The hand mortar was a visually threatening but largely impractical shoulder-fired weapon used predominantly in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, though it also made its way to the newly founded United States. At sea, hand mortars were used to throw grappling hooks and line weights. In both land and naval combat, however, they were used to fire small explosive grenades in an arcing trajectory at targets behind cover or otherwise out of direct view. While the grenades could be launched in this way over the heads of intervening friendly troops, their propensity to explode prematurely made this an unpopular tactic with the infantry below the flight path.
Although the concept behind the hand mortar was sound, the technology of the era limited its development. The spherical grenade could be made of iron, brass, glass, clay, or even canvas, and its fuse had to be lit before the grenade was inserted into the mortar’s short barrel. If the mortar’s wheel lock, snaphance, or flintlock mechanism misfired—as often happened—the grenade could stick and eventually explode in the barrel, killing or wounding the operator. Early self-igniting fuses devised for the hand mortar proved equally dangerous. When hand mortars worked properly, they could propel a grenade up to 100 yards, but most evidence suggests that they were rarely used in combat because they were so unreliable. Shown here is one of a pair of exquisitely crafted Dutch wheel lock mortars made sometime around 1625. Each weighed about 6 pounds with an overall length of 13 1/2 inches. MHQ
Chris McNab is a military historian based in the United Kingdom. His most recent book is The Falklands War Operations Manual (Haynes Publishing, 2018).
This article appears in the Autumn 2018 issue (Vol. 31, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Weapons Check | Hand Mortar