The first firearms appeared in Europe in the 14th century. At this time, artillery was first used in wars. Three cannon were used at the Battle of Cré cy in 1346, but they were not very effective. Small cannon were used by the French in 1450 against English and artillery was used in the final campaign in 1453 by Ottomans under Mehmet II to capture Constantinople. Bombards, tubes of brass or copper mounted on wooden sledges, fired stones or darts. Late in the century wrought-iron bombards appeared, firing iron balls. Some huge guns were made in the 15th century. A wrought-iron bombard called "Mons Meg," preserved in Scotland, has a bore of 20 inches (508 mm); it fired a 300-pound (136-kg) stone ball. The first mortars date from this period. By the mid-15th century the French were using long guns called culverins, mounted on wheels.
King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden in the 17th century aided in the development of a short cast-iron gun that could accompany his troops. He increased rate of fire by having measured charges prepared in advance—the first cartridges. In the 18th century, Frederick the Great made important tactical use of artillery. He massed heavy fortress guns to support his attacks, and at the head of each infantry battalion placed a light six-pounder gun.
When Jean Gribeauval became France's inspector general in 1776, he found a wide variety of guns in use. He standardized horse-drawn gun carriages and introduced aiming devices. His reorganization of artillery was of great benefit to Napoleon I. Huge concentrations of artillery fire aided in winning Napoleon's later victories. Napoleon was the first one who collected his artillery in a grande batterie or big battery and directed his artillery fire on one point in the enemy's line, and then sent troops against that point. Instead of scattering guns among infantry battalions, Napoleon grouped them under division command.
The Americans during the Revolutionary War had little artillery, but they made effective use of guns captured at Ticonderoga and Saratoga. After the war a company of artillery at West Point with a detachment at Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh), was the only army unit retained in service.
In the War of 1812 British forces used rockets developed by William Congreve. These were mentioned by Francis Scott Key in "The Star-Spangled Banner" when he referred to "the rockets' red glare." Rockets were rarely used again until World War II.
Most of the guns in use at the beginning of the American Civil War were muzzle-loading, smoothbore iron cannon little different from those used by Gustavus Adolphus. The gun carriage, called a limber, had an ammunition chest and was usually drawn by six horses hitched in pairs. Accompanying the gun was a caisson, a wheeled vehicle carrying two ammunition chests, also drawn by six horses. Except for the drivers, the gun crew walked alongside. Batteries, usually of light guns, in which all men were mounted on horses were called horse artillery and normally served with cavalry.
Effective breech-loading rifled guns were used by the French in their war against Austria in 1859, but smoothbores continued in use through the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. In that war the Prussians massed steel breech-loading guns in the main battle line, a practice that was widely used in World War I. Also during the 19th century there was much development of high explosives.
In 1907 the U.S. Army established the Coast Artillery and Field Artillery as separate arms; the Coast Artillery manned fixed guns in coastal fortifications while the Field Artillery was assigned smaller weapons for use in support of troops.
Artillery was employed on a huge scale in World War I. Shells containing poison gas, as well as high-explosive shells, were used. By the use of range finders, telescopic sights, and other fire-control instruments, artillery could be fired accurately from concealed positions and over the heads of friendly troops. As accuracy improved, guns of various sizes and ranges could concentrate fire on a narrow strip of enemy-held territory in preparation for an attack. This kind of artillery firing was called a barrage. If the curtain of fire was kept moving ahead of advancing troops, it was called a rolling barrage.
In the World War I (1914-1918), the troops who fought on the Western front dug out immense mazes of trenches. The warring sides generally exchanged fire between big-gun batteries. In the trench warfare of World War I, 14-inch (356-mm) naval guns and railway and fixed-mount guns of the Coast Artillery were used behind the lines. An outstanding French weapon was the 75-mm gun. Its superior recoil mechanism permitted rapid fire—a rate of 20 to 25 rounds (shots) a minute. The German Paris Gun (also called "Big Bertha") was an 8.4-inch (213-mm) gun that fired on Paris in 1918 from a distance of 75 miles (110 km), which hurled shells at 15 1/2 miles (24.9 kilometers) above the ground.
Antiaircraft guns used during World War I were mainly conventional artillery pieces on special mounts. After the war, efforts were directed toward developing guns better suited for use against airplanes. The greatest need was for automatic aiming and firing devices. An important development was radar tracking, which came into use in 1941.
By the beginning of World War II nearly all artillery was mechanized; that is, it was designed to be moved quickly from place to place by trucks or tractors. Tanks, which earlier had been armed only with machine guns, carried artillery weapons mounted in armored turrets. As the war progressed, large self-propelled guns came into use and rockets were reintroduced into warfare. Most of the rockets were short-range, small-caliber weapons. An exception was the German V-2, introduced in 1944 as a long-range bombardment missile. Perhaps the most versatile gun of the war was another German weapon—the 88-mm gun; it could be used on a tank, as an antiaircraft gun, or as conventional field artillery.
Fixed guns of the coast artillery type were little used in World War II, partly because it was a war of rapid movement and partly because the airplane proved a more effective weapon for long-range bombardment. On the other hand, the use of smaller weapons proved to be the greatest artillery advances during the war. The war also made use of helicopters to carry artillery into battle in a procedure known as airmobility. As a result, the U.S. Army abolished the Coast Artillery in 1950. All artillery units, including field artillery and antiaircraft artillery, were combined into a single arm. In 1952 the first missile units were added.
The Korean War (1950–53), after its opening stage, was fought from trenches, much like World War I. Artillery was used on a large scale with great precision.
After the Korean War, missiles were developed to such an extent that some consideration was given to abolishing guns entirely. In the guerrilla-type warfare of the Vietnamese War, however, the use of guns in close support of infantry proved to be of continuing effectiveness.
The United States fired the first atomic artillery shell from 280-millimeter cannon on May 29, 1953. Presently, atomic projectiles can be fired from the artillery weapons of smaller calibers.
In 1968 the U.S. Army separated air-defense units from ground-support artillery, creating two branches—Field Artillery and Air Defense Artillery.