STEN – Now and Then

Mass-produced military firearms rarely survive with much of their service histories intact. At the Royal Armouries in Leeds we recently discovered an exception that has been hiding a lot of history – in plain sight – in the markings stamped and scratched into its metal body.

Close up of the engraving on the Mk.II STEN

Close up of the engraving on the Mk.II STEN

It is a rare type of Mk.II STEN made in 1943 using a new, cheaper, wrapped steel body. These were found to be faulty and were all recalled – just like a car would be today. This particular STEN survived because it had been supplied to South Africa and ended up in Cyprus sometime in the 1960s.

An explanation for this is that lots of young Greek men went to South Africa during the Second World War to fight with both the South African and the Greek armies, and the STEN must have left with them at the end of the war.

Mk.II STEN on the production line

Mk.II STEN on the production line at BSA assembly facility plant at Tysley, 1942

Having been cut and welded internally to prevent it firing, it was then purchased by the Royal Armouries and spent 17 years being used for education and live interpretation. We don’t normally collect deactivated firearms, you wouldn’t blunt a medieval sword after all, but we have now added this example to the permanent collection due to its rather interesting history.

Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms

Exploded Firearms

As a soldier it was, and still is, important to be familiar with your personal issued weapon in order to be able to keep it clean and keep it functioning correctly. Before multi-media learning aids the best way to learn about the functionality of a weapon was to take apart the real thing and mount it on a wooden board, much like a 3-D exploded diagram today.

Board

Webley Mk.I and II revolvers of 1895 and several devices called 'Morris Tubes'

Three boards in the Royal Armouries’ collection contain all of the separate components for several iconic British military firearms. The first shows the Magazine Lee-Metford Mk.II and Lee-Enfield Mk.I rifles, both introduced in 1895. The next board focuses upon the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield of 1903 and the Pattern 1907 bayonet. The last contains the Webley Mk.I and II revolvers of 1895 and several devices called ‘Morris Tubes’. These were designed to allow military rifles in .450 .303 calibre to fire cheaper small-bore .22 rimfire ammunition for training purposes. All of these are pre-First World War, though versions of the SMLE and Webley revolver were standard issue right through to the Second World War.

Rifle board

Short Magazine Lee-Enfield of 1903 and the Pattern 1907 bayonet

We don’t know for sure where these particular boards originated but they were made to instruct soldiers and officers in the component parts of their issued weapons and would have been hung on the wall of a classroom in one of the army’s training establishments.

Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms

Collections Up Close September

An unusual item in the Royal Armouries collection is a horse’s hoof that has been made into a presentation box. The hoof is mounted with a horseshoe and fetlock-shaped lid in silver gilt. The hoof came from ‘Prodigy’, a horse ridden during the Crimean War (1853–56).

The lid of the box is engraved describing Prodigy’s exploits:

The near hind hoof of Prodigy a Bay Charger who was present at the battle of Alma Sept 20. ridden during the flank march and cavalry affair at Khutor MacKenzie September 25 and taking of Balaklava the following day also for several hours at the Battles of Balaklava Octr. 25 and Inkermann Novr. 5 1854 present in the trenches before Sevastopol June 18 1855

Hoof Presentation Box

Hoof Presentation Box

Inside the lid reads:

Prodigy received a contused wound on hind quarters from piece of shell at taking of Balaklava died and was buried in the Cavalry Barrack Yard, Norwich Decr. 1861 aged 13 years

Prodigy’s rider was Lieutenant-Colonel the Hon. Somerset J. G. Calthorpe. Calthorpe was nephew and aide-de-camp to Lord Raglan. His ‘Letters from Headquarters’ written during the Crimean War were published in December 1856.

Our Leeds Museum also houses a presentation sword belonging to Calthorpe, which is on display in the War Gallery. The sword was made by Charles Reeves of Birmingham and is dated 1855.

