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In this monthly blog series, our collections team will write about their Object of the Month, chosen from our collection. Karen Watts, our Senior Curator for Armour and Art looks at a magnificent armour made for Henry VIII to wear at the greatest and most romantic tournament that ever took place, the Field of Cloth of Gold.

Henry VIII’s foot combat armour

Steel armour covering entire body holding a pollaxe

Foot combat armour of Henry VIII

Consider Henry VIII as a chivalrous hero. Banish all images of him as a fat, bloated, lumbering, bad-tempered, crude king hurling meaty bones at his dogs. Imagine instead a tall, muscular, fit king who took part in tournaments and was particularly good. He complained when he did not have good enough opponents and score-sheets survive that show he was a very good jouster.

We know exactly what Henry’s physique was in 1520. He was 29 years old, 188 cms (6ft 2ins) and very athletic. Amazingly, a suit of armour has survived (II.6) that fitted the King as a close as a second skin. It is on display in the Tournament Gallery at the Royal Armouries museum in Leeds. It brings Henry VIII back to life better than any portrait. This suit of armour was made for Henry VIII to wear at the Field of Cloth of Gold.

An amazing feat of engineering

buttock area of the armour

There are no gaps in the armour

There is no chink in this armour. It completely encloses his body front and rear. It was made for fighting on foot in a tournament. The armour is also ‘tailored’ in the latest fashion of the period. This can be seen in the steel foot-defences called sabatons. Their broad shape around the toes follows the ‘bear-paw’ shoe that we can see in contemporary portraits. The large cod-piece is also a fashion statement not a boast.

This armour is an amazing feat of engineering. All the parts lock together with internal turning joints. The helmet rotates on the collar which is bolted to the back and front of the cuirass (chest defence). The gauntlets and sabatons fit under and over the cuff and ankle-defences respectively. A fully articulated breech-piece encloses the rump. The armpits, the inner elbows and the rear of the knees have narrow lames each linked to the next without a gap.

It is very rare for an armour to completely enclose the body. There is no other armour in the Royal Armouries collection like it. This is because of the consequent additional weight of all those extra plates. The armour weights 42.6kg (approximately 94lbs) which is twice the weight of a normal battle armour. Only a fit and strong man such as the young Henry VIII could have worn such an armour.

One small, last detail to note: the armour was not quite finished. The right neckguard has not been fitted and the armour was described as still being ‘black from the hammer’ a century later. Why? Read on.

The Field of Cloth of Gold

The Field of Cloth of Gold was a tournament at which more that 150 French and English courtiers including Henry VIII, King of England and Francis I, King of France, jousted, tourneyed and fought on foot. The Field of Cloth of Gold was named after the magnificent (and very costly) cloth of gold pavilions that embellished an otherwise drab setting in the Pale of Calais. Cloth of gold is a textile woven with a weft of gold and a warp of silk. The ‘Field’ was one of the most extraordinary tournaments of the period.

Turrets and procession of kings and knights on horse back

‘Le Champ de Drap d’Or’ [The Field of Cloth of Gold] 18th century print. I.224.

The tournament proper began on Monday 11th June and lasted for eleven days. The three main forms of combat were the tilt (jousting over a barrrier), the tourney (mounted team event) and the foot combat. Tilting was the predominant form of combat, lasting over a week. The object of the course was to break a lance on an opponent, and for this purpose rebated (blunted) lances were used. This did not, however, prevent injury: one French knight died tilting against his brother.

The last day of the tournament was given over to the foot combat at the barrier. In this contest the combatants were separated by a long bar erected the length of the field. They fought first with spears and then with large swords. The swords were rebated (blunted). Some fought with the two-handed sword which was optional as it was deemed dangerous.

The two armours

In the Royal Armouries museum in Leeds are, strangely, two armours made for King Henry VIII that were both made for the King to wear at the Field of Cloth of Gold. Both armours were made in the Royal Workshops at Greenwich. Both are for foot combat, yet are different from each other. One armour, seen above, completely encloses the body, front and rear.

The second armour (II.7) made for Henry VIII to fight in at the Field of Cloth of Gold tournament is very different. It is distinguished by a tonlet (deep skirt) and a great basinet (helmet). The armour shows signs of being hastily assembled using elements from several earlier armours drawn from store. Why?

Armour with a skirt

Tonlet Armour, II.7. This armour was used instead of the Foot Combat armour after Francis I changed the rules.

Both were made in 1520 for Henry VIII to wear at the Field of Cloth of Gold tournament. The first, fully enclosing armour is for fighting within an enclosure (like a boxing ring) with a pollaxe (staff-weapon). The other was for fighting on foot over a barrier with a big sword.

Why did Henry VIII have two different armours for foot combat?

The answer is that the French king, Francis I, changed the rules. It had been agreed that the foot combats would be fought within the enclosure and Henry had his wonderful articulating armour made. Only three months before the tournament the French king changed the rules. The foot combats were now to be fought over the barrier wearing armour and weapons that kept the combatants further apart, which required a new style of armour.

The Field of Cloth of Gold became a byword for chivalry and extravagance. All those who were lucky enough to be there were amazed and astounded by what they saw. They described it with enthusiasm and passed the story through generations down to today.

Visit our Collections Online to discover more about Henry VIII’s foot combat armour.

When the Royal Armouries acquired this rare shotgun in 2015, it was not only because of its interesting association with ‘Biggles’ but also its connection with the fledgling Royal Air Force.

March 2019 marks the end of the RAF’s 100 year anniversary celebrations of its formation in April 1918. It is therefore fitting to shine a light on a shotgun associated with the glamour and derring-do and of one of the great British schoolboy fictional heroes – the flying ace ‘Biggles’, created by ex-RAF pilot and author W.E. Johns in 1931.

side view of the Biggles Winchester double-barelled shotgun

Winchester Model 21 shotgun (XII.11890)

‘Biggles’ had many adventures through the 1930s, 1940s and into the 1950s, both in the air and on the ground. Indeed, he would appear in over a 100 of Johns’ books.

An inspiration to many

The impact of ‘Biggles’ was far reaching and he inspired generations of school boys to take to the air. The RAF was a busy service in its early years, conducting active operations in exotic locations around the globe. In 1919, the RAF conducted offensive air operations in southern Russia against the Bolsheviks and at the same time made use of air power in Afghanistan, as the third Afghan War had just broken out. These kind of stories would excite young boys with the glamour of the early fighter pilots.

The 1920’s and 1930’s, up to and during the Second World War, were hectic decades for the development of air power and Johns’ books were pivotal in encouraging young men to join the RAF and train as pilots. It is therefore interesting to see how this shotgun plays a part in this history, both fictional and actual.

