Hand mortars: An early grenade launchers used from the 1500s through the early 1800s

David Goran
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The hand mortar is a firearm that was used in the late 17th century and 18th century to throw fused grenades.

Designed to throw an exploding grenade a further distance, and with more accuracy than could be done by hand, the hand mortar is more of a grenade launcher, with a wide barrel, typically of bronze, mounted on a musket stock.

Some German hand mortars from the 16th and 18th century. Photo Credit

Some German hand mortars from the 16th and 18th century. Photo Credit

It was first developed during the mid-1500s but reached its peak of popularity during the period 1670-1750.

Although used in relatively small numbers compared to other more conventional types of musket, hand mortars were employed by most European armies. Hand mortars can lob shots over the heads of intervening troops, even over high walls.

Combined wheellock and matchlock hand-mortar. One of the few surviving grenade launchers of the late 16th century. Photo Credit

Combined wheel-lock and matchlock hand-mortar. One of the few surviving grenade launchers of the late 16th century. Photo Credit

The first references to the type of grenade used in a hand mortar occur in a 1472 work entitled Valturius, where an incendiary prototype may have been produced.

The earliest known Hand Mortars (grenade launchers) were Wheellocks of the 1580s. The grenades were lit separately then the gun was fired to launch it.

However, widespread use of the explosive grenade does not occur until the early-to-mid-16th century under Francis I of France.

Early 17th century hand mortar. Photo Credit

Early 17th-century hand mortar. Photo Credit

 

Grenade launchers, 1747, France. Photo Credit

Grenade launchers, 1747, France. Photo Credit

After priming the firearm and adding the gunpowder, the shooter would light a grenade fuse, place the grenade in the muzzle of the mortar and then fire it at the enemy.

The barrel was short, usually less than 2 inches to 4 inches long (however, some are reported to have barrels up to 13 inches long), and had a large bore to accommodate the grenade, usually between 2 and 2.5 inches.

The low number of surviving specimens of this firearm indicate that it was not a popular weapon, possibly due to the safety issues. Grenade launchers, 19th Century. Photo Credit

The low number of surviving specimens of this firearm indicate that it was not a popular weapon, possibly due to the safety issues. Grenade launchers, 19th Century. Photo Credit

The grenade is a useful battlefield weapon when used against enemies deployed in cover, or for clearing choke points.

Explosive grenades for this device were made from brass, glass, and possibly clay, and incendiary projectiles were made from canvas. Additional modifications attempted to light the grenade using the burning gunpowder.

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However, accidents could occur if the weapon misfired and the lit grenade remained in the barrel, resulting in an immediate explosion.

An early casualty of this type of grenade was Count de Randan, who died of shrapnel wounds to the legs from a grenade during the Siege of Rouen in 1562.