Previous page Page 7 of 9 Next page
Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Mesopotamia and Egypt
Medes and Persians
Greece and Rome
Byzantium and Islam
Middle Ages
The footsoldier
     Hand guns
     Formigny and Castillon
     The spread of gunfire

Science of the battlefield
To be completed

Bookmark and Share
Artillery: 14th - 16th century

The most significant development in the story of warfare is the use of gunpowder to propel a missile. There has been much debate as to where the first experiments are made. Inconclusive and sometimes mistranslated references from early documents appear to give the priority variously to the Chinese, the Hindus, the Arabs and the Turks.

It is likely that the matter can never be resolved. The earliest incontrovertible evidence of artillery is a drawing of a crude form of cannon in a manuscript dated 1327 (now in the library of Christ Church, Oxford). There is a reference to a gun mounted on a ship in 1336, and the possibility of cannon of some kind in use at Crécy and Calais in 1346-7.


The problem confronting early makers of artillery is how to construct a tube strong enough to contain an explosion which will propel a missile out of one end (or, in other words, how to make a gun rather than a bomb). An early solution gives us our word 'barrel'. The tube is built up of metal strips welded to each other along their straight edges - just as a barrel is constructed of similar strips of wood. This rather fragile structure is given greater strength by being encased in a series of tightly fitting metal rings.

With luck, a round stone (or later a ball of cast iron) will hurtle from the open end of this tube when gunpowder is ignited behind it.


The laborious loading and firing of such weapons limits their effective use to sieges - either inside a castle defending an entrance, or outside lobbing heavy objects at the walls. The size of the missile rather than its speed is the crucial factor. A breakthrough in this respect, in the late 14th century, is the discovery of how to cast gun barrels from molten iron.

Cannon, during the next two centuries, become progressively larger. There are some impressive surviving examples. Mons Meg, dating from the 15th century and now in Edinburgh castle, could hurl an iron ball, 18 inches in diameter, as far as a mile. The even larger Tsar Cannon in Moscow, cast in 1586 with a bore of 3 feet, weighs nearly 40 tons. Mobility is not one of its features.


One of the most remarkable of early cannon is a proud possession of Mehmed, the Turkish conqueror of Constantinople. Before his final attack in 1453 he terrifies the inhabitants by trundling close to their city a massive 19-ton bombard of cast iron. It requires 16 oxen and 200 men to manoeuvre it into its firing position. Once there, it settles down to a slow but devastating bombardment. A stone weighing as much as 600 pounds can be lobbed against the great city walls. The rate of fire is seven stones a day.

In this same same year, at Castillon in France, another potential of gun power is demonstrated - in the effect of light artillery on the battlefield.


Hand guns: 14th - 17th century

Portable guns are developed shortly after the first cannons. When first mentioned, in the 1360s, such a gun is like a small version of a cannon. A metal tube, up to a foot long, is attached to the end of a pole about six feet in length - an early and very basic version of the barrel and stock of a rifle.

The gunner has to apply a glowing coal or a red-hot wire to a touchhole in the loaded barrel, and then somehow get far enough away from the explosion. There is clearly not much opportunity for rapid aiming. Most such weapons are probably fired by two men, or are carried to a new position and fixed there before being loaded and ignited by one.


Refinements follow surprisingly fast. During the 15th century the barrel of such weapons is lengthened, giving more reliable aim. The wooden stock acquires a curve, so that the recoil raises the barrel rather than driving backwards with full force. A length of rope known as a 'match' replaces the hot coal or wire for igniting the charge in the touchhole; it is soaked in a substance which causes it to burn with a steady glow.

And a device called a 'lock' is developed - a curving arm of metal which holds the glowing match and will plunge it into the touchhole, when a pull on a trigger releases a spring. The 'matchlock' becomes the standard form of musket until the arrival of the flintlock in the 17th century.


The guns of Formigny and Castillon: 1450-1453

Inconclusive references in contemporary documents suggest that guns of some kind may have featured on Europe's battlefields as early as Crécy in 1346. But the first engagement in which they play a decisive role is at Formigny in 1450.

