By Tonio Andrade
A look at the invention and innovations of gunpowder weapons in China and Europe during the Middle Ages
In 1280, an explosion rocked the Chinese city of Yangzhou. A resident described the noise as like a volcano erupting. “The entire population,” he wrote, “was terrified.” The shockwave tossed ceiling beams as if they were toothpicks and rattled roof tiles thirty miles away. People weren’t sure at first what had caused the blast, until they found a ten-foot-deep crater where the city’s arsenal used to be. It seems that careless gunpowder makers had let a spark escape. It had landed on some fire lances, which began jetting about “like frightened snakes,” spewing flames everywhere. When the fire reached the bombs, they all exploded at once. A hundred people were obliterated.
At the time that this blast occurred, gunpowder was almost unknown in Europe. The first western description had been written by Roger Bacon (1214–1292) a decade previously, but it would take another half century for gunpowder to be used in European warfare on any significant scale. In contrast, by 1280, the time of this explosion, the people of China had been living with gunpowder weapons for centuries.
You may have heard the theory that the Chinese invented gunpowder but just used it for fireworks and that it took western ingenuity to bring it to its full, lethal potential, an idea even repeated in China. It’s completely wrong. Gunpowder was indeed invented in China, but it was applied to warfare as soon as its properties became clear. For centuries before Westerners began using gunpowder on the battlefield, the Chinese were experimenting with all kinds of gunpowder weapons: fire arrows, rockets, fire lances, bombs, and eventually guns.
This early history of gunpowder weapons is almost unknown. How did gunpowder emerge? How did it become a viable military technology? How did early gunpowder weapons evolve into guns? And how did gunpowder warfare differ between East and West in the medieval period? These are the questions we’ll answer in this article, and our starting point is the emergence of gunpowder itself.
The invention of gunpowder
Gunpowder wasn’t developed as a military technology. The Chinese term for gunpowder is huo yao, which translates strictly to ‘fire medicine.’ For this reason, many scholars believe that the substance was first developed in the search for drugs. In the seventh and eighth century AD, Chinese alchemists were conducting experiments to isolate matter into its basic components, for instance by purifying sulfur. In the course of these experiments, they happened upon a particularly volatile combination, which we know today as gunpowder.
Today, thanks to modern chemistry, we know that gunpowder requires three components. The most important is a nitrate, ideally potassium nitrate. Nitrates, formed of nitrogen atoms linked to carbon and lots of oxygen, enable rapid combustion because they provide their own oxygen. Today’s black powders have the ideal proportions for volatility: 75% nitrate, 15% charcoal powder, and 10% sulfur. But early military recipes had very different ratios of ingredients. Usually, the amount of nitrates was rather lower than is ideal, partly because nitrates are the most expensive ingredient. Moreover, other extraneous ingredients were added, such as oils, pitches, and resins.
At first, ‘fire medicine’ was considered useful not as a propellant or an explosive but as a conflagrative: to set fire to things or burn people. In fact, the first gunpowder weapon was a variation on one of the oldest missile weapons of pre-history: the arrow. The Chinese and their neighbors had used fire arrows for centuries, shooting them into enemy buildings to try to burn them down. A ‘fire medicine’ arrow was a variation on an ancient theme. Gunpowder in its early forms was also used with biological agents. By attaching gunpowder to a pheasant or a sparrow, one could, one hoped, set fire to enemy encampments or cities. One could also attach gunpowder to oxen to create the “thundering fire ox,” which made a terrifying spectacle, hooves thundering, smoke and sparks jetting out.
In the course of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, warmakers in China and neighboring lands began experimenting with other weapons. Among the most prominent were bombs, such as something called the ‘thunderclap bomb’, which military leaders of the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127) used when defending their capital of Kaifeng against attack. The attackers were driven away, but the following year they came back, and this time they, too, effectively deployed gunpowder bombs. The records of this war describe many kinds of gunpowder weapons: fire arrows, gunpowder bombs, thunderbolt bombs, and a weapon called the ‘molten metal bomb.’ These bombs were typically hurled by means of catapults.
