The first gunpowder weapons were used in Europe during the late Middle Ages. These weapons were used for both military and hunting purposes.
The first gunpowder weapons were created in China. They were used in Europe during the Middle Ages.
The introduction of gunpowder weaponry to Europe in the 14th century led medieval commanders to devise new strategies and revise old ones.
By the mid-fourteenth century, European troops were facing new and terrifying weapons that screamed like thunder and belched smoke and flame. The advent of gunpowder technology on the Continent, five centuries after its invention in China, was greeted by such heinous weapons.
Medieval commanders who attempted to integrate such weapons into their armies quickly found that it was a difficult job. Bringing gunpowder weapons to bear on the battlefield was much more difficult than using them in a siege, given the technical limitations of the time. Commanders had to either create new strategies or modify old ones before the new weaponry could produce results in the field. Gunpowder weapons were eventually used as part of a combined-arms strategy to both inflict losses and undermine morale.
European armies in the fourteenth century used a broader range of tactical tactics than is often known. The tactical introduction of gunpowder weaponry was significantly influenced by two main developments. The emergence of the professional soldier was the first. These soldiers, sometimes referred to as mercenaries, were from the lower noble and non-noble ranks. Rather of looking for work overseas, they usually served inside their own nations. They were mercenaries solely in the sense that they fought for money and were full-time warriors, unlike feudal levies or militia.
Berthold Schwarz, a probable fictional 14th century alchemist commonly attributed in medieval Europe with the creation of gunpowder, is shown in a stained-glass picture by 20th century German artist Fritz Geiges. James Steakley (James Steakley)
Commanders regarded them as more reliable and disciplined than feudal or militia levies, and they often had highly valued technical talents. They were ready to remain in the field longer since they were paid rather than serving for set lengths of time. The distinction between mercenaries and levies blurred as the 14th century proceeded, and the expense of war rose dramatically. Professional soldiers acquired specific technological abilities to make themselves more appealing to prospective employers. Those who could use gunpowder weapons earned a lot of money, which encouraged others to learn how to use them.
The emergence, or resurrection, of infantry as an effective or even decisive fighting weapon occurred in the 14th century. While infantrymen had sometimes proven crucial in earlier ages, their primary role had been to screen the knightly cavalry or offer a safe haven for the horsemen to regroup. If the cavalry is successful in disrupting the opposing lines, the infantry may be sent to break up the hostile formation. Because they lacked the required training, discipline, and equipment, most medieval infantry troops could only accomplish so much.
As foot troops grew increasingly professional in the 14th century, the situation altered. Infantrymen, armed with both shock and missile weapons, have shown an increasing capacity to achieve decisive combat wins. Commanders were able to accomplish these triumphs by using a very consistent set of tactics with regional variances. They often placed their troops in a strong defensive line after carefully choosing and preparing the terrain on which they battled. When the fight started, the foot troops formed a tight formation to fend off enemy attacks. The troops launched an all-out counterattack only after the enemy had lost impetus and become disorganized. These strategies were not very complex, and they were not always effective. They were, nevertheless, very effective when used by disciplined professional troops.
Given the technological constraints, incorporating gunpowder guns into such tactical systems was no simple job. The mobility of such weapons was severely limited, and the rate of firing was glacially slow. Take, for example, gunpowder artillery, which was not originally placed on wheels. Commanders had to pull the hefty pieces on sledges or carry them on carts to transfer them. The guns remained large and unwieldy even after armies constructed purpose-built artillery carriages near the end of the century.
Individual guns of the time were particularly troublesome due to their cumbersome design and sluggish loading and firing speeds. The latter was especially essential, since aiming such weapons was difficult and their accuracy was suspect. To compensate for the sluggish rate of fire, tacticians and guns designers developed a variety of strategies, including massing several pieces, connecting multiple barrels to the same carriage, and creating breechloading weapons. However, the expensive expense of gunpowder, the absence of regulated firing methods, and the difficulty of producing dependable breechloaders proved to be obstacles. As a result, commanders were reluctant to use gunpowder weapons for more than a few rounds during a fight.
The lethality of such weapons compensated for the sluggish rate of fire in certain ways. They were were than capable of killing or maiming armored opponents, notwithstanding their inability to break through castle walls. Even if a gunpowder weapon failed to pierce armor, it was likely to injure or knock opponents off their feet. As body armor became thicker in the 14th century, this stopping capability became more important.
