This lathe, or shaper, invented by Thomas Blanchard, was a key development in the history of gunmaking. Installed at the Springfield Armory in the early 1820s, the lathe allowed the duplication of the irregular shapes of wooden stocks. Although the shaper shown is no longer in use, this technology is still used in some parts of the world.

Roswell Lee

The Springfield Armory was the most important manufacturer of military firearms in the US between 1794 and 1968. Established in 1777 as the country’s key weapons store during the Revolutionary War, the Armory became famous for pioneering the kind of mass-production techniques that allowed precision-engineered products to be built in large numbers. Led by Roswell Lee between 1815 and 1833, the Armory’s mechanized production techniques had a huge impact, not only on the firearms business but also on American industry as a whole.

George Washington himself recommended Springfield, Massachusetts, as the location for an arsenal. He appreciated the high, defensible site near the Connecticut River, and the proximity of the river and roads was convenient for transportation. In 1777, the arsenal was founded to store a range of ammunition and arms. When the move was made to weapons manufacture in the 1790s, there was an expansion to lower-lying land to the south and west, near water that could provide a source of power. Here a foundry and workshops were built, beginning a tradition of firearms manufacturing in the area.


In 1794, the Springfield Armory began to manufacture firearms, starting with muskets. As a major arms producer it made weapons for the US forces in the War of 1812, for Union troops during the American Civil War (1861-65), and in the Spanish-American War (1898). The Armory became a center for innovation as engineers and craft workers found ways of making better weapons and improving the efficiency of the production process. Some of these developments were groundbreaking, placing the Armory at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution. For example, in 1819, inventor Thomas Blanchard devised a machine on which workers could produce rifle stocks. Blanchard’s machine, usually known as a lathe, was strictly a shaper, working in a way similar to a modern key-cutting machine in which an original shape is copied on to a stock blank. It enabled gun stocks to be mass-produced for the first time. Springfield also pioneered the production of guns using interchangeable parts (a field also developed by Samuel Colt and many others), allowing firearms to be assembled at speed and repaired with ease. This method of production relied not only on new machinery but also depended on the division of labor, with separate workshops for different parts of the production process, precise measuring and gauging of components, and good quality control. By the time of the Civil War, the Armory was using state-of-the- art machines for milling, turning, grinding, and shaping, some driven by water, others by newly installed steam engines. These technological advances were accompanied by up-to-date management and accounting methods, introduced by Colonel Roswell Lee, who became superintendent of the Armory in 1815.


The Armory’s production facility was adaptable, producing a range of muzzle- loading weapons. In the 1840s, the Armory achieved the goal of producing firearms with interchangeable parts, and was able to build guns in large numbers during many conflicts of the 19th century. From about 85,000 Charleville Pattern smoothbore muskets (without interchangeable parts) produced between 1795 and 1815, the Armory’s volume of production jumped to 800,000 Springfield Model 1861 rifled muskets (with interchangeable parts) during the Civil War. The techniques of mass production developed at Springfield during the 19th century made the Armory well placed to produce firearms in the huge numbers needed for major 20th-century conflicts. New improvements, such as the arrival of electrical power, also helped the Armory in this respect. The early 20th century saw the production of bolt-action repeating rifles, including the Krag rifle, designed in Norway, and the Model 1903, which was designed in Springfield. The retooling and adaptation required to produce these new weapons was a challenge, but thanks to machine upgrades and a reorganization of the workforce, they were successfully put into production and demonstrated that the Armory could build quality firearms en masse. The Armory’s Model 1903 was used in both world wars. It was followed by a new generation of semiautomatic firearms, including the famed Garand rifle of 1936, which made US infantrymen much better equipped than those in other parts of the world who were issued with slower bolt-action rifles. Such products kept the Armory going through the mid-20th century, until the US government decided to rely solely on private manufacturers and shut down the facility in 1968.


