedingly dangerous after the nipples were capped. For this reason few were manufactured.


Early 15th Century Hundred Years’ War Arms and Armour I

Warlord Games

All three kingdoms, England, Scotland, France, used the same types of arms and armour; it was just that each favoured the use of some particular types more than others. This came from each of three kingdoms having different types of soldier as the core of their armies. Archers, for example, were raised by English, Scottish, French, Gascon and Burgundian captains, but the most sought after were the English and Welsh. Why? They certainly had more experience and had lived in a country which had actively encouraged military archery for at least three generations by the time of Verneuil. But England and Wales were not the only countries which developed some tradition of hand bow archery. William Wallace had archers from Ettrick Forest at the Battle of Falkirk, although it was their absence rather than their presence that had an effect on the outcome of the battle. The Counts of Foix in Aquitaine used archers, both local recruits and English hirelings, in their wars with their noble rivals in the area from about 1360 onwards. The Burgundian army throughout the fifteenth century included archers, perhaps initially in imitation of their English allies. The Burgundians were both enthusiastic hirers of English and Welsh archers and employers of ‘home grown’ archers. So the question remains, why were the English and Welsh the dominant archers on the battlefield for two centuries? While they were not invincible, indeed they were on the losing side in a number of battles, they were never defeated by archers of another nation. But, while we always think of the English and Welsh as longbow archers, the English at least also used crossbows to a limited degree. Unlike the practice in Continental European armies, there is no evidence that they used them in field armies, but only in garrisons.

Men from all three kingdoms wore plate armour, but again the proportion of men using part or full plate armour varied in the three kingdoms. There were two significant stages in the development of plate armour that happened around the beginning of the fifteenth century which have great importance for the Battle of Verneuil. These were the manufacture of full suits of plate armour and advances in iron and steel production. Taken together, they meant that a man wearing the best quality plate armour could be reasonably confident that war-bow arrows presented no fatal threat until they were shot at point-blank range (about 40–60yd) or found one of the gaps in a suit of plate armour necessary to allow movement.

Protecting these openings in a suit of armour was a challenge to armourers which they met with increasing success in the fifteenth century. Just as the English tactical system was unique in military history, so the western European development of full suits of rigid plate armour is not found in any other culture. In the Moslem world, India, China and Japan, robust helmets, chainmail, scale armour and relatively small plates that overlapped or reinforced chainmail were the norm. All of these cultures had sufficient metallurgical skills to make effective plate armour if they wished, it was just that they seemed to prize the flexibility of their style of armour over the arguably higher level of protection offered by full plate armour. Why western Europe military culture developed suits of full plate armour which were extravagantly expensive in their use of materials and skilled time is difficult to explain for certain. The Classical Greek tradition favoured rigid breast and back plates while the Roman tradition went for smaller overlapping plates or even scales. It is likely that the use of powerful crossbows in Continental European warfare and the use of the English and Welsh longbow were a powerful stimulus for this development. Advances in iron and steel production in the late fourteenth century made the development of full suits of plate armour worthwhile because they made it likely that the plate would be more or less impervious to missiles. It was in north Italy where ‘a certain sophistication in manufacturing techniques is apparent by 1400 when higher quality iron and steel were produced by new carburising processes and the use of the blast furnace’. These technological improvements, particularly surface hardening, enabled armourers to improve the impenetrability of their products without necessarily increasing the weight of the suit of armour. This was a significant improvement to field armours, which were tiring to wear while engaging in demanding physical activity like advancing across a rough battlefield or hand-to-hand fighting. If men wearing armour designed for fighting on horseback were fighting on foot, they would find this more tiring than if they had been wearing a foot armour, because a mounted man would tend to wear heavier leg protection. This would have a noticeable effect on the way they walked and on their sustained agility. This may explain in part the behaviour of the Lombards in the Battle of Cravant (see the account of this battle below). Also, most plate armours, whether designed to be worn on foot or horseback, restricted how deeply the wearer could breathe, which in turn affected the wearer’s stamina. In addition to these technological developments, by the second decade of the fifteenth century the armourers of north Italy had come to the final stage of the development of the various pieces of a full body armour, and the way they fitted together.

The developments of the rest of the century were aimed at improving the functionality and appearance of the armour. This armour had been developed to meet the needs of the professional mercenary soldiers in Italy. They had concentrated on ensuring that a mounted man could charge in battle with confidence that he was unlikely to be fatally wounded by the opposing mercenaries. As a result the shoulder pieces or pauldrons were large and asymmetrical (the left being larger than the right to remove the need for a shield) to protect a common weak point in most earlier armours, and the helmet (known as an armet) was shaped like the bow of a ship to deflect arrowstrikes and other blows as the owner charged. These developments led to armour from north Italy being the most sought after for perhaps two generations until the German armourers caught up with the technology. It also meant that mercenaries from north Italy who were equipped with this armour were much sought after, as the account of the Battle of Verneuil below will show.

In the fifteenth century, the design and shape of armour, particularly the pieces protecting the body and the head, developed to improve the protection it offered. Two major helmet types developed: the bascinet, a close-fitting helmet often tapering to a point at the top of the head to provide glancing surfaces; and the sallet, which looked a bit like a smooth, steel baseball cap worn back to front with a tail to protect the back of the neck. Both types were used with or without visors.

A fundamental problem with good suits of plate armour was that, to be as comfortable to wear and effective as possible, the armour had to fit the wearer well. In other words they were made to measure. This made the suits very expensive and time-consuming to obtain. If the armour was made to measure this presented the owner with a major problem – he couldn’t change shape much. This problem is made clear by the armours of Henry VIII in the collection of the Royal Armouries, which show that he gained weight as he aged.

As a result it was difficult for anyone other than the original owner of the armour to wear the suit without alterations, which might include modifying or replacing some parts. But armour was like modern men’s suits: not all are made to measure. There are records of merchants carrying bales of armour and numbers of helmets of differing styles to England, France and Spain. This armour was not designed to make full suits but provide a good level of protection for men who could not afford bespoke armour. Since armour needed to fit well to be comfortable and effective, this had an effect on its value as booty.