So when did the gun appear? This question is more difficult to answer than one might guess, because the definition of ‘gun’ is rather more slippery than one might imagine. In essence, a gun is a weapon that uses a propellant such as gunpowder to fire a projectile out of a tube. But the gun evolved from a more primitive weapon called a fire lance, whose original purpose was to shoot out flames.
The fire lance, as its name implies, is a long staff at the end of which is affixed a tube filled with gunpowder. The gunpowder is lit and then, ideally, spews forth. It’s hard to locate the precise origin of the fire lance, and some historians have suggested that it emerged as early as 950 AD. But perhaps the earliest incontrovertible source that describes a fire lance comes from an otherwise unimportant battle of 1132, when armies of the Jin dynasty (1115–1235) laid siege to the city of De’an in the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279).
The siege of De’an
The account of this siege can give us an understanding of siege warfare in twelfth-century China. The main account describes how the city was besieged by a force of ten thousand troops, who systematically encircled the city and established stockades around it, building tall towers from which watchmen peered into the city and communicated enemy movements by means of fires at night and flags during the day. It also describes how the besiegers recruited carpenters and smiths and leatherworkers from nearby areas and made them construct mobile assault towers called sky bridges, which they intended to wheel up to the city walls. The plan was for soldiers to enter the sky bridges from the back, climb up, and rush out of the front onto the top of the walls.
But the city’s commander, a man named Chen Gui, carefully prepared the resistance, ordering the construction of defensive structures on top of the walls to protect his troops and, equally important, to hide their activities. He set up catapults, carefully placing them so they could reach the enemy’s lines and stationing men on the walls to report on the effectiveness of each shot so that the catapults could be re-aimed. He prepared stone balls of fifty to sixty pounds as ammunition for them. He organized patrols and mutual-aid brigades and inspection teams for the walls and defenses.
The enemy continued making preparations of their own. They knew that in order to wheel their sky bridges to the city’s walls, they would need to fill in the moats. Unfortunately for them, Chen Gui’s spotters helped the catapulters blast the workers and soldiers to bits. These setbacks were troublesome for the enemy, who had already ravaged the countryside for food stores and were growing hungry. Many wore rags. They even resorted to forcing captured children, old people, and women to bring in wood and straw and stones and old bricks to fill in the moats, and when these unfortunate people were killed by fire arrows or catapult stones, the enemy threw their corpses into the moats, although sometimes they first cut off the flesh and ate it.
Chen Gui’s archers shot gunpowder arrows at the moat as well, trying to set the straw and wood on fire. This succeeded beyond expectations. The fire burned for three days and nights. The enemy was forced to start over, and this time they made sure to protect their moat-filling with a fireproof layer of bricks and mud. Finally, the moats were filled and the sky bridges began lumbering toward the walls, protected by archers, catapults, and soldiers with lances. They yelled and beat drums and then, when the gong was sounded, let fly with arrows and stones. Chen Gui’s defenders kept the siege machines at bay with long beams, not letting them get closer than ten feet or so away. This was too far for the enemy to use them to storm the walls, but it was close enough for Chen Gui to unleash his secret weapons, the fire lances that had been prepared carefully in advance:
Using fire-bomb powder (literally “fire-bomb medicine”) long bamboo fire lances were made ready, more than twenty of them, as well as good numbers of striking spears and hook-blade staves [鉤鎌], all of which would be deployed by two people holding each one together, and which were prepared in such a way that when the sky bridges approached the wall, [the defenders could] emerge from above and below the defense structures and deploy them.
As the enemy siege towers approached, the fire lancers poured forth from the wooden defense structures, accompanied by other specially prepared soldiers, and attacked the siege towers.
What role did the fire lances – these proto-guns – play in this engagement? Historians have suggested that the fire lances were used to burn the siege towers. This is what the spare and concise official History of Song says. But a close reading of the firsthand siege account suggests a different interpretation. After using the beams of wood to keep the sky bridges from abutting the wall, Chen Gui directed his fire lancers against the enemy personnel who were trying to maneuver the sky bridges into place:
As the sky bridges became stuck, more than ten feet from the walls, unable to get any closer, from below and above the defensive structures they [the defenders] were ready and attacked with fire lances, striking lances, and hooked sickles, each in turn. The people at the base of the sky bridges were turned back and, pulling their bamboo ropes, ended up drawing the sky bridge back in an anxious and urgent rush, going about fifty paces before stopping.
