Proliferation of Firearms Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Firearms and cannons grew easier to use, more powerful, and more important to land-based and naval tactics in Europe, the Ottoman Empire, and Asia, which led to fundamental changes to military organization and warfare.

Summary of Event

Gunpowder and cannons, almost certainly invented in China, became known to European countries and the Ottoman Empire by the thirteenth century. Firearms light enough to be used by one person, such as the handgun and harquebus, developed in the following two centuries, and armed forces throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia incorporated them gradually. The sixteenth century was a period of technological refinement, standardization, and tactical innovation so extensive that it transformed warfare and altered the social hierarchy of military forces. Firearms Tartaglia, Niccolò Fontana Süleyman the Magnificent Gaston de Foix Oda Nobunaga Foix, Gaston de Oda Nobunaga;warfare Tokugawa Ieyasu Tartaglia, Niccolò Fontana

An engraving showing the harquebus, an awkward and cumbersome firearm replaced in the early sixteenth century by a mechanical firing mechanism called the wheel lock, which worked on essentially the same principle as the modern cigarette lighter.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

An engraving that depicts movable, sixteenth century mortars (cannons).

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

This expansion was most evident in artillery. Commanders used cannons initially to supplement the trebuchet and catapult in breaching the walls of cities and castles during sieges, but by 1500, cannons were the primary weapons, even though they were unwieldy. These early cannons were cast from bronze or made of iron rods beaten together and girdled by iron belts, strong enough only for small iron cannonballs or large stone shot. Through the century, the trend was for more mobile, powerful cannons and a greater role in supporting infantry maneuvers on the battlefield. By 1600, cast-iron cannons had become common. They were capable of using corned gunpowder (granulated gunpowder, which was more powerful) and could shoot large iron cannonballs at greater ranges. Military;firearms

After a profusion of types and sizes in the early part of the century, countries began to standardize artillery to simplify logistics and maintenance. There were three basic types, according to historian John Norris. First was the culverin type, which were field guns designed for long-range firing and weighed from 200 to 7,000 pounds, had bores of up to 6.5 inches, and had effective ranges of 200 to 2,000 yards. The second type, the cannon, was more mobile and designed to fire heavy projectiles over shorter distances. They varied from 2,000 to 12,000 pounds in weight, 4.6 to 10 inches in bore, and 400 to 750 yards in effective range. The third type, including the pedrero and mortar, was designed to loft large cannonballs or explosive shells over walls during sieges. They weighed as little as 1,500 pounds and as much as 10,000 pounds, had bores of 6.3 to 15 inches, and had effective ranges of 300 to 1,000 yards.

The Ottoman Ottoman Empire;cannon warfare[warfare] sultan Süleyman the Magnificent shocked the Western world by employing cannons in successful sieges of Belgrade (1521) Belgrade, Siege of (1521) , Rhodes Rhodes, Siege of (1522) (1522), and various strongholds in Hungary (1526). Only Vienna withstood assaults by the Ottoman forces, which, had they succeeded, would have exposed Western Europe to invasion. At sea, cannons were regular armaments aboard ships by 1500 but were used only to damage and disable enemy ships in preparation for boarding and capture through hand-to-hand combat. The advent of lighter, more accurate cannons aboard ships strong enough to withstand the recoil shock of a broadside made stand-off battles possible. In 1588, an English fleet met the Spanish Armada Armada, Spanish (1588) in the English Channel. The English relied on their cannons alone to drive off the reportedly superior Spanish force, which unsuccessfully tried to board the English ships. It was the first large naval battle decided by cannons.

Small arms became progressively lighter, more accurate, and varied during the sixteenth century, supplanting the longbow and crossbow as infantry weapons and reducing the role of the pike. In 1500, the harquebus was the primary type. Its firing mechanism was the matchlock; a smoldering length of fuse, the match, was lowered into a priming charge, which ignited the gunpowder in the gun to fire the projectile, usually a lead ball. For military purposes, it was an awkward weapon: It required the shooter to keep a source of fire handy to light the fuse, making it a fair-weather weapon. Early in the sixteenth century, a mechanical firing mechanism was introduced in Europe. Called the wheel lock, it worked on essentially the same principle as the modern cigarette lighter. A piece of iron pyrite was attached to a hammer-like armature powered by a coiled spring. Pulling the trigger released the hammer so that it struck a spinning metal wheel, which threw the resulting sparks into a priming pan and fired the weapon.

