When Were Cannons Invented? Curious War Weapon Facts Revealed!

Rajnandini Roychoudhury
Mar 11, 2023 By Rajnandini Roychoudhury
Originally Published on Nov 16, 2021
Edited by Sarah Nyamekye
cannons of the Civil War battle

Traditionally, a cannon refers to a large gun mounted on a carriage and fires heavy metal shells or projectiles using a chemical propellant.

The term cannon has its roots in the Old Italian word cannone meaning large tube. However, the word cannon has become almost obsolete in the modern era and replaced by terms such as gun and artillery.

Artillery guns and cannons have been in existence for more than a thousand years. However, the earliest supposed cannon-like weapon was quite unlike the beastly machines that we see today.

It all started when ancient Chinese alchemists in the 9th century accidentally developed gunpowder while creating the fountain of youth potion. Soon, the Chinese learned that the saltpeter, charcoal, and sulfur mixture could be used in warfare, and they developed the fire lance.

It was an arrow mounted with a gunpowder-filled tube that could be ignited and hurled at the enemy.

The fire lance was actively used by the Song Dynasty to fight the Mongols and was quite an innovation of the time. The development of gunpowder and the fire lance set the stage for the ushering in of centuries marked by the development and use of more advanced artillery cannons.

What began with the accidental discovery of gunpowder paved the way for the ultra-modern artillery weapons that we see today. Read on to discover more about the earliest cannons and how they evolved into decisive factors of warfare over the centuries.

If you like this article on the origin of cannons, wouldn't you want to know when was Windsor castle built and where do most earthquakes occur?

When were ship cannons invented?

The earliest records of cannons or anything close to a gun dates back to the 12th century. During the time, the Song Dynasty of China is said to have attacked the Mongols using fire lances loaded with gunpowder. However, documentary and archaeological pieces of evidence indicate that cannons first appeared in the 13th century.

Coming to the use of artillery in ships, the earliest evidence of cannons on sailing vessels can be traced back to the 14th century. Primarily used in the Mediterranean region and northern Europe, these cannons were initially small, swiveling weapons mounted on the stern, castles, and ships' sides.

However, these cannons on board were ineffective against enemy ships and were only used as anti-personnel weapons.

By the year 1500, cannons came to be available in larger sizes, and carracks (large merchant ships) were designed with a skeletal structure capable of carrying heavier cannons. The new vessels were stronger and were built so that the guns they carried were stably positioned within the hull.

These innovative shipboard cannons can be considered the beginning of naval artillery, and significant credit for this goes to a Frenchman named Descharges.

In 1501, Descharges had the idea to have gun ports cut into the sides of hulls of ships below the main deck level. The use of smooth surface hulls instead of lapstrake hulls was another change in the basic ship design that made way for the innovation.

Subsequently, in 1511, Henry VIII launched his coveted warship Mary Rose that fought two wars against France and Scotland.

Mary Rose is renowned for being one of the first English warships to have medium-sized siege cannons onboard. Weighing about 600 T (5,44,311 kg), Mary Rose was a four-masted carrack with a purpose-built gun deck placed beneath the main deck.

When did England start using cannons?

The earliest use of cannons in the erstwhile Kingdom of England was against Scotland in 1327.

The evidence of the first use of gunpowder artillery in medieval Europe comes from a 1327 manuscript by Walter de Milamete.

The manuscript was presented to Edward III and depicted a cannon mounted on a four-legged stand with a bolt protruding from the muzzle. Known as the pot de fer, it was the first metal cannon, and both the English and the French used weapons similar to it during the Hundred Years War spanning from 1337 to 1453.

In fact, the first documented use of the cannon on the European battlefield was in the Battle of Crécy in 1346.

These early war artillery helped the English knock down the French and Genoese armies. In the English Civil War of the 17th century, cannons were used for laying siege to fortified buildings.

Moreover, 17th century English ships were equipped with demi-cannons that could fire a 32 lb (15 kg) metal ball and demast even large ships from a distance of about 300 ft (91 m).

By 1600, British gun design had started to incorporate features required of war artillery. The Board of Ordnance was in charge of controlling the design, and every new gun had to successfully fire standard shot sizes before they were assigned a category.

The Royal Ordnance had around eight principal gun categories: cannons, demi cannons, minions, sakers, culverins, demi-culverins, bases, and falcons. Through the years, British cannon styles saw several changes in design.

However, one of the most revolutionary British gun design innovations was the carronade developed in the late 1770s.

It had a much shorter range than the ordinary gun and could be conveniently used within a warship's close confines. The carronade was widely used in the Napoleonic wars and the American Civil War as well.

How far could a cannon shoot in 1600?

The demi-cannons used in 17th century English ships could fire shots from a distance of about 300 ft (91 m). The general rule was that the longer the cannon's barrel, the longer the range.