The enemy tried again to move the sky bridges into place, but since the most favorable spots were obstructed by the beams, they had to pull them to less expedient places. At this point the sky bridges got caught in the moat, which had not been fully filled in. The ropes snapped and the sky bridges became completely mired. Song soldiers emerged from the walls and fought against the sky-bridge soldiers, while Song defenders on the walls threw bricks and shot arrows, and Song catapults hurled bombs and rocks. The front lines of attackers were driven back with great loss of life. At this point the defenders got out their ‘fire oxen,’ incendiary bundles of grass and firewood, and threw them at the bases of the sky bridges to burn them, driving the remaining enemy personnel away.
So the fire lances were not used to burn up the sky bridges but as infantry weapons, to drive away the troops and porters. The burning of the sky bridges was accomplished later, by piling traditional incendiaries at their base. This is significant because it suggests that gunpowder weapons were making a transition. It’s notable that the description of Chen Gui’s attack notes a sequence of deployment: the fire lances were in the vanguard, followed by the striking lances and then the sickle swords. This implies that the fire lances had the furthest reach, because each of the following weapons is a closer-quarter weapon. This suggests in turn that the fire lances were shooting flames. How far and for how long is impossible to determine, but it seems clear: gunpowder was increasing in power, and humanity was on its way to the true gun.
From fire lance to gun
That early fire lances were being used as anti-personnel weapons and not just incendiaries to destroy structures is supported by evidence in other battles around this time. For example, they were mounted on carts for antipersonnel use in land battles. In 1163, a Song commander named Wei Sheng prepared several hundred ‘war carts,’ each of which mounted fire lances protruding through protective coverings on the sides. The carts were used to defend mobile catapults that hurled firebombs. The Song court was impressed with the innovation and ordered that the carts be copied by other divisions of the army. Historians have made much of the use of armored mobile firearm platforms among the Hussites in the early 1400s, the Muscovites in the late 1400s, and the Chinese in the mid-1500s. The armored fire-lance carts of the Song period were their forerunners.
But the fire lance wasn’t just used to spew flames. As gunpowder recipes improved, it became clear that one could also load fire lances with stones or spikes or caltrops, and then it began clear that more damage was caused by these projectiles than by the fire itself. This was a key innovation, and it is perhaps only obvious in retrospect. After all, fire was the most powerful, destructive tool known to humankind. How odd that the most effective use of “fire medicine” turned out not to be the fire itself but rather the projectiles it could propel. In a sense, gunpowder helped humans update their very first missile weapon: the rock.
So when did the first true gun appear? First, we have to decide what we mean by ‘gun.’ The efficiency of a projectile-propelling firearm is directly related to how much of the expanding gas from the explosive reaction in the chamber can get past the projectile. The less leakage – the technical term is “windage” – the more energy is imparted to the projectile. A true gun therefore has a projectile that fits the barrel. It seems that at first, fire lances were loaded with projectiles that were considerably smaller than the barrel. Scholars have called such projectiles “co-viatives,” because they were simply swept along in the discharge. They could do formidable damage, but their accuracy, range, and power were lower than projectiles fired by true guns.
The transition from fire lance to gun probably occurred during the late 1100s and the 1200s, as the fire lance proliferated into a baffling array of weapons that spewed sparks and flames and ceramics and anything else people thought to put in them. Like most Chinese gunpowder weapons, these eruptors had fantastic names. The “filling-the-sky erupting tube” spewed out poisonous gas and fragments of porcelain. The “orifice-penetrating flying sand magic mist tube” spewed forth sand and poisonous chemicals, apparently into orifices. The “phalanx-charging fire gourd” shot out lead pellets and laid waste to enemy battle formations. In the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, fire lances became common in arsenals in multiple forms and styles, and this is also when we begin to see archaeological evidence of guns and proto-guns.