Blogger: Angela Clare, Researcher

Mysteries of the Horned Helmet

One of the most mysterious objects in the Royal Armouries’ collection is the ‘Horned Helmet’, made for Henry VIII. It formed part of a magnificent armour, commissioned in 1511 by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I as a gift for the young king, who would have worn the armour for court pageants rather than in combat.

The Horned Helmet

The Horned Helmet

The decoration on the grotesque mask is etched, with life-like facial details even down to the stubble on the chin and crow’s feet around the eyes, and there is a pronounced drip beneath the nose. The mask is complete with a pair of spectacles, which heighten further the strangeness of this helmet. A pair of ram’s horns, beautifully modeled in sheet iron, complete this extraordinary piece and make it so remarkable that it was chosen as the object to represent the Royal Armouries museum in Leeds when it first opened in 1996.

Research into the identification of the source which inspired the mask of the Horned Helmet is continuing, but the copper alloy (possibly originally gilded) spectacles were never fitted with lenses. It is believed that the spectacles form part of the identity of a ‘fool’, a figure commonly found in late 15th- and early 16th-century imagery, suggesting that everyone, however noble or lowly, has elements of foolishness in their character.

Details of the Horned Helmet

Details of the Horned Helmet

A number of images of fools exist which show them wearing or carrying spectacles of this kind. The spectacles themselves are of so-called ‘rivet’ type, an almost universal design which hinged in order that they might grip the bridge of the wearer’s nose. Spectacles of this type are known in Europe from at least the middle of the 14th century.

Work on the iconography of the mask of the Horned Helmet continues, but there is increasing support for the view that it is that of a fool and that the spectacles are entirely a part of the representation of such a grotesque figure. An explanation for the presence of the horns, which at the time the helmet was made were usually the sign of a cuckold or of the Devil, also has to be finally established. Currently opinion is that it may not have been thought appropriate to fit horns to a helmet which was to be given to the King of England.

Blogger: Graeme Rimer, Academic Director

Collections Up Close August

The Royal Armouries’ collection contains several items belonging to Ernst August I (1688-1748), Duke of Saxe-Weimar, later Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach in Germany from 1728–1748. Ernst August was noted for his extravagant spending and love of splendour.

The Duke maintained a standing army that was disproportionately large for the duchy’s financial resources, which resulted in him having to rent out some of his soldiers to other leaders. He spent much of his reign desperately seeking resources, even arresting rich subjects in exchange for ransoms. However, legal proceedings were mounted against him and he was eventually bankrupt.

A selection of guns belonging to August

A selection of guns belonging to August

He had eight children with his first wife but none of their sons survived into adulthood, leading him to remarry after her death to try again for a male heir. He fathered four more children and an illegitimate son, but only one survived to adulthood- Ernst August II.

Several items of the Duke’s possessions are on display at the museum. These include a saddle from about 1720, typical of those used by cavalry in Europe during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The Duke’s EA monogram can be seen on the gilt brass fittings of the saddle, which is on display in the War Gallery.

Close up of August's saddle on display

Close up of August's saddle on display

The museum also displays a set of hunting weapons and accessories made for the Duke by artist craftsman. It was popular for wealthy sportsmen of the 17th and 18th centuries to have a complete set like this. The items were made by various craftsmen from across Europe, including double-barrelled flintlock pistols (Flemish, made by Daniel Thiermay), single barrelled flintlock pistols (Italian, made by Gioanni Botti with barrels by Lazarino Cominazzo), a flintlock over-and-under sporting gun (French), and a German hunting sword.

The Duke’s passion for hunting was so extravagant that when he died, aged 59, he had 1,100 hunting dogs and 373 horses. However, August had left a financially ruined duchy, and his one surviving son, Ernst August II, succeeded aged just eleven.

Blogger: Angela Clare, Researcher

A Short Sharp Shock

The most well-known form of Japanese bow is usually the long war bow which was the original prime weapon of Samurai warriors on horseback. These impressive bows were constructed from a layer of deciduous wood sandwiched between layers of bamboo, and could measure up to two and a half metres in length. The eighteenth-century Japanese bow shown here, however, is made from whalebone and is much smaller, measuring a mere 63cm when strung.