Plate armour was worn with various types of soft or flexible protection, and many fighting men wore very little plate – maybe only a helmet. In the main, men who had little if any plate armour couldn’t afford it and would hope to get some as booty. However, some men, what proportion we cannot know, deliberately relied on the more flexible forms of protection because they were lighter, less draining of stamina and relatively effective. These soft, flexible armours included gambesons, chainmail, and brigandines. The gambeson (commonly known as an aketon or actoun in Scotland) was usually made of linen, quilted and padded in vertical strips, commonly long enough to reach the wearer’s thighs. The quilting was usually stuffed with folded linen, woollen fibres or other cheap frayed cloth. When sleeves were part of the gambeson they were separate pieces laced to eyelets in the armholes of the gambeson. The impenetrability of the gambeson depended on how tightly folded the stuffing was but it was an efficient protection much favoured by the English and Welsh archers and Scottish fighting men. Shorter versions were worn under plate armour to cushion the wearer. Chainmail was no longer worn on its own by this time in western Europe but was used with plate armour to protect the spaces necessary for limbs to be able to move freely and often the undersides of arms and backs of legs. The brigandine was like a gambeson with much less padding, having small, overlapping plates like scales sewn onto the garment. These scales were often covered with at least one layer of fabric, sometimes quite showy material. A brigandine was quite heavy, less flexible than a gambeson, but provided better protection. The point has already been made that it is possible that the development of war-bow archery, with its advantages of range, penetration and relatively rapid shooting, encouraged the development of full suits of plate armour, rather than flexible armour such as mail with plates worn to protect particularly vulnerable areas. Even good mail worn over a gambeson will not reliably keep out war-bow arrows if they are fitted with the appropriate head. This last point is key; there was an ‘arms race’ between medieval English arrowsmiths who continued to develop types of military arrowhead between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries to penetrate armour, while the armourers improved the arrow resistance of their products. At the beginning of the period the specialist military arrowheads in use were types whose development can be traced back to Viking times. These included long needle-pointed bodkins that would go through an individual ring in chainmail and quite probably penetrate the gambeson worn underneath. However, as the wearing of armour plates over the mail became more common in the fourteenth century, this type of arrowhead became obsolete. It just bent against plate. While this may not have been a problem for the English archers fighting the Scots in the 1330s, because the great majority of the Scottish soldiers would have no plate at all, it was a problem fighting the knights and nobles of France in the following decades. As a result, shorter, more triangular heads were developed with bigger sockets for the heavier arrowshafts required as bows gained in draw weight. Edward III’s administration made a significant contribution to this development in 1368 when it issued orders to the sheriffs of twenty-six English counties for a large number of arrows. These orders were very specific about the quality of the arrows necessary, not only requiring that seasoned wood be used for the shafts, but saying that the arrows were to be ‘fitted with steel heads to the pattern of the iron head which shall be delivered to him (the sheriff) on the king’s behalf’. These orders were not the first time that military arrowheads made of steel were mentioned in royal orders, but it is the first time that all the heads were to be steel. This, and the supplying of a design pattern, shows that the royal administration wanted a standard, good-quality military arrow with the capability to penetrate plate. However, recent tests suggest that the arrowheads developed later in the fifteenth century to penetrate plate armour may, paradoxically, have been less effective at penetrating gambesons and brigandines.

The types of hand-to-hand weapon used in all three kingdoms were much the same. Every fighting man carried at least one knife, ranging from the specialised misericord through to an everyday eating knife. The misericord, later known as the rondel dagger, had one purpose in war – finishing off an armoured knight. They had long, stiff, slim blades, not uncommonly 12in (30cm) long, and were designed to fit through the gaps in armour. The handles of these daggers often had flat ends to allow them to be driven through mail and padded jackets by a hammer blow from the hand. These were perhaps more commonly owned by wealthier fighting men, although they would be popular battlefield booty. By the fifteenth century they were worn by better-off citizens, aping the military style. The bollock dagger, so named from the shape of its handle, has been found widely in England and parts of northern Europe, and was used by ordinary men. Many bollock daggers found in England are single-edged with blades up to about 13in (335mm) long. They would serve well as fighting knives, although less effective for subduing an armoured man than a rondel dagger, and should be regarded as part of a man’s personal property in peace and war.

Ownership of a sword was almost as widespread among the soldiery of all classes as was ownership of knives and daggers. These varied widely in type and quality depending on the standing of the owner. As a result of the long run of relative military success for the English and Welsh soldiers from 1415 onwards, many of the ordinary archers and men-at-arms probably owned better quality swords than might be expected for men of their social status. From the thirteenth century onwards, knightly swords came in two broad types, the great (or war) sword and the arming sword. The blade of the great sword was about 48in (122cm) long with a grip long enough to allow it to be used two-handed as well as one-handed. Most surviving examples are well enough balanced to allow effective one-handed use. Originally, the great sword had a blade for both cut and thrust, but by the second half of the fourteenth century the blade shape changed noticeably. It was longer, narrower and stiffer, and its manufacturing probably placed greater demands on the skills of the swordsmith than had the earlier type. It is generally considered to have been developed in response to the increasing use of plate armour, which not only provided protection against the arrows of the upstart English archers, but also slashing blows from swords. This new blade shape shows that sword fighting techniques were changing to incorporate more thrusting moves to attack weak points in armour. In the first half of the fifteenth century, if Talhoffer’s manual is any guide, these swords could be used ‘half sword’, with one hand holding the blade halfway down, so that the point could be thrust into the weak points of the armour with force at close quarters. It is difficult to know how attractive great swords would be as booty for the ordinary archer and soldier of the various nations fighting in France at this time because of their specialised design, which required special training to use effectively. The arming sword was smaller, the blade being about 28–32in (71–81cm) long, and was worn as a secondary weapon by most fighting men and as a dress weapon marking social status. This is not to denigrate its real utility as a one-handed fighting sword for both cut and thrust. Most arming swords were light and well balanced so that they could be used in a fast, agile style of fighting which would contrast with the popular image of medieval battles, namely lines of armoured men bludgeoning each other with heavy weapons. The archers and other ordinary infantrymen would often use arming swords.

