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Keselo Fortress And A Georgian Legend

Keselo castle from a distance (Photo by Mike Godwin)

There’s something about old castles and fortifications that elicit a variety of emotions. These immense structures connect us to a past mostly only seen in history books and movies. The ability to see the places our ancestors lived, dined, slept, fought, and potentially died is an incredible experience.

Georgia, is home to an extensive portfolio of these old fortifications. Some have lost their former glory, crumbling to only a vague reminder of a forgotten bastion of empires of yesteryear. However some have maintained their presence or been restored by the benevolence of generous organizations. One of these, buried in the northeastern high mountains of Tusheti, looms over the town that once called it home in times of invasion.

Keselo fortress sits perched on top of these mountains, with the village of Omalo at its base. This castle is nestled in the northern part of the Greater Caucasus Mountains, only 8.84 km (5.49 mi) from the Russo-Georgian border. Across this border sits Chechnya and Dagestan, with the historic Georgian winemaking region of Kakheti to the south. The area is isolated from the rest of Georgia during the late fall, winter, and early spring months by impassable mountain roads and heavy snowfall.

The fortress of Keselo (Photo by MikeReports)

The town of Omalo, with a full-time population of less than 50 people, is nestled around the base of this castle. These inhabitants, the early Tush people, are believed to be an amalgamation of Kakheti and Ingusheti people. These people, over centuries, made the mountains their home due to the safety and natural defenses they afforded them.

With the introduction of Christianity in the early 4th century AD to Georgia, many of those that held onto their pagan beliefs used the mountains as refuge. In fact, this region of Georgia was one of the last to convert to Christianity some time around the mid 18th century. Omalo would have been a haven for those seeking to continue their ancient beliefs.

Keselo fortress itself was estimated to have been built in its current configuration around the Mongol invasions in the 1230’s with a total of 13 towers. When raiding forces were detected, the local population of Omalo would abandon their village and flee into the fortress complex. Bringing only valuable items and limited livestock, they would store these in the lower levels of these towers, with the mid levels being used by women, children, and other non-combatants.

Interior of part of the fort. (Photo by MikeReports)

The fighting men of the village would fill the heights of these sturdy towers, firing down with bows and later firelock muskets called “Tbilisuri Dambacha” or “Machakhela.” These muskets were of a unique design specific to the region, with a narrow buttstock. The men would fire these down on the raiders, who likewise would have difficulty causing casualties on the entrenched defenders.

These towers, built of locally sourced slate/shale rock could easily take the brunt of the enemy’s weapons. Ideally, over time, the raiders would only take what they could while likely suffering casualties in the process before being forced away by the fire from the towers. The residents would then begin the rebuilding of their village.

One particular story illustrates an interesting example of this defense model. In one legend, the defenders of the Keselo castle defeated a large Dagestani raiding party with one shot. In the legend, a Dagestani raiding party had come to pillage and rampage through the Tush people’s land, taking valuable grain and livestock. When approaching Omalo, the people fled to the castle according to their traditions.

Ruins of the castle keep. (Photo by MikeReports)

For days the Dagestani troops raided the village, taking food, wine, and beer for their own. The troops took to staying in the village, occasionally exchanging fire with the defenders and having raucous drinking parties in their occupied village. Finally, in an effort to draw out the defenders or make them abandon their lands, the Dagstani warlord took to a hilltop opposite the castle on the other side of the village. He stood atop this hill making boastful statements, taunting the defenders and daring them to take the field against him.

Meanwhile, one of the defenders called to a friend who was known to be an exceptionally good shot with his Machakhela musket. He instructed him to use a double charge of gunpowder when loading, and take careful aim at the warlord atop the hill. The man aimed and fired, striking and killing the warlord almost instantly. As was Dagestani traditional belief at the time, if a warlord was killed it was seen as the worst possible omen. The raiding party promptly left, taking their fallen leader with them. The people of Omalo had virtually saved the Tush people from ruin, according to the legend.

While a legend is typically born of some true element, this one deserves some due scrutiny. It is certainly true that Degestani raids plagued the area for centuries. Most of the scrutiny of this legend is the actual shot and ballistics behind this legendary kill. These muskets, like many of the time, were not known for exceptional accuracy. While it is true that there were some models made, particularly in Western arms factories, for specific Light Foot or “Ranging” companies.

These units were specifically trained, exponentially more than regular line infantry units, to shoot with near-unrivaled accuracy. This accuracy is taught through weapons handling but also careful construction of the ammunition. In short, the possibility is real that this man from Omalo could have made his cartridges with extreme accuracy in mind, but his weapon may not have been up to the challenge.

