History of gunpowder

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An illustration showing the process of making gunpowder, from a copper engraving of a 1698 publication by Christoph Weigel the Elder

Gunpowder is the first physical explosive and propellant. Before its invention, many incendiary and burning devices had been used, including Greek fire. The invention of gunpowder is usually attributed to experimentation in Chinese alchemy by Taoists in the pursuit of immortality, and is popularly listed as one of the "Four Great Inventions" of China. It was invented during the Tang dynasty (9th century) but the earliest record of a written formula appeared in the Song dynasty (11th century). Knowledge of gunpowder spread rapidly throughout the Old World possibly as a result of the Mongol conquests during the 13th century, with the earliest written formula for it outside of China contained within the Opus Majus, a 1267 treatise by the English friar Roger Bacon. It was employed in warfare to some effect from at least the 12th century in weapons such as fire arrows, rocket arrows, bombs, and the fire lance before the appearance of the gun. Gunpowder has also been used for non-military purposes such as fireworks.

The evolution of guns led to the development of artillery during the 15th century, pioneered by states such as the Duchy of Burgundy. Firearms came to dominate early modern warfare in Europe by the 17th century. The use of gunpowder technology also spread throughout the Islamic world and to India, Korea, and Japan. Its use in battle during the course of the 19th century diminished due to the invention of smokeless powder.

Chinese beginnings[edit]

Earliest known written formula for gunpowder, from the Wujing Zongyao of 1044 AD.
An expendable bird carrying an incendiary receptacle round its neck. Advanced weapon delivery system used in the 10th century.
An illustration of a fire arrow rocket launcher as depicted in the 11th century book Wujing Zongyao. The launcher is constructed using basketry.

Although it is not known precisely by whom gunpowder was invented by, most historians agree that gunpowder's origins were in China, by virtue of archaeological evidence and historical documents predating others by centuries, even if some professional military historians know little or nothing else about this early history of gunpowder warfare.[1] The very earliest possible reference to gunpowder appeared in 142 AD during the Eastern Han dynasty, when a man named Wei Boyang wrote about a substance with the properties of gunpowder, and described a mixture of three powders that would "fly and dance" violently in his his Cantong qi, otherwise known as the "Book of the Kinship of Three", a Taoist text on the subject of alchemy.[2][3] Although it is impossible to know if he was actually referring to gunpowder, no other explosive known to scientists is composed of three powders.[2] While it was almost certainly not their intention to create a weapon of war, Taoist alchemists would continue to play a major role in the invention of gunpowder due to their experiments on sulfur and saltpeter in the search for the secrets of eternal life and ways to transmute one material into another.[2][4] Historian Peter Lorge notes that despite the early association of gunpowder with Taoism, this may be a quirk of historiography, and a result of the better preservation of texts associated with Taoism rather than being a point of interest limited to only Taoists.[5] The Taoist quest for the elixir of life attracted many powerful patrons, one of whom was Emperor Wu of Han, and one of the resulting alchemical experiments involved heating sulfur and saltpeter to transform them.[2]

The next possible reference to gunpowder appeared in the year 300 during the Jin dynasty (265–420).[3] A Taoist philosopher by the name of Ge Hong wrote down the ingredients of gunpowder in his surviving works, collectively known as the Baopuzi ("The Master Who Embraces Simplicity"). The "Inner Chapters" on Taoism contains records of his experiments with heated saltpeter, pine resin, and charcoal among other carbon materials, resulting in explosion, which most historians acknowledge as an early form of gunpowder.[6]

In 492, Taoist alchemists had noted that saltpeter, one of the most important ingredients in gunpowder, burns with a purple flame, allowing for practical efforts at purifying the substance. The first confirmed reference to what can be considered gunpowder in China occurred more than three hundred years later, first in a formula contained in the Taishang Guaizu Danjing Mijue in 808, and then about half a century later in a Taoist text known as the Zhenyuan miaodao yaolüe (真元妙道要略) during the Tang dynasty.[4] The first formula was a combination of six parts sulfur to six parts saltpeter to one part birthwort herb, and the Taoist text warned against an assortment of dangerous formulas, one of which corresponds with gunpowder: "Some have heated together sulfur, realgar (arsenic disulphide), and saltpeter with honey; smoke [and flames] result, so that their hands and faces have been burnt, and even the whole house burned down."[4] Alchemists called this discovery fire medicine ("huoyao" 火藥), and the term has continued to refer to gunpowder in China into the present day, a reminder of its heritage as a side result in the search for longevity increasing drugs.[7]

The earliest surviving chemical formula of gunpowder dates to 1044 in the form of the military manual Wujing Zongyao, also known in English as the Complete Essentials for the Military Classics, which contains a collection of factoids on Chinese weaponry.[8][9] The Wujing Zongyao also served as a repository of antiquated or fanciful weaponry, and this applied to gunpowder as well, which suggests that it had already been weaponized long before the invention of what would today be considered conventional firearms. These numerous types of gunpowder weapons styling various names such as "flying incendiary club for subjugating demons," "caltrop fire ball," "ten-thousand fire flying sand magic bomb," "big bees nest," "burning heaven fierce fire unstoppable bomb," "fire bricks" which released "flying swallows," "flying rats," "fire birds," and "fire oxen" eventually gave way and coalesced into a smaller number of dominant types, notably gunpowder arrows, bombs, and guns, possibly as gunpowder became more common and less deserving of the more creative names and as some weapons were deemed too onerous or ineffective to deploy.[10]

At this point the formula contained too little saltpeter (about 50%) to be explosive, but the mixture was highly flammable, and contemporary weapons reflected this in their deployment as mainly shock and incendiary weapons. One of the first, if not the first of these weapons was the fire arrow.[11] The first possible reference to the use of fire arrows was by the Southern Wu in 904 during the siege of Yuzhang, when an officer under Yang Xingmi by the name of Zheng Fan (鄭璠) ordered his troops to "shoot off a machine to let fire and burn the Longsha Gate," after which he and his troops dashed over the fire into the city and captured it, and he was promoted to Prime Minister Inspectorate for his efforts and the burns his body endured.[12] A later account of this event corroborated with the report and explained that "by let fire (飛火) is meant things like firebombs and fire arrows."[11] Arrows carrying gunpowder was possibly the most applicable form of gunpowder weaponry at the time, as early gunpowder may have only produced an effective flame when exposed to oxygen, thus the rush of air around the arrow in flight would have provided a suitable catalyst for the reaction.[11] Fire arrows were improved upon later on in the Song dynasty, first in 970 when the head of a weapons manufacturing bureau sent a certain Feng Jisheng (馮繼升) to demonstrate a new gunpowder arrow design for the emperor, for which the inventor was heavily rewarded, and again in 1000 when a soldier by the name of Tang Fu (唐福) demonstrated his own designs of gunpowder arrows, gunpowder pots (a proto-bomb which spews fire), and gunpowder caltrops, for which he was richly rewarded as well.[13] The imperial court took great interest in the progress of gunpowder developments and actively encouraged as well as disseminated military technology, for example in 1002 when a local militia man named Shi Pu (石普) showed his own versions of fireballs and gunpowder arrows to imperial officials, they were so astounded that the emperor and court decreed that a team would be assembled to print the plans and instructions for the new designs to promulgate them throughout the realm.[13] The Song court's policy of rewarding military innovators was reported to have "brought about a great number of cases of people presenting technology and techniques" (器械法式) according to the official History of Song.[13] Production of gunpowder and fire arrows heavily increased in the 11th century as the court centralized the production process, constructing large gunpowder production facilities, hiring artisans, carpenters, and tanners for the military production complex in the capital of Kaifeng. One surviving source circa 1023 lists all the artisans working in Kaifeng while another notes that in 1083 the imperial court sent 100,00 gunpowder arrows to one garrison and 250,000 to another.[13] Evidence of gunpowder in the Liao dynasty and Western Xia are much sparser than in Song, but some evidence such as the Song decree of 1073 that all subjects were henceforth forbidden from trading sulfur and saltpeter across the Liao border suggests that the Liao were aware of gunpowder developments to the south and coveted gunpowder ingredients of their own.[13]

Gunpowder Age[edit]

An illustration of a thunderclap bomb as depicted in the 11th century book Wujing Zongyao. Considered to be a pseudo-explosive. The top item is a through awl and the bottom one is a hook awl.
Two different types of fire lances. The fire lance was an early anti-personnel gunpowder weapon with a relatively short range. Considered by many to be the first proto-gun.
A "nest of bees" arrow rocket launcher as depicted in the Wubei Zhi. So called because of its hexagonal honeycomb shape.
A "long serpent" fire arrow launcher as depicted in the Wubei Zhi. It carries 32 medium small poisoned rockets and comes with a sling to carry on the back.
The 'convocation of eagles chasing hare arrow' is a double-ended rocket pod that carries thirty small poisoned rockets on each ends, for a total of sixty rockets. It carries a sling for ease of carrying.
The 'divine fire arrow screen' is a stationary arrow launcher that carries one hundred fire arrows. It is activated by a trap-like mechanism, possibly of wheellock design. From the Wubei Zhi.

Jin-Song Wars[edit]

In the 1100s the Jurchen tribes of Manchuria united under Wanyan Aguda and established their own Jin dynasty in 1115. Allying with the Song, they rapidly rose to the forefront of East Asian powers and defeated the Liao dynasty in a surprisingly short span of time, destroying the 150 year balance of power between the Song, Liao, and Western Xia. Remnants of the Liao fled to the west and became known as the Qara Khitai or Western Liao to the Chinese. In the east, the fragile Song-Jin alliance broke as the Jin saw that the Song army was unable to even defeat the Liao garrisons and fulfill their end of the alliance in capturing the Liao Southern Capital. Realizing the weakness of Song, Jin grew tired of waiting and captured all five of the Liao capitals themselves, proceeding to make war on Song, initiating the Jin-Song Wars. For the first time, two major powers would have access to equally formidable gunpowder weapons, ushering in the Gunpowder Age in earnest.[14] Initially the Jin expected their campaign in Song to proceed quickly given how poorly the Song fared against Liao, however they were met with stout resistance upon besieging Kaifeng in 1126 and faced the usual array of gunpowder arrows and fire bombs, but also a new weapon called the "thunderclap bomb" (霹靂炮), which one witness wrote, "At night the thunderclap bombs were used, hitting the lines of the enemy well, and throwing them into great confusion. Many fled, screaming in fright."[14]

Jin troops withdrew with a ransom of Song silk and treasure, but returned several months later, this time with their own gunpowder bombs manufactured by captured Song artisans.[14] According to historian Wang Zhaochun, the account of this battle was the "earliest truly detailed descriptions of the use of gunpowder weapons in warfare."[14] Records show that Jin utilized gunpowder arrows and trebuchets to hurl gunpowder bombs while Song responded with gunpowder arrows, fire bombs, thunderclap bombs, and a new addition called the "molten metal bomb" (金汁炮).[15] As the Jin account describes, when they attacked the city's Xuanhua Gate, their "fire bombs fell like rain, and their arrows were so numerous as to be uncountable."[15] Jin captured Kaifeng despite the appearance of the molten metal bomb and secured another 20,000 fire arrows for their arsenal.[15]

The molten metal bomb appeared again in 1129 when Song general Li Yanxian (李彥仙) clashed with Jin forces while defending a strategic pass. The Jin assault lasted day and night without respite, using siege carts, fire carts, and sky bridges, but each assault was met with Song soldiers who "resisted at each occasion, and also used molten metal bombs. Wherever the gunpowder touched, everything would disintegrate without a trace."[16]

