In one of the greatest ironies in the realm of history, the gunpowder was supposedly formulated for the first time (by Chinese alchemists in 9th century AD) to serve as an elixir of immortality. Suffice it to say, in the coming centuries, the chemical composition completely changed the landscape of military history, with gunpowder weapons dominating the battlefield from 16th century to our modern times. In essence, it surely contributed more to death than any grand notions of immortality. However, from the purely objective perspective, there is no denying the ‘advanced’ state of the composition in itself, and how it translated to a flurry of fascinating weapon systems from the middle ages.
Please note* – Some of these amazing gunpowder weapons were mentioned in literary sources, and as such the true state (and effectiveness) of their practical usages is still a matter of debate. This predicament is exacerbated by the lack of working scopes described in many such sources, thus limiting the detailed assessment of the weapons.
1) Fire Lance (or the rudimentary ‘gun’ from 10th century AD) –
The Fire Lance (or Huo Qiang) was a spear-like weapon that actually combined a long Chinese spear (qiang) with a firework-like charge neatly kept underneath at the end of the spear head. This design was possible with the use of a hollow bamboo tube attached to the spear-end, and it could store additional projectiles (along with the gunpowder). So when the firework started, the charge could eject out these small projectiles (ranging from arrows, buckshot to even poisonous fumes) in the direction of the enemy. However, it should be noted that the effective range of the earliest models of this gunpowder weapon (from around 10th century AD) was only limited to a few feet; and so after the initial ‘shot’, the fire lance was simply used as a spear.
But within two centuries, the Chinese engineers had also developed the so-called fire arrows or Huo Jians – that basically entailed arrows propelled by gunpowder. And together, the fire arrow and the fire lance surely made a potent combo, thus giving the infantrymen tremendous advantage in tactical scenarios, especially when defending at the gates. According to one particular incident, during the siege of De An in 1127-1132 AD, the defenders made use of an improvised weapon system by strapping together 20 fire-lances that were salvaged from components of normal traction catapults. More importantly, such technological applications of gunpowder in the battlefield paved the way for three separate forms of weaponry – the gun, the rocket and the cannon.
2) Zha Pao (or the explosive ‘land mine’ from 13th century AD) –
According to Joseph Needham, in his book Science and Civilization in China, the Chinese forces under the Song Dynasty did use explosive landmines as a defensive strategy against the marauding Mongols. On particular incident during this time pertains to the year 1277 AD when one Lou Qianxia crafted an ‘enormous bomb’ that was successfully detonated when the Mongols were besieging a southern Chinese settlement. The follow-up to such military actions led to the documentation of the said technology in the famed 14th century Chinese manual Huolongjing. The explanation for these landmines mainly related to the use of hollow cast iron balls that were filled with gunpowder.
Intriguingly enough, the Huolongjing also has a detailed passage that describes the use of tactical landmines that could be set off by enemy movements (thus mirroring our present-day technology). According to the text –
These mines are mostly installed at frontier gates and passes. Pieces of bamboo are sawn into sections nine feet in length, all septa in the bamboo being removed, save only the last; and it is then bandaged round with fresh cow-hide tape. Boiling oil is next poured in and left there for some time before being removed. The fuse starts from the bottom, and is compressed into it to form a Zha Pao (explosive bomb). The gunpowder fills up eigth-tenths of the tube, while lead or iron pellets take up the rest of the space; then the open end is sealed with wax. A trench five feet in depth is dug. The fuse is connected to a firing device which ignites them when disturbed.
Interestingly, there were also instances when the enemy was lured into the ‘trespassing zone’ of special mines (known as Zi Fan Pao or ‘Self-induced Bomb’) by placing weapons on the mounds concealing the firing devices (that were usually slow-burning bowls). Fueled by our innate desire to get hold of shiny (and free) objects, the poor soul would trigger the gunpowder-based setup by the overturning this bowl, thus leading to the fuses being lit for the imminent detonation.