Vortex weapons

Like the Vortex Gun, the Wind Cannon was also developed by a factory in Stuttgart during the war. It was a type of gun that would eject a jet of compressed air against enemy aircraft. It was a strange device consisted of a large angled barrel like a bent arm resting in an immense cradle like some enormous broken pea-shooter lying askew. The cannon worked by the ignition of critical mixtures of hydrogen and oxygen in molecular proportions as near as possible. The powerful explosion triggered off a rapidly-ejected projectile of compressed air and water vapor, which, like a solid “shot” of air, was as effective as a small shell. Experimental trials of the cannon at Hillersleben demonstrated that a 25mm-thick wooden board could be broken at a distance of 200m. Nitrogen peroxide was deployed in some of the experiments so that the brown color would allow the path and destination of the otherwise transparent projectile to be observed and photographed. The tests proved that a powerful region of compressed and high-velocity air could be deployed with sufficient force to inflict some damage. However, the aerodynamics of a flying aircraft would almost surely neutralized the effectiveness of this cannon. In addition the effects of the cannon on a fast-flying aircraft was quite different from that on a fixed ground target. Still, the cannon was installed on a bridge over the Elbe, but with no significant results — either because there were no aircraft or simply no successes (as one might suspect). The wind cannon was an interesting experiment but a practical failure.


The first documented occurrence of the development of a weapon using abrupt changes in pressure goes back to the Wunderwaffen, literally “wonder weapons”-the name given by the Ministry of Propaganda to the experimental weapons program of the Third Reich. Shortly before the Nazi surrender, American Major General Leslie E. Simon was sent with others to Germany to lead an inquiry into the program. He would publish his observations in 1947 under the title German Research in World War II.

He mentions in particular that under the authority of Albert Speer, then minister of armaments, a research center situated near Lofer, Austria, worked “to duplicate in miniature the effects of tornados” thanks to a vortex cannon. The vortex is a (natural or artificial) phenomenon that takes the form of a whirlwind in which the moving particles (air, water) wrap in a spiral around a zone of low pressure. To produce a vortex in a controlled manner, Dr. Zippermeyer, who was responsible for this research, used a mortar set in the ground, which launched a projectile filled with carbon powder and a weak explosive charge. Once in the air, according to the scientist, the powder explodes and a vortex is created if the projectile is moving at a speed of at least several hundred meters per second. The idea was to be able to “remove the wings” of planes, which would be unable to sustain the resulting pressure differential. Simon indicates that “he achieved a considerable vortex effect,” but he doesn’t mention any use of the cannon other than an experimental one. Another prototype was developed by a company in Stuttgart: a “wind gun” aiming to shoot a “plug of air” at an airplane to destroy it. A model of this cannon projecting air by means of a mix of oxygen and hydrogen was found at the test center in Hillersleben. The Germans working on-site announced that the device could “break one-inch boards at a range of 200 meters but it produced no appreciable effect on aircraft at normal ranges.” It failed to ensure the anti-aircraft defense of a bridge on the Elbe.

Vortex weapons were the subject of major research in the twentieth century, not only in Germany but also in the Soviet Union and in the United States. It is not just the kinetic energy of the vortex, its power of impact, that interests researchers and military folks, but also the fact that its centrifugal force allows it to transport other particles. No weapon seems to have moved beyond the prototype stage. During World War II, the American inventor Thomas Shelton worked on resolving the problem of the unpredictability of combat gases, which a strong breeze can send back toward those who launch them. He developed a device that propels a vortex of noxious gas, which can thereby transport the poison over long distances. The prototype “sent a 45-cm smoke ring a distance of 50 meters with an `eerie howling sound.’ It would never be used.

In the early 1970s, the United States showed particular interest in developing “vortex rings and wind-generation machines” for “crowd and mob control,” but no known result emerged. In 1996, Dr. Andrew Wortman of a company called Istar proposed the development of a “vortex ring generator” with the same goal, but the army did not pursue the research “because it required fielding an entirely new system, and the trend in the Army was to reduce weight and logistic costs.” In 1997, ARL and ARDEC began to recycle and proposed adding a “kit” to the MK19-3 grenade launcher, which would provide “a means of quickly converting the Navy MK19-3 automatic 40-mm grenade launcher between lethal and nonlethal modes of operation” and allow it to shoot not only grenades but also gas vortices transporting chemical products. In the end, it was concluded “the kit enables the weapon to apply flash, concussion, vortex ring impacts, marker dyes, and malodorous pulses onto a target at frequencies approaching the resonance of human body parts,” but “gaps in technology . . . inhibit fielding.” In terms of developing “non-lethal” weapons, that same year the JNLWD launched a dedicated program, the Vortex Ring Gun Program, still with ARL. It was an ambitious project:

“The Vortex Ring Gun (VRG) program will design, build, and successfully demonstrate the capability to produce combustion-driven, ring vortices that will deter and disorient hostile individuals or crowds.”

