metal, slag, ceramics | archaeometallurgy
Jan 20 2018

Handgonne breech loader, cast bronze Part I

Bastian Asmus

In this series of articles I will find out how to make a particular handgonne, and in extension, very early firearms in general; or rather how they could have been manufactured with the contemporary technology. I am not much for guns’n shooting, but I have always been intrigued by the casting process of guns and cannon.
Why? Because, as a fully trained bronze founder I know that there are a lot of challenges involved and even a lot of room for failure. As a professional maker of things, failures are among the least favourite topics to talk about. However, also being a scientist helps to overcome this predicament: Without failure there can be no progress. Or in other words we should not content ourselves with our hypotheses, but should constantly try to falsify them.


Early breech loaded handgonne.

This image of a supposedly 15th century handgonne shows a very early breech loading system, that did not take hold for centuries to come. Technical limitations in the manufacturing process, may well be responsible for this. It could simply not be manufactured as easily as the much more common muzzle loaders. Source: Viking Swords Forum thread 7364.

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Nov 23 2017

Handgonnes: A health and safety issue?

Bastian Asmus

Detail from the Bellifortis manuscript by Conradius Kyeser (ca. 1430).  Source: Bayersiche Staatsbibliothek. License:  CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Handgonnes: A health and safety issue?

Surprisingly health and safety issues are not as new as many might suspect. At least for German speaking people they actually originate at least in medieval times. Of all things this health and safety rule is from the earliest published technical treatise in German language and deals with: Guns and how to use them. Interestingly enough there is a section that underscores the danger of these things.  In my recent research on early breech loaded bronze guns and my experiments on how to make them one of the original questions is how safe are they to use. Apparently not as safe as one might hope for. 

The Feuerwerkbuch, Freiburger manuscript Ms 362

Just how safe to use were they? Chapter 223 in the Feuerwerkbuch underscores the general modern perception that these where as dangerous to the wielder as to the enemy. The earliest version of the Feuerwerkbuch was transscribed to high German by Ferdinand Nibler .  The complete work is available online. This very early technical treatise authored in German provides invaluable insights for the understanding of the matter of early firearm usage. And the following health and safety instruction caught my eye. It is only present in two of the surviving copies. In the Freiburger Manuscript (Freiburg Ms 362 from 1432)  it reads:

In transliterated form chapter 223 as follows (Nibler 2005, 85):

Das man kainer büchß si sye groß oder si sye klain trwen sol sunnder sich daruor hüten als denne dise nächgeschribne lere dich wyset.
Aber ain lere dem der vß der büchß schiessen will er sol kainer büchß nit viel trwen si sye klain oder groß si sye Ibel oder wol geladen wie die büchß ist so hüt dich nütz dester minnder dauor ouch lçg wenn si du ladest das kain ysen das annder rüre wann das puluer möchte dauon ennzündet werden.

Transcription to high German (Nibler 2005, 40):

Dass man keiner Büchse, sie sei groß oder sie sei klein, trauen soll sondern sich vor ihr hüten, wie diese nachgeschriebene Anweisung weist.
Aber eine Belehrung für den, der aus der Büchse schießen will: Er soll einer Büchse auf keinen Fall vertrauen, sie sei klein oder groß, sie sei schlecht oder gut geladen. Wie die Büchse auch ist – hüte Dich nichtsdestoweniger davor! Sieh‘ auch zu, dass wenn Du sie ladest kein Eisen ein anderes Eisen berühre, denn das Pulver könnte davon entzündet werden!
Translation to English
That you should not trust any gonne be it small or large, but beware of it as the following instructions advise.

But a lesson to whom wants to shoot from a gonne. He shall not trust the gonne under any circumstances, be it small or large, be it badly or well loaded. In whatever state the gonne is, beware of it nonetheless. Make sure when you you load it that no iron touches another iron, as the powder may be ignited upon this.

3d reconstruction of an early breech loaded handgonne.

3d reconstruction of an early breech loaded handgonne.


Bellifortis, BSB Hss Clm 30150

The second copy of the Feuerwerkbuch is preserved in the Bellifortis by Korad Kyeser . I included it here, as it is one of the few chapters that deviates from the above mentioned original.

