Category: Shotguns and Smoothbores
The hand cannon is an early form of firearm considered a forerunner of the handgun and a staple arm of the early modern warfare. The weapon, which originated in china, is also referred to as “handgonne” or simply “gonne” to distinguish it from modern handguns. The hand cannons were widely used in East Asia in the 13th century and later throughout Europe until late 1520s, when they were supplanted by the matchlock firearms. The hand cannon is also considered the simplest type of early firearm, as well as the oldest type of portable firearm.
The 13th century hand cannons were typically simple, effectively consisting of a barrel and a handle. Although surviving examples of the weapon are completely made of metal, evidence suggests that some were attached to some sort of stock, mostly wooden. Some Chinese illustrations also demonstrate bamboo tubes being used instead of the metal barrels.
For firing, the weapon could be held in two hands by one person while a helper applied the means of ignition. These ranged from slow-burning matches, smoldering wood or coal, to red-hot iron rods. Alternatively, it could be placed on a rest then held by one hand as the same gunner applied the means of ignition. Projectiles used in hand cannons were varied, with many utilizing a variety of different ammunition. Small rocks or pebbles found on the ground could be fired from this weapon, while more sophisticated ammunition such as arrows and stones in the shape of balls could also be used.
Later hand cannons had a flash pan with a leather cover attached to the barrel. Their touch holes were drilled through the side wall of the guns instead of the top of their barrel. Later on, the flash pan was fitted with hinged metal lid, to prevent premature firing and to keep the priming powder dry until the next firing. These new features were carried on over to subsequent guns.
Contrary to popular belief, the emergence of hand cannons did not lead to the decline of bows and arrows in battlefields or their eventual disappearance. The two weapons co-existed, each occupying a unique role in the contemporary tactics. Since bow and arrows were low on accuracy, hand cannon was preferred as a skirmish weapon which the bearer would maneuver so that he could discharge his deadly gun at the enemy's flanks at close range in a similar manner to how combat shotguns are used today. Bows and crossbows lacked the superior penetration that hand cannons offered. The noise and flash produced by the hand cannons had some psychological effect on the enemy. This combined with certain deaths and terrifying smoke helped break the enemy’s morale, making the ally infantry to push through with ease. This tactic was effectively employed until the 16th century, when more sophisticated weapons such as matchlock firearms emerged.
European warfare in the 14th century was gradually dominated by the hand cannons. The firearm was not only inexpensive but easy to produce in mass. The countries found this weapon amazing in that it could pierce heavy plates, a capability that other weapons did not have. The hand cannon also acted as a terror weapon to enemy troops and horses that had never seen it before. Furthermore, the hand cannons could be effectively used by non-experienced soldiers.