Firearms and Cannon Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The first precise recipe for gunpowder, a Chinese invention dating to before 1000 c.e., is found in a work from 1044.

Nature and Use

The first precise recipe for gunpowder, a China;gunpowderChinese invention dating to before 1000 c.e., is found in a work from 1044. Long before it gained any military significance, gunpowder was used for holiday displays of colored smoke and fireworks. The earliest evidence of gunpowder weapons is a set of figurines dating from 1128 found in a cave. One figure holds a device that appears to be a potbellied vase with a blast of fire coming out, within which is a disk that probably was intended to portray a ball. Further evidence from Chinese records and art indicates that gunpowder weapons were in widespread use by 1280. These weapons seem to have included the three essential elements of true gunpowder weapons: a metal barrel, an explosive powder similar in chemical makeup to that of black powder, and a projectile that filled the barrel in order to take full advantage of the propellant blast.Firearms;ancientFirearms;medievalGunpowderArtillery;medievalProjectiles;firearmsGunsFirearms;ancientFirearms;medievalGunpowderArtillery;medievalProjectiles;firearmsGuns

The consensus among historians is that the Mongols;gunpowderMongols carried gunpowder westward from China in the thirteenth century, but there is no agreement on whether gunpowder weapons were brought to Europe with the powder. The first Europe;gunpowderEuropean mention of gunpowder was by thirteenth century scientist and educator Roger Bacon, RogerBacon, RogerBacon (1220-1292), who recorded a recipe in 1267. His term, “fire for burning up the enemy,” suggests that Bacon regarded gunpowder as an incendiary, not a propellant. Late thirteenth century gunpowder Gunpowder;recipes forrecipes called for saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal in the proportion of six parts Saltpetersaltpeter for every one part each of sulfur and charcoal–a more explosive combination than that used by the Chinese and therefore better for projectile weapons. There is no convincing evidence for the existence of such weapons before 1326, although several earlier sources have been interpreted as referring to them.

From top to bottom, a harquebus, the first effective matchlock firearm, dating from around 1470; a more evolved matchlock musket, dating from around 1600; a muzzle-loading bombard, known as “Mons Meg,” dating from around 1440.

(Kimberly L. Dawson Kurnizki)

Although a reference to the making of gunpowder Artillery;and gunpowder[gunpowder]artillery found in a 1326 document from Florence is widely accepted as the first reliable mention, it is less informative than an illustrated English manuscript from the following year. This illustration shows a large pot-bellied vessel lying on its side on a table with a large bolt projecting from its mouth, which is aimed at the gate of a walled place. Behind the device stands an armored man with a heated poker, which he is about to put to its touch hole. Such a device became known as Pot de ferpot de fer (iron pot). As that illustration reveals, these early gunpowder weapons were largely associated with Siege warfare;gunpowder weapons sieges. The first definitive mention of them in action came from a siege of Tournai, Siege of (1340) Tournai (1340). Whether the English deployed cannon in the Battle of Crécy Crécy, Battle of (1346)[Crecy, Battle of] (1346), the first decisive battle in the Hundred Years’ War, is disputed, but they did use them at the Siege of Calais, Siege of (1346-1347) Calais (1346-1347).

In field warfare, early gunpowder weapons–both firearms and artillery–lacked the technical quality to compete effectively with longbows and crossbows. Their weight, unreliability, inaccuracy, and slow rate of fire made them inferior in most respects to traditional combat weapons for more than a century after 1327. In sieges, however, these defects were less problematic. The cannonball’s flat trajectory assured that the ball would strike low against the high walls of medieval fortifications and be more likely to open a breach than would mechanical artillery, which had a high trajectory. The first known instance of gunpowder artillery bringing a siege to a successful end occurred in 1377 at Odruik, Siege of (1377)Odruik, the Netherlands.

By the late fourteenth century, the size of gunpowder artillery had increased greatly. Huge Bombardsbombards–so called because their hewn stone cannonballs buzzed like bumblebees when fired–reached twenty tons in weight. Balls weighed as much as one thousand pounds, a weight attributed to the balls fired by the largest bombard used by the Turks against Constantinople in 1453. Although a direct hit from a ball of that weight had a good chance of collapsing a wall, bombards were extremely difficult to move, and the amount of gunpowder they required was expensive and difficult to procure. Smaller pieces of artillery went by names such as Ribauld (small cannon)ribauld and serpentine.