The ‘Biggles’ connection

The shotgun itself has some interest; it is a rare American Winchester Model 21 side-by-side 12-bore shotgun, a model not often seen in the UK, but it is its literary association that is most interesting. Its former owner was Air Commodore Cecil ‘Wiggles’ Wigglesworth, one of the original RAF officers who in 1918 joined the RNAS as an airship pilot. He also served with and was a friend of W.E. Johns, the creator and author of dashing and adventurous aeronautical yarns.

Johns asked his great friend ‘Wiggles’ if he could use his name for his fictional hero in his books, changing the name slightly to James Bigglesworth, known to many as ‘Biggles’. ‘Wiggles’, along with some others were role models in Johns’ many books. Johns stated that the character was an amalgam of many individuals in the Royal Flying Corps (including himself), one of which was certainly his friend ‘Wiggles’ Wigglesworth. Others that have been suggested for the ‘Biggles’ character include rugby player and First World War flying ace Cyril Lowe, fighter pilot Albert Ball and Air Commodore Arthur Bigsworth.

Cecil Wigglesworth came to possess the gun while he was stationed at the Air Attache in Ankara, Turkey, after the war, where he exchanged it with an American colleague during a shoot. That day he was not having much success with his Purdey, so the two men decided to exchange guns. Wiggles’ shooting improved dramatically, so much so that they decided to make the exchange permanent.

This handmade boxlock Winchester Model 21 shotgun, the ‘Standard Model’, was built in 1948. The Model 21 was offered for sale in the United States from 1929 to 1959. Winchester only made around 32,000 of them, the majority of which remained in America where today they are much prized. Although plain in appearance, the Model 21 is both sturdy and reliable and is reported as shooting ‘very well’. They were America’s answer to the best quality guns of the London gun trade, such as Purdey and Holland & Holland.

Johns’ military career

W.E. Johns himself was no stranger to the RAF as he was an ex-RAF pilot and alongside Wigglesworth one of the original RAF officers in 1918. Johns began his military career in the army as a Private in the King’s Own Regiment. As a machine gunner, he fought against the Germans and Turks at Gallipoli and Salonika and also took part in the Spring Offensive in 1917. After contracting malaria he put in for a transfer to the RFC which by the time his transfer came through had merged with the Royal Naval Air Service to form the Royal Air Force. He briefly served as a bomber pilot until he was shot down over Mannheim and been made a prisoner of war in September 1918.

After being repatriated at the end of the War, he became a Lieutenant in the RAF’s Inspectorate of Recruiting, where he had the distinction of  rejecting an application by a ‘John Hume Ross’ whom he (correctly) suspected of using a false name, he was overruled by higher authorities and was therefore forced to recruit into the RAF a certain Thomas Edward Lawrence C.B. D.S.O., more popularly known as Lawrence of Arabia.

Johns began writing and illustrating aviation articles in 1927 after his RAF commission came to an end. He edited ‘The Modern Boy’s Book of Aircraft’ and ‘Wings: A Book of Flying Adventures’ and illustrated ‘The Pictorial Flying Course’ and ‘Fighting Planes and Aces’. This lead to the creation of his legendary fictional character ‘Biggles’, to first appear in a short story in ‘Popular Flying’ Volume 1, No.1 in April 1932.

The Biggles shotgun open to reveal both barrels

Learn more about this shotgun and others like it in our online collection.

“Bloodless duelling at the Olympics – one of the most curious contests at the Olympic Games.”

This was the caption to a photograph in the London magazine, The Sketch in July 1908. The fact that a competitive event that involved an actual duel was associated with the Olympics is frankly amazing to us today, but at the turn of the 20th century it was viewed differently, being thought of as a worthy spectator sport.

It was widely held that such an event was in fact part of the Olympic Games, especially the belief that a duelling competition using wax bullets was part of the 4th Olympiad held in London in 1908. This was not the case, as we shall see later on. That a duelling competition was competed for, there is no doubt and as Walter Winans, the noted pistol shot and author stated in an interview, prior to the event, for the Daily Express newspaper in May 1908:

“There will be just enough risk in these duels to make them exciting, though not really dangerous”.

How to shoot someone safely

So, what was wax bullet duelling? This section could also be titled ‘How to shoot someone safely’ as it is about the development of the Devillier’s wax bullets, the pistols and the associated duelling competitions.

It was in Paris at the turn of the century that the sport of duelling was evolving and it was evolving in a completely different direction to the disciplines that had been shot for in the Olympic Games of 1896 and 1900. In 1901 Dr. Paul Devillers both a doctor and a target shooter, who was also a keen ‘duellist’, designed a new innovative wax bullet for duelling practice. He designed it so that it would not shatter from the discharge or in the barrel, but that it would be soft enough not to bruise the person who was the intended target. The ball he designed was made from tallow and baryta sulphate – a combination intended to mark the target without hurting the opponent. It was also protected by a French patent, no.312320 of 1901. When used it was found that in hot weather, common in the Paris summer, the balls would become soft so in order to counter this the balls would be stored, in tubes, in large glass jars of water to keep cool. Walter Winans also described the problems of soft bullets in his 1919 book ‘The Modern Pistol and How to Shoot It‘:

“The pistol barrel has to be kept cold. When it gets hot after a few shots, the bullet will partly melt and get soft and then it does not take the rifling. The usual way is to have a sort of champagne cooler full of ice and to ice the loaded pistols for a few minutes before shooting them.”

With this new bullet perfected, a pistol was required, but it was not until 1903 that Devillers persuaded the Parisian gun making firm of Piot-Lepage to make sets of special wax bullet duelling pistols.

a case with two duelling pistols and accessories inside

Centrefire breech-loading duelling pistols by Piot-Lepage (XII-11069)

The company subsequently become the official armourer of Devillers’ new society devoted to duelling; ‘Societie L’Assaut au Pistolet’ that he founded in 1904. This new society drew up the rules for the new sport of wax bullet duelling, authorised equipment and arranged matches; these were often held in the Champs Elysee every Friday and must have drawn curious crowds of spectators to watch men ‘shoot’ each other. Devillers idea was to prepare gentleman for when they had to defend their honour — duelling then still being viewed as acceptable in France.

By 1905 the society had over a hundred members including the French ex-President Casimir Perier, the eccentric English knight Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon and particularly the great Anglo–American pistol shot and marksman, Walter Winans, who would become the great champion of this new sport and would become central in the story of duelling at the 1908 London Olympiad.

The practice of wax bullet duelling required some special equipment. The pistols for this new sport were not only specially made by Piot-Lepage but also by such firms as ManuFance and Ancion-Marx in Belgium. These pistols, usually made as a pair, are single shot, of .44 inch calibre, centrefire and usually modelled upon the standard muzzle-loading dueling or target pistol of the day, but with the addition of a large sheet metal handguard. The system employed consists of fitting a special steel cartridge—or adapter in the breech. The fore part of this is hollowed out to accommodate the wax bullet. The charge employed is of necessity very light, and consists of a special .22 calibre cap, which is loaded into the base of the steel cartridge. In order to make this cap centrefire, two projections of the shell are doubled back inside it in such a manner as to form an anvil. The wax bullet, weighing less than 1 gram, is then pressed lightly into a cup on the opposite side of the adapter and the whole combination being inserted in the pistol. Contemporary catalogues that sold these pistols advertised them for around 150 French francs a pair, quite a sum in 1908.

