The Big Bang

Photo by Simon Casper Joder

Master Gunner Michael Stuart firing the cannon to start the heavy field battle.

By Lord Lothar
For the Pennsic Independent

You hear them every morning of war week. From the top of Mt. Eislinn, the dedicated gun crews of the Guild of St. Barbara signal the start of martial activities. I will be honest with you; I do have a little bit of experience in this field. I have joined in on the firing line once or twice in Pennsics past. I also have some experience firing later period black powder weapons in some of my post-SCA recreation groups. (Ask me about firing the guns at the 200th anniversary celebration of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ at Ft. McHenry some time.) But my knowledge is limited to roughly 1650-1815. I know very little about firearms in the SCA period. Fortunately, there are plenty of people at Pennsic that do. I had a conversation with Master Michael Graham about guns at Pennsic. Michael is a member of the Guild of St. Barbara, the SCA’s black powder weapons guild. He has been firing guns at Pennsic for more than 15 years, but his black powder experience goes back much further than that. So why guns at Pennsic? “It really serves two purposes,” he explains. “First, to let people know when the fighting begins. But also, to remind people that guns were a part of the period that we create.”

Most people don’t think firearms when they think about the middle ages. But their history goes back to the 13th century in Europe. The first mention of guns from Italy was in 1284, but goes even further back in China. They made their way to Europe by way of the Mongols and Arabs. The first known European recipe for gunpowder dates to 1267. It’s potassium nitrate, sulfur, and charcoal, by the way. The first illustration of a cannon in England dates to 1327. Early guns were cast from bronze, but as iron casting technology advanced, so did cannon construction methods. Early iron guns were made from forged staves of iron that were held together with bands, much like a cooper makes a barrel. That is how they came to be called barrels. Guns in the SCA period could range from huge siege cannons that were used to pound the walls of fortresses to small handheld pieces, often called “handgonnes.” There were three main types of guns used. Mortars were used for firing projectiles like bombs and grenades at high angle trajectories. Muzzle-loaders were loaded by ramming the charge and projectile down the front of the barrel. Breach-loaders allowed ammunition to be loaded from the back of the barrel, giving the user the ability to fire it more rapidly than the other types could.

There are seven artillery pieces being used at Pennsic this year, though not all of them are firing before any given battle. All of these guns are scaled down models of pieces that would have been used in period. There are also many handheld pieces like muskets, arquebuses, and handgonnes present. All of them fire black powder like their medieval and early modern predecessors. The guns at Pennsic, of course, will not be firing any projectiles. The gun crews take safety very seriously. “We have very strict safety rules at Pennsic. Our rules are even a step of above the rules followed by the National Park Service,” Michael explains. The Guild does invite interested folks to come watch the guns at the firing line. They even offer to train those who would like to give it a shot, so to speak. Kids are welcome to learn too, but they are not permitted to fire any live rounds. People who are curious can go to the Guild of St. Barbara’s facebook page or stop by the White Rose Camp at the corner of Battle Rd and Fosseway. You can’t miss it. There’s usually a bunch of cannons there.

Don’t forget! If you suffer from PTSD or otherwise don’t want to be surprised by the unexpected explosions, you can sign up for the Cannon Advanced Warning System (CAWS). CAWS is a text alert system that will notify you in advance of the cannons impending firing. You can sign up to receive text alerts from CAWS at Silver Tree Song or Nordic Trader on Street of Gold in the merchants’ area.