Guns and other weapons are a fiercely debated topic in the Armed Forces - but what happens when you stack one up from the 1500s against its modern-day counterpart - the standard issue SA80?
Whenever weapons are mentioned in the Armed Forces community, talk quickly turns to which is the best, the lightest, the heaviest, the most reliable, most powerful, or most comfortable to handle.
These are understandably hot topics for anyone lugging a weapon around for half their working life, and whose life might depend, or have depended, upon their rifle’s functionality.
Almost everybody serving in the Armed Forces today has only ever known the SA80 (or SA80 A2) as the standard issue weapon used by personnel across the branches of the military.
Introduced officially in 1985, the rifle has undergone upgrades and seen action around the globe, most notably in Northern Ireland, The Gulf War, Bosnia and more recently, Afghanistan and the Iraq War.
Now nearing its 36th anniversary as the British Army's standard service rifle, the weapon system has stood the test of time.
How though, would the Armed Forces of today feel about going into theatre and having to lug around one of the earliest guns from the 16th Century, and how would a gun from that era compare to a modern SA80?
To see just how such a weapon might stack up against today’s standard British assault rifle, Jonathan Ferguson, at the Royal Armouries small arms museum in Leeds, gave a rundown of some of the features and specifications of one of the first hand-held firearms used in battle.
Though the field of early firearms is often unavoidably uncertain, Jonathan helped present accurate data on what might be a suitable forerunner to the development of hand-held weapons that eventually led to the SA80, and one with which meaningful comparisons might be made.
Finding The Right Weapon
The history of firearms is complex, with gunpowder being discovered and later employed as a propellant of projectiles at different times and places around the world.
Arguably, the first hand-held firearms in Europe were essentially the miniature cannons used by knights in the Middle Ages. These ‘handgonnes’ first came into use during the 14th Century.
While it is fun to think of these contraptions going head-to-head with a modern SA80, the comparison is not a straight-forward one. As Jonathan explained, these were not functional guns in the modern sense.
Comically imprecise by today’s standards, they were essentially long tubes with gunpowder shoved into them that was ignited by, essentially, a slow-burning match. This was akin holding a small cannon and trying to set it off by putting the end of a long match to the gunpowder at one end.
As the picture below shows, these weapons (see the bottom right of the illustration) seem to have been commonly used as siege weapons.
Though for the purposes of the exercise set out in this article, try and imagine wielding this in a direct fight against an enemy. It was no doubt ridiculously inaccurate, as well as rather unpredictable. After first aiming in the general direction of the enemy and then holding the match to the powder in the end, there would be a delay as you waited for the inefficient early gunpowder to go off and fire the bloody thing ... at some point ... hopefully before the fast-moving enemy soldiers reached you.
Good luck trying to get anywhere with one of those on a modern battlefield.
Instead, Jonathan said an early firearm more directly comparable to the modern SA80 is something that came along a few hundred years later - in 1540.
It has a stock, which means it can be aimed from the shoulder, and a trigger and proper firing mechanism. These last two mean that, unlike earlier ‘handgonnes’, this weapon would go off right after the trigger was pulled – just like a modern gun.
So what is it?
According to Jonathan, the earliest forerunner to the modern assault rifle is arguably the matchlock muzzle-loading arquebus, first produced, as noted, in 1540 in Gardone, in modern Italy. It was later produced elsewhere in Europe and Henry VIII took an interest in the technology, leading to its later manufacture in England, initially at the Tower of London.
So let’s make a side-by-side comparison of this weapon with today’s standard-issue British assault rifle and see which one you would rather have in your hands during a fight.
The SA80 v Matchlock Muzzle-Loading Arquebus – Details and Specs
matchlock muzzle-loading arquebus
Gardone, in modern Italy*
Year of Intro
Royal Small Arms Factory / Royal Small Arms Factory
Various, first on the European continent such as in Gardone and the Low Countries, and later in England
L85, L86 LSW, L22 Carbine, Cadet GP Rifle
n/a – there was nothing like an L85A1, A2 or A3 – instead of variants there were entirely different weapons!
UK, several nations as UK Aid
Various parties in Europe (the concept of sovereign countries became more common after the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia), including England
5.56 mm NATO
.47 inch (11.94 mm) lead bullets
Tate of fire
610 – 755 rpm
2 rpm (with well drilled/trained troops)
100 m, or possibly 200 (with well drilled/trained troops)
(*To be completely precise, the first written source for handheld firearms in Europe is Italian and dates to 1364, and this matchlock arquebus, a Breschian piece, is from Gardone and is one of the first of its kind. Though is not known if it actually did originate in Gardone, or somewhere else in Europe such as the Low Countries or Germany).
How The Arquebus 'Gun' Worked
The matchlock muzzle-loading arquebus may have been a big improvement on the handgonnes of the Middle Ages, but by modern standards, it would certainly not be described as very user friendly.
