Take a look at this special article on the cop’s primary sidearm of yesteryear:
I remember a little bit from one of the songs in “The Pirates of Penzance,” wherein originates the line: “A policeman’s lot is not a happy one.” Some things never change. Although we usually think of handguns, nightsticks or truncheons, tasers, and chemical sprays as the weapons of the police patrolman, with the exception of a club of some sort, before the advent of firearms, all other weapons in today’s law enforcement officer’s standard arsenal did not exist. Most police officers in the modern era will carry some sort of heavy-duty knife more as a tool than as an edged weapon. Cops, in the days before handy sidearms, would have relied on edged weapons as their ultimate “persuaders.”
Town guards were the Middle Ages and Renaissance-era cops. And then, as now, when there was a disturbance, it was a cop’s job to step in, regardless of risk to himself. The duties of these lawmen were considerable and important. Towns of the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods started as walled villages, where merchants and artisans plied their various trades.
The walls surrounding the town had to be patrolled against the possibilities of incursions. Since the land on which the towns sat was likely owned by a nobleman who leased it to the collective entity of the townspersons, as represented by councils and supervised by Lord Mayors, Burgermeisters, Alcaldes, Maires, and the like, there was always the possibility for dirty work against the town to be afoot, either originating with the nobleman or one of his rivals, or even with another town.
But this was far from the total workload of the town guard. Just as in cities of today, there was thievery, violence and mayhem. Town guards patrolled what passed for streets, the archetypical row houses on either side, one packed beside the other. In the streets, market square or taverns, disagreements, grudges or anger over the misinterpreted attentions of a pretty woman might well precipitate a row. The town guards, just like today’s cops, would rush to the scene and throw themselves into the thick of it.
After the close of the long, dark night of the Middle Ages—lasting some 900 years—and into the comparatively brief Renaissance, and on to the Reformation, nothing much had changed for town guards except the towns were in many cases bigger, and the town guards’ job became tougher.
Firearms were known, but largely confined to military use rather than ordinary law enforcement or the civilian population. Town guards, if they were well equipped—as was often the case—might carry wheel lock “Puffer” pistols. But even though a pistol firing a 12mm ball was serious business, firearms were still cumbersome and somewhat unreliable, whereas an edged weapon was another matter. Guns—and by that I reference field pieces, such as they were—were rarely made in England, for example, until the early 16th century.
To be continued in an upcoming post…stay tuned!
Text by Jerry Ahern
Photos by Sharon Ahern