Myth Busting Part 2
Without going to the dictionary, what is a myth? A myth is a commonly held misconception often based on a fact or event. The causes of a myth can be quite varied, ranging from a misinterpretation brought on by sloppy research and or erroneous reporting of the sound research by another party or even propaganda. An example of propaganda would be during the Second World War when soldiers were told that the new German MG 42’s “bark” was greater than its “bite”. The nick name for the MG 42 was “Hitler’s buzz saw” which described the sound that the machine gun’s 1,200 rounds per minute rate of fire produced. This lie was perpetrated in the hope of alleviating the reputation that this new deadly weapon had among the allied troops. Of course it didn’t take long for a new recruit to realize the bite was indeed as wicked as its reputation indicated: that is if the new replacement survived his first encounter.
I would like to take a moment or two to talk about some of the current “offenders” engaged in questionable experiments and coming to conclusions based on their so-called trials of weapons ranging from the ancient up and including the Second World War. Unfortunately many of the pseudo-experts are ex-military personnel who, while perhaps being experts in weapons and their use in the modern world, lack the knowledge and needed expertise to tackle older, now defunct, weapons. I will bow to the concept that military colleges and institutions cover the battle tactics of the famous generals of ancient times, however, I was not aware that modern military training spends a great deal of time training Marines, as an example, to use a broadsword or battle axe. I do stand to be corrected on this view.
One of the common errors made by both civilian and past military men presenting experiments with weaponry on documentaries, which seem to be in overwhelming number on television, is the watermelon/human head example. When presented in the light of, “we’ll use this watermelon as a stand in for a human head” I have no problems at all with the concept. However, most of the time the presenter will state, “This watermelon is a good substitute for the human head and has as close as possible the same resistance as a human skull”. This is when I get my “back up” and the old blood pressure starts to rise. Surely they can’t be serious! I know I can put my fist through the side of a watermelon and know for a fact that I cannot do the same with a human head, nor could anyone in my past who has carried out that experiment on my cranium. Drop a watermelon off a one storey building and see what happens. Most people can survive a fall of that distance, depending on the type of surface that eventually breaks their fall; try the same with a watermelon and you will have the beginnings of a great fruit salad. “Please do not try this at home, we are trained professionals”, say the “experts”. I’ve watched these so-called experts and what they should say is, “Don’t try this at home, we are paid to take stupid risks; and we are basically morons enough to attempt this”. I will give them this, and I will bet you are of the same mind, who doesn’t like seeing a watermelon explode in slow-motion photography? Will that ever get old, I doubt it.
This is where I say, “Long story short” and you think, “Too late”.
There is a fellow on some of the weapons documentaries, a past Special Forces or Army Ranger who likes to attempt to bring the tactic or weapon into the realm of today’s thinking by saying, “Just like today’s Special Forces…” One example was dealing with the medieval battle axe and he boldly said, “Just like today’s Special Forces who are trained to use whatever weapon is at hand to suit the situation...” Funny, I was under the impression that today’s military was not in the habit of carrying a medieval battle axe. The battle axe, in this example, was the weapon supposedly carried by the medieval warrior; much as a modern firearm is carried by today’s warriors. I would hazard a guess that a medieval battle axe is never at hand to be used as a “weapon of opportunity”, as we used to refer to such objects that stand in for real weapons, in a modern situation. A tree branch, rock or bar stool, depending on the location and situation are weapons of opportunity; never a battle axe. In another example, and this is one of my “buttons” (now you know for sure), was when he was hosting a show on the ancient Japanese Ninjas. After going over some of the mythical (note that word) skills of the Ninja he said, “Much like the ancient Japanese Ninja today’s Special Forces use stealth tactics to infiltrate an enemy position”. I truly hope they don’t as the so-called Japanese Ninja is the stuff of movies, comic books and video games. Oh, oh, do I detect yet another topic for this myth busting series? The presenter might as well have said that today’s Special Forces use tactics just like those of the soldiers of Gondor from the Lord of the Rings books and movies. Oh yes, he would have had to leave out the reference to books and movies as he left out the word “mythical” when comparing true modern heroes with those killers taken from the pages of fiction. I personally think it diminishes today’s service man or woman to be compared to figments of an author’s imagination, no matter how long ago the character or characters were invented.
Before I go on I must share with you a suspicion I have about television net-works such as the AHC (American Heroes Channel). To be sure I watch a lot of programs, documentaries etc. on AHC and the History Channel but I am getting the feeling that AHC has a lot of financing from the military establishment. The quality of their documentaries is questionable yet they never cease to attempt to bring their point around to today’s military. I can’t help but wonder in the far future if there won’t be someone writing a blog suggesting that such programs were, in actuality, propaganda, or at the very least aimed at recruitment. This is just a thought and not meant to be a condemnation or praise, I leave that to history. So if I have hit a nerve in you, my good reader, I apologize as that was not the purpose of my musing.