In Bohemia military leader Jan Žižka, Jan Žižka, Jan[Zizka, Jan]Žižka (c. 1360-1424) used small cannon in the Hussite Wars Hussite Wars (1419-1434)(1419-1434) against the forces of the Bohemian king SigismundSigismund (king of Bohemia)Sigismund (1368-1437). Forced to fight German knights with poorly trained foot soldiers, Žižka developed the Wagenburg (linked wagons)Wagenburg, a defensive line of wagons. On some were placed small cannon, and on others, men with firearms. The Germans on horseback presented large targets for the inaccurate gunpowder weapons in use, and the smoke and noise of the weapons frightened their horses. Some of the Hussites’ primitive firearms had hooks attached that fit over the upper edge of the wagons’ sideboards to absorb the recoil and provide a steady base for firing. It has been suggested that the term Harquebuses “harquebus,” the common word for the first effective firearms, came from the German for such hook Hook guns guns.


It is difficult to date the development of effective firearms because most of the people who created and used the new weapons were illiterate and did not leave written records. A chronology of firearm technology depends on a few surviving examples, as well as drawings and sketches that are not detailed enough to show the changes involved. Corned Corned powderpowder, which provided greater explosive power than did earlier serpentine Serpentine powderpowder, appeared around 1420. Corned powder produced higher muzzle velocities and could fire balls capable of penetrating the plate Armor;and gunpowder[gunpowder]armor worn by the knights who were the mainstay of most fifteenth century armies. Higher muzzle velocity, however, could be achieved only with a barrel longer than that of the hand-cannon. Because of such defects, Hand-cannons[hand cannons]hand-cannons were not competitive with bows until 1450. By then gunsmiths had found the right compromise between ballistic performance and weight by fitting hand-cannons with barrels of about 40 inches in length. The first known illustration of a long-barreled firearm shows it being used for duck hunting.Hunting gunsHunting requirements often produced technological changes that later appeared in weapons.

Another innovation toward more effective firearms was the Match-string[match string]match-string; soaked in saltpeter, it burned slowly but with enough heat to touch off gunpowder. The match also was developed sometime around 1420, replacing the clumsy and unreliable burning stick. The match, however, created the same problem for its users as had the burning stick: It had to be held in one hand and touched down into the chamber to fire the powder. That meant that only one hand could be used to hold the piece, butted up against the chest, not the shoulder. Too large a charge of powder could result in a broken breastbone. The solution was the Matchlocksmatchlock. The matchlock evolved in Germany to include springs, a trigger, and a clamp for holding a smoldering match so that when the trigger was pulled, the match’s burning tip was thrust into the powder and touched it off. After the shoulder stock, borrowed from the crossbow, was added to reduce the impact of the recoil from the greater muzzle velocity, the firearm was made up of the proverbial lock, stock, and Lock, stock, and barrelbarrel.

A harquebusier with both sword and harquebus.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

The users of the matchlock device found that coarse powder often failed to ignite and fine powder often created too forceful a recoil. The innovative solution to this problem was to place a small pan filled with fine powder behind the chamber of the barrel and to put coarse powder in the chamber. The match touched off the fine powder in the pan, blowing flame through a small hole into the chamber, igniting the coarser powder there, and firing off the ball. Often, however, the powder in the pan ignited with fire and sparks without touching off the powder in the chamber.

The Harquebusesharquebus, as the first matchlock firearm became known, was developed by 1460, but its impact on the battlefield was slow to appear. As a smoothbore Smoothbore weaponsweapon, it was inherently inaccurate: The spin of a ball tumbling down a smoothbore barrel is determined by the last point on the barrel the ball touches as it leaves the muzzle. The user has no idea what direction the spin will cause the ball to take; balls fired from smoothbore weapons never have the same trajectories. Consequently, the harquebus was reasonably accurate for only a short distance, before the uncontrolled spin took over. The impact of the ball on its target, even an armored cavalryman, was great at close range, but that advantage was largely negated by the long time it took to reload a harquebus. If the harquebusier missed the charging knights with his first shot or if he had a misfire–a common occurrence with the harquebus–they would be on top of him before he could reload. Before the seventeenth century invention of the paper cartridge that combined a ball and a measured amount of powder, reloading a harquebus, even under the best conditions, took well over a minute. In the confusion and disorder of a battlefield, especially with lance-wielding Knights;and guns[guns]knights bearing down, many Harquebusiersharquebusiers took several minutes to reload or were never able to reload and fire a second time. Compared to longbows, the early harquebus performed poorly in reliability, rate of fire, and accuracy.

