BOOM, or, a Reminiscence


What with one thing & another yesterday (by which I mean my apparently unorthodox method of getting the new washer into the house) I was telling my roommate Inoru about other things I’ve done that … perhaps reflect a nonstandard risk assessment on my part. In this case, making loud BOOM noises with crude medieval weapons & black power.

Once, long, long ago, I was part of a unit of handgonners at Pennsic. We were reenacting the late 1300s in France, which is not terribly long after the use of gunpowder in warfare had come to Europe. A handgonne, in this case, is the earliest evolution of handheld firearms: basically a very small cannon. On a stick.

Most of them are long enough that you brace one end against your foot, like a boar spear. (Before you get Ideas, the boar spear is still likely to do better against a boar. Which isn’t to say that it will do well. Anyway don’t go messing with boars. I’m not saying this because I’m a bleeding-heart liberal who loves animals. (I am a bleeding-heart liberal who lives animals, but that’s not my primary motive here.) I’m saying this because there is an excellent chance that the boar will straight-up murderate you.) My handgonne was small enough I just tucked it under my arm. Either way you load it by pointing it upwards, pouring some powder down the barrel, smushing the bit of paper the powder was wrapped in down the barrel with a stick, & then pointing it.

For a very liberal definition of ‘point’. Note that I didn’t say to point it at anything; these were NOT precision instruments. Even for very experienced handgonners, the best way to actually damage someone with one was to run up & hit em with the heavy end. They were terror weapons. For most of the soldiers facing them, the BOOM would have been by far the loudest thing they’d heard in their entire life, & they were, by all reports, terrified. When we pointed our hangdonnes, we carefully pointed them at a nice big empty space where it wouldn’t matter if things caught on fire a little bit.

Once your handgonne is pointed — ish — you pour a smidge more powder in the touch hole & touch your slow match to it. Slow match is cotton or hemp rope treated with a couple different things to make it burn steadily but slowly; it was a safe-ish way to carry readily-available fire in the days before lighters. With luck your slow match was still lit.

If it was still smoldering — which it usually was, unless the weather was particularly terrible, or you’d gotten a less-than-good batch of slow match, or the wind was just wrong, or Saint Barbara was in a rotten mood that day — the entire process culminated in a really amazing BOOOOOOOOM.

… at which point I would jump up & down with excitement, because I am five.

Anyway the photographer caught the precise moment of BOOM — there’s four handgonnes there, amidst all the smoke, & I always gotta laugh at the looks on me & Adhemar’s faces, we both look like we were in pain, which we were, it’s LOUD. But what really MAKES the picture is the photographer’s timing, that he caught my gonne with flame coming out both the touchhole & the barrel.

The garb I’m wearing in this photo — my entire kit — was the most historically accurate everything I’ve ever had, every stitch sewn by hand, everything leather or linen or horn or wood. The stick I’m holding in my right hand (called a linstock) has the smoldering slow match wrapped around it. A friend carved that one just for me — just messing around with a knife & a stick during a company meeting, as you do, handed it to me while we were all wandering off. I still have it, though I’ve long since given the rest of the stuff away. Most of it doesn’t fit me any more, & I don’t have the same persona anyway — but I miss it.

I miss BOOM, too. There aren’t a lot of places in the Outlands where you can shoot black powder weapons. With reason — we always had a couple smoky spots in the grass afterwards, which we diligently stomped out, but that’s a lot easier when it’s all green like that. In the desert? It’s just too much of a risk. & even if BOOM were a thing here? It’s rare that I could get away from the booth long enough for that sort of thing. & it wouldn’t be the same without Adhemar.

ANYWAY that was my ‘not nearly as bad as an idea as it looked like’ story for today. C’mon, I even still have all my fingers! It can’t have been THAT dangerous!

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