Hand mortar
The hand mortar is a firearm
A firearm is a weapon that launches one, or many, projectile at high velocity through confined burning of a propellant. This subsonic burning process is technically known as deflagration, as opposed to supersonic combustion known as a detonation. In older firearms, the propellant was typically...

 that was used in the late 17th century and 18th century to throw fused grenade
A grenade is a small explosive device that is projected a safe distance away by its user. Soldiers called grenadiers specialize in the use of grenades. The term hand grenade refers any grenade designed to be hand thrown. Grenade Launchers are firearms designed to fire explosive projectile grenades...

s. The action was similar to a flintlock
Flintlock is the general term for any firearm based on the flintlock mechanism. The term may also apply to the mechanism itself. Introduced at the beginning of the 17th century, the flintlock rapidly replaced earlier firearm-ignition technologies, such as the doglock, matchlock and wheellock...

, matchlock
The matchlock was the first mechanism, or "lock" invented to facilitate the firing of a hand-held firearm. This design removed the need to lower by hand a lit match into the weapon's flash pan and made it possible to have both hands free to keep a firm grip on the weapon at the moment of firing,...

, or wheellock
A wheellock, wheel-lock or wheel lock, is a friction-wheel mechanism to cause a spark for firing a firearm. It was the next major development in firearms technology after the matchlock and the first self-igniting firearm. The mechanism is so-called because it uses a rotating steel wheel to provide...

 firearm (depending on the date of production), but the barrel was short, usually less than 2 inches (5 cm) to 4 inches (10 cm) long (though some are reported to have barrels up to 13 inches (33 cm) long), and had a large bore to accommodate the grenade; usually between 2 and 2.5 inches (5 to 6 cm).


After priming the firearm and adding the gunpowder, the shooter would light a grenade fuse, place the grenade in the muzzle of the mortar, then fire it at the enemy. However, accidents could occur if the weapon misfired and the lit grenade remained in the barrel. Additional modifications attempted to light the grenade using the burning gunpowder, but accounts say that the fuse would be forced into the grenade which would explode immediately.

A lack of surviving specimens of this firearm indicate that it was not a popular weapon, possibly due to the safety issues. In his essay on the weapon, Hewitt opines that the mortar is among a variety of "projects for destruction which have never destroyed anything but the fortunes of their inventors." In fact, under military exhibitions in The Official Report of the Calcutta International Exhibition, 1883-84 a hand mortar is described as "only a toy ... never intended for service."

Hand Mortars were also to be found in the New World. References to a hand mortar being transferred in Maryland are found in the record of The Proceedings of the Council of Maryland in 1698. Another account in the journal of Alexander Henry
Alexander Henry (the younger)
Alexander Henry was a Canadian fur trader and explorer employed by the North West Company. He is well known for his extensive journals which he started in 1799. They contain an excellent record from the early 19th century of the fur trade. Alexander travelled and traded extensively from Lake...

 tells of a hand mortar (called a cohorn; after Menno van Coehoorn
Menno van Coehoorn
Menno, Baron van Coehoorn was a Dutch soldier and military engineer of Swedish extraction. He made a number of influential weaponry innovations in siege warfare and fortification techniques...

) being loaded with a pound of powder, 30 balls, and fired in an action against Sioux
The Sioux are Native American and First Nations people in North America. The term can refer to any ethnic group within the Great Sioux Nation or any of the nation's many language dialects...

 indians in 1808.

Another reference to the use of cohorns in the New World can be found in The Life of Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea) including the Border Wars of the American Revolution by William L. Stone (two volumes)published Albany NY 1865. Stone in describing Sir William Johnson's Niagara campaign of 1759 notes the following: "The youthful warrior likewise accompanied Sir William during the Niagara Campaign of 1759, and in the brilliant achievements of the Baronet, after the chief command had devolved upon him upon the death of General Prideaux, is said to have acquitted himself with distinguished bravery. General Prideaux, commanding the expedition, was killed by the accidental explosion of a cohorn on the 20th of July..." (Stone, Vol 1, p.20).

Naval usage

In 1872, a work entitled Life-boats, Projectiles and Other Means for Saving Life gave an account of a sailor using a hand mortar. The hand mortar was described as being able to throw a leaden projectile and a line a distance of 80 yards (73 metres).


At least one version of hand mortar was probably invented by John Tinker in 1681. However, his mortar may have been an improvement on an earlier piece. A reference to this mortar may have appeared in a work entitled Ancient Armour which refers to a tinker's mortar. Another account refers to a hand mortar as a cohorn, and attributes its invention to a Dutch engineer, Menno Van Coehoorn, who lived from 1641 to 1704.


Between 1672 and 1740, the Royal Foundry of Berlin (Königliches Gießhaus zu Berlin) produced 302 hand mortars (Handmörser). Additionally, a mortar at the Museum of Artillery in Woolwich
Woolwich is a district in south London, England, located in the London Borough of Greenwich. The area is identified in the London Plan as one of 35 major centres in Greater London.Woolwich formed part of Kent until 1889 when the County of London was created...

, Great Britain
Great Britain
Great Britain or Britain is an island situated to the northwest of Continental Europe. It is the ninth largest island in the world, and the largest European island, as well as the largest of the British Isles...

 bears the inscription Fondeur á Strasbourg (made in Strasbourg
Strasbourg is the capital and principal city of the Alsace region in eastern France and is the official seat of the European Parliament. Located close to the border with Germany, it is the capital of the Bas-Rhin département. The city and the region of Alsace are historically German-speaking,...

The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

)) and several other surviving pieces bear the coat of arms of Württemberg
Württemberg , formerly known as Wirtemberg or Wurtemberg, is an area and a former state in southwestern Germany, including parts of the regions Swabia and Franconia....

 indicating that they might have been made there.


The first references to the type of grenade used in a hand mortar occur in a 1472 work entitled Valturius, where an incendiary prototype may have been produced. However, widespread use of the explosive grenade does not occur until the early-to-mid-16th century under Francis I of France
Francis I of France
Francis I was King of France from 1515 until his death. During his reign, huge cultural changes took place in France and he has been called France's original Renaissance monarch...

. An early casualty of this type of grenade was Count de Randan who died of shrapnel wounds to the legs from a grenade during the Siege of Rouen (probably the battle of Issoire) in 1562. Explosive grenades were made from brass, glass, and possibly clay, and incendiary projectiles were made from canvas, however, Nathanael Nye, Master Gunner of the City of Worcester in a work entitled Art of Gunnery published in 1647, remarks that the soldiers of his day were not fond of handling the grenades because they were too dangerous. While there are substantial records of infantry units called grenadiers throughout the 18th century in Europe, these units generally threw the grenades by hand.
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