Flintlock Hand Mortar

Lot 1173 in the RIA September 2020 Premier auction.

During the 1600s and 1700s, flintlock and wheel lock systems were used to make “hand mortars”; firearm-like apparatuses to throw objects. Some of these were military grenade launchers, capable of withstanding significant pressure and generating very substantial recoil upon firing (they were vitally all fired with the butt braced on the ground). Others were used for launching signal flares and fireworks; roles which required much less strength on the part of the launcher. This appears to be one of the latter type (as are most), with a flintlock action and a launching cup some 3 1/3 inches (85mm) in diameter.


  1. Would it really be necessary to light a fuse before firing? Would not the act of firing light it? ( albeit not super reliably)

    • Double firing was very dangerous. In mortars and howitzers the match was lighted upon firing, and this is a small mortar.

    • Eventually, ‘self-igniting’ fuses became standard on howitzers, and even regular guns like the Civil War era ‘Napoleons.’ I think one of the reasons for the shape of early mortars was to allow for the fuse to me lit manually prior to firing.
      I wonder if the propellant flash could ignite a fuse with a barrel as short is this example.

      • It was the Dutch who learned to shoot bombs from mortars. A bomb was a hollow metal ball filled with powder and having a small hole in it for a fuse.

        First they tried “single firing” which was putting the bomb into the mortar with the fuse down, in contact with the propelling charge. That didn’t work. Firing the mortar often drove the fuse right into the bomb and blew it up right in front of the gun.

        Then they tried “double firing” with the bomb turned over, fuse up, and the gunner lighted the fuse by hand at the same time he lighted the touch-hole of the piece. this required a nice sense of timing and a state of mind prepared for all eventualities, since guns often missed fire and a lighted bomb in a mortar barrel, with nothing to push it out, could lead to trouble.

        It wasn’t until 1650 that someone discovered, probably by accident, that double firing was unnecessary. The heat of firing would light the fuse even though it was turned away from the exploding charge.

        -Edwin Tunis, Weapons (1954), p. 90.

        More precisely, it was the flame of the propelling charge firing, washing around the bomb through the windage, that ignited the fuze. This method was standard up through the American Civil War, when rifled cannon began to supplant smoothbores on the battlefield.

        The Bormann time fuze for the 12-pounder Model 1858 Napoleon smoothbore gun/howitzer still worked by this method, as did the wooden “plug” fuzes for mortars up to large seacoast size.

        Rifled guns like the Parrott could not use this method, as their driving bands prevented the flash from reaching the fuse up in the nose of the shell.

        For this reason, most rifled field gun shells had impact fuzes until the late 1890s, when pyrotechnic-train time fuzes activated by the shell’s acceleration were developed, followed by fully-mechanical clockwork type time fuzes, introduced during World War One mainly for anti-aircraft guns.



    • Originally, the gunner had two linstocks, one to light the fuse, the other to fire the mortar. Experience showed that the first was unnecessary as the blast of firing would touch it off.

  2. I saw some really cool variations in a museum in France that had an extended stock that curved in arc about a yard long and ended in a spike to plant in ground
    Have pictures of them

  3. I don’t try to second guess what someone was thinking when they design a piece, but are there any indications from the wood at the breech that this was ever actually fired? It just seems like it would have been so simple – and prudent – to fit a metal plug to seal it off. If it’s unfired, my first guess would have been that it’s decorative.

  4. Curse you Ian.

    Now I want to build one after watching your videos and others’ videos.

    I have a percussion under hammer that can have replaceable barrels. So that’s a start.

    Seems to be an easier project than the replica of a Pritchard Air Rifle. Another one of your inspirational videos.

      • Bombardiers were this specialist of the artillery branch, dedicated to handling these infernal devices (really like a hand mortar) that throw hand grenades. These are similar to cartoons bombs, a sphere of iron, about 8 cm (3.2-in) diameter, with a match that was lighted by deflagration of the propelling charge.

  5. The stepped beach end of the barrel reminds me of how a high/low pressure 40mm grenade launcher shell works.

    • Mortars almost all had “chambered” tubes like that, to both put more metal around the charge, and to prevent the bomb from compressing the charge when it was loaded.

      The latter could lead to a “fizzle” rather than an actual shot, with incomplete ignition/combustion of the propelling charge. This tended to deposit the lit bomb a few yards in front of the muzzle- and right in front of the gun crew.

      Something that you generally tried to avoid.



  6. I do not thinkIan has ever thrust a muzzle at the camera before! It made me react! Especially with how big it was.

  7. I once met the opinion that almost all surviving “hand mortars” are either misclassified signaling devices or later fakes.

    IMHO, such an opinion deserves confidence, since you can only shoot twice from such a device.
    Since the first shot will be the last at the same time.

    All the well-known authentic devices were designed to be fired either from the armpit, or with an emphasis on the saddle, ground or other suitable support.
    Therefore, if you see such a “mortar” with a rifle butt, then you are being held for a sucker.

    • There are plenty of these stocked hand mortars all over Europe in museums easily authenticating there authenticity and use

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