Georgian King Erekle II's musket. A prefect example of a Georgian "Machakela" style musket. (Photo from the Georgian Ministry of Defense)

The Machakhela musket is not a standard musket like Western muskets. Such famed weapons as Great Britain’s “Brown Bess” Land Pattern Musket, the Prussian Potzdam Musket, or France’s Charleville musket were all factory made. These had exact standards and made to a specific measurement. Machakela muskets were each unique to the owner. Made in Tbilisi or other urban centers where foundries were available, each musket often reflected the family history of the owner. Very little was made to an exact standard and made to the desires of the individual ordering the purchase.

As a result, while it's possible that the musket this man had could have done it, it's less likely than that of a Western sharpshooter. Then, there’s the distance covered. The straight line distance between the tower the shot most likely came from and the hill the warlord would have to have stood on is 270 meters (886 feet). This is a considerable distance for an accurate shot to be made with a firelock like a Machakhela.

View from the castle, with the tower the legendary shot cam from in the foreground, and the hill the Dagestani warlord stood on in the center, just to the right of the tower. (Photo by MikeReports)

First, the maximum distance of a musket overall is often over 1,000 meters, so the target is well within being hit. However, the effective range has to be considered. The muskets of this time are smoothbore, meaning they have no grooves inside the barrel. These grooves, or rifling, exponentially increase the accuracy. However, without them the realistic range of hitting the intended target is much lower.

Most military doctrine of the time places the effective range of these weapons around 150 meters. It is at this distance that a musket could realistically be expected to hit within a 50 centimeter (20 inch) circle. However, this is not definitive. There are several historical instances of hitting targets as far as 300 meters, something termed to be “within musket-shot.” These historical instances stress the importance of careful cartridge construction.

We must look at three parts of this legendary shot;

  • the cartridge

  • the rifle

  • the man

Mass produced ammunition was far from a reality. Each person had to make their own cartridges, using individually procured powder and shot. The owner of these muskets would have to be intimately familiar with their weapon to know what would work best. Since the marksman in question likely used the weapon for hunting as well, its suggestable he made his cartridges specific for his weapon, and know exactly what size ball and how much powder of a certain variety to which to built it.

Conclusion: The cartridge would have been likely perfect for the long range shot ✅

As for the rifle, this is more complex. These models of muskets were made unique to the owner. Accuracy and any recorded trials, doctrine, or information is virtually non-existent. What is available is the known performance of muzzle-loading weapons of the period. At the time of the shot, these fighting men had ben under siege for several days. It takes less than a day's fighting to foul a firelock musket to the point of jamming. After several days, it's unlikely this marksman would have been able to hit his target on the hill.

However, had he kept the barrel clean, scrubbing it between skirmishes, it might be possible. Due to the duration of the alleged fight, it's unlikely they fought continuously. This fighter must have had time to clean his musket, ensuring accuracy with each shot. This discipline is further reinforced in another practice.

Conclusion: While his musket may be fouled, he would have to have cleaned it continuously to keep any accuracy past 50 meters (164 feet) .⛔

Next we come to the most complex part of the equation; the man himself. While exacts will never be known, we can however gain a glimpse inside this persons psyche. Much of the upbringing for boys at the time was based on a martial culture of warmaking, hunting, and protection of the tribe. Games for young boys tested their might, skill in hand-to-hand- and hand-eye coordination with weapons such as bows and muskets.

This young man in the tower grew up with his family musket, know its workings, it shortcomings and advantages. He had hunted with it many seasons, and had likely learned to repair it from his family elder. He knew it just as well as his wife. With the known cartridges, he had a calculated idea of where his round might land.

Conclusion: The shooter would have had the experience to feel confident in the shot.✅

With this analysis, we come to a reasonable conclusion of the probability of the legend. It can be within a realistic probability, that with a well cared-for musket, carefully constructed cartridge, and decent experience firing at longer ranges by the shooter, could lethally hit a man-sized target at 275 meters. It is the author’s personal assessment, having fired smoothbore muskets himself, that the shooter would have approximately a 65 percent chance of a hit. This is assuming the above three attributes are true, there is no interference (such as heavy wind), and the target was not moving.

Whether this legend is true or not is immaterial to the beauty and history of the region. This combined with the unique food, drink, and incredible flora make it a must see for any visitor to Georgia. So much of the country has impressive windows into the past. Tusheti offers an almost untouched look into these hearty mountain people’s way of life and their traditions that continue to this day.

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