The Invention of Gunpowder and Its Introduction Into Europe

views updated

The Invention of Gunpowder and Its Introduction Into Europe


Black powder, now known as gunpowder, was the chief tool of war until the modern discovery of explosives such as nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin. While gunpowder is still used in mining and fireworks, it is a much less valuable commodity now than it was hundreds of years ago. Gunpowder is a mixture of potassium nitrate (saltpeter), carbon (charcoal), and sulfur. When combined in the proper amounts, the gray powder will burn rapidly or explode with enough force to hurl a projectile, if confined in a partially closed container, when touched with an open flame or hot metal.

While it may never be actually known for certain who invented the first explosive, there is ample evidence that it originated in China during the tenth century. The Chinese are believed to have initially used black powder in their religious ceremonies. It had been a common practice to bang bamboo together to make a crackling noise in an attempt to drive away demons. Black powder was used to intensify this sound by sprinkling it on a fire. There is also support of the idea that they used black powder in fireworks and signals. The reported mixture by weight of 75% saltpeter, 15% charcoal, and 10% sulfur has changed little over time. As time wore on, the Chinese likely used black powder for military purposes. It served as a propellant for small pebbles and rockets. By the mid-thirteenth century, there are historical records that indicate the Chinese built primitive cannons where they shot stone projectiles from bamboo tubes. However, further development in the uses of black powder stagnated.

Some historians contend that the Arabs invented black powder. While the historical records are sketchy prior to the twelfth century, it has been documented that they developed the first working gun prior to 1300. It was a bamboo tube reinforced with iron, which used a charge of black powder to fire an arrow. This kind of sophistication points to the idea that the Arabs had probably been working with black powder for quite some time prior to 1300.

How the knowledge of gunpowder came about in Western Europe remains a mystery. There are two primary schools of thought on this issue. First, some historians claim that the Europeans could have gained their knowledge of the technique from a variety of sources such as the Chinese, Arabs, or possibly the Mongols. The second idea is that Europeans could have independently discovered gunpowder, without the knowledge trickling in from other lands. Not only is the knowledge source in dispute, but the date black powder became widely known is still in question.

A strong case can be made that black powder was known to at least one European as early 1242. It has been argued that the formula for black powder was contained in a manuscript written by Roger Bacon (1220-1292) at that time. The explicit instructions for making black powder and saltpeter is said to be contained in a cryptic Latin anagram that is difficult to decipher because he may have desired to keep the method secret. It is possible that since Bacon was a scholar, he could have picked up the formula in his reading of Arabic writings. However, it is evident that black powder had arrived in Western Europe by the late thirteenth century.

While there is some evidence that other cultures recognized the military potential of gunpowder, none developed weapons to make use of it as fast as the Europeans. Some scholars attribute the invention of firearms to an early fourteenth century German monk named Berthold Schwarz. Firearms are frequently mentioned in fourteenth century manuscripts from many countries and there is a record of the shipment of guns and powder from Ghent to England in 1314. The first official word of a cannon appears soon after that in Florentine document from 1326. By the middle of the century, the use of the cannon was widespread and its design similar to that of modern day.

Early firearms began to evolve in distinct directions. Cannons got larger and personal firearms got smaller. However, despite their size differences, both operated on similar principles. A small touchhole was drilled into the barrel and filled with the fine powder. Ignition of the charge could be attained by touching a slow burning cord to the powder or by providing a spark.


Originally, the manufacture of black powder was accomplished by hand. It required uniform blending and mixing; otherwise the powder would not ignite. The three ingredients were ground together with a mortar and pestle. The following step involved the use of hand held wooden stamps to pulverize the material. This stamping process was gradually replaced by a mechanized one using water mills. In 1435, the first powder mill driven by waterpower was erected near Nuremberg, Germany.

Black powder is relatively insensitive to shock and friction and must be ignited by flame or heat. In the early days devices such as torches, glowing tinder, and heated iron rods were used to ignite the powder and, in most cases, a fuse was used. It consisted of a trail of the powder that led to the main charge in order to give the person lighting the fuse time to get to a safe place.

Because the burning of black powder is a surface phenomenon, the degree of granulation determines the burn rate. A fine granulation burns faster than a coarse one. While a fine granulation produces a fast burning rate that is effective, it tends to create excessive pressures in the gun barrel. Thus, in order to be a safe propellant in firearms, black powder must be made coarse. Europeans in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries noted this and began manufacturing gunpowder in large grains of uniform size. They controlled the burning speed by varying the size of the granules.

The earliest gunpowder was made by grinding the ingredients separately and mixing them together dry. This was known as serpentine powder. The behavior of serpentine powder was highly variable, depending on a number of factors that were difficult to predict and control. Serpentine powder was also affected by vibration, which caused the serpentine powder to separate into layers according to relative density. The sulfur settled to the bottom and the charcoal rose to the top. Remixing at the battle site was necessary to maintain the proper proportions for ignition, an inconvenient and hazardous procedure that produced clouds of noxious and potentially explosive dust. Attempts were made to improve serpentine powder.

Corned powder was the next step in the refinement of gunpowder. Shortly after 1400, the ingredients of gunpowder were combined in water and ground together as a slurry. This proved to be a significant improvement in several respects. Wet incorporation was more complete and uniform than dry mixing so that the process "froze" the components permanently into a stable grain matrix so that separation was no longer a problem, and wet slurry could be ground in large quantities by water-driven mills with little danger of explosion. The use of waterpower also sharply reduced cost and allowed large quantities to be produced quickly. After grinding, the slurry was dried and then broken into grains. The grain size varied from coarse to extremely fine. Powder too fine to be used was reincorporated into the slurry for reprocessing. Corned powder burned more uniformly and rapidly than serpentine, so it was a stronger powder that rendered many older guns dangerous.


Few inventions have had an impact on human affairs as dramatic and decisive as that of gunpowder. The development of a means of harnessing the energy released by a chemical reaction in order to drive a projectile against a target marked a watershed in the harnessing of energy to human needs. Before gunpowder, weapons were designed around the limits of their users' muscular strength; after gunpowder, they were designed more in response to tactical demand.

Technologically, gunpowder bridged the gap between the medieval and modern eras. It served as a backdrop for many technological developments. As an example, the steam engine owes its roots to the precise technique of cannon boring. Gunpowder bridged the gap between the old and the new intellectually as well. The development of weapons to harness the power in gunpowder was the first significant success in rationally and systematically exploiting an energy source whose power could not be perceived directly with the ordinary senses. As such, early gunpowder technology was an important precursor of modern science.

Gunpowder permanently revolutionized European life. It hastened the decline of feudalism by changing the emphasis of battle from the cavalry to that of siege and field artillery. Gunpowder threatened the rule of the church with a competing secular power and feelings of nationalism. Immense firepower made Europe the leader in colonization. The course of human history would be vastly different had there been no gunpowder.


Further Reading

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

McNeill, W. H. Age of Gunpowder Empires, 1450-1800. New York: American Historical Association, 1990.

Partington, J. R. A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

About this article

The Invention of Gunpowder and Its Introduction Into Europe

Updated About content Print Article


The Invention of Gunpowder and Its Introduction Into Europe