Deadly Firearms were all over the Medieval Battlefield

This is a really fun video which shows some re-enactors enjoying the loud and ferocious bark of early black-powder firearms. But the kit they are using here is actually quite accurate. This is what medieval firearms looked like.

These 15th Century weapons are crude compared to a modern assault rifle, but they are nevertheless deadly devices which had a major impact on the medieval battlefield.

In the popular culture, perhaps one of the most universal signifiers of any medieval setting, genre film, documentary or novel, is the lack of firearms and gunpowder weapons. We assume the medieval world was free of these weapons, therefore putting the emphasis on fighting with swords and lances, bows and crossbows and so on. This is in part, how we differentiate the medieval from later periods in the public imagination. But this was not the reality! Of course missile weapons like bows, javelins, darts and so on were widely available going back to the Bronze Age, and by the Classical era more complex torsion powered weapons became quite important – the ballista, the scorpion, the mangonel. And there were no firearms through the Early medieval period, up to the reign of Charlemagne.

But when we see depictions of the medieval world in the pop culture, and especially in the semi-historical or fantasy genres, the focus is quite often on the era of plate armor; big swords you hold in two hands; large stone castles and so on. This would by definition be the late medieval period, basically the 14th and 15th Centuries. By this time, firearms were all over the battlefield. In fact, plate armor and stone castles proliferated around Europe at this time in part because of the spread of firearms and cannon. Before we get into that though, we need to look at how firearms first got to Europe, because they did not originate there.

When the boom stick arrived in Europe

The first widely accepted, well attested use of black powder weapons in Europe was during the Mongol invasion of 1241. During a key moment of the battle of Sajo river in Hungary, as the Mongols were struggling to force their way across a bridge, they deployed some kind of mysterious new explosive weapons, thrown by catapults, which turned the tide in their favor. It was something the Latins had never seen. From that point on, firearms became increasingly common in battles around the fringes of Christian Europe, mainly in the hands of Muslims or Steppe nomads. One example is in 1262, when King Alfonso X of Castile was besieging the Moorish stronghold of Niebla in what is now Spain:

“..The Arabs threw many (iron) balls launched with thunder, the Christians were very afraid of, as any member of the body hit was severed as if with a knife; and the wounded man died afterwards, because no surgery could heal him, in part because the balls were hot as fire, and apart of that, because the powders used were of such nature that any ulcer done meant the death of the injured man…

.. and he was hit with a ball of the thunder in the arm, and was cut off, and died next day: and the same happened to all of those injured by the thunder. And even now the story is being told amongst the host…”

From Colección de las crónicas y memórias de los reyes de Castilla- source

Five years after this battle, the first gunpowder formula to appear in public in Europe, was published by the Franciscan Friar Roger Bacon in his 1267 Opus Majus. By this time, the cat was out of the bag, and the ‘boom stick’ was no longer merely a terrifying tool of the foreigners, but a weapon to be used within Latinized Europe, for better or worse.

This is an illustration of the temptation of Buddha, from the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, China. It dates from the 10th Century, and is considered the first depiction of firearms. The demon on the top right has a fire lance, and just below him another demon holds a fire pot, a type of early hand grenade.
Closeup on fire lance wielding demon from the painting above. Note the barrel of the fire lance appears to be metal.

Gunpowder was invented in China more than a thousand years ago, sometime around the 8th or 9th Century. According to legend, the discovery was made while making an experimental potion of longevity, a perennial obsession with Chinese alchemists. One of the ingredients of this potion was 硝 or Xiāo, something we call Salt Peter, or Potassium Nitrate. This was logical since it was known to be an effective preservative and fertilizer. It also burns, and this new concoction burned so well that it incinerated a building. The alchemist had not found an elixir of life, but rather, a bringer of death!

The “Heilongjiang hand cannon”, a fire lance dated to 1288 during the Yuan Dynasty, during the reign of Kublai Khan. This is the world’s oldest surviving firearm. It has a 2.6 cm / 1” caliber and an overall length of 34 cm / 13.”. It was probably used like a shotgun, to fire packet of small pellets or stones, rather than a single projectile. Marco Polo probably saw weapons like this in use in China, but by his day they were already known in Europe.
Barrel of a bronze Chinese Fire Lance or ‘Chong’ dated to 1424, currently held at the Metropolitan Museum of art. This would be mounted on a long pole. Caliber is 15mm / .59”, overall length is 35.7 cm / 14”, and a barrel length of about 8”. Note the touch hole and small ignition chamber. Note that this weapon is basically an incremental improvement over the earlier type.

When firearms first began to appear within Latin armies in Europe, they were essentially copies of an ancient Chinese design known as the Fire Lance. This was a fairly simple weapon whose existence goes back to the 9th Century, and one which had a specific niche for siege warfare. It worked as a combination pyrotechnic device and projectile thrower. Ignition was achieved by plunging a hot wire or burning brand down the barrel, and the weapon discharged, ejecting a gout of flaming smoke and one or more pellets, darts or stones.

The original devices were made of wood, by the 13th Century metal was more common, (typically brass or bronze, or sometimes iron). The weapon itself was a thick, hollow tube usually around 12” / 30 cm long, and typically mounted on a long haft like a spear haft. Sometimes spear points were also included. They were packed with early forms of black powder (the precursor to gunpowder) and some other pyrotechnic compounds, as well as projectiles which could range from pebbles, to shaped stone or metal spheres, darts, or spindle shaped bullets. Their effective range was short, probably around 25’ or less, but they could definitely kill. You can get a good idea what these early firearms were like from this excellent research video.

Hand-gunners wearing plate armor aim their firearms from a town wall (possibly Zurich), holding them over their shoulders. Detail from the Bern Chronicle, Diebold Schilling, circa 1470. The position shown of holding the firearm over the shoulder was one of the early methods of their use.

Starting in the late 14th Century, firearms and some other black powder weapons began to be used in the open field, in ambushes and set piece battles. But it wasn’t until an outbreak of heresy in the early 15th Century that firearms truly came into their own. For a deeper dive into the history and heresy of the 15th century, check out the Codex Guide to the Medieval Baltic.