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Early Artillery

Artillery consists of large weapons built to fire projectiles like stone and metal balls using the explosive force of gunpowder. The most well-known type of artillery are cannon. During the Hundred Years' War, armies used artillery to breach fortifications.


Gunpowder is the explosive mixture of sulphur, charcoal and saltpetre (potassium nitrate). It is used to project missiles, such as bolts or shot, from handguns or artillery.

The earliest recipe for gunpowder comes from the Wujing Zongjao (c.1040), a Chinese military book known in English as the 'Collection of the Most Important Military Techniques'.

Gunpowder technology reached western Europe between 1257 and 1265. Guns appear for the first time in Florence in 1326, where they were known as cannones de metallo. The earliest surviving illustration of a gun is from the same time. It shows a knight holding a linstock igniting a large vase-shaped cannon, loaded with a feathered bolt like an arrow.

Burgundy became a well-known centre for the manufacture of artillery pieces, which were used in sieges to repeatedly pummel walled castles and fortified towns.

In 1460, James II of Scotland was the first monarch to be killed by cannon, when one of his own exploded beside him.

Use and effect

Firepower became a prominent feature in medieval sieges and battles. The English may have used small cannon at the Battle of Crécy (1346).

Bombards were typically used in sieges and therefore remained in stationary positions. The gunners, protected by special wooden screens called mantlets, could eventually break down defensive walls with repeated firing of the guns.

By 1377, large and heavy cannon capable of firing 90 kg (200 lbs) stone balls were used during sieges. The town of Dinant fell in 1446 after eight days of artillery bombardment, which included 502 large cannonballs.

The Royal Armouries collection contains a medieval iron bombard from 1449, known as 'Mons Meg'. It weighs 6040 kg (5.49 tons), is 4 m (13 ft) long with a bore of almost 48 cm (20 in), and is capable of firing a stone shot of 130 kg (285 lbs). It is on loan to Historic Scotland and on display at Edinburgh Castle.


Bob Woosnam-Savage