The invention of gunpowder, followed by weapons that could make use of it, is one of the most important developments in military history. The technology emerged in China in the eighth-century, and would spread throughout Asia and Europe during the Middle Ages.
Here is our list of ten key moments in the development of guns and gunpowder:
804 – Qing Xuzi is the first person to record the recipe that makes gunpowder. It is called huo yao, which translates to ‘fire medicine.’ It is believed that the substance was first developed as part of an experiment to make new drugs.
1000 – The Chinese inventor Tang Fu is said to have invented a number of weapons using gunpowder, including early forms of rockets and grenades. This period saw many developments in the military use within China of gunpowder.
1267 – The English scholar Roger Bacon is the first European to write about gunpowder. He reports:
There is a child’s toy of sound and fire made in various parts of the world with powder of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal of hazelwood. This powder is enclosed in an instrument of parchment the size of a finger, and since this can make such a noise that it seriously distresses the ears of men, especially if one is taken unawares, and the terrible flash is also very alarming, if an instrument of large size were used, no one could stand the terror of the noise and flash. If
the instrument were made of solid material the violence of the explosion would be much greater.
1298 – The Xanadu Gun, oldest surviving gun bearing a date of production, was manufactured in this year. Weighing just over six kilograms and thirty-five centimeters in length, the gun’s inscriptions include a serial number and manufacturing information – it seems that gunmaking in China was already a large-scale process.
1326 – The city of Florence records the manufacture of a cannon and iron balls. Soon after other European states start accumulating their stockpiles of cannons and gunpowder, and by the end of the fourteenth-century the weapon was common in much of Europe.
1363 – The Battle of Lake Poyang, which involved hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops, sees massive use of gunpowder weapons, including “fire bombs, fire guns, fire arrows, fire seeds, large and small fire lances, large and small ‘commander’ fire tubes, large and small iron bombs, rockets,” and weapon dubbed “No Alternative” which could set fire to an enemy ship that got too close.
1382 – Battle of Beverhoutsveld is fought by rebels from the city of Ghent against the Count of Flanders. The army of Ghent fire a volley of light artillery at the count’s troops, which turn the tide in the battle. This is seen as the first successful European use of gunpowder weapons in battle.
1388 – First recorded use of the counter-march volley technique by Chinese troops wielding firearms. This technique – in which one line of soldiers would fire while the other reloaded – would be adopted by many armies, as it proved to be very effective.
1408 – The beginning of the era of ‘superguns’ in Europe. These included massively large weapons such as Grose Bochse, Faule Mette, Pumhart von Steyr and Mons Meg. For example, Pumhart von Steyr, which was built in Austria in the early fifteenth-century, weighed eight tons and could shoot a stone ball weighing 690 kg a distance of about 600 metres.
1497 – Construction begins at the fortress of Salses at the French-Spanish border. It is an excellent example of the transition from the typical castle of the Middle Ages to the early modern fortress, which was created to defend against artillery attack.
You can read more about guns and gunpowder in the special issue of Medieval Warfare magazine: The Rise of the Gun. It looks at the development of this weapon in China, how it was used in medieval Europe, its role on the battlefield, and how military engineers created fortifications against the growing use of cannons. Includes articles by Tonio Andrade, Ruth Brown, Kelly DeVries, Cliff Rogers, Kay Smith, Steven Turnbull and more. Click here to read more about the special issue.