There was also a need for special protective equipment. It was recommended that, apart from the handguard fitted to the pistol, a heavy long waxed or leather coat and a mask, similar to fencing mask, but with closer mesh and a heavy glass eye screen be acquired. This is necessary as even though innocuous, when its flight is arrested by a coat, the wax bullet is still quite powerful enough to bruise a chest or break a finger. Contemporary sales catalogues show what equipment was available. The cost in 1906 for a mask and coat was 60 francs. A leather throat protector could also be worn and was highly recommended by none other than Walter Winans, who always wore one. Despite being wax, the balls packed a considerable punch and could hurt.

So, was duelling actually part of the IV Olympiad in London in the summer of 1908? No, it was not, it was not even an associated sport. But a demonstration did take place and this is its story.

Walter Winans, the most romantic of marksmen, was enormously enamoured and excited by the new sport of wax bullet duelling and having spent the last three years as a member of the L’Assaut au Pistolet’ society in Paris practicing the sport, he wanted to demonstrate it to the world. Therefore, in 1908 a number of the world’s deadliest revolver and pistol shots, including some of the crack shots from Belgium and France, were persuaded by Winans to come to London to give a public exhibition of the new sport of duelling.

The connection to the Olympics was purely coincidental as in fact Winans organised the demonstration in connection with the concurrent Franco–British Exhibition, not the Olympics as has traditionally been thought, that was held at White City in West London. The Franco–British Exhibition was being held both in conjunction with the Olympic Games and to celebrate the Entente Cordiale that had been signed four years earlier.

In fact a number of the duellists would already be in London to compete in fencing for their various countries; particularly the Briton, Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, and the Frenchmen, Jacques Rouvcanachi, Joseph Marais, the Comte de Montford (renowned as the best shot in France), M. Gustave Voulquin, and of course Walter Winans. On the appointed day, July 13 1908, the duellists assembled at the ‘fencing grounds’ that had just been prepared for the Olympic fencing competition that would subsequently take place on the 24 July.

Then in front of invited guests and excited press representatives, both national and international including The Sketch and the Daily Express, they proceed to demonstrate the sport of duelling by shooting at each other with wax bullets while wearing their long protective coats and wire masks.

Prior to The Great War the brief popularity of this new and innovative sport even spread across the Atlantic with the Carnegie Sword and Pistol Club in New York and the New York Athletic Club, in particular, sponsoring competitions.

Unfortunately, as a sport it did not survive for much longer, The Great War saw to that, as it did for many other activities and pastimes. It would not appear again.

As a postscript, it is interesting to note that in a poll conducted before the 2000 Sydney Olympics 32 percent of respondents said they would like to see duelling with pistols reinstated as a sport. Unfortunately, they were misled as it cannot be reinstated as it was never there in the first place. It was really only a whimsical demonstration of a niche shooting discipline by a group of keen sporting shots, who believed in a personal code of conduct that was soon to be crushed in the mud of war.

Each month we choose an object from our collection to explore. For the month of December, Jonathan Ferguson, Keeper of Firearms & Artillery, has chosen an unusual gun with a morbid history.

In the early 19th century, as medical science’s demand for cadavers  increased, so did the dark trade of body snatching. Grave robbers known as ‘resurrection men’ capitalised on the increased need for corpses, illegally digging up recently buried bodies to sell to medical schools.

students posing in a classroom next to three cadavers and a skeleton

United States, ca. 1910. Photograph. National Library of Medicine

Many different methods were adopted to try to stop such body snatchers, such as coffin-torpedoes, and cemetery guns.

patent drawing of a coffin torpedo

‘Coffin torpedos’ were another form of protection similar to the cemetery gun. They were attached to the coffin lid in order to “prevent the unauthorized resurrection of dead bodies”.

What are cemetery guns?

You may have come across unusual trap guns online, where they are sometimes called ‘alarm-gins’ or ‘cemetery guns’. In reality though, these weapons were known simply as ‘spring-guns’ and were used as far back as the early 17th century to protect all kinds of property. They probably saw much more use in game reserves, deer parks or private land than they ever did in graveyards. In fact, all modern references to the practice refer back to the same source; surgeon Bransby Blake Cooper, of whom more later.

Nonetheless, it seems likely that many a groundskeeper would have recourse to such a deadly weapon in their efforts to prevent the raising of the dead. Their purposeful yet exotic appearance and undoubtedly grim purpose also fit that Gothic image of a misty graveyard, jutting headstones, and ghoulish figures with spades.

The anatomy of a ‘spring-gun’

Looking at the guns themselves, we find that those from the late 18th and early 19th century are mostly of a similar kind; simple flared blunderbuss style barrels and flint-fired musket locks mounted to an unusual wooden casing. Originally, a cover was fitted over the lock to protect against weather and dew, although no gun would survive being left loaded for more than one cold, damp British night.

spring gun

Flintlock ‘alarm-‘, ‘spring-‘, or cemetery gun on wooden stand with rod (1800-1899). (XII.6003)

The guns are fitted with iron pintles or swivels underneath, and have sliding trigger bars instead of conventional hook-shaped gun triggers. This allows the forward motion of a tripwire to pull the trigger forwards, not backwards, to fire the gun. At the front of the bar are usually three iron rings, allowing the gamekeeper — or graveyard sexton — to set up between one and three tripwires.

Setting the trap

At its simplest, the trap could be set with the gun pointing in a fixed position, with a single wire run across the surface of the ground for the unsuspecting victim to step on. Alternatively, three wires could be strung above the ground in an arc — tripling the chance of a passer-by setting off the gun. The gun could be set into a wooden base, post, or tree-stump, allowing it to spin freely. By walking into the wire, cord, or string, the gun’s muzzle would be tugged in the direction of the target, almost like a primitive sentry gun. The next step was to load, prime and cock the gun as normal. One of our guns has a simple pivoting safety lever that prevents the bar from moving forward when in place. Both are missing their vent-prickers, usually mounted to the right side on a chain, but one still has a rammer fixed to one side, with a ‘worm’ on the end for removing loaded shot. The projectiles used were usually small shot, but stones are also documented, as is rock salt, for a less-lethal option. Finally, the angle of the gun could be set using a simple iron locking lever that exerts pressure on the pivoting plate on the gun’s underside, allowing one to undo the lever, adjust the gun to shoot in the direction of a victim’s legs, body, or even head, and then lock it in that attitude. Of course, even a wound to the lower legs could prove fatal in the days before effective medicine.