Lightly armoured men such as archers could take on more heavily armoured men-at-arms with the arming sword because it was easy to manipulate. They also used the more brutal falchion, which had a short, wide, heavy blade with a curved edge and straight back and was used for hacking blows. Besides the inevitable buffeting effect of being hit by a brawny archer using a falchion, the blow could distort or crack individual plates in a suit of armour.
This was also the period when the use of the shield declined, whereas the use of the buckler continued. It has been suggested that this decline came about because of the improvements in the quality of armour and the move to using two-handed weapons like the poleaxe and the great sword. This was despite the undoubted value of a shield against an arrowstorm of war-bow arrows.

Otherwise, the hand weapons used by the men of the various nations involved in the fighting in France in the first three decades of the fifteenth century varied according to the type of fighting they were trained for, their financial and social status, and to some degree which nation they came from.

Finally, in this general summary of the arms and armour used by the men fighting in the wars in France in the first quarter of the fifteenth century, there is the matter of training. Nobles and knights were well trained in use of arms; being an effective fighting man was still one of their major roles in society. Since English armies were made up of paid soldiers it is reasonable to expect that they all had some level of skill with their weapons. Similarly, the French urban militias would have practised. The Scottish soldiers also seem to have had some skill. The legal requirements for ordinary English and Welsh men to practise archery have been noted above. But the question remains, how did all these men gain their weapon skills? For the ordinary men of all three nations there is almost no evidence.

No doubt experienced soldiers led the practice but they have left almost no trace. There are tantalising references in the Register of Freemen of York to two men who may have played a part in this training. In 1298 Robert of Werdale, who was described as an archer, was enrolled in the register, and in 1384–85 Adam Whytt, a buckler player, was enrolled.

To be eligible to be a Freeman in York, these men would have become established in the city by following their trade in their own right for a number of years. They would also be reasonably prosperous since there were fees to pay to be registered. In short, they would have been respectable citizens of York, not just rough, skilled fighting men. They are the only two men on the register who might have been instructors in fighting arts. However, for men who were prepared to pay for training there were manuals of fighting and no doubt masters of arms to train them. In noble households the training was led by experienced members of the household. Some of these may have had access to one of these fighting manuals. But the fact that these manuals were written at all suggests very strongly that there were professional teachers of fighting skills. The earliest manual (Royal Armouries Ms.I.33) dates to around 1300 and was created in south Germany. This German tradition continued when Liechtenaur created his manual somewhere between about 1350 and 1389, when his work was incorporated in another manual compiled by Dobringer. In about 1410 Fiori de Liberi produced the first surviving Italian manual. Evidence of an English tradition of fighting manuals is found in two fifteenth-century manuscripts on swordplay.

The existence of theses manuals shows that the medieval warrior was interested in developing his skills; medieval battles were not just two lines of meatheads battering each other. As Liechtenaur put it, ‘above all things you should learn to strike correctly if you want to strike strongly’. While it would be a mistake to suggest that the majority of the professional fighting men in the wars in France during the early fifteenth century had access to a fighting manual, it is not unreasonable to suggest that many benefited from training or demonstrations by men with skill and experience, some of whom had access to such a manual.

Early 15th Century Hundred Years’ War Arms and Armour II

A period illustration of the Battle of Crécy. Anglo-Welsh longbowmen figure prominently in the foreground on the right, where they are driving away Italian mercenary crossbowmen.

Our picture of arms and armour in medieval England is dominated by images of archery. The English war-bow was about 6ft (1.83m) long, made from a self stave, that is a naturally occurring stave with no gluing or laminating. This bow was used with a long draw; the largest group of the arrows found on the Mary Rose suggest a draw of about 30in (c.760mm). Modern replicas of these bows made from similar woods to those available to the medieval bowyers have a draw weight up to maybe 170lb. These bows were able to launch heavy arrows (about 2¼ oz or 64g min) up to about 270yd (c.247m) if the performance of modern replicas is any guide. We have very little archaeological evidence from the medieval period in general for the bows or arrow shafts, although a good range of arrowheads have survived. The main find of bows and arrows was made in the wreck of the Mary Rose, which sank in 1545. The date of this find means that these bows and arrows come at the end of over two centuries of development driven by real experience of using the war-bow in battle. As a result the performance of the modern replica bows which are made according to the evidence from the Mary Rose may well be better than the majority of bows in use at Crécy and Poitiers but not necessarily of those in use at Agincourt and Verneuil. From the mid-fourteenth century onwards, French, Breton and Burgundian allies of the English kings often bought war-bows in England rather than developing a local bow-making industry. One example of this practice contemporary with the Battle of Verneuil was when Hugh de Lannoy, the Burgundian captain of Meaux, along with four other men, whose names sound French or in one case Italian, were given a licence to ship a number of bows from England without paying duty. Why import rather than make locally?

1. English bowyers had about a century of experience of making war-bows. Their understanding of what wood could do and the efficient design of war-bows would have been unrivalled.

2. England had already established an international timber trade to supply good quality bowstaves to the bowyers.

Despite these two points, there is no doubt that local bowyers in western Continental Europe made longbows and war-bows.

English and Welsh archers in the fifteenth century were expected to turn up at the muster properly and completely equipped, so the English royal administration only had to supply replacement bows. Significant efforts were made to ensure that supplies of these, all of excellent quality, were available for the military archers. As a result there was probably very little variation in the bows the archers used, and no incentive for them to spend money on buying a bow. It is quite possible that some military archers may have had their bows altered to suit them by a local bowyer. Indeed, some of the archers would have the skill to do this themselves. There are occasional references to bowyers being part of a retinue or garrison.