One of the most important finds is the Xanadu Gun, so named because it was found (in 1989) in the ruins of Xanadu, the Mongol Yuan dynasty Summer Palace in Inner Mongolia. It is perhaps the oldest extant gun whose dating is unequivocal, its date corresponding to the year 1298. Like all early guns, it is small: 6.2 kg in weight and 35 cm long. Archeological context and the straightforward inscription leave little room for controversy about the dating, but it was certainly not the first of its kind, because the inscription includes a serial number and other manufacturing information that together suggest that gun manufacture had already been codified and systematized by the time of its manufacture. Moreover, the gun has axial holes at the back that scholars have suggested served to affix it to a mount, allowing it to be elevated or lowered easily for aiming purposes. This, too, suggests that this gun was the product of considerable prior experience and experimentation.
Archaeologists in China have found evidence that may force us to move the date of the first metal firearms even further back in time. In 1980, a two-hundred-pound bronze gun was discovered in a cellar in Gansu Province. There is no inscription, but contextual evidence suggests that it may be from the Xi Xia state, from after 1214 but before the end of the Xi Xia in 1227.
What’s intriguing is that it was discovered with an iron ball and a tenth of a kilo of gunpowder in it. The ball, about nine centimeters in diameter, is a bit smaller than the muzzle diameter of the gun (twelve centimeters), which indicates that it may have been a co-viative rather than a true bullet-type projectile.
In 1997, a bronze firearm of similar structure but much smaller size (just 1.5 kg) was unearthed not far away, and the context of its discovery seems to suggest a similar date of origin. Both weapons seem more primitive than the Xanadu Gun and other early Yuan guns, and rougher in appearance, with uneven casting. Future archaeological discoveries will fill in our understanding with greater certitude, but for now, it seems possible that the earliest metal proto-guns were created in the late Xi Xia state, in the early 1200s. This means that the gun may not have been developed by the Chinese but rather by the Tangut people of the Xi Xia state.
On the other hand, Chinese artisans were key to Tangut warmakers and it is impossible to know precisely who cast these weapons. The important point is that the gun emerged during the warfare that took place between all the peoples of East Asia in the 1100s and 1200s: Chinese, Jurchen, Tangut, and Mongol, among others.
On the battlefield
The age of the gun truly began in the following century, in the intense wars that accompanied the rise of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), which began in the 1350s. Indeed, the extraordinary success of the Ming dynasty was based on the effective use of guns, and historians in China now celebrate the early Ming period as one of technological brilliance, when Chinese arms – guns in particular – were unparalleled. By 1380, Ming policies stipulated that gunners should comprise 10% of infantry units. Since the total number of soldiers at that period was likely between 1.3 and 1.8 million, this implies that the total number of gun specialists was on the order of 130,000 to 180,000, which means that there were probably more gunners in early Ming China than there were knights, soldiers, and pages in France and England combined.
Over the following decades, the percentage of gunners seems to have climbed higher. By the 1430s and 1440s, the proportion of gunners in the Ming infantry reached 20%. By 1466, it seems to have reached 30%. In Europe, by contrast, it wasn’t until the mid-1500s that gunners comprised 30% of infantry units.
Supplying all these men with guns, ammunition, and powder was a massive undertaking, and the Ming therefore created specialized manufacturing bureaus. The Bureau of Armaments (軍器局) was required to produce, every three years, 3,000 bowl-mouth bronze guns, 3,000 hand-held bronze guns, and 3,000 signal cannons, as well as huge amounts of ammunition and other equipment, including ramrods.
The Ming Military Armory Bureau (兵仗局) was responsible for an even wider array of weapons: in addition to bowl-mouth cannons and hand-grip guns, it was supposed to produce guns known as ‘great generals,’ ‘secondary generals,’ ‘tertiary generals,’ and ‘gate-seizing generals,’ as well as ‘miraculous [fire] lances,’ ‘miraculous guns,’ and ‘horse-beheading guns,’ among many other weapons. Of course, we can’t be sure that the bureaus produced all they were supposed to, but they were also just the pinnacle of a larger and more distributed system of production. Enormous numbers of weapons were manufactured at the local level. The early Ming had a massive arms industry, the largest and most advanced in the world. As one sinophone historian writes, in the early Ming period, “the technology and capacity of gun manufacture was of a highly advanced level, the foremost in the world at the time.”
Yet Ming guns were quite different from the classic guns of our imagination, which is to say the guns of the early modern period (1500–1800). They were smaller, lighter, and shorter, and they were used in quite different ways. By comparing early Ming warfare with that of medieval Europe, we raise significant new questions and even resolve mysteries that European sources cannot address.