Once again, a combination of the vortex with other effects was envisaged:

Applications could include an ability to mark an individual or object with a fluorescing dye at a distance; delivery of an incapacitating agent at a distance; delivery of aerosol at a distance (a chemical to corrode, lock, or otherwise disable an automobile); or temporarily introducing a smoke screen or obscuring agent. But the research was not “satisfying”: a stop was put to the program in 1998 due to the “unpredictable vortices and limits on effective range.”

Nonetheless, the enthusiasm didn’t abate. Five years later, British researchers Neil Davison and Nick Lewer reported:

An acoustic technology receiving considerable R&D attention is the vortex generator. . . . At the 2nd European Symposium on Non-Lethal Weapons in 2003 several groups presented on this topic. These included papers by The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) of the U. K. Ministry of Defence on “Initial Simulations of a Single Shot Vortex Gun,” Bauman Moscow State Technical University reported research on “Application of Vortex Technologies for Crowd Control,” and the Fraunhofer Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT) presented a paper entitled “Impulse Transport by Propagating Vortex Rings-Simulation and Experiment.”

In 2004, Canada showed a certain interest in vortex weapons in a report on “non-lethal” weapons. And in 2006, even though the research had been interrupted officially eight years prior in the United States, SARA’s website still boasted the merits of its vortex weapon: “A supersonic vortex of air hits its target at about half the speed of sound with enough force to knock them off balance. The vortex feels like having a bucket of ice water thrown into your chest.” Despite its capabilities, the weapon does not seem to have been used and has since disappeared from the company’s website.

Rockets in WWII Japan

In Japan there was a clear recognition of the potential importance of rockets, but relatively little that the Japanese scientists could do about it. Japan is a nation that lacks natural resources, and at the time had limited industrial experience. Like many centralized states, it had a cumbersome bureaucracy and a tendency for rival organizations to seek to outdo each other.

In the early years of World War II, both the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy were looking at developing 8in (20cm) rockets. The Army’s 8in rocket was a spin-stabilized projectile equipped with six vents to impart both spin and propulsion. It was designed to be launched from a Type 4 Rocket Launcher, in reality a mortar. By contrast, the Japanese Navy developed their own rival version. Their 8in rocket was designed to be launched from simple wooden troughs or even from holes in the ground.

The Japanese also developed the Type 10 Rocket Motor which was a simple propulsion unit intended as a launch facility for aerial bombs. They later produced a rocket 18in (44.7cm) in diameter; it was an unsophisticated projectile that was used in action on Iwo Jima and had a maximum range of over a mile (2,000m). Although it was inaccurate, it delivered a warhead of 400lb (180kg). Interestingly, this rocket was also spin-stabilized. This rotation around the axis had the potential to stabilize a rocket in flight, just as the Congreve rocket had in a previous century.

The Imperial Japanese Army focused their efforts on developing an air-to-surface missile while the Navy concentrated on the design of surface-to-air missiles. The Army decided to develop their Igo missile, while the Navy’s project was the Funryu (Raging Dragon) rocket.

The Igo-1-A was a winged cruise missile constructed by Mitsubishi from wood and metal. It was 16ft (5.77m) long, and had a wingspan of 10ft 9in (3.6m). It had a launch weight of 3,080lb (1,400kg) and could deliver a 1,760lb (800kg) warhead at a velocity of 340mph (550km/h). The rocket motor was a Mitsubishi Tokuro-1 Type 3 which fired for just 75 seconds. There was also an Igo-1-B produced by Kawasaki which was of similar design but delivered a somewhat smaller payload. Both versions of the Igo-1 were launched from an aircraft at about 5,000ft (1,500m) some 6 miles (about 10km) from the target. An onboard altimeter established the missile on a straight and level path and it was then radio-controlled by the pilot to the target. The missiles left no smoke trail and it was difficult for the aircraft pilot to aim them accurately. The rockets were fitted with a tail light for use at night – but under these conditions, although the pilots could see the drone, they now had difficulty in seeing the target. The final refinement of the Igo rocket was the Igo-1-C, developed by the Aeronautical Research Institute of Tokyo Imperial University. Rather than being guided by radio, the Igo-1-C was ingeniously designed to home in on the shockwaves produced by ships when they fired their guns.

