Whether or not gunpowder is a beneficial addition to the world is a topic hotly debated, but there's no denying gunpowder has an ancient history. While it's used today for harmless and lovely fireworks displays, it has also been responsible for the deaths of countless citizens and soldiers across the globe.
First invented by the Chinese in 850 A.D., gunpowder was originally discovered during storied alchemical experiments, notably those pursuing elixirs to prolong life. Composed of potassium nitrate, otherwise known as saltpeter, gunpowder is an oxidizing agent that explodes upon percussive impact, which causes sparks that ignite it. When the Song Dynasty realized the implications of what they had, they lost no time employing it against the Mongols.
Gunpowder reached the Middle East and Europe sometime in the 13th century, traveling along the Silk Road, where it immediately changed the nature of warfare. Cannons and guns could pierce armor and fire further, making charges across open ground a thing of the past. In Europe, gunpowder did much to change the face of the landscape: Traditional castles had long held sway as protective measures, but with the invention of cannons that could bring down their stone walls, they became less useful and therefore less common.
Trips and Traps
Gunpowder was also useful as a weapon that could be used without anyone present. By laying traps and mines, one army could set another up for devastating explosions without endangering its own troops. When originally invented, mines required fuses that were lit once enemies were over the trap. The use of mines has continued to today, where fuses have been replaced with pressure sensers, making mines both difficult to find and deadly to civilians. Today they are the center of considerable controversy.
Although previous to the widespread use of gunpowder men had to be professional warriors in order to engage in combat, the gun changed that. Where formerly weapons were close range or required the skilled use of bow and arrow, gunpowder made killing easy. Pointing and firing a gun was and is a killing technique available to everyone, not just the highly trained. The role of the traditional knight and soldier, which until then had held sway in Europe, was forced to change.
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