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The Chinese Invention of Gunpowder, Explosives, and Artillery and Their Impact on European Warfare

The Chinese Invention of Gunpowder, Explosives, and Artillery and Their Impact on European Warfare


The development of feudalism in Europe was accompanied by the introduction of the heavily armored, horse-mounted knight and the fortified castle. While Eastern technology helped pave the way for these developments, it also helped to ensure their eventual obsolescence. Gunpowder was a Chinese invention that revolutionized warfare. The Chinese used explosives on a wide scale beginning in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The cannons, flamethrowers, and grenades that they used in battle were quickly adopted by European forces for battles on land and at sea. However, Europeans refined the applications of gunpowder and improved the devices that used gunpowder, producing weapons that dramatically transformed the nature of warfare.


The formula for gunpowder is deceptively simple. It is formed from the combination of three materials: saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal. Saltpeter, or potassium nitrate (KNO3) is regarded as the most important ingredient, and constitutes up to 75% of the recipe. In order to make gunpowder, one has only to mix these compounds together as powdered solids. Once ignited, this mixture produces temperatures that range from 2,100° to 2,700° Celsius. Ignition produces a volume of gases resulting in 274 to 360 cubic cm of gas per gram of powder. These gases produce explosions and propel bullets and cannonballs.

It was not until the Song Dynasty, which began in a.d. 960, that this recipe was documented in China. Gunpowder and firearms as we know them were developed during this period. Historians regard the Song Dynasty as a highly prosperous and relatively peaceful time, and assert that the Song Dynasty marks the entrance of China into the modern era. A materialistic culture arose during the Song Dynasty, and the circulation of money became widespread. The civil service examination for Chinese officials also became extremely important during this era and is indicative of a level of intellectual consensus that had not previously existed in China.

While written records that mention sulfur and nitrates, two of the ingredients of gunpowder, appeared as early as the Han Dynasty (948-951), it was not until the Sung Dynasty that records mention the creation and use of military explosives. Earlier documentation concerning these materials refers to their usefulness in elixirs made by alchemists. Such uses for chemical compounds in earlier eras reveals an intellectual reliance on superstition. The development of gunpowder in the Sung Dynasty, on the other hand, hints at a modern interest in the practical applications of intellectual speculation.


One of the earliest known uses of rocketry in Chinese warfare dates to the fall of the Ch'in dynasty during the thirteenth century. The great Mongol leader Khan Ogodei had gained power and was intent on eliminating the Chin and their fierce resistance to his armies. In 1232 the Mongol army held the Ch'in capital of Pien, also known as K'ai-feng, under siege. While the city did eventually fall to the Mongols, its inhabitants were able to defend themselves effectively. Indeed, this was one of the first battles in recorded military history in which firearms were used by both sides. At this stage of development, gunpowder was used primarily in ceramic grenades that were hurled by catapults. Used by the defenders of Pien, the grenades proved deadly to the Mongol warriors and their horses. The defenders of Pien used catapults because, at that point, Chinese cannons, like the early cannons implemented by the Europeans, had only a limited effectiveness.

The Chinese defenders of Pien used another weapon—the flamethrower—that, unlike early ceramic grenades, was used primarily by the Chinese and was not widely borrowed by European armies. Medieval Chinese artisans are credited with the invention of a flamethrower, which was referred to as the fire lance. In order to form a fire lance, Chinese inventors pasted together nearly 20 layers of strong yellow paper and shaped these into a pipe over 24 in (60 cm) in length. They then filled this pipe with iron filings, porcelain fragments, and gunpowder, and fastened the pipe to a lance. Soldiers who handled these flamethrowers carried with them onto the battlefield a small iron box containing glowing embers. In battle, the soldiers used these embers to ignite the fire lances. These weapons produced flames over 9.84 ft (3 m) long. Also, the porcelain shards and iron filings that were packed into the tube shot out in a deadly cloud of shrapnel.

Such a weapon clearly anticipated the European-developed handgun, in that it was portable and could be operated by a single soldier. However, it was not the weapon that most directly influenced European military technology. Instead, in Europe, the cannon became the most common device to rely on gunpowder. By the middle of the fourteenth century, cannons were a common sight on European battlefields. But the earliest cannons were not especially effective. For the most part, European cannons were based on the Chinese design, and were not particularly accurate or powerful.