Meanwhile the Navy were developing their Funryu rockets, and planned to produce four versions. Like their Igo counterparts, they would be radio-controlled to the target. In the event, only the Igo-1-A and Igo-1-B went into production, and none was ever fired at the enemy.

Air-to-ground missiles were not seriously considered by the Japanese until March 1944. The Army continued to prefer spin-stabilized rockets, while the Navy wanted devices stabilized by fins. Had the two services combined forces, an optimized design could well have been agreed but, as it was, the age-old rivalry persisted and each service pressed ahead with their own ideas. The air-to-ground missiles were to be fitted to the Kawanishi N1K-J Shiden (Violet Lightning) aircraft which were to be specially modified to carry six of the rockets ready to attack the fleet of ships that the Japanese believed to be on its way to invade the homeland. In the event, the aircraft never achieved full operational status before the war’s dramatic end. Japanese plans to fire off a salvo of rockets were never achieved; instead each rocket was launched singly, in the manner of firing off a mortar, and so little useful benefit was ever achieved.


Japanese Rocket Artillery of World War II

Shisei four Formula 7.cm試製四式七糎噴進砲 –

Type 4 20.cm Rocket Mortar 四式二十糎噴進 Rocket Mortar from 1943 –

Type 4 40.cm Rocket Mortar 四式四〇糎噴進 Rocket Mortar from 1943 –

Shisei 15.cm Tarenso 試製十五糎多連装噴進砲

Experimental Multiple Rocket Launcher from 1944 –

Western Approaches – Coastal Command

During November 1942 Admiral Sir Percy Noble, who had been C.-in-C., Western Approaches since February 1941, was succeeded by Admiral Sir Max Horton. Starting with miserably inadequate resources, Noble had done a magnificent job in creating a viable AS defence for the convoys. Churchill, however, found him lacking sufficient aggression, wanting a man who would use the Allies’ growing strength to carry the war to Dönitz. In Horton he made the perfect choice. A career submariner, he had been in command of the whole Royal Navy submarine force and well understood Dönitz’ problems and weaknesses. Horton was ferocious with erring subordinates yet knew that the war against the U-boat was one of patience, for which the maintenance of morale was top priority. In pursuit of this he regularly sailed on operational cruises and flew with Coastal Command crews.

First Wellington variant to be developed specifically for Coastal Command was the GR. VIII, a general reconnaissance/torpedo-bomber version of the Pegasus XVIII-engined Mk IC. Equipped with ASV (Air to Surface Vessel) Mk II radar, it was identified readily by the four dorsal antennae and the four pairs of transmitting aerials on each side of the fuselage. A total of 271 torpedo-bombers for daylight operation was built at Weybridge, together with 65 day bombers, and 58 equipped for night operation with a Leigh searchlight in the ventral turret position. In these last aircraft the nose armament was deleted and the position occupied by the light operator.

There was, however, still an important role for the Wellington to play with Coastal Command. Maritime operations had started with the four DWI Wellingtons: these had been converted by Vickers in the opening months of 1940 to carry a 52-ft (15.85-m) diameter metal ring, which contained a coil that could create a field current to detonate magnetic mines. Eleven almost identical aircraft, with 48-ft (14.63-m) rings, were converted by W. A. Rollason Ltd at Croydon, and others on site in the Middle East.

No. 172 Squadron at Chivenor, covering the Western Approaches, was the first to use the Leigh Light-equipped Wellington VIII operationally, and the first attack on a U-boat by such an aircraft at night took place on 3 June 1942, with the first sinking recorded on 6 July. From December 1941 Wellingtons were flying shipping strikes in the Mediterranean, and in the Far East No. 36 Squadron began anti-submarine operations in October 1942.


The Coastal Command of the RAF, which was eventually to prove such a potent obstacle to Dönitz’ plans, enjoyed a painfully slow expansion. Until early in 1941, invasion was the primary threat to the nation. In denying the Luftwaffe the necessary air supremacy for such an undertaking, Fighter Command took an indisputable top priority. Bomber Command, with its deeply ingrained strategic bombing theories, could equally claim that it alone could strike directly at the enemy, reducing his capacity to continue the war through the destruction of his industrial base and the morale of his populace.

