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TASTE OF THE PAST > Firearms among the Ottomans

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Handguns were far less useful in war time since they were highly inaccurate except at close range. This changed as advances were made in boring the gun barrel and improvements in gunpowder.

Handguns were far less useful in war time since they were highly inaccurate except at close range. This changed as advances were made in boring the gun barrel and improvements in gunpowder.

Niki Gamm Niki Gamm

Though famous for their martial prowess, firearms came slowly to the Ottoman Empire. Cannon came first and the dating is hazy. Was it in 1386 in Sultan Murat I’s war against the Karamanoğulları or was it three years later in the Battle of Kosovo? And where did the Ottomans get their cannon? The Moors of Spain were using cannon early in the 13th century and there’s a recipe for gunpowder in the Escorial Library dating from about 1250. The city of Ghent is recorded as manufacturing cannon 1314 and exporting some to England.

Two cannon foundries were set up prior to the conquest of Istanbul, one in Edirne and the other Bursa. This shouldn’t be surprising since both cities served as capitals prior to the conquest of the Byzantine conquest. Fatih Sultan Mehmed II had bronze cannon cast for the siege of the city that could shoot 25-inch-diameter stone balls up to 600 pounds in weight. After the conquest, an official foundry was built at Tophane, a district that still bears the name of cannon foundry. As the cannon became larger and the distances to battlefields became greater, some of the big guns were actually built at the besieged city. Lighter cannon could be dismantled and, along with ammunition, transported by camel. Cannon was particularly manufactured during the 15th and 16th centuries but tapered off after that.
“The Ottoman army’s weapons production, maintenance, repair and protection was the duty of the Cebecis [a special military corps] from the Kapıkulu Ocaks [Janissary guard divisions] which made up the forces at headquarters,” Turgay Tezcan, a weapons specialist at Topkapı Palace for 30 years and a curator of the Palace’s Weapons Section, said in a paper delivered last year in Paris.

“The famous 17th-century traveler Evliya Çelebi counted five gunpowder depots in Istanbul: he said that one was at Cibali; the second belonged to the Janissaries at the Hippodrome; the third belonged to the Cebecis in the Cebehane [armory] across from St. Sophia, the fourth was administered under the command of the gunpowder director of the gunpowder depot that was near the big ‘factory’ with its 30 mortars and the Macumcu Market; and the fifth and biggest gunpowder depot was at Kağıthane,” said Tezcan, who was the Topkapı Palace Museum’s deputy director for the last 10 years he was there.

Someone in Vienna is accredited with having built the first rifle in 1411. It apparently was modeled on the cannon being used at the time and consisted of a very heavy metal barrel mounted on a wooden block. Like cannon, it was loaded from the front of the barrel, hence the adjective muzzle-loading. By the second half of the 15th century, the Ottomans, as well as other countries, had improved the rifle through the use of the lever and spring and used the firearm in its armies. Breech-loading rifles also appeared but not until the 19th century.

Ottomans used rifles as early as 1420

Tezcan also said it was generally accepted that the Ottomans were using rifles as early as 1420; however, he referred to the following anecdote from the 16th century:

Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, an ambassador to the Ottomans for the Austrians, relates in his memoirs how Süleyman the Magnificent’s son-in-law, Rüstem Pasha, “went on campaign against Iran (1553-54). He armed some of the soldiers with rifles and brought out a cavalry unit. The pasha was thinking that he would frighten and terrify the enemy with this. However, while he was having the soldiers taught, not even one day passed before parts of most of the weapons were broken and destroyed. The powder and oil that had to be replaced every time the rifle was fired dirtied their hands and clothing. The powder horn that hung at their sides was the butt of their friends’ jokes. As a result they persuaded the pasha that this weapon that the soldiers couldn’t get used to was not helpful and they would take back their bows and arrows.”

Experiments with firearms continued apace in European countries. Take the Puckle Gun which was invited in 1718 in London. It was a tripod-mounted, single-barreled flintlock gun fitted with a multi-shot revolving cylinder. It came in two versions. “One weapon, intended for use against Christian enemies, fired conventional round bullets, while the second variant, designed to be used against the Muslim Turks, fired square bullets, which were believed to cause more severe and painful wounds than spherical projectiles.” This rifle never proved to be successful.

Although the Ottomans continued to manufacture arms, they were unable to keep up with European advances in gunpowder and firearms technology. They took advantage of the technical knowledge of some who were willing to “turncoat” as it were.

Weaepons Section at Topkapı Palace


Even the sultans learned how to shoot guns but most likely for hunting; one amusing story has come down to the present day thanks to a stone monument in Gülhane Park, as we have it in Ahmet Ayhan’s book, “Topkapı Palace Museum: Arms Collection.” One day in 1790 or 1791, Sultan Selim III was out walking on the palace grounds with his favorite concubine. He spotted an egg in the distance (408 steps away from him) and, grabbing his rifle, he shot it. Then he shot it a second time from 434 steps away. This was such an amazing feat that large column was erected with a large cabbage on top. What is generally unknown is that for the sake of competition at the palace, the people engaged in sports were divided into two teams – the cabbages (lahanacılar) and the okras (bamyacılar). Obviously Sultan Selim belonged to the cabbages.

The earliest handguns are known from a depiction and description of one in England dating to 1326; it was designed to shoot an arrow. What we would consider today a proper handgun is supposed to have first been used in the 17th century. Handguns were far less useful in war time since they were highly inaccurate except at close range. This changed as advances were made in boring the gun barrel and improvements in gunpowder. What we see on exhibit in the Weapons Section at Topkapı Palace Museum and at the Military Museum seem to have been gifts between heads of state or pistols presented following a large order placed by the sultan or his government with a European weapons manufacturer. Some of these pistols have gold and silver on them with jewels and mother-of-pearl and tortoise-shell designs.

June/23/2012

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