Monthly Archives: March 2012

Flintlock Musket

Brown Bess flintlock Musket, circa 1790.

Brown Bess flintlock Musket, circa 1790. (Photo credit: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery)

British "Brown Bess" flintlock muske...The flint for flintlock – 17th century

The flint for flintlock – 17th century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the Revolutionary war, the main weapon used on both sides was the flintlock musket, nicknamed “Brown Bess” (I have no idea why -yet). 

This musket was a very reliable weapon, simple, and easy to operate -though not very accurate.

To begin loading, about a tablespoon of black gunpowder was poured down the barrel, and a round lead ball (for the rebels lead was scarce, so many melted and casted pewter pots, spoons and plates into bullets) appriximately half an inch in diameter was rammed with a special ramming rod down on top of the powder.

Now for the interesting part: in the second photo you can see at the left the hammer (also called the “cock”) with a piece of flint clamped firmly in. Both this and the piece of metal at right (the striking plate) are attached to springs and both spring to the right when the trigger is pulled. You can see just under the flint the primer pan, where half a teaspoon of powder was poured. Now the striking plate is pulled down on top of the powder and the hammer is pulled back. When the trigger is pulled, the flint hits the striking plate as it flies up, which lites the powder underneath.  

The powder inside the barrel is lit through a hole just above the striking plate, and the powder explodes, sending the ball out the barrel with considerable force.


British “Brown Bess” flintlock musket – U.S. Army Museum of Hawaii, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


In the 15th century, Alum was very important, used in the refining industries and also used for cleaning. Europe could basically not survive without Alum. So, of course, if a thing is very useful, then of course it must be scarce or hard to get. The only reliable source for Alum in sufficient quality was a spot in Syria owned by the Geonese. The Geonese were experts, and they knew that the way to get the highest price was to put out only a little at a time.

Unfortunately, the Geonese were driven out by the Turks, who then took control of the mines. The Turkish Alum was expensive, and none of the Europeans were getting the money from it’s sale, so many people began looking for new sources. Finally Alum was discovered in the region of Tolfa, and was immediately under the possession of the Medici family;  very rich bank owners. The Alum from Tolfa was immediately tested, and turned out to be of equal, if not superior quality to the Turkish-owned Alum!

So it turns out that one of the reasons the pope (who was receiving a percentage of the Tolfa Alum sales) called for one of the crusades was to put down Turkish Alum competition.

The Dutch Raid on Chatham (Medway)

In the 1660’s, one of the two greatest trading nations, England, grew jealous of the Dutch trade, and so they declared war. In the first Anglo-Dutch war, the English won many of the sea battles, and peace was declared. Not long after, England declared war again, and won two major victories, the St. James day fight, a major sea battle, and Holme’s bonfire, in which a large Dutch trading fleet was destroyed and a Dutch town plundered and burned with it’s citizens slaughtered. The Dutch were outraged, and in 1667 the Dutch fleet under Admiral Michiel De Ruyter set sail to the Medway River.

The first ships under Willem van Ghent were sighted, and the alarm was sounded, preperations made the fleet sailed up the river. The English were afraid mainly of an attack on London, so they concentrated there. But the Dutch were after the English fleet anchored further up the river.

The Dutch began by attacking Sheerness castle, which was protecting the mouth of the river. They bombarded it for a while until the garrison fled. Against orders a party of the Dutch plundered the castle, and their leader, Jan van Brakel, was relieved of command of that regiment.

The Dutch continued up the river where they found seven sunken ships blocking the passage through. After searching, they found a gap and once some of the ships were towed away, the Dutch fleet sailed through. The next obstacle was a giant chain across the river, with artillery positions on either side and ships guarding in front.

