This lesson will discuss the history of gun powder and its effect on the New World. It will highlight the development of firearms, as well as the Europeans who used gunpowder to ravage the Americas.
Gunpowder Comes to the West
Perhaps the most significant development in the story of conquest and warfare is the use of gunpowder to propel a deadly object toward a chosen mark. Although history tells us it was the Chinese who developed this deadly weapon, the Europeans would jump on the technological band wagon, using it to devastate the natives of the New World during the Age of Exploration.
To begin our study of gunpowder and its effects on the New World, let's take a look at how Europe got its hands on it in the first place. Up until around the 13th century, China had a monopoly on gunpowder. However, with the onset of the Crusades, or holy wars fought by Christian Europe to reclaim the holy lands of the East, Europeans found themselves interacting more with the East and its technologies. With the crusades, trade routes continued to develop between the Christian West and the East. These routes included the ancient silk trade routes of China. In fact, it's believed Marco Polo, the famous Venetian explorer, was one of the first Europeans to travel the Silk Road to China. These interactions brought gunpowder from the East to the West.
Cannons and First Portable Guns
Now that we know a bit about gunpowder and how it came to the West, let's see what the Europeans did with it. By the mid-14th century, simple gunpowder cannons were common in the English and French militaries. Both sides used this technology against each other in the Hundred Years' War, a devastating war fought over the right to the French throne. The Ottoman Turks also used gunpowder cannons to finally conquer Constantinople in the year 1453. These cannons destroyed the fortified cities under European control, rendering them defenseless against the cannon's blast. Now imagine, if they could do that to the technologically advanced buildings of Europe, just think what they could do against the more 'primitive' lands of the New World!
After seeing the effects of the cannon, it didn't take long for gunpowder to find its way into portable guns. The first single-shot guns, coming onto the scene in the 1360s, were really nothing more than miniature cannons, small enough to be hand held. Like cannons, the smoldering match cord was used to fire off a shot. Although their aim was rather precarious, this invention put guns into the hands of the individual. Since even the most unskilled person with a gun was still a threat, this created a whole new class of soldiers. Again, imagine what havoc this alone could wreak on the New World. Even the most skilled of natives could be intimidated, if not bested, by an unskilled European holding a gun.
Another such firearm consisted of a foot long metal tube attached to a pole about six feet in length. This was a rudimentary precursor to the barrel and stock of a rifle. For this one, the gunner had to use a glowing coal, or some sort of hot metal, to ignite the powder held in the tube. Of course, this could be very dangerous for the shooter but even more dangerous for those who stood in his way.
The advancement of gun powder obviously didn't stop here.
Types of Handheld Guns
Realizing how powerful gun powder was, refinements followed very quickly. In the 1400s, matchlock guns, the first mechanically firing guns, hit the scene. With this improvement, wicks were attached to a clamp that sprang into the gunpowder, causing ignition. Now enemies, especially those without guns, could be subdued with even more ease.
By the early 1500s, wheel lock guns were used. With these, wicks were replaced with a metal wheel lock that generated a spark for igniting the gunpowder. This one is probably fancier than most explorers used and most likely a bit more advanced. However, rest assured, even the uglier, less advanced ones could still do some real damage. In a fight to the death, I'm guessing most would choose an old, ugly wheel lock gun over a shiny new spear any day of the week!
By the 1600s, the flintlock gun had improved upon the wheel lock. In this version, the lid to the flash pan, or the place where the powder was held for firing, opened automatically and provided an igniting spark. Although this one is a bit younger than the 1600s, it can give us the general idea of how deadly these could be.
A flintlock gun containing an automatic flash pan
Gunpowder Hits the New World
Unfortunately, these guns were not used for sport. They weren't placed in cabinets and only brought out on the weekends to be shown off at the local gun club. They were used to conquer, devastate, and destroy one's enemies. This brings us to guns in the New World.
Arguably, the most well-known conquests of the New World were accomplished by the Spanish. Under siege by explorers waving the Spanish flag, the mighty Aztec and Incan empires fell. In Mexico, Hernan Cortes vanquished the Aztec in the 1520s, while Francisco Pizarro conquered the Incans of Peru about a decade later. These conquistadors - meaning conquerors - who devastated these ancient empires, commanded relatively small forces. Cortes had around 600 men, and Pizarro initially had about 160. Their victories, although greatly due to the fact that the Spanish carried diseases for which the natives had no immunity, were also due to gunpowder.
For the Spanish, the weapon of choice, when speaking of gun powder, was the arquebus, a matchlock gun invented in Spain during the 15th century. Unfortunately for the Aztecs and the Incans, disease, coupled with guns, was too much to handle.
Stories very similar to this played out all over the New World as Europeans carried their diseases and their guns wherever they went. When Ponce de Leon searched Florida for the Fountain of Youth, he brought his guns. When Coronado reached New Mexico, so did his guns. When Cabral set foot in Brazil, he had his guns. When Henry Hudson came upon the river which now bears his name, you better believe, he had his guns.
As I said at the top of the lesson, perhaps the most significant development in the story of conquest and warfare is the use of gunpowder. This technology, which came from China, changed the face of the globe. Having used it against each other, Europeans were more than willing to turn it on the unsuspecting inhabitants of the New World. Before long, the native inhabitants would also take up these weapons. However, not in time to save the Aztecs, the Incans and the other early victims of the Age of Exploration.
Once you have finished this lesson, you should be ready to:
- Explain where gunpowder originated and how it came to Europe
- Identify and describe the early uses of gunpowder, from cannons to handheld guns
- Discuss the significance of gunpowder in the New World