During the 14th century, the most successful employment of gunpowder weaponry was by armies that took the tactical defense, preferring to accept the enemy’s assault. The Battle of Crécy on August 26, 1346, provided the first evidence for the tactical employment of gunpowder artillery on the battlefield during the era. After weeks on the march, King Edward III of England placed his 10,000 to 15,000-strong army atop a hill to confront the bigger French army of 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers under King Philip VI, a challenge that the larger French army could not reject. The English used an unknown number of different gunpowder weapons, most likely early artillery.
The French began the fight with a volley of mercenary Genoese crossbowmen aimed at disrupting the English line before of a mounted French knight assault. The Genoese took the brunt of the firefight with English longbowmen that followed. The crossbowmen were also targeted by English gunpowder weapons. For the Genoese, the combination was too much, and they quickly retreated. The French knights slew the fleeing Genoese, mistaking their former friends’ withdrawal for weakness or treachery. The fight subsequently degenerated into a series of reckless, disorganized, and unsupported French knight assaults against the strong English position, where they were slaughtered in droves. It is unknown how many French and Genoese were killed by the English gunpowder cannon. Perhaps just a handful, since the existence of such weapons is hardly mentioned in historical chronicles.
Another time when a tactically defensive army made excellent use of gunpowder weapons was in the Battle of Beverhoutsveld on May 3, 1382. (near Bruges in present-day Belgium). Ghent, a Flemish city, had defied its master, Louis II of Flanders, who had placed a blockade with the ready assistance of the people of Bruges, Ghent’s old foe. To break the siege, Philip van Artevelde’s army of 4,000-8,000 soldiers marched towards Bruges and took up a defensive position on a nearby hill. Several hundred ribauldequins, a kind of multibarreled light artillery, were stationed on one side to provide enfilading fire.
Because Bruggians had celebrated a religious festival the day before, and many troops were either hungover or drunk, Louis II’s much larger united force marched out of the city in a disorderly way. As Louis’ army neared, Artevelde unleashed a huge ribauldequin bombardment. The Bruggians trembled and eventually came to a stop in bewilderment as a result of the surprise barrage. Following that, a second Ghent bombardment was launched, as well as an infantry assault that defeated Louis’ troops. Artevelde’s troops seized Bruges in the aftermath, and Louis narrowly escaped. Again, the exact number of fatalities caused by gunpowder weaponry is unknown, but the impact of the Ghent ribauldequin fire on Bruggians’ morale cannot be denied. A confident advance had become a terrified retreat after two barrages and an infantry attack.
Despite such defensive successes, it was virtually difficult to use gunpowder weapons effectively on the tactical attack throughout the 14th century.
More Flemish towns joined Ghent in rebellion after its triumph at Beverhoutsveld. This spurred France to support Louis II, and in late 1382, the crown sent 10,000 soldiers to Flanders under the command of France’s constable, Olivier de Clisson. To confront the invaders, Artevelde commanded a 30,000- to 40,000-strong Flemish army.
After defeating the French at Crécy, English soldiers under King Edward III use hand cannons and bombards, as well as conventional medieval weaponry, to successfully siege Calais in 1346–47. / Photographs by Bridgeman
Artevelde decided to employ his previously decisive gunpowder weapons against the French, who had selected a solid defensive posture, in the Battle of Roosebeke on November 27. He positioned the Flemish pikemen in a tight infantry square, flanked by gunners and crossbowmen. Those carrying the heavy gunpowder guns, on the other hand, struggled to keep up with the Flemish advance across the difficult terrain. Before the approaching Flemish pikemen obscured the French line, they probably only got to fire once or twice. The French center shook at first, but the Flemish formation had not engaged strong cavalry on the enemy wings, leaving them free to assault Artevelde’s infantry square’s exposed flanks. The Flemish crossbowmen and gunners were eventually driven from the field by a well-timed French cavalry assault, leaving the pikemen with little chance of assistance. Artevelde was slain when the Flemish infantry was defeated by successive assaults by the French cavalry.
The Flemings had intended to replicate their success at Roosebeke, when they had used their gunpowder weaponry to destroy the enemy’s morale. They got near, as the French center swayed, but the gunpowder guns of the Flemish army lacked the mobility and rate of fire to protect the troops squarely on the assault. The Flemish gunners were unable to perform their planned function due to inadequate tactical usage and deployment, which had catastrophic repercussions.
