The Basilic was a beast. Its massive body was 27 feet long, it belched flame and smoke like nothing before it, and when it roared, it could be heard for a distance of 10 miles. Its mouth had a diameter of 30 inches and its skin was 8 inches thick and cast from bronze. It weighed over 40,000 pounds. It was so large and heavy that it required several teams of oxen just to move it. It was the largest weapon of the time, a super gun that hurled a stone cannon ball weighing 1200 pounds to a distance of a mile.
The Basilic was a Turkish cannon built in 1453, for one express purpose – to smash down the impregnable walls of Constantinople. The Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II had ordered his Christian gunsmith Urban (Christian soldiers, including Serbs and Greeks, played a key role in the capture of Constantinople), to cast him a weapon powerful enough to breach the city’s famous walls. The gun was twice as potent as the largest guns then in existence – 600 pounders, also built by Urban, that guarded the Bosphorus from within a fortress colorfully named The Throat Cutter.
The Basilic took hours to load and fire, averaging a mere 7 shots a day. But what shots! The massive explosion of the gun firing and the fearsome impact of a 1200 pound ball shredded not just the city’s ancient walls, but also the morale of its defenders. In fact, the Basilic’s primary function was as a terror weapon. The real work of demolishing Constantinople’s walls was being done by 68 other artillery pieces, some of which were monsters in their own right, although on a smaller scale.
The Basilic was a temperamental prima donna. It was very difficult to position and aim. With gun carriages yet to be invented, mobility was non-existent. The cannon lay on a platform made mostly of mud. It was wedged in with enough wood and logs to absorb the massive recoil and keep it from flattening its gunners. Aiming the gun took some trial and error. Gunners altered the trajectory by adjusting the height of the platform. They experimented with the quantity of gunpowder used as propellant until they arrived at a workable amount. Loading the gun was literally a back breaker. The 40,000 pound weapon came in two parts and to load it, the gunners had to take it apart. The giant half tonne ball of granite went into the front half, hoisted in place by hand. The powder went into the back. When the two pieces of the cannon had been screwed back together, the gunners lit the fuse, ran for some shelter and prayed.
Sultan Mehmed, who was very proud of his new artillery, grew increasingly cross as the siege progressed. He hovered about the gun batteries, micro-managing the operations and motivating his men by alternating promises of great booty with the occasional decapitation. Fortunately, Constantinople had miles of wall to hit. Any shots that went over invariably smacked into a church or palace (the city had a few) causing grievous damage.
Despite the difficulties, the Basilic did give the city’s venerable walls a considerable hammering. But its construction was flawed, as its design and operating demands exceeded the capabilities of extant metallurgical science. The gun barrel began developing cracks soon after operations began. Despite several workarounds and repairs, the Basilic blew itself apart. It lay silent when the Ottomans stormed the walls on May 29’th, 1453.