Song established another capital in modern Hangzhou and the Jin forces followed. The fighting that ensued would see the first proto-gun, the fire lance, in action. Despite the low explosive potential of 11th century gunpowder, it's possible that it was already being utilized in early projectile weapons such as the fire lance, based on an artistic depiction of it in the form of a silk banner painting slightly predating the Wujing Zongyao showing a demon pointing what appears to be a fire lance at the Buddha, trying to disturb his meditation.[17] Although most Chinese scholars reject the appearance of the fire lance prior to the Jin-Song wars, a Song text from 1000 and the Wujing Zongyao do make brief mentions of the fire lance.[15] The fire lance, as implied by the name, is essentially a long spear or pole affixed with a tube of gunpowder, and as it saw more usage, the tube's length became longer and pellets were added to the composition. The earliest confirmed employment of the fire lance in warfare was by Song dynasty forces against the Jin in 1132 during the siege of De'an (modern Anlu, Hubei Province),[18][19][20] where they were used to great effect against wooden siege towers called "sky bridges": "As the sky bridges became stuck fast, more than ten feet from the walls and unable to get any closer, [the defenders] were ready. From below and above the defensive structures they emerged and attacked with fire lances, striking lances, and hooked sickles, each in turn. The people [i.e., the porters] at the base of the sky bridges were repulsed. Pulling their bamboo ropes, they [the porters] ended up drawing the sky bridge back in an anxious and urgent rush, going about fifty paces before stopping."[21] The surviving porters then tried once again to wheel the sky bridges into place but Song soldiers emerged from the walls in force and made a direct attack on the sky bridge soldiers while defenders on the walls threw bricks and shot arrows in conjunction with trebuchets hurling bombs and rocks. The sky bridges were also set fire to with incendiary bundles of grass and firewood. Li Heng, the Jin commander, decided to lift the siege and Jin forces were driven back with severe casualties.[21]

The siege of De'an marks an important transition and landmark in the history of gunpowder weapons as the fire medicine of the fire lances were described using a new word: "fire bomb medicine" (火炮藥), rather than simply "fire medicine," which may imply the utilization of a new more potent formula, or simply an acknowledgement of the specialized military application of gunpowder.[21] Evidence of gunpowder firecrackers also points to their appearance at roughly around the same time fire medicine was making its transition in the literary imagination.[22] Fire lances continued to be used as anti-personnel weapons into the 12th century, and were even attached to battle carts in one situation in 1163. Song commander Wei Sheng constructed several hundred of these carts known as "at-your-desire-war-carts" (如意戰車), which contained fire lances protruding from protective covering on the sides. They were used to defend mobile trebuchets that hurled fire bombs.[21]

Gunpowder technology also spread to naval warfare in this period and in 1129 Song decreed that all warships were to be fitted with trebuchets for hurling gunpowder bombs.[21] Older gunpowder weapons such as fire arrows were also utilized, in 1159 when a Song fleet of 120 ships caught a Jin fleet at anchor near Shijiu Island (石臼島) off the shore of Shandong peninsula, and the Song commander "ordered that gunpowder arrows be shot from all sides, and wherever they struck , flames and smoke rose up in swirls, setting fire to several hundred vessels."[22] Song forces took another victory in 1161 when Song paddle boats powered by men running on treadmills set forth, launching thunderclap bombs, and drowned the Jin force in the Yangtze River.[22]

Thunderclap bombs were used again to great effect by the defenders during the Jin siege of Xiangyang in 1206-1207, according to a minor military official by the name of Zhao Wannian (趙萬年). Both sides utilized gunpowder, however while Jin troops only used gunpowder arrows to destroy the city's moored vessels, Song used fire arrows, fire bombs, and thunderclap bombs. Fire arrows and bombs were used to destroy Jin trebuchets. The thunderclap bombs were used on Jin soldiers themselves, causing foot soldiers and horsemen to panic and retreat. "We beat our drums and yelled from atop the city wall, and simultaneously fired our thunderclap missiles out from the city walls. The enemy cavalry was terrified and ran away."[23] The Jin were forced to retreat and make camp by the riverside. In a rare occurrence, the Song made a successful offensive on Jin forces, and conducted a night assault using boats loaded with gunpowder arrows, thunderclap bombs, a thousand crossbowmen, fire hundred infantry, and a hundred drummers. Jin troops were surprised in their encampment while asleep by loud drumming, followed by an onslaught of crossbow bolts, and then thunderclap bombs, which caused a panic of such magnitude that they were unable to even saddle themselves and trampled over each other trying to get away. Two to three thousand Jin troops were slaughtered along with eight to nine hundred horses.[23]

Then everything changed when the Jin dynasty attacked, with even better bombs. The iron bomb. Traditionally the inspiration for the development of the iron bomb is ascribed to the tale of a fox hunter named Iron Li. According to the story, around the year 1189 Iron Li developed a new method for hunting foxes, utilizing ceramic explosive to scare foxes into his nets. The explosive consisted of a ceramic bottle with a mouth, stuffed with gunpowder, and attached with a fuse. Explosive and net were placed at strategic points of places such as watering holes frequented by foxes, and when they got near enough, Iron Li would light the fuse, causing the ceramic bottle to explode and scaring the frightened foxes right into his nets. While a fanciful tale, it's not exactly certain why this would cause the development of the iron bomb, given the explosive was made using ceramics, and other materials such as bamboo or even leather would have have done the same job, assuming they made a loud enough noise.[24] Nonetheless, the iron bomb made its first appearance at the siege of Qizhou (in modern Hubei province) in 1221, and this time it would be the Jin who possessed the technological advantage. The Song command Zhao Yurong (趙與褣) survived and was able to relay his account for posterity.

Qizhou was a major fortress city situated near the Yangtze so naturally the Jin wanted to take it. A 25 thousand strong Jin army advanced on it in 1221. News of the approaching army reached Zhao Yurong in Qizhou, and despite being outnumbered nearly eight to one, he decided to hold the city. Qizhou's arsenal consisted of some three thousand thunderclap bombs, twenty thousand "great leather bombs" (皮大炮), and thousands of gunpowder arrows and gunpowder crossbow bolts. While the formula for gunpowder had become potent enough to consider the Song bombs to be true explosives, they were unable to match explosive power of the Jin iron bombs. Yurong describes the uneven exchange thus, "The barbaric enemy attacked the Northwest Tower with an unceasing flow of catapult projectiles from thirteen catapults. Each catapult shot was followed by an iron fire bomb [catapult shot], whose sound was like thunder. That day, the city soldiers in facing the catapult shots showed great courage as they maneuvered [our own] catapults, hindered by injuries from the iron fire bombs. Their heads, their eyes, their cheeks were exploded to bits, and only one half [of the face] was left."[25] Jin artillerists were able to successfully target the command center itself: "The enemy fired off catapult stones ... nonstop day and night, and the magistrate's headquarters [帳] at the eastern gate, as well as my own quarters ..., were hit by the most iron fire bombs, to the point that they struck even on top of [my] sleeping quarters and [I] nearly perished! Some said there was a traitor. If not, how would they have known the way to strike at both of these places?"[25] Zhao was able to examine the new iron bombs himself and described thus, "In shape they are like gourds, but with a small mouth. They are made with pig iron, about two inches thick, and they cause the city's walls to shake."[25] Houses were blown apart, towers battered, and defenders blasted from their placements. Within four weeks all four gates were under heavy bombardment. Finally the Jin made a frontal assault on the walls and scaled them, after which followed a merciless hunt for soldiers, officers, and officials of every level. Zhao managed an escape by clambering over the battlement and making a hasty retreat across the river, but his family remained in the city. Upon returning at a later date to search the ruins, he found that the "bones and skeletons were so mixed up that there was no way to tell who was who."[25]

Mongol Wars[edit]

The Mongols and their rise in world history as well as conflicts with both the Jin and Song played a key role in the evolution of gunpowder technology.[26] Mongol aptitude in incorporating foreign experts extended to the Chinese, who provided artisans who followed Mongol armies willingly and unwillingly far into the west and even east, to Japan. Unfortunately primary evidence for this is scant as the Mongols left few primary documents. This lack of primary documents has caused some historians and scholars such as Kate Raphel to doubt the Mongol's role in disseminating gunpowder throughout Eurasia. On the opposite side stand historians such as Tonio Andrade and Stephen Haw, who believe that the Mongol Empire not only used gunpowder weapons but deserves the moniker "the first gunpowder empire."[27]

Mongol conquest of the Jin dynasty[edit]

An illustration of a later fire-lance with a gunpowder charge shooting a blast of flame with lead pellets as coviative projectiles. The weapon was called the 'phalanx-charging fire-gourd'. Foregoing the spearhead, this weapon relies solely on the force of gunpowder and projectiles. This illustration is from the Huolongjing, a 14th century military treatise.
Discovered in 1980, Gansu, late Western Xia (1214-1227). The Western Xia Bronze Gun is 100cm in length and weighs 108.5kg. The gun contained an iron ball about nine centimeters in diameter, which is smaller than the muzzle diameter at twelve centimeters, and a tenth of a kilogram of gunpowder in it when discovered.
Discovered in Ningxia. This firearm is 34.6cm long, the muzzle 2.6cm in diameter, and weighs 1.55 kilograms. The firearm contains a transcription reading, "Made by bronzesmith Li Liujing in the year Zhiyuan 8 (直 元), ningzi number 2565." While the era name and date corresponds with 1271 CE, which would put it earlier than both the Heilongjiang Hand Gun as well as the Xanadu Gun, one of the characters used in the era name is irregular, causing some doubt among scholars on the exact date of production.
The Heilongjiang hand cannon, dated to 1288, is a Yuan Dynasty hand cannon. This image is a digitalization of the Heilongjiang hand cannon photograph published in 1973. From: "A Bronze Bombard Excavated at Banlachengzi in Acheng District in Heilongjiang Province," by Wei Guozhong.
Discovered in the ruins of Xanadu (Shangdu 上都), the Mongol Summer Palace, Inner Mongolia. The Xanadu Gun is 34.7cm in length and weighs 6.2kg. This weapon's design contains axial holes at the back, which suggests it was mounted at one point. The era name and date corresponds with the Gregorian Calendar at 1298 CE.
Hand cannon from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

The first concerted Mongol invasion of Jin occurred in 1211 and total conquest was not accomplished until 1234. In 1232 the Mongols besieged the Jin capital of Kaifeng and deployed gunpowder weapons along with other more conventional siege techniques such as building stockades, watchtowers, trenches, guardhouses, and forcing Chinese captives to haul supplies and fill moats.[28] Jin scholar Liu Qi (劉祈) recounts in his memoir, "the attack against the city walls grew increasingly intense, and bombs rained down as [the enemy] advanced."[28] The Jin defenders also deployed gunpowder bombs. Liu Qi writes, "From within the walls the defenders responded with a gunpowder bomb called the heaven-shaking-thunder bomb (震天雷). Whenever the [Mongol] troops encountered one, several men at a time would be turned into ashes."[28] A more fact based and clear description of the bomb exists in the History of Jin: "The heaven-shaking-thunder bomb is an iron vessel filled with gunpowder. When lighted with fire and shot off, it goes off like a crash of thunder that can be heard for a hundred li [thirty miles], burning an expanse of land more than half a mu [所爇圍半畝之上, a mu is a sixth of an acre], and the fire can even penetrate iron armor."[28] A Ming official named He Mengchuan would encounter an old cache of these bombs three centuries later in the Xi'an area: "When I went on official business to Shaanxi Province, I saw on top of Xi'an's city walls an old stockpile of iron bombs. They were called 'heaven-shaking-thunder' bombs, and they were like an enclosed rice bowl with a hole at the top, just big enough to put your finger in. The troops said they hadn't been used for a very long time."[28] Furthermore, he wrote, "When the powder goes off, the bomb rips open, and the iron pieces fly in all directions. That is how it is able to kill people and horses from far away."[29]