How to avoid them

Of course, these traps were quite difficult to conceal. Our sole source for the use of these guns in cemeteries comes to us from surgeon Bransby Blake Cooper, who relates the two main methods used to defeat them:

“Spring-guns were often set in various directions in the church-yards, but these never answered the purpose intended by them. If a Resurrectionist proposed to work where these instruments of danger were used, and when he was not intimate with the grave-digger or watchman, he sent women in the course of the day into the ground, generally at a time when there was a funeral, to note the position of the pegs to which the wires were to be attached. Having obtained this information, the first object of the party at night would be to feel for one of these and having found it, they carefully followed the wire, till they came up to the gun, which was then raised from the surface of the grave mound, (its usual position,) and deposited safely at its foot. I have been told that as many as seven bodies have been taken out of one grave in the course of a night, under these circumstances. The grave being filled up and restored to order, the gun was replaced precisely in the spot it had previously occupied.”

Life of Sir Astley Cooper, p.379-380.

Wherever guns were kept set, anyone straying into their path might be hurt or killed by them. Did people deserve to be shot at, hurt, or killed for the simple and common crime of trespass? This disregard for human life and the belief that, if firearms were to be used in the defence of property, a human being should be ‘in the loop’, gave rise to significant controversy. In June 1775 a spring-gun became the catalyst for revolution in the American colony of Virginia. As the Firearms History blog explains, the British governor of Virginia had appropriated stocks of gunpowder from the town of Williamsburg and stored them in a warehouse that was guarded by a spring-gun. Two local youths tripped the gun on the night of June 3rd, 1775, ironically enough triggering the so-called ‘Gunpowder Incident‘ and with it, Virginia’s entry into the war on the side of the Patriots. Rebel resistance in the state was led by Patrick Henry, who had that March already declared “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”.

The movement to ban cemetery guns

two spring guns side by side

It was not until the 1820’s that the movement to ban hidden guns gained momentum. Landowner and sportsman Edward Harbord, 3rd Baron Suffield took up the cause in 1825, remarking drily that ‘poachers are almost the only persons who escape being shot by spring guns’ and relating a case where criminals had disarmed and re-set a gun on a public road, nearly killing a young girl. Lord Suffield went so far as to introduce a bill to ban the guns in 1826, but this failed. In the same year however, a high-profile case rang the death-knell for the spring-gun, at least as an anti-personnel weapon. As The Preston Chronicle put it:

“A youth, named William Lloyd, employed in the factory of Messrs. German and Co. and whose labour was the chief support of a widowed mother, went into Car Wood during the dinner-hour, and coming in contact with the hidden snare of a spring-gun, was dreadfully wounded about the legs. Some of the shots with which the gun was charged have been extracted, but others remain in the flesh and about the bone, which it is impossible to draw out ; and should the wounds finally heal up, it is greatly feared that the youth will be a cripple for life. If neither humanity, nor a sense of what is due to the outraged feelings of the public, are to have any effect in procuring the abolition of these murderous instruments, perhaps the fear of legal consequences may, in the end, lead to their disuse. If death were to ensue in any of these cases, we know not by what process of legal subtilty any juryman could reconcile it to his conscience to bring in a verdict of justifiable homicide. We take it, that if any person were to shoot another by hand, merely because he happened to tread upon a certain spot in a field or wood, no law of trespass would save him from the punishment due to murder or manslaughter ; and he must be a clever casuist indeed, who could point out the moral difference between this mode of destroying a fellow creature and that of so placing a deadly instrument as to produce the same effect with equal certainty.”

– reprinted in The Examiner, Issue 934, Part 87, 1826, p.29.

The following year saw spring-guns banned following the death of a man called Guthrie in Scotland at the hands (indirectly of course) of a James Craw. In Scotland the standing homicide law was deemed to already legislate against such an act, but English law demanded a specific new piece of legislation, namely:

“An Act to prohibit the setting of Spring Guns, Man Traps, and other Engines calculated to destroy human Life, or inflict grievous bodily Harm.” [dated 28th May 1827.]

The Public General Acts, 1827, p.11.

This act included anyone who knowingly allowed a trap to be set, and therefore rendered landowners liable for the efforts of their staff. An exemption for hunting and vermin was included, but the days of the classic spring-gun were numbered. Later equivalents tended to fire blank charges as an alarm and deterrent rather than a life-or-death hazard, culminating in the modern bird-scaring gas guns that you can hear in the fields today.

So, the next time you take a walk in the countryside, just imagine it’s 200 years ago, and there’s a hidden self-aiming blunderbuss concealed nearby, just waiting to spit horror from the undergrowth.

To learn more about this gun and others like it in our collection, visit our collections online.

When the empires of Europe clashed in 1914, military commanders struggled to adapt to the new weapons available on an industrial scale. Military technology was further developed, and new ways found to use it. In this blog post, we take a look at the No.5 Mark 1 Mills grenade, first British hand grenade ever to be issued on a large scale.

Development of the No.5 Mark 1

During the First World War, the War Department believed that the Belgian designed self-igniting hand grenade would be a valuable asset for British soldiers in the trenches. Patented in 1912 by Captain Leon Roland of the Belgian Army, the Compagnie Belge de Munitions (CBdM) was established in order to market the grenade to a British manufacturer.

The task was given to William Mills of Mills Co. An experienced engineer, he was given the task of redesigning the grenade, making it safer and more efficient than its Belgian counterpart.

Shiny black painted hand grenade

Hand grenade – No.5 Mk. 1 Mills Bomb (about 1915) XX.2204

After a few false starts, Mills in 1915 sent prototypes to the troops in France of his cast iron bodied, egg shaped grenade. Eventually this prototype became the No.5 Mark 1 and was the first British hand grenade ever to be issued on such a large scale.

Resembling a small pineapple due to its segmented outer form, these segments were originally designed to fragment. Due to the nature of explosives, however, they failed to do so, but instead provided a firm grip in the wet conditions of the trenches.

How was it used?

To detonate the grenade the safety pin had to be removed. Once the pin was pulled out, by use of the attached ring, the user would hold the lever down and prepare to throw. When thrown the lever would release. As the lever released the striker would drop onto a percussion cap, the blast from which lit the fuse. This burned for five seconds before it reached the detonator.

A good bomber would have to be able to throw a bomb to a distance of around 30.5 m (100 feet), thus protecting themselves from the blast. It was deemed that cricketers, especially those with a good bowling arm, made the most effective bombers.

The No.5 grenades were supplied to the infantry in wooden chests, each containing 12 grenades, with a tin of igniter sets. These complete detonator units each comprised the detonating charge, a 5-second fuse, and a cap chamber housing the initiating percussion cap, along with a base plug key.

Diagram of a No 5 Mills hand grenade

Instructional diagram showing the Mills Hand Grenade, Godstone Grenade School, Britain, 1917, taken from a loose-leaf notebook belonging to Lieutenant J.M.Y Trotter, No.2 Officer Cadet Battalion, relating to his training.