The Battle of Aljubarrota, which pitted King John I of Castile against King John I of Portugal for the throne of the latter country on Aug. 14, 1385, saw the use of gunpowder weaponry on the offensive. To bolster his claim and crush any opposition, John of Castile led a force of 31,000 soldiers into battle. With less than 7,000 soldiers, John of Portugal met the invaders and deployed his greatly outmanned army in a hilltop redoubt built with interconnecting trenches and caltrops. Recognizing the Portuguese’s solid defensive posture, John of Castile bombarded them with his gunpowder weapons, while his light cavalry circled behind them to prevent them from fleeing.
The bombardment frightened the Portuguese but did not force them to leave, not that they had somewhere to go to in the first place. The Castilian gunners stopped firing when it became clear that the bombardment was having little impact, in order to preserve their diminishing gunpowder supplies. They then launched a series of cavalry and infantry assaults that failed to make an impact on the Portuguese defenses. When the Castilians finally decided to break engagement and retreat, the Portuguese resurfaced to launch their own assault, routing their besiegers with severe losses.
Few troops of the day, especially those inside permanent field fortifications, could have been expected to withstand a prolonged cannonade due to their unfamiliarity with gunpowder. The Castilian gunpowder weapons had accomplished their goal of lowering Portuguese morale, but they had failed to completely incorporate such weapons into their tactical system. It is likely that the Castilians’ bombardment would have succeeded in dislodging the Portuguese if they had used a combined-arms strategy and not blocked off possible escape routes.
Individual guns were initially used on medieval European battlefields in the 14th century. In contemporary artworks, soldiers using firearms march alongside and among bowmen and crossbowmen in a mixed formation.
The strengths of one weapon system may compensate for the deficiencies of another in this configuration. While the bow and crossbow had a longer range and faster rate of fire than any 14th-century weapon, the latter had more stopping power. In a battle, the bowmen in the formation would pound the enemy from afar. Gunners would then use their weapons to either stop the enemy from closing in or at the very least delay them long enough for their own soldiers to retreat in order.
The lack of precision with 14th-century weapons did not negate their effectiveness. Soldiers battled in close-knit, slow-moving formations, so a weapon fired in the general direction of the enemy had a high chance of striking a target. Such weapons could pierce armor to some extent, and troops and horses were unaccustomed to the frightening look, sound, and smell of guns. Mass volleys depleted morale by interrupting enemy advances and prevented them from closing. However, technical limitations prohibited guns from being used as an offensive weapon on the battlefield. Individual guns, like their bigger relatives, lacked the mobility and rate of fire required to dismantle opposing formations or force enemy troops from defensive positions.
Early cannons were difficult to transport and install due to their size and weight. / Johnny Shumate, from Osprey Publishing’s The Medieval Cannon 1326-1494.
Finally, European armies in the 14th century incorporated gunpowder weapons into their defensive tactical systems in a way that followed tactical tendencies of the time. By staying on the tactical defensive, there was less of a need to redeploy such heavy weaponry, either to maintain touch with friendly forces or to respond to fresh enemy assaults. The gunners were shielded by friendly troops, enabling them to operate uninterrupted by the enemy. As a result, the gunners were able to reload and fire their guns at a higher rate. They might inflict more losses by firing more volleys.
Gunpowder weapons, as important to success as they were for inflicting fatalities, also proved efficient in destroying an assaulting force’s morale, an often neglected element of medieval combat. When confronted with the loudness and fury of such weapons, some soldiers froze, some retreated, and nearly all of them wavered. The attackers lost cohesiveness and momentum as a result, which sapped their morale and exposed them to a counterattack.
The development of a combined-arms strategy was also crucial to the effective tactical employment of gunpowder weapons on the medieval battlefield. Gunpowder-wielding soldiers were most successful when deployed alongside and in support of troops using more conventional weapons. In the end, it was strategy, not technology, that made gunpowder guns a viable weapon on medieval battlefields and for generations to follow. MH
Robert C.L. Holmes is an author and historian who specializes in ancient and medieval military history. He recommends Kenneth Chase’s Firearms: A Global History to 1700, Bert S. Hall’s Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe, and Kelly DeVries’ Infantry Warfare in the Early 14th Century for additional reading.
This essay was published in Military History magazine in September 2022. Subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook for additional updates:
The how did gunpowder change the world is a question that has been on many people’s minds. Gunpowder weapons in Medieval Europe changed the way wars were fought, and also changed society.
Frequently Asked Questions
Was gunpowder used in medieval Europe?
Gunpowder was used in medieval Europe.
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Gunpowder was used in medieval times for many different things, including fireworks.
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Gunpowder was used in Europe to make firecrackers.
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