It is a kago hankyu, also known as a riman kyu after Riman Hayashi of Kii province who invented this miniature device. The bow fits into a lacquered carrying frame, and eleven arrows are slotted in alongside it. The arrows are constructed from dark red bamboo, and most of them have gilding between the fletchings. Six of them retain their small armour-piercing heads, whilst another has a small broadhead pierced with a heart shape.  The base of the case is decorated with a triple overlapping diamond kamon (family crest) in gold.

Palanquin bow

Palanquin bow

The diminutive proportions of the kago hankyu could almost suggest that it was made for a child as a plaything. However, the bow and arrows were actually fully functional and potentially lethal. Indeed, their small size was a crucial part of their practical use. They had to be short because they were carried as defensive weapons by Japanese daimyo (nobles) and their senior staff when they were travelling inside palanquins (a covered sedan chair).

During the Edo period (1603–1868), the daimyo had to spend a lot of time in transit, complying with the demands of sankin kotai, the enforced biannual attendance at the court of the shogun. This resulted in a lot of long journeys in procession with large retinues of samurai and servants. If they were attacked on the road, a daimyo would be confined inside the palanquin, folded up into a kneeling position, and therefore had to be able to use his bow and arrows rapidly and effectively in very cramped conditions.

Kago yari short spear

Kago yari short spear

The daimyo also employed other weapons made on a smaller scale for the same reason, such as this kago yari (short spear) from the early Edo period, which is just over 80cm long.

Blogger: Natasha Roberts, Curatorial Assistant

Tales of the Tournament

This August Bank Holiday weekend will witness a clash of knights fighting it out at the Royal Armouries in Leeds in a spectacular Tournament.

Few things can compare with the colour, theatre, and spectacle of a Medieval tournament which at the time were hugely popular. The archetypal image is of armoured knights on horseback galloping towards each other with lances. However tournaments took place over a period of about 600 years, evolving from military exercises and including courtly displays of wealth and sportsmanship.

Image of two knights in heraldic finery, from the Turnierbuch of Maximilian I (Hans Burgkmair the Younger, ca. 1540)

Image of two knights in heraldic finery

The tourney probably began in the 11th century, as opposing groups of Norman knights practiced tactics for the battlefield. These early combats used swords and lances, and were highly dangerous.

The earliest form of jousting, known as the Joust of War, was fought between combatants on horseback. They attempted to unhorse their opponent, or at least hit their head, shield or body. Blunted weapons became popular, and so began the Joust of Peace. Hollow lances shattered dramatically on impact; the frog-mouthed helm was designed to protect the eyes from flying splinters. Unfortunately these helmets also restricted the horseman’s view at the moment of impact. A barrier called a tilt was erected to prevent the horses from crashing into each other.

Tournaments also included events such as individual foot combat with a variety of weapons and the foot tourney which pitched two teams against each other across a barrier.

Knights Jousting at the Royal Armouries Museum

Jousting at the Royal Armouries Museum

Combatants with their faces hidden are hard to identify, so brightly coloured heraldic designs were displayed on their shields, the crests of their helmets, both their own and the horses’ ‘coats-of-arms’. Vast sums of money were spent on armour, feasts, ceremonial processions, and pageants. King Henry VIII was an enthusiastic participant and host of several tournaments, including the extravagant Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520, with Francois I of France, which you can find out more about in the Tournament Gallery of our Leeds Museum.

You can find out more about our Tournament and book tickets on the Royal Armouries website.

Blogger: Victoria Adams, Curatorial Assistant

Lion Armour on Tour

The Lion Armour is one of most finely decorated and recognisable armours in the Royal Armouries’ collection. As its name suggests the armour is decorated with embossed lion’s heads and is intricately damascened in gold. The armour is thought to have been made for the French King Henri II sometime between 1545 and 1550.  How the armour came to England isn’t known but there a number of 17th-century portraits surviving showing different sitters wearing the armour including General George Monck, Duke of Albemarle (1706–70) in a painting by John Michael Wright.

