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For other uses, see Petard (disambiguation).
A petard, from a seventeenth-century manuscript of military designs.
A 19th-century British army petard (in center, projecting from the copper circle), mounted on a madrier, with braces

A petard was a small bomb used for blowing up gates and walls when breaching fortifications. It is of French origin and dates back to the 16th century.[1] A typical petard was a conical or rectangular metal device containing 2–3 kg (5 or 6 pounds) of gunpowder, with a slow match for a fuse.


Pétard comes from the Middle French péter, to break wind, from the root pet, expulsion of intestinal gas, derived from the Latin peditus, past participle of pedere, to break wind, and akin to the Greek bdein, to break wind (Merriam-Webster). In modern French, a pétard is a firecracker (and it is the basis for the word for firecracker in several other European languages).

Pétardiers were deployed during sieges of castles or fortified cities. The pétard, a rather primitive and exceedingly dangerous explosive device, comprised a brass or iron bell-shaped device filled with gunpowder and affixed to a wooden base called a madrier. This was attached to a wall or gate using hooks and rings, the fuse lit and, if successful, the resulting explosive force, concentrated at the target point, would blow a hole in the obstruction, allowing assault troops to enter.

Shakespeare's phrase, "hoist with his own petar" remains in modern usage as "hoist with one's own petard", meaning: "to be harmed by one's own plan to harm someone else" or "to fall into one's own trap", implying that one could be lifted (blown) upward by one's own bomb, or in other words, be foiled by one's own plan.


Petards were often placed either inside tunnels under walls, or directly upon gates. The petard's shape allowed the concussive pressure of the blast to be applied entirely towards the destruction of the target structure. Depending on design, a petard could be secured by propping it against the wall or gate using beams, as illustrated, or nailing it in place on a madrier (a thick wooden board fixed in advance to the end of the petard).[2]


AVRE 290mm Petard Mortar and its ammunition

In military use: A petard mortar was the demolition weapon fitted to the Churchill AVRE tank. It was a mortar (a weapon that fires explosive projectiles known as (mortar) bombs at low velocities, short ranges, and high-arcing ballistic trajectories)of a 290 mm bore, known to its crews as the "flying dustbin" due to the characteristics of its projectile, an unaerodynamic 20 kg charge that could be fired up to 100 m. This was sufficient to breach or demolish many bunkers and earthworks, and even disable a Tiger tank.[citation needed]

In Maltese English: In Malta, homemade fireworks are called petards (the Maltese word murtal is related to "mortar"). Petards are detonated by the dozen during feasts dedicated to local patron saints.[citation needed]

"Hoist with his own petard"[edit]

If a petard detonated prematurely, the petardier would be blown upward by the explosion.

William Shakespeare wrote "hoist with his own petard" in Hamlet. The word "hoist" is the (now archaic) past participle of "hoise", the earlier form of the verb "hoist".[3][4]

In the following passage, the "letters" refer to instructions written by Hamlet's uncle Claudius, the King of Denmark, to be carried sealed to the King of England, by Hamlet and his schoolfellows Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The letters, as Hamlet suspects, contain a death warrant for Hamlet, who later opens and modifies them to refer to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Enginer refers to a military engineer; the spelling reflects Elizabethan stress.

There's letters seal'd: and my two schoolfellows,
Whom I will trust as I will adders fang'd,
They bear the mandate; they must sweep my way
And marshal me to knavery. Let it work;
For 'tis the sport to have the enginer
Hoist with his own petar'; and 't shall go hard
But I will delve one yard below their mines
And blow them at the moon: O, 'tis most sweet,
When in one line two crafts directly meet.

After modifying the letters, Hamlet escapes the ship and returns to Denmark. By "hoist with his own petar" (literal translation: "cause the bomb maker to be blown up with his own bomb"), Hamlet means he is metaphorically turning the tables on Claudius, whose messengers are to be killed instead of Hamlet. Shakespeare's use of "petar" (flatulate) rather than "petard" may be an off-colour pun.[5][6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Petard". 
  2. ^ "Stuart Jobs". The Worst Jobs in History. Season 1.  Channel 4. Hosted by Tony Robinson.
  3. ^ "hoist". (Unabridged ed.). Random House, Inc. Retrieved June 4, 2012. 
  4. ^ Harper, Douglas. "hoist". Online Etymology Dictionary.  Accessdate=June 4, 2012.
  5. ^ "Hoist by your own petard". The Phrase Finder. 
  6. ^ Adams, Cecil (July 14, 1978). "What's a petard, as in "hoist by his own ..."?". The Straight Dope. Chicago Reader. Retrieved March 30, 2010. 

External links[edit]

  • Media related to Petard at Wikimedia Commons