Sword, Musket and Machine Gun: Britain’s Armed History
From the Saxon shield-wall to the discovery of gunpowder and the invention of the machine gun, Dr Sam Willis traces the history of the weapons that have shaped Britain.
Part 1: Cut and Thrust
In the first episode, Sam receives a lesson in swordsmanship from the earliest combat manual as he gets to grips with the swords, shields and lances that dominated the battlefield a thousand years ago. Sam finds out what the Bayeux Tapestry reveals about the brutal reality of combat, why the crossbow came to be seen as an instrument of the devil, and he tries his hand at a longbow, the decisive weapon of medieval warfare.
Part 2: The Big Bang
Dr Sam Willis charts the impact of gunpowder on the battlefield, from cannons to the first handheld weapons. His journey starts in the 13th century with Oxford scientist and monk Roger Bacon, believed to be the first Englishman to write down a recipe for gunpowder. Sam sees one of the largest surviving medieval cannons still in existence – Mons Meg in Edinburgh Castle. He examines a primitive 1400s ‘handgun’ in the Tower of London Armouries that seems more like a mini cannon, with no trigger.
Part 3: Rapid Fire
Sam Willis charts the evolution of weaponry in Britain from 1800 to the First World War, looking at the drive to develop ever-more precise weapons, from artillery shells and rifles to the Maxim machine gun. Sam test-fires a Brown Bess musket, the infantry weapon of choice at Waterloo in 1815 and looks at efforts to make artillery more effective on the battlefield with the invention of ‘spherical case shot’, a new type of shell that was named after its inventor – Henry Shrapnel.