Lion Armour (Circa 1545-50)

Lion Armour (Circa 1545-50)

As one of the treasures of the Royal Armouries’ collection the Lion Armour rarely goes on loan, however earlier this year the armour was part of a temporary four-month loan to the Musée de l’Armée in Paris for a special exhibition ‘Under the Aegis of Mars: Armoury of the Princes of Europe’ which ran from March until June. The Exhibition was a unique opportunity for the Lion Armour to take its place along side some of Europe’s most important 16th-century armours from collections across the world.

Technician Giles Storey reinstalls the Lion Armour in the Tournament Gallery

Technician Giles Storey re-installs the Lion Armour in the Tournament Gallery

In preparation for the loan the armour was removed from display and carefully separated in to its eighteen component parts. Each of the parts was extensively photographed before and after conservation and a detail report describing the condition of each piece was produced. These condition reports, which are created whenever an object leaves the collection on loan, travel with their objects and are used to help us to identify and record any changes to the objects which may or may not take place. On arrival back in Leeds in July the armour was checked against the condition reports produced in January for the fourth and final time, after which the armour was carefully re-assembled and placed back on display in the Tournament Gallery of our Leeds Museum.

Blogger: Nyssa Mildwaters, Conservator

Quoit Dangerous

This cumberjung is a unique weapon within the collections of the Royal Armouries. It is a double-ended flail, consisting of a wooden shaft turned with mouldings for gripping, and sharpened discs or quoits attached to the brass chains at either end. The faces of the quoits are padded and covered with knotted thread in concentric bands of white, faded red and blue. In its entirety, the flail weighs just over 1 kilogram. It was made in Gujarat on the west coast of India in the late 18th/early 19th centuries.

Gujarati quoit flail

Gujarati quoit flail

To use the cumberjung one would grip the handle at either end and manipulate it so that the quoits whirled through the air at either side, slicing into an opponent. It could be a ruthless weapon in close combat, but much skill and practice were needed for it to be properly effective.

Blogger: Natasha Roberts, Curatorial Assistant

A Perfect Pair

Thanks to the generosity of a member of the public the Royal Armouries has recently able to reunite this pair of big double-barrelled Victorian pistols. Custom-ordered from Adams of London (more famous for their revolvers) in around 1880, they had been split up around 60 years ago. The owner’s initials are engraved on both pistols. Although we may never know who ‘H.C.’ was, we can assume that he was a big-game hunter in India or Africa.

The reunited pistols

The reunited pistols

Weapons like these are known as ‘Howdah’ pistols, a howdah being essentially a saddle for an elephant that could be used as a firing platform. You can see a life-sized recreation of this outside the Hunting Gallery at our Leeds Museum. The pistols weren’t for hunting but for self-defense against dangerous and fast-moving game animals like lions and tigers. They were a compromise between the power of a rifle and the small size and handiness of a pistol, the two barrels allowing for two quick shots without reloading. They were more powerful and reliable than a multi-shot revolver.

Hunting diorama, Royal Armouries Leeds

Hunting diorama, Royal Armouries Leeds

Many howdah pistols are chambered in large calibres for better ‘stopping power’, but our pair is unusual. One is in a commonly available revolver and lever-action carbine cartridge (.44-40) – also a favourite in the Old West. The other, recently donated, is smooth-bored (20 bore) like a shotgun, so of less use against large animals. One possibility is that it was for defense against venomous snakes, the spread of shot giving a better chance of hitting the soft-skinned creature.

You can see pistols like these in the 2009 movie adaptation of ‘Sherlock Holmes’, fired at Robert Downey Jr as he escapes into the Thames from the Houses of Parliament. An over-and-under version appears in ‘The Ghost and the Darkness’ (1996) starring Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas as hunters called in to protect railway workers from two ’man-eating’ lions.

Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms