Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Fearsome Boomsticks of War

Second only to my love of slingers, I have a strong affinity for those crude, awkward, smokey, fearsome boomsticks of war: the medieval handgonne. I think they share with slings that aura of primitive ersatz simplicity.  As the first hand-held gunpowder weapons, they're direct ancestors of today's small arms. We've gone from handgonne to S-Mart's top of the line and it only took about six centuries.

The Handgonne at War

Gunpowder came into European warfare in the 13th century. Where it came from is still a matter of debate. Conventional wisdom in the 19th c. claimed that it originated in China and came through Middle East trade routes or perhaps in the Mongol invasion ca. 1240.

Unconventional wisdom in the 18th c. had it that gunpowder was discovered accidentally by a German monk/alchemist named Berthold Schwarz who was trying to cook up something else when the crock-pot exploded. However, there is no evidence that Berthold Schwarz ever existed.
Brother Berthold discovers gunpowder, to his dismay
Roger Bacon's treatise De Secretis Operibus Artis et Naturae is the first mention in writing of the formula for gunpowder. Bacon's formula was 7 parts saltpeter, 5 parts sulfur, and 5 parts charcoal, in case you're dying to know. That works out to 41.2% saltpeter, 29.4% sulfur, and 29.4% charcoal. By comparison, the gunpowder the British army used in the 18th c. is 75% saltpeter, 10% sulfur, and 15% charcoal, which is near to the ideal formula. Bacon's formula burns too slowly and doesn't provide enough propulsion.

It's the propulsive properties of gunpowder that sparked a revolution. Artillery was invented first, but ribauldequins, which were carts mounting several very small cannon, inspired the handgonne, which was simply one of these small cannons, mounted on a short pole that could be managed by one man. Ten guys with handgonnes were tactically more versatile than one ribauldequin with ten barrels.

The majority opinion is that a handgonne was a terribly inaccurate weapon due to it lacking any aiming features, as well as the need to hold it in one hand while using a fuse held in the other hand to ignite it. But modern reenactors have shown that the opinion is mostly false and pointed out that other hand-held missile weapons, such as bows, crossbows, slings, and javelins, lack aiming features also but users can achieve incredible accuracy nevertheless.

Swedish reenactors shooting a handgonne
Early handgonnes were nothing more than a metal tube with a touch-hole at the breech end mounted on a wooden pole (called a tiller). The ignition came from a slow-match or hot wire being applied to the touch-hole, which set off the main charge. Projectiles were arrows or crossbow quarrels, lead or clay bullets, or small rocks. No patching was used, so the propulsion was diminished and the muzzle velocity attenuated quickly. However, a hit at close range (about 25 paces) could easily penetrate armor. Though much is made of the smoke and noise being a fear factor, the reality is that once troops were seasoned, they would be less afraid. Still, gunpowder and gunpowder weapons were considered something dark for quite a while after their introduction to warfare.

Death shoots a pale handgonne
As the technology advanced, handgonnes began to look more gun-like. Later handgonnes had something more like true gunstocks, rather than tillers, and sported serpentine levers that enabled the user to mechanically apply the match to the touch-hole. The development continued up until in the late 15th c. when the handgonne had essentially become the arquebus.

The slow rate of fire made handgonners particularly vulnerable to attack when they were used in the open field. For this reason, hangonnes were most effective when used in sieges (attacking or defending) or in defending field works. Gonzalo de C√≥rdoba's great victory at the Battle of Cerignola in 1503 marked the point when firearms started to replace earlier hand-held missile weapons en masse and the start of the long-held dominance of the Spanish pike and shot tactics.

Painting Handgonners

Inspired by my new painting velocity using The Miracle Dip™, I've been looking at a handful of abandoned projects to kick-start back into life. One of these projects goes back more than 20 years when I bought a few packs of Grenadier fantasy figures.

