Since its discovery around A.D. 850, gunpowder has been one of the most influential inventions ever developed. Gunpowder permanently altered the way that human beings wage war, brought an end to the Medieval Ages in Europe and made the Age of Exploration possible. Even the new technology of modern warfare is made possible by a version of this powder, which is likely to continue to be relevant long into the future.
Although initially developed for medicinal purposes, the Chinese people quickly realized gunpowder's potential as a weapon. At first, gunpowder was used to start fires. The Chinese also used it to blind, burn, poison and provide a smoke screen. Later, it was a component of flaming arrows and rockets and was used to fire projectiles. These projectile launchers represent the first guns. Bombs were another use for gunpowder in ancient China, as were land mines, which became common in the 13th century.
The End of the Medieval Era
Gunpowder and projectile technology came to Europe in the 14th century and was quickly adapted to make cannons. Employing the bronze-making technology that they had previously used to cast bells, Europeans created siege cannons capable of destroying castle walls. The development of field artillery and handguns in the late 15th century meant that knights, who were burdened by armor that did not stop bullets, became vulnerable. As a result, mounted soldiers quickly adapted by traveling unarmored, leading to the development of the modern cavalry officer.
The Age of Exploration
During the Age of Exploration, Europeans used guns and cannons to expand their trade networks and empires. Ships were equipped with cannons, allowing them to engage in naval battle and to attack ports. Vasco de Gama used this to his advantage and captured several ports in 1500 on his second voyage to India. Handguns were also an important part of the expansion process and allowed the Spanish to conquer the Aztec and Inca civilizations in the Americas. Outside of Europe, other civilizations also used guns to conquer during this time. The Ottoman Empire, for instance, used cannons to capture Constantinople in 1453.
Modern gunpowder is made from a different chemical composition than the gunpowder invented by the Chinese and is generally known as smokeless powder. Smokeless powder is the propellant that has been used in almost all modern bullets since the late 19th century. The bullets fired with modern gunpowder have assassinated world leaders and waged war. They have enabled people to hunt, defend themselves and attack others, and remain a significant but controversial agent for change in society.
- University of Washington: Gunpowder and Firearms
- UC Davis: Chapter 16: Firepower and Fertilizers
- California State University San Bernardino: History 144 - World Civilizations III, the Expansion of Europe: Guns and Gunpowder Empires
- California State University, Fullerton: Invention of Gunpowder Changed War Tactics, Political Landscapes, World History
- Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science: Explosive Chemistry - The History and Chemistry of Explosives