Skip to main content

Women warriors in the pre-modern world were rare. Some led armies when their husbands were dead, imprisoned, or otherwise occupied; others defended cities, fortifications, and even islands from attack and sieges. But only one rose from peasantry to lead her kingdom’s armies, Joan of Arc. Her military career lasted only a year, but it was an extraordinary year for an extraordinary woman.

Joan of Arc painting. Woman in armour carruing a banner and sword

Joan of Arc was born in the small village of Domrémy, in the northeast of France, what was then the county of Bar and soon to be controlled by the duchy of Burgundy (allies to the English from 1418). Historians have placed her birthdate at 1412, although it was never recorded at the time. (During her trial in 1431 Joan said she thought she was about 19.) Testimonies of those who knew her as a child claimed she had a close family – mother, father, three brothers, and possibly a sister (the sources are vague on the latter). Joan was not an odd, or even a special child to others in the village. They recalled that she was particularly devoted to Christianity – her priest was forced to instruct the young Joan that she did not need to confess every day – but that she also participated in the village’s traditions, even those that originated in a pre-Christian past.

Around the age of 13 Joan started to hear voices. In the grove of trees in between her house and the church – visible still today, although the trees have needed to be replaced more than once in the ensuing centuries. These voices, of many saints, ensured Joan that she was on the right path, but that a ‘mission’ was in her future.

That mission came in 1428, when Joan of Arc was 16 or 17 years old. She testified later that her voices revealed a two-fold mission: raise the English siege of Orléans, which had just begun; and see the French dauphin (heir) crowned as king. Later, her confessor, Seguin Seguin, testified that her voices added two more missions: recapture Paris, then held by the Anglo-Burgundians; and gain the release of Charles, the duke of Orléans, who was captured at the battle of Agincourt in 1415 and had been held in England ever since. That she accomplished those she testified to but not those later remembered by her confessor has called the additional missions into question.

Joan was confident and persistent. She convinced her uncle to take her to Robert de Baudricourt, the leader of the nearby town of Vaucouleurs. Baudricourt and Vaucouleurs had a special credibility with the French as the town and its leader had declared themselves for the dauphin, despite being deep in Burgundian territory. Initially Joan was turned down. But she returned, and this time convinced Baudricourt. A few weeks later she was at Chinon Castle on the Loire River in the very presence of the dauphin. He tried to prove that she was a charlatan with what was essentially a parlor trick: switching clothes with an underling. Joan did not fall for it; instead, she told Charles that God wanted him to be king.

All rulers want God’s approval. Yet Charles wasn’t entirely satisfied, and he made Joan take more tests – including ascertaining her virginity – before he allow her to join the French soldiers attempting to relieve the siege of Orléans. The troops and the citizens were exuberant at her arrival. Rumors had been circulating for weeks of a savior’s appearance – they knew she was a peasant woman, but their faith was strong. When she entered the city, passing an English force without any hindrance, the Orléanais surrounded her, believing that they were in the presence of a living saint; even touching her horse would bless them.

The French military leaders there were less enthusiastic. Confident in her mission, on 5 May 1429 she would reprimand them for excluding her from their planning meeting: Lord Dunois, the leader of French forces at Orléans, later testified that Joan of Arc threatened that, were they to exclude her again, she would surely have ‘their heads’, to which he said that ‘he did not doubt that.’

But Joan did not have the patience to wait for the French generals to like her. So the next morning she took matters into her own hands, leading an attack of the fortified bridgehead, the Tourelles, and the earth-and-wood fortification (called a boulevard) filled with gunners and archers that had been built in front of it. Joan claimed she was first up the wall, carrying the banner filled with religious symbolism that she had recently fashioned. The fighting was intense, and then it stopped. Joan had been wounded – shot between the neck and shoulder. She was taken back to camp and the battle stopped.

Miraculously, at least to contemporary sources, Joan of Arc woke up early the next morning and the conflict resumed. The French rallied behind her, and the English were quickly defeated. Now the French military leaders were impressed. Within 5 weeks the rest of the occupied towns along the Loire had returned to French control, and the French had thoroughly defeated the English army at the battle of Patay.

One mission down, one to go. Orléans was relieved, but the dauphin had not been crowned – and the land between the Loire and Reims, the historical site for all French crownings since Hugh Capet in 987, was held by the enemy. The large towns of Auxerre, Troyes, and Reims fell quickly and bloodlessly – their garrisons having fled – and the French, army, its size growing daily, rode into Reims unimpeded. On 17 July 1429 Charles VII was crowned king of France. Joan stood in armour next to him.

And that was about it.

From Reims she took the army to Paris and prepared an attack. But it would not come until 8 September, and then it didn’t last more than a day. Joan was again wounded, and this time she would not recover so quickly. Her third mission, if Seguin Seguin was correct, was a failure.