So what were the earliest guns in Europe like? We know that guns first began to be used in Europe in a significant way around the 1320s, about fifty years or so after the first incontrovertible evidence of their appearance in East Asia. How they got to Europe is still not clear. It seems likely that the Mongols, who ruled China and much of central Asia, and who were famous for adopting and adapting techniques and technologies from their conquered peoples, may have helped spread the gun, but there were also important sea routes, and we can’t rule out maritime transmission. Most likely the gun traveled to Europe via multiple routes.
In any case, what seems clear is that gun warfare evolved quite differently in Europe than in China. For one thing, it seems that Europeans did not use guns on the battlefield in large numbers until the fifteenth century, and quite possibly the late fifteenth century. Although there are sources suggesting the presence of guns in field warfare previously, the percentage of gunners seems to have remained small. So much is this the case that some historians have even wondered whether early European guns were used on the battlefield at all. There’s no doubt that they were, but even so, some western historians have suggested that they didn’t play important roles. Why? Many historians believe that it’s because of technology.
Yet the Chinese were able to make their small guns work on the battlefield, which is why 10% of early Ming soldiers were gunners, most of them hand-gunners, with between 100,000 and 200,000 gunners in early Ming armies (i.e., circa 1400). Was Chinese small-gun technology better than European small-gun technology? It’s possible. But it’s also possible that Chinese forces were simply better at deploying guns than European forces were.
Why? The very likely answer is that China was able to use guns more effectively because it had large standing armies who could effectively drill their troops, whereas European states generally didn’t. The Chinese had a strong and vibrant practice of infantry drill, including the use of countermarch techniques, in which ranks of gunners took turns firing and kept up a constant hail of bullets, making up for the slow rate of fire of early guns. Europeans seem not to have implemented countermarch techniques for firearms on a significant scale until the sixteenth century, and likely the very end of that century.
To carry out an effective countermarch, one needed to drill soldiers constantly. The sequence had to become second nature. Otherwise discipline would evaporate once the troops faced an enemy. Historians have argued that countermarch techniques for firearms first appeared during the sixteenth century in two separate places, seemingly independently: in Japan during the 1570s and in Europe during the 1590s. (More recently, historians have suggested that the Ottomans may have used countermarch techniques with firearms in 1526.)
In fact, however, it’s very likely that the first people to use countermarch techniques with firearms were the Chinese. The roots of the countermarch run deep in China, because the Chinese used countermarch-type techniques with crossbows, which suffer a similar drawback to early guns: a slow loading period. Although the technique probably was used in the ancient period, there’s no clear evidence of it until a Tang dynasty source of the eighth century AD.
Europe, too, had ancient precursors to the volley-fire method – the Dutchmen who pioneered the countermarch technique for muskets in the late 1500s drew their inspiration from Roman military manuals. But the difference is that in China the ancient techniques never died out. China – in contrast to Western Europe – saw large standing armies throughout its history, so organized collective drill and discipline remained standard operating procedure in its armed forces. In any case, the first clear evidence for China’s use of the countermarch technique with firearms appears in the late fourteenth century. In the years that followed, as Chinese guns evolved, the countermarch technique continued to be used.
Guns and walls
If medieval Europeans didn’t manage to exploit guns to their full potential on the battlefield, they did excel in another area: artillery. Europeans developed huge siege guns as early as the late fourteenth century, guns that were able to destroy castle walls with striking effectiveness.
In contrast, guns in China remained small. Of the extant guns that we know for certain were early Ming pieces – i.e., from the 1350s through the early 1400s – nearly all are less than 80 kg in weight, and most weigh a couple of kilos or less. Guns considered ‘large’ weighed only 75 kg. To be sure, there are three preserved guns from 1377 of relatively large size: a meter long, with a muzzle diameter of 21 cm, and two handles on either side, shaped for easy human transport. The existence of these guns shows – if any proof were needed – that Ming forges were entirely capable of making larger guns. But what is notable is that these are the only relatively large guns preserved from the early Ming period (pre-1500), and no other examples are known from either archeological or textual evidence. Chinese researchers have concluded that they were an anomaly, and that during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries Chinese guns remained small and light.