3) Handgonne (or the ‘hand cannon/firearm’ from late 14th century AD) –
One of the first European innovations in the field of gunpowder weapons entailed a big and boisterous cannon that was held by hand! Known as the culverin (or hand culverin), it preceded even flintlock muskets, with the seemingly simple technology accounting for a hollow tube fixed (or mounted) on a wooden staff. This unwieldy contraption was held against the shoulder or above the shoulder to provide stability while aiming. As for the firing part, the user ignited the powder with a rope soaked in slow-burning potassium nitrate, which ‘fueled’ the spark into the breech and lighted up the main charge. Suffice it to say, this gunpowder-based weapon system was pretty dangerous for the user, with documented cases that mention deadly accidents – like the fatal incident involving the death of King James II of Scotland and his cannon ‘the Lion’.
However, over time, the engineers developed more smaller and compact versions of the culverin (or hand cannon), a trend which evolved into the advanced design of the so-called handgonne. These 20 lbs weighing gunpowder weapons were more akin to the handheld firearm as opposed to a cumbersome cannon, and could fire smaller projectiles of around .50 to .70 caliber. This shift in the technological progression was crucial in the long term, with handgonnes (‘gonne’ is the Middle English word for ‘gun’) eventually paving the way for muskets – the precursor to modern day guns.
4) Fire Cart (or the ‘multiple rocket launcher’ from early 15th century AD) –
In our entry for the fire lance, we fleetingly mentioned how Chinese engineers made use of makeshift gunpowder weapon systems crafted from old components of mechanical catapults. The continuation of this design evolution was fueled by the propulsion advantage of shaped gunpowder charges carried by the fire arrows (that eschewed the need for mechanical bows). This finally led to the creation of actual rockets that could be ignited via fuses, and then launched autonomously. In fact, many handheld ‘Huo Jian’ rocket launchers were already developed by the early Ming period. Going by this logical progression of the technology, Chinese military engineers also wanted to create denser projectile fields that would have been far more effective when dealing with massed body of enemy soldiers. Such tactical measures were only possible by grouping the rockets together from a large number of launchers placed in carts; and hence these designs finally gave way to the Fire Cart or the Huo Che (or Hwacha in Korean).
In terms of history, the special Huo Che armed military units saw action in the Jingnan war that took place from 1401-1403 AD. The gunpowder weapon system in itself was manned by four people, and was composed of a wheeled cart that was generally equipped with two types of rocket launchers – with four of one type on the top, and two of the second type along the sides. The engineers devised the contraption in such a manner that would allow the launchers to fire at once or in a sequential manner (for a more sustained fire rate). To that end, the Huo Che was surely a potent military machine that could fire up to a whopping 320 rockets from its six tubes! In other words, the gunpowder mechanism can be perceived as a 15th century precursor to the contemporary multiple rocket launcher.
5) Congreve Rocket (or the ‘solid fuel rocket’ from early 19th century AD) –
Impressed by the Indian-made Mysorean rockets (used as weapons against the British), the Congreve Rocket was an artillery rocket developed by Sir William Congreve in 1804. Contrived at the the Royal Laboratory Woolwich, the first of these gunpowder rockets were actually designed by reverse-engineering their Indian counterparts that were salvaged after the Anglo-Mysore battles. However, Congreve also improved the weapon technology by concocting a new propellant mixture and crafting the shell from sturdy sheet iron (instead of cardboard layers). The sophistication of this design was evident from the incorporation of a hollow iron head that could be loaded with various projectiles, including shrapnel (directed against soldiers), explosives (directed against fortified positions), and even incendiary objects (for usage against ships and buildings).
Furthermore, as a result of the specialized propellant mixture and its monitored quantity, the solid fuel rockets sometimes exceeded the range of 1,000 yards – which was more than the range achieved by cannons of that age. And quite interestingly, the historical use (and effects) of the Congreve Rockets seemingly made their significant impact on the American culture. In that regard, the 19th century British war vessel HMS Erebus was designed as rocket-firing ship that out-ranged most fort cannons. Consequently, it took part in the bombardment of Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore (in the War of 1812), and fired more than a thousand rockets over a period of 25 hours, in 3rd September, 1814. In spite of the massive scale of the attack, the fort had not surrendered, with the American flag still fluttering during the next day’s dawn. This inspired Francis Scott Key to compose the ‘Star Spangled Banner‘; and the fifth line of the first verse of this anthem/poem reads – “And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air”. This alludes to the 32-lb Congreve rockets that were fired during the momentous military action.