Different types of cannon have different ranges. The maximum range a cannon can shoot depends on the size and angle of the gun, the size of the shot, and the amount and quality of the powder (or charge).

One of the largest cannons was the Mons Meg made in 1449 for James II of Scotland.

This giant iron cannon could fire stone balls measuring 19 in (48 cm) in diameter and weighing 400 lb (180 kg) over a distance of around 820 ft (250 m). The Mons Meg was large enough to contain a child and is kept on permanent display at the Edinburgh Castle.

Also notable are the cannons that the Ottomans used during the 1453 siege of Constantinople.

The cannons deployed by the Ottoman army could fire solid stone balls a mile (1.6 km), and the sound of the cannon fire could reportedly be heard from a distance of 10 mi (16 km). From the 15th century onwards, cannons also fired cast iron balls.

The culverin was a gun widely used on warships during the 15th and 16th centuries. While its caliber was smaller, the culverin had a range greater than cannons and was preferred over the cumbersome cannons and demi-cannons.

Before that, in the 14th century, handheld cannons weighing up to 33 lb (15 kg) were in vogue and were probably introduced in Middle Age Europe by the Arab army. More accurate and close-range handguns came about in the 15th century and were known as hackbut or arquebus.

The 18th and 19th centuries saw the gradual discontinuation of unwieldy cannons of the medieval era to give way to newer designs such as the carronade. In the 19th century, western cannons such as the Griffen gun used in the American Civil War had a range of more than 1.1 mi (1.8 km).

Civil war cannons mostly fired solid cast iron balls. Another 19th century artillery wonder was the smoothbore 12 pounder Napoleon, an 1853 French origin lightweight cannon with a range of 5,577 ft (1.7 km)!

When were cannons invented in Europe?

Gunpowder supposedly entered Europe via the Silk Route, with the earliest European use of cannons presumed to date back to the 13th century.

In Medieval Europe, cannons were supposed to have been first used in Iberia at the time of the Islamic Wars against Spain.

Later, the first English cannons were used at the Battle of Crécy in 1346. Before that, the Andalusians used Moorish cannons to lay siege on Seville and Niebla in 1248 and 1262, respectively.

Moreover, handguns were probably in use by 1281, and around the same time, the first artillery masters were reported to have been enlisted in Spain.

Although the Hundred Years Wars saw the first actual use of cannons on the European battlefield, a more dramatic show of artillery was in the 1453 siege of Constantinople by the Ottoman ruler Sultan Mehmed II. Back in the 15th century, the Sultan is reported to have deployed somewhere between 50-200 cannons built by Turkish technicians and cannon founders.

The Byzantines, too, had their cannons, but these were way smaller than those of the Ottomans, and the recoil ended up damaging their own walls.

Did you know?

The fascinating history of cannons is spread over many centuries, and it is almost next to impossible to chronicle it all within a limited scope. So, here's a compilation of some interesting facts about cannons that are worth a read!

The first appearance of cannons in the Islamic world is quite debatable. Historian Ahmad Y. al-Hassan claims that the first use of cannons in history was in the 1260 Battle of Ain Jalut, where the Mamluks used cannons against the Mongols.

The fire lance developed by the Chinese is identified as one of the very first guns in history. It was essentially a bamboo tube that fired spears using gunpowder. Since the cannon is a large caliber gun, all evidence points towards the Chinese fire lance to be the first of its kind gun or cannon.

Swivel guns are one of the smallest cannons and were extensively used on land and ships as anti-personnel weapons.

The mass of a cannonball could range between 2.2-661 lb (1-300 kg) depending on its use and the era. Cannonballs became smaller and lighter through the ages to achieve a better aim and longer range.

Cannons were extensively used in both the World Wars. The Second World War witnessed revolutionary developments in cannon technology, such as hollow charge projectiles and sabot rounds. The Paris Gun used in the First World War was the longest range gun ever fired.

Although owning cannon shells is legal under federal law, civilians are prohibited from owning them in certain states of the US. In addition, the 1934 National Firearms Act classifies cannon shells as destructive devices and thus, requires registration with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

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Written by Rajnandini Roychoudhury

Bachelor of Arts specializing in English, Master of Arts specializing in English

Rajnandini Roychoudhury picture

Rajnandini RoychoudhuryBachelor of Arts specializing in English, Master of Arts specializing in English

With a Master of Arts in English, Rajnandini has pursued her passion for the arts and has become an experienced content writer. She has worked with companies such as Writer's Zone and has had her writing skills recognized by publications such as The Telegraph. Rajnandini is also trilingual and enjoys various hobbies such as music, movies, travel, philanthropy, writing her blog, and reading classic British literature. 

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