Handarms to Firearms Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Firearms are a Chinese invention for which the earliest evidence dates to 1130.

Nature and Use

Firearms are a China;firearmsChinese invention for which the earliest evidence dates to 1130. By that time the Chinese were using Gunpowder;Chinagunpowder in primitive Flamethrowers;Chineseflamethrowers made of bamboo, wood, or metal tubes. Within another century they had developed gunpowder Projectiles;Chineseprojectile weapons that fired lances, arrows, and probably balls. Beyond these early weapons, however, development of firearms did not proceed much further in China. Although most historians agree that thirteenth century Mongols;gunpowderMongols brought gunpowder to Europe, where its first definitive mention is dated to 1267, there is no consensus on whether the Mongols also brought Chinese gunpowder weaponry to the West.Handarms;medievalFirearms;medievalGuns;medievalHandarms;medievalFirearms;medievalGuns;medieval

An English illustration from 1326 shows the earliest known gunpowder weapon in Europe during a siege. The first certain use of gunpowder weaponry in Europe occurred in 1331 during a siege of Friuli, Siege of (1331)Friuli in northeastern Italy. A French source for the Battle of Crécy, Battle of (1346)[Crecy, Battle of]Crécy (1346) states that the English fired three Cannons;medievalcannons at crossbowmen in the French army as they advanced toward the English lines, but many historians do not accept the report’s accuracy. At the English siege of Calais, Siege of (1346-1347)Calais following their victory at Crécy, there is good documentation for the use of small cannons called Ribauld (small cannon)ribaulds, but these cannons had only a small role in the siege. Over the next twenty years cannons increased greatly in size. During his 1377 siege of Odruik, Siege of (1377) Odruik in the Netherlands, Philip II, duke of Philip IIPhilip II (duke of Burgundy)[Philip 02 duke of Burgundy] Burgundy (1342-1404), used cannons called Bombards bombards, which were capable of firing 200-pound stone balls. This occasion was the first known instance of cannon fire breaching walls. Philip was the strongest early advocate of gunpowder weapons, encouraging experimentation with different sizes, gunpowder mixtures, and metals. Soon bombards weighing twenty tons and firing 1,000-pound balls were bringing sieges to quick conclusions across Europe.

DevelopmentFifteenth Century

By 1410 gunpowder weaponry had captured the attention of an unlikely commentator on military affairs, Christine de Christine de PizanChristine de PizanPizan (c. 1365-c. 1430), a native of Italy who lived most of her life at the French court. Her Le Livre des fais d’armes et de chevalerie (1410; The Book of Fayttes of Arms and of Chivalry, Book of Fayttes of Arms and of Chivalry, The (Christine de Pizan) 1489) discusses at length the use of the cannon as a siege weapon, recommending that the defenders of a fortification use twelve cannons using stone balls and ten pieces of mechanical artillery. Christine estimated the need for 1,500 pounds of gunpowder along with 200 stone balls and argued that attackers would need a much larger arsenal: forty-two cannon shooting 200-pound balls, along with many mechanical artillery pieces and smaller firearms. Attackers would also need 30,000 pounds of powder, 1,100 stone balls, and 500 pounds of lead for the smaller pieces, because working stone into balls small enough for these weapons was difficult and time-consuming. Christine also advocated mounting cannon on ships for war at sea.

A hand-cannon of the fifteenth century, fired from the shoulder or from a rest such as a wall with a lit match.

(North Wind Picture Archivesvia AP Images)

The fact that Christine’s work makes little mention of gunpowder weapons in battle suggests that, at least in France, they were not yet being widely used. In Flanders, ribaulds were placed on carts and used as field artillery. The first battle in which they had an impact was Beverhoudsveld, Battle of (1382)Beverhoudsveld (1382) in the Netherlands. The militiamen of the city of Ghent had some two hundred carts with several ribaulds apiece in the battle against the count of Flanders. Concentrated ribauld fire against the count’s men as they charged caused them to panic and flee. These carts were difficult to move, and later the same year Ghent was defeated when its forces charged the enemy only to find that the ribauld carts could not keep up, depriving them of supporting fire at the crucial moment.

