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  • Jousting with Medieval Tanks June 16, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback


    File:Leonardo tank.JPG

    Leonardo da Vinci: what isn’t there to like? Beachcombing certainly has always found LdV much more entertaining company than the obnoxious and pitch-perfect Michelangelo. And as a tribute of sorts  Beachcombing thought that today he would share Leonardo’s attempt to build a tank four hundred years before the Cambrai front was swarming with them – memories of earlier posts on peculiar medieval Chinese weapons.

    Now Leonardo’s illustration above shows a round ‘covered chariot’ (‘carro coperto’):

    I shall make covered chariots, that are safe and cannot be attacked; chariots which fear no great numbers when breaking through the ranks of the enemy and its artillery. Behind them, the infantrymen shall follow, without fearing injury or other impediments as these instruments replace elephants. You can joust with them. You can hold bellows in them to spread terror among the horses of the enemy [!], and put gunmen in them to break up any battle formation.

    And how would these terrifying carts have been drawn? Well, within the tank men would have turned cranks to provide mobility: while their colleagues loaded the canons that were mounted there.

    And would they have worked?

    Of course, not!

    Modern experiments – sponsored naturally by the BBC – have demonstrated that Leonardo’s tank would not even have moved. Leonardo’s thought world was often a little detached from reality: the fact that the great man mentioned elephants and jousting in connection with his renaissance tank should perhaps have been a warning for the BBC when it took on this particular assignment.


    The problem is that the cranks do not push the ‘tank’ forward. Some generous souls have claimed that this was Leonardo deliberately introducing mistakes into his design to stop them falling into the wrong hands or even that Leonardo was a pacifist – something that does not square with him selling himself to others as a military engineer.

    It is far more likely that Leonardo’s extraordinary mind was distracted by something else before he ever got round to working out the correct specifications.

    Beachcombing will close this brief post by pointing readers in the direction of a fabulous page (in Italian) on the Battle of Fornovo 1495 between the Lombard League (hurrah!) and the French (yah, boo, sucks!). After some geeky wargaming talk the author produces lovely images – the bottom fifth of the page – of what the battle might have been like with Leonardo’s tanks fighting for the Italians. There are also some of the great man’s other bellic toys including mortars, pontoon bridges and bombers.

    Pacifist, indeed!

    Beachcombing is always interested in inventions ‘before their time: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    17 June 2011: Andy the Mad Monk points out something that Beachcombing had completely overlooked. ‘One other aspect people forget about the tank is the canon.  These would have been gunpowder weapons.  As soon as the first one was fired, the inside of the tank would have been filled with thick, acrid fumes, and the people inside would have choked.  The powder in the touch hole would have been enough for this.  The canon would have also jumped out of its mount from the recoil (guns shooting missiles have a much greater recoil than blank firing ones).’ Thanks Andy!!