With over 8,000 items from the National Collection of Arms and Armour on display, the Royal Armouries is a treasure trove of cool and unusual stuff…
They have armour worn by the kings of the past and prototypes that paved the way for the weapons of today – but they also have a few surprises in store for you. Have you ever wanted to see the pulse rifle from Aliens or wondered what a what a real-life ‘vampire killing kit’ would look like? This is your chance to find out as we round up 10 of the most unusual artefacts in the Royal Armouries – just remember, there are plenty more where these came from.
The silk vest that stops bullets
One of the things that you might not realise about the Royal Armouries is that behind the scenes, they conduct their own research, and this bullet-proof vest was the subject of one of their recent projects. They wanted to find out if silk really can stop bullets, and indeed, if it could have saved Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s life.
He was rumoured to own a piece of silk bullet-proof body armour, and since the Browning Model 1910 pistol in their collection has a serial number that’s just 516 away from the one used to kill Ferdinand, they were all set for an experiment. The original vest was designed by Polish inventor Casimir Zeglen between 1890 and 1914, so the Royal Armouries made replicas from the original patent and tested it at the National Firearms Centre in Leeds. The results showed that silk really does have bullet-stopping capabilities.
The original M-41A Pulse Rifle from Aliens
Not what you were expecting? The Royal Armouries doesn’t just keep swords and shields in its collection, you’ll also find a surprising stash of film memorabilia, including an original pulse rifle from James Cameron’s Aliens, the 1986 sequel to Ridley Scott’s smash hit sci-fi flick.
Cameron created his own custom weapon for the film. Based on the original M1 Thompson sub-machine gun, it has a modified cage and pump grip from a Franchi SPAS-12 shotgun, alongside various parts created by specialist film armourers Bapty & Co. Although this one was used in the film, it was never designed to be fired, so it has a faux grenade launcher and the SPAS-12 heat shield is filled with black expanded foam.
A real-life vampire killing kit
From folklore to pop culture, the myth of the vampire has been passed down through the generations, but did we ever actually hunt vampires? The simple answer is yes, although the methods they used were probably a little more primitive than this ‘vampire killing kit’ implies, and the targets were probably already dead.
This kit was probably never used for its intended purpose, at least we hope not, it could have been made as recently as the 1970s and that kind of thing tends to be frowned upon. Inside the box, which actually dates back to the 1920s, you can see a box-lock percussion pocket pistol and iron bullet mould, as well as rosary beads, a book of common prayer dated 1851 and three bottles designed to contain holy earth, holy water and crushed garlic. There’s also a mallet and three modern wooden stakes.
One of the first handguns ever made
This is a gun like no other. The Danzig was made some time between 1350 and 1430, making this one of the first handguns ever made. Firearms from this time are incredibly rare, in fact, there’s only one other piece like this in the world, the ‘Mörkö’ gun in the Swedish National Historical Museum.
The Danzig looks a little different to its modern counterparts – it doesn’t have a handle, instead the barrel was attached to a wooden staff, and it has an incredibly intricate design cast in bronze. On the top, it’s a clean-shaven man, on the muzzle, it’s circle of four bearded faces, but while many think it depicts the face of Jesus Christ, it’s much more likely to be the mythical ‘wild man’ from Northern European folklore. Although this was likely a prestige item, it could still fire shots and ballistics have shown that it would have been similar to modern handguns firing low-velocity ammunition.
The heaviest suit of armour in the world
This is no ordinary suit of armour – it belonged to an elephant. In South East Asia, these majestic creatures were trained for war, much like horses were over here. They carried warriors into the fray and trampled everything from men to fortifications. This one was made in the 17th century and brought back to England between 1798 and 1800.
Not only is it the biggest suit of armour in the world, but it’s also the heaviest. It weighs in at an almighty 118 kilograms – and is made up of 5,840 intricately connected plates of metal. This is the most complete set of elephant armour in the world today and the only one that you can see in one piece. They even have the original tusk swords used with the armour, and they’ll be going on display very soon.
