Gunpowder Comes to Europe

Chinese "thunder of the earth" (an effect produced by filling a large bombshell with a gunpowder mixture) sounded faint reverberations amongst the philosophers of the western world as early as A.D. 300. Though the Chinese were first instructed in the scientific casting of cannon by missionaries during the 1600's, crude cannon seem to have existed in China during the twelfth century and even earlier.

In Europe, a ninth century Latin manuscript contains a formula for gunpowder. But the first show of firearms in western Europe may have been by the Moors, at Saragossa, in A.D. 1118. In later years the Spaniards turned the new weapon against their Moorish enemies at the siege of Cordova (1280) and the capture of Gibraltar (1306).

It therefore follows that the Arabian madfaa, which in turn had doubtless descended from an eastern predecessor, was the original cannon brought to western civilization. This strange weapon seems to have been a small, mortar-like instrument of wood. Like an egg in an egg cup, the ball rested on the muzzle end until firing of the charge tossed it in the general direction of the enemy. Another primitive cannon, with narrow neck and flared mouth, fired an iron dart. The shaft of the dart was wrapped with leather to fit tightly into the neck of the piece. A red-hot bar thrust through a vent ignited the charge. The range was about 700 yards. The bottle shape of the weapon perhaps suggested the name pot de fer (iron jug) given early cannon, and in the course of evolution the narrow neck probably enlarged until the bottle became a straight tube.

During the Hundred Years' War (1339-1453) cannon came into general use. Those early pieces were very small, made of iron or cast bronze, and fired lead or iron balls. They were laid directly on the ground, with muzzles elevated by mounding up the earth. Being cumbrous and inefficient, they played little part in battle, but were quite useful in a siege.

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