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The hand cannon (Chinese: 手銃; Arabic: مدفع; Russian: пищаль), also known as handgonne, gunnie, gonne, pot, capita, testes, and vasam scolpi is the first true firearm and the successor of the fire lance. It is the oldest type of small arms as well as the most mechanically simplistic form of metal barrel firearms. Unlike matchlock firearms it requires direct manual external ignition through a touch hole without any form of firing mechanism. It may also be considered a forerunner of the handgun. The hand cannon was widely used in China from the 13th century onward and later throughout Europe in the 14th century until at least the 1560s, when it was supplanted by the matchlock arquebus, which is the first firearm to have a trigger.
Hand cannons first saw widespread usage in China sometime during the 13th century and spread from there to the rest of the world. In 1287 Yuan Jurchen troops deployed hand cannons in putting down a rebellion by the Mongol prince Nayan. However the earliest artistic depiction of a hand cannon - a rock sculpture found among the Dazu Rock Carvings - is dated to 1128 and predates any recorded or precisely dated archaeological samples, so it is likely that the concept of a cannon-like firearm existed since the 12th century. The oldest confirmed extant hand cannon is the Xanadu Gun, dated to 1298, but the Heilongjiang hand cannon is likely older and is dated to no later than 1288, however it contains no inscription or era date unlike the Xanadu Gun. Other specimens also likely predate either specimens and have been traced back to the Western Xia period, but these too contain no inscriptions or era dates.
The earliest reliable evidence of hand cannons in Europe appeared in 1326 and evidence of their production can be dated as early as 1327. The first recorded use of gunpowder weapons in Europe was in 1331 when two mounted Germanic knights attacked Cividale del Friuli with gunpowder weapons of some sort. By 1338 hand cannons were in widespread use in France. During the 14th century the Arabs seem to have used the hand cannon to some degree. Cannons are attested to in India starting from 1366. The Joseon kingdom in Korea acquired knowledge of gunpowder from China by 1374 and started producing cannons by 1377. In Southeast Asia Đại Việt soldiers were using hand cannons at the very latest by 1390 when they employed them in killing the king of Champa, Che Bong Nga. Japan was already aware of gunpowder warfare due to the Mongol invasions during the 13th century, but cannons were not mentioned until 1510 when a monk acquired one during his travels in China, and firearms were not produced until 1543, when the Portuguese introduced matchlocks which were known as tanegashima to the Japanese.
Design and features
The hand cannon could be held in two hands, but another person is often shown aiding in the ignition process using smoldering wood, coal, red-hot iron rods, or slow-burning matches. The hand cannon could be placed on a rest and held by one hand, while the gunner applied the means of ignition himself.
Projectiles used in hand cannons were known to include rocks, pebbles, and arrows. Eventually stone projectiles in the shape of balls became the preferred form of ammunition, and then they were replaced by iron balls from the late 14th to 15th centuries.
Later hand cannons have been shown to include a flash pan attached to the barrel and a touch hole drilled through the side wall instead of the top of the barrel. The flash pan had a leather cover and, later on, a hinged metal lid, to keep the priming powder dry until the moment of firing and to prevent premature firing. These features were carried over to subsequent firearms.
The invention of corned powder, the slow match, and the serpentine lever in mid-15th century Europe led to the development of the first matchlock firearms, which could be more effectively aimed and fired than hand cannon.
The Heilongjiang hand cannon, 1288.
Discovered in Ningxia. This firearm is 34.6cm long, the muzzle 2.6cm in diameter, and weighs 1.55 kilograms.
Hand cannon from the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1271–1368)
"Hand bombard", France, 1390–1400
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