Her wound had healed by October, and Joan wanted to return to the action. However, she was sent by the king to fight a mercenary leader, Perrinet Gressart, who had carved himself a little ‘kingdom’ by playing the English and French and Burgundians against each other. Although Joan had only served as a general in the French army previously, against Gressart she was the general. But she was poorly supplied. An unfortified village, Saint-Pierre-le-Moutier, fell, but the mercenaries’ headquarters, La Charité, did not. Joan wrote to every French town nearby pleading for food, cannons, and gunpowder. One of these letters survives, signed by Joan herself (only two signatures exist), but none of her letters brought results. She had to retreat.

She was kept at court, ennobled by the king between Christmas and New Years, but largely as a mascot. Several towns that had declared themselves for the French king were under attack by the English and the Burgundians. But Charles would not let her to join their fight. One day she just left, her escape not recounted in the sources. Joan of Arc ended up among the defenders of Compiègne where, after a couple of months of fighting with them, on 23 May 1430, she was captured.

Her trial in Rouen was a travesty. The English wanted her tried by the Catholic Church: undoubtedly being defeated by a heretic was better than being defeated by a peasant girl. Of course she was found guilty. On 30 May 1431 her judges tied her to a stake and burned her to death. The place can still be seen today, outside of a church built following her sainthood in 1920.

In October 2019 we opened our Make: Believe display of popular culture arms and armour. Two of the star exhibits are a pair of “blasters” created by film armourers from 1950s vintage Sterling submachine guns for the original Star Wars film franchise; the ‘E-11’ as issued to Imperial Stormtroopers and captured by our heroes in A New Hope, and the Rebel equivalent, the ‘DH-17’.

two blasters from the Star Wars movies

‘DH-17’ Rebel blaster (left) and ‘EH-11’ Imperial Stormtrooper blaster (right)

The E-11 in particular is an iconic sci-fi/fantasy weapon yet is little more than a British Mark 4 ‘Sterling’ submachine gun of the 1950s (L2A2 in military service). This was produced by Sterling Armaments, based in Dagenham in Essex, from a 1944 design by George Patchett. Initially it was dubbed the ‘Patchett Machine Carbine’.

Sterling machine gun and magazine

Centrefire automatic submachine gun – Sterling Mk.4 (L2A3) commercial model (made 1956). PR.9153

On the face of it this was an odd choice; the Sterling was still in military service in 1977 (it was used in the Falklands War five years later), and anyone with a military background would have spotted it immediately. But Star Wars was a low-budget production, and director George Lucas and production designer Roger Christian were shooting for a grittier, more ‘lived-in’ aesthetic. The movie may have been inspired by Saturday morning serials like Flash Gordon, but dressed-up real-world firearms fit the Star Wars universe better than shiny ray guns. They would have heft and would jolt when fired, thanks to firing blank ammunition. Still, the blasters had to look different. The production turned to UK film armourers Bapty & Co, who showed them various options. The Sterling was selected and modified with ‘found object’ additions including a Second World War American tank sight, black flanged ribs (actually plastic drawer runners from B&Q!) and a counter box from industrial machinery. The distinctive curved magazine of the Sterling was also cut down to hold only a few rounds. This successfully altered the silhouette of the weapon and suggest a ‘power pack’ in place of a conventional box magazine.

E11 blaster with stock extended

Submachine gun – Star Wars Imperial Stormtrooper E-11 blaster (1976). XII.11981. Stock is extended for camparison with Sterling MK.4 shown above.

Our DH-17 is a more mysterious piece, as it does not match any screen-used configuration. The DH-17 started life as a pistol, used by Rebel forces in the opening scenes of Star Wars (1977). This took inspiration from the Sterling, but was a much more compact weapon, doing away with the magazine housing and replacing the vented heat-shield with a silver-coloured nozzle. In place of the stubby tank optic of the E-11, a Singlepoint reflex sight was fitted. Only the rear end of a Sterling was used, along with the trigger group, which was moved to create the proportions of a large, scoped pistol. The prototype was then moulded in rubber to create the final, non-firing prop. In The Empire Strikes Back (1980) the design was modified to allow for a more dramatic blank firing version, retaining more of the Sterling’s receiver and creating essentially a Rebel version of the E-11. Our DH-17 was most likely made for use in Return of the Jedi before production moved to North America. Our blasters would both have been used as E-11s in Star Wars (1977) before being stripped of their extra parts for use as normal Sterlings in other productions, used again in The Empire Strikes Back, and then stripped once again. These two were restored in the late 1990s to the configuration seen here and were loaned back to LucasFilm in 2014 (at which point the resin counter box was added to the E-11).

close up of the star wars Imperial Stormtrooper blaster pistol

Submachine gun – Star Wars DH-17 rebel trooper blaster (1976) XII.11982.

