By far the most famous weaponry of the Middle Ages are the swords. They are often accompanied by the symbol of chivalry and knights

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Weapons before Gunpowder

By far the most famous weaponry of the Middle Ages are the swords. They are often accompanied by the symbol of chivalry and knights.

Swords were divided into many categories, the two most important being:

Single-handed swords - These were usually very light and were accompanied by a shield. They could easily cut an unarmored opponent - but when the opponent was wearing an armor, they were not as useful. Nevertheless, these swords evolved and were made very sharp so they could penetrate any type of armory. This only happened after many centuries, and thus; were not very effective before. Single-handed swords were very common against barbaric tribes who rarely used armor. Nevertheless, against a well equipped army, they could be seemingly useless (unless used correctly).

Another technique used for these swords was to spray them with venom during battles so death was guaranteed. Nevertheless, there are very few recorded events in which this happened. What usually happened, though, was that these swords were never washed so cutting someone would result in an infection that could easily lead to death. Even though this practice was common, it was also counter-productive in some cases as it could, accidentally, kill the own owner of the weapon.

Two-handed swords: They were usually very heavy and thus; only strong men could carry them. Since these swords could not be accompanied by a shield, most soldiers relied on very heavy armor in order to protect themselves effectively. This was, most of the time, a common cause for the slow end of foot soldiers as carrying a complete heavy armor and a two-handed sword would result in an extreme amount of weight.

Nevertheless, two-handed swords were very effective at penetrating an enemy's armor. In most of the cases, they were so powerful that not only could they destroy armor, but they could also completely cut a man in two - his armor included.

This simple fact of extreme effectiveness against armored foot soldiers, is what made two-handed swords so effective. A single-handed sword was virtually useless against a knight using a two-handed sword and heavy armor.

They were most commonly used from a distance. Their effectiveness increased dramatically as they were used from a higher altitude against lower targets as gravity would increase the effectiveness of the arrows.

Bows were divided into two categories:

Regular Bows - Were the first to be used. They were very effective and they continued to be employed in medieval warfare as they were relatively light - and a skilled archer could fire up to 12 arrows per minute - which added to the effectiveness.

Long Bows - These first appeared in England, and later spread to the rest of Europe. They were very effective as they could easily penetrate a soldier's armor and more often than not, could also kill him in one shot.

Crossbows - Crossbows were so effective that the church banned their use. Nevertheless, nobody listened and people continued to use crossbows. They shot an arrow with remarkable speed and were extremely lethal if used correctly.

Sometimes, warriors added venom to the arrow points, to increase the lethal nature of the weapon.


Few substances in history have had as profound an effect on human history as gunpowder... and its discovery was an accident!

Ancient alchemists in China spent centuries trying to discover an elixir of life that would render the user immortal (the person would never die). One important ingredient in many of the failed elixirs was called saltpeter (today known as potassium nitrate).

During the Tang Dynasty, around 850 A.D., an enterprising alchemist (whose name has been lost to history) mixed 75 parts saltpeter with 15 parts charcoal and 10 parts sulfur. This mixture had no discernable life-lengthening properties, but it did explode with a flash and a bang when exposed to an open flame. According to a text from that era, "smoke and flames result, so that [the creators’] hands and faces have been burnt, and even the whole house where they were working burned down."

Many western history books over the years have stated that the Chinese used this discovery only for fireworks, but that is not true. Song Dynasty military forces as early as 904 A.D. used gunpowder devices against their primary enemy, the Mongols. These weapons included "flying fire" (fei huo), an arrow with a burning tube of gunpowder attached to the shaft. Flying fire arrows were miniature rockets, which propelled themselves into enemy ranks and terrified both men and horses. It must have seemed like fearsome magic to the first warriors who were confronted with the power of gunpowder. Other Song military applications of gunpowder included primitive hand grenades, poisonous gas shells, flame throwers and land mines.

The first artillery pieces were rocket tubes made from hollow bamboo shoots, but these were soon upgraded to cast metal. McGill University professor Robin Yates notes that the world's first illustration of a cannon comes from Song China, in a painting from about 1127 A.D. This depiction was made a century and a half before Europeans began to manufacture artillery pieces.

By the mid- to late-eleventh century, the Song government had become concerned about gunpowder technology spreading to other countries. The sale of saltpeter to foreigners was banned in 1076. Nonetheless, knowledge of the miraculous substance was carried along the Silk Road to India, the Middle East, and Europe. In 1267, a European writer made reference to gunpowder, and by 1280 the first recipes for the explosive mixture were published in the west. China's secret was out.

Gunpowder’s Impact

Explosive trade

Gunpowder somehow remained a monopoly of the Chinese until the 13th century, when the science was passed along the ancient silk trade route to Europe and the Islamic world, where it became a deciding factor in many Middle Age skirmishes.

By 1350, rudimentary gunpowder cannons were commonplace in the English and French militaries, which used the technology against each other during the Hundred Years' War. The Ottoman Turks also employed gunpowder cannons regularly during their successful siege of Constantinople in 1453. The powerful new weapon essentially rendered the Castles of Europe weak and defenseless. This was quite a shock to the Europeans considering that they believed their castles to be safe.

The next important step for gunpowder came when it was inserted into the barrel of a handgun, which first appeared in the mid-15th century and was essentially a cannon shrunk down to portable size. Guns literally put weaponry into the hands of the individual, creating a new class of soldier — infantry — and giving birth to the modern army. Gunpowder is still the basis for many modern weapons, including guns, though it's certainly no longer the most explosive force available to armies.

During the late Middle Ages, many discoveries took place. The one which most notoriously affected the course of warfare was gunpowder.

Soon after its discovery, every major army used gunpowder in order to attack opposing armies. Open field battles became less significant and even knights came to an abrupt end as their power was matched when gunpowder was finally used.

Cannons were mostly used against castles - and later they were also employed during most medieval battles. Since they were so effective, newer castles had to be constructed within a very short timeframe.

All of these factors greatly changed the course of warfare and newer weapons were made rapidly. Another major achievement was incorporating cannons to ships which eliminated traditional naval warfare of ships ramming each other - rendering that sort of battle useless.

Armor against gunpowder was also useless.

Need to celebrate a victory in battle? Gunpowder is there for you. The powder is also at the heart of the fireworks that make the Fourth of July and other holidays so special. To produce the aerial spray of reds, golds and blues, pyrotechnicians pack a tube with gunpowder, colorizing chemicals and small pellets that create the shape and shimmer of the firework.

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