What accounts for Europeans’ precocious focus on artillery? It’s an intriguing puzzle, because at first, European guns remained as small as those of China and the Mongol Empire. Moreover, early European guns seem also to have been used like fire lances were in East Asia, with co-viatives instead of true bullets (although it’s important to keep in mind that the distinction between guns and fire lances was much looser than we are apt to make it today). But starting in the late fourteenth century, Europeans became experts at smashing down walls with big guns, while Chinese guns tended to remain small until European artillery was introduced, starting in the mid-16th century.
Why is this? The reason is probably quite simple: traditional European walls were much more susceptible to being knocked down, whereas traditional Chinese walls were astonishingly stout by European standards. Toward the middle of the twentieth century, a European expert in fortification mused on how astoundingly large China’s walls were:
In China … the principal towns are surrounded to the present day by walls so substantial, lofty and formidable that the medieval fortifications of Europe are puny in comparison.
Whereas European walls were made of stone and tended to be between 1.5 and 3 meters wide, Chinese walls were an order of magnitude larger: generally between ten and twenty meters wide at the base and five to ten meters wide at the top. That’s wide enough for a three-lane highway.
When you fired a cannon at a traditional European wall, you could hope to breach it, as long as your artillerist was good and your powder and ammunition plentiful. Against a traditional Chinese wall, even the most effective guns of the late medieval and early modern periods would have had little effect. In fact, even modern British artillerists found the prospect of bombarding Chinese walls unsettling. In 1860, when officers of the British Army got a close look at Beijing’s outer walls, they doubted whether their artillery would be able to batter them down.
It wasn’t just the thinness of European walls that made them vulnerable to artillery. It was also the fact that they were made of stone, often with a filling of gravel or rubble, with limestone mortar often used as a bonding agent, a practice that went back to Roman times. Chinese walls, however, had a hard-tamped earthen core. An earthwork wall absorbs the energy of an artillery shot. It might become riddled with holes during an attack, but those holes tend not to penetrate deeply and generally won’t shatter the wall.
China’s massive walls were likely one of the key reasons that guns developed differently in China than in Europe. Chinese walls were so thick, were constructed so artfully, and were so prevalent, that it made no sense to try to build guns to attack them, especially when one keeps in mind how expensive it was to make, transport, and operate artillery in the late medieval and early modern periods.
Consider, for example, that the largest European and Ottoman guns required more than a hundred pounds of powder for a single shot. Powder was extremely expensive, especially in Western Europe, where the main ingredient, saltpeter (potassium nitrate), was not easy to come by. Even in the sixteenth century, when artillery had decreased in size (warmakers found that it was just as effective to concentrate many small cannons on a wall instead of firing a few large ones at it), powder was prohibitively expensive. Scholars have estimated that a shot from a sixteenth-century cannon cost the equivalent of a month of wages for an infantry soldier. Why waste all this money and effort if walls are so thick as to be highly resistant to one’s guns?
In fact, in the late 1400s and 1500s, when Europeans began rebuilding their walls to resist cannon fire, they adopted principles of construction that were quite similar to traditional Chinese principles; yet traditional Chinese fortification techniques predate guns or even catapults. Afterwards, European artillery expertise kept evolving, so eventually breaches could be created in thicker walls, but this evolution might never have happened if not for the opportunity offered by the vulnerability of Europe’s traditionally thin walls.
After the medieval period, Chinese and European guns continued to evolve, and in the 1500s and 1600s, as people across the planet came into ever closer and more sustained contact, gun styles evolved rapidly, cross-fertilizing across national and cultural borders – a process that sped up even more in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as whole new weapon classes emerged and guns became ever more destructive. All of that history is fascinating, of course, but it’s quite well known, whereas the medieval portion of the gunpowder age is still unappreciated by many people. The medieval period was, however, probably the most important period in human history for the development of military technology. It’s when gunpowder – and the gun itself – emerged and became a key part of warfare throughout the Old World. The seeds of modern war were planted in the Middle Ages.
Tonio Andrade is professor of history at Emory University. Click here to view his website. He is the author of The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History, which won the Distinguished Book Award from the Society of Military History in 2017.
This article was first published in Medieval Warfare magazine. Click here to buy this issue.