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Adding Firepower with the Invention of Gunpowder

Between the twelfth and the eighteenth centuries, guns spread from China to western Asia, to Europe, and then around the world. They advanced from primitive experiments to precision technology. Warriors were forced to revise their strategies, sometimes adapting ancient battle formations to the new weaponry, while defenders had to find new ways to fortify outposts and cities.

Lighting the fire of discovery

Light a fire on a patch of dirt that has sulfur in it and you get a sizzling, popping reaction. Somebody whose name is lost to history noticed this a long time ago in China, an observation that led other Chinese to experiment with putting concentrated sulfur together with charcoal. By the ninth century AD, another genius added potassium nitrate crystals (saltpeter). Burn that mixture and you get sparkly effects that made a nice backdrop to formal ceremonies. Taoist monks played with these chemicals until they had fireworks.

Over time, pyrotechnicians (fireworks makers) also realized that their mixture, gunpowder, could make stuff fly — dangerous stuff. Soldiers noticed this, too. By the twelfth century, the armies of the Sung Dynasty added metal grenades to their arsenal. China pioneered fragmentation bombs, whose casings shattered into deadly shrapnel. Within another hundred years, Chinese factories made hundreds of military rockets and bombs, some filled with poisons, such as arsenic, that released on impact. Others were packed with tar and oil, designed to start fires. The Chinese also built early guns, metal barrels packed with gunpowder, which shot out a rock or a metal ball.

Spreading explosive news

News spread west along the ancient trade route, the Silk Road (which winds along a natural corridor between China's rugged mountains and extends all the way to the Mediterranean Sea). The Arabs got primitive firearms by the late thirteenth century. In 1267,the recipe for gunpowder turned up in Europe, in the hands of English scientist Roger Bacon.

Less than a century later, European armies began using crude cannons. Archers with longbows, not their innovative comrades who were trying out noisy, stinky little firepots, decided the 1346 battle of Crécy (in the Hundred Years' War between France and England), but the primitive cannon was a sign of things to come. The early European cannon was called a firepot because it was pot-shaped. It propelled an arrow (yes, an arrow) with impressive force, but little reliability, and no accuracy.

Craftsmen who until then made church bells were the earliest European gunmakers. Often they melted down bells to make cannons. Soon the gunmakers found out that a tubular barrel worked better, and that it should propel a metal shot. You could knock down a castle gate that way, or level a house.

Bringing in the big guns

By the early sixteenth century, the Italian writer Niccolo Machiavelli observed, "No wall exists, however thick, that artillery cannot destroy in a few days."

Guns were already big, although some of the biggest didn't work so well. In the early fifteenth century some weighed 1,500 pounds and discharged balls 30 inches in diameter. How did anybody back then make a cast-metal barrel that big? At first, it wasn't cast, but pieced together out of forged iron staves, like the curved boards used to form a pickle barrel. Iron hoops held the staves together — temporarily anyway.

In 1445, artillerymen in Burgundy (then an independent principality, later part of France) were firing one of these monster bombards (early cannon) at invading Turks when a hoop burst. The crazy thing is, they fired it again. Two more hoops and a stave blew apart on the next shot.

In 1460, one of his own guns exploded and killed King James II of Scotland and many members of his royal party.

Battering down Constantinople's walls

Sometimes a big gun was just the thing. Remember how the Arabs failed to capture stout Constantinople? Deciding to meet the challenge with big guns, Ottoman Turkish Sultan Mehmet II hired a Hungarian gunmaker who built him a cannon that sent a ball flying a full mile.

In 1453, the sultan fired that gun, nicknamed Mahometta, at the Byzantine capital's ramparts and kept firing. Like so many of these giants, this cannon cracked after the second day and became unusable after a week. But Mehmet had other big guns. After 54 days of pounding, the 1,000-year-old Byzantine Empire, a victim of technological advance, finally fell.

Refining the new weaponry

Although massive bombards worked, military leaders knew there must be less cumbersome ways to win battles using cannons. Weapons makers went to work devising guns that were more useful and more versatile — and that fit specific niches in the Renaissance arsenal.

Making guns lighter and more maneuverable

Eventually, artillery experts figured out that you could cast some guns in light-yet-strong bronze, rather than iron. Less-cumbersome guns that could be moved into place more quickly, fired more often (some of the big ones could deliver a shot only once in two hours), and that weren't so likely to explode, could do even more damage than the giants could.

Improving gunpowder with brandy

Guns got better, but gunpowder needed improvement because the sulfur, carbon, and saltpeter had three different weights. The saltpeter crystals settled to the bottom while the carbon came to the top.

Mixing the ingredients right before you loaded your weapon — the only way to ensure that the gunpowder worked — was difficult and time consuming. Then somebody came up with a way to make the ingredients stick together by mixing the gunpowder with brandy and letting the resulting paste dry into corns, or grains, containing all three ingredients.

But what a waste of brandy. Soldiers tried substitutes, such as vinegar, which worked okay, but human urine worked even better — especially the urine from a soldier who had put that brandy to more pleasurable use. (It didn't improve the smell of gunpowder, however.)

Putting guns in soldiers' hands

Guns were first seen as replacements for the catapult and the battering ram — destructive, but not precise. As gunnery improved, however, it gained accuracy and usefulness.

Soon, gunmakers came up with models for use on the battlefield itself — both as light artillery (usually a horse-drawn cannon on wagon wheels), and also as weapons that soldiers could carry. Handcannon, as the smallest guns were called, scared the enemy's horses (and your own, for that matter) and perhaps intimidated a knight or two. But for quite a while handcannon did not seem a practical replacement for bows and swords. How did you hold a gun, aim it, and also effectively set fire to the gunpowder charge?

In the middle of the fifteenth century, the solution was a wick soaked in alcohol and coated with saltpeter, attached to a trigger. Pulling the trigger lowered this slow match into the gun's touchhole to light the powder charge.

The matchlock, shown in Figure 1, freed a marksman's hands to aim a weapon, including one called a hackbut or arquebuse — variations on the German Hakenbuchse, which meant hook-gun. Some had a hook that you could brace on the edge of a wall when firing over it. The hook caught some of the shock from the gun's powerful recoil.


Figure 1: The matchlock added a fuse to ignite the gunpowder and free the soldier's hands.

The name musket comes from mosquito. It was supposed to irritate the enemy like its namesake. But muskets were anything but mosquito-like in size. Many a musket had to be propped on a forked rest, like a crutch, to be aimed and fired. So in addition to the heavy gun itself, a musketeer had to lug around this cumbersome prop.

Striking sparks

Because a slow match (see above) could send off a spark that lit the charge too soon, the musket was dangerous for the musketeer. Gunsmiths came up with other ways to fire a powder charge, such as the wheel lock, a piece of flint held against a spring-loaded steel wheel. If you ever examined the moving parts of a cigarette lighter, you have a pretty good idea of how it struck sparks. Eventually the simpler flintlock, consisting of a spring-loaded hammer that struck a flint, became the dominant technology, lasting from about 1650 into the nineteenth century.

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