An artist’s woodcut rendition of movable sixteenth century mortars.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

The harquebus found its first niche as a Siege warfare;harquebusessiege weapon, where it replaced the Crossbows;harquebus replacescrossbow. Firearms were good weapons for urban militias guarding city walls across Europe. A minimal amount of training was required to use the harquebus effectively on walls, and, although the weapon was more expensive than the crossbow, it was still affordable to the artisans and merchants who belonged to the urban militias. The harquebus was probably introduced to the field armies, which doubled as siege forces, in the context of sieges.

The harquebus served for a time as a useful weapon for defending a fortification, but improvements in gunpowder artillery quickly negated the defensive advantage. Because late medieval iron casting produced a poor product, Gun barrelsbarrels made of cast iron frequently burst, killing gunners and bystanders. Pieces of better quality were made by forging iron bars arranged in a circle and banded by hot metal hoops that tightened down as they cooled. These hooped bombards were the weapons first associated with the name Cannons;medieval“cannon,” which came from a Latin word for “tube.” Early cannons, with short barrels and large muzzles, used stone balls. Smaller pieces often were equipped with breech pans, which were loaded in advance and were set in the piece in rapid succession for firing. Another solution to the poor quality of pieces made with cast iron was to use bronze instead. Europeans were familiar with the casting of bronze bells, and that technology was easily transferred to the making of weapons. The use of bronze allowed gunmakers to manufacture long-barreled pieces with smaller muzzles–called Culverinsculverins, from a French word for serpent–that were capable of using iron or lead balls. The French led in the development of high-quality culverins and of the gun Gun carriagescarriage, with high wheels and long tail, that defined gun carriages until the nineteenth century. With an artillery train of some eighty bronze culverins on mobile carriages, French king Charles Charles VIIICharles VIII (king of France)[Charles 08]VIII (r. 1483-1498) had great success in reducing Italian fortifications during the initial phase of the Italian Wars of Italian Wars of 1494-15591494-1559. In the Battle of Fornovo Fornovo, Battle of (1495)(1495) the French artillery also played a significant role as an effective field weapon.

During the wars in Italy after 1494, field armies began to include harquebusiers. At the Battle of Cerignola Cerignola, Battle of (1503)(1503) in the French-Spanish war over Naples, the Spanish commander Gonzalo Fernández de Fernández de Córdoba, GonzaloFernández de Córdoba, Gonzalo[Fernandez de Cordoba]Córdoba (1453-1515) devised a way to make effective use of harquebusiers by digging trenches in front of their lines. This action transformed the battlefield into a fort and imitated a siege, a situation in which the harquebus had long proven itself. Harquebus fire raked the French forces as they approached the Span-

ish trenches. Over the next twenty years, the Spanish rapidly increased the number of handgunners in their forces and developed the Infantryinfantry formation called the “Spanish Spanish Square (infantry formation)Square,” in which pikemen and harquebusiers provided mutual support for each other. It remained the dominant infantry system until the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War in 1618.Firearms;ancientFirearms;medievalGunpowderArtillery;medievalProjectiles;firearmsGuns

Books and Articles
  • Buchanan, Brenda, ed. Gunpowder: The History of an International Technology. Bath, England: Bath University Press, 1996.
  • Chase, Kenneth. Firearms: A Global History to 1700. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • DeVries, Kelly. Guns and Men in Medieval Europe, 1200-1500: Studies in Military History and Technology. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate/Variorum, 2002.
  • Diagram Group. The New Weapons of the World Encyclopedia: An International Encyclopedia from 5000 B.C. to the Twenty-first Century. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2007.
  • Hall, Bert. Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
  • Lu, Gwei-Djen, et al. “The Oldest Representation of a Bombard.” Technology and Culture 29 (1988): 594-605.
  • Lugs, Jaroslav. Firearms Past and Present: A Complete Review of Firearms Systems and Their Histories. 2 vols. London: Grenville, 1973.
  • Nosov, Konstantin S. Ancient and Medieval Siege Weapons: A Fully Illustrated Guide to Siege Weapons and Tactics. Illustrated by Vladimir Golubev. Guilford, Conn.: Lyons Press, 2005.
  • Partington, J. R. A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder. 1960. Reprint. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.
  • Pauly, Roger. Firearms: The Life Story of a Technology. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.
Films and Other Media
  • Arms in Action: The First Firearms. Documentary. History Channel, 1999.
  • Modern Marvels: Cannons. Documentary. History Channel, 2002.
  • Tales of the Gun. Documentary series. History Channel, 2005.

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