They were used as design reference for the creation of the new F-11D First Order Stormtrooper blaster introduced in The Force Awakens (2015) and, to a lesser extent, the EL-16 used by the Resistance. The F-11D takes a lot of design cues from the E-11 and is intended to be a more modern derivative of the same weapon. The EL-16 is somewhat more removed from its inspiration but is nonetheless a further beefed-up take on DH-17, this time based upon an Heckler and Koch G36 .

automatic rifle

Centrefire automatic rifle – Heckler and Koch G36 (made 1998) PR.13207

Blackbeard is one of the most famous, or infamous, pirates in history. But his piratical career was surprisingly short, in fact, he was only active as a pirate for a brief two years. So why is he still a household name, a legend of history?

What do we know about Blackbeard?

Blackbeard holding a cutlass with ships in the background

What do we know about Blackbeard?

Firstly, most of what we know about Blackbeard and his fellow pirates comes from one source, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, which covers in great detail his exploits and was written in 1724 shortly after his death by Captain Charles Johnson, a possible pseudonym of the popular writer Daniel Defoe. We know with almost certainty that Blackbeard’s name was Edward Teach and whilst information about his early life is scarce it is widely believed that he was born in Bristol in around 1680 and served in the Royal Navy or as a privateer during the Queen Anne’s War.

We are told

‘he had often distinguished himself for his uncommon boldness and personal courage’ during this time and during his pirate years he is described as having a black beard ‘which he suffered to grow of an extravagant Length… he was accustomed to twist it with Ribbons, in small Tails… and stuck lighted Matches under his Hat, which appearing on each Side of his Face, his Eyes naturally looking fierce and wild, made him altogether such a Figure, that Imagination cannot form an Idea of a Fury, from Hell, to look more frightful.’

After the war with France ended, like the many other privateers lacking legitimate and legal employment, Blackbeard returned to what he knew best. In around 1716 he joined the crew of Benjamin Hornigold a renowned pirate operating out of New Providence in the Bahamas, the epicentre of piracy in the Caribbean. Soon Hornigold gave Teach the command of his own vessel and together they continued to plague the Caribbean. The following year the two are noted as commanding a small fleet of ships and it is during this time that Teach captured a French merchant vessel for his own, renaming her ‘Queen Anne’s Revenge’. Soon after this Hornigold retired from piracy leaving Teach at large.

The blockade

For the next year, Blackbeard maraudered around the Caribbean, causing havoc in the shipping lanes and indiscriminately taking prizes and cargo as he went. It was in May 1718 that he took part in his most audacious and famous act. In an incredibly bold move he blockaded the port of Charles Town in the Province of South Carolina. Here he held the town to ransom, capturing ships, cargo and sailors until his demands for medicine were met. Then, true to his word, he freed his captives and set sail again, having taken ‘Gold and Silver, about 1500 lb Sterling, besides Provisions and other Matters.’ Now an inordinately wealthy man he sailed to North Carolina where he plotted the ‘breaking up the Company, and securing the Money and the best of the Effects for himself’ and tricked his fleet into grounding itself, marooning the majority of his crew, scuttling the ‘Queen Anne’s Revenge’ and then making his escape with a group of chosen men.

Deception complete, Teach headed to Charles Eden, the Governor of North Carolina. He came to a rather shady agreement with him – being allowed to accept the King’s Pardon and retire from a life of piracy. Despite his apparent retirement, it was not long at all until Blackbeard was back to his old ways and making a nuisance of himself, this time sharing his plunder not only with his crew but also with Eden. Then something quite incredible happened; the local population, having grown so frustrated by Blackbeard and the corruption of their Governor, sent a petition to the Governor of Virginia the neighbouring colony, ‘to solicit an armed Force from the Men of War lying there, to take or destroy this Pyrate.’

A public revolt

The Governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood, was all too happy to oblige. He was already concerned by Blackbeard’s escapades in a neighbouring colony and the appearance of another notorious pirate Charles Vane, who briefly visited Teach whilst passing through the area. The colony furnished two sloops which were commanded by Robert Maynard ‘an experienced Officer, and a Gentleman of great Bravery and Resolution’ a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy. They hatched a plan to put an end to Blackbeard.

On the 17th of November 1718, Maynard sailed from Virginia and by the 21st he had arrived at the mouth of the Okracoke Inlet, a favourite haunt of Blackbeard’s, where he got sight of the pirates. Maynard decided to assault the following morning so settled down, blocking any traffic from entering the inlet and alerting the pirates to their presence. On the other side of the island, Blackbeard and a skeleton crew of around twenty-five men were drinking heavily with a visiting merchant and had failed to set a look-out, allowing Maynard to make a surprise approach at dawn. Despite drinking all night, the pirates quickly recovered and fired upon the pirate hunters. They then cut their anchor line and prepared to make a fighting retreat using their ships guns, whilst Maynard, having only small arms, kept up a dogged pursuit.

