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.

Musketeer with an apostle in his hand (Jacob de Gheyn)

Musketeer with an apostle in his hand (Jacob de Gheyn)

Terminology and ballistic capability

The remains of all three types of shoulder-arm used by the Elizabethan army have been found on the Alderney wreck. These were the harquebuse (or arquebus), caliver and musket. The terminology was as confusing for the Elizabethans as it is for us today. Sir John Smythe (1534-1607), a mercenary, military theorist and political malcontent writing at the time of the Alderney ship, notes that the distinction between the harquebuse and caliver was particularly ill-understood. Humfrey Barwick, and old soldier who was also writing at the time of the Alderney ship, observed in his Breefe Discourse Concerning the Force and Effect of all Manuall of Weapons of Fire, that ‘it is supposed by many that the weapon called commonly a caliver is another thing than a harquebuse, whereas in truth it is not, but only a harquebuse, saving that it is of a greater circuit or bullet …’. In addition to the confusion over nomenclature, few could agree on which was the most useful in battle.

Relative sizes of harquebuses, calivers and muskets

Relative sizes of harquebuses, calivers and muskets

In broad terms the distinctions between the three types can be summarized as follows:

The harquebus (or arquebus, hagbuse, hackbushe, hagbut, hackbut or harkbutte) was the lightest of the long guns, with (at the time of the Alderney ship) a barrel length of ‘not above a yard’. Other sources give an overall length of about 43 inches, a weight of 7 to 9 pounds, and a calibre of approximately .58. According to Smythe, because of their ‘lightness and shortness’ they were so manageable that ‘harquebusiers (could) skirmish a great deal longer and with more dexterity and certainty than the calivars …’. Humphrey Barwick noted that harquebuses, fired in volley, would be effective at 160, 200 even 240 yards from target and claimed that he personally could hit a standing man at 120 yards. Smythe, by contrast, felt that a harquebusier, to be sure of dropping his man when firing individually, should wait for him to come within 8, 10 or 12 paces. Nor could contemporary commentators agree on their rate of fire, estimates ranging from 10 to 40 discharges an hour. As with all ‘weapons of fyre’, the English were slow to adopt the harquebus. In 1485 Henry VII armed half his Yeoman of the Guard with harquebuses, but the weapon did not spread much from there, so that when Henry VIII invaded France in 1544, only seven per cent of his foot soldiers carried them. According to Barwick, when he was an archer in Edward VI’s army (1547-1553), only fifteen out of a hundred foot carried them. During Mary’s reign (1553-1558), the harquebus and longbow were made compulsory in nearly all the counties; in theory, harquebusiers at this time comprised one-fifth of the foot, in practice the figure seems to have been significantly lower.

The caliver was next in size and weight to the harquebus. It was ‘of greater length and height of bullet (i.e. bore) and more reinforced (i.e. had a more robust stock) than harquebuses’. It had a barrel length of between 39 and 44 inches giving it an overall length of about 55 inches. Its weight was around 10-12 pounds and it had a calibre of approximately .76 to .80. Calivers would ‘carry further … and also give a greater blow than harquebuses’. Smythe felt that the caliver (and harquebus), when fired in volley by skilful shooters, would kill within three or four score yards. Baraby Rich (b. 1542), a prolific pamphleteer who saw action in Ireland, France and the Low Countries, wrote that the caliver had a range of between 360 and 400 yards. According to Smythe, the additional weight of the caliver was particularly problematical during ‘a hasty retreat’ when ‘the caliverers in such action, through an over-much heaviness of their pieces, do most commonly cast them away and trust to their heels’. In 1596 the cost of a caliver was between 12 and 30 shillings. It is difficult to pin any dates, but clearly the adoption of the caliver by the English was a slow process. The absence of any precisely defined technological distinctions between the harquebus and caliver, blurs the period of introduction and transition, but certainly by the time of the Alderney wreck it had completely replaced the harquebuse as the main military firearm. According to records, Cornwall was buying bows, bills and calivers in 1569, and here they seem to have been referring specifically to the larger and more weighty gun. If Cornwall was buying calivers then, certainly they had been in use in the capital for longer, and with equal certainty we can assume they had been in private hands since at least the 1550s. In the county arsenals, calivers continued in use alongside muskets until well into the seventeenth century, by which time they were out of favour with modern military thinking and practice. Calivers, on the current evidence, were by far the most common type of firearm on the Alderney wreck.

The musket, was much larger and weightier than the harquebus or caliver and, because of that, had to be supported by a forked rest during aiming and gave a ‘sore recoyle’ on discharge. It had a barrel length of 45 to 55 inches giving it an overall length of roughly 64-68 inches. Its weight was about 20 pounds and it had a calibre of between .80 to .92. Cyprian Lucar, in his appendix to Niccolo Tartaglia’s Three Books of Colloquies Concerning the Arte of Shooting (1588), gives it a length of ‘at least 4 feet’ a bore of ‘23/30 inches’ and a pellet of 2¼ ounces’. The artillerist, Luigi Collado, writing in 1586, considers the musket a ‘two-ouncer’. Contemporary commentators rarely agreed on matters of detail but, in general, it could be said that a musket used one and a half times more powder than a caliver to propel a bullet that was significantly heavier over a greater distance. It is also of interest that, because of its greater bore, the musket was known to have fired small doses of hailshot. Regarding range and the time it took to reload and fire; according to Robert Held, a nimble musketeer could fire two shots in three minutes, but in general it was believed that the harquebus and caliver could be fired at twice the rate of a musket, but on the other hand, the musket was a much more dangerous weapon. According to Sir Roger Williams (who, in the mid 1580s, had served under Sir John Norreys and later became his bitter rival), ‘one musket shot does more hurt than two caliver shot far or near …’. Humfrey Barwick believed that a musket with good shot and powder, would kill the best armoured man at ten score yards, an ordinary armoured man at twenty score, and an unarmoured man at thirty score. Williams was in broad agreement with this, ‘the musket’, he wrote, ‘spoils horse and man thirty score off. If the powder be anything good and the bearer of any judgement, and in the face of a charge, few if any, would be able to withstand a musket fusillade within ten or twelve score’. Regarding the number of muskets per company, Williams, who was a great believer in the weapon (‘in my judgement 500 muskets are better than 1000 calivers’), felt that the English should increase their involvement, pointing to the Spanish armies which often had 25 musketeers for every 100 men, and speculated that, because of their effectiveness and the ‘terror’ they caused, soon most of the Spanish ‘small shot’ would be musketeers. Writing six years after the Alderney ship, Robert Barret, in his Theorike and Practike of Moderne Warres, also recommended the Spanish composition of 25 musketeers per 100 men. According to Smythe, muskets were first used around 1530 in Italy where they had been ‘devised to encounter heavily armed opponents, and for the defence of towns and fortresses’. By the 1560s they were clearly much utilized by the Spanish, but their first use by an English company did not happen until the late 1580s (though clearly they were in private possession at least a decade earlier). In 1588 the Norfolk companies were ordered to arm fifteen per cent of their foot with muskets. By 1597 the government wanted at least half, and preferably two-thirds of their foot to be musketeers. It is too early in the excavation to speculate on the relative numbers of the different types of shoulder-arms on the wreck; clearly the musket was a relatively new weapon to the English at the time, but it is equally evident that the number of muskets, in proportion to calivers and harquebuses, was growing quickly.