Arming a Mills bomb was straightforward, requiring only that the base plug be unscrewed, the detonator assembly inserted and the plug screwed back down. This was always done ahead of time and whilst in cover, but remained an inherently risky task. Private Clarrie Jarman, a scout bomber of the 7th Queen’s Regiment recalled: “There was a bang and screams and the stretcher bearers went at the double to some poor devils who had let their concentration wander.”

Personal recollections

Private J. Curdie, 6th Battalion, Highland Light Infantry/Royal Flying Corps

Private Curdie describes how to make improvised hand grenades out of jam tins (mp3, 2 MB). [download transcript (txt, 2 KB)].

Private Thomas Nash, Manchester Regiment

Private Thomas Nash gives a gruesome account of the effects of throwing a Mills bomb hand grenade at a German soldier (mp3, 3 MB) [download transcript (txt, 2 KB)] being under machine gun and artillery fire, and going ‘over the top’ with bayonets fixed. He enlisted in 1916 and served on the Western Front.

What effect did they have on trench warfare?

These grenades were an essential part of trench warfare, in particular during raids. Interestingly, notes from a bombing course that took place at the School of Arms in Hythe in January 1920, still taught the tactics of bombing a trench. It has to be concluded that the lessons learned from the War impacted on the future of bombing and what tactics to use to gain optimum effect.

In order to storm a trench you would need eight men and one NCO  in the following formation:

Like many of the weapons developed for industrial scale use during the First World War, the Mills bomb defined a class of grenade that remained the standard British fragmentation grenade for over 55 years.

Written by Lisa Traynor, Curator of Firearms.

You can read more about the origins and use of the Mills bomb and other arms of the First World War on our collections online feature.

Curator of Firearms, Mark Murray-Flutter tells the story of Ewart Scott Grogan.

The Royal Armouries holds one of the largest production game rifles made in Britain, in this case a 4-bore double rifle by the great London gun makers Holland & Holland. The rifle is extraordinary in its own way, especially for its size and weight, but the owner was as interesting. It is also rare to find a rifle, or indeed any firearm, that has a romantic story attached to it, as this does.

Large double barelled rifle

Centrefire breech-loading double-barrelled rifle – By Holland & Holland (1887) Formerly belonging to Ewart Scott Grogan.

This story concerns a young man much in love, Ewart Scott Grogan (1874-1967), and his pursuit of a young woman, Gertrude Watt (c.1877-1943). Ewart Grogan was one of the most swashbuckling and colourful figures of African colonial history. A gentleman adventurer in the Elizabethan tradition, Grogan was born in 1874, the 14th of 21 children of William Grogan, the Irish Surveyor-General of the Duchy of Lancaster a private royal estate since 1265. He was a restless man and had by the age of 21 already been elected the youngest ever member of the Alpine Club, been sent down from Cambridge for his predilection for practical jokes and walked out of the Slade School of Art.

ewart scott grogan dressed in a floppy hat and carrying a rifle with a pipe in his mouth

Ewart Scott Grogan.

Then in 1896, having read Rider Haggard, the writer of exotic adventure novels mostly set in Africa, such as King Solomon’s Mines (1882), turned his back on home comforts and travelled to Cape Town, where he enlisted in the British South Africa Company’s war in the Matabeleland, during which he would serve in the personal escort of Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes would later become a friend and supporter of Grogan.

In order to recover from his harrowing war experiences he embarked on a long sea voyage to New Zealand where he quickly met and fell in love with a New Zealand beauty and heiress Gertrude Watt. But Gertrude’s aristocratic and sceptical stepfather was not impressed by Grogan’s credentials dismissing him as a ‘useless fortune hunter’ and told him that if he wanted her hand in marriage he had better prove himself. Grogan responded to this challenge with characteristic flamboyance, declaring that he intended to be the first man to trek across the length of Africa from Cape Town to Cairo.

A map of Africa showing Grogan's route

Map showing E.S. Grogan’s route. The first crossing of Africa from South to North.

Now aged 23 and determined to fulfil this quest he set about equipping himself, and his fiancé’s uncle, Arthur ‘Harry’ Sharp, who was to accompany him, with appropriate rifles, guns and equipment suitable for their joint passion of safaris and exploration. He visited the great London gun makers Holland & Holland where he found a large double-barrelled rifle chambered for the enormous 4-bore cartridge. He purchased it as a second-hand rifle, it had originally been made in 1887 for a Mr H.C.W. Hunter. The actual rifle is hammerless with back-action locks and weighs a staggering 23 pounds. Though large and heavy it was to accompany Grogan on his long trek, along with his trusty double .303 rifle.

Open rifle showing both barrels and cartridge

Rifle broken open to reveal both barrels. Shown with the enormous 4-bore cartridge.

In 1898 he set out on the great trek, after many adventures, close shaves and near-death experiences, including on one occasion where he had to use his 4-bore double rifle to dispatch a charging rhino, describing it as one of most frightening incidents he had to face. Half-starved and fever-ridden after two years in the bush and jungle, Grogan recorded that he finally emerged alone (his companion ‘Harry’ Sharp having returned home, after refusing to continue the journey into the deadly Dinka swamps south of Fashoda) to meet an astonished Captain Dunn, R.A.M.C. of a British exploratory expedition. Dunn could not believe his eyes at finding himself shaking hands with a white man anywhere near the Upper Nile. Their surreal conversation was quintessentially British:

Captain Dunn: “How do you do?”

Grogan: “Oh, very fit, thanks; how are you? Had any sport?”

Dunn: “Oh, pretty fair, but there is nothing much here. Have a drink? You must be hungry; I’ll hurry on lunch. Had any shooting? See any elephant?”

Grogan gropes for his rifle in the undergrowth whilst facing a rhino

Grogan is “…compelled to stoop down and grope” for his 4-bore rifle.

They then washed, lunched, discussed the current South African War and it was only then that Dunn asked him “where the devil he had come from”. So in this rather off-hand way Grogan’s epic adventure came to an end, as the rest of the journey to Cairo was completed by river steamer. He returned to London in early 1900, a hero and famous throughout the Empire. On his return he presented the three English flags he had taken with him to Africa: one to Queen Victoria, another to Cecil Rhodes and the third he presented to his future wife Gertrude.

Grogan became the youngest man ever to address the Royal Geographical Society, and would later publish his experiences as From the Cape to Cairo (1900). More importantly, he had proved himself to Gertrude’s stepfather: the couple were married shortly before Grogan left for a lecture tour of America. In 1904 they moved to Kenya where he would acquire a reputation as a ‘bad’ boy. They spent the rest of their lives together before Grogan died in 1967 aged 92.

Discover more about this object and others in our online collection catalogue.

