Is this the oldest shipboard cannon in Europe?

Kane Khanh | Archeaology
October 6, 2023

Following an initial reluctance to develop firearms, this handgun was an ultimately futile attempt by the Mamluks to counter superior Ottoman firepower.

Handgun (late 15th century) XXVIF.245

This early bronze handgun is the only known example that can be identified as Mamluk in origin. Gunpowder and shot were loaded into the short barrel, and the charge ignited with a matchcord applied to the touchhole.

The base still contains the remains of a metal rod, which would have been inserted into a wooden handle for aiming and bracing the weapon.

The Mamluk adoption of firearms was more restricted compared to other competing powers such as the Ottomans. They used cannon from the late 14th century, but handguns for infantry use were mostly rejected, as the elite status of mounted warriors armed with bow, lance and sword remained integral to Mamluk military society.

Eventually, external threats forced Mamluk leaders to develop firearms units to defend against the superior firepower of their opponents.

This rare gun is a remnant from this troubled period when failure to embrace firearms innovation on the necessary scale helped expose the Mamluks to defeat.

The inscription on the side of the barrel states that it was made for Amir Kertbay al-Ahmar, a Mamluk governor and military official during the late 15th century.

As Viceroy of Syria, Amir Kertbay recruited four firearms battalions in Damascus, where this gun was probably made. He died in 1498. The Mamluk Sultanate was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in 1517.