Gun Power

Invention of Gunpowder Changed War Tactics, Political Landscapes, World History

November 1, 2006

By Valerie Orleans

Empires have been built — and lost — based on the availability and destructive power of weapons. During medieval times, a startling new discovery was made that forever changed the face of war: gunpowder.

“There were swords, long bows and cross-bows, but the development of gunpowder radically changed the tactics of the battlefield and, of course, history,” said Laichen Sun, assistant professor of history and teacher of the class, “Gunpowder Technology and the Early Modern World.”

Most military history scholars believe that gunpowder first originated in China. Sometime around 900 AD, it is believed, a group of Daoist monks who frequently developed elixirs to cure illnesses or bestow long life, accidentally created an elixir with entirely new properties. When they mixed saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal (the basic ingredients of gunpowder), they discovered that it would burn and explode. This became the prototype of gunpowder.

“In China, you still see people who sometimes use gunpowder as a medicine,” Sun said. “It didn’t take long for the Chinese to see that this new elixir also could have a practical application in war.”

For more than 400 years, the Chinese refined gunpowder and gunpowder weapons, learning the right combinations to make it burn and then explode. They also experimented with different materials to use with the powder — first using bamboo (because it was hollow) to propel various projectiles. Eventually, they settled on metal rods, which became the prototype of guns and cannons.

Before too long, the traveling Mongols noticed these new weapons, and within 40 years, gunpowder technology had traveled to Europe and other regions of Asia. It’s believed that the first European guns appeared in Italy around 1326.
Guns and gunpowder gave people a significant advantage over their enemies, Sun said. “Warriors were able to kill more of their enemies while limiting their own danger.”

While the Chinese invented gunpowder, the Europeans perfected it.

“In early modern Europe, there were constant battles over principalities,” Sun explained. “Between 1450 and 1750, there was almost constant fighting. Warfare and the goal of conquering others necessitated the improvement of guns.”
Sun said it was the Chinese who first employed gunpowder weapons on ships but again, it was the Europeans who did this more effectively. During the age of discovery, many European ships were equipped with the firepower not only necessary to defend themselves and subdue their enemies — but to conquer new lands.

“The Spanish were able to conquer the Incas and Aztecs because of guns,” Sun said. “The Americas were conquered by Europeans with guns. And, when the Europeans began to settle in these countries, they did so with their guns at their sides. Throughout history, those without guns often simply disappeared.

“When one group comes to dominate another, it changes the political landscape. It changes history. It changes the world,” he said. “Our modern world order has much to do with gunpowder technology.”


Laichen Sun
Laichen Sun