Heaven-shaking-thunder bombs, also known as thunder crash bombs, were utilized prior to the siege in 1231 when a Jin general made use of them in destroying a Mongol warship, but during the siege the Mongols responded by protecting themselves with elaborate screens of thick leather. This was effective enough for workers to to get right up to the walls to undermine their foundations and excavate protective niches. Jin defenders countered by tying iron cords and attaching them to heaven-shaking-thunder bombs, which were lowered down the walls until they reached the place where the miners worked. The protective leather screens were unable to withstand the explosion, and were penetrated, killing the excavators.[29] Another weapon the Jin employed was an improved version of the fire lance called the flying fire lance. The History of Jin provides a detailed description: "To make the lance, use chi-huang paper, sixteen layers of it for the tube, and make it a bit longer than two feet. Stuff it with willow charcoal, iron fragments, magnet ends, sulfur, white arsenic [probably an error that should mean saltpeter], and other ingredients, and put a fuse to the end. Each troop has hanging on him a little iron pot to keep fire [probably hot coals], and when it's time to do battle, the flames shoot out the front of the lance more than ten feet, and when the gunpowder is depleted, the tube isn't destroyed."[29] While Mongol soldiers typically held a view of disdain toward most Jin weapons, apparently they greatly feared the flying fire lance and heaven-shaking-thunder bomb.[30] Kaifeng managed to hold out for a year before the Jin emperor fled and the city capitulated. In some cases Jin troops still fought with some success, scoring isolated victories such as when a Jin commander led 450 fire lancers against a Mongol encampment, which was "completely routed, and three thousand five hundred were drowned."[29] Even after the Jin emperor committed suicide in 1234, one loyalist gathered all the metal he could find in the city he was defending, even gold and silver, and made explosives to lob against the Mongols, but the momentum of the Mongol Empire could not be stopped.[31] By 1234, both the Western Xia and Jin dynasty had been conquered.[32]

Mongol conquest of the Song dynasty[edit]

Bronze cannon with inscription dated the 3rd year of the Zhiyuan era (1332) of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368); it was discovered at the Yunju Temple of Fangshan District, Beijing in 1935.

The Mongol war machine moved south and in 1237 attacked the Song city of Anfeng (modern Shouxian, Anhui Province) "using gunpowder bombs [huo pao] to burn the [defensive] towers."[32] These bombs were apparently quite large. "Several hundred men hurled one bomb, and if it hit the tower it would immediately smash it to pieces."[32] The Song defenders under commander Du Gao (杜杲) rebuilt the towers and retaliated with their own bombs, which they called the "Elipao," after a famous local pear, probably in reference to the shape of the weapon.[32] Perhaps as another point of military interest, the account of this battle also mentions that the Anfeng defenders were equipped with a type of small arrow to shoot through eye slits of Mongol armor, as normal arrows were too thick to penetrate.[32]

By the mid 13th century, gunpowder weapons had become central to the Song war effort, and in 1257 the Song official Li Zengbo was dispatched to inspect border cities' arsenals. Li considered an ideal city arsenal to include several hundred thousand iron bombshells, and also its own production facility to produce at least a couple thousand a month. The results of his tour of the border were severely disappointing and in one arsenal he found "no more than 85 iron bomb-shells, large and small, 95 fire-arrows, and 105 fire-lances. This is not sufficient for a mere hundred men, let alone a thousand, to use against an attack by the ... barbarians. The government supposedly wants to make preparations for the defense of its fortified cities, and to furnish them with military supplies against the enemy (yet this is all they give us). What chilling indifference!"[33] Fortunately for the Song, Möngke Khan died in 1259 and the war would not continue until 1269 under the leadership of Kublai Khan, but when it did the Mongols came in full force.

Blocking the Mongols' passage south of the Yangtze were the twin fortress cities of Xiangyang and Fancheng. What resulted was one of the longest sieges the world had ever known, lasting from 1268 to 1273. For the first three years the Song defenders had been able to receive supplies and reinforcements by water, but in 1271 the Mongols set up a full blockade with a formidable navy of their own, isolating the two cities. This didn't prevent the Song from running the supply route anyways, and two men by the surname Zhang did exactly that. The Two Zhangs commanded a hundred paddle wheel boats, travelling by night under the light of lantern fire, but were discovered early on by a Mongol commander. When the Song fleet arrived near the cities, they found the Mongol fleet to have spread themselves out along the entire width of the Yangtze with "vessels spread out, filling the entire surface of the river, and there was no gap for them to enter."[34] Another defensive measure the Mongols had taken was the construction of a chain, which stretched across the water.[34] The two fleets engaged in combat and the Song opened fire with fire-lances, fire-bombs, and crossbows. A large number of men died trying to cut through chains, pull up stakes, and hurl bombs, while Song marines fought hand to hand using large axes, and according to the Mongol record, "on their ships they were up to the ankles in blood."[35] With the rise of dawn, the Song vessels made it to the city walls and the citizens "leapt up a hundred times in joy."[35] In 1273 the the Mongols enlisted the expertise of two Muslim engineers, one from Persia and one from Syria, who helped in the construction of counterweight trebuchets. These new siege weapons had the capability of throwing larger missiles further than the previous traction trebuchets. One account records, "when the machinery went off the noise shook heaven and earth; every thing that [the missile] hit was broken and destroyed."[35] The fortress city of Xiangyang fell in 1273.[16]

The next major battle to feature gunpowder weapons was during a campaign led by the Mongol general Bayan, who commanded an army of around two hundred thousand, consisting of mostly Chinese soldiers. It was probably the largest army the Mongols had ever utilized. Such an army was still unable to successfully storm Song city walls, as seen in the 1274 Siege of Shayang. Thus Bayan waited for the wind to change to a northerly course before ordering his artillerists to begin bombarding the city with molten metal bombs, which caused such a fire that "the buildings were burned up and the smoke and flames rose up to heaven."[16] Shayang was captured and its inhabitants massacred.[16]

Gunpowder bombs were used again in the 1275 Siege of Changzhou in the latter stages of the Mongol-Song Wars. Upon arriving at the city, Bayan gave the inhabitants an ultimatum: "if you ... resist us ... we shall drain your carcasses of blood and use them for pillows."[16] This didn't work and the city resisted anyways, so the Mongol army bombarded them with fire bombs before storming the walls, after which followed an immense slaughter claiming the lives of a quarter million.[16] The war lasted for only another four years during which some remnants of the Song held up last desperate defenses. In 1277, 250 defenders under Lou Jianxia conducted a suicide bombing and set off a huge iron bomb when it became clear defeat was imminent. Of this, the History of Song writes, "the noise was like a tremendous thunderclap, shaking the walls and ground, and the smoke filled up the heavens outside. Many of the troops [outside] were startled to death. When the fire was extinguished they went in to see. There were just ashes, not a trace left."[36][37] So came an end to the Mongol-Song Wars, which saw the deployment of all the gunpowder weapons available to both sides at the time, which for the most part meant gunpowder arrows, bombs, and lances, but in retrospect, another development would overshadow them all, the birth of the gun.[38]

Yuan dynasty and the gun[edit]

To clarify for the purposes of this section and any other references to "firearms" or "guns" in this article, what is meant is a a gunpowder weapon which uses "the explosive force of the gunpowder to propel a projectile from a tube: cannons, muskets, and pistols are typical examples."[39]

Contrary to conclusions drawn by some some 19th century historians, most modern historians now believe genuine firearms appeared to have been first invented in 13th century China, backed up by new archaeological evidence.[38][40] Traditionally, the first appearance of the gun has been dated to just after the Mongol conquest of the Song dynasty, during the late 13th century, when the fire lance proto-gun made the transition from the "bamboo- (or wood- or paper-) barreled firearm to the metal-barreled firearm."[38] Fire lances themselves were not true guns because in the beginning they did not include projectiles. Later on, shrapnel such as ceramics and bits of iron were added, but these didn't occlude the barrel, and were only swept along with the discharge rather than make use of windage. These projectiles were called "coviatives."[16] Fire lances branched off into several different forms called "eruptors" in the 12th and 13th centuries, with different functions such as the "filling-the-sky erupting tube" which spewed out poisonous gas and porcelain shards, the "orifice-penetrating flying sand magic mist tube" (鑽穴飛砂神霧筒) which spewed forth sand and poisonous chemicals into orifices, and the more conventional "phalanx-charging fire gourd" which shot out lead pellets.[38] The commonplace nature of the fire lance, if not in quantity, was apparent by the mid 13th century, and in 1257 an arsenal in Jiankang Prefecture reported the manufacture of 333 "fire emitting tubes" (突火筒). In 1259 a type of "fire-emitting lance" (突火槍) made an appearance and according to the History of Song: "It is made from a large bamboo tube, and inside is stuffed a pellet wad (子窠). Once the fire goes off it completely spews the rear pellet wad forth, and the sound is like a bomb that can be heard for five hundred or more paces."[38][41][42][43][44] The pellet wad mentioned may be the first true bullet in recorded history depending on how bullet is defined, as it did occlude the barrel, unlike previous coviatives used in the fire lance.[38] The character for lance, or spear (槍), has continued to refer to both the melee weapon and the firearm into modern China, perhaps as a reminder of its original form as simply a tube of gunpowder tied to a spear.

Archaeological samples of the gun, more specifically the cannon, or the hand cannon (huochong), started appearing in the 13th century. The oldest extant gun whose dating is unequivocal is the Xanadu Gun, so called because it was discovered in the ruins of Xanadu, the Mongol summer palace in Inner Mongolia. Its dating is based on archaeological context and a straightforward inscription whose era name and year corresponds with 1298. Not only does the inscription contain the era name and date, it also includes a serial number and manufacturing information which suggests that gun production had already become systematized, or at least become a somewhat standardized affair by the time of its fabrication. The design of the gun includes axial holes in its rear which some speculate could have been used in a mounting mechanism. Like most early guns with the possible exception of the Western Xia gun, it is small, weighing just over six kilograms and thirty-five centimeters in length.[45] Although the Xanadu Gun is the most precisely dated gun from the 13th century, other extant samples with approximate dating likely predate it. One candidate is the Heilongjiang hand cannon, discovered in 1970, and named after the province of its discovery, Heilongjiang, in northeastern China.[46][47] Based on contextual evidence, historians believe it was used by Yuan forces against a rebellion by Mongol prince Nayan in 1287. It is small and light like the Xanadu gun at 3.5 kilograms, 34 cm (Needham says 35 cm), and a bore of approximately 2.5 cm.[48]

Even older, the Ningxia gun was found in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region by collector Meng Jianmin (孟建民). This Yuan dynasty firearm is 34.6cm long, the muzzle 2.6cm in diameter, and weighs 1.55 kilograms. The firearm contains a transcription reading, "Made by bronzesmith Li Liujing in the year Zhiyuan 8 (直元), ningzi number 2565" (銅匠作頭李六徑,直元捌年造,寧字二仟伍百陸拾伍號). Similar to the Xanadu Gun, it has a serial number 2565, which suggests that it was part of a series of guns manufactured. While the era name and date corresponds with the Gregorian Calendar at 1271 CE, which would put it earlier than both the Heilongjiang Hand Gun as well as the Xanadu Gun, one of the characters used in the era name is irregular, causing some doubt among scholars on the exact date of production.[49]

Another sample was discovered in 1980, and possibly the oldest as well as largest of the 13th century: a 100 centimeter 108 kilogram bronze cannon discovered in a cellar in Gansu Province containing no inscription, but has been dated by historians to the late Western Xia period between 1214 and 1227. The gun contained an iron ball about nine centimeters in diameter, which is smaller than the muzzle diameter at twelve centimeters, and a tenth of a kilogram of gunpowder in it when discovered, meaning that the projectile might have been another coviative.[50] Ben Sinvany and Dang Shoushan believe that the ball used to be much larger prior to its highly corroded state at the time of discovery.[51] While large in size, the weapon is noticeably more primitive than later Yuan dynasty guns, and is unevenly cast. A similar weapon was discovered not far from the discovery site in 1997, but much smaller in size at only 1.5 kg.[52] Chen Bingying disputes this however, and argues there were no guns before 1259, while Dang Shoushan believes the Western Xia guns points to the appearance of guns by 1220, and Stephen Haw goes even further by stating that guns were developed as early as 1200.[49] Whether or not any of these are correct, it seems likely that the gun was born sometime during the 13th century.[52]