In July 1940, as Dönitz’ boats extended their range by beginning operations from Biscay bases, Coastal Command had 500 aircraft, but only thirty-four of them were Sunderlands, capable of operation beyond a 500-mile radius. The enemy increasingly operated at the fringe of these limits.

Further to the all-important anti-invasion patrols, there were others to watch for attempted breakout by raiders, and the establishment of an AS reconnaissance line running north-westward from Cape Wrath. Patrols were gradually set up on a regular basis from Iceland, and then from Freetown, the busy southern terminal of the SL convoys.

For nearly two years, poorly equipped and lacking experience, Coastal Command spent thousands of hours patrolling, seeing U-boats aplenty but sinking none except in support of surface AS escorts. Then, on 27 August 1940, they captured one. With what appeared to be the most incompetent crew that ever sailed, the U-570, a Type VIIC, surfaced south of Iceland almost beneath a patrolling Hudson. Four shallow-set depth charges caused extensive superficial damage and created panic. With the boat unable to dive, the aircraft kept the crew below with strafing runs until further aircraft and, eventually, the Navy arrived. With some difficulty, the U-570 was recovered and repaired. Although all sensitive material had been destroyed, the boat provided valuable operational data when re-commissioned with a Royal Navy crew.

Slowly, Coastal Command accumulated new aircraft – Sunderlands and Catalinas, Beaufort torpedo bombers, Blenheims and the new Beaufighter. As Bomber Command expanded its four-engined, heavy bomber fleet, it passed down some still-useful twin-engined aircraft – Hampdens, Whitleys and the versatile Wellington.

The useless AS bombs had been superseded by depth charges, modified for air drop but yet lacking a reliable ultra-shallow fuse. As U-boats were usually attacked while on or near the surface, this was an urgent requirement. To evaluate new weapons and to establish correct attack procedures a Development Unit was created.

Although the ASV Mark II, the first practical air-to-surface radar set, was introduced in August 1940, Bomber Command took first priority. When the development of the magnetron oscillator then facilitated a high-power centimetric radar, the discovery was shared with the Americans, who began production of sets with trainable antenna but small enough to be airborne. For these, Coastal Command’s priorities ranked below those of the night fighters of Fighter Command.

Radar gave an aircraft the ability to surprise the U-boat, surfaced at night to recharge batteries and to refresh on-board air. Unfortunately, like Asdic-equipped ships, the aircraft was ‘blind’ over the very last stage of the approach, as the synchronously-switched transmitter and receiver units could not cope with near-simultaneous returns.

The solution was the brilliantly simple ‘Leigh Light’, a 24-inch naval projector mounted in a turret ring and controlled by the standard gun mounting servo system. When trials began in March 1941, a Wellington was required to accommodate the associated generator, but later variants were powered from a bank of trickle-charged accumulators. Entry into service of a device so important was inexcusably slow, it seeing action for the first time in June 1942.

From the middle of 1941, U-boats commissioned at an increasing rate while mercantile losses fell off considerably. This false dawn led to demands that Coastal Command’s heavier aircraft be diverted to assist in Bomber Command operations. But this was to ignore that these same aircraft were a major reason for the improvement. Air cover extended some 700 miles westward from the British Isles, 600 miles eastward from Canada and 400 miles southward from Iceland. Within these limits, surfaced U-boat skippers found that they could be caught with little warning. Around the fringes life was safer, for the longer-range aircraft remained scarce and could not dally so far from base. The U-boats correspondingly congregated in what was known as the Gap, an aircraft-free zone, several hundred miles in width, occupying the central one-third of a line drawn from Iceland to Newfoundland. The Admiralty’s Submarine Tracking Room thus sought to use intelligence to direct convoys in a great northerly arc, to avoid known submarine concentrations and to remain a maximum time within the limits of air cover.

Noting the decrease in interceptions, Dönitz initiated the first of several inconclusive enquiries to establish whether naval codes had been compromised, how to reduce the number of radio transmissions and to evaluate the accuracy of the known British D/F system.

By the end of 1941 a first Coastal Command squadron was converting to the American-built B-24 Liberator. This aircraft proved vulnerable as a daylight bomber over the Continent but was remarkably successful when converted for long-range maritime patrol duties, being well able to cover the Gap.

