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Gunpowder Revolution (Warfare)


In Robert Barret's military treatise of 1598, The Theory and Practice of Modern Wars, 'a gentleman' pointed out to 'a captain' that Englishmen in the past had performed wonders with longbows rather than firearms; to which the captain witheringly replied, 'Sir, then was then, and now is now. The wars are much altered since the fiery weapons first came up.'


Most professional soldiers of the day agreed. According to Sir Roger Williams, another English veteran writing in 1590: 'We must confess Alexander, Caesar, Scipio and Hannibal, to be the worthiest and most famous warriors that ever were; notwithstanding, assure yourself...they would never have...conquered countries so easily, had they been fortified as Germany, France, and the Low Countries, with others, have been since their days.'


Such recognition of innovation and change was unusual in an age which prided itself on classical precedents and continuity, but the facts were unanswerable. The introduction of 'the fiery weapons', especially artillery, and of new systems of fortifications, had revolutionized the conduct of war.


The Rise Of The 'Fiery Weapons'

The correct formula for making gunpowder - from saltpeter, sulphur, and charcoal - was first discovered in China, perhaps as early as the ninth century AD; and by the twelfth century Sung armies used both metal bombards and grenades.


The new technology gradually spread westwards until by the early fourteenth century several Arabic and European sources mention iron artillery and the first known illustration of a bombard in Europe (dated 1327) bears a striking resemblance to the earliest picture from China (dated 1128).


It is significant that the first western pictures of guns showed them in action against wooden castle gates, because for at least another century gunpowder weapons in Europe were used mainly against 'soft' targets such as gateways or houses.


According to a contemporary chronicle, when the English laid siege to Berwick-upon-Tweed (then just over the Scottish border) in 1333:


They made many assaults with guns and with other [siege] engines to the town, wherewith they destroyed many a fair house; and churches also were beaten down unto the earth, with great stones that pitilessly came out of [the] guns and of other [siege] engines.


And nonetheless the Scots kept well the town...[so that the English] might not come therein...[But they] abided there so long, till those that were in the town failed victuals; and also they were so weary of waking that they knew not what to do.


This account makes clear, on the one hand, that early artillery was used in just the same way as traditional siege engines, such as catapults and trebuchets, to lob missiles into the town in order to damage houses and churches (rather than to batter down walls); and, on the other, that its impact remained limited - although it may have made the defenders 'weary' by keeping them awake, the town still had to be starved out.