The English enter the field with a slightly larger force than the French, perhaps 3500 men against 3000. For much of the battle the English bowmen achieve their now customary success. But considerable damage is done to the English force by two small cannons, or culverins, in the French position.


Recognizing the importance of these guns, the English make an effort to capture them. They succeed briefly in doing so. But the French win back their cannons, and with them win the day.

The same pattern is repeated three years later at Castillon. On this occasion the French have several cannons in a defensive position. The English make a frontal assault, suffering considerable losses in men and even more in confidence. It is the last battle of the Hundred Years War, which in itself is the last great medieval conflict. The centuries of the archer give way to those of the gunner.


Fortification: 15th - 16th century

The introduction of gunpowder has a profound influence on the science of fortification. Cannon are trundled laboriously up to blast away at castle or town walls from the early 15th century, and by the end of the century sappers are undermining walls to insert explosive charges. The previous convention for a defensive wall (as tall as possible against siege ladders, but not necessarily very sturdy) becomes inappropriate.

A squat and massively thick wall now becomes more effective, preferably sloping back from the vertical so that the impact of a cannon ball is lessened. And strong platforms are needed along the length of the wall, to carry the defenders' own cannon.


It is in Renaissance Italy (notable for Europe's most constant warfare and most enquiring minds) that the new science of fortification is developed. Leonardo is only one of many distinguished artists to apply himself to the problem. Of thirty-three serious works published on the topic during the 16th century, all but six are Italian.

The chief Italian innovation is the angled bastion. Round towers projecting from the walls have been a part of medieval castle design, but they leave an area at their outer edge where an attacker close to the wall is only vulnerable from directly above - not a good angle for a castle marksman in the days of muzzle loading.


The Italian design solves this problem. Each bastion now projects from the wall to a triangular outer point which is in sight of the gunners on each of the neighbouring bastions. The area which was previously the ideal spot for a sapper to dig undisturbed beneath the wall, to plant an explosive charge, is now as exposed as any other.

This arrangement of angled bastions means that a fortress can be fully protected if it has the shape of a five or six-pointed star. A greater number of bastions can be placed at appropriate points in existing city walls. By these means, during the 16th century, the defenders acquire the advantage. The balance is tipped again in the next century by the tactics of Sebastien de Vauban.


The spread of gunfire: 16th century

During the 16th century the armies of Europe continually adjust their tactics to make the most of the developing potential of cannons and muskets. The two leaders in this arms race are the great rivals, France and Spain.

The Spanish are more imaginative in their deployment of the most up-to-date musket of the day, a light matchlock known as an arquebus. But the French make better use of cannon, placing them in strategic positions on the battlefield. The fortunes of war swing either way between these armies, as Spanish and French generals find new ways to surprise their counterparts with gunfire.


In 1503 Spanish arquebusiers defeat a French army at Cerignola by the discipline and persistence of their fire. In 1512 the French win a battle at Ravenna thanks to the devastating effect of twenty-four massed cannon. In 1515 a Swiss army, fighting on the Spanish side, suffers heavy damage at Marignano from a combination of seventy-two French cannon followed by a cavalry attack.

Ten years later the Spanish turn the tables again at Pavia, where their squads of arquebusiers are deployed rapidly and unpredictably across the battlefield. This 'unusual, astonishing, cruel and unworthy' method of fighting (in the words of a contemporary French author) throws the French cavalry into complete disarray.


Meanwhile, as Europeans become familiar with the new arms, less developed communities further afield are confronted by a terrifying weapon, with no visible missile, which they meet for the first time on the battlefield. Victories won by the mere possession of firearms ripple outwards into Asia, America and Africa during the century.

In 1514 Persians experience their first cannon fire from the Turks. In 1519 Indian tribesmen, confronted by intruders from Afghanistan, laugh (at first) at weapons which seem to fire no arrows. In 1532, in Peru, 150 Spaniards overwhelm the Incas with a few cannon and arquebuses. In 1591 the sultan of Morocco with his musketeers routs the cavalry of the kingdom of Songhay.


Previous page Page 7 of 9 Next page
Up to top of page HISTORY OF WARFARE - LAND