The invention of gunpowder is often attributed to the Chinese. However, this is not the obvious fact it is often presented as. For one, the mention of gunpowder as having come from China mostly comes from European sources. The mentions do exist, but it all boils down to hearsay. One of the main sources from China that is used to justify the claim comes from a book that was written in the 1500s. Also, Marco Polo not only visited China, but he had access to their weaponry, and was involved in military sieges. He would have made mention of gunpowder, but the weaponry he describes himself and his enemies as having does not involve weaponry that uses gunpowder. The nuances of how these claims are made and why they are not true require more historical expertise that can be displayed in a paragraph, but in essence, gunpowder may have been invented in Europe, not China.
Gunpowder, or black powder, was known of at least as far back as the 13th century. Roger Bacon was someone who studied philosophy and the natural world. He recorded a recipe for gunpowder in a published work during that time. This is known as the earliest recorded recipe for black powder, but he wasn’t the inventor. He knew of it from others in his area, assumedly some who made it themselves.
Another book, Liber Ignum per Comburandum Hostes, includes recipes for gunpowder. The original was published around the year 800 to keep records of various knowledge, and it was updated by scholars as time went on. Later versions of the book included recipes for black powder, the earliest of which being dated to the year 1250.
It is uncertain who exactly invented gunpowder, but knowledge of it was floating around Europe in the 13th century, so it was likely invented in or shortly before that time.
The First Gun
Similarly to the inventor of gunpowder, an exact inventor of firearms isn’t known. They start to pop up in the 14th century, however.
The first use of cannons in war may have been in Meersburg, Germany in 1334. This was recorded by the bishop named Nicholas 1. A man, Berthold Schwarz, who lived in a nearby town was another early pioneer of the technology. He has been credited by some as being the inventor of guns. While that claim is unconfirmed, it is plausible that he was a leading figure on its technological development at the time. Seeing as he lived near Meersburg, it seems that at the least he was influenced by or influenced the use of cannons at the time.
Another early wartime use of cannons was during the Siege of Calais, a battle that occurred in 1346 during the 100 Years War. Cannons were reported to have been used by the English. This time period marked the popularization of cannons.
The First Real Gun
While cannons could be considered to be a form of a gun, the first handheld firearms came a bit later.
Russian historians note the use of firearms in 1382 during sieges. These firearms were a cross between what we think of as a firearm today and a cannon. They involved a small cylinder, a projectile, gunpowder, and a wick that was lit for ignition. It was something of a miniature cannon, except instead of needing large support systems, they could fit in the hands.
Another instance of early firearm usage comes from the Hussite Wars. These were fought in the early 1400s between the Holy Roman Empire and an opposing Christian group, the Hussites. One of the tactics employed by the Hussites was to form a wagon fort. This was similar to what we know of from the Wild West as “circling the wagons”. Each caravan would have a couple of men outfitted fit with hand cannons, or handgonnes, which were used to keep the enemy at bay and diminish their numbers until melee combat became necessary. The tactics used with firearms were much different at this time than today, but this is thought to potentially be the first time firearms were used in battle.
Early matchlock guns were used in the 1400s, also in Russia. These firearms were close to what we consider to be modern firearms. They failed to catch on, however. The technology was far from being perfected. They were incredibly slow to reload, which limited their utility in most positions on the battlefield. They were also useless in the rain, as they required a wooden wick to burn down. At the time, generals and soldiers found it more useful to continue outfitting their soldiers with melee weapons.
Matchlock muskets were also beginning to be used in the Ottoman Empire during this time, as early as 1465. The Turks were using a pinion firing mechanism, one that they believed was an improved version of the Europeans’ muskets. More or less, their version involved circular gears that drove linear actuators.
In general, gun technology spread throughout much of the world. The Silk Road, trade in general, and military invasions were the messengers of the time. The Silk Road ran from China to the Middle East. Countries all along this line traded goods, and with that, traded technologies. This is part of what makes the first inventors of certain technologies to be hard to pin down. The earliest recorded uses, and the purported places of invention, all come from Europe, China, and the Middle East. These don’t just happen to be the countries that interacted frequently by way of the Silk Road.
Where From There?
As we know, matchlocks were most definitely not where firearms technology stopped developing. The flintlock rifle was seemingly invented by the French Luthier Marin le Bourgeoys in the 17th century. The flintlock firing mechanism was a revolution in firearms technology. The use of paper cartridges and flintlock firearms made them a practical choice over melee weapons.
Technology kept evolving. Breech loading firearms gave way to Gatling guns. Bolt action rifles gave way to Ar-15s. All of these developments owe their lineage to early inventors and craftsman in the 13th and 14th centuries. While the exact history may never be filled in, what we do know is important to our history.