The solution was the development of Handarms;gunshandguns small enough to allow their bearers to move with the rest of the army. The first evidence for such weapons is found in an illustration from around 1400, which shows a soldier holding in one hand the breech end of a long narrow tube that rests on a tripod at the muzzle while he applies a burning stick to the touchhole. This device appears to be so clumsy that it was most likely used not in the field, but rather as a siege weapon. Walls;base for weaponsWalls provided a base on which to steady the weapons, and hooks attaching them to the walls absorbed much of the force of the recoil. RecoilRecoil was a serious problem in early handguns, which required two hands to use: one to hold either the burning stick or the match that appeared around 1420, and the other to hold the piece. Consequently early handguns were butted up against the middle of the user’s chest, often resulting in a broken breastbone. The first hook Hook gunsGuns;hook gunsguns probably were used in the Hussite Wars Hussite Wars (1419-1434)(1419-1434), an anti-Catholic revolt against King Sigismund of SigismundSigismund (king of Bohemia)Bohemia (1368-1437). To counter the knightly forces of Sigismund, Hussite leader Jan Žižka, JanŽižka, Jan[Zizka, Jan]Žižka (c. 1360-1424) devised the Wagenburg (linked wagons)Wagenburg, a defensive line of wagons on which were placed men with firearms. Between the wagons, cannons were stationed. Men on horseback presented a large target for the gunpowder weapons in use, inaccurate as they were. These weapons had the additional advantage of frightening the horses with their smoke and noise. Even after Žižka’s death, the Wagenburg continued to help the Hussites to victory over German knights. German efforts to replicate the Wagenburg failed, but Hussite hook guns appeared in Germany, where the German word for them is regarded as the source for the word Harquebuses “harquebus,” used as the name for the first effective firearm.

The harquebus was a product of several German innovations that had been made by 1460. Corned powderCorned, or granulated, powder provided greater explosive power than had earlier powder and produced higher muzzle velocities. Gunsmiths found the right compromise between ballistic performance and weight by using barrels of about 40 inches in length. Another major innovation was the match: a piece of string soaked in saltpeter that burned slowly but with a tip hot enough to touch off gunpowder. The match replaced the burning stick, which was both clumsy and unreliable. The match, however, created the same problem for its users as had the burning stick: It had to be held in a hand and touched down into the chamber to fire the powder, leaving only one hand to hold the piece. The solution was the Matchlocksmatchlock, which brought together springs, a trigger, and a clamp for holding a smoldering match. When the trigger was pulled, the burning tip was thrust into the powder and touched it off. The shoulder Shoulder stockstock, borrowed from the crossbow, reduced the impact of the recoil. The users of the matchlock device found that although overly coarse powder failed to be ignited by the match, overly fine powder created too forceful a recoil. The solution was the placement of a small pan behind the chamber of the barrel, into which fine powder was placed. Coarse powder was then put in the chamber. The match touched off the fine powder in the pan, blowing flame through a hole into the chamber, igniting the coarser powder there, and firing off the ball.

The harquebus’s impact on the battlefield was slow to appear. Compared to Longbowslongbows, the early harquebus performed poorly in its reliability, rate of fire, and accuracy. It found its first niche as a siege Siege warfare;harquebusesweapon, replacing the Crossbowscrossbow. Firearms were useful weapons for the militiamen who guarded the city walls across Europe. They did not require much training to be used effectively on walls, and the artisans and merchants who made up the urban militias could afford them. The earliest mentions of the harquebus appear in the weapons inventories of cities.

The harquebus, popular by the sixteenth century, had a matchlock firing device that allowed for more reliable firing.

