Sunday, October 26, 2014

We Few, We Happy Few, We Band of Brothers

599 years ago today, the English Army under Henry V inflicted one of the greatest defeats against the French in  history.  A starving, rag-tag group of Englishmen who had been on the run for over two week, clashed with the French near the little village of Agincourt.  The over confident French were rested well fed and three times their number.  At the end of the fighting the flower of French nobility lay dead in a muddy wheat field.  8,500 Frenchmen lay dead, more than 2,000 more than were in the entire English Army.  

A short excerpt from Chapter 24 of my young reader's novel, "The Archer's Son" in honor of the victory at Agincourt.
"Keep your heads, lads, and nock a bodkin," William called out. "There is Lord Erpingham. Now we will provoke the French into moving." The old knight strode quickly out in the field in front of the line where all could see him. He tossed a baton high in the air to draw the attention of all the archers.
"Now strike!" The old knight bellowed at the top of his lungs.
In unison, five thousand archers muscled bow cords to their ears and launched arrows high in the air toward the French lines. It was a long shot, so the high-arching arrows took several seconds to ascend before they started their deadly fall to earth. Hedyn could see a faint shadow that drifted across the wheat field created by the mass of five thousand feathered missiles. Like a great flock of starlings, he thought. 
Before the first arrows began to thud into men and horses and to clang against armor, the archers were sending more arrows on their way, each man shooting at his own pace. Within a minute, 60,000 arrows were in the air or scattered across the battlefield. Some in dirt, some in men.
The arrow storm had its intended effect. Trumpets sounded, drums thumped, and the French line finally came to life. 
"We are in for it now, lads," William said to no one in particular. 
Mounted knights appeared on each side of the French formation, as the main line of armored men on foot began to move forward. The heavy armor and thick mud made them seem slow and clumsy. 
"Put your arrows on the cavalry, lads. They will try to break our archers on the flanks," the ventenar instructed. "Help our mates on the flanks. Broadheads into horse flesh. If a horse goes down, the knight will go too." Hedyn hated to see the horses killed, but he knew that the highly trained animals were as much a weapon as the lances and swords that each of the knights pointed at his comrades.
From where he stood near the center of the line, Hedyn watched in awe as the French cavalry thundered toward the English flanks on either side of him. The air behind each of the big coursers filled with clods as pounding hoofs splattered the black mud. 
The archers did not falter behind their wooden stakes but poured the bodkins and broadhead arrows into the mass of horses and men. Some began to fall as arrows found chinks in armor or were embedded in screaming horses. Some slowed and galloped back as it became too perilous near the archers and their stakes. A few stalwarts made it to the line of bowmen and discovered that the horses slowed or stopped, refusing to gallop into the protective barricade of stakes. These men were pulled from their mounts and killed by swarms of angry archers. 
One man, a great nobleman in the finest armor, tumbled from his horse headlong as the animal impaled itself on a stake. Even from where Hedyn stood, the splash of red blood stood out on the bleak, muddy field. The man never had a chance to rise from his fall, killed where he lay.
"I knew these stakes were a good scheme the minute King Henry had us cut 'em back in Corbie!" Denzel said, almost as confidently as if he had devised the idea himself. The men rolled their eyes and laughed at him. He smiled sheepishly.
Panicked war-horses, some rider-less, crashed back through the oncoming French line, sending men-at-arms tumbling and scattering to make way. The line slowed, but regrouped and slogged on through the mud.
The French line began to change. It became bunched and irregular. The French knights instinctively crowded to the center to avoid the deadly arrows streaming from the English flanks. The archers stood behind their stakes and shot as fast as arrows could be nocked. The visibility of King Henry's banners at the center of the line reinforced this movement toward the center. The French knights were not disciplined enough to remain where the battle plan required. The line slowly transformed into a blunt wedge, which only presented more targets to the busy archers. 
"Shoot, shoot! Pour it on, lads! Pour it on!" William screamed in a voice that Hedyn had never heard before. It seemed a mixture of terror, excitement, and merriment, almost like the voice of a boy involved in some risky prank. The arrows at the men's feet were long gone, and now each man shot the arrows in the extra bundles that Hedyn delivered before the fight. One hundred and twenty thousand arrows were gone, and still the French came."

An English Archer as he might have looked just prior
to the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.
William Shakespeare immortalized the great victory at Agincourt in his play, "Henry V."   Shakespeare's version of King Henry's speech before the battle has become one of his most famous scenes.  In my opinion, the version delivered by Kenneth Branagh in a movie by the same name in 1989, is the most moving.  You can see the speech here on Youtube:

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Recreating Daniel King's Little Howitzer

During the fall of 2012, I began a project to reproduce a King's Howitzer, a small cannon used in the late 18th century.  I had just sold my full scale 3 pounder gun and limber which I had built in 1999.  That gun and limber were heavy, about 1500 lbs, and took a big crew to serve is safely. 