A civilian presenter, a respected man from the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) was presenting a documentary as part of the series “Museum Secrets” where he demonstrated the crossbow and the musket in comparison. Never failing to amuse the audience he used the ever infamous watermelon and shot it through with a crossbow quarrel (arrow) after a couple of tries and then with the musket on the first try, which produced my ever favorite slow motion explosion of red watermelon brains. Next they decided to attempt to pierce plate armour. The crossbow quarrel dented the plate armour while when the musket ball was fired it went through the armour leaving a sizable hole. At this point he uttered the revelation that it was obvious why the musket became favored over the crossbow and to this end he declared that this proved two things. First was that the musket had a greater killing potential and that the musket was easier to use, sighting that he hit the watermelon on his first try with the musket yet needed several tries with the crossbow. The penetration against plate armour was another victory for the musket. I see this as silly exhibitionism thrown together for the program at the cost of any real scientific experimentation. First of all whether you shoot a quarrel through the head of a watermelon soldier or explode his head with a musket ball (which I still like watching in slow motion) a dead watermelon soldier is a dead watermelon soldier. That wound, or a death blow of any kind, cannot be determined to be any worse than any other death dealing strike. You can’t get deader than dead! I know that is nit-picking so let’s look at the more scientific aspect of this so-called experiment.
First of all the crossbow they were using was indeed much like to originals with, I believe, a 150 pound pull; this I have little problem with. Indeed the range at which they fired both weapons was identical tough not at a realistic likely battle range of the day, of say around 60 yards. We need to be able to hit the target after all and indeed the closer range should favor the crossbow, so I’ll accept this as well. This is where the whole experiment starts to unravel. Yes the crossbow and the musket went through watermelon soldier’s chainmail protected head, however for the most part the head of a soldier in the medieval era also would have been wearing a thick quilted cloth head protection and possibly a steel helmet of sorts. I believe the results of the experiment would still have been the same, however, it is not up to me to make assumptions about what another researcher has failed to prove or even test correctly. The issue I have is that the musket fired by the ROM representative was not the matchlock that another participant had originally shot. The amount of powder in a musket may well be greater than that of the matchlock. The musket that was fired in the experiment against the plate armour was a copy of the “Brown Bess” flintlock which would put that weapon between around 1750 to 1850 (the example was one of the later models) and not the 1300s which would have been represented by the crossbow. That’s a 400 year spread between the matchlock and the flintlock therefore this alone brings the experiment’s results into question. Next let’s look into the claim that the musket pierced the plate armour while the crossbow failed. True the crossbow failed however the bow used was what would have been considered a light to medium crossbow with much larger and therefore extremely more powerful bows available during the time period in question. As already pointed out the firearm used for the experiment was not available for another 400 years, give or take a fortnight. Another problem with the experiment was the fact that no one went into battle with only their knickers on under the plate armour. The heavily armoured knight of the time period first dawned a thick quilted garment called a gambeson, which it has been sufficiently documented and shown in trials to be proof against the arrows from a light to medium crossbow. Next he would wear a coat of chain mail, followed by the plate armour. In essence he was the battle tank of his era. All of these layers would have provided a cushioning effect on the impact of the musket ball, not to mention the “give” of the human body under the impact. This would have had the effect similar to the present day ballistic resistant vests (wrongly termed “bullet proof vests”) worn by law enforcement and military personnel. Another clue, and the fellow from ROM should have known this as he was head of the ancient arms and armour section of the museum, is that there are several examples or thirteenth and fourteenth century armour breast plates in the ROM collections showing deep dents in the lower right side of the armour. These are the results of a musket ball being fired to prove, or proof, the suit of armour as being musket ball resistant, which left the telltale dent as proof to the purchaser. As to the ease of hitting the target with the musket as opposed to the crossbow I can easily suggest that this first time using a musket and with his first shot there was a good deal of “beginner’s luck” involved. He may even have had the luxury of fixed sights on the musket he was using, though an original Brown Bess would have lacked sights and certainly the early matchlock firearms may have lacked these aiming devices. I would have to say that the whole experiment failed to actually prove a thing as the results were predetermined based on currently held beliefs or in actuality myths. The experiment completely failed to prove anything conclusively except that exploding watermelons look cool when shown in slow motion.
I will explore crossbows and the English Long Bow in a future article, perhaps in Myth Busting Part Three. I closing off this installment I would like to point out that the little things matter. It matters how experiments are carried out and there is a need for strict controls. Even a miss-placed word runs the risk of polluting the way events and dates are perceived. An example of such sloppy wording can be found in the documentary series “The Evolution of Evil” shown on the History Channel. The particular episode dealt with Hideki Tojo, Japan’s infamous World War Two Prime Minister and Minister of War. The documentary was attempting to set the stage for the political atmosphere of the 1930s and stated that Japan and the Soviet Union had been at war for a period of 200 years. This statement would imply that the Soviet Union had been in existence since the 1730s. They should have just said “Russia” or more accurately, “Russia and later on the Soviet Union”. Small point? Yes. Sloppy writing, definitely.
Please stay tuned for Part 3, if you are still awake.