Assistant Curator Scot Hurst traces the fascinating history of the Ii Naomasa Kabuto.

When faced with such a visually arresting display of brightly lacquered armour, moustachioed faceplates and gleaming blades, it is sometimes easy to overlook the more modest objects on display. I would like to take this opportunity to highlight one of these ‘overlooked treasures’, the Ii Kabuto.

Red and gold japanese helmet and face mask with a moustache.


On the 18th of September 1598 Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the de-facto ruler of Japan, died leaving his infant son as his only successor. After 8 years of unity and relative peace, Japan was once again torn apart by bitter civil war as rival warlords sought to capitalise upon the ensuing power vacuum.

Foremost amongst these warriors were Ishida Mitsunari and Tokugawa Ieyasu, who would eventually meet in a final, epic battle at Sekigahara on the 21st of October 1600. Tokugawa was ultimately triumphant, eliminating all opposition and unifying Japan once more. Three years later Tokugawa assumed the title of Shogun, or military dictator of Japan, and ushered in a new era of peace and unity that would last for almost 250 years.

Front view of the kabuto, showing the golden crest to the front.

The restored crest, associated with the helmet, but probably a later addition (XXVIA.176)

Amongst Tokugawa’s most trusted and talented generals was a warrior called Ii Naomasa. Naomasa was a ferocious warrior, feared and respected equally by friend and foe alike. He was the living embodiment of the samurai ideal. Naomasa and his men would become infamous for wearing blood red armour in battle, earning themselves the nickname ‘The Red Devils,’ and a reputation just as terrifying. The Battle of Sekigahara would be Naomasa’s greatest triumph, as he charged ahead of the main Tokugawa advance to claim first blood against the enemy forces. This bravery and heroism, so characteristic of the samurai, would ultimately be his undoing. In the closing stages of the battle, while personally leading an attack, Ii Naomasa was shot and grievously wounded. He would never fully recover and eventually died in 1602 at the age of 41.

Side view of the Kabuto, showing rows of white, green and purple kebiki lacing

Helmet Armour (Tosei Gusoku)

The helmet

This helmet, or kabuto, is of a type known as hineno zunari kabuto, with a bowl comprising of a simple five plate construction made popular in the 16th century by the armourer Hineno Hironari. This places it in the period of Naomasa, although his personal armour is currently on display, along with several other similar examples, in Hikone Castle. Many subsequent members of the Ii clan adopted the same blood red pattern of armour, along with the tall, gold lacquered horns worn by Naomasa himself. This makes it somewhat difficult for us to conclusively say whom the helmet belonged too.

The helmet is made up of several elements. The hachi is the bowl of the helmet, in this case made up of five plates with a central, longitudinal plate being overlapped by a peaked brow plate. This peak is known as a mabezashi and was designed to protect the face from downward sword cuts. The small, back-turned lames at the side of the mabezashi are known as fukigayeshi and are again designed to deflect sword blows.

On older armours, the fukigayeshi are often much larger and more pronounced, often bearing a mon, or heraldic device. The shikoro, or neck guard on older armours is also much larger than the example here, often extending well over the shoulders. These elements hark back to the days when the samurai were typically horse-mounted warriors, using the bow as their principal weapon. The wide-brimmed shikoro would offer great protection from sword blows coming down from mounted enemies, towards the head and shoulders, while the fukigayeshi would help to deflect arrows from the face. As the military classes started to favour the sword and spear and developed a preference for fighting on foot, the large fukigayeshi and wide shikoro became more of a hindrance, potentially guiding an enemy blade in and even trapping it near the face rather than deflecting the blow. The diminutive fukigayeshi and closer fitting shikoro of later helmets were much more suited to infantry fighting.

The crest

The mask in full, showing the gold lacquered crest which sits on the front of the helmet

The restored crest, associated with the helmet, but probably a later addition (XXVIA.176)

The helmet crest, or maedate, which in this case is a pair of golden horns, served several purposes, such as identification on the battlefield and to create an intimidating visage. As Naomasa strode forward through the fog that morning at Sekigahara, he must have truly appeared to have been a devil.

Finally the face mask, or menpo, serves to further the terrifying image cultivated by the samurai, but also offered some protection to the face and served as an anchor point for the helmet itself. This type of menpo is known as a ressei men, because of its aggressive expression.

The kabuto is among many items on display in the Oriental Gallery at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds.

Visit our Collections Online to see more of our collection.

In this monthly blog series, our collections team write about their Object of the Month, chosen from our collection. In this month’s blog, Stuart Ivinson, Librarian at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, explores the history of the treasured manuscript.

A jewel of the collection

One of the oldest and most enigmatic treasures in the Royal Armouries archives is the Royal Armouries I.33 manuscript, a surviving example of a Fechtbuch, or Fight Book.

This particular manual was produced in Germany in the early 14th century and it documents historical martial arts techniques through a number of illustrated pages.

We don’t know who it was written by or for, or even why it was written, but what we do know is that it is the oldest known European fencing manual anywhere in existence.

Illustration from I.33 of a priest and scholar engaged in a sword fight

What does I.33 depict?

The text and images in I.33 outline a system of fencing with the sword and buckler. The system includes seven basic guards, referred to as custodia. In its current form, the manuscript contains over 36 different sequences or plays, some of which are longer and more complicated than others, and some now incomplete.

Predominantly, two characters are illustrated in the text; a priest and a scholar, with the priest taking on the lead role in most of the sequences. In the last couple of pages, the scholar – possibly fed up with having been beaten in most of the preceding sequences – is replaced by a woman named Walpurgis. This leaves us with some rather nice images of two classes of medieval society interacting in a way that we wouldn’t usually expect: a priest and a woman having a fight.

A chequered history

The manuscript is undoubtedly one of the jewels of the Royal Armouries collection here in Leeds, but over the years it’s had a rather chequered history. It’s had a number of different homes and has been the spoils of war at least once. It has been damaged in several places; burned, scribbled on, graffitied, disbound, and in its current condition there are many pages missing.

The surviving manuscript itself isn’t in the best condition either – the vellum or calfskin it is written on is variable in thickness and quality, and the layout of the pages is in places quite messy, with text and illustrations going over the ruled lines marked on the pages. Though there may be better quality medieval manuscripts in existence, I.33 is unique, and battered pages contain many clues to its colourful past.

Two mages of the I.33 manuscript, showing the hand drawn illustrations of the priest and scholar fighting with sword and buckler


Over the years scholars have suggested various dates for the production of the manuscript, from the late 13th through to the 15th century. The current belief, using the artistic style and the type of clothing worn by the female character as guides, is that a date of around 1320-1330 is about right.

A close scrutiny of the text reveals that the surviving manuscript was the work of at least two scribes, and several artists were responsible for the illustrations. This small workforce was presumably guided by a single author, but we do not know who he was. There is a reference on the second page to a gentleman named Luitger, who may or may not have been the author or fight master behind the system that the manuscript depicts.

