Ancient, Military, Pre-WW1, WW1, WW2

The History of Gunpowder – it is Ancient

The history of gunpowder dates back to ancient China, where it was first discovered and used for various purposes such as medicinal, religious, and recreational use. Here we take a little glimpse into its history and uses.

The first recorded use of gunpowder in warfare was during the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD). It was used to create bombs and flamethrowers. These caused panic amongst enemies and proved that gunpowder was here to stay.


Gunpowder was later refined and improved during the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD), where it was used in military applications such as cannon and rockets. The Song dynasty is known for its many accomplishments in science, art, literature, and technology. During this time, China saw a significant increase in population and economic growth. As well as this there were advancements in agriculture, commerce, and maritime trade.

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Apart from gunpowder the Song dynasty also made significant contributions to the fields of astronomy, mathematics, and medicine. It also saw the development of new technologies such as compasses, and paper money. It was gunpowder however that was the most potent.

Gunpowder wasn’t just used on the battlefield. Here the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan goes hunting.

Gunpowder was then introduced to Europe by the Mongols in the 13th century, and its use in firearms revolutionized warfare.

The Mongols

The Mongols are known to have used gunpowder in their military campaigns. That said their use of it was not as widespread or systematic as in other civilizations such as the Chinese.

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Its more than likely that the Mongols learned about gunpowder from their conquest of China and other regions where it was used. They used it to some extent in their military campaigns, primarily for explosive devices and rockets.

Earliest known painting of a European cannon. They were as dangerous for the firer and enemy alike!

One of the most notable uses of gunpowder by the Mongols was in the Siege of Baghdad in 1258 AD. Here they reportedly used gunpowder bombs to breach the city’s defences.

However, the Mongols primarily relied on their superior horsemanship and archery skills, and did not place as much emphasis on the development and use of gunpowder weapons as some of their contemporaries.


The earliest recorded use of gunpowder in Europe was in the 1320s. It was used by the English against the Scots in the form of crude cannons.

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In the 14th and 15th centuries, powder weapons such as cannons, hand-held firearms, and arquebuses became more widespread and advanced. These new weapons played a significant role in warfare. The development of gunpowder weapons led to changes in military strategy and tactics, and allowed for the rise of powerful nation-states such as France and Spain.

Rocket warfare
During the Battle of Guntur in 1780 the British were defeated by the Mysore’s use of rocket artillery

The use of gunpowder in Europe also led to the development of new military technologies and innovations. One was the flintlock musket, which was first developed in the early 17th century.

The Flintlock Musket

The flintlock musket was a type of firearm that was developed in the early 17th century. It became one of the most important weapons of its time. It was widely used in military conflicts throughout Europe and North America. Here they played a significant role in the American Revolution.

The flintlock musket works by using a piece of flint to strike a small amount of gunpowder in the “pan” of the musket. This then ignites the main charge of gunpowder in the barrel and propels the bullet or shot out of the weapon. This flintlock mechanism allowed for a more reliable and faster ignition compared to earlier ignition systems, which relied on a slow-burning match cord or slow-burning wick to ignite the powder.

Flintlock Firing
The Flintlock revolutionised the battlefield and changed military tactics forever.

The flintlock musket was a major innovation in firearms technology, and played a crucial role in the development of modern firearms. It was used by both infantry and cavalry units, and was especially effective in massed formations, where its rapid and continuous fire could create a deadly wall of lead.

The flintlock musket remained in use for several centuries, until it was gradually replaced by more advanced firearms such as the breech-loading rifle and the revolver in the mid-19th century. However, it remains an important symbol of the early modern period and the era of musket warfare.

Other Uses

Throughout the centuries, gunpowder has been used in various forms, from simple handheld firearms to powerful artillery pieces. It played a critical role in many historical conflicts, including the American Revolutionary War, the Napoleonic Wars, and both World Wars.

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Beyond its military applications, gunpowder was also used in other areas, such as fireworks and mining. In the 18th and 19th centuries, gunpowder became an important component in the industrial revolution, being used to power machinery and in mining operations.

Gunpowder is a mixture of saltpetre (potassium nitrate), sulphur, and charcoal, which when ignited, produces a rapid release of gas that generates a sudden burst of energy. This chemical reaction is known as deflagration.

Modern Day

Modern gunpowder, also known as smokeless powder, is a type of propellant that is used in firearms and other weapons. Unlike traditional gunpowder, which is a mixture of saltpetre, sulphur, and charcoal, modern gunpowder is typically made from nitrocellulose. This is a highly flammable compound that is formed by treating cotton or wood pulp with nitric acid.

Modern gunpowder was first developed in the late 19th century, and quickly replaced traditional gunpowder as the primary propellant in firearms. Smokeless powder burns more cleanly and efficiently than traditional powder. It, produces less smoke and residue, and allowing for greater accuracy and consistency.

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There are several different types of smokeless powder, including single-base and double-base powders, which differ in their composition and performance characteristics. Modern smokeless powders are classified based on their burn rate, which determines how quickly the powder burns and generates gas to propel the bullet or projectile.

Cordite Filled Cartridge
Cordite filaments in a British .303 round. Safer than traditional gunpowder but still lethal.

Modern gunpowder is still widely used today in various applications, including sporting and hunting ammunition, military and law enforcement weapons, and industrial blasting and mining operations. The development of new powder formulations and production methods continues to improve the safety, efficiency, and performance of modern powder.

Today, gunpowder is still used in military and civilian applications, such as ammunition, fireworks, and industrial explosives. Despite its widespread use, gunpowder remains a dangerous and volatile substance that requires careful handling and storage.