The old Grenadier fantasy range had, in addition to orcs, elves, dragons, goblins, etc., a line of humans that were modeled after 15th c. Burgundians—the army of Charles the Bold. These are very nice figures, sculpted by Mark Copplestone in the '80s. The whole range included all kinds of variety with multiple poses for each type: mounted and dismounted knights, mounted men-at-arms, pikemen/spearmen, longbowmen, crossbowmen, halberdiers/billmen, artillery, and handgonners. Charles would approve.

I bought my packs at the now out-of-business American Eagles when they were in Ballard, WA. They only had a few packs and I bought 'em all, which netted me: 10 halberdiers/billmen, 10 handgunners, 2 large handguns with 2 crew each, a small bombard with 2 crew, and some command figures. At the time Grenadier in the US was going under and it was hard to get the figures anywhere in the benighted, insular, pre-Interwebs days. I started painting what I had, but couldn't do much with them, few as they were. I completed the giant handguns (but later sold them at a swap meet). The other figures sat partially painted in a box that traveled with me through three house moves over 20 years. Every now and then, I'd run across them while looking for something else and I'd think that I should get to work and finish them.

Just before Christmas, I resolved to finally do it. Only instead of finishing what I'd started, I was going to strip them and start over. I've only done this a few times. It's not pleasant. I use the Pine-Sol soak 'n' scrub method. I do it the manly man way without gloves, which is supposed to ruin my hands, but so far not. Nevertheless, I'm still prepared to stop if I see a finger dissolving.

The first step was to pry them off the thick plastic bases I'd put them on. Though I recall that when I started painting them, they were just glued to cardboard squares for better handling. I put them on the 20mm x 25mm plastic bases when I was doing a late medieval variant for Tod Kershner's Pig Wars skirmish rules. One of the reasons I hate rebasing is that I base so thoroughly that it's a tough go to de-base the figures. I have sold armies of painted figures rather than rebase them.

Once off their bases, I put the lot in a plastic food container and drowned them in Pine-Sol. The Pine-Sol doesn't dissolve the paint, but it breaks it down so that scrubbing with a firm toothbrush will remove the paint. Theoretically.

Pine-Sol bath
Sometimes it takes a bit more elbow grease and a second (or third) soak 'n' scrub to get it all. Eventually, and at great risk to one's hands, you get a nice pile of bare, clean, shiny, scrubbed minis to start over with.

First scrub (more to do)
I've started for now painting the 10 handgonners (because they're who I love). Grenadier had one pack of five different figures. I got two packs, which still allows for variety, especially since I paint each figure differently. It takes longer to make each figure unique, but block-painting is still pretty fast. I just wind up switching colors a lot on my palette.

Block painting complete; ready for the satin enamel spray
After the block painting is done, I gave them a spritz of clear satin enamel as a prep for brushing on the Minwax stain.

Once I've completed the dip, I give them a spray of Testor's Lusterless (i.e., dullcote) as the penultimate sealer before basing and flocking.

Dipped and dullcoted
Because I'm using the figures for skirmish gaming, the single bases don't need to be any specific size. Typically I use 20mm x 25mm bases for 28mm figures (the William Stewart Standard Base Size™). For my ECW skirmish figures (Renegade and Bicorne), I used larger bases (25mm x 30mm) because the figures are "heroic" 28mm figures with a large footprint. The Grenadier figures are less heroic than the Renegade, but have big footprints. I compromised and used some 1/8 inch tile sheet styrene. I score the tiles at 7/8" x 1 1/8". The resulting base is a bit more narrow and very slightly less deep than the ECW bases.

Cutting bases from 1/8" tile sheet styrene
The tiled sheet styrene makes it easy to cut bases to the right size and also facilitates rounding the corners for a more skirmishy-looking base. I affix the cut bases to the sticky side of some magnetic sheet material from Litko, and then trim off the extra, round the corners, and sand everything smooth with fine grit sandpaper.

I glue the figures to the base using Gorilla super glue and then slap some Golden coarse pumice gel around to hide the rather thick base that comes on the casting. I learned the coarse pumice gel trick from Kevin Smyth. I apply the medium with a palette knife and let it dry for 12-24 hours. The surface is rough and lends itself well to painting and drybrushing.

