“FIRE AND BRIMSTONE”
THE RISE OF FIREARMS
Beginning 1300 AD
|The earliest known written description of the formula for gunpowder is from the Chinese Wujing Zongyao military handbook written in 1044. The Chinese then used gunpowder to produce flamethrowers, rockets, bombs and landmines.
Credit: Image from NASA, courtesy of Wikipedia.
Gunpowder – A very mysterious substance. Just a dark-looking powder, mixed from a handful of natural materials. But apply fire – and watch out! The Chinese started investigating the combination of some of gunpowder’s ingredients – saltpeter and sulfur – almost 2000 years ago for use in medicines. They developed a recipe for gunpowder by 850 AD, and a couple of hundred years later they were using it in some ways in warfare (for example, to make smokescreens or in burning projectiles), as well as in more leisurely pursuits such as firecrackers and fireworks. By the mid-1200’s, there is also a Chinese sculpture showing some sort of vase-like cannon being fired, and an early Chinese gun in bronze dates to around this time. But it wasn’t until about 1300 A.D, after knowledge of use of gunpowder (using sulfur, carbon charcoal, and saltpeter or potassium nitrate) was acquired by the Arabs and the Europeans (perhaps over the silk route between China and Europe, or perhaps with invading Mongols), that it began to be used prominently in firearms and warfare. The arms race had truly begun by this time.
|17th century musketeers, ca. 1620. Thirty Years War engraving, artist unknown.
Credit: Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Technically, a firearm uses the explosive property of the gunpowder to shoot a projectile out through a tube at very high velocity. Importantly, early firearms were relatively inexpensive to make and almost anyone could learn to use one, making it easier and less expensive to launch large armies and military operations than when bows were primary weapons. Thus, with large, cheap armies at hand, state power rose and that of the aristocracy began to fall. The earliest widely used weapons using gunpowder were typically cannons, mounted on the ground or on the deck of a ship. From such large, fixed cannons, people eventually developed (rather tricky!) cannons held in the hand. Then came other hand-held guns, with ever-changing ways to light the gunpowder – matchlocks (with a fuse), flintlocks (with a flint and steel to make a spark), percussion caps (another way to fire a muzzle loader, with an enclosed cap of gunpowder), and then the breechloaders, with a primer charge built into the cartridge. Use of such firearms truly transformed warfare over the next many centuries, making the old armor (chain mail) used as defense against spears and arrows essentially useless, and even plate armor, finally, was vulnerable, as the power of firearms increased. Thus was launched an ever-escalating transformation of armaments for both offense and defense (such as star-shaped forts designed to withstand cannon barrages), one that still goes on today.
WHY SHOULD I CARE?
There is no doubt that the use of firearms has greatly affected our world, the types of conflicts that we engage in, and the society humans live in. Armies were able to get bigger and bigger, fight longer and longer wars (sometimes for decades or even a hundred years), and devastate the population and countryside they occupied as they amassed for war or conducted an endless siege. Armies were in the control of bigger and bigger states, and may be at least partially responsible for bigger and bigger bureaucracies to manage them. Some have also argued that, despite the violence and devastation they have brought to human societies for centuries, such modern armies also many have helped usher in democracy, as the common man became more important and, collectively, more powerful in the doings and decisions of the state.
This is a website about the history of firearms and gunpowder, particularly as devloped by the Chinese military.
This is webpage contains a discussion of the use of gunpowder in the 15th century, followed by a timeline of firearms, ranging from the invention of gunpowder by the Chinese in 1044 CE to the late 1400’s.
This is a brief YouTube video about the history of gunpowder and it’s impact on warfare.
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