The following blog entry is part of Battle Castle’s interactive history fiction game, Masters of Constantinople. If you like Battle Castle and want to learn more about fortifications, medieval war and 15th century life, be sure to play at www.mastersofconstantinople.com.
Gunpowder was the first known chemical explosive in the world, and the only one known until the mid-19th century. A mixture of sulfur and charcoal (the fuels) with saltpeter, or potassium nitrate (the oxidizer/catalyzer), it was discovered for the first time (according to surviving written records) by 9th century Chinese alchemists, who used them for fireworks and the earliest gunpower weapons. It slowly spread from the Middle East, with Arabic recipes for gunpowder and treatises on its use appearing in the mid to late 13th century. Then to Europe- historians theorize it either travelled with merchants over the Silk Road, or was encountered by Europeans during the Mongol invasions of the 13th C. First uses in western warfare are to undermine walls- explode tunnels!! Gunpowder appears for the first time used as a weapon in 1262, when King Alfonso X of Castile besieged the city of Niebla, whose Spanish-Arab inhabitants wielded primitive guns against attackers.
Early gunpowder was difficult to use with cannon- the dry compound that was used in the 15th century, known as “serpentine,” was highly unstable. By 1500, the corning process had been innovated to render gunpowder more stable with a smaller risk of exploding during manufacture, as well as being easier to load into cannon. Corned gunpowder had liquid added to it to make a paste and was shaped into small cakes, after which they were left to dry. It had less surface area than earlier dry compound- more stable. By 14th and 15th centuries we see sources with reports of gunnis cum telar- guns with handles- first handguns. Handguns would not be fully developed until the early modern era, when Europe finally outpaced China in innovations with gunpowder.
Brown, G. I. The Big Bang: A History of Explosives. Sutton, 1998.
Chase, Kenneth. Firearms: A Global History to 1700. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Kelly, Jack. Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: the History of the Explosive that Changed the World. New York: Perseus, 2005.
Jennifer Lynn Jordan is an author and medieval blogger. She is also a doctoral student in medieval history and teaching fellow at SUNY Stony Brook.