It was not until the fifteenth century that cannons capable of seriously damaging fortified castle and city walls were developed. By this time, siege artillery that used gunpowder replaced siege engines, such as the catapult, which was characteristic of medieval warfare. The new cannons were smaller and much easier to transport than large siege engines. Many siege engines, such as the French trebuchet, were too heavy to move. These had to be constructed onsite by the attacking army. The early cannon could be transported to the battlefield via carriage. However, these early cannons were not particularly maneuverable during battle. As a result, they did not seriously impact the style of warfare initially. While cannons slowly replaced siege engines, they did not change how battles were fought. Because they were locked in place once they were set up, these early cannons were also easy targets for heavy artillery. Furthermore, because of their weight and design, these cannons could not be adjusted very easily once they had been placed on the battlefield. Attached to primitive carriages, such cannons were nearly impossible to aim.

At the same time that cannons began to appear, the portable handgun was developed by European armies. The advancements that allowed the handgun to dominate warfare were, for the most part, European in origin. Gunpowder and early cannons were imported from China, but the Chinese did not develop or refine their firepower for several centuries. Indeed, by the sixteenth century the Chinese bought the majority of their firearms from the Portuguese.

Early handguns were little more than miniature cannons mounted on sticks. They were practically insignificant in battle when compared to the crossbow or the longbow, both of which had a powerful impact on diminishing the superiority of heavily armored cavalry units. It was not until the middle of the fifteenth century that the development of the matchlock improved the viability of the handgun. The matchlock was little more than a trigger-operated hook that allowed the operator to aim the gun with both hands. While this type of gun, the harquebus, greatly improved the rate and accuracy of fire, the longbow and crossbow were still superior weapons.

However, while the initial effects of firearm usage were limited, the same cannot be said for medieval navies. The cannon profoundly influenced naval warfare and led to the domination of the sailing ship over the galley. Prior to the cannon, the sailing ship suffered major disadvantages in close-quarter combat. Difficult to maneuver and dependent on the wind, early sailing vessels were no match for galleys on calm steady waters. Once cannons were fitted to sailing ships, however, the smaller, more maneuverable galleys were unable to approach.

The large cannon did not drastically alter land combat, but it revolutionized warfare at sea. The large guns could cause serious structural damage to ships. They operated like the rams that were fitted onto galleys, but allowed the attacking ship to maintain some degree of distance. Cannons damaged the rigging and attacked the buoyancy of ships. Large cannonballs destroyed ships in the same way that they toppled castle walls. Furthermore, cannonballs that pierced wooden ships showered the interior of the struck ship with dangerous splinters.

Interestingly, smaller cannons and antipersonnel guns had little impact on naval warfare tactics. Armies on land quickly implemented and improved these technologies, but demonstrated ambivalence to the heavy cannon. The reverse was true for navies, for which the large sea cannon was the most important weapon of the time.

Often, ships were outfitted with more than 30 cannons on each side. These cannons fired balls that weighed 10 to 20 lbs (4.5 to 9 kg). The bow-to-bow fighting style of galleys in naval warfare was replaced by fighting ships aligned broadside to broadside and exchanging volleys of cannon fire. The heavy artillery on sailing vessels allowed sailors to crush the highly maneuverable, but fragile galleys that had dominated the Mediterranean for so long.

This new style of warfare determined more than the dominant type of sailing vessel. The heavy reliance on the naval cannon also abolished the need for infantry combat between soldiers and sailors on opposing ships. Prior to the development of the naval cannon, ships carried large numbers of armed soldiers who attempted to overwhelm the fighting force of the ships they attacked.

The defeat of the Spanish armada by the English navy in 1588 demonstrates the conclusive transition to artillery combat at sea. The Spanish armada had many more soldiers and ships than the English fleet. However, while the Spanish still relied on traditional boarding practices, the English were dependent on cannon fire. The English used their superior firepower to whittle away the Spanish forces. Likewise, the maneuverability of the English ships prevented the Spanish from engaging in close-range shock tactics.

The Chinese invention of gunpowder resulted in numerous weapons and applications that transformed battle. While it took a long time for armies to fully realize the potential offered by gunpowder, the new weapons made possible by its invention and availability eventually determined the victors of many important conflicts.


Further Reading

Hall, Bert S. Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe: Gunpowder, Technology, and Tactics. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Jones, Archer. The Art of War in the Western World. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Li, Dun J. The Ageless Chinese: A History. New York: Scribner, 1978.

McNeill, William H. The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society Since A.D. 1000. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

van Creveld, Martin. Technology and War: From 2000 B.C. to the Present. New York: Free Press, 1989.

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