In 1280, a large store of gunpowder at Weiyang in Yangzhou accidentally caught fire, producing such a massive explosion that a team of inspectors at the site a week later deduced that some 100 guards had been killed instantly, with wooden beams and pillars blown sky high and landing at a distance of over 10 li (~2 mi. or ~3 km) away from the explosion, creating a crater more than ten feet deep.[53] One resident described the noise of the explosion as if it "was like a volcano erupting, a tsunami crashing. The entire population was terrified."[1] According to surviving reports, the incident was caused by inexperienced gunpowder makers hired to replace the previous ones, and had been careless while grinding sulfur. A spark caused by the grinding process came into contact with some fire lances which immediately started spewing flames and jetting around "like frightened snakes."[1] The gunpowder makers did nothing as they found the sight highly amusing, that is until one fire lance burst into a cache of bombs, causing the entire complex to explode. The validity of this report is somewhat questionable, assuming everyone within the immediate vicinity were killed.[1]

By the time of Jiao Yu and his Huolongjing (a book that describes military applications of gunpowder in great detail) in the mid 14th century, the explosive potential of gunpowder was perfected, as the level of nitrate in gunpowder formulas had risen from a range of 12% to 91%,[54] with at least 6 different formulas in use that are considered to have maximum explosive potential for gunpowder.[54] By that time, the Chinese had discovered how to create explosive round shot by packing their hollow shells with this nitrate-enhanced gunpowder.[55]

The Mongols used gunpowder during Ogdai Khan's invasion of Europe.[56] "Fire catapults", "pao", and "naphtha-shooters" were used.[57][58][59][60]

Shortly after the Mongol invasions of Japan (1274-1281), the Japanese also produced a scroll painting depicting explosive bombs used by Yuan forces.[61]

The samurai Suenaga facing Mongol and Korean arrows and bombs

Gun Transmission Theory[edit]

Stoneware bombs, known in Japanese as Tetsuhau (iron bomb), or in Chinese as Zhentianlei (thunder crash bomb), excavated from the Takashima shipwreck, October 2011, dated to the Mongol invasions of Japan (1271-1284 AD).
Three hollow pottery caltrops that would have been filled with gunpowder. 13th - 14th century, possibly Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368).
Ming dynasty pottery exploding caltrops (filled with gunpwder). From Ji County, Tianjin.
Ming dynasty pottery exploding caltrops.
An illustration of an "eruptor," a proto-cannon, from the 14th century Huolongjing.

Despite the oldest extant guns in China and their ties to the Mongol Yuan dynasty, there is a surprising scarcity of reliable evidence of guns in Iran or Central Asia prior to the late 14th century, nor in the Middle East prior to the 1360s, while Russian records do not contain reliable mentions of firearms until 1382, after the gun's arrival in Europe, despite their closer proximity and interactions with the Mongol empires.[62] However there is some evidence that do point to the possible appearance of guns in Andalusia as early as the 1330s.[62] Of this Thomas Allsen says that "in the Latin West the first uncontestable evidence of firearms is from 1326, surprisingly somewhat earlier than in the lands that lie between China ... and western Europe.[62] This has caused some doubt among historians on the gun transmission theory, and even whether or not there was a transmission at all.[63] One dissident opinion comes from Stephen Morillo, Jeremy Black, and Paul Lococo's War in World History which argues that "the sources are not entirely clear about Chinese use of gunpowder in guns. There are references to bamboo and iron cannons, or perhaps proto-cannons, but these seem to have been small, unreliable, handheld weapons in this period. The Chinese do seem to have invented guns independently of the Europeans, at least in principle; but, in terms of effective cannon, the edge goes to Europe,"[64] emphasizing an independent tradition and evolution of guns, but not gunpowder, unconnected to China's own. There is another independent invention theory supporting an Islamic origin of the gun, citing the Mamluk deployment of hand cannons in 1260 and the passage by Ibn Khaldun on the Marinid Siege of Sijilmassa in 1274: "[ The Sultan] installed siege engines … and gunpowder engines …, which project small balls of iron. These balls are ejected from a chamber … placed in front of a kindling fire of gunpowder; this happens by a strange property which attributes all actions to the power of the Creator."[65] This passage and its interpretation has mostly been rejected as anachronistic by most historians, who urge caution regarding claims of Islamic firearms use in the 1204-1324 period as late medieval Arabic texts used the same word for gunpowder, naft, that they used for an earlier incendiary, naphtha.[66][67]

Historian Tonio Andrade stands on the opposite end in the gun transmission debate, noting that while records of gunpowder weapons and its evolution into the gun exist in China, "there are no records of any such developments in Europe,"[62] and that the arrival of the gun in Europe was such that it "appears fully formed around 1326."[62] This is not strictly true, as Kelly DeVries points out that compilers of early gunpowder recipes in Europe understood that should the instrument carrying gunpowder be enclosed on one end, the gunpowder reaction inside would produce "flying fire."[65] Andrade goes on to analyze the nature and etymology of gunpowder in Europe and comes to the conclusion that it is intrinsically in favor of the transmission theory rather than an independent invention. There are the older and more numerous formulas of gunpowder using a variety of different proportions of key ingredients - saltpeter, sulphur, and charcoal - which he believes is proof of its evolution and experimentation in China, where gunpowder was first applied to warfare as an incendiary, then explosive, and finally as a propellant. In contrast gunpowder formulas in Europe appear both later and offer very little divergence from the already ideal proportions for the purpose of creating an explosive and propellant powder.[68] Another facet of the gunpowder transmission theory is the appearance of gunpowder in Europe ready made for military usage, and is generally referred to as gunpowder rather than a civilian term such as the Chinese "fire-drug," which suggests an originally non-military usage, whereas in Europe it was almost immediately and exclusively used for its military qualities.[69] Muslim terms of saltpeter may also point toward a gunpowder transmission, if not the gun itself, as an Andalusian botanist referred to it as "Chinese snow," while in Persia it was called "Chinese salt."[69] Perhaps even further in the Sinocentric gun transmission camp is Joseph Needham who claims that "all the long preparations and tentative experiments were made in China, and everything came to Islam and the West fully fledged, whether it was the fire-lance or the explosive bomb, the rocket or the metal-barrel hand-gun and bombard."[62] However, theories of European as well as Islamic origins for the gun still persist today in tandem with with the transmission theory.[65]

To sum up, there are problems on both extremes of the gun transmission debate. Its proponents emphasize the older history as attested by historical records and archaeological samples of gunpowder evolution in China, its less obviously militarily focused name as "fire medicine," the Mongol role as a catalyst in disseminating gunpowder technology, and criticizes the scant or absent evidence of prior experimentation with gunpowder in Europe for non-military purposes before the arrival of the gun.[70] However there are still several blanks in the history of a gun transmission theory and the questions they raise which its proponents have been unable to answer. The rapid spread of guns across Eurasia, only 50 years from China to Europe, with non-existent evidence of its route from one extreme of the continent to the other, remains a mystery. Other Chinese inventions such as the compass, paper, and printing took centuries to reach Europe, with events such as the Battle of Talas as perhaps a possible takeoff point for discussion. No such event exists on record for either gunpowder or the gun. There is simply no clear route of transmission,[69] and while the Mongols are often pointed to as the likeliest vector, Timothy May points out that "there is no concrete evidence that the Mongols used gunpowder weapons on a regular basis outside of China."[71] A conclusion most military historians in the transmission camp have come to is that the rapid diffusion of gunpowder and the gun is probably best explained by its clear military applications.[69]

On the other side of the spectrum, opponents of the theory criticize the vagueness of Chinese records on the specific usage of gunpowder in weaponry, the existence of gunpowder or possibly lack thereof in incendiary weapons as described by Chinese documents, the weakness of Chinese firearms, the non-existent route of diffusion or evidence of guns between Europe and China before 1326, and emphasize the independent evolution of superior guns in Europe.[70] This too becomes problematic as already discussed above. Notably the absence of any significant evidence of natural evolution or experimentation with gunpowder or gunpowder weapons leading up to the gun in 1326, which can be found in China. Gunpowder appeared in Europe primed for military usage as an explosive and propellant, making a nearly instantaneous and seamless transition into gun warfare, as its name suggests - a process which took Chinese experimentation with gunpowder weaponry centuries to reach. Bert S. Hall explains this phenomenon in his Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe: Gunpowder, Technology, and Tactics by drawing upon the gunpowder transmission theory, explaining that "gunpowder came [to Europe], not as an ancient mystery, but as a well-developed modern technology, in a manner very much like twentieth-century 'technology-transfer' projects."[69] There is also the vestige of Chinese influence, and not European, on Muslim terminology of some gunpowder related items such as saltpeter, which has been described as either Chinese snow or salt, fireworks which were called Chinese flowers, and rockets which were called Chinese arrows.[70] The argument for gunpowder transmission seems to be stronger than gun transmission. Whatever the truth may be, the first unambiguous references to guns appeared in Europe in the 1320s.[69]

Europe gets the gun[edit]

Earliest depiction of a European cannon, "De Nobilitatibus Sapientii Et Prudentiis Regum", Walter de Milemete, 1326.
Possibly the oldest surviving firearm in Europe, the Loshult gun was discovered in 1861 by a farmer in a Swedish parish, which the gun is named after. The Loshult gun is dated to the mid 14th century, 1330-50.
Western European handgun, 1380. 18 cm-long and weighing 1.04 kg, it was fixed to a wooden pole to facilitate manipulation. Musée de l'Armée.
The Mörkö gun is another early Swedish firearm discovered by a fisherman in the Baltic Sea at the coast of Södermansland near Nynäs in 1828. It has been given a date of ca. 1390.
The Tannenberg handgonne is a cast bronze firearm. Calibre 15-16 mm. A medieval hand cannon found in the water well of the 1399 destroyed Tannenberg castle. The Tannenberg handgonne is the oldest surviving firearm from Germany.
Recipes for gunpowder (pulveres pixidum) in a manuscript dated c. 1400 (GNM 3227a fol. 6rĎ).
European tiller gun lighted by a hot iron rod being fired from a stand, manuscript by Konrad Kyeser: Bellifortis. Ca. 1402-1404

One theory of how gunpowder came to Europe is that it made its way along the Silk Road through the Middle East; another is that it was brought to Europe during the Mongol invasion in the first half of the 13th century,[72][73] or during the subsequent diplomatic and military contacts (see Franco-Mongol alliance). William of Rubruck, an ambassador to the Mongols in 1254–1255 and a personal friend of Roger Bacon, is also often designated as a possible intermediary in the transmission of gunpowder know-how between the East and the West.[73][74] Several sources mention Chinese firearms and gunpowder weapons being deployed by the Mongols against European forces at the Battle of Mohi in 1241.[75][76][77] Professor Kenneth Warren Chase credits the Mongols for introducing into Europe gunpowder and its associated weaponry.[78] A medieval European work describing the powerful weapons that had been built by the Chinese,[79] has been suggested by historian Kenneth Warren Chase to be referring to the Chinese invention of gunpowder.[80]

One of the earliest European references to gunpowder is found in Roger Bacon's Epistola de secretis operibus artiis et naturae from 1267.[73][81] The oldest written recipes for gunpowder in Europe were recorded under the name Marcus Graecus or Mark the Greek between 1280 and 1300.[82] However, the very first time gunpowder was used in Europe for military purposes was in 1262, when king Alfonso X of Castile set siege to the city of Niebla in Spain whose Spanish-Arab inhabitants used some sort of primitive gun against the Spaniards.[83]

..The Arabs threw many (iron) balls launched with thunder, the Christians were very afraid of, as any member of the body hit was severed as if with a knife; and the wounded man died afterwards, because no surgery could heal him, in part because the balls were hot as fire, and apart of that, because the powders used were of such nature that any ulcer done meant the death of the injured man...

