The great Turkish bombard, commonly called Dardanelles guns were in operation from as early as 1464, till the Crimean war. In 1868, one was acquired from the Turkish Government by Britain, and still survives to this day. These guns saw action against British ships in 1807, and were painted and illustrated on the eve of the Crimean war. These cannon were over 387 years old, and in continuous military service as a deterrent to an attack from the Dardanelles on Constantinople.
According to a 1659 Turkish traveller’s account the great Turkish bombards were serviced by a special troop of forty to fifty gunners (Karateke, 2013). The bombard, otherwise known as shayqa: “cannons so big that a man can fit inside and which fire stone cannonballs” (Karateke, 2013). The bombards were large enough for a man to, “manhandled a stone ball to the muzzle and eased it down the barrel.” (Crowley, 2007) Remarkably, part of the loading process required a man to crawl down inside the barrel to pack the powder chamber. The bombard loading process had not changed since the 15th century. Designed like a mortar or howitzer, a surviving bombard displayed at Fort Nelson, in the United Kingdom, its powder chamber is 10 inches in diameter (Royal Armouries, 1464). The smaller powder chamber was filled with some three hundred, or more pounds, and well rammed down with a wooden plug or wad hammered in (Partington, 1999). The plug is said to have had a depression cut into the side to better fit the shot. A priming cartridge was known to have been prepared, and inserted into the vent in order to fire the gun (Tott, Peyssonnel, 1786).
The Fort Nelson bombard is known to have been used in 1807, and was cast in 1468 (Royal Armouries, 1464), “its calibre is 25 inches … its length 17 feet; it weighs 18½ tons, and fires a shot of 672 … [pounds: 304.8 kg].” (Paul, 1916) Even greater calibre guns are known firing 770 and 800-pounder shots (James, 1826). Another was measured at, “twenty-two English feet long, and twenty-eight inches diameter of the bore” (Eton, 1798). A 1786 account recorded a large two piece Turkish bombard, that screwed together, which used, “a marble ball of eleven hundred pounds weight.” (Tott, Peyssonnel, 1786) Said to have been cast during the late 14th century, but likely later. This reference records the heaviest known marble shot, which would likely have had a calibre of between 28, or 29 inches.
The original design of the bombards in the late 14th, and 15th centuries was their use on land to massively destroy fortifications. By the 16th century the use of these cannon by the Ottomans, had underwent a considerable re-purposing, using these instead as coastal artillery. According to a 1659 Turkish traveller’s account the bombards, were said to have been ten in number and positioned along a barbican wall on the seashore (Karateke, 2013). Some were mounted on carriages, others (likely the largest) on sleds. The bombards formed the defences:
“About four leagues up the strait … [of the Dardanelles on] … a promontory, that contracts the passage to about 800 yards. On each side of this narrow, the proper Dardanelles, stands a castle, mounted with heavy cannon. These are called the inner castles of Europe and Asia, or the castles of Sestos and Abydos.” (James, 1826)
The bombards were set up to create a choke-point in the sea channels leading into Constantinople:
“There are, on each side the water, fourteen great guns, which fire granite balls … they are very near the level of the surface of the water, in arched port-holes or embrasures with iron doors, which are opened only when they are to be fired; the balls cross the water from side to side, as they are a little elevated.” (Eton, 1798)
A 1786 account states the bombard was fix in a permanent position on a low stone floored battlement, “its breech … [rested] … against a massy stone-work … it was placed upon timbers, cut and disposed for that purpose, under a small arch, which served as an embrasure.” (Tott, Peyssonnel, 1786) A later 1798 account, states:
“These monstrous cannon are not mounted on carriages; but lie on the paved floor, with their breech against a wall; they cannot be pointed, but the gunner must wait till the vessel he intends to fire at is opposite the mouth” (Eton, 1798).
British royal navy ships under Admiral Sir John Duckworth during the 1807 attack on Constantinople were fired-on by the Sestos and Abydos castle bombards. Several of the British ships suffered crew casualties, and the following damage to the vessels (James, 1826):
The 1853 (likely earlier than 1850) painting by Montague Frederick O’Reilly of the Dardanelles Chanak Kaleh-Si Castle (Asiatic side) bombards shows a pile of stone shot near each cannon. Spherical stone shot, had a much earlier history, as it is known, “Medieval artillerists took great care to control the weight of their shot, having each projectile chiselled to a near-perfect sphere.” (Tarver, 1995) Some if not all of the stone shot available for the bombards may have been hundreds of years old, and quite weathered, which may explain an anomaly in measurements given for these rounds. The 1850 Illustrated London News edition records, the circumference of a 700 pounder shot, fired from a bombard with a bore of 24½ inches, as being six feet, and three inches. This same anomalous statement was made in regards to the stone shot that hit HMS Standard and Active, in 1807. Apparently an observation of the stone shot braking apart in flight, the mass flattening as it encountered air resistance and continuing on its trajectory. A 1659 Turkish traveller’s account records this break-up of the shot after it was fired (Karateke, 2013). In a 1786 account, seeing the firing of the eleven hundred pounder bombard, the break-up of the shot was also seen: “At the distance of three hundred fathoms … [548 meters] … I saw the ball divide into three pieces” (Tott, Peyssonnel, 1786). Some of the British ships were damaged at or near the water-level. It is known that in the right sea conditions, as the bombards were set at a slight angle, firing at sea-level the shot was likely to bounce, or skip on the water (Karateke, 2013).