The first issue is that anyone even loading a matchlock weapon like this would have had to ensure they did not blow themselves up in the process.
That is because ‘matchlock’ meant that the gun was set off by a burning match – or rather, a burning bit of rope – and matches do not mix well with gunpowder.
In order to avoid this, our standard 16th Century English soldier would almost certainly have had to keep his gunpowder hanging in a large powder flask which dangled separately from the lit fuses. These fuses would have been pieces of thin rope coated in saltpetre and lit at both ends.
The purpose of the saltpetre was to slow down the rate at which the fuse burnt, and as Jonathan pointed out, the answer to the question of just how long it took for them to burn out is a question, quite literally, of how long is a piece of string? They could, in other words, be cut to different lengths and quite possibly were as the situation required.
They might then have burnt for up to an hour as soldiers used them on the battlefield.
One imagines soldiers in the firing line would have relied upon runners in the rear to bring them more fuses, since not only were they liable to burn themselves out, but also presumably to be dropped.
This is because they were kept away from a soldier’s gun until he was ready to fire, which meant continuously taking them off and reattaching them to the firing mechanism.
How Was The Arquebus Loaded?
The first step in the process was to load the gun. This meant putting it butt down on the ground with the barrel facing skywards. A soldier would then pour gunpowder into the barrel before taking out a bullet, probably from a bag, and ramming it down the barrel with a scouring stick. The main purpose of this was to clean the barrel, probably after about every 20 shots, since gunpowder residue would have built up and made the already snug fit between bullet and barrel even tighter.
Once the scouring stick had been used as a ram rod to push the bullet to the bottom of the barrel, wadding might be shoved down after the bullet to keep it in place if this were the first shot. During the heat of battle, this step was almost certainly skipped over.
Bullets might also be wrapped in a cloth cover to make them fit more snuggly and to increase gas pressure behind the bullet when it was fired, leading to greater muzzle velocity and accuracy. Though this was probably only done in more ideal circumstances (i.e. not when enemy troops were charging right at you) and by experienced, well-trained soldiers.
More gunpowder was then poured into the pan at the back of the gun before the pan was closed.
It was only at this point that the serpentine (or match holder, which functioned like a hammer in a modern gun that sets the bullet off) would be cocked. Then the still-burning fuse was clamped into it, making the fuse now part of the matchlock mechanism that would fire the gun.
When the soldier was ready to fire, he would raise the stock of the weapon to his shoulder, take aim and pull the trigger.
When he did so, the serpentine would snap shut, bringing the burning fuse into contact with the gunpowder in the pan. This would ignite, causing an explosion that would spread through the touch hole and into the back of the gun barrel, thereby igniting the gunpowder in there as well and causing a second explosion that launched the bullet out of the barrel.
This is of course assuming nothing went wrong and the gun did not explode in our hypothetical-16th-Century-English soldier’s face.
Though if our soldier was tempted to complain, the matchlock arquebus was later accompanied on the battlefield by another, heavier matchlock musket. This not only employed the same fiddly matchlock technology, it was also heavier, so much so that it needed to be balanced on a stick before it could be aimed and fired properly.
The reason for this was the development of heavier bullet calibres of .75, .80 or even .90 inches in diameter (or 19.05, 20.32 and 22.86 mm, respectively.) These larger bullets were designed to penetrate armour more effectively and are the reason knights became obsolete very quickly.
It is worth noting that fiddly matchlocks were not the only kind of firearms technology. Wheellocks and flintlocks did come into existence at around the same time, though it took a while before the full potential of the latter was realised.
As for the former, wheellocks may well have been invented by Leonardo da Vinci in around 1500, but they were complex and expensive to produce, so they were the preserve of the well-to-do, whilst the PBI had to put up with matchlocks for the time being.
Development Of Guns And Rifles
Eventually, after the safer and considerably-less-annoying flintlocks became commonplace, the development of percussion caps followed. These were separate gunpowder charges loaded into the rear of a musket between the serpentine and bullet instead of gunpowder in a pan.
From there, the industrial revolution led to rapid development of firearms technology in the 19th Century, which saw flintlock muskets at its beginning and breach-loading, more-accurate guns with rifled barrels (not to mention Gatling guns) by its end.
The modern bullet is now housed in a separate chamber at one end of the gun barrel and has its own self-contained gunpowder charge at its base that propels it forwards when the rifle’s serpentine strikes it.
It can be seen then that the SA80 and its predecessor the matchlock muzzle-loading arquebus lie along different points of the same development continuum.
Given their similarities then, would you fancy trading your SA80 for an Arquebus?
How would members of the today’s Armed Forces feel about taking one of those into theatre in the modern day – would it do a worthy job in the right hands?
Have a look over the different specs again, compare both weapons and then decide which you would rather have in your hands during a battle.
Let us know at [email protected] or comment on our social media pages.
Thanks to Jonathan Ferguson and the Royal Armouries. To learn more about and see historical small arms, visit the Royal Armouries site in Leeds.