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Medieval Weaponry - Beginnings of The Gunpowder Age

Updated on September 15, 2014
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Jeff Johnston is a medieval reenactor and avid history fan. He is also the publisher at Living History Publications.


Gunpowder Came in With A Bang!

Siege technology advanced in leaps and bounds during the medieval period, but trebuchets and other catapults had limitations that was solved with the invention of the cannon. And just as crossbows outstripped most common bows, so did the musket begin to outstrip the crossbow. All thanks to a mysterious powder we now call gunpowder.


Gunpowder is extremely explosive and therefore dangerous. The following is for educational purposes only, do not try making your own gunpowder at home

Explosion (courtesy of
Explosion (courtesy of

How to make gunpowder

You can get by with only one single mortar on this one, however because it has to be so carefully cleaned before grinding the next ingredient it is probably best to use one for each ingredient thus minimizing the risk.

Cast your vote for A Recipe for Medieval Gunpowder

Cook Time

Prep Time:

Total Time: 2 Days

Serves: 100g


  • 75 g Salt Peter
  • 15 g Charcoal
  • 10 g Sulfur
  • 3 different Mortar and Pestles
  • 1 small bowl


  1. In one mortar put in the salt peter and grind it to a fine powder.
  2. In another mortar put in the charcoal and grind it to a fine powder
  3. In the third mortar put in the sulfur and grind it to a fine powder
  4. Combine all three ingredients into the small bowl and add a small amount (1tbsp should do it) of water. Mix solution and continue to add water until the mixture is a thick paste.
  5. Spread gunpowder paste on a piece of parchment and allow to dry for at least two days (until fully dry)
  6. Very carefully peel paste off the paper and put it back in one of the mortars (make sure it is perfectly clean)
  7. Very carefully, gently, and slowly grind the gunpowder up. The water acts as a stabilizer ensuring the mixture doesn't explode until lit, but you still have to be very gentle.


Once again, gunpowder is extremely dangerous and unstable. Do not try making it at home.

Early Cannons

Cannons would become the ultimate siege weapons in time. In the beginning of the gunpowder age though they were more about intimidation then effectiveness. They were loud, crass, inefficient, unreliable, and unstable. They were more as like to kill the cannoneer than knock a hole in a wall.

As technology increased though they began casting cannons out of brass, and were able to work with larger and larger cannons, and make the whole device less likely to explode. While they never matched a trebuchet for mass of the object hurled they were able to hurl lead balls much, much faster than a trebuchet could ever manage, and since force = mass x velocity you could match the force, or even increase the force simply by firing the shot faster.

The number of men required to operate a cannon was much less than with a trebuchet, but they had to be highly specialized men in the beginning. So any gains gotten by decreased manpower was lost in the cost of maintaining the highly skilled cannoneers. If you didn't load a cannon properly it was liable to explode sending shrapnel in a huge area possibly injuring or killing your own men. Many early cannons also could only be fired once per day (or even less frequently) as they used a clay to completely seal off any air ensuring that the gunpowder propelled the shot and not any wasted energy on going around the shot, and you had to wait until the clay was dry or risk the gunpowder not igniting at all.

Early Handguns

I use the term handgun very, very loosely. I am not talking about pistols, although there were some that qualify for that title, but rather any weapon that a single soldier can fire and use on their own without any additional tools.

The matchlock was the first handgun available to soldiers. These guns would be breach loaded then fired by actually lighting a fuse. They were slow to fire, and generally in a battle considered a one use weapon. They fired lead balls.

The wheellock was the next innovation in handguns, and there were even some wheellock pistols, although most were long guns. These used a friction based ignition and were the first self igniting guns. They still simply fired lead balls and weren't that drastically different than matchlocks.

The flintlock was the last handgun of the medieval era, and they come in in the late medieval period at that with the first ones cropping up in the early part of the 17th century.

Gunpowder In Other Forms

During the medieval times gunpowder wasn't only used for cannons and other guns, but also for bomb makings. In siege warfare Petards, or directional blast bombs, were commonly used to blast gates down. In the Gunpowder Plot Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up the British Parliament Buildings with an improvised explosive device (IED) that was simply just barrels of gunpowder. Early grenades were used, they started out being filled with pitch, but later on gunpowder was often used.

© 2012 Jeff Johnston

Fire Away

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      6 years ago

      This is great I like learning about history and the medieval weaponry story is very interesting. Great job.


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