This is how we call the artillerists of the Middle Ages and the early modern period. Puškoriai (cannoneers) is a historical term that was quite common in the Lithuanian language, as the Lithuanian family name Puškorius and the place name Pūčkoriai indicate. Contrary to modern artillerists, the cannoneers of old times were skilled masters in many areas. They knew how to operate cannons, they produced gunpowder, they repaired and maintained ammunition and some of them were even involved in the making of guns and cannons. Only some of the cannoneers were good in all the above-mentioned areas, but all of them belonged to the social setting which accumulated the most advanced technological know-how for military purposes. Due to the subtle nature of the craft, even noble people would join the ranks of cannoneers. It seems that the last noble cannoneer served his duty in Lithuania in the second half of the 16th century, when the “unworthy” craft became incompatible with the rights of the noble estate. Even peasants who did not enjoy personal freedom could join the service of cannoneers, especially those who were good in handcrafts or who knew how to make saltpetre and gunpowder. The majority of cannoneers, however, were free artisans commissioned by the state. Lithuania’s first cannoneers were foreigners – Germans who arrived here around 1382 when Lithuania started using cannons. It did not take long for the locals to learn the craft too. At least one Russian served as a cannoneer in the army of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania during the siege of Marienburg in 1410. Grand Duke Vytautas ordered to chop off his toes before the campaign, but the Russian fled to Marienburg anyway. It was then that the troops led by King Jagiełło caused a considerable damage because “they knew their intentions.” People of various nations continued to serve as cannoneers in the GDL later on too, including Poles and Czechs who first arrived in the 15th century. They posed a significant competition to local less skilled cannoneers.

The living artillery

The cannoneers, who usually settled in castles or close to them, took care of cannons, produced gunpowder and fired cannons whenever danger approached. Naturally, the demand for cannoneers would soar abruptly in the time of war. A minimal number of cannoneers was sufficient to look after their business during peaceful periods. The cannoneers who were unable to find work usually travelled to other countries.

Before and during the Livonian War (1558–1583), Poland supported the GDL by sending military equipment, ammunition and, in addition to that, cannoneers and other artisans.

The largest units, consisting of 40 to 50 cannoneers with their assistants, arrived in 1564 and 1567. These were motley folks. German cannoneers were from Dresden, Nuremberg, Danzig, Torn, Marienburg and other German and Polish cities. Their Polish counterparts arrived from Krakow, Kalisz, Konin, and Sochaczew. Czechs and Moravians came from Prague, Plzen, Bratislava and other cities. Jan Nedler was the man born in Vilnius and hired in Krakow for the service in his native city in 1563.

Cannoneers belonged to the organised movement that went beyond their private concerns. After joining the service of a Grand Duke, a cannoneer would give an oath (at least since the reign of Sigismund II Augustus) vowing to perform his service with loyalty wherever the ruler sends him. The oath was aimed at safeguarding from cannoneer desertion, not an uncommon thing at that time. For instance, the cannoneer from Polotsk named Stepan defected to Moscow in 1524.

How did they earn their living?

For every cannoneer, his salary was closely related to his service. The size of his salary depended on his skill. For instance, cannoneers who served in Polotsk were paid 6, 10, 12, 15 or 20 shocks of groats in the middle of the 16th century although all of them did the same job – they were all makers of gunpowder. In some cases, cannoneers received equal salaries despite working in different areas. The average cannoneer was paid 15 shocks of groats and several fathoms of fabric. It must be said that very often cannoneers received their wages with long delays, sometimes they had to live without pay for several years, mostly due to the negligence of castle elders. That was extremely detrimental to the overall situation in the artillery. In order to fight that malady, Sigismund II Augustus ordered annual wages to cannoneers to be paid on the New Year’s Day in Vilnius.

Finding themselves in tough situations, cannoneers would embark on illegal production and sale of alcoholic beverages or, alternatively, would turn to agriculture on their two voloks (circa 42 hectares) of land that they, as the artisans of the ruler, usually received from the elders of provincial or peripheral castles.

Do You Know?

Cannon casters were the elite group of cannoneers. In the middle of the 16th century, Sigismund II Augustus awarded caster Petras Gurlemusas with a salary of 80 shocks of groats, an “ennobling” amount which at that time could buy a modest estate. On the other hand, that was the price of the falconet, an imported medium-weight cannon suitable both for field battle and castle siege.

The thunderous “Nightingale”

Lithuania’s major cannon casting enterprise started production in around 1552 in Vilnius. Historians guess that it was built next to the present-day Gediminas Street, in the area now occupied by the headquarters of the Bank of Lithuania. Sometimes other cities of the GDL supplied cannons too.

For instance, the palatine of Vitebsk Stanisław Pac financed in 1569 the production of three wall-breaking cannons that he named “Dragon,” “Nightingale,” and “Red Cock” and dedicated to the Grand Duke of Lithuania.

In some castles across the GDL, cannoneers also made guns using their blacksmithing skills. They produced bullets and shots too.

Every cannoneer usually had an assistant who would become a full-fledged cannoneer with time.

Children often inherited the craft of cannoneers from their fathers.

In important castles, for example in Vilnius, cannoneers organised their community. The Articles by King Sigismund II Augustus to Cannoneers, which were in force in Poland and the GDL, have survived until our days. The document was meant to regulate the daily life of cannoneers and to establish friendly relationship between masters and their apprentices, the practice taken in from other artisan guilds. The fact that The Articles also refers to the mutual aid cash box, communal feasts and funerals, indicates that cannoneers tended to organise their professional activity in the form of an artisan guild or perhaps they even had their own guild.

The history of the Lithuanian cannoneers calls for a more thorough research. Today our knowledge is mostly related to the cannoneers of the 16th century. The history of the cannoneers who lived and worked during the reign of Stephen Báthory, Sigismund III Vasa and Władysław IV Vasa promises to be no less interesting.

Literature: D. Baronas, „Lietuvos Didžiosios Kunigaikštystės puškoriai Žygimanto Augusto laikais“, Karo archyvas, t. 15, 1998, p. 24–50. 

Darius Baronas