The Dutch sent fireships into the Carolus V and Matthias, which both caught fire and blew up. The Unity, a Dutch-captured English ship, was boarded and captured by Jan van Brackel, hoping to regain his command.  After another board, the great 80-gun Royal Charles, the pride of the English fleet, was captured, to the utter humiliation of the English. One of the Dutch ships sailed onto the chain and broke it. Finally, the only ships left were the Royal James, Royal Oak, and Loyal London. The English realized the only way to prevent their capture, and so they were filled with water and sunk, the river being shallow enough so the deck was still in open air. So the Dutch sent fireships into them and they were burned. De Ruyter had seen enough destruction, so the Dutch fleet sailed away leaving the burning hulls of English ships behind them.


Iron Ore of Elba

In 1400’s Italy the only source of Iron ore other than expensive Spanish imported Iron ore was from the island of Elba (between Italy and the island of Corsica). The mines on Elba were owned by several princes and lords, who would sell the ore to a group of merchants. This group of merchants would have  sales territories between them, and sell it to local smelters on the mainland. The reason the merchants did not just smelt it themselves is because there was not enough timber on the island. I don’t know yet why they didn’t trade to get Iron from places like France and Germany.

Aerial view of the island of ElbaElba, Italy

Volterraio ( Elba ). Rocks co

Volterraio ( Elba ). Rocks containing iron. De...

ntaining iron. Deutsch: Volterraio ( Elba ). Eisenhaltiges Gestein. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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The Armada: One of The Decisive Battles of History


In 1588, the great Armada set sail from Spain. This huge fleet consisted of 130 ships, including 22 great Gallons, huge ships just laden with guns and other firepower.

The reasons Philip II of Spain sent out this powerful fleet was because the protestant English had been helping the Dutch, who were trying to overthrow the Spanish rulers in the Netherlands. Also, English privateers such as Sir Francis Drake had been pirating the richly laden Spanish ships on their way back from the Americas. And when Queen Elizabeth of England had beheaded the Roman Catholic Queen Mary of Scots, Philip finally sent out his ships.

The fleet was to sail through the English channel to the Spanish Netherlands, pick up troops waiting there, and then land them on Britain, then these troops would march to Buckingham palace and sieze Elizabeth.

Philip’s first big mistake was to put the fleet under command of Medina Sidonia, his best General, also a man who had never been to sea.

 The English sighted the Armada off Lizard, and sent the signal to London through lighted beacons. (like in the movie Lord of The Rings when Minas Tirith called for help through the beacons to Rohan). The English fleet put to sea, but could do nothing while the Spanish kept in their tight formation. So the Spanish fleet went hulking on, but when they reached the Dutch harbour where the troops were waiting to be picked up they had to stop, and stopping meant going out of formation.

The second they stopped, the English began firing at long range, farther than the small Spanish guns could shoot, and even better, the Dutch Sea Beggars under Justin of Nassau, (brother of the Prince of Orange) had blockaded the harbour, and so the Spanish had to go back a little and find a shallower spot to take on the armies. But, of course, the Beggars had already been through and removed the depth markers. So around Calais in France, the Spanish finally found what seemed to be a good spot,  and so they cast down anchor and waited for the army to arrive.

Meanwhile the English were doing serious damage, but the Spanish could do nothing back. At last it grew dark, and the English withdrew. The Spanish knew there would be another attack in the morning, so were ready to cut loose the anchor and get out of the way of any fireships.

Sure enough, in the night, about eight fireships loomed towards them. The Spanish panicked, cut loose their cables and tried to flee. All but one escaped the fireships, but the others ran into each other, and some got stuck in the sand bar. When light dawned, the English renewed their attack, and just tore apart the Spanish. The Spanish could not flee as the wind was against them, and many ships were sunk. At last the wind changed, and the Spnaish fled. They could not go back through the strait as they had come, as the English were there waiting for them, so they sailed up the coast intending to go around Scotland and so back to Spain that way.

The poor Spaniards were driven by hunger, and those who were not taken by hunger were sunk in storms. Only 52 out of the 130 ships that sailed so proudly from Spain returned to their homeland.

The reason the Enlish had won this battle is because of their long-range cannons that fired 42-pounders (the wheight of the cannon balls) a range almost twice as far as the Spanish guns.