Once gunpowder had been invented in China, the Silk Road helped spread it westwards. The first known instances of gunpowder in China are from 850 AD, but there is now evidence of gunpowder being used for military purposes there until 919 AD.

How gunpowder was invented

According to Chinese sources, gunpowder was invented by accident as alchemists were trying to make an elixir of immortality.

One early account says that “(…) some have heated together the saltpeter, sulfure and carbon of charcoal with honey; smoke and flames result, so that their hands and faces have been burnt, and even the whole house burnt down.

Gunpowder bombs and fire cannons

By the 11th century, the Chinese were using bombs filled with gunpowder. These bombs were fired from catapults.

The first detailed description of the use of such a “fire canon” in warfare is from a battle that took place in 1126, during the Song dynasty. The Song dynasty, which came directly after the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, started in 960 and ended in 1279. In the battle of 1126, the Song army used fire cannon against the invading Nuchens. The canon was a tube made from bamboo and filled with gunpowder. When fired, it sent a flaming missile towards the Nuchen soldiers. The missile could only travel a short distance in the air.

An account of a battle that took place in 1132 lets us know that the fire cannons in use needed two persons each to carry them, and that these canons were fired from moving platforms placed close to the wall of a besieged city.

The official Song history texts contain plenty of references to weapons that can be translated as “fire cannon” and “fire ball”.

Outside China

Even though gunpowder was used for warfare in China as early as the 900s, it remained in its crude form there and the bamboo cannons where not very useful except for shooting fire balls at a very short distance. Eventually, it seems to have been abandoned altogether as a military weapon – at least for a while.

It was when the knowledge of how to make gunpowder spread to other countries that this explosive powder was further developed and refined, and more efficient weapons based on gunpowder were invented abroad.

Gunpowder reached Japan, the Islamic world and eventually Europe in the 13th century. The Arabs improved upon its usefulness for warfare, and in 1280 a Syrian named Al-Hasan ar-Rammah wrote “The Book of Fighting on Horseback and with War Engines”. This book includes information about a rocket device that he referred to as a “Chinese arrow”.

Gunpowder in Europe

The English philosopher Roger Bacon mentions gunpowder as being present in Europe in his 13th century writings, but at this point, gunpowder was still largely unknown there and not an important aspect of European warfare.

In 1326, Arab soldiers used gunpowder during an attack on the Moor-controlled town Baza in Andalusia. The very next year, the Republic of Florence ordered the manufacturing of cannons and cannon balls. Eventually, other parts of Europe followed in suit, and by the mid-14th century gunpowder was a notable aspect of warfare in Europe.

Meanwhile in China

By the 12th century, the Chinese had developed a gun with a metal barrel.

One of the earliest known Chinese guns is one that was discovered in the village Pan-la-ch’eng-tzu in the 1970s and dated to circa 1290 AD.