The skill to use these heavy bows effectively does not come easily and the men of England and Wales practised from childhood to develop it. In part they did it because they wanted to but from 1363 onwards they did it because the law said that they should practise archery. There is one question that remains very difficult to answer: is it that only the English and Welsh developed the ability to use this weapon effectively before the fifteenth century? Even after the military reforms of Charles VII in the 1440s, there is no evidence of French archers defeating the English and Welsh archers. The French left the English to their ‘old’ technology and made greater use of gunpowder weapons than the English did, particularly those that could be used in the field rather than purely for sieges or defending fortifications.

The development of arms and armour in England followed the western European traditions as the effigies in many parish churches showing knights and nobles in armour make clear. English armourers of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries could not compete with their Continental rivals for quality and design of armour but they produced perfectly serviceable plate. ‘Soft’ armour rather than plate armour became well developed in England, possibly because of the dominance of the archer in English military thinking. It is also probable that since the English knights and men-at-arms expected to be fighting on foot, they wore lighter armours in general, probably with less plate on the legs than was the practice with some of their enemies, particularly the north Italian mercenaries employed by the French. The archers needed to wear protection which allowed their arms and bodies the easy movement necessary to draw a heavy war-bow. These movements are different from those made in hand-to-hand fighting, particularly the way the shoulders and back have to work (a sort of backward curving motion which can be seen in illustrations in many western European medieval manuscripts). As a result the archers tended to wear gambesons, or to a lesser degree brigandines, because these had a degree of flexibility. They would have had limited arm protection, since whatever they used would have to be close-fitting so that it didn’t interfere with the bowstring. This meant that the best protected archers probably wore a sallet, a brigandine which would be sleeveless and short enough to allow the movement necessary and chainmail sleeves and leggings. As with everything else concerning military equipment in the English armies of this time, except for the war-bow, the type and quality of hand weapons owned and used by the individual soldiers depended on their wealth, social status and military experience.

While all the knights and men-at-arms would own and carry a sword and dagger into battle, many had a preference for some other weapon as their primary means of attack. Because they expected to fight on foot some may have used the great sword, but English knights and men-at-arms often preferred the poleaxe. By the beginning of the fifteenth century, this weapon seemed to have a standard length of about 5ft (1.5m), including the head. (The halberd was a parallel development but commonly less ‘stylish’ than the poleaxe, often up to about 9ft (2¾m) long overall, and was widely used by European infantry.) The head of a poleaxe had an axe blade on one side and a hammer head on the other which was spiked like a big meat tenderiser, and a spike on the top. The head often had long, iron fastening strips which provided the wooden haft with some protection against cutting blows. A modern author described this weapon as ‘… to all intents and purposes a can opener, each blade, spike and face designed to crush and pierce armour plate’. This was a devastating close quarters weapon which was used with both hands, the user relying on his armour, skill and ferocity for survival. Shorter battle axes and battle hammers designed for one-handed use, which could be used mounted or on foot, were also used, often with a shield. How much the English knights and men-at-arms used lances or spears on foot is not clear. The English and Welsh archers demonstrated in most battles that they were good close quarters infantry when necessary. Indeed, they seemed to think that this was as much their job as shooting arrows, and enthusiastically took part in close fighting. They did this for a number of reasons: professionalism, loyalty to their comrades, the chance to take ransom-worthy prisoners or other booty and, in many of the battles, survival. Victory was the only way to ensure this; although there is evidence of archers being captured and ransomed, their prospects were very uncertain in defeat. Every archer would have at least one knife, most likely a bollock dagger, and many would have an arming sword or a falchion. Some muster records show that a sword was regarded as part of the basic equipment of an archer, that he must have to be accepted at muster by the late 1420s at least.83 Many may have used a buckler with their sword, showing skills in the traditional English fighting art of sword and buckler play. The buckler is a small shield 6 to 18in (15 to 45cm) in diameter, held in one hand by a grip made behind the central boss. In addition archers may have used weapons that could be hung in their belts like axes and maces.

Scotland had its own traditions in arms and armour. These were influenced both by native traditions in the Gaelic areas of the country, particularly those described in chronicles, histories and other accounts written in medieval Scotland and in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and Continental traditions imported from England and from France as part of the Auld Alliance. However, the development of arms and armour in Scotland was restricted by the relative poverty and lack of surplus income throughout the medieval period in comparison with England and France. By the start of the fifteenth century, soft armour was the Scottish standard for nobles, knights, chieftains and elite soldiers (Gallowglasses in Irish and West Highland military affairs). This comprised a long-sleeved knee-length aketon made of linen or leather vertically stitched into long, stuffed strips. A full-length mail shirt might be worn over this by the better-off warriors. If grave slabs are any guide, the head was protected by an open-faced bascinet with a chainmail cowl attached to reinforce the protection on the neck and shoulders. It is difficult to know how much reinforced protection for arms and legs was worn. Chainmail leggings or metal splints on forearms and lower legs, if used at all, were more likely among men from the lowlands than among those from the west and the Highlands. Members of the royal family and the high nobility used suits of plate armour by the beginning of the fifteenth century, which were usually imported from Europe. Alexander Stewart, the Wolf of Badenoch, who died in 1405, is shown in full armour on his tomb in Dunkeld Cathedral, while Archibald Douglas, 4th Earl of Douglas, was allegedly wearing armour three years in the making at the Battle of Homildon Hill. At this battle Douglas was wounded five times, including losing an eye and a testicle, which shows that even very good armour (allowing for some exaggeration over the manufacturing time) was not impenetrable in the press of a medieval battle. Ordinary fighting men wore just an aketon, sometimes coated with pitch or covered in leather, and simple open-faced helmets. In 1385 Jean de Vienne, Admiral of France, reported to the French royal council after an expedition to Scotland that he had seen the whole of the Scottish military array and that there were no more than 500 men-at-arms equipped to the standard expected in France. The rest of the men (he thought about 30,000) he considered to be poorly armed and trained and not to be relied on once the enemy was sighted. This comment shows three things. One is the relative poverty of Scotland reflected in the arms and armour that its people could afford. Secondly, since we can assume that a good number of the men he dismissed wore aketons, he was ignorant of how effective a good one could be. Thirdly, by showing his knightly disdain for many of the Scots, he showed no understanding of their fighting spirit, particularly when facing the English. It is probable that over twenty years later, when the Scots were preparing to send men to fight in France, there were more men with better armour because of the profits made from some substantial cross-border raids in the intervening years. But it would remain the case that a good number of the Scottish men-at-arms would be more lightly armoured than their opponents.

