Weird and Wonderful

Though it looks like something out of a video game with its twin bayonets, this is a real gun. It is the Sterling S11 sub-machine gun, designed in 1965 as a follow-up to the classic Sterling Mk.4/L2A3 of the 1950s (the latter of which doubled as the Stormtrooper’s blasters in ‘Star Wars’). It was meant to compete with the then-new and now famous Heckler & Koch MP5, and took a few design cues from the equally well-known Israeli Uzi.

Dual bayonet experimental Sterling S11 sub-machine gun

Dual bayonet experimental Sterling S11 sub-machine gun

Due to falling sales of sub-machine guns in general and to reliability problems with the gun, only one example was ever made; ‘EXP 001′. This was presented to the Ministry of Defence Pattern Room in 1989 and came to the Royal Armouries with the accession of that collection in 2005.

Why two bayonets? One is of the type fitted to the SLR rifle and the other for the previous Sterling SMG. We can’t be sure why the S11 was fitted for both; the trouble Sterling went to suggests that it was intended to give export customers a choice. We can be certain of one thing however; you would never have used both at the same time!

Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms

Weird and Wonderful Halloween

This rather gruesome painted iron mask is from the 17th/18th centuries. It is made of three plates, roughly constructed with openings for the eyes, nostrils and mouth. In the nineteenth century, it was displayed at the Tower alongside a block and axe as an executioner’s mask. However, it is unlikely that an executioner would have worn an iron mask like this.

Executioner's Mask

'Executioner's' Mask

The more probable explanation is that it was once part of a ‘scold’s bridle’ or brank, which were devices used in the punishment of men and women for minor offences. Their most popular use is said to have been to punish scolds or gossips. They usually consisted of a form of muzzle in a metal framework, designed to effectively and painfully prevent the wearer from talking, and shame them in public by making them conspicuous. The 18th-century example shown here came from England or Scotland. It comprises an iron frame for the head which was padlocked in place at the back, and a serrated iron tongue for insertion into the mouth.

Scald's bridle

Scold's bridle

It is doubtful that branks were used at the Tower as instruments of torture and punishment; it seems more likely that they were acquired to augment and enhance the historic collection.

Blogger: Natasha Roberts, Curatorial Assistant

Weird and Wonderful

Henry VIII was well-known for his interest in technological innovation when it came to armour and weaponry, whether it was for personal use or for equipping his army. The sixteen gun shields which survive in the collections of the Royal Armouries are a prime example of his fascination with new or unusual developments. These shields formed part of a group of thirty-five such contraptions listed in the inventory made of Henry’s armoury after his death in 1547, which recorded them as ‘targets steilde wt gonnes’. They are thought to have been produced for the King by Giovanbattista of Ravenna around 1544. He may have supplied them complete, or possibly just the shields, in which case they would then have been fitted with guns in England.

All the surviving shields are of similar form. They are circular, measure approximately 50cm in diameter, and are fitted with breech-loading matchlock firearms which protrude either from the centre of the convex face, or slightly above the centre point. In most of the shields with centrally mounted guns, there is a small aperture covered by a grill, which must have been used for sighting and aiming. The main shield bodies were constructed from two layers of thin strips of wood, possibly oak, ash or elm. The bases were then edged and faced with iron or steel plates. Some of the shields have the remains of textile linings, which seem to have been woollen cloth covering a layer of tow or hemp fibre which acted as padding for the arm holding the shield. Leather straps provided attachments for the arm, and the guns were braced with an iron bracket.

Shield front and rear view

Shield front and rear view

A further inventory of the armoury in 1676 shows that over time, the number of gun shields had increased to sixty-six. To have been present in such numbers, they seem to have had some credibility as military weapons, even if this was short-lived. This theory is supported by the recovery of fragments of gun shields from the wreck of the Mary Rose, because it is unlikely that they would have been on board if they were not considered potentially useful for offensive and defensive purposes. There has been speculation that their presence on the Mary Rose meant that they were specifically intended for naval use. However, it seems more likely that they had been packed to be transported as part of the royal arsenal, because they were placed in storage in the ship’s orlop deck rather than positioned for immediate use as part of the ship’s armament.

These gun shields never experienced widespread usage. This was probably due to their unwieldy nature and the risk of injury to the face, eyes and hands from the blast of combustion gases when the guns were fired. However, the shields are of exceptional interest today because they provide an early example of breech-loading firearms which used pre-loaded iron cartridges tapered to match the taper of the breech of the gun. Firearms were becoming increasingly versatile in the sixteenth century, and gun shields provide an important indication of this.

Blogger: Natasha Roberts, Curatorial Assistant

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

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

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

Weird and Wonderful

At first glance, this surprising object could almost be mistaken for an impressive piece of skeleton from a whale or something similarly enormous. In actual fact, it is an extremely rare preserved example of a late 15th/early 16th-century German jousting saddle, which was used in the form of joust known as the ‘Gestech im hohen Zeug’. The saddle supported knights in a standing position rather than seating them on the back of the horse.

German jousting saddle

German jousting saddle

The saddle consists of a large wooden shield, forked for the horse’s back. Behind this barrier projects a seat made up of a central bar with a ring on either side. The rider would insert their legs through the rings, so that they were secured and protected by the shield. The knight would thus be anchored firmly into a standing position from which to joust, although the rigid stance must have increased the potential for serious injury if he received a forceful blow.

Mounting was probably quite difficult; John Hewitt speculated in 1858 that ‘Into a saddle of this kind the knight must have crept from the back of the horse’! The saddle is covered in rawhide and still retains some traces of paint. It is one of only a very small handful known to survive.

Blogger: Natasha Roberts, Curatorial Assistant