The last stand

During the chase, the two leaders exchanged a challenge, with Maynard calling out ‘I will come aboard of you as soon as I can, with my Sloop.’ Blackbeard, liquor in hand, drank to him exclaiming ‘Damnation seize my Soul if I give you Quarters, or take any from you.’ To which, Maynard responded ‘That he expected no Quarters from him, nor should he give him any.’ The stage was now set for their bloody showdown.

Blackbeard let out one volley from his guns, ‘a Broadside, charged with all Manner of small Shot. —A fatal Stroke to them!’ crippling Maynard’s crews and driving one ship aground. At this Maynard ordered his men down and commanded the crew to ready their pistols and swords and to prepare for his order. Fearful of another broadside from Blackbeard, he remained the only person on the deck save for the helmsman.

When the Lieutenant’s sloop reached Blackbeard’s ship the pirates threw in several ‘grenadoes, Case Bottles fill’d with Powder, and small Shot, Slugs, and Pieces of Lead or Iron, with a quick Match in the Mouth of it’, which other than causing brief confusion, did little damage to the hunters who remained hidden and safely below decks. Seeing few opponents on the deck Blackbeard cried out ‘That they were all knock’d on the Head, except three or four;’ commanding his men to ‘jump on Board, and cut them to Pieces’ and with fourteen men he boarded Maynard’s ship intent on murder. At this point Maynard again surprised the pirates as he ordered his men up. He then personally engaged the pirate leader in combat as each discharged their pistols, with Blackbeard taking his first wound. The two then came together in a deadly sword duel which saw Maynard’s sword unluckily break. ‘Stepping back to cock a Pistol, Black-beard, with his Cutlash, was striking at that Instant, that one of Maynard’s Men gave him a terrible Wound in the Neck and Throat, by which the Lieutenant came off with a small Cut over his Fingers.’

The two crews were now fully engaged ’till the Sea was tinctur’d with Blood round the Vessel’, Blackbeard received a third wound, a shot to the body again from Maynard’s pistol ‘yet he stood his Ground, and fought with great Fury, till he received five and twenty Wounds, and five of them by Shot. At length, as he was cocking another Pistol (famously carrying three pairs slung across his shoulders), having fired several before, he fell down dead’. At this time, his remaining crewmen either jumped overboard to escape or called out for quarter, which they were granted. This clemency was short-lived as they were later hanged for the crime of piracy. Maynard’s second sloop then caught up and attacked the crew who had remained on Blackbeard’s sloop ‘with equal Bravery, till they likewise cry’d for Quarters.’ After the fight Maynard had Blackbeard’s head severed ‘and hung up at the Bolt-sprit End’ as a warning to other pirates as they arrived back to civilisation.

Ironically though, it is Blackbeard’s legend that lives on rather than the hero of the hour Lieutenant Maynard, who ultimately reached the rank of Captain in the Royal Navy before retiring.

The answer to Blackbeard’s continued fame is ultimately given in the pages of General History of Pyrates as this: ‘In the Commonwealth of Pyrates, he who goes the greatest Length of Wickedness, is looked upon with a kind of Envy amongst them… The Hero of whom we are writing, was thoroughly accomplished this Way, and some of his Frolicks of Wickedness, were so extravagant, as if he aimed at making his Men believe he was a Devil incarnate’

Blackbeard in popular culture

Since his death Blackbeard has been featured in numerous books, plays, films and TV shows, each one further embellishing his legend until his actual exploits have largely been forgotten and he has taken on a whole raft of other adventures. Interestingly though, despite only participating in piracy for two years, his true story is perhaps far more fascinating and wild than his characterisation in the centuries of works written since his death and that now surround him.

A serious looking Winston Churchill on a starry background with a Stormtrooper blaster is imposed over him, as if he is holding it.

Sir Winston Churchill is more famous for defeating evil empires than giving them style tips, but a recent discovery by the Royal Armouries’ Senior Curator of Firearms Mark Murray-Flutter shows that Churchill was one of the first private owners of a Sterling-Patchett submachine gun.

The Sterling Mk4 model famously inspired the Stormtrooper blasters in Star Wars A New Hope. The blasters in the film were even modified versions of actual Sterlings, with the Stormtrooper version being fitted with a WW2 German gun sight, B&Q drawer runners, and part of a photocopier, giving its now-famous appearance, but still being recognisable as a Sterling SMG.

Sterling Submachine Gun and Star Wars

Winston Churchill famous photograph of him holding a tommy gun, with a sterling smg in front of the photo

Churchill with another SMG, the Tommygun, and his own personal Sterling from our collection. Clearly he liked SMGs!

A Storm trooper blaster

The Stormtrooper Blaster based on the Sterling. Can you see the similarities to the original above?

Winston Churchill was an avid collector and user of firearms and a known expert marksman, unlike Imperial Stormtroopers. Part of his collection now lives at the Royal Armouries Museum in the form of a specially gifted Sterling MkII, even having a silver plaque with part of his famous speech engraved on it. This piece was recently re-discovered after research by Mark Murray-Futter into its origin. It was found to be authentic and listed on Churchill’s personal Firearms Certificate. After he died it was sold by his son, then eventually gifted to the Royal Armouries in 2005.

To quote Mark about this exciting discovery:

“To have one of his firearms, especially as there are so few, in the collection is amazing as it allows us to explore the life and times of Sir Winston Churchill, one of the most important figures of the 20th century…”

Churchill was gifted 500 rounds of ammunition by Sterling as well, and almost certainly shot the weapon. So if you ever pictured Churchill shooting a Star Wars blaster, you might not have been far wrong.

A close up of a machine gun with a silver plaque with churchills speech

The Plaque says “The Rt Hon Winston Churchill M.P, Prime Minister 1940-1945. He inspired the nation; “We shall fight on the beaches, on the landing ground. In the fields, in the streets. In the hills. We shall never surrender.” House of commons 4th of June 1940″.

Other inspirations

Churchill also inspired the alien Admiral Raddus, in Star Wars Rogue One, giving the wartime Prime Minister quite the sci-fi resume.

Find this interesting? We explore the links between cultural icons and real-life weaponry in the Royal Armouries upcoming exhibit Make: Believe, featuring he real Star Wars blasters themselves opening later this month.

Follow our social media for more articles like this, share this article if you want your friends to see it!

In the world of arms and armour, the objects featured in contemporary popular culture are often underrepresented. Much of the public perception of arms and armour is coloured by the cultural mainstream, yet manyf museums have been slow to appreciate and preserve the wonderful things made for films, games and other media. For many, popular culture is the primary means of exposure to such objects and for museums, this area is key to developing a successful future events programme.

Captain Nemo’s Steampunk Submachine Guns

The movie firearms in the collection are all products of the famous Bapty & Co prop house who have been providing weapons, armour and other props for stage, film, television and music videos since 1919.

First up are two guns from the 2002 fantasy action film ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen‘, loosely based on the ground-breaking graphic novel series by Alan Moore. For the brilliant and infamous Captain Nemo, Bapty were tasked with creating a number of retro-futuristic ‘Steampunk’ sub-machine guns inspired by decorative styles of the Indian subcontinent. Like many of the other firearms featured in the movie, weapons of this type did not exist in the real world of 1899. The sub-machine gun did not appear in military use until 1918.

Chrome 'steam-punk' submachine gun

Prop submachine gun from the 2003 movie ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’. (XII.11937)

The resulting silver and white guns matched elements of Nemo’s Nautilus vessel and also his large 1930s-style touring car. In order to have functioning guns that would fire blanks for the cameras, British-designed Second World War Sten guns were dressed up after this fashion. The guns and magazines were substantially disguised with wood, plastic, and paint, and even the tubular metal stocks were altered to hide the real-world heritage of these wacky weapons. Our example (XII.11937) was made at Long Branch in Canada, but Chinese markings show that it was supplied to China during the Second World War to aid in the fight against Japan. Sometime later, it returned to the UK and may well have appeared in an earlier production in its wartime form, as houses like Bapty lend and re-use weapons regularly.

Chrome 'steam-punk' pistol

Prop pistol used in the movie by Captain Nemo and some of his crew. (XII.11938)

For Captain Nemo himself, a Russian Tokarev TT33 pistol (XII.11938) was similarly dressed up to match the other guns and disguise its Cold War heritage. The weapon’s slide was shrouded with a cylindrical moulding similar to that used on the sub-machine gun, and an unusual turret feature was affixed where the rear sight would normally be. The magazine was cosmetically extended to look like those on the Stens, and capped with a conical stud, inspired by the real-world ‘skull crushers’. This weapon was unique to Nemo, although, in common with other movie props, four examples were made in case of reliability problems or damage that might be sustained during filming. This does mean that the Royal Armouries is lucky to have one of only four guns made.

Whatever some may think of the movie itself, which had a famously troubled production (it was Sean Connery’s last) and met with a frosty reception from critics and fans, these guns are great examples of the propmaker’s art. They are also fully intact, live-firing movie guns that cannot be found in any other UK museum, and precious few overseas, since the vast majority of firearms used in film and TV are deactivated prior to sale. The Sten is complete with its threaded barrel restrictor used to generate sufficient internal pressure to operate the working parts of the gun. Without these adaptors most movie guns cannot function since there is no bullet to build up pressure. The pistol is also modified with a restrictor, and a further internal modification to allow it to operate normally on camera.

M41A ‘Aliens’ Pulse Rifle

Pulse rifle from the film 'Aliens'

M-41A Pulse Rifle made for the film ‘Aliens’ (XII.11846)

For me as a firearms specialist, the star of our collection so far is the M41A ‘Pulse Rifle’ (XII.11846) from one of my favourite films, ‘Aliens‘ (1986), rebuilt and used in ‘Alien3‘ (1992). This was another Bapty-made piece, produced by Simon Atherton (who opened his own prop house called ‘Zorg Ltd‘ in 1997) to a design by ‘Aliens’ director James Cameron. You can read more about this piece in my other post: ‘Collecting Cultures: M-41A ‘Aliens’ Pulse Rifle’.

The pulse rifle has become one of the most iconic movie weapons of all time for its realistic, gritty ‘used and abused’ look. Together with the famous Blade Runner ‘blaster’ pistol and the Smart Gun also seen in Aliens, it showed that sci-fi guns did not have to shoot animated laser bolts and go ‘pew’. Given the pace of technological development in the field, it seems likely that if weapons are taken into space, they will resemble the Pulse Rifle more than the laser weapons of ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Buck Rogers’. But that is probably a topic for a future post.

Get a closer look at these pieces of silver screen history and other Collecting Cultures objects on our Collections Online website where you can see images in deep zoom.

When faced with teeth, talons, thrashing tails, fiery breath and often poisonous fumes, there’s a lot to contend with when it comes to slaying a dragon. Any knights concerned about the dangers of close combat with one this St George’s Day, fear no more, our expert dragon slayer Dr. Rufus Maynard (and Head of Education Tristan Langlois) is on hand to give you a few handy battle tips.

YouTube player


Know yourself and your equipment

The first thing you have to consider when slaying a dragon is whether you are endowed with superhuman strength. If so, then almost any weapon will do. There are stories of dragonslayers using an axe or even a club to dispatch the fiery beasts, but a knight will typically use a sword. Sir John Conyers slew the Sockburn Worm using a falchion, a kind of heavy, single-edged sword. Beowulf, the Norse hero, slew a dragon with a dagger, but only because his sword had been broken in the fight.

In the earliest account of his exploit, St George used a spear to wound the Libyan dragon before finally killing it with a sword. Sir Willam de Somerville killed the Linton dragon using a spear tipped with burning, pitch-soaked peat. This last example illustrates a more typical approach to dragonslaying.

Any dragonslayer will also need to consider protection of some kind – even Beowulf had a fireproof iron shield made for his battle. But armour can be enhanced to exploit a dragon’s weakness of temperament. A dragon’s instinct is to seize and squeeze its victim. More of More Hall, Lord Lambton, and Sir Peter Loschy all had armour covered in spikes or blades so that the tighter the dragon squeezed, the more harm it did to itself. The ingenious blacksmith of Dalry constructed armour with retractable spikes, which he deployed after he had been swallowed by the Dalry dragon, to impressive and messy effect.

Know your dragon, and its weaknesses

Since even superhuman strength is sometimes unreliable – Beowulf killed his dragon, but died from his own wounds – it is wise to know your dragon, and exploit its weakness. All dragons have a weakness. It will differ from dragon to dragon, but it will be there, and if you know it you can take advantage of it. The weakness may be physical. Knowledge of physical weaknesses is vital as a dragon’s scaly hide is typically proof against blades or even bullets. Sir William, for example, drove his flaming spear into the dragon’s mouth. Near Manchester, Thomas Unsworth fired a dagger from a gun to strike the Unsworth dragon in the soft spot on its throat. In Essex, Sir James Tyrell used highly reflective armour to dazzle the Horndon dragon’s eyes. And More of More Hall overcame the dragon of Wantley using a well-placed spiked boot to the creature’s backside.

One temperamental weakness that all dragons seem to share is greed. Some dragons cannot resist milk, which makes them sleepy, and therefore vulnerable. Near Lyminster, Jim Puttock immobilised a dragon with an indigestible pudding, while at Filey locals exploited a dragon’s fondness for ginger parkin, a very sticky cake, to destroy the beast as it was trying to unglue its jaws by washing its mouth out in the sea.

Sometimes there are further challenges to overcome. The Lambton Worm and the Nunnington dragon both had powers of healing and regeneration, so Lord Lambton fought his beast on an island in the River Wear to wash the dismembered dragon parts away, while Sir Peter Loschy trained his dog to carry them off. Sir James Tyrell’s dragon of Saffron Walden was a cockatrice, a kind of dragon whose look alone can kill. In this case Sir James’ reflective armour caused the dragon to kill itself with its own reflection.

Dragon slaying checklist

As a dragon slayer then, besides courage, strength and ingenuity, your equipment must include:

With the exception of the dog, all these items are on display, or available from the café, at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds. Prospective dragonslayers are urged to visit before committing themselves to a rewarding but challenging career.

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.