The weapons used varied not only with the wealth and status of the individual, but which tradition he belonged to. As with the English, every man carried a knife. In the Lowlands these might be bollock daggers, but specialised ‘anti-armour’ daggers like the rondel dagger seem to have been rarer, no doubt because there was less need for them in most Scottish warfare. In general, Scottish fighting knives were single-edged and the blade could be as long as 18in (46cm). Men from the west of Scotland (possibly including Galloway, which had a long tradition of being different from the rest of southern Scotland, in part because Gaelic survived there longer than in other parts of southern Scotland) and the Highlands used both one- and two-handed swords, axes of varying sizes, spears, and bows and arrows. The men from the rest of Scotland at this time were less likely to be using two-handed weapons, although the knights and nobles who followed the European tradition of arms probably used the great sword. Arming swords, small battle axes and maces would have been used by the better-off soldiers of all types, or infantrymen who had gained battlefield booty. Spears were common among all classes, almost always for use as hand weapons in the schiltron rather than as javelins. There was some tradition of military archery but it is difficult to know now how widespread it was across Scotland.


The use of plate armour developed rapidly in France in the fourteenth century for a number of reasons. There was a large number of men-at-arms including many nobles and knights who had sufficient resources to keep up with developments in military equipment. It is likely that, since France was a much richer kingdom than England or Scotland, there were more men who had excellent imported armours made to more up-to-date standards than could be found in the other two kingdoms. But such men would still be a minority. French nobles, knights and men-at-arms not only fought the English, and amongst themselves in the Orléanist/Armagnac struggles, but also took part in major international adventures like the ill-starred ‘crusade’ that ended at the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396. The French knew from bitter experience the dangers the war-bow posed to them and were determined to nullify it if possible by improving their personal protection. Because they hoped to fight on horseback more than English knights and men-at-arms did, and because of their expectation that they would be facing the war-bow, French knights and men-at-arms may have tended to carry shields more than their opponents. In turn, this would have meant that they were less likely to use poleaxes.

The arms and armour of the non-noble troops are less well described. It is reasonable to assume that the urban militias had gambesons and open helmets at least, and that whatever their main weapon, they carried daggers and possibly swords. It has been noted above that an important role for these militias was providing practised missile troops – most commonly, but not exclusively, crossbowmen. These militias had two major roles; they could defend their own walled towns and cities, and they could provide missile troops in field armies.

Other nations

Men from other nations served in these wars, mainly as part of mercenary companies, although some individuals served, maybe bringing some retainers for support. These individuals can be found in both the French and English armies, but most commonly were men-at-arms from Flanders and the Rhineland serving the English king. While there were never large numbers of these men, they were drawn by the prestige of serving such a renowned soldier as Henry V. They were also drawn by the opportunity to earn pay and booty. The French armies included many mercenaries, mainly from Spain, northern Italy and Scotland. With the exception of the Scots, whose arms and armour have been discussed above, these men wore both plate armour and soft armour according to their status, very much within the military traditions of western Europe. It is quite possible that the Spanish troops may have worn less plate, reflecting their experience of fighting the Moors.

The most advanced mercenary troops in terms of equipment were the armoured horsemen from Lombardy. They benefited from the rapid technical advances made by the north Italian armourers noted above and wore high-quality full plate armour with similar quality protection for their horses. Sometimes a north Italian captain would be hired with a number of men-at-arms, but on a number of occasions it is recorded that these men were hired in ‘lances’. The Italian lance at this time was made up of three men: a man-at-arms wearing full armour and often riding an armoured horse, a valet who wore light armour and fought as a light cavalryman, and a page who was primarily non-combatant.

Honest John and Corporal Rockets

Honest John Rocket

Corporal Rocket

The Ordnance Corps responded promptly to meet part of the Hodge board’s recommended requirements with a special-purpose large-caliber rocket, later known as the Honest John.9 Conceived in 1950 as a direct-support atomic weapon carrier and fielded four years later, the 762-mm. Honest John was a solid-propellant fin-stabilized supersonic free-flight rocket developed by the Douglas Aircraft Company to complement medium- or long-range tactical-support artillery.

The earliest Honest Johns were hastily improvised weapons to augment existing artillery when ammunition problems in Korea were still acute and when the threat from the Soviet Union seemed particularly great. Although capable of firing high-explosive conventional warheads, it was the first large-caliber rocket to carry an atomic warhead. The rocket was based partly on a crude German experimental rocket and partly on a rocket designed by the Navy. The launcher was a simple track, mounted on a standard Army truck, but the mechanism provided the United States with the first opportunity of linking a nuclear warhead with a mobile surface vehicle. Because of their makeshift nature, the rockets soon needed replacement. The improved Honest Johns, which finally reached the field in 1961, had a range of 25 miles (40.2 kilometers) compared to the earlier rocket’s 16-mile (25.7-kilometer) range and had greater accuracy and reliability. Weighing several tons, the rocket’s self-propelled launcher was so light and its fire control so simple that the system had greater battlefield mobility than conventional heavy artillery. The Honest John was aimed and fired in the same manner as cannon, and it could be used in terrain where it was impossible to move an 86-ton atomic cannon that had also been developed. The Honest John presented less of a camouflage problem in position than the heavy gun, but because the back blast upon firing was plainly visible, the rocket launcher had to move out of position quickly to reduce the effects of enemy counterfire. The U.S. Marine Corps and numerous foreign nations also adopted the rocket.