As the Bay of Biscay had to be traversed by every U-boat leaving or returning to its French base, it was divided into sectors by Coastal Command. These sectors reached down to Spanish coastal limits and each was covered in a planned patrol programme. Submarines increasingly had to submerge during daylight hours, slowing their progress and reducing their endurance.

Mid-1942 saw the strength of RAF Coastal Command stand at over fifty flying boats (Catalinas and Sunderlands) and nearly 500 other aircraft. These included Hudsons, Wellingtons, Whitleys and Hampdens for general reconnaissance but only two squadrons of B-24 (Liberator) and B-17 (Fortress) Long Range Maritime Patrol aircraft. As the Luftwaffe was now operating Ju88 and Me110 heavy fighters over the Bay of Biscay, there were also deployed eight squadrons of Beaufighters and the more vulnerable Blenheims.

In addition, four naval squadrons were attached to the Command, together with specialist units for photographic, meteorological and air-sea rescue duties. Based around the British Isles (with Group headquarters at Liverpool, Chatham, Rosyth and Plymouth), at Iceland and Gibraltar, the Command’s aircraft were complemented by those of the US Navy and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) operating from Iceland, Newfoundland and the Canadian mainland. Despite increasing offensive capacity, however, the Gap yawned as wide and as deadly as ever.

With the reduction in scale of submarine attack, it became the practice to reduce the degree of evasive routing and to follow more closely the shortest Great Circle routes. There came also an inevitable relaxation in vigilance, so that it came as an unpleasant surprise when Dönitz set up the occasional pack attack. This he did in order to prevent the transfer of escorts to assist the beleaguered Americans.

One such attack fell on HG.84, a twenty-three ship convoy which sailed northbound from Gibraltar on 9 June 1942. Barring its route were the nine U-boats of Group Endrass, named for the ‘ace’ lost in these waters some six months earlier. The group itself contained one ace skipper in Erich Topp of U-552. It was he that had earlier sunk the American destroyer Reuben James and, by virtue of surviving the war, would accumulate a ‘score’ of 185,000 GRT, earning him the Ritterkreuz with Oak Leaves and Swords.

By coincidence Endrass’ nemesis, Captain F.J. Walker, was again the Senior Officer of the escort, although EG.36 was at a reduced strength of Walker’s sloop Stork and three Flowers. Included in the convoy was the fighter catapult ship, Empire Morn.

Enemy agents in Spain duly reported HG.84’s departure. Twenty ships sailed from Gibraltar, the final three joining from Lisbon on 11 June. These were tracked by Kondors, which thus discovered the main convoy. The reported position proved to be thirty-five miles in error, prompting a tart comment from Dönitz.

With the convoy’s slow progress, Dönitz was able to deploy his boats in two search lines and it was Topp himself that made the first sighting on the afternoon of the 14th some 400 miles west of Cape Finisterre.

In vectoring-in the three colleagues, Topp generated radio traffic that was noted by the rescue ship Copeland at the rear of the convoy. Rescue ships did not enjoy any special immunity and were equipped with ‘Huff-Duff’, the existence of which was suspected by the enemy but not yet confirmed. The Copeland alerted Walker who ordered away the Empire Morn’s solitary Hurricane to disperse the snoopers while his four escorts pursued three separate contacts.

With darkness, Topp had worked himself into an attacking position. He launched a full, four-tube bow salvo, then swung to fire the stern tube. Three ships went down, the Norwegian tanker Slemdal and two British ships, Moss Hutchinson’s Etrib and MacAndrew’s Pelayo. Reloading rapidly, he was able to repeat his attack, this time destroying two Ellerman ships, Hall Line’s Thurso and the Papayanni vessel City of Oxford. The four British ships aggregated barely 8,500 GRT but typified the valuable little Mediterranean traders which, working cargo with their own equipment, could use the most minor ports.

Despite the number of boats in contact with the convoy by the 15th they were kept at a safe distance by the escort, Topp and one other receiving sufficient damage to cause them to break off.

On the following day the escort was reinforced by three fresh ships, including two of the new River-class frigates. The convoy also came within the range of Coastal Command Liberators. Continuous air cover and calm conditions caused the remaining enemy to abandon the operation. Topping-up from a pair of U-tankers, they resumed their interrupted passage to the United States.

