Generalities about Powder

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Hierarchical Path: Seven Years War (Main Page) >> Armies >> Generalities about Powder


The origins of gunpowder, while uncertain, was likely somewhere in Early Medieval China, prior to the formation of the Jin Dynasty (1115). Initially, usage of this material was limited to propellants; however, by the time of the Mongol invasion of Japan, its use as an explosive was recognized, and primitive forms of firearms--known as "fire-lances", began to make an appearance.
Soon, this technology spread along the Silk Route, and into the Near East, and Europe, where the potential for gunpowder weapons came to be realized. Early recipes for gunpowder are first attested in the two regions in the 13th century, and by the 14th century, primitive firearms and artillery began to make an appearance, in order to take advantage of the powder. At first, these pieces played relatively little role in Medieval combat: the bombards of the English Army at Crecy (1346), played a relatively unimportant role, compared to the decisive impact of the ancient technology of the longbow. However, with improvements in metallurgy, and improvements in the production of gunpowder, the full potential of this technology soon showed. By the beginning of the 16th Century, Gunpowder weapons were a common sight on the battlefield, and by the end of that century, had become the most important weapon systems available to the armies of the period. This trend continued through to the 19th century, when better propellant and explosives were introduced. By that time, firearms and artillery had come to completely dominate the modern battlefield.
The reason behind the eventual success of gunpowder, and the weapons that utilized it, are relatively straightforward: the chemical nature of the energy emitted by the burning of gunpowder did not rely on the skill or training of the soldier to generate, in the way a longbow or hand weapon required. Additionally, the amount of energy released was sufficient--when properly harnessed--to hurl relatively small projectiles with great force, sufficient to defeat any armor of the period. The combination of the two factors meant that a soldier could be trained to defeat any opponent at range, with little training or effort; the greater part of raising an army was invested into the weapons and equipment itself. This then began a process where greater armies could be raised, at reduced cost. By the middle fo the 18th century, whole armies were equipped with weapons primarily dependent on this mixture.


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Bräker, Ulrich, Der Arme Mann im Tockenburg, 1789

Rosen, M.A., 2006, Historical Aspects and Black Powder Manufacturing, Civil War Artiller project, accessed 8/15/2019


User:Ibrahim90 and W.D. Liddell, for the initial version of this article