Board of Ordnance
The Tower of London served as a military depot from the 13th century. The Privy Wardrobe and later the Board of Ordnance made, stored and issued arms, armour and artillery to the navy, armies and garrisons when they were needed. Control of these supplies gave the monarch great power.
In the 14th century the supply of arms and artillery was organised by the Privy Wardrobe at the Tower. The Board of Ordnance took over these functions in the late 17th century. Artillery and weapons for military issue and others kept as trophies of foreign conflicts were displayed in the Grand Storehouse built in 1693. Displays of historic arms in the Tower became a popular visitor attraction.
The Board of Ordnance had many duties, including ordering, quality-checking, assembling, storing, issuing and maintaining arms of every kind. It also had a Select Committee which ruled on new inventions and innovations offered to the British Army and Navy. Many proposals were brought forward, often claiming improvements to current patterns. If a particular design fared badly in the Board’s trials it was not recommended for adoption. However, some failed designs achieved success later on the private market.
By the early 18th century the Board of Ordnance had developed standardised ‘patterns’ of firearms. It no longer purchased complete weapons from commercial gunmakers but ordered components to be made to the Board’s designs. Tens of thousands of muskets were assembled at the Tower from standardised parts made by many specialist contractors. These muskets were vital for the defence of Britain and the expansion of its Empire.
Designs which tested successfully and were cost-effective might be recommended for adoption and production as government patterns for the army or navy. The Crimean War (1853-6) exposed the weaknesses of the military organisation at the Tower. As a result the Board of Ordnance was abolished in 1855 and the War Office took over its responsibilities. The stores of arms at the Tower of London now form a major part of the Royal Armouries museum collection.
The Board of Ordnance ruled upon any new innovation in arms offered to the British military. Over the centuries many variants were brought forward, each offering a way to somehow improve upon the efficiency of the current pattern. Many of these involved alterations to the lock, while some affected the shape of the barrel or the way in which the gun was loaded.
If a particular design did not fare well in the Board’s trials, it was not recommended for adoption by the military. Nonetheless, some failed designs achieved minor popularity on the private market. Although the Tower chiefly produced munition-grade equipment for general issue, some Tower craftsmen produced extraordinary weapons as private commissions.