In the fall of '94, there was considerable discussion on the 'Rialto' (a medieval based discussion group) concerning the subject 'guns vs armour', mostly of a theoretical nature. Although to original discussion was a consideration of the impact effect of firearms on armoured targets, the discussion shifted to debate the accuracy of period weapons. In an effort to address the original question, a series of weapons effects tests were carried out over the weekend of Oct. 8 & 9, 1995. The tests were made at the 'Broken Feather RV' at the Frankford Gun Club (near Trenton, Ont.)
The firearm is in fact a Medieval invention. There is some dispute as to whether the Arabs or Chinese are the original inventors of gun powder. This 'black powder' is explosive mixture of charcoal, sulphur and salt peter. The first record of this mixture is hidden in an anagram contained in an English manuscript from the middle 1200's. The earliest surviving illustration of a gun is from 1326. By the early 1400's both 'hand cannons' and siege weapons had become reasonably common. The first firing mechanism, the 'match lock' appears around 1410, the interchangeable metal chamber as early as 1370. Both of these systems can be seen combined in the shield pistols from Henry VIII's arsenal, dated 1544. The more reliable 'flint lock' was developed about 1550. Although firearms would not become the decisive force on the battlefield until the 1500's, they increasingly were becoming a force to reckoned with during the late Medieval period.
Three calibres were used, 45 / 50 / 75. Both the smaller calibres were long rifles with percussion locks. The 75 cal. was a smooth bore 'Brown Bess' All the bullets were soft lead round balls, fired wadded. The powder charges were at the recommendation of the shooters, and were considered to be a standard load suitable for deer hunting (another 150 lb animal). Both the 45 / 50 cal were 70 grain charges. The 75 cal used a 80 grain load. All were of modern type of 'black powder'.
Three targets were prepared. Two were curved plates, the curvature being simple and at 5/8" of depth over 6" of width. (This curve was selected as being similar that of a simple breast plate.) The first was made of 18 ga galvanized mild steel (.04030"). This plate was considered to be similar to SCA standard body armours. The second was made of 10 ga mild steel plate (.101"). The plate was then hardened by heating to a 'medium orange' and water quenching it. This plate was considered to be similar to 'heavy weight' armours. The third was a knee cop formed of 20 ga mild steel (.03196"). It was curved to 3 1/4 " over 6" and dished out to a depth of 7/8" over 5". All targets were tied to a 75 lb sandbag, hung so it could swing freely from a 'gallows' type frame. A flat 18 ga plate had been prepared but was not used.
All shots were originally made at 50 yrds, but the 75 cal Brown Bess required a 25 yard range to produce consistent 'hits'. For the same reason, all shots taken against the knee cop target were made from 25 yrds.
All measurements covered to 64ths for comparison. 'Slug' refers to metal punched from a plate by the ball. 'Deformed' refers to the size of bent metal at the impact point.
(*) This was the second bullet on target, and was within the impact zone of the 50 cal shot. Impact location: dead centre, shot taken angled from the right
1) The use of more 'modern' firearms can only suggest the impacts created by period firearms. Most important is the use of a modern 'corned' black powder, which will create greater muzzle velocities than are likely from early period guns.
2) The range of lead balls can be said to be representative of period sizes (The 45 and 50 cal sizes seem to be in the range of firearms in the Tower Armoury from the 1500's)
3) The use of a 75 lb, free swinging target was to simulate the movement of a body upon impact. It would appear this factor was not significant.
4) There is no attempt being made here to address ACCURACY, only EFFECT.
Generally it was seen that if the shot hit, it penetrated. In all cases bullets punched through the metal plates creating a flange of raggedly torn edges that would have extended into the body beneath. Surprisingly, there was relatively little expansion of the lead balls upon impact, usually about 25%. Regardless, it was the opinion of all who took part in the test that if the plates had in fact been worn by a soldier he would be quite dead. The only ball that showed any significant signs of 'sliding' was the 45 cal shot at the knee cop, which struck at about a 15 degree angle to the surface. The 50 cal shot to the 18 ga plate, which hit at about a 60 degree angle to the surface, may have resulted in more damage than if it had hit square. Note that penetration alone is being evaluated here. Lead balls of the sizes tested here produce enormous shock effects to the body.
It is safe to say that while battles of the 1300's belong to the longbow, and the 1400's to the halberd, by the 1500's it is the firearm that has become the decisive weapon. The sweeping changes that occurred during the Renaissance included those to the 'art of war' as well, both in technological and cultural terms. Early firearms were expensive, unreliable and inaccurate. To balance this, they could be used with little training, and to devastating effect when combined in mass formations. As these tests show, if a target was hit, it was destroyed.