The History of Leith

September 23, 2004

Cannons and Gunpowder

The smoothbore cannon, first appearing in the early 14th century in Europe, assumed its classic form at the beginning of the 17th century, which persisted unchanged to the mid-19th century, when it was superseded by the breechloading rifled gun. It perhaps still remains in modified form as the infantry or trench mortar, and a few other smooth-bore weapons.

It was simply a strong cylinder permanently closed at one end, and temporarily closed by a cannonball towards the other end, between which a charge of explosive was placed. When the charge was ignited through the touch-hole, it exploded, or changed to highly compressed gas, very quickly, expelling the ball to do whatever service was required of it. This service was smashing a wall, or dismembering men and horses, or crashing through the wooden side of a ship, all frequently required duties. The cannon was an early internal combustion engine, as the fusion bomb is today, with few constructive uses. This paper is devoted to the origins of gunpowder and cannon, and to firearms lore. Developments since about 1860 are not included, except incidentally. Unfortunately, I am not able to provide graphic illustrations here, but many are available in the references.

The invention of the cannon is a very imperfectly known story, although the main themes and approximate dates are clear. The dates, places and protagonists of the inventions of gunpowder and the cannon cannot be determined, because the invention was not a simple act. Gunpowder had to be invented first, but even here gunpowder is not one substance, but many, of differing properties. Gunpowder depends on the availability of pure nitrates or saltpetre, which does not occur naturally, and will not be found by accident. Therefore, the origin of cannon begins with a question of chemical engineering. The best chemical theories of the time, around AD 1000, were in all respects those of antiquity and utterly futile in the solution of this problem. Nevertheless, gunpowder was developed, through blind trial and error. This is a story that clearly illustrates the power of modern chemistry, which scarcely existed before 1800, but could have made short work of many of the earlier perplexities.

One must clearly define an invention before the details of its invention can be determined. For example, a modern Renaissance scholar, Charles Nicholl, recently notes that the excellent Leonardo ‘anticipated Newton by two centuries’ in placing a glass of water in a sunbeam and noting the pretty colours. These colours were, in fact, well-known in antiquity. What Newton did was explain them, but the modern literary scholar has no more concept of what such an explanation could possibly be, and that there is more to the world than surface qualities, than a Scholastic (which Leonardo was not). Newton, indeed, purchased his prism at an optician’s, where they were presented for sale precisely for the production of these colours. Dr Nicholl is not the only one to make such assertions; they are very common.

The fundamental inventions of gunpowder and cannon had been made by 1300, but the sources are rare, difficult to interpret, hard to date, and often contradictory. The best guess is that gunpowder followed quickly after saltpetre was discovered (that is, a process for its purification was developed) by Chinese alchemists around AD 900 and introduced to Europe via trade routes and travellers around AD 1225, and that cannon were invented in southern Europe just before AD 1300. The period 1300-1600 saw the cannon perfected, chiefly in Europe, and it assumed its classical form. Small arms appeared in this period, revolutionizing armies and warfare. Technical terms are often obscure, however, and writers can be biased and their histories fanciful. The history of developments after 1600 is much clearer and better documented, with reliable drawings and accurate dates. One must always beware of taking some later creation as original evidence, especially pictorial evidence. For example, there are excellent drawings of the siege of Stirling Castle by Edward I in 1304, that look like witnesses of how things appeared, but they certainly are not. There is not a scrap of graphic evidence of how the siege actually appeared, only a few scraps of parchment with writing, and the scene is an artist’s reconstruction. Many sources contain drawings added to the manuscript at a much later date, which are in the same vein. It is important, but very difficult to establish historical authenticity in the sources of technical history.

The name cannon comes from the essential part, the cylindrical bore or barrel, probably through the Latin canna, for a reed, with the Italian augmentative suffix -one, making cannone, and joining the vernacular in the 14th century. Indeed, the earliest Chinese and Arabic firearms used bamboo tubes, cannae, as barrels, and shot arrows. The word canon was used in Latin for a gun (1326 in Italy, 1418 in England), but this is just a Latinized cannone, assimilated to an existing Latin word. Curiously, the word for the military authorities supplying cannons and gunpowder, ordnance, comes from ordinance, which is the real meaning of canon. canale is recorded in 1461 for a gun, referring to the barrel. Bombardum was used for cannon and cannonball as early as 1430, and bombator is known from 1456 for a gunner, or or bombardiator from 1547. These come from the earlier word for a heavy siege catapult. Gunna and gonna are known from as early as 1370 for a gunner or gun, especially in England, and is variously assumed to derive from Gunnhilde (a woman’s name commonly given to a cannon), mangonel (the ballista) or engine. Since an early form of the English word “gun” is “gonne,” the source is probably mangonel, a military engine for throwing stones. The word “gun” has now superseded “cannon” in common use. I’ll even use it here as a general term for all pyrotechnic projectile weapons for convenience. In military use, it is not applied to personal weapons (“This is my rifle, this is my gun …”), but mainly for rifled cannon, and for machine guns. In German, the term “büchse” comes from the Greek puxis, “box,” and it the source of the “buss” in words like arquebus and blunderbuss (“Donderbüchse”). Pulvis for gunpowder is recorded from around 1400, and in particular pulvis facticius from 1575. Pulvis pyxidis (‘small-box powder’) is also seen. In Danish, the word for gunpowder was “krud,” from “kraut,” and in Greek it was botanh, also referring to a herb. A good deal of confusion exists in the historical use of terms relating to cannon, especially between traditional siege weapons such as catapults, scorpions, mangonels and trebuchets, and gunpowder cannon. The story of cannon begins with gunpowder.

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