The wheel lock musket had several advantages. A smooth bore of about one inch, it was larger than the harquebus and more powerful, capable of propelling a large ball as much as five hundred yards. Unlike the matchlock, the wheel lock mechanism could be wound up in advance and then fired rapidly, making it tactically more flexible. In rate of fire and accuracy, the wheel lock musket was inferior to the longbow, but whereas it took years of practice to master the bow, recruits could effectively handle the musket after a week of instruction, according to historian Kenneth Chase. The wheel lock musket also was easier to load and supply than the crossbow, which had comparable accuracy and somewhat faster rate of fire. The wheel lock required only one hand to fire once it was cocked, so it was adapted as a pistol and used by cavalry troops by about 1540. Furthermore, rifling (spiral groves inside the barrel) was introduced in the mid-sixteenth century; it caused the weapon’s projectile to spin, making it more stable and accurate. Rifled muskets, however, were rare.

The increased use of firearms, combined with artillery support on the battlefield, changed tactics. Massed fire ended the role of heavy cavalry as the main offensive force because balls fired from muskets could pierce the armor of mounted knights well before they posed a threat to the infantry. In his Italian campaign of 1512, French commander Gaston de Foix met a superior Spanish army near Ravenna Ravenna, Battle of (1512) and defeated it in a battle of maneuver, with batteries of cannons supporting infantry units composed of pikemen and musketeers and cavalry used as scouts and harassers. Oda Nobunaga incorporated matchlocks, introduced to Japan by the Portuguese in 1542, into his infantry of skirmishers and snipers; his consequent battlefield successes led to the unification of Japan under his successor, shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (r. 1603-1605). In the New World in the early sixteenth century, small forces of Spanish conquistadores armed with guns and a few cannons terrified large Aztec armies in Mexico and the Incan armies in the South American Andes.


The sixteenth century saw the acceleration of an arms race that has yet to stop. In Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, countries devoted increasing portions of their government resources to making more and better firearms and cannons for professional forces. A technological race, the trend entailed new military specialties in artillery, ordnance, logistics, and engineering (particularly in new fortification designs).

Artillery gave impetus to the mathematical study of ballistics, a complex subject that called for specialist artillery officers acquainted with such published studies as Niccolò Fontana Tartaglia’s La nova scientia (1537; The New Science New Science, The (Tartaglia) , 1969), considered the first scientific work in ballistics. Moreover, firearms became an export commodity for European countries. China, for instance, had to import muskets because it fell behind in technological expertise. Infantry, cavalry, and artillery tactics changed during the century, culminating in the development of volley fire by the Dutch in the 1590’, and few major changes were seen again until after the Napoleonic Wars two hundred years later.

Because charges by mounted armored knights were foolhardy in the face of firearms, the chivalric military ethos of the Middle Ages became obsolete. A mere peasant with a musket could kill an aristocratic knight from a safe distance. Instead, the noble families of Europe and Asia began contributing officers to command in mixed commoner-aristocrat units, bringing the classes into greater proximity and somewhat blunting social distinctions, at least in warfare. Conservative aristocrats and the Catholic Church condemned firearms as ignoble, diabolical, and injurious to social structure, but the conservative backlash was overwhelmed by the proliferation of gunpowder weaponry.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Archer, Christon I., John R. Ferris, Holger H. Herwig, and Timothy H. E. Travers. World History of Warfare. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. Chapter 6, “The Age of Gunpowder and Sail,” summarizes the effects of developing firearm and artillery technology, focused on land and naval conflicts in Europe and the Middle East.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arnold, Thomas F. The Renaissance at War. London: Cassell, 2001. A colorfully illustrated, concise overview of the Renaissance and its armaments that explains the technology of gunpowder weaponry and the changes in tactics they inspired.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chase, Kenneth. Firearms: A Global History to 1700. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Although providing worldwide coverage, Chase focuses primarily on technological and tactical innovations in Europe, the Ottoman Empire, Japan, and China in developing his thesis that firearms developed in regions with both a broad industrial sophistication and wars of massed combatants.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Norris, John. Artillery: A History. Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 2000. This book, which devotes a chapter to the sixteenth century, examines Europe primarily and England in particular. Norris delineates types of artillery, explains their construction and handling, and comments on their influence on battle tactics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tartaglia, Niccolò Fontana. The New Science. In Mechanics in Sixteenth-Century Italy, edited and translated by Stillman Drake and Israel E. Drabkin. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969. A translation of Tartaglia’s work on artillery and ballistics.

June 28, 1522-Dec. 27, 1522: Siege and Fall of Rhodes

Aug. 29, 1526: Battle of Mohács

Mid-16th cent.: Development of the Caracole Maneuver

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