The original Honest John rocket batteries each had three rocket platoons, each with two sections. Each of the six sections had one self-propelled rocket launcher. Until 1957, one battery was attached to each 280-mm. atomic cannon battalion for administrative and operational control. But between 1956 and 1957, the batteries were reorganized as single-firing battery battalions. The firing battery had two firing platoons of two launchers each. Sufficient personnel and equipment were provided to employ the firing sections individually, either as platoons or as battalions, giving the desired flexibility.
Fielding the New Missiles

Spurred in its development by the Korean War and by the Army’s desire to gain a nuclear role in national defense planning, the Corporal, the first surface-to-surface ballistic guided missile with a range of 25 to 75 nautical miles (46.3 to 138.9 kilometers), was an outgrowth of the WAC-Corporal. So named because it was an advance over those in an earlier series known as Privates, the Corporal was developed to provide the Army with a weapon that could deliver a nuclear warhead, extend the range of field artillery, and furnish a readily available means of all-weather heavy fire support. Although it was fielded in 1955, it was never altogether satisfactory. The liquid-fueled Corporal was susceptible to countermeasures, requiring many items of specialized ground equipment and a correspondingly large number of personnel; its mobility was poor and its fueling process slow; and the intervening time between target assignment and actual firing was excessive, given the fuel’s highly corrosive nature. All defects were to be avoided in the second generation of the missile. Despite some improvements, however, many of the criticisms of the earlier missile also applied to later models. The program’s original objective was to provide a total of sixteen battalions in a state of combat readiness by July 1954, but only three battalions were active by that date and none was operational. With the end of the Korean War, however, the goal was reduced. By 1957, eight Corporal battalions were assigned in Europe and five in the United States, the latter number subsequently reduced to four. Despite its shortcomings, the Corporal set the stage for improved tactical-support guided missiles and remained operational until 1964, when the solid-propellant Sergeant replaced it.

The objectives of field artillery missiles and rockets were to provide all-weather fire support for land, airborne, and amphibious combat operations beyond cannon-range coverage; great destruction against “hard” targets, such as tank formations and fortifications; and fire support for combat troops making deep penetrations, such as airborne assaults or armored breakthroughs. Initially, the missile and rocket units were organized in much the same manner as conventional artillery units, with a battalion headquarters and headquarters battery, medical detachment, three firing batteries, and a service battery. In the case of the Corporal, a battalion had an aggregate strength of about 850. This structure was soon reduced by one missile battery, to an aggregate strength of 531. Tests, however, showed that so large an organization was unsatisfactory for any unit whose primary mission was the delivery of nuclear firepower. To achieve a sufficiently large volume of fire with conventional artillery, several guns were grouped in batteries and several batteries to battalions; however, to achieve the same volume of fire with the nuclear-capable Corporal and Honest John, only one missile was needed. Therefore, to exploit the potential of three missile-firing batteries in a battalion, the batteries and missiles would have to be dispersed over a very large area, thus counteracting the operational and logistical advantages of centralized battalion control. These considerations resulted in a single-fire unit organized with a headquarters, headquarters and service battery, and one missile battery with two missile-launching sections. All support functions, including ammunition supply, motor maintenance, and personnel administration, were consolidated at battalion level. The units had limited capability for simultaneous defense against ground attack and no capability against an air attack, thereby requiring that other units provide local security support. The missiles were employed in pairs to ensure timely atomic artillery fire support.

The batteries of the Corporal and Honest John battalions were similar except that the Corporal’s firing battery included a guidance platoon since the missile received commands from the ground during flight. The principal difference in employment of the Honest Johns and Corporals was the time needed to occupy a position and fire. Generally, three battalions each of Honest Johns and Corporals were allotted to a corps.

A battalion practiced four methods of operational deployment. The first was for the battalion to operate in a single area, its batteries colocated until the mission was accomplished, thereby not only reducing command, administrative, mess, local security, and launcher reloading problems but also making it possible to engage targets of opportunity in a minimum amount of time. Its main disadvantage was the increased possibility of the entire unit being detected and destroyed by the enemy and, if that failed, the impending need to displace immediately from the now compromised firing site. The second was for the battalion to split off the firing battery, thereby on the one hand reducing the former’s vulnerability to enemy attack but on the other hand making administrative, mess, and other command functions to the latter more complicated. The third, a variation of the first, involved deploying the battalion to an assembly area with natural cover or camouflage and then temporarily relocating the firing batteries to predesignated firing positions to execute their mission. In this way, with the firing batteries separated for only short periods of time, centralized battalion functions remained unhampered and the assembly area essentially secure. The fourth entailed deploying the firing batteries in their initial firing positions. After the mission was completed, the elements would displace to the vicinity of their alternate firing positions for reloading, thus being ready to attack targets of opportunity without any appreciable loss in time. But survey and communications problems were more pronounced than in the other three methods, and displacement was just as difficult as in the third method. Also, sustained and maximum rates of fire were hard to achieve. Army leaders felt, however, that the high degree of protection against nuclear attack outweighed these disadvantages. On balance, the method employed thus depended on the tactical situation, the operational mission, and the current intelligence on enemy capabilities.

The Underground Factory – Tabun and Sarin II

The factory had been built as the result of a decision made by the Wehrmacht’s Heereswaffenamt (Army Weapons Administration) back in 1938 to go in for the manufacture of Chlortrifluoride for the recently discovered nerve-gas TABUN. Chlortrifluoride, or N-Stuff, as it was called, is an aggressive, highly inflammable substance that needs very special handling. In order to remain perfectly dry, the factory needed a shell five metres thick to prevent any intrusion from the water table. It was envisaged that the whole production process would take place underground as far as loading the finished product in steel containers on railway wagons. However, it would take time to complete the construction of the bunker, for which it was stipulated that only German-born nationals could be employed, so some above-ground laboratories and plants were erected to enable the preliminary development of the manufacturing process from laboratory to factory-scale production. In fact the construction of the bunker was to take until 1943, a full five years to complete, one delaying factor being the difficulty of meeting the manpower requirements at the height of the war.

