War-Winning Weapons? On the Decisiveness of Ottoman Firearms from the Siege of Constantinople (1453) to the Battle of Mohács (1526)

War-Winning Weapons? On the Decisiveness of Ottoman Firearms from the Siege of Constantinople (1453) to the Battle of Mohács (1526)

By Gabor Agoston

Journal of Turkish Studies vol. 39 (2013)

siege of constantinople

Introduction: The Ottoman cannon conquest of Byzantine Constantinople (1453) and Ottoman victories at Çaldıran (1514), Marj Dabiq (1516), Raydiniyya (1517) and Mohács (1526) against the Safavids, Mamluks and Hungarians respectively, are often cited in the generalist literature – alongside the better-known European examples of the French re-conquest of English Normandy in the 1450s, the Spanish re-conquest of Granada in 1492, the French invasion of Italy in 1494-95, and the battles of Ravenna (1512) and Marignano (1515) — as examples of field battles and sieges where firearms played a decisive role.

Yet unlike Ravenna and Marignano, which altered European geopolitics only modestly, Ottoman victories against the Byzantines, Safavids, Mamluks and Hungarians led to major geopolitical shifts. The Ottoman conquest of Constantinople marked the end of the thousand-year-old Byzantine Empire. The battle of Çaldıran secured Ottoman rule over most of eastern and southeastern Asia Minor, the homeland of pro-Safavid and anti-Ottoman Kızılbaş tribes. This in turn pushed the Safavid Empire, originally a Turcoman confederation, to assume a Persian and Shia character and position itself as the main counterweight to Sunni Ottoman power in the region for the next two hundred years. Marj Dabiq and Raydaniyya marked the end of Mamluk rule in Greater Syria and Egypt, and the introduction of Ottoman rule in the Arab heartlands of Islam, including Mecca and Medina, with major consequences for the development of both the region and the Ottoman Empire itself. Mohács was the graveyard of the medieval kingdom of Hungary, and led to the direct confrontation of the two superpowers of the time, the Ottomans and Habsburgs, in central Europe. How important a role did gunpowder weapons play in these Ottoman victories? The following re-examination of selected sieges and battles attempts to answer this question.

Although historians claim that from the mid-fifteenth century onward cannons played increasingly important role in sieges, the limited capacity of most states to manufacture large bombards capable of demolishing castle walls, the difficulties of hauling such heavy pieces over large distances and rough terrains, and chronic shortages of gunners, shots and powder, often rendered bombardments ineffective. Castles habitually surrendered not to the efficacy of barrages but for other, more prosaic, reasons: shortage of defenders, ammunition and food, demoralized defense, lack of relief force, and so on. This was the case even at the French bombardment of Castelnouvo in 1494, often cited as an example for the dramatic effectiveness of siege ordnance, where the French ran short of their famous iron cannon balls.

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