Following 1807, it is known that the fortress placement of the bombards underwent a considerable redesign. This new design was documented in the early 1850s, in a series of illustrations, all based on an 1853 (or earlier than 1850) painting by O’Reilly of the bombards. This became the basis for three other known Illustrated London News re-illustrations, that did not entirely follow the original pre-1850 painting, which appeared in editions of 12 January, 1850 (first version); 15 July, 1851 (second version); and 12 November, 1853 (third version). The painting, and later re-illustrations show the bombards had been moved onto sleds that recoiled along massive wooden slide mounts. The new design, for the first time introduced an option for the guns to recoil when fired, whereas previously the placement of the cannon abut a massive stone wall to stop the gun from moving when firing.
The new cannon mounting design was based on typical fortification mounts for heavy cannon, that began to make an appearance in the 18th century, throughout Europe; however in the case of the bombards, the new mounts were massively upscaled. The 1850 Illustrated London News edition provides measurements for the cannon and its carriage: The gun was 17 feet, and 2½ inches; with a bore 24½ inches, firing a 700 pound stone (granite) shot. The carriage was 17 feet, and 10½ inches long, with a height of two feet, and six inches. The carriage slide was 40 feet, and nine inches long, with a height of one foot, and nine inches.
The bombards served as a major deterrence against a naval approach to the imperial capital from the Dardanelles. A few of the beliefs about the power of these cannon, are known. For instance, it is said:
“the Turks murmured at my paying so little regard to a piece of artillery, which, no doubt, had not its equal in the universe.” (Tott, Peyssonnel, 1786)
This belief in the destructive power of the cannon, have a strong foundation in classical military deterrence theory, which has a strong psychological component. The guns had in living memory rarely been fired, and much of their supposed destructive power, was believed:
“[a] … single discharge would be so destructive, and reach so far, that no one entertained a doubt but it would be, alone, sufficient to destroy the whole fleet of the enemy.” (Tott, Peyssonnel, 1786)
“there was a tradition, that this piece; which had never yet been discharged, would occasion such a shock as must overturn the castle and the city.” (Tott, Peyssonnel, 1786)
In reality, the guns in 1807 proved no longer militarily capable of destroying shipping. The British man-of-war that were attacked by these cannon, were state-of-the-art, for their time; designed and constructed to withstand far greater weight of firepower. The average stone shot were around 800 pounds, whereas the total weight of broadside of a British first-rate ship, such as HMS Victory (at Trafalgar 1805) was 1,148 pounds. Both the HMS Royal George (100 guns), and Windsor-Castle (98 guns), were similarly classed ships. Nevertheless, the imagined power of the bombards retained their hold on the Ottoman’s military imagination, for these cannon not only remained in service for another 50 years, they were remounted and installed in new fortifications by the time of the Crimean war. Yet, on the 30 November 1853, at the port of Sinop on the Black Sea coast of northern Turkey, the Russians attacked and destroyed a small fleet of Ottoman warships and transports in port, armed with explosive shell firing paixhans guns.
ABOVE: Illustrates two versions of the pre-1807 mounting positions of the Dardanelle castles bombards. In some cases, the massive stone balls were maneuvered up to the muzzle level via a large wood block ramp, or by block and tackle suspended from a swing crane, hauling the ball up to the gun muzzle in a heavy net. Embrasure iron doors are opened when the gun is fired. The cut-away view shows the stone shot, wooden plug, and powder chamber.
ABOVE: Illustrates the post-1807 position of the great cannon, and its remount on large wooden cradles and slides, which remained in used during the Crimean war era.
Crowley, R. 2007 The Guns of Constantinople. https://www.historynet.com/the-guns-of-constantinople.htm
Eton, W. 1798 A Survey of the Turkish Empire. London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, Strand.
James, W. 1826 The Naval History of Great Britain. London: Baldwin, Cradock and Joy.
Karateke, H.T. 2013 Evliya Celebi’s Journey from Bursa to the Dardanelles and Edirne: From the Fifth Book of the Seyaḥatname. BRILL.
Partington, J.R. 1999 A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder. JHU Press.
Paul, J.B. 1916 [-1915] Ancient Artillery, with Some Notes on Mons Meg. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Volume 50.
Royal Armouries. 1464 Great Turkish Bombard [The]. https://collections.royalarmouries.org/object/rac-object-6177.html
Tarver, W.T.S. 1995 The Traction Trebuchet: A Reconstruction of an Early Medieval Siege Engine. Technology and Culture, Vol. 36, No.1.
Tott [de], F. Peyssonnel [de], M. 1786 Memoirs of Baron De Tott; and, Strictures and Remarks on the Memoirs of Baron De Tott. London: G.G.J. and J. Robinson.