(North Wind Picture Archivesvia AP Images)

For a brief time, the use of the harquebus as a defensive weapon on walls reduced the advantage that heavy cannons had provided besiegers, but gunpowder artillery continued to improve more rapidly than did firearms. A problem with early cannons was the poor quality of cast iron used to make them, which resulted in pieces frequently bursting and killing gunners and bystanders. A solution was the use of bronze. Europeans were familiar with casting bronze bells, and that technology was easily transferred to the making of weapons. The use of bronze allowed founders to manufacture long-barreled pieces with small muzzles, which were capable of using iron or lead balls. Under Charles Charles VIICharles VII (king of France)[Charles 07]VII (1403-1461), the French led the way in developing high-quality cannons. The final years of the Hundred Years’ War Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453)(1337-1453) saw dramatic improvements in the royal artillery train. Charles’s masters of artillery organized a system of manufacturing cannon, procuring gunpowder and shot, and hiring gunners that played a significant role in reducing English-held locations in Normandy and Gascony. In the war’s last major battles, Formigny Formigny, Battle of (1450)(1450) and Castillon Castillon, Battle of (1453)(1453), the French placed their guns all along the line of battle, routing the English. The king also promoted experimentation to improve the gun carriage, leading to the creation of the carriage with high wheels and long tail that defined gun carriages until the nineteenth century. Using an artillery train of around eighty bronze cannon on mobile carriages, Charles Charles VIIICharles VIII (king of France)[Charles 08]VIII (1470-1498) had great success in reducing Italian fortifications during the initial phase of the Italian Wars of 1494-1559. In the Battle of Fornovo, Battle of (1495)Fornovo (1495) the French artillery also played a role as a field weapon.

Sixteenth Century

During the wars in Italy after 1494, field armies began to include harquebusiers. At the Battle of Cerignola, Battle of (1503)Cerignola (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 Spanish trenches. Over the next twenty years the Spanish infantry was victorious as long as it had the time to dig entrenchments and the French and their Swiss mercenaries relied on frontal assault. At the Battle of Pavia, Battle of (1525)Pavia (1525) the combination of harquebusiers and pikemen in the army of Holy Roman Emperor Charles Charles VCharles V (Holy Roman Emperor)[Charles 05]V (1500-1558) formed without entrenchments and defeated the French. This infantry formation, in which pikemen and harquebusiers provided mutual support, was known as the Spanish Spanish Square (infantry formation)Square.

The Battle of Pavia (1525) between forces of French king Francis I and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

During the Dutch Wars of Independence Dutch Wars of Independence (1566-1648)(1566-1648), Maurice of Maurice of NassauMaurice of NassauNassau (1567-1625) made his infantry more effective by extensive drilling, which had special success in improving his handgunners’ firepower. He broke down the process of loading and firing a matchlock firearm into forty-two steps; each step had a word of command shouted by the sergeant. Drill books showing the steps and providing the words of command spread across Europe. Gustavus II Gustavus II AdolphusGustavus II Adolphus (king of Sweden)[Gustavus 02]Adolphus (1594-1632) of Sweden built upon the Dutch system, emphasizing drills and increasing the rate of fire from firearms by providing a cartridge

with a ball and a measured amount of powder. Intent on increasing firepower for his forces, he also introduced a light piece firing a 3-pound ball that could be moved with the infantry on the battlefield, thereby providing support fire for the infantry in a way that heavier cannon could not do. For Gustavus II Adolphus, the purpose of firepower was to create opportunities for shock forces to carry the attack into the ranks of the enemy. Pikemen continued to be a significant part of the European infantry until the development of the bayonet by 1700 combined shock and firepower in each soldier.Handarms;medievalFirearms;medievalGuns;medieval

Books and Articles
  • Arnold, Thomas F., ed. Renaissance at War. London: Cassell, 2001.
  • Chase, Kenneth. Firearms: A Global History to 1700. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Cooper, Jeff. Fighting Handguns. Los Angeles: Trend Books, 1958. Reprint. Boulder, Colo.: Paladin Press, 2008.
  • DeVries, Kelly. Guns and Men in Medieval Europe, 1200-1500: Studies in Military History and Technology. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate/Variorum, 2002.
  • _______. Medieval Military Technology. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 1992.
  • 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.
  • Lugs, Jaroslav. Firearms Past and Present: A Complete Review of Firearms Systems and Their Histories. 2 vols. London: Grenville, 1973.
  • Parker, Geoffrey. The Military Revolution. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
  • Pauly, Roger. Firearms: The Life Story of a Technology. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.
Films and Other Media
  • Tales of the Gun. Documentary series. History Channel, 1998.

Firearms and Cannon

Small Arms and Machine Guns

Gunpowder and Explosives

Knights to Cavalry

Galleys to Galleons

Categories: History Content