Firearms are weapons designed to throw a projectile, usually a metal one, great distances. The motive power for these projectiles is gunpowder, which explodes when exposed to fire. This explosion is harnessed by trapping its expansion in a metal tube (the barrel) plugged with the projectile, causing great pressure. This extreme pressure causes the projectile to be launched from the tube at high speed. The explosion and the accompanying pressure changes as the projectile leaves the barrel cause a flash, a distinctive booming sound, and a cloud of thick white smoke.
Due to the limitations of metallurgy, firearms in period were primarily muzzle-loaders as opposed to modern breech-loading firearms. They were loaded from the open end of the barrel (the muzzle) rather than through a closable gap in the firing chamber. This made loading them slow and unwieldy. By the 15th century cannon with removable breeches were in use which increased their rate of fire.
A Cannon is a very large firearm, and were the first gunpowder weapons to be used in Europe being recorded as being used in 1324 and army records list them in stores by 1326. Cannons are so heavy that they need to be mounted on frames, and are handled by several men. Using large amounts of gunpowder, they would fire a ball (initally metal, but replaced by cheaper stone) weighing several pounds distances of up to a mile or more. Large arrows were also used initially.
Mortars and bombards were two types of cannon that lobbed their projectiles in a ballistic arc over high walls. Explosive shells were introduced in the mid 16th century.
Cannons were fired by igniting the gunpowder through a narrow channel (called the breech) by way of a slow match, a smoldering cord. Cannons were sometimes fired without a projectile, or blank, as a method of signalling messages.
For much of the medieval era, cannons were unwieldy, inaccurate, and often as dangerous to the men using them as they were to the target.
A Wall Gun was essentially a very small cannon, able to be carried by single infantryman. However, they were still so heavy and unwieldy that they needed to be braced on a stand or a wall to be used, hence the name. They were extremely inaccurate and not widely used.
The Arquebus (derived from hakebus meaning hook gun) the Dutch marked the development of the wall gun into a true infantry weapon. Many still retained the wall hook used to absorb recoil. Arquebuses were light enough to be carried and aimed, but were still very inaccurate and lacked stopping power. In addition, they were fired by matchlock a smoldering cord, which made them very susceptible to damp.
Muskets were the next development of firearms, and proved more accurate and powerful than earlier arquebuses due to a longer barrel. Later muskets tended to be flintlocks rather than matchlocks, that is, they were fired by the sparks from a flint striking steel, but these mechanisms are present on . Later muskets also added the refinement of rifling (developed during the mid-15th century), spiral grooves which caused the ball to spin, improving accuracy. Muskets initially had a rest upon which the barrel rested when being fired, but these rests were phased out during the English Civil Wars along with the arquebus and caliver as muskets themselves became lighter.
Pistols is a very small firearm, designed to be fired in one hand. While some early pistols were matchlocks or wheellocks, they only became common with the development of the flintlock. Pistols lack range, accuracy and stopping power compared with muskets or even arquebuses. Thus it was with these weapons that breastplates were proofed.
The hand gonne or hand cannon came to be used consisting of a small barrel sitting on a tiller. They were still ignited using a match and remained a relatively inaccurate weapon. The hand gun of the 15th century developed a shape and method of holding when being fired more familar to modern gun users.
In the gothic period, certain melee weapons were adapted to incorporate gunpowder, but these were rare and never commonly used. Examples include maces or axes with a barrel built into the haft of the weapon. Others included daggers with a short barrel along the blade.
Firearms in Period
While large cannons were used during sieges and aboard ships throughout the late medieval period, most hand-held firearms were rare although handguns were used my some 15th century armies. Those that did exist could often be defeated by plate armour
The development of the flintlock musket did not occur until well after the end of the medieval period, and it was not until the English Civil Wars in the 17th century that large formations of infantry were exclusively armed with muskets by Oliver Cromwell to defeat the more traditional Royalist forces under King Charles I.
Japan's adoption of the musket in 1543 was very rapid, and by 1600 at the Battle of Sekigahara , 20000 muskets fielded in the one engagement. The Japanese were also the first to adopt rotation firing into their armies.
The technology to create modern breech-loading firearms was not developed until the mid-19th century.