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Guns for the Sultan

August 27, 2005

Guns for the Sultan: Military Power and the Weapons Industry in the Ottoman Empire

By Gábor Ágoston

Cambridge University Press (2005), 277 pp., 20 illustrations, 4 maps, 32 tables

Reviewed by Christopher Deliso

Hungarian scholar Gábor Ágoston, an Associate Professor of History at Georgetown, has in Guns for the Sultan done marvelous work in using the empirical data regarding the Ottoman weapons industry to tackle larger theoretical issues in historiography – thus showing a mastery of both. Despite the peril that any such a richly detailed text could end up disintegrating into minutiae, the author’s thoughtful and straightforward prose allows the reader to navigate this complex and little-known world.

Indeed, while the Ottoman Empire has long been celebrated for having been a military superpower, the tangible structure on which its success was achieved – its weapons production industry- has never been adequately investigated. Until now, that is: in Guns for the Sultan Gábor Ágoston has achieved a work which will no doubt become standard reference for a long time to come.


Guns for the Sultan is divided into 6 chapters and a conclusion, which methodically cover the following Ottoman weapons industries: gunpowder technology; cannons and muskets; saltpeter; munitions and ordnance, as well as the role these technologies had on extending Ottoman power.

The accompanying charts and tables provide extremely precise data from the Ottoman archives dealing with weights, measures, inventories, dates and provenances of weapons, gunpowder and other ‘ingredients.’ The interesting historical illustrations show everything from the layout of fortifications to cannons to camel transport for guns. A few photos from modern museums show relics of Ottoman artillery. The author uses all of this supplementary data to convincingly back up his major thesis, which can be spelled out as follows.

A Fundamental Rethink

Representative of an “emerging strand” of new military history, ˆšÃ…goston’s book sets out to challenge the prevailing “Eurocentric” views about the Ottomans which blacken the latter for their “extreme conservatism,” allegedly due to Islam, and “the military despotism which … militated against the borrowing of western techniques and against native inventiveness” (p. 7, quoting K.M. Setton, Venice, Austria and the Turks in the Seventeenth Century and E.L. Jones, The European Miracle: Environments, Economies and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia).

However, according to the author,

“…the adoption or rejection of firearms technology by Islamic societies had very little to do with Islam. Rather, it was a decision of the political and military elites of the respective societies, and was influenced by the social fabrics, economic capabilities, geopolitical realities and constraints, as well as by military and political objectives” (p. 8).

Moreover, argues the author, the “pragmatism” of the 14th and 15th century empire

“…made it relatively easy to adopt firearms technology and to come up with the organizational frameworks necessary to integrate and operate these weapons… when Ottoman technological receptivity was coupled with mass production capabilities and superior Ottoman logistics, the Sultans’ armies gained clear firepower superiority over their immediate opponents by the mid-fifteenth century” (pp.8-9).

The author argues persuasively that since the prevailing Western views on the Ottoman Empire have been to write its history from the point of view of its eventual decline, even the grandest of victories must somehow carry within it the seeds of future decay or destruction. However, the extent to which the new generation of scholarship is beginning to change has been shown by Edward J. Erickson, who in starting out from the true jaws of Ottoman defeat – the Balkan Wars – provocatively argues for the previously unheralded positive side of Ottoman arms.

Gábor Ágoston is, however, generally dealing with a much earlier period, when Ottoman power was sending tremors across Europe and the military machine was at its most productive.

In the process of dispelling old myths, the author also discloses more minor but no less interesting details, for example that hard-riding tribal cavalrymen who did not use guns were hardly making this choice because of Islam. Actually, the use of firearms was perceived as being beneath them; a ‘real man’ used proper bow and arrow. This had more to do with marital valor than religion.

A Legacy of Innovation

In Ágoston’s treatment, the reader is reminded that from the beginning the Ottomans sought both to benefit from technological innovations in the West, as well as their own native ingenuity and Byzantine precedents. The besiegers under Murad II in Constantinople in 1453 were perhaps the first to use mortars with parabolic trajectories. And an apparent adaptation of the famous ‘Greek fire’ that bedeviled Byzantine enemies so was employed in the form of flying projectiles in the battle of Rhodes in 1480.

Interestingly enough, the Ottomans even appear to have used a sort of cluster bomb in the 1521 siege of Belgrade; an observer described it as a weapon liable to “…explode into seventy or more or fewer pieces… each of these shards breaks and cuts and smashes what it hits” (p. 69).

Throughout, the author gives exhaustive and comprehensive treatment to the entire range of cannons, muskets and other firearms used and produced by the Ottomans, showing that throughout their long run of dominance they were at least as good and in some cases better than those of their Western rivals.

A View Across the Empire

Guns for the Sultan tells numerous fascinating stories in passing, and sheds light on the local realities of far-flung mining and military production towns. We hear of Ohrid and Kratovo in Macedonia, Novo Brdo in Serbia, Srebrenica in Bosnia and Kastamonu in Asia Minor, to name but a few.

Referring to archive information, the author narrates the headaches suffered by Ottoman officials who were often cheated by local producers of sulfur, gunpowder and saltpeter, who filed false figures or didn’t come through on their obligations. This kind of local level testimony is very interesting and unusual. On the one hand, it shows the empire’s great resources and reach; on the other, it shows that coordinating and regulating the components of the vast military machine was something that required careful and constant attention. In general, these details coalesce around one important theme: the difficulties encountered by the state in keeping control of a state-dominated military industry.