The poppy is widely recognised in Britain and the Commonwealth today as the symbol of remembrance. It was a Canadian officer, John McCrae, who first noticed these small red flowers growing around the graves of fallen soldiers in 1915, and was moved to write his famous poem:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

"Will you help?" A British soldier head emerges from a field of poppies, representing his fallen comrades: "sellers needed for poppy day"

Designed by a Captain E.H. Spencer of Leeds and adopted by the British Legion for the 1955 Poppy Drive. It shows the face of a Tommy surrounded by a blood red background of poppies, and represents the sacrifice of the men who lost their lives.

Inspired by the poem, American teacher Moina Michael bought paper poppies from a local department store and handed them out, in memory of the fallen, to delegates of a YMCA conference in New York that was taking place the day the Armistice was signed. She then campaigned for it to be adopted as the official symbol of sacrifice in America, and in 1920 the American Legion National Convention gave its approval.

It was Madame Anna Guerin while working for the ‘American and French Children’s League’, which used the poppy as its emblem and had been supplying America with artificial poppies, who first thought of selling the artificial poppies to raise money for veterans. She encouraged the adoption of the poppy by other Allied nations as a symbol for their losses, and met with Field Marshall Earl Douglas Haig, the Founder and President of the British Legion, and persuaded him to adopt the poppy as their emblem in late 1921. The first Poppy Appeal was launched later that year in the run up to the third anniversary of the November Armistice, with the proceeds being given to veterans in need of financial and medical support.

"1914-1918 - Remember - 1939-1945" Two British soldiers from both world wars stand side by side. "sellers needed for poppy day"

Designed by Captain E.H. Spencer of Leeds, showing a Great War soldier standing next to a comrade from the Second World War. Although not adopted by the British Legion, the poster’s message is a reminder of the continued importance of the role of volunteers in the sale of poppies today.

The original poppies were manufactured in France, but a Poppy Factory was established in London in 1922 by Major George Howden MC of The Disabled Society for ex-servicemen and women, which employed up to five veterans to manufacture them. A second factory was established in Edinburgh in 1926 by Countess Dorothy Haig for the sister charity, the Earl Haig Fund Scotland, which was founded in 1921 for the same purpose. Year by year the demand for poppies grew, and in 1933 the London factory was moved to larger premises in Surrey.

Today in the lead up to the anniversary of the Armistice millions of poppies are manufactured, and sold by volunteers in shops and supermarkets across Britain. These unpaid helpers are the backbone of poppy sales, and without them the vast amounts of money raised for veterans would not be possible. Anyone can become a member, regardless of whether they are an ex-member of the armed forces or not, as long as they help to continue the tradition of poppy selling.

Many variations of poppies are now produced for a variety of messages, including a white poppy available from the Peace Pledge Union, which honours the civilian loss felt in war.

Written by Aaron Clayton, Hull University

“Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no substitute for a good blaster at your side…”
Han Solo – ‘Star Wars A New Hope’ (1977)

In May, we announced the launch of a £20K+ crowdfunding campaign to add two iconic weapons from a galaxy far, far away to the Royal Armouries collection. With your help, we hope to display two of the iconic blaster pistols used in the original ‘Star Wars’ films – an Imperial Stormtrooper ‘E-11’ and Rebel trooper ‘DH-17’.

This pair of ‘blasters’, created by film armourers Bapty & Co. from 1950s vintage Sterling submachine guns for the original ‘Star Wars’ film franchise,  will be displayed at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds.

In this post, we delve into the galaxy of ‘Star Wars’ blasters and take a closer look at some of the real-life weapons that inspired them.

‘E-11’ Imperial Stormtrooper blaster

One of the most iconic designs in the ‘Star Wars’ universe is the blaster used by the Imperial Stormtroopers. Look familiar? This was actually the Sterling Mk.4 submachine gun, or L2A2 in British Army speak. Still a service weapon at the time of production, the firearm was modified with additions including a WW2 German machine gun sight, black flanged ribs (actually plastic drawer runners from B&Q) and a photocopier part. The distinctive curved magazine of the ‘Sterling’ was also cut down to hold only a few rounds, to alter the fairly well-known silhouette of the weapon and suggest a ‘power pack’ in place of a conventional box magazine.

side view of the 'Star Wars' Imperial blaster

‘EH-11’ Imperial Stormtrooper blaster

‘DH-17’ Rebel blaster

Another example of a weapon modelled on real gun design is the DH-17, a close-combat blaster pistol which, in the ‘Star Wars’ universe, was used by Rebel Alliance soldiers in starship combat. The DH-17 blaster was made using the same Sterling L2A3 sub-machine gun that was used for the E-11 blaster, only this time the prop was fitted with a different barrel component and modified scope. In ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, the DH-17 blaster props were modified from real Sterling machine guns and they were able to fire blanks.

close up of the star wars 'Rebel' blaster pistol

‘DH-17’ Rebel blaster

close up of the Star Wars Rebel blaster DH-17

‘DH-17’ Rebel blaster

A less obvious example of a real-world gun adapted for the movie is the blaster pistol issued to some Stormtroopers and dubbed ‘Sonn-Blas SE-44C Blaster Pistol’. Just as before, this too is based upon a real gun – a Glock pistol fitted with a carbine chassis system to change its appearance (the Glock being a rather well-known movie gun). The movie ‘Dredd’ also used this approach to create the ‘Lawgiver’ pistol.