Transliteration by the author

Das ma je kainer büchs tzündn ssol wie sy ist Aber ain lere dem der uß der büchsn schießßn wil Er sol si kainer büchs nicht zu getruwe si sye klain oder groß sy sy beschossn oder nit sy si übel oder wolgeladn wie die buchs iist so hut dich nichtzt deß mind dauor Ouch lüg wen Du sy ladest das kain ysen das ander rür wan das puluer möcht villicht dauo entzund werdn.

Transcription to high German

Daß man bloß keine Büchse zünden soll wie sie ist Aber eine Lehre dem der aus der Büchse schießen will. Er soll keiner Büchse trauen, sei sie klein oder groß. Sei sie beschossen oder nicht, sei sie schlecht oder gut geladen. Wie die Büchse ist, so hüte dich nichtsdestoweniger davor. Auch sieh zu, wenn Du sie lädst, dass kein Eisen ein anderes (Eisen) , denn das Pluver möchte vielleicht davon entzündet werden.


That you should not ignite a gonne as it is. But a lesson to whom wants to shoot  from a gonne. He shall not trust a gonne, be it small or large. Be it that the gonne was fired or not, be it that it is badly or well charged. Whatever the state of the gonne, beware of the gonne nonetheless. Also make sure, when loading it, that no iron touches another (iron), as the powder might possibly ignited upon this this

Interestingly this warning is not in the printed version of the Feuerwerkbuch from 1529. As to whether this is due to higher manufacturing standards, that led to safer gonnes, or to totally different circumstances must for the moment remain open.


Nibler, F. (2005). Das Feurwerkbuch in synoptischer Darstellung zweier anonymer Originaltexte. Transkription und Textvergleich des  Freiburger Manuskriptes Ms 362 von 1432  und des so genannten    Feuerwerkbuches von 1420  (gedruckt 1529 bei Stainer, Augsburg)  mit erklärenden Anmerkungen zu den Texten.
Kyeser, C. (1430). Bellifortis - BSB-Hss  Clm 30150.

Nov 14 2017

Non-ferrous sheet metal

Bastian Asmus
Non-ferrous sheet metal: red brass, 0,35 mm

Non- ferrous sheet metal: Custom made historic red brass alloy,

Non-ferrous sheet metal

Who is not familiar with this, you want to make an object from non-ferrous metal sheet of a certain alloy, e. g. a helmet of the Urnfield period. But try as you might no sheet metal of the desired alloy can be obtained in the industry. The industry is simply not interested in supplying small and micro-enterprises or cultural science research projects. But that is no longer the case, as the Archaeometallurgy Laboratory has acquired a medium-sized rolling stand, where sheets up to a maximum theoretical size of 500 mm width can be rolled, though in reality a width of 450 mm is more likely to succeed. This is done in a purely hand-crafted process and thus comes close to the requirements of archaeometallurgical research.

Red brass slabs for sheet metal makingCast red brass slabs, ready for heat treatment

The Laboratory for Archaeometallurgy deals with the reconstruction of past production techniques, i. e. the rolling of non-ferrous metals. For about a year now, the laboratory has been working on the production of sheet metal for the production of brass instruments, producing historical sheet metal alloys, casting them into slabs and processing them into sheet metal.

To this end, we have acquired a larger duo rolling stand with which we can manufacture sheet metal in special alloys by hand, which are no longer commercially available. This is of particular interest for the manufacture of instruments as well as for the production of countless archaeological and prehistoric metal sheet finds such as belts, situles, armour, helmets or shields. We are excites about this, because now we are no longer bound to the small selection of bronze sheets that are commercially available and yet already difficult to obtain.  For the reconstruction of prehistoric and historic objects we can now produce the sheet metal that is required!.

The short film provides a glimpse of the trials and errors that are necessary when making historic non-ferrous sheet metal. By far not every metal alloy behaves in the same manner, some do not like being cast, some do not like being cold rolled. Others yet can only be rolled hot or have to be worked first with a hammer. It is an ongoing enterprise to make historic and prehistoric sheet metal, and a fascinating one, too. Turning a cast object into malleable sheet metal is something that a bronze founder does not do every day. In all cases the slabs and sheet metal to be has to undergo repeated heat treatment in order to produce good quality sheet metal. A process that is monitored by our lab by means of metallography…