Harquebusier firing (Jacob de Gheyn)

Harquebusier firing (Jacob de Gheyn)

The Alderney wreck with its calivers, muskets and powder flasks, marks the end of the sixteenth century military revolution. The next major evolutionary change in weaponcraft would not occur until the late seventeenth century when the pike and shoulder arms became a single weapon, the bayoneted musket. First came the plug-bayonet and then, in the 1690s, the much more effective socket-bayonet.
The firearms from the ship appear to have been stowed in bundles, as concreted assemblages have been seen on the seabed at times when the current has removed some of the soft overburden from the site. It is also possible that they were stored in boxes for Ordnance Office records mention the provision of chests for muskets and calivers. So far no evidence has been found on how, within the bundles, the guns were arranged one against the other for protection.

A contemporary illustration of a musketeer from the period of the wreck. Note the rest and smouldering match in his left hand.

A contemporary illustration of a musketeer from the period of the wreck. Note the rest and smouldering match in his left hand.

The proper stowage of firearms was an issue of importance to several contemporary commentators, as lock mechanisms and their exterior components were particularly vulnerable to damage. Humphrey Coningsby, for instance, warned that soldiers must exercise ‘a specyall eye to (the care of) the cockes of their pieces’. Another concerned voice was that of Sir George Carey who deplored the way soldiers often carried their firearms in sacks on horses or in drawn carriages, ‘for experiencie hath declared that by packing together in the caryadge, what with packing & unpacking, the cockes and springes & stockes and Ramynge stickes, and the springes of the furniture of the fyer shott have ben rent and torne and brocken, & crackt & crusht’.

Functioning weaponry was, of course, fundamental to the success of an army in the field. Firearms, however, were not that robust, and damage was common. Anybody could fix a longbow, but the maintenance and repair of matchlocks required gunsmiths and other specialists. Unfortunately, it was not easy to find such people for skilled artisans were reluctant to work with the army when death, disease, inadequate food and irregular pay were well known features of military life abroad. Many examples could be given, but just a couple of years before the Alderney wreck, George Carew, the Master of Ordnance of Crown forces in Ireland, complained to Burghley that 1000 of his firearms were out of service and, of those, only 600 were worthy of repair.