From fireworks to artillery: The evolution of giant guns
Gunpowder is one of the few inventions in human history that has impacted many human lives throughout the ages. It has the power to both fascinate and intimate all who experience its potency.
While it can be used for the benign or good, like fireworks, it can, and has, been used to end so many lives prematurely over centuries. The pinnacle of the evolution of its use is, of course, modern-day artillery.
So, how did we get from fancy fireworks to the death-from-the-sky devastation of artillery pieces? Let’s take a quick tour of history.
Artillery, or large-caliber guns for military purposes, has a long history dating back to ancient China, where crude "fire lances" were used in warfare as early as the 9th century. The advent of modern artillery, however, is generally considered to have occurred during the Renaissance with the invention of the "muzzle-loading" cannon.
And such weapons were used to great effect by the likes of the Ottomans under Sultan Fatih Mehmed II. European nations would also see its potential, accelerating their adoption and technological development over the coming centuries.
This type of artillery, loaded from the front end of the barrel rather than the back, allowed for greater accuracy and range and was widely used in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, advancements in metallurgy and manufacturing techniques led to the developing of more robust, durable artillery pieces. Rifled barrels, which had spiral grooves inside the barrel that imparted a spinning motion to the projectile, greatly increased the accuracy and range of artillery.
The introduction of breech-loading artillery in the mid-19th century further improved the efficiency and speed of firing. Around this time, more stable and smokeless explosives were also developed, ultimately replacing gunpowder as the main propellant.
During World War I, artillery played a major role in the trench warfare that characterized the conflict. The use of heavy artillery and long-range guns, along with innovations such as poison gas and tanks, led to devastating casualties on both sides.
In the interwar period and World War II, artillery continued to evolve with the development of new technologies such as radar and proximity fuses. Self-propelled artillery, which combined the gun and its mobility into one vehicle, became increasingly important.
After World War II, artillery continued to evolve with the development of new technologies such as guided missiles and precision-guided munitions. Electronic systems for fire control and navigation have also become more advanced.
In recent years, artillery systems have become more compact and mobile, and many systems now use GPS and inertial navigation systems to provide accurate targeting. Additionally, the use of artillery in urban warfare has led to the development of new systems specifically designed for use in built-up areas.
Modern pieces would be completely alien to military commanders from even a hundred years ago, but their basic principle is, more or less, unchanged. But, quite what artillery would look like in the future is anyone’s guess.
Who knows, projectiles launched by explosions will be seen as antiquated as the trebuchets or bows are to us today.
We can but only imagine.