"Miss Rachel" as we called her was gone, but I wanted something smaller, and authentic, that I could use for upcoming War of 1812 Bicentennial events.  A King's Howitzer fit that bill.

In 1790, General "Mad" Anthony Wayne was looking for a small, highly portable field piece that he could use against the Native Americans on the frontier.  He provided some very basic specifications including caliber (2.85 inches) and overall weight and sent them off to Daniel King of Philadelphia.  The gun was to be a howitzer (meaning there was to be a powder chamber in the breech smaller in diameter than the bore.) It was to be conveyed in pack saddles, not towed, and was to have a total weight of no more than 250 pounds.  King was able to provide such a gun and General Wayne was pleased with results.  However, it was soon discovered the little cannon could not take its own recoil and damaged itself upon firing. The solution was to make the bronze barrel beefier in the breech and trunnions, increasing its weight from 38 to 60 pounds.

The little guns were designed to fire exploding shells and grapeshot with a four ounce powder charge. 

A battery of the King's Howitzers opened the Battle of Falling Timbers and continued to serve at various frontier outposts through the War of 1812.  Most had been retired from service at the end of that conflict.  For a complete history of the King's Howitzer, go to this link:

Although several of the bronze barrels have survived, the same cannot be said for the carriages.  Some hints are provided in correspondence of the time, but much speculation must be used in reproducing the carriages.  Most scholars believe they were scaled down versions of the British 5.5 howitzer, and that is where I started in designing my King's Howitzer carriage.

My bronze barrel, or "tube" as they are termed in artillery circles, was cast by Bob Gilmor in Ohio. It has true 2.85 inch bore with a 1.3 inch chamber.  I purchased the wheels from shop, also in Ohio, that specializes in 19th century style wagon wheels.  One of the period references stated the carriages used "cart wheels."  These wheels fit that description and help keep the cannon under its 250 pound target weight.  I got the raw lumber from a local saw mill and dried, planed, cut and mortised it myself based on my reconstructed carriage design.

I had gotten to this point before it occurred to me to start photo documenting the construction process.  I have already cut the cheeks and mortised them for the transoms (cross pieces) and fitted the axle tree. The steel axle is actually a 1 inch pipe that fits the one inch hub on the wheels.  Here you see the bronze tube and the iron work I had made by a local blacksmith. These pieces had to be 1/4 inch or thicker to handle the recoil of the gun. 

Here you can see the cheek iron and axle brackets fitted to the wood, The bolts are in, but the nails holes and nails are not yet made.  The drag hooks were also made by the blacksmith to my specifications.
Here is the same stage from the rear. You can see that the cheek iron is still loose.  The rear drag hooks are fitted and in place.

The trail irons are all made from soft 1/8 inch thick steel.  I made these by carefully measuring and cold bending the steel in a vice and then hammering to get the clean square bends were needed. 
Next was the reinforcing band.  This was also made by cold bending and hammering the steel.  The drag ring is simply a eyelet and ring purchased from Lowe's.  I used square nuts and square lag bolts for all the hardware as hex nuts are a much later invention. 
A view from the front with the tube in place.  I've not yet fitted the cap squares at this point. Those are the half round brackets that go over the trunnions on the side of the tube.

This is the quoin bed, pronounced "coin" bed.  This is a level bed under the breech of the tube where the quoin, sometimes called a wedge is used to adjust the elevation of the tube.  You can see the groove in the quoin the matches the wood of the bed. This keeps the quoin from hopping around when the gun is fired.

I experiment with several types of axle pins.  This did NOT work as it jambed and was hard to remove. The end of the hollow axle will be filled before painting to give the appearance that it is solid iron.


Here is the completed gun minus paint.  Every thing is fitted except the rear bolt hole on the cap squares.  The flower type device on the side is simply a big decorative washer that I cut from sheet steel.  It reinforces the quoin transom bolt.

All the parts are fitted, so I took it all apart to paint it. I painted each piece separately and then reassembled to touch it up.

All of the iron work, ready for paint.

Here are the cheeks and iron work when I reassembled.  I used oil based paints.  We know that King's Howitzer were blue as was most American artillery at the time, because General Wayne specifically ordered "Prussian blue" for carriages.

The finished product!  Painted and back together. 
You can see close up pictures of the finished gun at this link:

 The first shots from the King's Howitzer!