.. and he was hit with a ball of the thunder in the arm, and (the arm) was cut off, and died next day: and the same happened to all of those injured by the thunder. And even now the story is being told amongst the host...

..tiraban [los árabes] muchas pellas [bolas] de hierro que las lanzaban con truenos, de los que los cristianos sentían un gran espanto, ya que cualquier miembro del hombre que fuese alcanzado, era cercenado como si lo cortasen con un cuchillo; y como quisiera que el hombre cayera herido moría después, pues no había cirugía alguna que lo pudiera curar, por un lado porque venían [las pellas] ardiendo como fuego, y por otro, porque los polvos con que las lanzaban eran de tal naturaleza que cualquier llaga que hicieran suponía la muerte del hombre.

..et dieronle con una pella del trueno en el brazo, et cortarongelo, et murió luego otro dia: et eso mismo acesció a los qie del trueno eran feridos. Et aun la estoria va contando de los fechos de la hueste.

There is a record of a gun in Europe dating to 1322 being discovered in the nineteenth century but the artifact has since been lost.[65] The earliest known European depiction of a gun appeared in 1326 in a manuscript by Walter de Milemete, although not necessarily drawn by him, known as De Nobilitatibus, sapientii et prudentiis regum (Concerning the Majesty, Wisdom, and Prudence of Kings), which displays a gun with a large arrow emerging from it and its user lowering a long stick to ignite the gun through the touchole[84]P[69] In the same year, another similar illustration showed a darker gun being set off by a group of knights, which also featured in another work of de Milemete's, De secretis secretorum Aristotelis.[85] On 11 February of that same year, the Signoria of Florence appointed two officers to obtain canones de mettallo and ammunition for the town's defense.[86] In the following year a document from the Turin area records a certain amount was paid "for the making of a certain instrument or device made by Friar Marcello for the projection of pellets of lead."[69] A reference from 1331 describes an attack mounted by two Germanic knights on Cividale del Friuli, using gunpowder weapons of some sort.[84][69] The 1320s seem to have been the takeoff point for guns in Europe according to most modern military historians. Scholars suggest that the lack of gunpowder weapons in a a well-traveled Venetian's comprehensive list of weapons to be used in a new crusade in 1321 suggests that guns were unknown in Europe up until this point, further solidifying the 1320 mark, however more evidence in this area may be forthcoming in the future.[69]

From the 1320s guns spread rapidly across Europe. The French raiding party that sacked and burned Southampton in 1338 brought with them a ribaudequin and 48 bolts (but only 3 pounds of gunpowder).[84] By 1341 the town of Lille had a "tonnoire master," and a tonnoire was an arrow-hurling gun. In 1345, two iron cannons were present in Toulouse. In 1346 Aix-la-Chapelle too possessed iron cannons which shot arrows (busa ferrea ad sagittandum tonitrum).[87] The Battle of Crécy in 1346 was one of the first in Europe where cannons were used.[88] Florentine chronicler Giovanni Villani describes the deployment of firearms thus, "The English king arranged his archers, of whom he had many, on the carts, and some below and with guns [bombarde] that threw out small iron pellets [pallottole] with fire, to frighten the French horsemen and cause them to desert."[89] Another incident in the summer of 1346 involved a man by the name of Peter de Bruges who demonstrated to the consuls of Tournai the power of an arrow shooting gun, which went off making "a terrible and tremendous noise," and the arrow flew over the town, landing in a monastery plaza, unceremoniously killing a man by headshot.[90] De Bruges ran in fear of prosecution but the consuls judged the incident an accident of no fault of his own.[90] Two years later the town of Deventer had in its possession three cannons, or dunrebussen, and Frankfurt had cannons that shot arrows (büzenpzle), while the city of Rouen reported a "pot that shot iron arrows with fire" (pot de fer à traire garros à feu).[90] In 1350 Petrarch wrote that the presence of cannons on the battlefield was 'as common and familiar as other kinds of arms'.[91]

Along with the transmission and growing use of guns in Europe also came an infamous reputation. At least three Europeans in the 14th century described guns as either abnormal or inhuman. For instance, in 1344 Petrarch writes, "I wonder that thou hast not also brazen globes, which are cast forth by the force of flame with a horrible sound of thunder. Was not the wrath of an immortal god thundering from heaven sufficient, that the small being man— oh cruelty joined to pride— must even thunder on earth? Human rage has endeavored to imitate the thunder which cannot be imitated … and that which is wont to be sent from the clouds is now thrown from an infernal instrument."[90] furthermore he compares guns to the plague, "This plague was only recently so rare as to be looked on as a miracle; now … it has become as common as any other kind of weapon."[90] Englishman John Mirfield describes the gun as "that devilish instrument of war colloquially termed gunne,"[90] and Francesco di Giorgio Martini thought likewise of the discovery of guns and gunpowder, attributing it "not to human but to devilish agency."[90] In the history of early European guns, Christian authorities made vehement remarks against the use of gunpowder weapons, calling them blasphemous and part of the 'Black Arts'. By the mid-14th century, however, even the army of the Papal States would be armed with artillery and gunpowder weapons.[92]

Among the oldest archaeological examples of guns in Europe, there are two pieces from Sweden, the Loshult gun, and lesser known Morko gun. Possibly Europe's oldest extant firearm, the Loshult gun is a cast-bronze gun in the shape of a vase discovered in 1861 and named after the Swedish parish where the farmer dug it up. It is generally dated to around the mid 14th century and measures 31 cm overall, at a weight of 9.050 kilograms; the bore at the muzzle is 36 mm narrowing down to 31 mm on its way to the rear. A replica made by scholars has performed well shooting both arrows and other projectiles such as lead balls, grapeshot, and pieces of flint. The arrows and lead balls proved capable of penetrating late medieval plate armor as well as hitting a stationary target 200 meters away. However scholars believe the gun was primarily used for short range engagements because of the deep ruts and scratches in the barrel, which suggests that it carried shrapnel, an inaccurate but deadly projectile. It is now preserved in the Statens Historiska Museet Stockholm, inv.-no. 2891.[93] The Morko gun was found by a fisherman in the Baltic Sea at the coast of Södermansland near Nynäs before 1828 and dates to around the same period as the Loshult gun, ca. 1390.[94] In Germany the oldest gun is the Tannenberg handgonne discovered in 1849 at the bottom of a water well of the 1399 destroyed Tannenburg castle in Hessen.[95] It was found with a lead ball still loaded, and its wooden staff nearby, which started decaying after being exposed to air. The gun was aimed using the wooden staff, which fit into the back socket of the gun.[96] References to gunnis cum telar (guns with handles) were recorded in 1350 and by 1411 it was recorded that John the Good, Duke of Burgundy, had 4000 handguns stored in his armory.[97]

Around the late 14th century European powdermakers began adding liquid to the constituents of gunpowder which reduced dust, and with it the risk of explosion during manufacture. The powder makers would then shape the resulting paste of moistened gunpowder—known as mill cake—into "corns" or granules to allow it to dry. Not only did "corned" powder keep better, because of its reduced surface area, but gunners also found that it was more powerful and easier to load into guns. The main advantage of corning is that the flame lights all the granules when the gunpowder is lit, spreading between them before significant gas expansion has occurred. Without corning much of the powder, away from the initial flame, would be blown out of the barrel before it burnt. The size of the granules varied for different types of gun. Prior to corning, gunpowder would gradually demix into its constitutive components and was too unreliable for effective use in guns.[98] The same granulation process is used nowadays in the pharmaceutical industry to ensure that each tablet contains the same proportion of active ingredient. Before long, powdermakers standardized the process by forcing mill cake through sieves instead of corning powder by hand.[99]

Also around the late 14th century European and Ottoman guns began to deviate from designs in China, changing from small anti-personnel and incendiary devices to the larger artillery pieces most people imagine today when using the word "cannon."[100] If the 1320s can be considered the arrival of the gun on the European scene, then the end of the 14th century may very well be the departure point from the trajectory of gun development in China. In the last quarter of the 14th century, European guns grew larger and began to blast down fortifications.[100]

Before the musket was made, the arquebus was used in the Spanish Empire, Ottoman Empire, Portuguese Empire, and in Japan. However, musketeers and musket-wielding infantrymen were despised in society by the traditional feudal knights, even until the time of Cervantes (1547–1616 AD).[101]

Islamic world[edit]

A picture of a 15th-century Andalusian Arab cannon from the book Al-izz wal rifa'a.

During the invasion of Transoxania in 1219, along with the main Mongol force, Genghis Khan used a Chinese specialist catapult unit in battle, they were used again in 1220 in Transoxania, and during the 1239–1240 invasion of the Caucasus. The Chinese may have used the catapults to hurl gunpowder bombs, since they already had them by this time.[102] While Genghis Khan was conquering Transoxania and Persia, several Chinese who were familiar with gunpowder were serving with Genghis's army.[103] Historians have suggested that the Mongol invasion had brought Chinese gunpowder weapons to Central Asia. One of these was the huochong, a Chinese mortar.[104]

The Muslim world acquired knowledge of gunpowder some time after 1240, but before 1280, by which time Hasan al-Rammah had written, in Arabic, recipes for gunpowder, instructions for the purification of saltpeter, and descriptions of gunpowder incendiaries. Gunpowder arrived in the Middle East, possibly through India, from China. This is implied by al-Rammah's usage of "terms that suggested he derived his knowledge from Chinese sources" and his references to saltpeter as "Chinese snow" Arabic: ثلج الصين‎‎ thalj al-ṣīn, fireworks as "Chinese flowers" and rockets as "Chinese arrows".[105] However, because al-Rammah attributes his material to "his father and forefathers", al-Hassan argues that gunpowder became prevalent in Syria and Egypt by "the end of the twelfth century or the beginning of the thirteenth". Persians called saltpeter "Chinese salt"[106][107][108][109][110] or "salt from Chinese salt marshes" (namak shūra chīnī Persian: نمک شوره چيني‎‎).[111][112] Al-Baytar, an Arab from Spain who had immigrated to Egypt, wrote in Arabic that "snow of China" Arabic: ثلج الصين‎‎ thalj al-ṣīn was the name used to describe saltpeter. Al-Baytar died in 1248.[113] C. F. Temler interprets Peter, Bishop of Leon, as reporting the use of cannon in Seville in 1248.[114]

Hand cannons were reported to have been used in the Battle of Ain Jalut by the Mamluks against the Mongols,[115] however 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.[116] Khan claims that it was invading Mongols who introduced gunpowder to the Islamic world[117] 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.[101] Similarly, the refusal of their Qizilbash forces to use firearms contributed to the Safavid rout at Chaldiran in 1514.[101]

Hasan al-Rammah also describes the purifying of saltpeter using the chemical processes of solution and crystallization. This was the first clear method for the purification of saltpeter.[118] The earliest torpedo was also first described in 1270 by Hasan al-Rammah in The Book of Military Horsemanship and Ingenious War Devices, which illustrated a torpedo running with a rocket system filled with explosive materials and having three firing points.[119][120]

The Islamic Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires were called the Gunpowder Empires because each had considerable military success using the newly developed firearms.[121]


Bullocks dragging siege-guns up hill during Akbar's attack on Ranthambhor Fort[122]

