Gunpowder: Revolutionizing Warfare In The Middle Ages

Gunpowder: Revolutionizing Warfare in the Middle Ages

Gunpowder was a revolutionary technology that changed the way warfare was conducted during the Middle Ages. Prior to its introduction, armies relied on hand-to-hand combat and weapons like swords, spears, and bows. But with the advent of gunpowder, soldiers could use firearms to shoot their enemies from a distance, giving them a significant advantage in battle.

This new form of warfare had a profound impact on the way battles were fought and won. No longer were soldiers required to engage in close combat with their enemies, which often resulted in heavy casualties. Instead, they could use guns to take out their opponents from a safe distance. This not only made warfare more efficient, but also reduced the number of soldiers needed to fight in a battle. Gunpowder revolutionized warfare in the Middle Ages and paved the way for modern warfare as we know it today.

 

Medieval Gunpowder Weapons - Swiss soldier firing a hand cannon, with powder bag and ramrod at his feet, c. late 14th century (produced in 1874)
Swiss soldier firing a hand cannon, with powder bag and ramrod at his feet, c. late 14th century (produced in 1874)

Hand Cannon

The medieval hand cannon, also known as the handgonne, was a small, portable cannon that was developed in the 14th century. It was the first gunpowder weapon to be used in Europe and marked a significant innovation in medieval warfare.

The hand cannon consisted of a wooden barrel with a metal barrel attached to it, into which gunpowder and a projectile were placed. The gunpowder was ignited by a burning wick or fuse, which caused the explosion that propelled the projectile out of the barrel. The hand cannon was held and fired by a single person and could be used to deliver a deadly burst of shrapnel at close range.

The hand cannon was a significant improvement over previous weapons, such as the crossbow and longbow, which had limited range and required a high level of skill to use effectively. The hand cannon, on the other hand, could be used by anyone and was capable of delivering a powerful blow to enemy soldiers or fortifications.

The hand cannon was not without its drawbacks, however. It was prone to misfires and accidents, and the gunpowder itself was unstable and prone to spontaneous combustion. In addition, the hand cannon was expensive to produce and required skilled craftsmen to manufacture, which limited its availability.

Despite these challenges, the hand cannon became an important weapon in medieval warfare and was used by armies throughout Europe. It allowed armies to breach castle walls and fortifications and marked the beginning of the end for traditional siege warfare. The hand cannon also paved the way for the development of larger, more powerful cannons, such as the culverin, which would come to dominate battlefields in the late medieval period.

The impact of the hand cannon on medieval warfare was significant, and it played a vital role in shaping the course of European history. It allowed armies to breach castle walls and fortifications, which in turn led to the development of new tactics and strategies in warfare. It also contributed to the development of modern firearms, which continue to play a vital role in military and law enforcement today.

Overall, the medieval hand cannon was a revolutionary weapon that changed the way wars were fought and had a lasting impact on the course of European history.

Culverin

Culverins were a type of medieval gunpowder weapon that were used in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. They were larger and more powerful than hand cannons, which were the first gunpowder weapons used in Europe, and were mounted on wheels so they could be fired from a fixed position.

Culverins were used to bombard enemy fortifications, such as castles and city walls, and were capable of firing heavier projectiles over longer distances than hand cannons. They were also used to sink ships in naval battles.

40Kg Wrought Iron Murderer, 1410 France

40Kg Wrought Iron Murderer, 1410 France

The culverin consisted of a long, narrow barrel made of metal, attached to a wooden carriage. Gunpowder and a projectile, such as a cannonball, were placed in the barrel and ignited by a fuse. The explosion caused by the gunpowder propelled the projectile out of the barrel and towards the target.

Culverins were more accurate and had a longer range than hand cannons, but they were also more expensive to produce and required skilled craftsmen to manufacture. They were also prone to misfires and accidents, and the gunpowder itself was unstable and prone to spontaneous combustion.