When Albert Speer became the Minister for Armaments and Munitions in 1943, he decided to implement the production of SARIN II, a later generation of nerve-gas, at the same site. The two products and those concerned with them were kept completely separate. A small satellite camp of the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp was set up that year in the woods north of the site, but whether the inmates were employed in the construction of the SARIN II installations, or used in the assembly of V-Weapons in part of the underground factory remains uncertain.

Considerable effort was given by the Germans to camouflaging the site from aerial observation. Transportation was by a special narrow-gauge track connecting with the main lines at Briesen. These tracks followed the contour of a new concrete road through the forest built to detour local traffic away from the site and were countersunk in the road surface to conceal their profile. Production also required a heavy consumption of electrical power, and immediate post-war maps show a line of overhead pylons stopping abruptly a considerable distance from the site. This clue to something unusual in the vicinity that would merit such a supply was later removed. During the war the Germans continued to rely on camouflage for the protection of the site and no anti-aircraft guns were deployed that might have attracted attention to it.

The upper level of the five-storey factory was concealed under a natural hill in such a way that a railway line ran right through it in a tunnel. Three ventilation towers projected above the hill below the height of the tops of the trees that covered it.

During the brief period the factory was operational, between October 1944 and February 1945, between twenty-two and thirty tons of Chlortrifluoride were finally produced. By this time the site was under SS control and it seems that V-Weapons were also assembled here. When the Red Army established bridgeheads across the Oder river at the beginning of February 1945, production was hastily abandoned and the satellite concentration camp disbanded.

Clearly the factory and site would have been stripped by the Soviets of everything removable in 1945 as part of their reparations scheme. Having no further interest in the site at that time, the Soviets handed it back to the local authorities and it was not until the 1950s that the Soviet Army returned to establish a unit there that had regular contact with the local residents. In this connection, it is believed that the principal communications facility for the Headquarters of the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany at Zossen-Wunsdorf was moved here following the Anglo-American spy tunnel intercept from the south-east corner of the American Sector of Berlin being discovered in April 1956.

Then in the 1970s work was begun on converting the factory into the GSFG command bunker. One of the ventilation towers was filled with filters for use in case of a biological attack, when the other two could be cut off. The railway tunnel was blocked off at either end and airproof personnel entrances installed incorporating a series of three massive steel doors about a metre wide, two metres high and half a metre thick. Between these doors were built decontamination facilities overlooked by control cubicles, and a hospital installed close behind.

Down below, the various production chambers were converted into the control bunker role with raised floors under the communications rooms allowing easy access for the technicians, a special wallpapered, self-contained suite for the C-in-C, and other facilities for the senior officers. The soldiers appear to have been allocated collapsible bunks hinged to the corridor walls, denoted by painted numbers. The main operations room had a false ceiling reducing its original height.

From interpreters who took part, it is known that Warsaw Pact exercises were conducted here, and from 1988 onwards helicopters were heard landing at the site.

The Soviets left the original production structures alone, apart from two halls that they used for basketball and the original accommodation block. But they did build officers’ quarters, a large accommodation block and an hotel with a separate, communal mess hall, all within the outline of the original structures. They also built a cultural centre, an officers’ club, family accommodation and a school, and even some new family accommodation blocks immediately before their departure in 1992. Had it not been for the Four plus Two Agreement, it seems that the army of the new Russian Federation had been prepared to stay and maintain its capacity for a nuclear or biological strike.

[Sources: Seelow Heights Museum and Dr Heini Hofmann of Falkenhagen]

IG Farben

The Gerät 104 ‘Münchhausen’ Bordwaffe

Christened ‘Münchhausen’ after the fabled Baron of that name – usually pictured riding a cannonball, the Rheinmelall-Borsig firm had begun design of the Gerät 104 as early as 1939, intended by the RLM to be carried by an aircraft for use against fortified bunkers and naval targets. The RLM had specified that a shell of 700kg (1,543lb) weight be capable of penetrating deck armour up to an angle of 60°. The recoil problem of firing a large-calibre heavy shell was overcome by propelling a counterweight of equal mass in the opposite direction simultaneously along the barrel. As shown in the illustration, this recoilless weapon was to have been mounted beneath the Dornier Do 217. Due to the weight of the shell and the counterweight, reloading in flight was not possible. Initial velocity to the shell was imparted by a black powder charge contained in the counterweight, which was propelled out into the air-stream. A ground static test-firing with a Do 217 mounted on a movable trolley was carried out in 1941, but although the weapon functioned as planned, the aircraft suffered heavy damage to the rear fuselage and elevators from the exhaust gases. Improvements in the form of additional protection for the skinning and side openings for the gas exhaust showed no acceptable results.

The RLM had ordered three examples of the Gerät 104 in 1939, intended to be retracted hydraulically into the ventral fuselage of the Do 217 and Ju 288G. In all, 14 rounds were fired, but the installation of an additional 110kg (242lb) of extra strengthening to the Do 217 air-frame was never carried out before the weapon was cancelled in 1941. The recoilless Gerät 104, however, did serve as a useful forerunner for smaller and lighter weapons working on the same principle – the Sondergeräte (special devices) SG 113 ‘Förslersonde’, SG 116 ‘Zellendusche’, SG 117 ‘Rohrblock’, SG 118 ‘Rohrblock’ and the SG 119 ‘Rohrbattserie’.


Experimental 6 inch (150 mm) Krupp armour plate from 1898.

The various types of iron and steel in armour are often a source of confusion. Without going into detail on the process of converting iron ore into iron or steel, the various types of metal used for armour can be briefly described. Iron with lower carbon levels is usually more malleable and flexible than iron with higher levels of carbon. The greater its carbon content, the stronger the iron is, but the greater its rigidity.

