Big Guns: Their History

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History > European Rivalry

HUMAN nature, when subjected to the excitement and temptations of war, seems to have been very much the same in all ages, and there is every reason to suppose that the men who were engaged in pre-historic warfare availed themselves of whatever lay nearest at hand to inflict destruction upon their enemies. If this supposition is correct, it is highly probable that in certain Eastern countries “incendiary projectiles” of some sort were of the most remote antiquity; and there is also good ground for supposing that they were obtained direct from the store-house of nature. It is believed by those who have investigated this subject that naphtha, a word which is derived from Nafata (the Persian “to exude”), was first of all employed in warfare in its crude state, and that afterwards it became a principal ingredient in the composition of Greek fire. The method of making this particular compound was long retained as an inviolable secret, and although it appears to have been divulged, and afterwards to have become widely known, all record of how it was made has since been lost. It is said to have been the invention of a certain Callinicus, a Syrian engineer, who, although he was a Mohammedan himself, imparted his invention to the Romans, who were then the possessors of Constantinople, and who made use of the discovery to protect themselves against the attacks of the Saracens. Upon the occasion of a great sea-fight, no fewer than 30,000 Turks are stated to have been destroyed by the use of the new and horrible agent; and during the long period which elapsed from its first introduction in the seventh century to the final and successful siege of Constantinople by the Saracens in 1453, it seems to have played so important a part that the capital of the Eastern Empire, during that long period, is said to have been preserved by its constant employment. It was by no means confined to the defence of Constantinople, but seems to have been extensively used, in some form, throughout Europe during the warfare of the fourteenth century. Then, in the words of Gibbon, “the scientific or casual compound of nitre, sulphur, and charcoal effected a new revolution in the art of war and the history of mankind.” It is here that we come upon a complete revolution in the application of “incendiary projectiles,” and discover the necessity of an entirely new apparatus in order to render the discovery available. In most improvements upon the arts of civilisation the progress has been more or less gradual, but in this sudden change which took place in the practice of warfare the invention of guns must have sprung into existence almost as rapidly as the startling discovery which made them necessary.

It is quite certain that nearly all the substantial improvements which followed upon the first application of gunpowder, down to the end of the last century, were made by Europeans; but it seems equally clear that we must look to the well-known ingenuity of a very different race for the original discovery. We are informed, upon the authority of a certain Father Amyot, that stone mortars and stone balls were used in China so early as the eighth century, and it is generally admitted that the Chinese were the first inventors of gunpowder. There were no international patent laws in those days, and however interesting it may be, from an antiquarian point of view, to trace the relative merit or demerit of the country that first introduced an agent so horribly disruptive of the brotherhood of man, it is sufficient for our present purpose to trace the history of the invention as best we can, without much fear of trampling upon the susceptibility of the original inventor.

An apparatus in some way resembling our modern notions of a cannon, followed immediately upon the discovery of gunpowder; but the first efforts to produce a practical weapon seem to have taken an extraordinary shape. Some persons suppose that Schwartz, the chemist whom the Germans claim to have been the inventor of gunpowder, suggested the model of the first mortars. They were so much wider at the muzzle than the breech, that the mortar in which he pounded his materials is said to have been the pattern after which they were made.

There are many vague allusions to the use of gunpowder so early as the thirteenth century, both among the Moors, and, at a still more remote period, in Hindostan; but it is not until the fourteenth century that we find the new discovery had taken a firm hold upon the practice of war. Probably the principal objection to the use of Ballista and Catapulta lay in their great unwieldiness, which precluded their employment in any service but that of a protracted siege. If the story is true that Edward I. besieged Stirling Castle with engines which were capable of throwing stones weighing 300lbs., then there is good reason for supposing that such an apparatus was quite as powerful as the cannon that superseded it. The immense superiority of the new weapon in reduced bulk and facility of transit was probably the chief reason for its being so rapidly adopted.

While there is ample evidence to be found among contemporary chroniclers of an extensive use of artillery during the fourteenth century, some caution must be exercised in drawing conclusions from the statements made as to the number of guns employed upon certain celebrated occasions. Froissart, for instance, relates that at the siege of St. Malo, in 1378, the English employed as many as 400 cannon. If these were taken to be anything like the size of some well-known guns of that period, such as the famous “Mons Meg,” the siege-train in question must have been as formidable as the artillery of our own day. It appears, however, that cannon was used as a generic term for almost every sort of fire-arm, and it is probable that a large proportion of the 400 cannon referred to could have been carried by two men to each. Towards the close of the following century, the Scots seem to have possessed something in the form of field artillery – a branch of the service which has only been developed successfully in very recent times, owing to the difficulties that lay in the way of its being made sufficiently light and portable for the rapid transit that is essential to its efficiency. There is an Act of the Scots Parliament of this period which runs as follows: – “It is thocht speidful that the King mak requeist to certain of the great barrons of the land that are of any myght to mak carts of weir, and in ilk cart twa gunnis, and ilk ane to have twa chalmers, with the remanent of the graith that effeirs thereto, and we cunnand [with cunning] man to shute thame.” In 1481, artillery expanded into a variety of ordnance that would puzzle the present authorities at Woolwich if they got an order to manufacture them. Edward IV. issued a proclamation in which were mentioned bombardos, canones, culverynes, fowelers, and serpentynes. These seem to have been names applied to guns, blunder busses, and cannon, few specimens of which exist in the present day; but it is different with the largest class, many of which have survived the ravages of time and the battle-field. These are represented by a few specimens of immense interest, which are a positive record of the state of the art of working in iron at the time at which they were made. Among the most famous of these is “Mons Meg.” One account of the origin of this monster gives it out to have been made at Mons, in Hainault; and another attributes it to the work of two brothers named M’Kim, who presented it to James II. of Scotland at the siege of Thrieve Castle. Long after the peaceable union of the two kingdoms it was removed to England, but was restored at the request of Sir Walter Scott, and may now be seen at Edinburgh Castle. Wherever it was made, “Mons Meg” remains a marvel of workmanship in the light of the available appliances of the fifteenth century, and its dimensions – 13 feet in length and 20 inches in calibre – are by no means insignificant, even when compared with the giant productions of our modern arsenals.

Mons Meg