The prototype that inspired every machine gun ever made
To tell you about the Experimental Maxim PR.10510, we must first tell you the story of how the first automated machine gun was made. It starts with a man named Hiram Stevens Maxim. He was an engineer by trade but found himself tempted into the lucrative business of firearms – and his skills came in very handy. He wanted to harness the power of the recoil to eject the empty cartridge and replace it with another.
The rest, as they say, is history. He started work on the world’s first automatic machine gun in 1883 and you can see one of the three remaining prototypes in the Royal Armouries. It’s thought to be his earliest surviving prototype, so this really is the gun that paved the way for the automated weapons we know today.
The armour worn by Henry VIII
Of all the artefacts we’ve listed, this is the one you’ve probably been expecting – but trust us, there’s a surprise or two in store. Henry VIII’s foot combat armour is a work of art and you won’t find anything else quite like it in Britain. It was custom-made for the King of England, and at the age of 29, he was a tall, muscular man with slim calves – not at all like the portly king we’re used to seeing in the pictures.
This is full body armour, so every part locks into another, but he still had complete freedom of movement because it flexed on hundreds of lames that overlapped when he moved. It wasn’t completely practical though – it weighed a massive 42.6 kilograms, and no man, not even the king, could wear it for long without overheating. Henry never actually wore this armour to tournament, the rules changed before he could, so it was left unfinished – it wasn’t even polished until centuries later.
The ‘Tommy Gun’ all the gangsters had
Remember the Maxim machine gun we mentioned earlier? That’s what we went into the First World War with, but we came out of it with something very different – the Thompson Model 1921A Submachine Gun. Designed by Colonel John Thompson, it was meant to revolutionise trench warfare, but the prototype wasn’t ready until 1919, the year the final treaty was signed.
With the war over, no one wanted to buy it, but years later, customers started coming out of the woodwork – they just weren’t the ones Thompson had originally intended it for. That’s right, we’re talking about gangsters – suddenly they had better guns than the police and they could do more damage. But they weren’t the only ones who saw the potential – the Irish Republican Army ordered 500 of them, but they were impounded by the American government on the request of the British. After a lengthy court case that found it wasn’t illegal to sell arms to a foreign irregular force, they did actually make their way to Ireland, and the one on display in the Royal Armouries is one them.
A Norwegian whaling cannon that fires grenade harpoons
The Royal Armouries has an entire gallery dedicated to hunting weapons, so you can see everything from early spears to elephant guns, but one of the most unusual artefacts is a Norwegian whaling cannon. Whale hunting can be traced all the way back to the 17th century when it was a dangerous pursuit conducted on row boats with handheld harpoons.
In the 18th century, the invention of harpoon guns significantly reduced the risk to whalers, but the most important development happened in the 1870s when they started to mount guns on motorised catcher boats. These guns were so big and so powerful that they were called whaling cannons – and you can see one at the Royal Armouries. It’s a 90mm cannon made by Kongsberg Vapenfabrik in 1947 and it fires a grenade harpoon that explodes on impact.
The oldest known European fencing manual in existence
Right now, it’s hidden in the depths of the Royal Armouries library, but with any luck, the Tower Fechtbuch will soon be on display to the public. It’s the oldest known European fencing manual in the world and it dates back to 1320. Considering its age, it’s in surprisingly good condition, so you could still learn a thing or two about sword and buckler fencing.
The two characters in the book are referred to as the priest and the scholar, which begs the question – why is a priest teaching someone to sword fight? It’s thought that they were probably from a collegiate, a cathedral college, but there’s a curveball later on that will make you wonder if all is what it seems. The priest wins every fight, right up until the end when the scholar decides to sit it out, only to be replaced by a woman. Her name is Valpurgis – could she be the saint of the same name? We’ll probably never know.