Illustration of the priest executing an attack on the scholar
It’s first known home was a monastery in Franconia in Germany, but as it is not recorded there until the mid 16th century, it is probable that it was not produced at the monastery, or necessarily even in that region of Germany.

The manuscript was taken from the monastery by a soldier named Johannes Herbart von Wurzburg, who served as Fencing Master to Friedrich Wilhelm, the duke of Saxe-Weimar, during a military campaign in that region during the 1550s. Johannes presumably recognized the manuscript as being of interest and took it when the monastery was looted. He even went as far as leaving his name as graffiti on one of the pages, before passing the manuscript to his master.

From Friedrich Wilhelm the manuscript passed into the hands of the dukes of Saxe-Gotha, and it was catalogued into the Gotha ducal library with the shelfmark of I.115.

Throughout this period from the 16th – 19th century the manuscript was referenced and discussed in numerous German scholarly works on fencing – including tantalizing glimpses of what may have been some of the missing pages.

It was featured in an exhibition as part of the 1936 Berlin Olympics but then disappears from the historical record until 1950, when it appeared for sale at Sotheby’s in London. It was purchased by the Royal Armouries and went into the collection at the Tower of London, where it was largely unregarded for the next 40 years.

Detail of a manuscript showing a drawing of two people sword fighting

The manuscript then came to the attention of Dr Jeffrey Forgeng, then of the Higgins Armoury Museum, who was probably the first post-war scholar to realise the significance of what he was looking at, and it was he who brought the manuscript to the attention of modern audiences.

A resurgence in interest

This rediscovery of I.33 has coincided with a resurgence in interest in European historical martial arts over the past 20 – 25 years, and has ensured that the manuscript has remained at the forefront of interest and debate. Numerous books have been written about or have included references to it, in various languages, including full facsimile editions with translations and commentary. As interest in European martial arts continues to grow, so too does the interest and scrutiny of the source material – the European Fechtbuch tradition, and I.33 in particular.

The manuscript left Leeds for a few months in 2012 and went on display at the Wallace Collection in London. We took the opportunity then to rebind and photograph the manuscript. The old binding was 19th-century pasteboard, which restricted the opening of the pages because it was tight. The new binding is of limp vellum, and allows the book to fall open more naturally and is much better for the conservation of the manuscript. We have kept the old binding and its inserts, as although not the original cover, it is still a part of the manuscripts’ history.

I.33 in the Fechtbuch tradition

Broadly speaking the surviving German Fechbucher follow a continuous tradition.

Starting with the teachings of Fencing Master Johannes Liechtenauer in the 14th century through to the Early 16th, the martial art evolved as numerous fencing masters added their own glosses and flourishes.

I.33 stands outside this tradition. It is both older – by several decades – but also teaches a style of combat that is considerably different to that of the main tradition. No other manuscript covers the use of sword and buckler as fully, or sequentially as I.33 does. With most fight books the images are stand alone snapshots of a given action; whereas 1.33 shows entire sequences or plays in step by step illustrations with explanatory text. Each new play is denoted by a cross in the margin.

It is a highly evolved system of fencing, and comes across through the illustrations as being fast and dynamic. Although the manuscript alone could not teach you how to fight with a sword and buckler from scratch, it certainly gives a good overview of the system it represents.

One thing to bear in mind when talking about Fechtbucher, is that what survives for us today is not necessarily everything that was written then. It is probable that numerous others were written and have now been lost to us, or only survive as brief snippets in other works. This raises the possibility that in its own time I.33 was not as unique as we think of it now, and may only have been one of a number of similar works on the sword and buckler. This is a theory put forward by Jeffrey Forgeng, and others, and it is given credence by the fact that some sections of later 16th century manuscripts depicting sword and buckler combat, do so in a way that looks quite similar to I.33.

What’s in a name?

Although many years of research by numerous scholars have answered a lot of the questions about I.33, it hasn’t answered them all. We don’t know exactly when or where the manuscript was written, by whom, for whom or even why it was written. We don’t know who Walpurgis was, or why she was having a fight with a priest. Although we may have a decent understanding of the combat techniques contained within the manuscript, I.33 continues to be at least a partial mystery; and that, I think, is why it continues to fascinate us quite so much.

As the librarian at the Royal Armouries, I have the privilege of being I.33s current custodian. One question that recurs quite often is about the true name of the manuscript because it has had several over the years.

For example, it is sometimes referred to as the Walpurgis Fechtbuch after the female character, or the Tower Fechtbuch – because it resided at the Tower of London when we first bought it.

More commonly though it is referred to simply as I.33; and – and this is important – it is a Roman numeral 1, NOT a capital letter I. This is because I.33 was the class number assigned to the manuscript when it was catalogued into our collection. Back then Class I was art and archive material, so should be Royal Armouries Manuscript Class I no. 33 – shortened to I.33 for convenience.

Nowadays archive material is referred to under its own designation RAR – Royal Armouries Record, so the current correct name for the manuscript is Royal Armouries Record 0033. However, I.33 is the popular term that it’s adoring public still use to refer to it, and I can’t see that changing anytime soon.

Lisa Traynor, Curator of Firearms at the Royal Armouries Museum, explores the history of the elaborately decorated Tula Garniture.

A show of wealth

Prior to the 15th century, weapons of the hunt were largely the same as those used in warfare. However, as the techniques of hunting became more specialised and the grandest weaponry more elaborate, the use of highly decorated equipment in the hunting field became an important way to demonstrate wealth and status.

A pair of highly decorated gold sporting pistols

A pair of flintlock pistols – part of the Tula Garniture (XII.1504)

Hunting garnitures usually consist of a selection of matching firearms and accessories, sometimes including edged weapons. They were produced in some numbers in the eighteenth century, especially in Germany and Russia. The firearms of this sporting garniture held at the Royal Armouries are a product of the state-run smalls-arms factory at Tula, Russia, established in 1712. Principally intended for the production of military arms, the factory began producing luxury weapons for monarchs and nobles in the middle of the 18th century.

Highly decorated flintlock sporting gun

Flintlock sporting gun – part of the Tula Garniture (XII.1504)

This garniture consists of a shotgun and a pair of pistols dated 1752, together with a powder flask and a pair of stirrups, probably added to the garniture later that century. All three firearms bear the monogram of Empress Elizabeth of Russia (reigned 1741 to 1762), daughter of Peter the Great and Catherine I, a reminder that such items were prized by the highest echelons of society.

Their exquisite decoration reflects not only the taste and fashion of the period but also Empress Elizabeth’s passion for art and hunting. Like many Russian hunting arms of the time, they are decorated in the French style closely associated with the designs of De Lacollombe and Nicholas Guérard.

