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

Mobilising the Guns

This week has seen more moblisisation of the guns at Fort Nelson. Beck and Pollitzer have now moved the first exhibits – two anti-aircraft guns – into the new gallery, The Voice of the Guns. A further 12 guns will be moved into position during the next two weeks.

Moving the guns

Moving the guns

The guns moved this week included:

  • British 3.7-inch Anti-Aircraft gun and Searchlight – During the grim nights of the Blitz, the guns’ skilled crews worked closely with the searchlight batteries. Fort Nelson had its own gun batteries and also supplied the ammunition for the other guns in the area.

Weight – 8,120 kg. Date – 1943. Fire rate – 8 rounds per minute.

  • Bofors 40 mm Anti-Aircraft Gun – With one of the most rapid rates of fire, this versatile light anti-aircraft gun was used by Britain on both land and sea for over 30 years and was particularly effective against low-flying, attack aircraft. Whether operating in the North African desert campaign, or on a convoy in the Atlantic Ocean, the Bofors’ firepower saved countless Allied lives.

Weight – 1,920 kg. Date – 1940. Fire rate – 120 rounds per minute.

It’s particularly fitting that we’re starting with anti-aircraft guns, because, in World War II, Fort Nelson supplied ammunition to the AA batteries that defended the south coast. These weapons gave the local civilian population hope and a sense of fighting back, as they suffered through the blitzes of 1940-41.

Other guns to be moved into the new gallery include a French cannon, captured at the Battle of Waterloo; a bronze Russian cannon from the Crimean War of the 1850s, and sections from the barrel of the infamous Iraqi Supergun.

More images of the re-development of Fort Nelson can be found on our Flickr page.

Blogger: Beckie Senior, Communications Officer

Fort Nelson Re-development

Fort Nelson houses the Royal Armouries’ collection of artillery, with over 350 big guns and historic cannon on display. The Fort was built on the direction of Victorian Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, as part of a chain of fortifications protecting the great Naval harbour of Portsmouth and its Royal Dockyard from French invasion – a fear that never materialised.

Panorama of visitor centre under construction

Panorama of visitor centre under construction

Fort Nelson is nearing the end of a £3.5m project to transform the heritage site into a museum fit for the 21st century. Part funded by a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, the project will include spectacular new galleries; visitor centre and extended free parking; new modern café; and state of the art learning centre.

Lower Gallery Artist's Impression

Lower Gallery Artist's Impression

The new glass-sided galleries will showcase the most impressive and iconic Big Guns, covering the most colourful periods of history from every corner of the globe. Key exhibits will include Saddam Hussein’s infamous Supergun, and the Great Turkish Bombard of 1464, that once protected The Dardanelles.

As the project nears completion over the coming weeks we’ll be following our Projects Team throughout the closing stages of the redevelopment.

A Quite Interesting Outing

As the National Museum of Arms and Armour we regularly get asked to share our expert knowledge on all kinds of items in our vast collection. The BBC’s QI boffins recently contacted us to find out if during WWI soldiers had been known to urinate on their hot machine guns to keep them cool – rather unpleasant business!

qi-logoWe were able to confirm that soldiers did indeed collect urine to refill the water jacket of their guns in emergencies: “…Often, in a pinch, when water was short we were forced to fill the barrel jacket with urine – it helped make the war a bit personal…” Cpl John Young, 12th Machinegun Company, 4th British Division, First World War. It’s often said that soldiers used their machine-guns to boil water for tea when fresh water was scarce. This was first suggested by war poet Robert Graves in his memoirs and is now thought to be untrue, though one soldier did report using cooled ‘greasy’ water for his tea! In any case, you would want to give the water jacket a very thorough wash before considering a bit of a brew… To ‘demonstrate’ this quite interesting fact we took a Vickers machine gun to meet Stephen Fry and the QI gang, making sure that no one put history into practice!

