With the holidays fast approaching, the swirl of shopping and revelries can make things a bit hectic. Well, on top of that, I’ve been hit with some untimely edit deadlines, so I am hoping readers will, in the spirit of goodwill and good cheer, accept an Oldie but Goodie for today’s post. I promise that the new year will bring foray into history, but for y today, we’re going to rekindle a look at gunpowder, seing as the New Year will be welcomed in across the world with lots of fireworks!
So, without further ado . . .
A Blast from the Past
Gunpowder was invented in China sometime around the ninth century. Ironically enough, the alchemists of the time were looking to create a potion for eternal youth. Instead they ended up with something they called the “fire drug.” Gunpowder consists of three basic elements—saltpeter, sulphur and charcoal. The proportions were tweaked over the centuries to create more explosive power, but until the advent of our modern synthetic propellants, the basic formula remained unchanged.
Over the years, Chinese military leaders came to realize that the invention could be used as a formidable weapon. By the 1200s, gunpowder “bombs” filled with rocks or bits of metal were being thrown or dropped on an enemy. The Chinese also proved quite inventive in naming their new arsenal. Some of my favorites include “Bandit-Burning, Vision-Confusing Magic Fire-Ball” and “Bone-Burning and Bruising Fire Oil Magic Bomb”. Next came fire lances, which could launch arrows or spears. I’m particularly fond of “Nine-Arrow Heart-Piercing Magic-Poison Thunderous Fire Erupter.” The name alone must have been enough to rout an opposing army! The first gun on record is a small cannon, which dates from 1288.
A Booming Discovery
It’s not exactly certain how gunpowder came to the West, but the first reference to it in Europe appeared in 1267, when Roger Bacon, the famous medieval thinker, made mention of it in a letter to the Pope. By 1300 there is written evidence of a formula.
In 1346, Edward III of England used cannons to help his army of knights and archers defeat the much larger force of the French King. The Battle of Crecy is considered to mark the end of chivalry, as armor proved no match for the new weaponry. The use of cannons quickly spread throughout Europe.
Throughout the next few centuries, the methods for grinding gunpowder were refined, in order to add more force and stability. At first, powder was dampened to a paste, then formed into balls, which lasted longer than dry powder and were easier to transport. However, the process of “corning,” or forcing the paste through different sized screens to create “grains” was invented, and it remains the standard to this day. (Gunpowder is corned according to the intended weapon.)
The technique of casting metal for cannons also underwent great changes. Early European bombards grew to mammoth proportions. (“Mad Margaret” weighed 18 tons and had a barrel 16 feet long.} By the Renaissance, the technology had evolved enough that the smooth bore muzzle-loading cannon of the era would remain basically unchanged until the late 1800s. (Both Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo were involved in designing fortifications to withstand cannonfire.)
Not to be outdone by their Chinese counterparts, European gunners were quite inventive when it came to naming their weapons. “The Brutal Butcher” is one early moniker, and Henry VIII had a battery of cannons known as “The Twelve Apostles.”
The earliest hand guns began appearing around 1400. At first they were heavy, awkward weapons that needed a tripod to hold them up. Various mechanisms were invented to hold the gunpowder charge, as well as spark the initial tiny explosion needed to propel a bullet through the gun barrel. Matchlocks, wheellocks, flintlocks . . . don’t ask. Suffice it to say that man was quite inventive in creating a lethal weapon.
The Devil's Distillate
The moral impact of gunpowder was not lost on theologians and intellectuals. Many called it “the devil’s distillate ” and blamed it for the death of chivalry. The stench and smoke given off by gunpowder added to its Satanic image. Echoing modern sentiment, a number of people bemoaned the fact that gunpowder made “violence too freely available.”
During the Age of Exploration, Vasco de Gama helped establish a lucrative trading empire for Portugal through use of gunpowder, and other European seafaring nations were quick to follow. The Conquistadors conquered the mighty Aztecs with a tiny force of soldiers and the “devil’s distillate.” Farther north, the French and English used their guns to carve out colonies in the New World. And in Africa, gunpowder was instrumental in allowing the slave trade to begin.
Up in Smoke
By the 1700s, war had become a carefully choreographed dance of opposing armies. Each soldier was now armed with a firearm, and arrayed in elegant, precise formations, they would march to within close range and exchange ritual fire until casualties forced one side to withdraw. Conflicts were escalating. And so was the carnage. (On a brighter note, George Frederich Handel was commissioned to create the lovely “Music for Royal Fireworks” in celebration of the 1748 Treaty of Aix-La-Chapelle, which ended the War of Austrian Succession.)
The famous American Revolutionary War phrase, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” was not just manly bravado. It was based on the fact that muskets are wildly inaccurate at anything other than close range. That’s because it’s a smooth bore weapon (the inside of the barrel is, well, smooth!)
Rifling—which refers to a circular groove cut into the metal—imparts spin to a bullet, which adds stability to its flight and thus makes it far more likely to hit its target. The British thought the Americans—and their show of nascent Yankee ingenuity—were very unsporting to use their accurate hunting rifles to pick off Redcoats from great distances.
Re-equipping whole armies with the new technology was frightfully expensive, so most military forces fought with smooth bore muskets until well into the 1800s. The classic British “Brown Bess” musket was first issued in 1703 and remained in use for 140 years. A flintlock weapon, it could be fired every 12 seconds by a well- trained soldier.
But I digress . . .
A Force of Nature
As the Napoleonic Wars engulfed Europe, the production of gunpowder became a critical matter. Saltpeter is a bacterial waste product and occurs naturally in soil. But war demands LOTS of saltpeter. The substance is also found in human and animal waste. (Those of you who are squeamish might want to skip over the next paragraph.) In France, government officials called “Petermen” had the right to dig up a farmer’s barnyard to collect nitrate-rich soil—a law that was bitterly resented.
The English, through the East India trading empire, imported large amounts of cheap bird dung from India for the task. Even so, during the height of the wars, the government considered passing a law that would have required innkeepers to collect the urine of their patrons in barrels. (Brandy was said to produce the most desirable, er, raw material.)
By the 1820s, the old gunpowder cartridge—a greased paper cylinder filled with powder and bullet that was rammed by hand down the barrel of a musket—was giving way to a new technology. The “percussion cap” bullet used a small amount of gunpowder at the base of a metal cylinder. The strike of a gun’s hammer would ignite the powder and fire the metal projectile.
Combined with other innovations from inventors such as Samuel Colt, firearms became even more deadly. Colt’s invention of a multiple chamber to hold bullets allowed the development of the “six-shooter.” By the time of the American Civil War, armies were equipped with all manner of weapons that could fire with frightening rapidity. Again, the death toll in war grew to gruesome proportions.
Traditional black powder became obsolete in the late 1800s. Alfred Nobel—of Nobel Prize fame—developed the use of nitroglycerin, or dynamite, which was far more effective for blasting in mines and civil engineering. Modern chemistry also led to the discovery of better, more powerful “smokeless” powder to use in guns.
Today, gunpowder is still used in fireworks and for reenactments of traditional battles. The next time you watch a Fourth of July celebration, breath deep and smell the acrid scent of burned powder. Listen to the thunderous bangs and watch the thick smoke cloud the air. Let it spark your imagination, and carry you back in history to the epic battles of Bunker Hill, Borodino and Waterloo. It’s a living, breathing reminder of man’s incredible—and sometimes frightening—creative spirit.
When asked to name the most influential inventions in history, most intellectuals include gunpowder and printing among their choices. As both an author and an aficionado of history, I would have to agree. What historical inventions do you find fascinating? Terrifying?