Despite these challenges, culverins became an important part of medieval warfare and played a significant role in shaping the course of European history. They allowed armies to breach castle walls and fortifications, which in turn led to the development of new tactics and strategies in warfare. They also contributed to the development of larger, more powerful cannons, such as the demi-culverin, which was developed in the early 16th century.

The use of culverins and other gunpowder weapons had a significant impact on the way wars were fought in the Middle Ages. Castles, which had previously been considered nearly impregnable, became vulnerable to artillery fire. Siege warfare, in which one army tries to capture a fortified position by surrounding it and waiting for the defenders to run out of supplies, became less common as a result. Instead, armies began using artillery to breach the walls of castles and fortifications and attack them directly.

This change in tactics led to the development of new types of fortifications, such as star-shaped fortresses, which were designed to withstand artillery fire. It also led to the development of new tactics, such as the use of trenches and earthworks to protect soldiers from enemy fire.

Overall, the medieval culverin was a significant innovation in medieval warfare that allowed armies to breach castle walls and fortifications, and ultimately changed the way wars were fought. It was an important precursor to modern artillery and continues to be remembered as a game-changing weapon of the Middle Ages.

 

Superguns & Bombards

In medieval times, superguns were a type of bombards (cannons) that were used in siege warfare and had a ball diameter larger than 50 cm. These large weapons were made either by forging iron bars together or casting them in bronze using techniques similar to bell-making. Examples of superguns include the Pumhart von Steyr, Dulle Griet, Mons Meg (all made of iron), and the cast-bronze Faule Mette, Faule Grete, and Dardanelles Gun.

The development of superguns began with the aim of increasing the impact of projectiles. Initially, gunners tried using larger amounts of gunpowder to achieve this, but this increased the pressure on the cannon and could cause it to burst, resulting in the death of the gunner and crew. It was also discovered that the high velocity of the stone balls caused them to shatter upon impact rather than damaging the walls.

As a result, the mass of the cannon balls and the cannons themselves continually increased, eventually leading to the creation of giant cannons like the Pumhart von Steyr which could fire a 690 kg ball. In addition to the desired increase in power, other factors such as prestige and deterrence also played a role in the development of superguns.

Despite their high quality, superguns were only moderately successful in terms of military effectiveness due to their high logistical demands and cost. For the same price as a single supergun, it was possible to produce two or three smaller bombards (called Hauptbüchse in German) that were able to shatter medieval walls, especially when used in a battery.

These smaller artillery pieces were more flexible and caused more destruction in a shorter amount of time due to their smaller size and higher rate of fire. The transition to smaller but more effective iron balls also made super-sized bores unnecessary. For example, the caliber of a 50 pound ball could be reduced from 28 cm to 18 cm when using an iron projectile instead.

By the second half of the 15th century, further advancements in siege technology focused on smaller bombards called Hauptbüchse, and super-sized bombards were largely abandoned by the leading artillery arsenal of the dukes of Burgundy.

At the same time, the technology for superguns was transmitted to the Ottoman army by a Hungarian gunfounder named Orban during the Siege of Constantinople in 1453. The Dardanelles Gun, which was cast by the Ottoman gunfounder Ali, is believed to have been based on Orban’s designs. A similar super-sized bombard was also used by the Ottoman navy in the Battle of Zonchio in 1499.

In India, a large forge-welded iron cannon was built in the early 17th century and was one of the largest in the world. Indian armies mainly used artillery for defensive purposes against invading armies.

 

Medieval Gunpowder Weapons - von Steyr, a medieval supergun in the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum at Vienna, Austria
Pumhart von Steyr, a medieval supergun in the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum at Vienna, Austria

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Recommended Books

The Medieval Cannon 1326–1494
The Medieval Cannon 1326–1494
Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics by Jack Kelly
Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics by Jack Kelly
The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages by Edward Grant
The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages by Edward Grant

Sources

  • Pappenheim, Copyrighted free use, via Wikimedia Commons

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2022, November 21). Medieval technology. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medieval_technology#Armour

  • ‌PHGCOM, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

  • Viollet-le-Duc, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

 

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