Friday, May 28, 2010

Barrel Making: Early Gun Making in Europe

In the last post, we studied the early history of barrel making and different techniques that were used to make early gun barrels. In Europe, the first barrels were made in Italy, probably by smiths in Perugia. At this time, medieval Europe was beginning to see the rise of guilds which were associations of workers of a particular trade. People who were not guild members were not allowed to practice the profession of the guild in question. There were guilds for various professions such as tailors, wine makers, weavers, blacksmiths, carpenters etc. and each guild would guard the secrets of their profession jealously. Accordingly, it was the blacksmiths guilds that had a monopoly of the early gun trade in continental Europe. The centers of gun production were either state owned arsenals such as St. Etienne in France, Brescia in Italy, London in England etc., or in areas where smith guilds were concentrated (in particular, people who made iron nails) such as Liege in Belgium, Suhl in Germany, Bilboa and Eibar in Spain etc. After the early muskets were made, blacksmiths often had to work in collaboration with the carpenters guilds to make the wooden stocks that the barrels were mounted to. This led to craftsmen in some regions forming their own unique "gunmakers guild" which was then regarded as a separate profession from the normal blacksmith and carpenter guilds. The gunsmiths of Suhl formed their guild in 1463.

England was relatively late in the gun-making game and at the time when Henry VIII ascended the throne of England in 1509, there were very few guns in England's arsenal and there was only one expert cannon maker in all of England who knew how to cast guns. Henry VIII quickly rectified the gun shortage situation by importing every gun he could buy from continental Europe and built up a sizeable arsenal very quickly. In fact, by 1513, just before a war with France, Henry placed a large order of guns with the kingdom of Venice and caused the outraged Ambassador of Venice to report back to the Doge that he already had "enough cannon to conquer hell!"

Due to the monopoly of the local guilds throughout continental Europe, many who had learned the profession could no longer practice it if they moved from one town to another, since they were not members of the gunmakers guild of the new town. Luckily for England, the guilds did not have as much power there and so when Henry VIII invited skilled gunmakers to settle in England and carry their trade there, many were only too glad to accept. Arcanus de Arcanis from Italy, Peter van Collen from Belgium, Bawde from France, Cornelius Johnson from Holland and several other skilled gunmakers of that era all made their way to London. By 1545, Henry VIII had plenty of people in his service who knew how to use, repair and make arquebuses. Along with setting them up around the Tower of London (where England's Royal Arsenal was situated), Henry requested that they train local Englishmen in their trade as well. These gunmakers were the start of the gun-making industry in England and for the next few hundred years, the industry was concentrated around the neighborhood of the Tower of London. By the time Henry's daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, ascended the throne, there was thirty-seven gunmakers plying their trade and a Dutchman named Hendricke was the most famous gunsmith in the 1590s. However, King James repealed an act of Queen Mary and granted the monopoly of gunmaking to one Edmund Nicholson and the industry declined to the point that, by 1607, there were only five gunmakers left and they petitioned Parliament to abolish the monopoly so that the "mysteries of gunmaking could be retained." Their grievance was addressed, but it wasn't until 1637 that the London Gunmakers Company was established and this guild later began to dominate England's firearm industry to the detriment of other centers of manufacturing. In fact, there were several legal battles between the members of the London Gunmakers Company and the Birmingham Gunmakers Company in the years to come.


  1. I am researching London Cannon makers John and Richard Phillips circa 1584, who possibly worked from Cannon Makers Row. It is thought they sold cannon to Spain,at the time of the Armada in 1588. It is also possible a cannon made by them still exists at the Tower of London.

    It has been suggested to me that ten bronze cannon (possibly attributed to the Phillips) were found by Captain Jacob Roe in Aug 1740 on a ship lost at Portincross in West Kilbride in Scotland,he sold these cannon to a bell founder in Dublin 1740. The story ,of captain Jacob Roe is found in the admiralty court papers,1723 to 1739.

    Do you know of the Phillips cannon makers or have interest in the story of the 10 Cannon.

    I am in Canada and researching the John Phillips family and this link has been suggested.

    What I am looking for is proof that these chaps, John and Richard were cannon makers and where they lived and worked so I can follow their descendants movements if possible.
    J Phillips-Wood

  2. Hi Julie, I'm afraid I haven't heard much of the Phillips family of gunmakers, but I'd sure love to hear anything you know about them. I presume you're trying to research your ancestry. Good luck with your search.

  3. Hi. Jacob Roe recovered 10 bronze and also ten iron cannons. One iron one still remains here in West Kilbride. Unfortunately it has E.R. and the Tudor rose on it. As it is iron, it could not have come from an Armada ship as English iron cannons only really came into operation about the tie of the Armada and after, thereby not having enough time to send iron cannons to Spain (bear in mind it took some years to assemble the Armada too).
    The iron cannons at least must have been manufactured in the early 1600's. I believe the Armada story was invented by capt Roe and his notorious sponsor Archibald Grant to add value to the bronze cannon. This would fit the facts surrounding subsequent events with the iron cannons - there is another one sitting outside the MacLean museum in Greenock. I am currently writing a book on the Portencross Cannon.
    Hope that helps
    Stephen Brown

  4. Hi, I just came across your very interesting post. I am researching an ancestor, Thomas Cobrow, whose trade was given as gunsmith in the baptism and burial registers for his children, dated 1609 - 1618 in the St. Botolph without Aldgate parish of London. I hadn't realized they were such a rare species. I am trying to find out if gun-smithing was a good living, or if he would have been on the edge of poverty. Would you by chance be able to direct me to any resources on the subject?

    M.J. Coubrough

    Thank you for your fascinating glimpse into his world.