I had a small pumice crisis to overcome first. I used to get the medium from Michael's, but every store I tried didn't have it. I was afraid it might be a discontinued item (that happens to me a lot). I finally went to Aaron Brothers art supply and got a 8 oz. jar at half price, as well as several Windsor Newton University Series 233 brushes in 000 and 00 sizes in their 1¢ sale (buy one, get one for 1¢). I've used these brushes for years to do my detail painting. Nothing else works for me as well.

When the medium is dry, I trim off the excess with an X-Acto knife. I use slightly thinned Vallejo Mud Brown as my base color and after that dries, I drybrush Vallejo Yellow Ochre over it to bring out the rough texture of the pumice gel medium.

I flock the bases with Woodland Scenics Earth Blend blended turf, leaving patches of 'bare ground.' Then I apply a second layer using Woodland Scenics Light Green coarse turf. After the glue is well dried for the coarse turf, I use some tweezers to pluck it short. The desired effect is a rough surface; tweezing reduces the puffiness of the turf. (I also need to tweeze out the bits of cat hair that get into my flocking, otherwise the bases might look like they have the kind of wispy beards that older women get.)

When the turf is all right, I go over the base edges with some Vallejo Mud Brown, and then give the figures a final spray of Krylon Matte Finish. The Krylon matte is a not-quite dullcote, but not quite a satin either. It leaves just a glint of satin finish on the figure that softens the harsh lusterlessness of the Testor's dullcote.
20 years in the making! Handgonners completed.
Lion Rampant

I'll use the figures I have as seed for one or more Lion Rampant retinues. I wanted to get medieval earlier, but nothing came of it because I couldn't really find a set of rules that I liked and that I could reasonably expect to find other people willing to play (and contribute to by painting minis). Lion Rampant changed that. It's very popular around here. The Tacoma gamers have regular Lion Rampant game days.

Early gunpowder weapons didn't make the cut in Daniel Mersey's published rules. Mersey did, however, provide some stats for them on a Boardgame Geek forum. because, as he notes, "there are some lovely models available for early handgunners." (As we see above.)

Below is a formatted version of the handgonne rules from the forum post.

Unit Name: HandgonnersPoints: 4
Attack7+Attack Value6
Move6+Defence Value6
Shoot8+Shoot Value6 /12"
Courage4+Max. Movement6"
Armor2Special RulesBang, Panic
  • Models per unit: 6
Special rules:
  • Bang: All units count as Armour 1 against Shooting by this unit (Armour 2 if in cover).
  • Panic: When this unit Shoots, the target unit must take a Courage test regardless of the number of hits inflicted.
Unit upgrades:
  • Pavises @ 2 points per unit. As for Crossbows.
Also, one poster to the forum suggested an option for having a handgonne blow up. Like the "lucky blow" rule,  when the handgonners shoot, roll 2 x D6. On a double-one, remove one handgonner. 

Grenadier Lives!

More good news is that Grenadier Models aren't dead and gone. Mirliton in Italy produces the full range. Packs of 5 foot figures or 2 mounted run about €8,16 (about $8.86 USD). The kicker is shipping. They charge a small fortune to ship. Unless you're ordering a lot of figures, you're getting soaked. Happily, Mirliton offers 10%, 15%, or 20% discount based on the amount of the sale. That makes shipping costs easier to swallow. At some point this year I'll use my tax refund to make a big purchase so I can get several units for Lion Rampant, enough for two retinues or to be able to mix 'n' match to make a lot of variations on one retinue.

I'm not aware of any US distributor for Mirliton. There is a UK distributor, but their prices are nearly twice the Mirliton prices, plus shipping costs from the UK.


  1. Very nice work, David. Excellent history lesson too. One thing you can do after the Dullcote is to highlight metal areas to give them a shine. For instance I like to dry brush helmets after the Dullcoting. Looks great in any case.

  2. I've always thought the entire Grenadier range for fantasy or whatever were a fantastic range. Great animation and great sculpts.

  3. I too have a penchant for handgonners. I enjoyed seeing yours rise from the pine sol to become lovely painted figures.