Sunday, October 23, 2011

From Knights to Minutemen: Gunpowder

Finally, we get to the simple mixture that changes warfare forever. The fine grey powder made of three components everybody knew would burn by themselves--but nobody thought to put together for a long time, or at least didn't think to write about it if they did.

Why did it take us so long to get here? Why spend so much time talking about knights and armor and weapons and warfare before the grey stuff that goes boom came along?

Well, partly because I like this period in history. Things are changing, and that makes for some really interesting stories.

But mostly to show that it wasn't gunpowder alone that changed everything. It was part of the change, to be sure--but new weapons and tactics were forcing knights, or at least heavy cavalry, gradually toward the sidelines anyway. Gunpowder only hastened the change.

So what is gunpowder, anyway?

Ulrich Bretscher has a fantastic page here, all about black powder--where it comes from, what it's made of, its history, and what early gunpowder weapons were like. I've leaned heavily on his work, and I'm not going to reproduce it here. Instead I'll distill the main points and add some of my own conclusions.

Simply put, gunpowder--which we often call black powder to distinguish it from more modern smokeless propellants--is a finely-ground mixture of charcoal, saltpeter, and sulfur. We don't know when Europeans discovered it or where they got it from; there are even questions about whether the Chinese, usually credited with its invention, actually had it before it came to Europe. What we do know is that an English monk named Roger Bacon mentioned it in a book he wrote in 1267, where he says "As everyone knows..." and then lists the recipe: seven parts saltpeter, five parts charcoal, and five parts sulfur.

In Bacon's time, the applications for the powder were limited. Young hooligans would fill a roll of paper with it, secure the ends with wire, and light it to scare people. It looks like nobody thought to put it in a tube and use it to launch missiles until something like fifty years later. The first evidence we have of a gunpowder weapon is this painting from 1326:

So gunpowder was widely known in the thirteenth century and first used on the battlefield early in the fourteenth. Next time, we'll talk about some of the early gunpowder weapons.

Go get your nerd on!