Examples of arquebuses. Click on the image to enlarge. Public domain image.
As was mentioned in the previous post, during 1988 to 1989, staff members of Steiermärkisches Landeszeughaus (Steyr Provincial Armory) in Graz, Austria, conducted tests using 16 firearms dating from 1571 to post-1750, with equal numbers of specimens from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. The guns were mostly mass-produced specimens, such as might be typically issued to infantry troops. Three of the weapons had rifling, the others were smoothbore guns. A couple of the guns were rejected after early inspection revealed that they had potentially dangerous weaknesses in the metal. The remaining 14 weapons were test fired 325 times under controlled conditions, in a testing range operated by the Austrian Army. As part of the tests, they also brought two modern production assault rifles and a modern pistol used by the Austrian military, so that they could compare the results against modern firearms.
The following charts below summarize the various firearm dimensions and the results of velocity measurements:
Physical Characteristics of the various firearms. Click on the image to enlarge.
Velocity measurements of the various firearms. Click on the image to enlarge.
A few notes on the results presented above:
- The modern weapons are highlighted in yellow background at the bottom of the images.
- The "Spanish" weapons are actually made in Austria, but the Spaniards were the first to equip their troops with heavy muskets in the 1520s, which is why heavy muskets of that era are generally called "Spanish muskets", irrespective of where they were actually made.
- The results presented above are in metric units, in keeping with the spirit of the original tests. To convert mm. to inches, divide the numbers by 25.4, to convert weights from kg. to pounds, multiply the numbers by 2.2, to convert grams to pounds, multiply the numbers by 0.0022, to convert grams to grains, multiply the numbers by 15.43 and to convert velocity from meters/sec to feet/sec, multiply the numbers by 3.3
- Caliber is actually the nominal caliber of the bullet (i.e the bore diameter). We read something about this when we discussed 5.56 mm. vs. .223 ammunition earlier.
- Pistol weapons were shot at targets at 30 meters (100 feet) ranges, whereas rifles were shot at targets at 100 meter (330 feet) distances. This is why rifle velocities are measured at both 30 and 100 meters.
Now on to the muzzle velocities, which are shown in the second chart above. The interesting thing is that the slowest muzzle velocity measured is actually from a modern weapon (the Glock 17 pistol). Of course, it should be noted that this Glock pistol was the shortest weapon in the test with the smallest barrel. It also uses a lot less powder (0.4 gm.) versus the other firearms (albeit, smokeless powder, which produces more thrust). The ancient firearms are all generally between 450 and 550 meters/sec., with the exception of the two ancient pistols, which clock in at 385 and 392 meters/sec. The two modern rifles shoot much faster than the others, exhibiting nearly double the muzzle velocity compared to the ancient firearms. It must be noted that all the weapons are firing at supersonic velocities initially, even the ancient weapons using black powder (speed of sound at sea level is about 330 meters/sec. (or 1125 feet/sec.))
Also, note the change in velocities when measured at 30 meter and 100 meter ranges. As we studied in the previous post, round balls lose velocity at almost 3 times the rate that conical bullets do. The modern weapons all fire conical bullets, whereas the ancient weapons all fire round ammunition balls and we can see the results clearly. For instance, at 30 meter range, the FAL rifle only loses 20 meters/sec velocity (835 vs 815 meters/sec.), whereas the ancient weapons lose velocity a lot quicker. In fact, at 30 meter range, some of the bullets from ancient weapons are slower than that fired from the Glock 17, which had the slowest muzzle velocity initially. At 100 meter range, the velocities of older weapons are significantly less, with many of them travelling at under 300 meters/sec. (about 1000 feet/sec.) This means they also lose penetrative power much more rapidly than modern weapons do. This is the reason why most ancient commanders told their men to not shoot until about 60-70 meter ranges or even closer than that.
The interesting thing is that the two older pistols, while they shot at lower velocities than the muskets, they still retained a good bit of their velocity at 30 meters range, which means that they could inflict a fair amount of damage at shorter ranges. This explains the popularity of pistoleers on horseback, such as the German Reiters of the 16th century. These troops could quickly ride close to the enemy, discharge their pistols and then ride back. Some military writers of that era noted that a squadron of Reiters could easily beat a comparable squadron of traditional cavalry
In our next post, we will look at the same weapons and compare their respective penetrative powers and shot dispersion.