That the enemy was thus being ‘let off the hook’ was of great concern to the Admiralty which, as soon as suitable vessels could be mustered, initiated the Support Group concept. This comprised an independent group, accompanied by its own oiler, which could be directed to reinforce the escort of any threatened convoy. First tried in September 1942, the idea immediately faltered with the need of every available ship to cover the North Africa landings in the November. Requirements here consumed not only every possible AS escort but also the first escort carriers (CVE) that were coming forward. It was thus a further six months before Support Groups would become a reality, for which reason the Admiralty initiated the emergency Merchant Aircraft Carrier (MAC) programme. This, however, would produce no result before May 1943.

Deployment of escort carriers pitted U-boats against that most unlikely of killers, the Fairey Swordfish. Often portrayed as an obsolescent stopgap, the aircraft was nothing of the sort, having entered service with the Fleet Air Arm only in July 1936. Designed to handle well at very low speeds, it could lift off a short flight deck with a relative wind speed of only 55 knots. A rare example of a successful multi-purpose design, the Swordfish could deploy torpedoes or mines, and even engage in divebombing in the face of light opposition. Fitted with ASV radar, it carried depth charges or, later, hull-piercing rocket projectiles, to deadly effect against submarines. Often ‘superseded’, it nevertheless remained operational throughout the war.

Although ASV Mark II radar had first been flown in March 1941, Fighter Command’s night fighters enjoyed higher priority than Coastal Command, and it was June 1942 before the enemy became convinced that his surfaced submarines were being surprised because of airborne radar rather than poor watch-keeping. In this same month came a further alarming report of a U-boat, surfaced at night in the Bay of Biscay, being surprised by a sudden illumination and almost simultaneous bombing. The Leigh Light had arrived.

From their French Atlantic bases, all U-boats had to deploy and return across ‘the Bay’ and the growing attentions of Coastal Command were a matter of concern to BdU. Where early 1942 had been casualty-free, June had seen three boats damaged sufficiently to abort their deployments and return. Unusually, Dönitz over-reacted, ordering boats to remain submerged at night, surfacing by day only to recharge and refresh. This was intended to be only a stopgap measure, pending the improvisation of a suitable radar warning receiver. Its result, however, was to more than double the number of sightings and to begin a slow attrition as odd boats were picked off.

Following complaints about lack of Luftwaffe cover, two dozen fighter versions of the Ju88 were transferred to Lorient and Bordeaux. Additional automatic weapons began to appear on U-boats, starting a trend to growing topside clutter that had a cumulative and adverse effect on surfaced stability and submerged manoeuvrability.

Ironically, a couple of French firms, Metox and Grandin, were already producing electronic equipment which, with the addition of a crude antenna, could receive signals over a bandwidth that included the frequency range of ASV Mark II. Known simply as ‘Metox’, the first sets were rushed to completion within six weeks. On surfacing, boats so equipped would hoist a wooden-framed antenna (the ‘Biscay Cross’) and submerge again hastily on the reception of a train of signals at around 200 MHz. Metox-equipped boats escorted those without and, once again, sightings dropped almost to zero.

With their superior electronic industrial base, the Americans were keen to apply technology to AS warfare. Airborne magnetic anomaly detectors were shown to work in principle but the distance from detector to the ferrous mass of the target could not exceed 600 feet. Even the lowest and slowest of aircraft could thus detect a transient lasting only milliseconds.

Expendable air-dropped sonobuoys appeared to be more promising. Released around a suspected target position, these detected target noise, amplified it and re-transmitted it to the circling aircraft. By the end of 1942 they were in use by both US Army Air Corps and US Navy aircraft, and were about to go into mass production.

As sonobuoys could give only an approximate position for the target, precision-dependent weapons such as depth-charges were not appropriate. For this purpose, the self-homing acoustic torpedo was developed. For submarines, too, this was a useful weapon for, launched against a threatening escort, it allowed a skipper to concentrate on a convoy. The Germans had been working on the device since 1933 but progress had been slow. Targeting depended upon matched pairs of sensitive and highly-directional hydrophones. As these, in a fast torpedo, would be swamped by self-generated noise, the weapon was electrically-propelled at about 25 knots. Wrongly assuming that the Allies were already using acoustic torpedoes, German scientists managed to deploy them operationally during 1943.

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.