Gunpowder technology is believed to have arrived in India by the mid-14th century, but could have been introduced much earlier by the Mongols, who had conquered both China and some borderlands of India, perhaps as early as the mid-13th century. The unification of a large single Mongol Empire resulted in the free transmission of Chinese technology into Mongol conquered parts of India. Regardless, it is believed that the Mongols used Chinese gunpowder weapons during their invasions of India.[123] It was written in the Tarikh-i Firishta (1606–1607) that the envoy of the Mongol ruler Hulegu Khan was presented with a dazzling pyrotechnics display upon his arrival in Delhi in 1258 AD.[124] The first gunpowder device, as opposed to naphtha-based pyrotechnics, introduced to India from China in the second half of the 13th century, was a rocket called the "hawai" (also called "ban").[125] The rocket was used as an instrument of war from the second half of the 14th century onward,[125] and the Delhi sultanate as well as Bahmani kingdom made good use of them.[126] As a part of an embassy to India by Timurid leader Shah Rukh (1405–1447), 'Abd al-Razzaq mentioned naphtha-throwers mounted on elephants and a variety of pyrotechnics put on display.[127] Roger Pauly has written that "while gunpowder was primarily a Chinese innovation," the saltpeter that led to the invention of gunpowder may have arrived from India, although it is also likely that it originates indigenously in China.[128]

Firearms known as top-o-tufak also existed in the Vijayanagara Empire of India by as early as 1366 AD.[124] By 1442 guns had a clearly felt presence in India as attested to by historical records.[62] From then on the employment of gunpowder warfare in India was prevalent, with events such as the siege of Belgaum in 1473 AD by the Sultan Muhammad Shah Bahmani.[129]


A hwacha manual from the 16th century

Korea first began production of gunpowder between the years 1374–76.[130] In the 14th century a Korean scholar named Choe Museon discovered a way to produce it after visiting China and bribing a merchant by the name of Li Yuan for the gunpowder formula.[131] In 1377 he figured out how to extract potassium nitrate from the soil and subsequently invented the juhwa, Korea's first rocket,[132] and further developments led to the birth of singijeons, Korean arrow rockets. The multiple rocket launcher known as hwacha ("fire cart" 火車) was developed from the juhwa and singijeon in Korea by 1409 during the Joseon Dynasty. Its inventors include Yi Do (이도, not to be mistaken for Sejong the Great, even though their names sounds similar) and Choi Hae-san (최해산, son of Choe Museon).[133][134] However the first hwachas did not fire rockets, but utilized mounted bronze guns that shot iron-fletched darts.[135] Rocket launching hwachas were developed in 1451 under the decree of King Munjong and his younger brother Pe. ImYung (Yi Gu, 임영대군 이구). This "Munjong Hwacha" is the well-known type today, and could fire 100 rocket arrows or 200 small Chongtong bullets at one time with changeable modules. At the time, 50 units were deployed in Hanseong (present-day Seoul), and another 80 on the northern border. By the end of 1451, hundreds of hwachas were deployed throughout Korea.[133][136]

Naval gunpowder weapons also appeared and were rapidly adopted by Korean ships for conflicts against Japanese pirates in 1380 and 1383. By 1410, 160 Korean ships were reported to have equipped artillery of some sort. Mortars firing thunder-crash bombs are known to have been used, and four types of cannons are mentioned: chonja (heaven), chija (earth), hyonja (black), and hwangja (yellow), but their specifications are unknown. These cannons typically shot wooden arrows tipped with iron, the longest of which were nine feet long, but stone and iron balls were sometimes used as well.[137]


Firearms seem to have first appeared in Japan around 1270 as proto-cannons invented in China, which the Japanese called teppō (鉄砲 lit. "iron cannon").[138] However gunpowder weapons saw very little use in Japan until Portuguese firearms were introduced in 1543.[139] The 1575 Battle of Nagashino saw the use of rotating volleys of fire from arquebuses wielded by the forces of Oda Nobunaga.[140] During the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592-1598), the forces of Toyotomi Hideyoshi effectively utilized matchlock firearms against the Korean forces of Joseon,[141] although they would ultimately be defeated and forced to withdraw from the Korean peninsula.

Early Modern history[edit]

Two "awe-inspiring long range cannons" (威遠砲), from the Wubei Zhi
An "awe-inspiring long range cannon" alongside three small great general cannons, Great Wall Museum, Badaling, China.
A depiction of the "crouching tiger cannon" from the Huolongjing (1350)
A "crouching tiger cannon" located at the Wolongtai Great Wall section, Xinyang, Henan, China.

The 15th through 17th century saw widespread development in gunpowder technology throughout the Old World. During the 15th and 16th centuries, these developments were more advanced in India and Persia than in Europe, but by the 17th century, technological progress in Europe led to application of gunpowder on a scale and to an effect unprecedented anywhere else, both in warfare and in civil engineering. Gunpowder remained of central importance throughout the Early Modern period, and throughout the Napoleonic era, and was only replaced by more advanced explosives beginning in the 1860s.

Ming Chinese firearms[edit]

Gun development and proliferation in China continued under the Ming dynasty. The success of its founder Zhu Yuanzhang, who declared his reign to be the era of Hongwu, or "Great Martiality," has often been attributed to his effective use of guns. Early Ming military codes stipulated that ideally 10 percent of all soldiers should be gunners.By 1380 the Ming dynasty boasted around 130,000 gunners out of its 1.3 to 1.8 million strong army. Under the Hongwu Emperor's successors, the percentage climbed higher and by the 1440s it reached 20 percent. In 1466 the ideal composition was 30 percent. The Hongwu Emperor created a Bureau of Armaments (軍器局) which was tasked with producing every three years 3000 handheld bronze guns, 3000 signal cannons, and ammunition as well as accoutrements such as ramrods. His Armory Bureau (兵仗局) was responsible for producing types of guns known as "great generals," "secondary generals," "tertiary generals," and "gate-seizing generals." Other firearms such as "miraculous [fire] lances," "miraculous guns," and "horse-beheading guns" were also produced. It is unclear what proportion or how many of each type were actually manufactured.[142] However most early Ming guns weighed only two to three kilograms while guns considered "large" at the time weighed around only seventy-five kilograms. A gun known as the "Great Bowl-Mouth Tube" (大碗口筒) dated to 1372 weighs only 15.75 kilograms and was 36.5 centimeters long, its muzzle 11 centimeters in diameter. Other excavated guns of this type range from 8.35 to 26.5 kilograms. While they were usually mounted on ships or gates they were also relatively small compared to the cannons of the 16th to 17th centuries associated with naval warfare. Ming sources suggest guns such as these shot stones and iron balls, but were primarily used against men rather than for causing structural damage to ships or walls. Accuracy was low and they were limited to a range of only 50 paces or so.[143]

Guns as well as other gunpowder weapons were used in abundance during the famous Battle of Lake Poyang which lasted from 30 August to 4 October 1363. There were at least a hundred vessels and approximately 500,000 combatants altogether involved, although traditional numbers have gone even higher. Poyang Lake was situated on a strategic location connecting the Yangtze with other river basins and in the early 1360s Zhu Yuanzhang held key garrisons on the lake, which he administered from Nanjing 560 kilometers downriver. Upstream was the state of Han (大漢; Pinyin: Dahan, "Great Han") under Chen Youliang, who set out to wrest control of the lake from Zhu Yuanzhang. Chen's force consisted of "tower ships" designed for depositing soldiers on riverside city walls rather than waterborne combat, and the purpose of these ships was to capture the city of Nanchang, which guarded Lake Poyang from the south. This proved futile as the city defenders simply moved the walls back, and Chen was forced to personally lead an assault on the city gates, which was met with a counterattack with huochong (early Ming guns), and they were driven back. After this failure, Chen set up a blockade, determined to starve out the defenders, but a small fishing managed to slip out and reached Nanjing in time to warn Zhu Yuanzhang.[144]

Zhu's fleet arrived at Poyang Lake on 29 August faced with Chen's larger force and was outnumbered three to two. According to one Ming source, Zhu's force arrived armed with "fire bombs, fire guns, fire arrows, fire seeds [probably grenades], large and small fire lances, large and small 'commander' fire-tubes, large and small iron bombs, rockets."[145] This shows that older gunpowder weapons co-existed alongside guns, and proto-guns such as fire lances were not supplanted until after early Ming. A new weapon called the "No Alternative" was also mentioned. The No Alternative was "made from a circular reed mat about five inches around and seven feet long that was pasted over with red paper and bound together with silk and hemp— stuffed inside it was gunpowder twisted in with bullets and all kinds of [subsidiary] gunpowder weapons."[145] It was hung from a pole on the foremast, and when an enemy ship came into close range, the fuse was lit, and the weapon would supposedly fall onto the enemy ship, at which point things inside shot out "and burned everything to bits, with no hope of salvation."[145] Zhu's fleet engaged Chen's under orders to "get close to the enemy's ships and first set off gunpowder weapons (發火器), then bows and crossbows, and finally attack their ships with short range weapons."[146] Fire bombs were hurled using naval trebuchets and the Ming succeeded in "burning twenty or more enemy vessels and killing or drowning many enemy troops."[147] Ming eventually came out victorious by ramming and burning the enemy fleet with fire ships. While guns were used during the battle, ultimately they were not pivotal to success, and the battle was won using incendiary weapons.[148]

In 1358 at the Siege of Shaoxing the defenders "used ... fire tubes to attack the enemy's advance guard" against Ming.[149] The siege was won by the defenders, whose "fire tubes went off all at once, and the [attacker's] great army could not stand against them and had to withdraw."[150] Ming began fielding cannons in greater proportions during the Siege of Suzhou in 1366, but they were relatively small and were used primarily for killing human beings rather than creating a breech in the city's defensive fortifications. Suzhou's fortifications were previously rebuilt in 1352 and contemporary documents of the city wall record a width of eleven meters at the base, five meters at the top, seven meters high, and seventeen kilometers all around. The walls were constructed using tamped earth covered with brick and sloped from bottom to top. Ming commander Xu Da ordered the army to set up a blockade. Watchtowers 13 meters high were constructed, which the Ming Veritable Records notes "were placed bows and guns."[149] Each of the 48 Ming divisions (衛) were equipped with 50 large and small "general tubes" (大小將軍筒), a total of 2400 guns, and besieged the city. Large ones weighed only 80 kilograms or less and the majority were small ones which weighed a couple kilograms at most. The largest possibly a meter long with a muzzle diameter of 21 centimeters, but these would have been rare exceptions in the early Ming arsenal.[149] The lack of larger siege weapons in China unlike the rest of the world where cannons grew larger and more potent has been attributed to the immense thickness of traditional Chinese walls, which Tonio Andrade suggests provided no incentive for creating larger cannons, since even industrial artillery had trouble overcoming them.[149] Chinese walls during the Ming period continued the traditional building practices and nearly every prefectural and provincial capital was fortified with walls between 10 and 20 meters thick at the base and 5 to 10 meters wide at the top.[151]

Each division was also equipped with five Xiangyang Trebuchets and five "Seven-Component Trebuchets" (七梢炮), which were used to destroy wooden structure on the walls, but were unable to breech the walls themselves despite the fact that "the noise of the guns and the paos went day and night and didn't stop."[152] In a rare occurrence of Chinese history, the city defenses were eventually breached, but this happened through the gates, which were covered by an outwork, outer gate, and finally consisted of an inner gate. Rather than bombarding the entrance, the breach was made by traditional manual mining and battering, which was possible since the defenders were already starving by mid-autumn of 1367 and unable to put up a proper resistance. succumbing to the onslaught of a frontal assault.[153] The battle continued inside the city where Zhang Shicheng's remaining 20 thousand troops engaged in street to street combat until he fled from his palace. His wives and concubines burned themselves to death. Zhang then tried to commit suicide, but was captured and taken back to Nanjing as "a guest."[154] Despite the increasing quantity of guns fielded in battles and sieges, Ming guns remained small and limited to anti-personnel purposes, and were often not pivotal to the victory istelf.[154]

Big guns[edit]

Main article: History of artillery
Further information: Culverin and Italian Wars
Faule Metze ( Metze, old term for a whore)("Lazy Mette"), a medieval supergun from 1411 from Braunschweig, Germany
The Siege of Rouen in 1419 (illustration from Vigiles de Charles VII).
Faule Magd ("Lazy Maid"), a medieval cannon from ca. 1410–1430.
The bronze Dardanelles cannon, used by the Ottoman Turks in the siege of Constantinople in 1453, was the first supergun.

