Lantaka’ Is One Of Several Names For Small Hand-Carried Rail Guns

By Richard Gaysowski

Fall 2000 - Vol. 22 No. 2

Lantaka, Mirems, Rail Guns, Swivel Guns — these are all terms for the small cannon, under 24 inches, which were used for signaling, salutes, and personal defense.

The name lantaka is Philippine. The Moslems of the area call them mirems. Lantaka is now generically applied to this type of cannon that was used as a rail gun, including cannon that were made by the Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish and Chinese.

Many people are not familiar with these early swivel guns, thinking they were only for decoration. Another misconception is that they can be obtained cheaply; all are bronze and most cost around $5000 or less. Most people do not realize that the Dutch and Portuguese manufactured lantakas in their colonial foundries. In fact, Magellan’s ship carried many of the guns when it circumnavigated the world in 1521.

The size and use of these cannon have an interesting history. They were hand carried and used a wooden holder. They were highly valued and used extensively. Some date to the early 16th century. Some hand cannon are found as small as 4 inches to 18 inches.

Many were produced in Mindanao (Philippines), Borneo, Sumatra, and Java. They were also made in the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain to be used to trade for spices.

The Europeans also made many small signal cannon of completely different design, most with the round cascabel and some with dolphins. The Europeans also made many more in their colonial foundries.

The Dutch through the late 1700s used the tin from mineral-rich Sumatra to cast cannon that were traded to local sultans in exchange for spice trading routes they controlled. Until the mid-1600s, the Dutch had relied heavily on overpriced tin from Sweden. The tin supply from Sumatra ensured an endless cheap supply for their cannon foundries in Amsterdam.

The best sources for identifying lantakas are the museums in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.

European guns tend to be more refined — dolphins above the trunnions, diamondback pattern carefully cut, and fewer casting flaws. Portuguese guns, the oldest, tend to be plainer with aiming knob at the vent, maybe a crest, and plain front sight. They are usually seen with the smaller stubby aiming handle.

The Dutch poured more ornate designs, finer leaf patterns in the diamondback, longer aiming handles (hollowed out to accept a wooden pointing stick) and crocodiles, snakes or large leaf patterns at the vent hole. Some are found of Portuguese design with Arabic crests and numbers. These were cast by Portuguese craftsmen and supplied to the sultans for trade enforcement and defense.

The mid-size lantaka, 24-36 inches, are the most common. Due to their size they were easily carried ashore to stockades and forts. Some excavated sites in Borneo have uncovered 20 to 30 lantakas mixed with traditional Dutch and Portuguese carriage cannon.

The mid-size range guns also had the most ornate designs. As the Dutch VOC (para-military organization competing for control of the East India spice trade) collapsed around 1799, native foundries produced more guns. In this mid-1800s period their value was set by weight. These cannon were recognized by less ornate design. Examples include very plain with no dolphins to flowery motifs, local animals (hornbills, dogs, frogs), and mythical creatures. These were produced into the late 1800s.

The foundries on Mindanao, the Philippines, produced the same style for centuries. The Muslim Moros used lantakas to fight the U.S. Army during the Philippine Insurrection through 1912. Some examples of these guns are found with the large flared muzzle cut off, presumably for easier aiming and handling in the dense jungle.

The largest lantakas — 40 to 70 inches — were less ornate and strictly for fighting. They were mounted on ships, walls and fortifications. The Dutch and Portuguese trading ships had up to 40 guns mounted on rails to repel boarders (usually pirates).

This was the golden age of piracy. Malaysian, Muslim, and Chinese pirates working for themselves or sultans used small boats armed with lantakas to board the rich European ships, typically at night. Some shipwrecks of the area have produced more than 50 lantakas from one site. At another site 40 trade lantakas were found in the lower cargo hold as evidenced by bent barrels caused by the weight of the settling ship.

These guns were like large shotguns and fired mostly sea junk — anything that could be loaded in the barrels — musket balls, old scrap iron, porcelain. They were anti-personnel weapons used to clear the decks of boarders or the decks of ships to be boarded.

All lantakas prior to the mid-1700's used iron pins to center the clay covered wooden core that formed the bore. The pins became part of the cannon after the mould was poured and broken open. These iron rods often show as rust spots on a bronze barrel.

Only in the most expensive Dutch cannon did they peen the bronze over the iron. This method of casting was dropped in the late 18th century when the guns were poured solid and drilled. Lantakas of Mindanao were all basically the same design; however, later ones had no iron pins. They were drilled by crews of men turning crude bits.

Other interesting lantakas reflect the Chinese influence with dragon motifs, double barrels cast side by side, spiral tubes, and even breechloading swivels made in Brunei as early as the late 1500s.

During World War II, the Japanese melted down thousands of lantakas for the bronze. The remaining finest specimens can be seen in the National Museum in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Sarawak Museum in Kuching, Malaysia.

(About the Author: Richard Gaysowski has collected lantakas for about 10 years and researched them with collectors and museums. Much of his information comes from Indonesian sources.)