They've been in existence for more than 1,000 years and have affected warfare — and society in general — in ways perhaps no other invention can match. We're talking about guns. Once just the weapon of the world's military forces, now guns are considered a "right" of the average citizen by some people, especially in the United States where it's written into the Constitution.
It all started in China around 850 C.E., when Chinese alchemists accidentally created gunpowder while trying to develop a "fountain of youth" potion. The resulting powder called huo yao, was a blend of charcoal, saltpeter and sulfur. They quickly learned the powder could be used in warfare. The then-reigning Song Dynasty is the first to have used gunpowder against the Mongols, whose constant invasions into the country plagued the Chinese throughout the period.
The Chinese attacked the Mongols with fire lances or "flying fire" — arrows fixed with tubes of gunpowder that, when ignited, would propel across enemy lines. More gunpowder-based weapons followed as the Chinese perfected a variety of weapons against the Mongols over the next centuries, including the first cannons and grenades.
Gunpowder Arrives in Europe
Gunpowder made its way to Europe in the 13th century, likely over the Silk Road trade routes through Central Asia. Rival nations refined gunpowder recipes in the ensuing centuries before arriving at the optimum mixture: approximately 75 percent saltpeter, 15 percent charcoal and 10 percent sulfur.
By 1350, rudimentary gunpowder cannons were commonplace in the English and French militaries, who used the explosive technology against each other during the Hundred Years' War.
As the centuries continued, new and improved cannons were designed, many of which were small and portable. Eventually the hand cannon was developed in the early 15th century; it was the first real personal firearm. The Ottoman Turks used these and other cannons during the successful siege of Constantinople in 1453. The powerful new weapons essentially rendered traditional walled fortifications of Europe defenseless.
Invention of the Modern Handgun
Historians generally consider the Chinese fire lance as the first gun. But before the 15th century, guns were tricky to fire — they required both hands and a burning wick to ignite the powder.
Enter the invention of the lock, an internal firing mechanism that made shooting a hand-held firearm more efficient, easier and safer. The first was a matchlock, followed by a series of enhancements until we get something more akin to the guns we know today.
The first known gun to use a matchlock was the French arquebus, a short-barreled long gun (rifle) held at the shoulder yet small enough to be handled by one person. A gunpowder-soaked cord burned at both ends until it touched a pan of flash powder, which sent a small ball soaring toward its enemy. Still, they were cumbersome weapons that could only be fired once every two minutes.
Guns slowly replaced old-guard weapons, because they were more economical, rather than more lethal. Lifelong devotion was required to become a highly skilled (and highly paid) swordsman or archer, but a few weeks or months of training could turn a lower-class soldier into a skilled gunner.
Besides increasing the field of soldiers, guns have had far-reaching influence on the nature of armed combat, from the distances at which dueling armies engage one another to the types of wounds soldiers incur. Only the horse — which dominated battlefields for millennia — has proven more important than the gun.
Originally Published: Jan 12, 2011