A 17th Century Organ Gun from Lviv

Mariana Verkhoturova
with Thorsten Peger & N.R. Jenzen-Jones


Since gunpowder was first developed, humans have strived to refine and better harness this technology to develop more effective and deadly weapons for the battlefield. While some of the earliest artillery pieces were heavy bombards—fixed on a wooden base placed directly on the ground and only useful for engaging large, immobile targets such castle walls—gunsmiths have always worked to create artillery weapons which could be used in a mobile role and be more effective in large, open field battles.

Because of their heavy ammunition and cumbersome loading procedures, large-calibre guns (typified by so-called ‘siege guns’) had a rate of fire of only a few shots per hour—and were nearly immobile in the field. Early designers moved to create guns which were lighter and would therefore yield a higher rate of fire. Besides casting typical single-shot artillery pieces of smaller bore, gunsmiths also experimented with a new class of weapons: volley guns. These were smaller and had several barrels; pieces with two, three, or even dozens of barrels were developed. With several relatively thin barrels stacked next to one another, volley guns looked somewhat like pipe organs, and thus acquired the nickname ‘organ guns’ or orgues des bombardes.

The fundamental idea behind organ guns—lighter ammunition and a higher rate of fire allowing more firepower to be brought to bear against mobile targets, especially massed infantry—was so obvious that different cultures and gunsmiths developed and build hundreds of different types of ‘volley guns’. Many authors consider the organ gun to be the predecessor to later multi-barrel mitrailleuse type weapons and the great-grandfather of ‘true’ machine guns (repeating firearms capable of automatic fire). Many later designs arranged the barrels in several ‘batteries’, allowing multiple salvos of shots to be fired as required. An early example of such design, dating to 1387, featured an astonishing 144 barrels—allowing for 12 salvos of 12 projectiles each to be fired.

Early mentions of single-volley configurations date to 1339, using the term ribauld or ribauldequin. The first recorded use of artillery volley guns in battle is believed to have occurred in 1382, when the Belgian cities known today as Ghent and Bruges were at war. The early volley guns that were based on the ribauldequin concept, in which several barrels are fired in succession. The army at Ghent had some 200 of these chars de cannon in the field. Venetian general Colleoni employed a number of organ guns as mobile auxiliary units during his campaigns, famously using these to support his armoured cavalry at the Battle of Piccardini (1457); similar guns were later illustrated by Leonardo da Vinci (see Figure 1.1). Louis XII of France (1498–1515) is said to have employed a gun with 50 barrels, which fired in a single volley. Pedro Navarro, Count of Oliveto and famed Navarrese military engineer, used the weapon against the French at the Battle of Ravenna (11 April 1512).

Figure 1.1 A ribauldequin (or organ gun) as illustrated by Leonardo da Vinci in a series of 15th century studies (source: public domain). A reconstruction in the style of this design can be found in the Château de Castelnaud in Dordogne, France.

Whilst the general design appears to have originated in modern-day Belgium and France, the ribaldequin was also used in Germany, including during the Hussite Wars (1419–1434). An illustration showing a 6-barrelled example which appears to be configured for indirect fire is illustrated in Hans Talhoffer’s Alte Armatur und Ringkunst of 1459, in a folio reproducing Konrad Kyeser’s Bellifortis (‘War Fortifications’) (1402–1405; see Figure 1.2). In England, the earliest known Exchequer reference dates to 1430, noting the receipt of fourteen such guns from France. Organ guns were regularly used in campaigns thereafter, and saw service during the Wars of the Roses—notably by Yorkists under the leadership of Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, who employed the weapon against the Lancastrians during the Second Battle of St. Albans (17 February 1461).

Figure 1.2 A multi-barrelled gun illustrated in Konrad Kyeser’s Bellifortis, as reproduced in the 1459 Talhoffer Fechtbuch (source: MS Thott.290.2º, Kongelige Bibliotek).

The use of multi-barrelled artillery guns also spread to Eastern Europe, and local designs and developments were introduced. In Russia, such guns were known as a сорока (soroka; or ‘magpie’) or органы (organy; ‘organ’) and were adopted from the second half of the 16th century onwards. Both volley-fire types, such as 105-barrel example displayed at the St. Petersburg Artillery Museum, and salvo-fire examples were employed. The Russian Военная энциклопедия (‘Military Encyclopaedia’)—edited by Colonel V.F. Novitsky and published by I.D. Sytin in 1914—notes that the weapons were mostly used to defend fixed positions. Illustrations in in Novitsky’s work include a number of 17th century designs with salvo-fire barrel configurations (see Figure 1.2).

The ‘Cossack Gun’ of Lviv

A 17th century example of an organ gun is held in the collection of the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in Kyiv. This was transferred via a now-defunct Lviv museum collection (see below) and was originally listed as an ‘organкі’ in Polish. The term organok was coined for the weapon when this was translated into Ukrainian, however the authors will prefer the English ‘organ gun’. Nine smoothbore barrels of between 340 and 430 mm in length are arranged horizontally, embedded to some three-quarters of their length into an oakwood stock. The stock is approximately 96 cm long, 40 cm wide, and 8 cm thick. The bore diameter is approximately 25 mm, although there is some variation between barrels. There is a rectangular-shaped hole in the wooden stock, which Professor Gorbik suggests may once have been used to fit the gun to a hook, allowing it to be suspended in a window or entranceway. This, along with some crude construction methods, indicates the gun was most likely used as a last-ditch defence weapon—to repel troops rushing through gaps in breached walls or into an inner defensive perimeter.