Han Solo’s iconic ‘DL-44’ blaster pistol also draws on a familiar firearm design. As many fans will know, this was a modified Mauser C96, one of the first semi-automatic pistol designs and the first to see commercial success (over one million were made).

Fans spend a great deal of time and money replicating the props of the movies, and blasters are no exception. A handful of live firing prop replicas have even been built in the United States. Strangely, as points out, the new props are modified replica ‘Schnellfeuer’ machine pistols rather than the true C96. This was presumably done because replicas of the Schnellfeuer are more easily available.

We need your help

The ‘blasters’ used in the ‘Star Wars’ movie franchise are among the most iconic weapons in popular culture. The unique opportunity we have to acquire two of these original movie prop weapons will help us to continue telling the story of the development and impact of arms and armour on the history, people and cultures of Britain, the world and beyond.

Man half in shadow holding a star wars blaster across his chest

Royal Armouries curator, Jonathan Ferguson, holding the ‘DH-17’ rebel blaster

Our expert curators believe both props were assembled for use in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (1980), and it is likely that the base guns themselves were also used in ‘A New Hope’ (1977).

They will go on permanent display in autumn 2019 at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, as part of our ‘Collecting Cultures‘ exhibition about the role of arms and armour in popular culture.

Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, this project has already resulted in the acquisition of a ‘pulse rifle’ from ‘Aliens’, a collection of remarkable swords made by Peter Lyon, swordsmith to the ‘Lord of the Rings’ motion picture trilogy, and even a ‘Vampire killing kit’.

So you see, ancient weapons really are a great match for a good blaster.

“May the force be with you”

Most of what we know about the Blackbeard and his fellow pirates come from one source, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates. The text covers in great detail his plundering, murdering exploits and turns up some fascinating facts about the most notorious pirate to sail the seven seas.

Engraving of Blackbeard holding a cutlass in front of a shipyard scene

An etching from Charles Johnson’s ‘A General History of the Pyrates’

His real name was Edward Teach

We know almost certainly that Blackbeard’s real name was Edward Teach – sometimes recorded as Edward Thatch. Whilst information about his early life is scarce, it is widely believed that he was born in Bristol around 1680 and served in the Royal Navy or as a privateer during the Queen Anne’s War.

He put lit fuses under his hat to make him appear even more terrifying

It is documented that:

“In time of action, he… stuck lighted matches under his hat, which appearing on each side of his face, his eyes naturally looking fierce and wild, made him altogether such a figure that imagination cannot form an idea of a fury, from hell, to look more frightful.”

He joined the crew of renowned pirate Captain Benjamin Hornigold

Like many other privateers, lacking legitimate and legal employment after the war against France, Blackbeard returned to what he knew best – piracy. In 1716, he joined the crew of Benjamin Hornigold, a notorious pirate operating out of the Bahamas. Soon Hornigold gave Teach the command of his own vessel, and together they plagued the Caribbean.

In 1718, Blackbeard blockaded the port of Charles Town and demanded medical equipment

In May 1718, Blackbeard took part in one of his most audacious and famous acts. In an incredibly bold move, he blockaded the port of Charles Town in the Province of South Carolina. He held the town for ransom, capturing ships, cargo and sailors until his demands for medicine were met.

Blackbeard was killed in battle on 22nd November 1718

Lieutenant Robert Maynard “an experienced Officer, and a Gentleman of great Bravery and Resolution” finally killed Blackbeard, in a bloody battle at the mouth of the Okracoke Inlet. Maynard and Blackbeard clashed in a sword duel which saw Blackbeard sustain more than twenty wounds. We are told though:

“he stood his Ground, and fought with great Fury, till he received five and twenty Wounds, and five of them by Shot. At length, as he was cocking another Pistol (famously carrying three pairs slung across his shoulders), having fired several before, he fell down dead”.

His severed head was tied to one of the bowsprits of a ship

Blackbeard’s severed head was erected on the prow of the Lieutenant Robert Maynard’s ship as a warning to other pirates in the area as a trophy of Maynard’s victory.

He was the most famous pirate ever to have lived

The answer to Blackbeard’s continued fame is ultimately given in the pages of General History of Pyrates as this:

“In the Commonwealth of Pyrates, he who goes the greatest Length of Wickedness, is looked upon with a kind of Envy amongst them… The Hero of whom we are writing, was thoroughly accomplished this Way, and some of his Frolicks of Wickedness, were so extravagant, as if he aimed at making his Men believe he was a Devil incarnate”.