The development of large artillery pieces and larger guns began with Burgundy. Originally a minor power, it grew to become one of the most powerful states in 14th-century Europe, and a great innovator in siege warfare. The Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Bold (1363-1404), based his power on the effective use of big guns and promoted research and development in all aspects of gunpowder weaponry technology. Philip established manufacturers and employed more cannon casters than any European power before him, however he wasn't the first to build large guns. The first appeared in 1375 when a dozen or so smiths in Caen developed a 900 kilogram cannon which took six weeks to create. Whereas most European guns before about 1370 weighed about 20 to 40 lbs (9-14 kg), the French siege of Château de Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte in 1375 during the Hundred Years War saw the use of guns weighing over a ton (900 kg), firing stone balls weighing over 100 lbs (45 kg).[155] Philip used large guns to help the French capture the fortress of Odruik in 1377, which was held by the English at the time. These guns fired projectiles far larger than any that had been used before, and among the 140 cannons Philip brought to Odruik, 109 were large, with seven guns that could shoot projectiles as heavy as 90 kilograms. The cannons smashed the city walls, some going right through them, and Odruik surrendered, inaugurating a new era of artillery warfare. Burgundy's territories rapidly expanded using their new gun designs.[156]

Europe entered an arms race to build ever larger artillery pieces. Burgundy's guns continued to develop, and in the same year that Odruik fell, Philip's smith constructed a gun capable of shooting balls weighing 200 kilograms. In 1382 an "incredibly huge bombard"[157] was aimed at Oudenaarde, its muzzle 60 inches around and 20 inches in diameter. One observer described it thus, "One could hear it for five leagues in the daytime, and ten leagues at night, and it made such a huge noise that … it seemed as though all the demons of hell were present."[158] By the early 15th century both French and English armies were equipped with larger pieces known as bombards, weighing up to 5 tons (4,535 kg) and firing balls weighing up to 300 lbs (136 kg).[155] In 1404 a cannon was created with the inscription, "I am named Katrin. Beware of what I hold. I punish injustice."[159] In 1411 the cast iron cannon Faule Mette was created, and it was capable of shooting stone balls weighing 400 kilograms, but didn't very often.[159] The artillery trains used by Henry V of England in the 1415 Siege of Harfleur and 1419 Siege of Rouen proved effective in breaching French fortifications, while artillery contributed to the victories of French forces under Joan of Arc in the Loire Campaign (1429).[160] It wasn't just the English blasting their way through France either. Burgundy started by battering down the walls of Vellexon in 1409 and in 1411 they took Ham with only three shots from their bombard Griette.[159] France eventually came around under the reforms of King Charles V (1422-1461), whose leadership made France the premier artillery force in Europe, and won the Hundred Years' War. Gun developments in France would prove extremely effective during the Italian wars of the 1490s.[161] In 1431 a wrought-iron cannon was forged, weighing over 12,000 kilograms and could fire projectiles of 300 kilograms. It was called the Dulle Griet.[159] These weapons were transformational for European warfare. A hundred years earlier the Frenchman Pierre Dubois wrote that a "castle can hardly be taken within a year, and even if it does fall, it means more expenses for the king’s purse and for his subjects than the conquest is worth,"[159] but by the 15th century European walls fell with the utmost regularity.

The Ottoman Empire was also developing their own artillery pieces. Mehmed the Conqueror (1432-1481) was determined to procure large cannons for the purpose of conquering Constantinople and paid handsomely as well as allowed creative autonomy for cannon makers. One of the cannon makers that responded to his call was a Hungarian named Urban, who left Byzantium after being denied a raise by the Byzantine emperor. Urban labored for four months to create six meter long cannon, which required hundreds of pounds of gunpowder to fire, and its stone projectiles weighed between 550 and 800 kilograms. The gun's projectiles were reported to have flown for a mile before landing, and shook the entire ground when fired, the roar blasting four miles away. It had to be transported by 30 wagons pulled by 60 oxen, with the assistance of 200 handlers. An additional 50 carpenters and 200 laborers helped in the transport by leveling terrain and building bridges.[162] During the actual siege of Constantinople the gun proved to be somewhat underwhelming. The aiming process was laborious and after each shot it required hot oil ointment for cooling. Its rate of fire was once every three hours, and may have even suffered damage from cracks early on, never to be repaired.[163]

Fortunately for the Ottomans it wasn't Mehmed's only cannon. Dozens of other large cannons alongside 500 smaller cannons bombarded Constantinople's walls in their weakest sections for 55 days. A Greek contemporary, Kritoboulos, describes the scene thus, "The stone, borne with tremendous force and velocity, hit the wall, which it immediately shook and knocked down, and was itself broken into many fragments and scattered, hurling the pieces everywhere and killing those who happened by be near by. Sometimes it demolished a whole section, and sometimes a half-section, and sometimes a larger or smaller section of a tower or turret or battlement. And there was no part of the wall strong enough or resistant enough or thick enough to be able to withstand it, or to wholly resist such force and such a blow of the stone cannon-ball."[163] Mehmed's smaller artillery pieces also proved effective. Constantinople's defenders wielded their own formidable guns and "fired … five or ten bullets at a time, each about the size of a … walnut, and having a great power of penetration. If one of these hit an armed man it would go right through his shield and his body and go on to hit anyone else who happened to be in his way, and even a third, until the force of the powder diminished; so one shot might hit two or three men."[163] Despite the fierce defense, the city's fortifications were ultimately overwhelmed in a final assault and the sultan won the siege.

To counter the power of siege artillery, the star fort design for lower, wider fortifications was established in Italy by the mid-15th century, while the Florentine engineer Giuliano da Sangallo (1445-1516) developed a comprehensive defensive system of the geometric bastion and full trace italienne that became widespread thoughout Italy in the 16th century.[164]

Chinese Wall Theory[edit]

The Stone City is the site of an ancient fortified city within Nanjing. Almost all of the original city is gone; all that remains are portions of the massive city wall.
Old City of Shanghai with walls and seafront.
Defensive wall of Prince Qin Mansion, western section.

While China was the birthplace of gunpowder the guns there remained relatively small and light, weighing less than 80 kilograms or less for the large ones, and only a couple kilograms at most for the small ones during the early Ming era. Guns themselves had proliferated throughout China and become a common sight during sieges, so the question has arisen then why large guns were not first developed in China. According to Tonio Andrade, this wasn't a matter of metallurgy, which was sophisticated in China, and the Ming dynasty did construct large guns in the 1370s, but never followed up afterwards. Nor was it the lack of warfare, which other historians have suggested to be the case, but does not stand up to scrutiny as walls were a constant factor of war which stood in the way of many Chinese armies since time immemorial into the twentieth century. The answer Andrade provides is simply that Chinese walls were much less vulnerable to bombardment.[165] Andrade argues that traditional Chinese walls were built differently from medieval European walls in ways which made them more suitable for resisting cannon fire.

Chinese walls were bigger than medieval European walls and even in the mid-twentieth century a European expert in fortification commented on their immensity: "in China … the principal towns are surrounded to the present day by walls so substantial, lofty, and formidable that the medieval fortifications of Europe are puny in comparison."[165] Chinese walls were thick. Ming prefectural and provincial capital walls were ten to twenty meters thick at the base and five to ten meters at the top. In Europe the height of wall construction was reached under the Romans, whose walls often reached 10 meters in height, the same as many Chinese city walls, but were only 1.5 to 2.5 meters thick. Rome's Servian Walls reached 3.6 and 4 meters in thickness and 6 meters in height. Other fortifications also reached these specifications across the empire, but all these paled in comparison to contemporary Chinese walls, which could reach a thickness of 20 meters at the base. Even the walls of Constantinople, which have been described as "the most famous and complicated system of defence in the civilized world,"[161] could not match up to a major Chinese city wall.[151] Had both the outer and inner walls of Constantinople been combined, they would have only reached roughly a bit more than a third the width of a major wall in China.[151] European walls of the 1200s and 1300s could reach the Roman equivalents and most were around 2 meters thick. When referring to a very thick wall in medieval Europe, what is usually meant is a two and half meter thick wall, considered thin in a Chinese context.[166] Andrade goes on to further disparage medieval European fortifications, noting that the walls of the marketplace of Chang'an were thicker than the walls of major European capitals.[166]

Chinese walls were structurally different from the ones built in medieval Europe. Whereas European walls were for the most part constructed of stone with gravel or rubble filling and limestone mortar, Chinese walls had tamped earthen cores which absorbed the energy of artillery shots.[167] Walls were built using constructed wooden frameworks which were then filled with layers of earth tamped down to a highly compact state, and once that was completed the frameworks were removed for use in the next wall section. Starting from the Song dynasty these walls were improved with an outer layer of bricks or stone to prevent corrosion, and during the Ming earthworks were interspersed with stone and rubble.[167] Chinese walls were also sloped, better deflecting projectile energy than vertical walls.[168]

The Chinese Wall Theory essentially rests on a cost benefit hypothesis, where the Ming Chinese recognized the highly resistant nature of their walls to structural damage, and could not imagine any affordable development of the guns available to them at the time to be capable of breaching said walls. Even as late as the 1490s a Florentine diplomat considered the French claim that "their artillery is capable of creating a breach in a wall of eight feet in thickness"[169] to be ridiculous and the French "braggarts by nature."[169] In fact twentieth century explosive shells had some difficulty creating a breach in tamped earthen walls.[170] Andrade goes on to question whether or not Europeans would have developed large artillery pieces in the first place had they faced Chinese style walls so resistant to projectiles, coming to the conclusion that such exorbitant investments in weapons unable to serve their primary purpose would not have been ideal. Yet Chinese walls do not fully explain the divergence in gun development as European guns grew not only bigger, but more effective as well. By 1490 the European gun had achieved the basic form it would take for the next three centuries, during which it would dominate the fields of warfare.[171] The Classic Gun had arrived, and in the 1510s and 1520s when the Chinese encountered European firearms, they fully recognized they were superior to their own.[172]

Mughal India[edit]

An illustration from the Akbarnama written by Abu'l-Fazl ibn Mubarak (1551–1602) depicts a gun in Akbar's court (bottom center).

By the 17th century, Indians were manufacturing a diverse variety of firearms; large guns in particular, became visible in Tanjore, Dacca, Bijapur and Murshidabad.[173] Guns made of bronze were recovered from Calicut (1504) and Diu (1533).[174] Gujarāt supplied Europe saltpeter for use in gunpowder warfare during the 17th century.[175] Bengal and Mālwa participated in saltpeter production.[175] The Dutch, French, Portuguese, and English used Chāpra as a center of saltpeter refining.[176]

Fathullah Shirazi (c. 1582), who worked for Akbar the Great as a mechanical engineer, developed an early multi gun shot. As opposed to the polybolos and repeating crossbows used earlier in ancient Greece and China, respectively, Shirazi's rapid-firing gun had multiple gun barrels that fired hand cannons loaded with gunpowder.[177]

In Encyclopædia Britannica (2008), Stephen Oliver Fought & John F. Guilmartin, Jr. describe the gunpowder technology in 18th century India, with reference to the rocket artillery used by the Kingdom of Mysore (as described in the Fathul Mujahidin) and its influence on the Congreve rocket:[178]

Hyder Ali, prince of Mysore, developed war bombs with an important change: the use of metal pipes to contain the combustion powder. Although the hammered soft iron he used was crude, the bursting strength of the container of black powder was much higher than the earlier paper construction. Thus a greater internal pressure was possible, with a resultant greater thrust of the propulsive jet. The rocket body was lashed with leather thongs to a long bamboo stick. Range was perhaps up to three-quarters of a mile (more than a kilometer). Although individually these rockets were not accurate, dispersion error became less important when large numbers were fired rapidly in mass attacks. They were particularly effective against cavalry and were hurled into the air, after lighting, or skimmed along the hard dry ground. Hyder Ali's son, Tippu Sultan, continued to develop and expand the use of rocket weapons, reportedly increasing the number of rocket troops from 1,200 to a corps of 5,000. In battles at Seringapatam in 1792 and 1799 these rockets were used with considerable effect against the British.