Figure 1.3 The organok organ gun held in the collection of  the National Museum of the History of Ukraine (source: National Museum of the History of Ukraine; Inv.№ З-1496. Photo by M. Verkhoturova).

The barrels are fastened to the stock with two sheet-iron bands which are affixed with nineteen forged iron nails. The first of these brackets fastens the barrels to the breech, including a duplicate touch-hole above the vent. The second bracket holds the barrels in place towards the muzzle end (see Figure 1.4). Each barrel is backed by a metal breech-plug (some with small cascabels), which are additionally affixed to the wooden stock thin retaining bands. The gun does not bear any markings and has no accompanying period documentation.

Figure 1.4 The organok in the collection of  the National Museum of the History of Ukraine. Note the barrel bands (source: National Museum of the History of Ukraine; Inv.№ З-1496. Photo by M. Verkhoturova).

In issue 11 of the Journal of the Ordnance Society (1999), Robert Morgan relates a theory that this organok was recovered from the battlefield of Berestechko (30 June 1651) during the Cossack-Polish War (1648–1657). A review of the archives at the National Museum of the History of Ukraine indicates that there are no documents related to this weapon held by the Museum. Instead, this weapon is to be found in the old catalogues of the Muzeum Narodowe im. krola Jana III, which merged with the modern Lviv Historical Museum in 1939. Around that time, the organ gun from Lviv was transferred first to Poland and then to Kyiv. While the piece was in Lviv, there appears to be no documentary evidence to suggest that it was recovered from the battlefield near Berestechko. The catalogues of the museums in Lviv at that time are considered to be quite accurate; if this weapon had been recovered from the field of the Battle of Berestechko, one would expect it to be clearly recorded in the available documentary evidence.

There is one wrinkle, however. The museum reform of the 1940s, which took place in Lviv, led to the disbandment of 26 museum institutions and the redistribution of their collections. As a result, their funds were distributed among several major museums in the city. Unfortunately, the integrity of many Ukrainian museum collections suffered under Soviet ‘reform’. Frequent and seemingly arbitrary orders were issued demanding the transfer of funding and materiel from one museum to another. As a result, the National Museum of the History of Ukraine received a number of samples of weapons from museums in Lviv. The partial loss of documents accompanying these exchanges has made it impossible to identify the provenance of many items. It is possible that the information about this particular gun’s arrival in the museum collection was lost during the time of its transfer. Today, the so-called ‘Cossack gun’ resides in a National Museum gallery dedicated to the history of Ukraine in the 17th century.

Figure 1.5 The organok in the collection of  the National Museum of the History of Ukraine. Note the apparent variation in bore diameter (source: National Museum of the History of Ukraine; Inv.№ З-1496. Photo by M. Verkhoturova).

There are, however, documents from the City Arsenal of Lviv which date from the 17th century and record different quantities of organ guns within the cities arsenal during the period in question. In the opinion of the authors, the National Museum gun most likely originated in Lviv. This theory is supported by documentary sources from other regions of Ukraine, which record organ guns in arsenals around the country through the 15th and 16th centuries. A selection of these are as follows:

  • An inventory of Ukrainian castles undertaken in the 1550s indicates that there were “13 barrels” in Zhytomyr (this could refer to an organ gun, although it is possible this refers to a total number of barrels across multiple guns) (Boychuk, 1965);
  • In 1570, there were two organ guns in Kamianka (one of 21 barrels, and the other of 24) (Malchenko, 2004);
  • In 1607, the Bar Arsenal held a 5-barrelled organ gun (Malchenko, 2004);
  • At the beginning of the 17th century, Kamianka recorded a 24-barrel organ gun (it is not known if this is the same gun as previously recorded) (Malchenko, 2004);
  •  According to Book of Protocols of Pharmacists of the City Arsenal on the Audit of Weapons Warehouses and Workshop Towers in 1669, the Lviv City Arsenal had one six-barrel and three five-barrel organ guns; and
  • In 1686, the Lviv City Arsenal recorded five organ guns (Lviv, 17th C.).

The use of multi-barrel artillery on the territory of modern Ukrainian lands during the 16th–17th centuries was reasonably widespread. Of course, the lack of markings and accompanying documents—and an absence of other extant examples with similar design features from the place and period—means that the origin of the National Museum gun, whether Cossack or originating from the arsenal of Lviv, cannot at this stage be definitively stated. However, taking into account the methods by which the museum collections of Lviv were formed in the late 19th and early 20th  centuries, the most likely assessment is that the gun originates from Lviv.

The authors highly recommend all readers with an interest in the history of artillery consider visiting the National Museum of the History of Ukraine, in Kyiv.


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