The Earliest Gunpowder Weapons in History

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Image: Medieval Combat Society

The second in Environmental Graffiti’s two-part series about the origins of firepower

China (Dunhuang) / Earliest Firelance, 10th century
Digital Scan / Historic Painting

The earliest gunpowder weapons can be credited to China in the 10th century. Not guns, but fire arrows, gunpowder rockets, Greek Fire, bombs, mines and grenades had raised the bar on lethality on the battlefield. Let’s take a journey back in time and raise our eyes to the skies, where the incendiary weapons of the Chinese ancients could be seen, blazing a trail in military history.


Image: Mats Halldin

Byzantium Greek Fire / 12th century
Skylitzes Ms / Madrid

1. Greek Fire

The earliest gunpowder weapons in history were invented in China and they are not at all what might be imagined. Do not think muskets or cannons but syringes and flame shooting across the sky – the Chinese invention of the piston syringe dates back to sometime in the Han Dynasty, between 202 BC and 220 AD!

In his book of 919 AD, Lin Yu recorded that China acquired ‘Greek Fire’ from Arab traders in the Indian Ocean. The launching mechanism for Greek Fire requires precise knowledge about the piston syringe and piston pump. The earliest record of a battle in China using the piston-pump, flame thrower and erupting Greek Fire is between Wenmu Wang and Qian Yuanguan in 932 AD (Five Dynasties / Ten Kingdoms Period).

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Image: Pericles of Athens

China – 11th century flamethrower (Wujing Zongyao)
Digital Scan / Historic Print

Gunpowder was first used in warfare in China in 919 AD as a fuse to light the two-piston flame thrower and thereby ignite Greek Fire. Greek Fire is a Byzantine incendiary compound, whose composition was such a closely guarded state secret that it is still not known today. The specific delivery system was the two-piston flame thrower in which the fuse was impregnated with black powder. Greek Fire was widely deployed in Europe and East Asia and was the ultimate shock-and-awe weapon of its time.

This illustration appears to be a double-acting pump with two pistons. Such a device delivers ‘Greek Fire’, as a continuous unbroken stream of flame. Notice the tank for the petrol compound (i.e. ‘Greek Fire’)

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