The news of the successful use of rockets spread through Europe. In England Sir William Congreve began to experiment privately. First, he experimented with a number of black-powder formulas and set down standard specifications of composition. He also standardized construction details and used improved production techniques. Also, his designs made it possible to choose either an explosive (ball charge) or incendiary warhead.

In A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder, James Riddick Partington describes Indian rockets, mines and other means of gunpowder warfare:[179]

The Indian war rockets were formidable weapons before such rockets were used in Europe. They had bam-boo rods, a rocket-body lashed to the rod, and iron points. They were directed at the target and fired by lighting the fuse, but the trajectory was rather erratic. The use of mines and counter-mines with explosive charges of gunpowder is mentioned for the times of Akbar and Jahāngir.

Early Modern Europe[edit]


Further information: Early Modern warfare
18th Century French cannon

Advances in metallurgy led to portable weapons and the development of hand-held firearms such as muskets. Cannon technology in Europe gradually outpaced that of China and these technological improvements were then transferred back to China through Jesuit missionaries who were put in charge of cannon manufacture by the late Ming and early Qing emperors.

Different shapes of corned gunpowder, each with its own function

Shot and gunpowder for military purposes were made by skilled military tradesmen, who were later called firemakers, who were also required to make fireworks for celebrations of victory or peace. During the Renaissance two European schools of pyrotechnic thought emerged, one in Italy and the other at Nürnberg, Germany. The Italian school of pyrotechnics emphasized elaborate fireworks, the German school stressed scientific advancement. Both schools added significantly to the further development of pyrotechnics and, by the mid-17th century, fireworks were used for entertainment on an unprecedented scale in Europe—being popular even at resorts and public gardens.[180] At the same time some military men were disguising gray in their beards by dusting them with gunpowder, the antiquary John Aubrey noted in his memoranda.[181]


Until the invention of gunpowder, large rocks could only be broken up by hard labor or by heating with large fires followed by rapid quenching. Black powder was used in civil engineering and mining as early as the 15th century.[182] The earliest surviving record for the use of gunpowder in mines comes from Hungary in 1627.[182] It was introduced to Britain in 1638 by German miners, after which records are numerous.[183] Until the invention of the safety fuse by William Bickford in 1831, the practice was extremely dangerous.[184][185] Another reason for danger were the dense fumes given off and the risk of igniting flammable gas when used in coal mines.


The first time gunpowder was used on a large scale in civil engineering was in the construction of the Canal du Midi in Southern France.[185] It was completed in 1681 and linked the Mediterranean sea with the Atlantic with 240 km of canal and 100 locks. Another noteworthy consumer of black powder was the Erie canal in New York, which was 585 km long and took eight years to complete, starting in 1817.[185]

Tunnel construction[edit]

Black powder was also extensively used in railway construction. At first railways followed the contours of the land, or crossed low ground by means of bridges and viaducts, but later railways made extensive use of cuttings and tunnels. One 2400-ft stretch of the 5.4 mi Box Tunnel on the Great Western Railway line between London and Bristol consumed a ton of gunpowder per week for over two years.[185] The 12.9 km long Mont Cenis Tunnel was completed in 13 years starting in 1857 but, even with black powder, progress was only 25 cm a day until the invention of pneumatic drills sped up the work.

The latter half of the 19th century saw the invention of nitroglycerin, nitrocellulose and smokeless powders which soon replaced black powder in many applications.

Later improvements[edit]

Gunpowder as a gun propellant suffered from several weaknesses inherent to its composition. It was subject to passivation by moisture and was awkward to load and ignite in a weapon. Sulfur oxides and moisture produced corrosion on metal gun components and the smoke gave away the position of the shooter. The development of cartridges and explosive primers were a major improvement in the use of gunpowders in the field.

From the earliest period, gunpowder has been composed of a nitrate salt, sulfur, and carbonaceous matter. The Nitrate component is the Oxidizing agent, Sulfur is a low melting Reducing agent and serves to aid in the transfer of heat through the gunpowder mass, and Carbon is a reducing component producing hot, high pressure gas. The utility of gunpowder lies in its ability to accelerate a projectile by the explosive expansion of gas. The development of new explosive materials in the 19th century naturally led to improvements in the rate and magnitude of pressure rise as well as new means for ignition of the charge.

Nitroester[186] compositions nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin were developed by Henri Braconnot in 1832 and Ascanio Sobrero in 1846, respectively. The development of smokeless powder stemmed from efforts by numerous workers to produce an improved gun propellant providing better resistance to moisture, greater muzzle velocity, and generally greater reliability. By the end of the 19th century, nitroester compositions Poudre B, Ballistite, and Cordite were the major smokeless propellants. Significantly, many nitroesters were capable of detonation without confinement. The classic gunpowder composition was only capable of Deflagration in the open.

The process of aromatic nitration to afford picric acid from the trinitration of phenol was performed in the early 19th century, though it is possible that Johann Rudolf Glauber may have reported it much earlier. Nitroesters would find use in gun propellant formulation. Nitroaromatics like picric acid eventually found use in explosive cannon shells owing to their ability to withstand the severe shock of firing.

United States of America[edit]

Revolutionary War[edit]

During the American Revolutionary War, a number of caves were mined for saltpeter to make gunpowder when supplies from Europe were embargoed. Abigail Adams, reputedly also made gunpowder at her family farm in Massachusetts.[187]

The New York Committee of Safety (American Revolution) produced some essays on making gunpowder that were printed in 1776.[188]

Civil War[edit]

During the American Civil War, British India was the main source for saltpeter for the manufacture of gunpowder for the Union armies. This supply was threatened by the British government during the Trent Affair, when Union naval forces stopped a British ship, the RMS Trent, and removed two Confederate diplomats. The British government responded in part by halting all exports of saltpeter to the United States, threatening their gunpowder manufacturing resources. Shortly thereafter, the situation was resolved and the Confederate diplomats were released.[189]

The Union Navy blockaded the southern Confederate States, which reduced the amount of gunpowder that could be imported from overseas. The Confederate Nitre and Mining Bureau was formed to produce gunpowder for the army and the navy from domestic resources. Nitre[190] is the English spelling of "Niter". While carbon and sulfur were readily available throughout the south, potassium nitrate was often produced from the Calcium nitrate found in cave dirt, tobacco barn floors and barn stalls other places. A number of caves were mined, and the men and boys who worked in the caves were called "peter monkey", somewhat in imitation of the naval term "powder monkey" that was used for the boys who brought up charges of gunpowder on gunboats.[191]

See also[edit]


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  3. ^ a b Acosta, Oscar. "American Firearms Gun History". www.americanfirearms.org. www.americanfirearms.org. Retrieved 30 October 2015. 
  4. ^ a b c Lorge 2008, p. 32.
  5. ^ 2008, p. 32.
  6. ^ "The Explosive Quest for Immortality". Retrieved 14 October 2016. 
  7. ^ Andrade 2016, p. 30.
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  10. ^ Andrade 2016, p. 16.
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  12. ^ 天佑初,王茂章征安仁义于润州,洎城陷,中十余创,以功迁左先锋都尉。从攻豫章,(郑)璠以所部发机「飞火」,烧龙沙门,率壮士突火先登入城,焦灼被体,以功授检校司徒。(Rough Translation: During the beginning of Tianyou Era (904-907), Zheng Fan followed Wang Maozhang under a campaign of Runzhou, which was guarded by rebel An Renyi, he was severely injured by the time it was captured, as the result he was promoted as the Junior General of Left Vanguard. At the campaign of Yuchang, he ordered his troops to propel the "flying fire" on the besieged city, after the city-gate of Longsha was burnt, he led his troops dashed over the fire and entered the city, his body was scorched, as the result he was promoted as the Prime Minister of Inspectorate.) Records of Nine Kingdoms ch. 2
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  15. ^ a b c d Andrade 2016, p. 35.
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  17. ^ Chase, Kenneth (2003). Firearms : A Global History to 1700 (1. publ. ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 32–33. ISBN 0521822742. 
  18. ^ Needham, Joseph (1986), Science & Civilisation in China, V:7: The Gunpowder Epic, Cambridge University Press, p. 222, ISBN 0-521-30358-3.
  19. ^ Chase, Kenneth Warren (2003). Firearms: A Global History to 1700. Cambridge University Press, p. 31, ISBN 978-0-521-82274-9.
  20. ^ Lorge 2008, p. 33-34.
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  37. ^ Partington, James Riddick (1960). A history of Greek fire and gunpowder (reprint, illustrated ed.). JHU Press. p. 250. ISBN 0-8018-5954-9. Retrieved 28 November 2011. and the Persian chronicler Vassaf (al Wassaf; fl. A.D. 1303-28), a protege of Rashid al-din, reported that the Persian Khtan Uljai'tu in Syria collected in 1313 and army to fight the Egyptians with stone-throwing machines, armour from Europe, archers from Baghdad, bottles of naphtha, and pyrotechnists from China... After defeating the Kipchak Turks (Cumans), Bulgars and Russians, the Mongol army under Subutai took Cracow and Breslau, and on 9 April 1241, defeated a German army under Duke Henry of Silesia at Liegnitz. The Mongols under Batu defeated the Hungarians under King Bela IV at Mohi on the Sajo on 11 April 1241. Prawdin says:...Romocki mentioned that a "flying dragon" (see p. 149) was used at Liegnitz in April, 1241, by the Mongols, and the chroniclers speak of a "feuerspeienden Kopf."... The Sung Shih (451/6a, b) reports48 that in 1277 Lou Ch'ien-Hsia ordered his men to bring up a huo p'ao. "He lit it and a clap of thunder was heard, the walls crumbled, and smoke covered the sky. Many soldiers outside (en dehors) died of fright. When the fire went out, they went inside and failed to find even the ashes of the 250 defenders; they had disappeared without trace." This is obviously an exaggeration (the effect is impossible) but the small core of fact in the account suggests that a chen t'ien lei like that of 1232 (see p. 244) is concerned. 
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  41. ^ Partington, James Riddick (1960). A history of Greek fire and gunpowder (reprint, illustrated ed.). JHU Press. p. 246. ISBN 0-8018-5954-9. Retrieved 28 November 2011. Dr. Needham has given me a translation (from the Sung Shih 197/15b, A.D. 1345) as follows : Inventions at the arsenral of Shou-Ch'un Fu. They also made a t'u huo ch'iang (impetuous fire-lance) using a huge bamboo tube as the barrel (t'ung), and inside they put a nest of pellets* (tzu k'o). When ignited a violent blazing flame (yen) came forth and as this was ending (all) the pellets were shot out like trebuchet projectiles (p'ao). The noise could be heard for more than 150 paces (i.e. X 5 ft. = 750 ft. = 250 yd.). 
  42. ^ Bodde, Derk (1987). Charles Le Blanc, Susan Blader, ed. Chinese ideas about nature and society: studies in honour of Derk Bodde. Hong Kong University Press. p. 304. ISBN 962-209-188-1. Retrieved 28 November 2011. The other was the 'flame-spouting lance' (t'u huo ch'iang). A bamboo tube of large diameter was used as the barrel (t'ung), ... sending the objects, whether fragments of metal or pottery, pellets or bullets, in all directions 
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