 

 

Vickers Machine Gun on the QI set with Curators Angela Smith, Jonathan Ferguson and Conservator Nyssa Mildwaters

Vickers Machine Gun on the QI set with Curators Angela Smith, Jonathan Ferguson and Conservator Nyssa Mildwaters

 The Vickers machine gun was the British First World War version of the Maxim gun, which was named after its designer, Hiram Maxim. The Vickers gun wasn’t declared obsolete until April 1968, seeing over five decades of military action.  The Maxim was the first practical design for a machine gun and fired at a rate of 600 rounds per minute. However, belts contained only 250 rounds, and machine guns were generally fired in short bursts to conserve ammunition and prevent overheating. The popular idea of machine guns mowing down enemy soldiers point blank was the exception, and in fact they were used mainly at long range, like miniature artillery pieces. Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms

Collections Up Close April

As the well-known Bond theme goes ‘Diamonds Are Forever’. Diamonds have a long history as treasured gemstones and are April’s birthstone. Diamonds are used as engraving tools as they have the highest resistance to scratching of any material known. Some of the Royal Armouries’ more ornate collection items are decorated with diamonds.

Most notably are two guns on display in the Treasures of the Royal Armouries in the White Tower’s 1st floor gallery at the Tower of London. The first is a pistol made in Germany in 1991, a SIG P226, which is decorated with white gold and blue enamel and an astonishing 1,517 diamonds.

SIG P226 decorated with diamonds

SIG P226 decorated with diamonds

The second is a six shot revolver made in American about 1992. It is a Smith & Wesson model 586 and decorated in red gold, red enamel and diamonds. Both guns were decorated by a London jeweller for their owners.

Smith & Wesson 586 decorated in red gold, red enamel and diamonds

Smith & Wesson 586 decorated in red gold, red enamel and diamonds

Blogger: Angela Clare, Researcher

Power House – Object Conservation 4

Object: Uniform Coat of the Duke of Wellington c.1835 (xvi.8)

Blogger: Suzanne Dalewicz-Kitto, Conservation Manager

This blue cloth uniform with white lining and scarlet facing was worn by the Duke of Wellington when he was Constable of the Tower of London. It has gilt buttons bearing a miniature of the White Tower in silver, and epaulettes made of gold and silver thread.  The coat is in reasonable condition with only a few small holes and surface grazing of the cloth, probably caused by moths.  The main area of interest to our Conservators were the tarnished metal threads and spangles (sequins) on the epaulettes.

Duke of Wellington's uniform

Duke of Wellington's uniform coat

Metal threads are fragile at the best of time.  Some are made from twisted fine metal wire and others are formed by twisting wire around a cotton or silk thread.  When applying treatments to remove the tarnish Conservators have to be careful not to leave residues behind that will ‘rot’ the thread over time.  On these epaulettes there are eight different types of thread design including: dull purl, pearl purl, bright check and Lizardine close.

Detail of the left epaulette before and after treatment

Detail of the left epaulette before and after treatment

The tarnish was removed by gently cleaning the surfaces with a damp swab using a mixture of carefully chosen chemicals.  This was carried out under a microscope to make sure no metal threads were being pulled away from the epaulette.  Residues where removed again by careful swabbing using deionised water – very pure water that has had any minerals filtered out of it.

This object will be featured in our forthcoming Power House exhibition at theTower of London which opens on Saturday 2nd April. Find out more about the work of our Conservation Team on our website.

Power House Installation: Week One

Blogger: Karen Whitting, Creative Programmes

Construction of the Power House exhibition at the Royal Armouries in the Tower of London began last week. Preparing the gallery for the installation has involved ripping out the old displays, which in an old building can be problematic if unanticipated issues are found.

Often all the pre-planning and preparation done prior to installation can be overturned in an instant – with new solutions and decisions needed immediately. However, with the right project team these moments feel more exciting and a challenge to be solved rather than finding them to be insurmountable problems.

 

Squeezing into the Tower of London

Squeezing into the Tower of London

On day three of the build a clear blue sky greeted the delivery of the crane – an excellent situation as snow or high winds would have meant potential schedule delays. The crane lorry squeezed its way under the Tower’s historic archways and over bridges to take up residence, allowing the removal of the old exhibition material and lift in of new build items.

Craning items in and out

Carefully craning items in and out

By day four it was apparent that the existing showcases had originally been screwed very firmly to the floor and each supporting foot had to be located and unscrewed before they could be moved to their new positions. However, as move after move took place and with a van and 2 builders skips of old material left the site, it was clear that a new exhibition was beginning to take shape.

As the first week drew to a close not only had all the cases been repositioned, they had also received a complete internal fit-out and one of our new cases was also finished. Everything was ready for graphic installation – and then objects…

More images of the installation at the Tower of London can be found on our Flickr page.