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Issue 40 - Everything you need to know about...Scottish weaponry Part 2: Antique guns and gunnery

Scotland Magazine Issue 40
August 2008


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Everything you need to know about...Scottish weaponry Part 2: Antique guns and gunnery

Effective siege weaponry employing gunpowder only started to emerge in Scottish warfare during the 15th century. With huge guns capable of hurling stones weighing as much as 350 kilograms over a distance of 25 miles, Scotland’s fortifications, which until then were largely fabricated in wood, required to become even more formidable. Across Scotland, stone-built castles rose in their hundreds.

In 1457, James II of Scotland was presented with two massive siege guns by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, his uncle by marriage. The surviving canon is known as Mons Meg, having been tested during an assault on the Belgian town of Mons, close to the French border, and it is today housed in Edinburgh Castle. The impracticality of such massive weaponry in an age of man and horsepower, is immediately apparent, but this did not prevent these enormous canons from being trundled around the country and shown off as a deterrent.

The unfortunate James was perhaps rather too keen on his artillery. He was killed in 1460 when another of his guns exploded during the siege of Roxburgh Castle.

James IV was also immensely proud of his artillery capability. Unfortunately, when confronting the English army at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, his big guns became entrenched on a muddy hillside facing in the wrong direction. Had the English army marching north not mistakenly passed behind the Scottish emplacement in a mist, the outcome of the ensuing battle might have been entirely different.

Early pistols were made with wooden stocks covered with brass or steel, often ornately decorated, and usually only affordable to the wealthy. Few examples of these survive, but those that do have belthooks, but no trigger guard and feature a Scottish version of the ‘snaphance’ lock, the precursor to the flintlock. This snaphance mechanism involves the steel and pan cover being made as separate pieces. When pulled back, the cock is held by a catch (or ‘sear’) which protrudes through the lock-plate and engages with a little tail projecting from the lower edge of the cock.

By the time of the two Jacobite Uprisings of the 18th century, flintlock pistols and rifles were in common usage, especially those manufactured by Christie & Murdoch, armourers of Doune, Stirlingshire, with their scroll or ram’s horn butts, and fluted barrels at the breech. However, in 1716, after the first Uprising, the British Government passed the Act of Disarming. This made it illegal for anyone in defined parts of Scotland to carry “side pistol, gun or other warlike weapon.” As was to be expected, this Act proved singularly unsuccessful, and was superseded by a further Act of Parliament in 1725, a piece of legislation that was rather more rigorously enforced by Major-General George Wade.

However, Jacobites continued to hide their weaponry, and Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s victory at the Battle of Prestonpans in 1745 provided them with a substantial hoard of captured English weaponry.

Thereafter, the ownership of pistols and rifles tended to be the prerogative of the Scottish Regiments, with manufacture centred on Dundee and Edinburgh. In 1775, it is said to have been a Scottish flintlock decorated in gold which fired the “shot heard round the world” at Lexington, thus starting the American Revolution.

Undoubtedly one of the more bizarre examples of the employment of early pistols can be seen at the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. This comprises a sporran in which are concealed four small pistols meant to be discharged should anyone attempt to open the locked purse. Sir Walter Scott was sufficiently impressed by this to incorporate such a device in his novel Rob Roy.

As Scotland emerged as a sporting playground for the rich, the Reverend Alexander Forsyth from Belhelvie in Aberdeenshire, a keen duck hunter, invented the percussion lock, which replaced the flintlock. This made use of a flat-nosed hammer to strike powdered fulminate of mercury which detonated on contact, setting off the main charge of gunpowder inside the barrel. Forsyth’s invention is still in use in most of the firearms in use today.

A number of classic examples of antique Scottish firearms can be seen in the collections of Scotland’s museums, notably at the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, in Aberdeen, and at Kelvingrove, Glasgow.