By Rob Morgan
It’s a while since my note on blowpipes appeared in Hobilar, but recently I bought a bargain lot of Ospreys in the Oxfam shop. One of them was Men-at-Arms 140, “Armies of the Ottoman Turks 1300-1774” by David Nicolle, with the art work of Angus McBride; a little outside my usual interests but having acquired it, I dipped into it.
Plate A shows a couple of surprised Ottomans being faced by a “West Anatolian Infantryman” in Byzantine service, during the first half of the 1300s. The caption for the Anatolian is:
“This man uses a tufenk blowpipe to project Greek Fire.”
Oh, well. The device shown is about five or six feet in length and seems to be of bamboo (it’s far from easy to get a decent view of it), while the references given are frescoes and manuscripts which are unlikely to surface in my in-tray! So, I looked in a few more obvious places. There’s no comment on the tufenk in Nicolle’s vast “Arms and Armour of the Crusading Era 1050-1350”, but it turns up in the same author’s “Medieval Warfare Source Book: Volume 2.” In the glossary tufenk is an “early hand-gun. Turkish.”
This fits with the comment in Men-At-Arms 140, on page 18, that the tufenk, or Tufek , depending on Persian or Ottoman use of the word, was probably a primitive hand-gun, and the term was “by that date unlikely to have meant a Greek Fire syphon.”
Fair enough. The European, Arab and Persian terminology of medieval engines of war, pole-arms and military impedimenta generally, is eternally confusing, but this illustration shows a blow-pipe, not one firing a dart, but projecting Greek Fire. It’s not a syphon and it’s certainly not a gun. Is the end of the blow-pipe intending to show an incendiary “packet” slipped over the pipe ready for shooting?
So, there are two sources extant which were drawn upon for the illustration, and that’s as far as it goes. Sadly, the plate shows the Anatolian in mail and helmet and with a large shield. It doesn’t show how, nor does the text suggest how, the Greek Fire was carried by the man. It must have been intended as more than a one-shot throw away weapon, given the value of the inflammable end product.
How I wonder would this West Anatolian soldier in the service of the hard-pressed emperor have used this fascinating weapon? Did it project a spray of fire, or maybe it shot a soft package of combustible material which would burst and ignite on contact with an enemy? It would be too small to have an effect upon a wooden structure, or fortification, as it would need to be small enough to shoot by the breath of the soldier alone! A psychologically effective device though, one suspects!
A further plate, B, shows an incendiary javelin in Ottoman hands, but this little fire thrower fascinates me. Anyone have any ideas about it? Or perhaps encountered a similar device in notes or in the form of an illustration in another text? It would be a very nasty weapon at close quarters, and one worth fielding if I had a Byzantine army of the first half of the 14th century!