The inlaid silver decoration of a sporting scene on the butt of the shotgun is an almost exact copy of one of Guérard’s engravings. The barrels of all three firearms are decorated in their entirety with rococo scrollwork on a gold background, en-suite with their locks and side plates. Near the breech is the crowned monogram of Empress Elizabeth, and halfway down its length, the inscription TULA 1752.

Detail of the elaborate silver decoration on the butt of the gun depicting a hunting scene

Rococo scrollwork on the stock, depicting hunting scenes. (XII.1504)

There is a sliding safety-catch to the rear of the cock and the frizzle incorporates an additional pan cover operated by a lever in the back of the steel, which may be closed separately to act as a further safety device. This ingenious feature was not confined to arms produced in Tula, and may also be found on a number of other guns in the Royal Armouries collection, notably a sporting gun signed LORENZONI FIRENZE dating from around 1695.

The steel furniture is decorated to match the lock and barrel. The silver-gilt escutcheon is formed as the Imperial Russian Eagle and, in the centre, a cartouche decorated with the figure of a horseman.

Detail of the lock in the sporting gun showing the gold decoration and silver chase work

Decoration on the lock. (XII.1504)

An Intriguing History

Acquired by the Royal Armouries in 1950, this group of firearms and accoutrements is shrouded in historical intrigue. The history of the garniture’s journey to Britain is uncertain. Letters dating from 1814 held in the Royal Armouries’ archive suggest that it may have been brought back from Moscow in 1812 by the Chevalier Louis Guérin de Bruslart, a man of colourful character and by all accounts, a Bourbon agent, who had been entrusted by a Russian noble to deliver it to a member of the French nobility.

A pair of stirrups highly decorated in gold and silver

A pair of stirrups forms part of the hunting garniture. (VI.356-7)

The archive suggests that the owner of the garniture was the Vicomtesse de Richemont. It is possible that the lady in question was, in fact, Mrs Desbassayns, the French plantation and slave owner notorious in history, fiction and Creole folklore.

A round powder flask highly decorated in silver an gold

Powder flask. (XIII.150)

Shortly after Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 Bruslart deposited the garniture with William Vardon, an ironmonger of Gracechurch Street, as security for a loan. He didn’t retrieve the garniture and it remained in the possession of Vardon’s descendants until its sale in 1950.

The garniture is among 630 items on display in the Hunting Gallery at the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds, the National Museum of Arms and Armour.

For a more detailed look at other items in the Royal Armouries collection, visit our Collections Online. 

Jonathan Ferguson, Keeper of Firearms & Artillery, uncovers an interesting history behind this AK-47.

The Avtomat Kalashnikova or AK and its variants are found today in every active conflict zone. Strictly speaking, ‘AK-47’ was just a prototype.

It is arguably the most important firearm in the world, taking the place of the Mauser bolt-action rifle. It is certainly the most numerous. At a minimum there are 75 million examples in existence; nearly seven times as many as its nearest rival, the AR-15.

It has made its lead designer, Mikhail Kalashnikov, a globally recognised name. Although the type entered Russian military service in 1949, the Cold War ensured that it did not make its combat debut until in the Vietnam War, having been supplied to the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong (VC) by Russia and China.

AK-47 with wooden furniture and the inscription "G.P. Dillon 1/7" scratched into the butt.

Centrefire automatic rifle – Kalashnikov (PR.5428)

An Interesting History

This particular AK (a ‘Type 2’ according to unofficial classification) was captured during that very conflict by U.S. Army Captain (now retired Colonel) Gregory P. Dillon, almost exactly 42 years ago. Dillon was ‘S-3’ (Operations Officer) of the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Battalion, 7th Air Cavalry Regiment within the 1st Cavalry Division.

The regiment was also known as ‘1-7 Air Cavalry’ or just ‘1-7 CAV‘ for short. The 7th Cavalry had been formed as a traditional cavalry regiment after the American Civil War, but by the Vietnam era had traded horses for Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopters, better known as ‘Hueys’ (a corruption of its ‘UH’ designation, meaning ‘Utility Helicopter’).

The new air cavalry concept would allow infantry to move rapidly around the battlefield wherever they were most needed, and also to provide its own close air support with machine guns and rockets. You’ve seen this depicted in popular culture, most famously in Francis Ford Coppola’s film, Apocalypse Now, and most recently in the period fantasy movie Kong: Skull Island. Like its mounted forebears, the air cavalry’s intended roles were armed reconnaissance and raiding operations. However, units in Vietnam saw service in many of the major combat operations of the war, including the one that recovered this early AK. The story that follows comes from Col. Dillon himself.

In January 1966, the division was sent into the Bong Son plain, where Dillon’s unit was able to wipe out an entire North Vietnamese Army (NVA) brigade. Bong Son took place two months after the famous Battle of Ia Drang, in which Dillon also took part. That incident was immortalised in the book ‘We Were Soldiers Once….and Young’, which in turn was dramatised as ‘We Were Soldiers’ (2002). In the movie, the part of Dillon was played by ‘Mad Men’ star Jon Hamm, that of Moore by Mel Gibson. Whilst clearing enemy bunkers and searching them for weapons and useful intelligence, Dillon found and disarmed the NVA brigade’s executive officer. The officer had been armed with this rifle and a pistol. Dillon took the rifle as a memento and gave the pistol to Colonel Moore, his battalion commander.

Later, all captured AK rifles were ordered to be handed in to equip a special operation by ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam or South Vietnamese army ) troops. Dillon cut his name into the stock in order that no-one else (particularly, no-one not actually there at the battle) could claim to have collected it. He later saw the weapon in a newspaper article about ARVN HQ (which he has been kind enough to share with us). This was the last he heard of his war trophy until he was contacted by a US Army officer acting on my behalf.
stock of AK-47, with G.P.DILLON carved into the wooden butt.
I had shown the rifle to a student work placement from the University of Bristol (now working in the defence industry) who with the help of a friend was able to identify Col. Dillon as the original owner. I discovered that the weapon had been transferred to the British government as an example of current enemy equipment, being transferred to the Ministry of Defence Pattern Room reference collection in 1971.

The Royal Armouries was fortunate enough to receive this entire collection in 2005, greatly improving our collection of 20th-century firearms and accessories. The rifle is numbered PR.5248 (‘PR’ for ‘Pattern Room’). Col. Dillon was amazed to hear that his rifle was being preserved in a British museum, but has sadly not been able to travel to the UK to see his rifle. However, thanks to the efforts of my friend Miles Vining, he has been interviewed and his stories captured for posterity. You can hear him tell this story and others in these two YouTube videos:

For a more detailed look at this rifle and other items in the Royal Armouries collection, visit our Collections Online. 

References/Further Reading

Chivers, C.J., The Gun, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011).
Iannimico, Frank, AK-47: The Grim Reaper, (Henderson: Chipotle, 2013).
Moore, Harold G. & Galloway, Joseph L., We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young: Ia Drang—The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam, (London: Corgi, 2002).