One example of the snafus typically encountered occurred in Izmir in 1697, where the nearby villages had been tasked with producing large amounts of saltpeter. “…It soon became obvious, however, that the villages in question were
incapable of producing the anticipated quantities” (p 159). The officials in charge then asked if they could purchase on the open market; first in Izmir the merchants did not have enough, and when the search was extended to Salonica, the official reported that it was impossible, “…because at his disposal was just a small fraction of the total funds allocated for the purchase of saltpeter” (p. 159).

More devious were the wily Ohrid villagers (of modern day Leskoec), who “undertook work that they were subsequently unable to fulfill,” hoping to get tax exemptions, pledging to provide a required amount of sulfur. However, a contemporary official reported that, “there were no sulfur deposits on the lands belonging to the village and that the local inhabitants had no knowledge of extracting sulfur from ore” (pp.100-101). However, on the whole, Macedonian producers accounted for “considerable amounts” of sulfur in the 17th century.

Guns for the Sultan is crammed with details that show how difficult the challenges faced by military officials in getting the most out of their production sites and in utilizing the appropriate natural resources (rocks, minerals, trees, etc), during the appropriate seasons and storage conditions. And, as the story of Berham the saltpeter producer of Erzurum in 1576 shows, officials were constantly thinking of how to get more from their resources- in part because local officials were awarded bonuses for doing so.

In this case, Berham suggested moving the production site from Erzurum to the newly-acquired Oltu, “…where water was sufficient and peter could be produced for nine months of the year as opposed to three months in Erzurum” (p. 104). According to the author, this kind of thinking showed “…how quick the Ottomans were in drawing immediate economic benefit from newly conquered territories” (p. 105).

Imperial Ingenuity

Far from being an inward-looking creature of slow progress, the Ottoman Empire displayed remarkable abilities to adapt and especially to learn from outsiders’ expertise. As the empire grew larger, the author states, it attracted all sorts of mercenaries, who became “celebrated defectors and Christian renegades in the service of the Ottoman Sultans” (p. 55). More often, however, the Christian populations didn’t have a choice. Wherever the crafty Ottomans went, they utilized the skills and abilities of their subjugated peoples. Greek shipbuilders are a famous example; less well known but equally important for the military effort were

“…Christian smiths, stonecarvers, carpenters, masons, caulkers and shipbuilders in the conquered Balkan fortresses, towns and mines. Ottoman pragmatism and flexibility not only enabled these craftsmen to continue their former occupations, but rewarded them with privileges. Through them the Ottomans acquainted themselves with Serbian and Saxon technologies of ore mining… the population of mining towns and of entire regions was predominantly, in the fifteenth century exclusively, Slavic. No wonder Ottoman technical language regarding ore mining is full of German and Slavic terms” (pp. 44-45).

The author points out the vital assistance Ottoman rulers received from Jewish and Muslim trained craftsmen expelled from Spain (p. 43). An Italian writer in 1556 lamented that the Spanish Jews taught the Ottomans “…most of what they know of the villainies of war, such as the use of brass-ordnance and fire-locks. And one Jewish author active in the same century claimed that the Sultan Selim I “…loved the Jews very much because he saw that by means of them he would beat nations and kill great kings, for they made for him cannons and weapons” (p. 45).

This example of Ottoman religious tolerance, as well as pragmatism, had clear military advantages: despite being a great power, the Spanish found themselves without domestic cannon founders in the 16th century. Without their Jews and Muslims, “…Spanish monarchs were repeatedly forced to employ Italian, German and Flemish foundrymen. ‘I do not think,’ the Venetian ambassador to Spain wrote in 1557, ‘there is another country less provided with skilled workers than Spain’” (p. 46).


However, that said, the author does not shrink from acknowledging the eventual decline of Ottoman power and the ascension of the West. Yet he does not locate these in military technology specifically, but rather in the classic overextension that taxes any empire, and in related fields such as “administrative-bureaucratic reforms” and logistics. “…Such factors as double-front engagement and overstrained communications,” the author writes, “were obviously of greater significance in an empire where weaponry and ammunition manufacturing plants were scattered from Cairo to Buda, often thousands of kilometers from the theaters of war. More importantly, it became increasingly difficult to maintain a thriving manufacturing sector in an empire where the economy as a whole experienced the contractions plaguing the entire Mediterranean region” (p. 201).

Costly wars against the Holy League tied down the Ottomans on four frontiers and, even though they won back Belgrade in 1690, pushed the empire decisively out of Hungary. The following century’s long wars with Russia drained the treasury and decreased morale and order. After this, reform would be stymied until the abolition of the janissary corps in 1826. But by this time the final decline was inevitable.

Recommendation: a Comprehensive , Innovative Study

All in all, Guns for the Sultan makes for a fascinating read, even if the very precise technical nomenclature and statistics might not interest the general reader. For the historian, however, they are essential. The book will become, as the publisher’s note says, a “classic in the field.”

Yet even for the generalist, this brand-new study is well worth a read, because even if it is not a social history, per se, the author’s excellent ability to synthesize statistics with theory and specific examples culled from the long Ottoman centuries provides remarkable insight into not only the empire’s military machine but into the minds, motives and works of those countless individuals who were responsible for maintaining and enhancing it.

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