The hand cannon (Chinese: 手銃), also known as the gonne or handgonne, is the first true firearm and the successor of the fire lance. It is the oldest type of small arms as well as the most mechanically simplistic form of metal barrel firearms. Unlike matchlock firearms it requires direct manual external ignition through a touch hole without any form of firing mechanism. It may also be considered a forerunner of the handgun. The hand cannon was widely used in China from the 13th century onward and later throughout Europe in the 14th century until at least the 1560s, when it was supplanted by the matchlock arquebus, which is the first firearm to have a trigger.
Hand cannons first saw widespread usage in China sometime during the 13th century and spread from there to the rest of the world. In 1287 Yuan Jurchen troops deployed hand cannons in putting down a rebellion by the Mongol prince Nayan. The earliest artistic depiction of a hand cannon – a rock sculpture found among the Dazu Rock Carvings – is dated to 1128, earlier than any recorded or precisely dated archaeological samples, so it is possible that the concept of a cannon-like firearm has existed since the 12th century. The oldest extant hand cannon bearing a date of production is the Xanadu Gun, dated to 1298. The Heilongjiang hand cannon has been dated to no later than 1288, but this dating is based on contextual evidence; the gun bears no inscription or era date. Other specimens also likely predate the Xanadu and Heilongjiang guns and have been traced back to the Western Xia period, but these too lack inscriptions and era dates.
The earliest reliable evidence of hand cannons in Europe appeared in 1326 and evidence of their production can be dated as early as 1327. The first recorded use of gunpowder weapons in Europe was in 1331 when two mounted Germanic knights attacked Cividale del Friuli with gunpowder weapons of some sort. By 1338 hand cannons were in widespread use in France. During the 14th century the Arabs seem to have used the hand cannon to some degree. Cannons are attested to in India starting from 1366. The Joseon kingdom in Korea acquired knowledge of gunpowder from China by 1374 and started producing cannons by 1377. In Southeast Asia Đại Việt soldiers were using hand cannons at the very latest by 1390 when they employed them in killing the king of Champa, Che Bong Nga. Japan was already aware of gunpowder warfare due to the Mongol invasions during the 13th century, but cannons were not mentioned until 1510 when a monk acquired one during his travels in China, and firearms were not produced until 1543, when the Portuguese introduced matchlocks which were known as tanegashima to the Japanese.
The earliest surviving documentary evidence for the use of the hand cannon in the Islamic world are from several Arabic manuscripts dated to the 14th century. The historian Ahmad Y. al-Hassan (2008) argues that several 14th-century Arabic manuscripts, one of which was written by Shams al-Din Muhammad al-Ansari al-Dimashqi (1256–1327), report the use of hand cannons by Mamluk-Egyptian forces against the Mongols at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260. However, Hassan's claim contradicts other historians who claim hand cannons did not appear in the Middle East until the 14th century.
Iqtidar Alam Khan (1996) argues that it was the Mongols who introduced gunpowder to the Islamic world, and believes cannons only reached Mamluk Egypt in the 1370s. According to Joseph Needham (1986), the term midfa, dated to textual sources from 1342 to 1352, did not refer to true hand-guns or bombards, and contemporary accounts of a metal-barrel cannon in the Islamic world do not occur until 1365 Similarly, Tonio Andrade (2016) dates the textual appearance of cannon in Middle-Eastern sources to the 1360s. Gabor Ágoston and David Ayalon (2005) believe the Mamluks had certainly used siege cannon by the 1360s, but earlier uses of cannon in the Islamic World are vague with a possible appearance in the Emirate of Granada by the 1320s, however evidence is inconclusive.
Khan claims that it was invading Mongols who introduced gunpowder to the Islamic world and cites Mamluk antagonism towards early riflemen in their infantry as an example of how gunpowder weapons were not always met with open acceptance in the Middle East. Similarly, the refusal of their Qizilbash forces to use firearms contributed to the Safavid rout at Chaldiran in 1514.
Design and features
The hand cannon could be held in two hands, but another person is often shown aiding in the ignition process using smoldering wood, coal, red-hot iron rods, or slow-burning matches. The hand cannon could be placed on a rest and held by one hand, while the gunner applied the means of ignition himself.
Projectiles used in hand cannons were known to include rocks, pebbles, and arrows. Eventually stone projectiles in the shape of balls became the preferred form of ammunition, and then they were replaced by iron balls from the late 14th to 15th centuries.
Later hand cannons have been shown to include a flash pan attached to the barrel and a touch hole drilled through the side wall instead of the top of the barrel. The flash pan had a leather cover and, later on, a hinged metal lid, to keep the priming powder dry until the moment of firing and to prevent premature firing. These features were carried over to subsequent firearms.
The invention of corned powder, the slow match, and the serpentine lever in mid-15th-century Europe led to the development of the first matchlock firearms, which could be more effectively aimed and fired than hand cannon.
Earliest depiction of a hand cannon. A figure carrying a hand cannon, with its flames and ball issuing forth. The ball is no longer extant but the sculpture bears its indentation. Dazu Rock Carvings c. 1128.
Discovered in Ningxia. This firearm is 34.6cm long, the muzzle 2.6cm in diameter, and weighs 1.55 kilograms.
Hand cannon from the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1271–1368)
"Hand bombard", France, 1390–1400
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