PhD Thesis Analysed the Impact of First Handguns in European Wars


Today, on 21 November, Jaak Mäll from the School of Humanities will defend his PhD thesis that looks at one of the lesser-researched periods in firearms history: the hand cannons – the very first hand-held firearms – from the 14th century and their impact on the late medieval wars in Europe.

The thesis shows that in the context of war technology innovation, even the most basic hand-held firearms marked a significant advantage, multiplying the attack potential of mechanical ranged weapons. This, in turn, was the introduction to great changes in warfare in Europe – the importance and popularity of armour diminished as it became decreasingly effective against new forms of attack.

“While was historians largely agree that the coming about of cannons was the breaking point in fort architecture, and therefore general warfare, the role of basic hand-held firearms remains rather unclear,” says Jaak Mäll and adds that firearms have also been an important technological innovation in general technological history. “They are the first machines in which useful kinetic energy is achieved due to a chemical reaction, making these basic firearms the technological predecessors of steam and internal combustion engines,” he explained.

The main research method of the thesis is experimental archaeology, which looks at historic and prehistoric technologies by reconstructing them, and documenting and measuring the results of various tests. Mäll used this method to study the oldest known firearm in Estonia – the Otepää handgonne. “The thesis looks at the dating method and the historic context of this item, the documentation and restoration, the firing tests, as well as the analysis of the tests and the perceived tactical properties of firearms,” Mäll explained the research process.

The thesis presents a novel basis for methodological, theoretical and processual archaeological experimentation. The new methods, developed during the thesis research, is based on the works of philosopher Karl Popper and the archaeologist Edward Harris. The methodological tool that emerged – the archaeological experiment matrix – should ease the planning and analysing phases of archaeological experiments, giving a clear overview based on causal relations within the process. When needed, this method also enables viewing at the various parts of the processes separately and pre-experiment with the sole aim of studying a single hypothetical factor in isolation.

The doctoral thesis “The Technology of Late Medieval European Hand-Held Firearms: The ‘Otepää Handgonne’. A Study in Experimental Archaeology” will be publicly defended on 21 November at 14:00 at Tallinn University, room M-648 (Uus-Sadama 5). The supervisor was Senior Research Fellow Erki Russow from Tallinn University, and the opponents are Professor Marcos Martinón-Torres from University College London, and Associate Professor Steven A. Walton from Michigan Technological University.

The full thesis can be accessed via the TU Academic Library E-vault ETERA.