Monday, 26 December 2011

Inventions that Changed the World: The Gun


Ironmistress said...

I think the printing press was far more important innovation than guns.

Guns began to make sense only after the invention of nitrocellulose and cartridge shot. Before that, guns were abysmally slow to load, inaccurate and clumsy. Even during the Napoleonic Wars the British considered longbows being more effective than guns against cavalry.

Archery was considered to have more profound moral effect than gunfire. You cannot see the arquebus or musket ball coming; on the other hand, you well see the arrows coming, hitting and felling your comrades.

It all changed only after the nitrocellulose, cartridge shot and rifled barrels. But that happened during the 19th century, not 14th.

eon said...


Hi! ;-)

All you say is true. But speaking as someone who used to make his living matching up rifling marks on bullets with the barrels they came out of, I would point out that before Gutenberg & Co. could use printing to democratize information, the quarrelsome European nobility had to be convinced that killing the printer to maintain the status quo wasn't a viable option.

It was the gun that made this possible. It would penetrate plate armor at a greater range than either the Welsh longbow (using sheaf arrows with piles, rather than flight arrows with broadheads), or the arbalest using quarrels with pile points. Granted, the early guns had a very low rate of fire (slower than the arbalest), but if you had enough gunners in your defense line, and each shot that hit took an armored knight off his horse, that didn't matter quite as much. The gun, even more than the longbow, made the foot soldier the deciding factor on the battlefield, superseding the man in armor.

As a bonus, in artillery form, it made the castle, the private fortress, obsolete. It was replaced by fortresses designed specifically to resist cannon fire, with low angled walls. Which ended up as fortified towns, because they were too expensive for a single owner (baron, etc.) to build. As some historians (notably Toynbee) have observed, the modern borders of Europe were the result of fortress-building in this era.

Both the gun, and printing, apparently originated in China. And since both were a government monopoly there, due to its hydraulic-state bureaucracy developing at an early stage, they served to reinforce the power of the central government rather than supporting democratization. Chinese armies used gunpowder to deal with both "foreign barbarians" and domestic resistance. As for printing, the Chinese used it in wood-block form to invent playing cards and paper money. (Thus, we technically have to give them credit for inventing poker, blackjack... and inflation.)

The gun and printing changed the world. But their success was dependent on the culture they were being used in.



Sergej said...

Hi, Ironmistress!

The way I understand it is, guns competed not with the longbow, but with the crossbow. Weapon that required minimal training to operate, so when the weapon and the poor conscript carrying it were lost, it was the weapon that was hardest to replace. Crossbow was initially more repeatable, but gun fired projectiles that took seconds to make rather than hours. Cheaper expendables mean cheaper volley fire, and in a hail of lead, someone is bound to hit something. Horsemen (already highly specialized troops) could hardly be expected to shoot crossbows (at least I've never heard of it being done), and developing corps of horse-archers must not have been realistic where there was no such tradition, but converting a mounted man at arms to a dragoon or hussar was certainly feasible. Also, if they weren't used to them, guns scared horses.

So, not entirely useless, even at the beginning.

Ironmistress said...

A couple of things:

Plate armour is actually fairly resistant against lead shot from blackpowder weapons. From 16th century onwards the armorers often deliberately shot at the new armors and left a dent as "proof" mark. Arrows can pierce plate only at VERY short distances - 10 m or less - and only when hit squarely.

What ended the era of chivalry was disciplined infantry - pikemen and billmen. Mounted troops simply do not charge against a thicket of pikes - horses are more intelligent than men in this respect. Another showstopper for knights was the notion that a knight was far more valuable as an officer than as a private - rather than grouping the knights as elite units, they were dispersed amongst the infantry units as commanders. The modern officer corps are a direct descendant of the knights.

A blackpowder weapon is most efficient against a stationary or slow moving target. That is fortifications, massed close order infantry and enemy positions. They are less useful against cavalry. On the other hand, massed archery is efficient against horseflesh.

So there is a rock-scissors-paper game between cavalry - pikes - shot. The Spanish "tercio" tactics was the pinnacle of balancing this triad. That is also the reason why the Ottoman Turkish advance stopped in the 16th century - the Ottomans did not have decent and disciplined infantry which the Christians had. Habsburg tercios were murderous against the Turks.

The same was noted at the other side of the globe. Miyamoto Musashi says "there is no peer for musket in fortifications" - blackpowder firearms are especially effective against densely packed foot and when shot behind obstacles, such as Nagashino 1580. But for field battles, he would prefer bow and massed archery, and in the melee the spears and swords.

Ironmistress said...

Sergej, there has been mounted crossbowmen. They used a ratchet device called cranequin to span their weapons on horseback. The mounted crossbowmen were especially popular in Scandinavia, Germany and Portugal.

Mounted archers are skirmishers. That means they are employed not to cause casualties, but to irritate the enemy to leave their positions and charge rashly and get disordered. Use of skirmishers requires a lot of space, which is the reason why the tradition of horse archery appeared only amongst the nomads. If there is no open terrain, the horse archers tend to get slaughtered. Horse archers invariably come out second best against foot archers, which shoot to kill and which shoot massed volleys intended to cause casualties. A horse and a man is always a bigger target than a man.

Two reasons why China did not succeed either with gunpowder nor printing was culture. In China, the soldier's profession has never been appreciated. Soldiers have always been the dregs of the earth, little better than bandits, which has resulted in poor training, poor tactics and Machiavellian office politics within the army. Printing press failed because of the Chinese language and hanzi characters. It is far easier to learn the 27 Roman alphabet than 40,000 hanzi. Literacy is far easier to achieve with phonetic letters than ideograms - and that is the main reason why printing press changed the face of world, beginning at Europe.

Pistol has always been the sidearm of an officer, and there is a reason. The first mounted firearms were petronels in the 15th century, which transformed into pistols in the 16th. The knights who remained horseback traded their lances into pistols. The usual tactics were now either caracoling, or two shots at close distance in gallop and charge with sword. That combines both fire, shock and movement - few enemies can stand such charge. Certainly not the Turkish sipahis!

Sergej said...

Indeed? Crossbows did not seem to go with horses. This is something interesting to investigate. I suppose it's not much harder to wind up a crossbow than to load a wheel-lock...

Stephen said...

He reminds me of James Burke of "Connections" fame.