In the nineteenth century, armour was mostly made of cast iron, wrought, or rolled wrought iron, chilled cast iron, and steel later in the century. Cast iron is hard because it contains high levels of carbon and it is cast in a mould. Its carbon content is greater than in steel and therefore it is not malleable. Wrought iron is very low in carbon content making it comparatively soft compared to cast iron, but it is malleable. Rolled wrought iron is wrought iron that is broken up and reheated to create a higher quality of wrought iron. The American Civil War monitors and other ironclads were made of wrought iron. The first armoured ship was the French warship La Gloire, built in the 1850s to counter the development of the explosive shells that spelled an end to wooden-hull warships. Advancements in naval armament generally preceded similar developments for land fortifications. In the mid-1870s, the Italians began building steel ironclads, while land fortifications continued to use wrought-iron armour until almost the end of the 1880s.

In the late 1860s, steel armour was a hard enough surface to deflect shot, but steel plates were still too brittle to stand up to multiple hits. Thus in 1968, Grüson perfected its trademark chilled cast iron, a low-carbon cast iron. To produce this type of iron Grüson combined two types of pig iron: a highly carbonized type known as white iron, and a less carbonized soft grey iron. Layers of each type of iron, wrote Major A.G. Piorkowski in Scientific American, were ‘chilled by being cast in partly iron molds, thereby attaining an extraordinary hardness of surface, without apparently weakening the tenacity’. When the surface cooled, the two layers of white and grey merged so gradually that there was no marked line of separation in the metal. The outer surface held the carbon, which gave it hardness, while the interior layer was softer or more elastic. Thus, if an artillery round managed to break the surface, the area behind it, which was not brittle, did not shatter. In this manner, Grüson was able to combine hardness on the surface with tenacity in the metal below it to increase the resistance of the armour. He was able to cast his metal in any form and size required and to produce curved exterior surfaces, which was impossible with wrought iron. Due to their shape, his curved plates supported one another by remaining in position without bolts to hold them in place. Grüson’s process allowed the production of large plates that reduced the effects of a hit by distributing them over a large area. Other manufacturers who tried a similar process produced an armour with a distinct separation point between the white and the grey iron, which made the outer layer more vulnerable to shattering. In the 1880s, it was claimed that chilled cast iron had the ability to resist hits from the newly developed ordnance, including the Krupp armour-penetrating shells.

Grüson’s chilled iron amour was tested at the army’s artillery range at Tegel (just west of Berlin) between 1869 and 1871. During these tests, a 24-pounder (150mm) rifled gun, a 72-pounder (8.3in), and a 9.4in gun fired against embrasure plates and side plates. In 1871, a 210mm (8.3in) mortar fired at roof plates. During additional tests in 1873–1874, two types of 150mm (5.9in) guns with shell and solid shot fired against Schumann’s first chilled iron turret. The results of all these experiments were favourable. Another test against a second turret in the summer of 1874 revealed that additional, more rounded plates were needed. Grüson conducted additional trials, mainly at his firing range at Buckau outside of Magdeburg, between 1882 and 1885. Despite the success of this armour, a committee decided that heavier and thicker glacis plates were needed and future cupola plates should have a flatter profile curve. Unlike the glacis armour, it concluded, the turret armour had ‘considerable excess strength’.

In tests they conducted in 1886, the French determined that the high-explosive melinite shell of 1885 completely shattered cast-iron armour. As a result, they went back to using laminated or compound armour (see below), which they had abandoned in the late 1870s. In the 1890s, following the German lead, the French adopted steel armour produced with new casting methods. A major test at La Spezia, Italy in April 1886 involving a 100-ton Armstrong 16.9in gun came up with mixed results. However, it was limited to individual armoured plates. Shells that struck the sides of the Grüson chilled iron armoured turrets designed by Schumann shattered like glass. The cast off fragments inflicted little to no damage to the turret or other positions under the curved armour. When the Grüson armour took a hit, the result was usually a bright splash or a very slight indentation of a fraction of an inch.

Grüson chilled cast iron armour predominated on the Continent until the end of the century. It gradually replaced rolled wrought iron in fortifications and warships after 1875. Naval armour had gone from wrought-iron plates covering teak wood to compound armour consisting of a steel plate welded onto iron plates. This arrangement was not successful since the steel could shift or completely separate from the iron. In 1883, the Schneider Company tested all steel armour plates with some success. In the 1890s, the new ‘Harvey’ armour was developed. It consisted of soft steel with a carbonized surface to give it hardness and better resisting power.

Before the advent of Harvey armour, in 1875, the Italian navy held a competition at La Spezia to test new types of armour. The French Schneider Company dominated the competition with a new type of soft steel, which unfortunately broke under stress. A British manufacturer solved the problem of welding steel plates to iron in 1877. By the end of the 1880s, better quality steel armour replaced compound armour mainly for use on ships. In 1889, nickel-steel alloys improved the quality of armour plate. The next major improvement came in the 1890s when the American Hayward A. Harvey developed Harvey amour with hardened plate surfaces. This was done by covering the steel plate with charcoal and heating it at high temperatures for a few weeks then chilling it in oil and water baths successively. This process, which increased the carbon content on the surface and gradually decreased it inward, was very similar to Grüson’s, but greatly improved the qualities of the final product.

The American navy adopted nickel-steel for its ships to take advantage of its increased strength. Other nations followed suit. In the late 1890s, Krupp armour replaced Harvey armour for both naval and land fortifications. In 1893, Krupp developed a method similar to Harvey’s, but added chromium to the alloy to increase hardness. He also used carbon-bearing gases to heat the steel instead of covering the surface with coal, which yielded casehardened steel of greater strength than Harvey steel. The protection offered by 25.9cm (10.2in) of Krupp armour was the same as 30.4cm (12in) of Harvey armour. Krupp followed this up at the turn of the century with Krupp ‘cemented armour’ that included nickel, chromium, and manganese, which gave it greater elasticity and reduced spalling and cracking from direct hits. Krupp took over the Grüson Werks in 1893 and soon began producing steel armour for land fortifications.