Analysis of a cast iron Tudor firearm found on the wreck of the Mary Rose

Optical Microscopy

Examination of metallic samples or surfaces of artefacts under a metallurgical microscope can reveal much about the material, method of construction and the mechanical properties of an historic object. Microscopy can indicate even small changes in composition, heat treatment, and mechanical working through the major changes it produces in the visible crystal structure.

The method allows the gathering of a very wide range of compositional, microstructural, and even cultural information which allows higher levels of interpretation. How effective was the artefact? What access did the metal worker have to particular alloys? How did the metalworker’s skill enable him to exploit the materials to the full?


The underlying basis of the technique is that all solid metals are crystalline and may adopt a wide range of microstructures dependent on composition, mechanical working, or thermal treatments. Specimens are etched using appropriate reagents, making the crystalline structure visible under an optical or electron microscope.

Practical considerations

The technique is dependent on the experience of the metallographer and interpretations may differ slightly between practitioners. In a museum, where any sampling must be kept to a minimum, it is possible that the area selected is not representative of the whole. Caution must therefore be exercised in order not to over-interpret the evidence from small samples.

Complementary Techniques

Metallographic specimens can be further investigated by microhardness testing, which measures the resistance to indentation by a pyramidal-cut diamond. The resultant hardness value may provide an indication of the effectiveness of heat-treatments, presence of impurity elements, and degree of work hardening (case study 9).

Prepared specimens are also suitable for examination using a range of microanalysis techniques, such as scanning electron microscope (SEM) based microanalysis.

Uses of Optical Microscopy

  • An analytical project to determine whether hardened metal was used in the production of arrow heads.

  • An analytical project to determine how a previously unknown firearm found on board the wreck of the Mary Rose was made.

Did you know?

The first modern rifle

The French 1886 8mm Lebel rifle was the first modern rifle: it had a small bore and used smokeless powder in place of the older "gunpowder".

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