What is a Hand Cannon?


The hand cannon (Chinese: 手銃), also known as the gonne or handgonne, 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 Eurasia in the 14th century. In 15th century Europe, the hand cannon evolved to become the matchlock arquebus, which became the first firearm to have a trigger.



The earliest artistic depiction of what might be a hand cannon – a rock sculpture found among the Dazu Rock Carvings – is dated to 1128, much earlier than any recorded or precisely dated archaeological samples, so it is possible that the concept of a cannon-like firearm has existed since the 12th century. This has been challenged by others such as Liu Xu, Cheng Dong, and Benjamin Avichai Katz Sinvany. According to Liu, the weight of the cannon would have been too much for one person to hold, especially with just one arm, and points out that fire lances were being used a decade later at the Siege of De’an. Cheng Dong believes that the figure depicted is actually a wind spirit letting air out of a bag rather than a cannon emitting a blast. Stephen Haw also considered the possibility that the item in question was a bag of air but concludes that it is a cannon because it was grouped with other weapon wielding sculptures. Sinvany believes in the wind bag interpretation and that the cannonball indentation was added later on.

The first cannons were likely an evolution of the fire lance. In 1259 a type of “fire-emitting lance” (tuhuoqiang 突火槍) made an appearance. According to the History of Song: “It is made from a large bamboo tube, and inside is stuffed a pellet wad (子窠). Once the fire goes off it completely spews the rear pellet wad forth, and the sound is like a bomb that can be heard for five hundred or more paces.” The pellet wad mentioned is possibly the first true bullet in recorded history depending on how bullet is defined, as it did occlude the barrel, unlike previous co-viatives (non-occluding shrapnel) used in the fire lance. Fire lances transformed from the “bamboo- (or wood- or paper-) barrelled firearm to the metal-barrelled firearm” to better withstand the explosive pressure of gunpowder. From there it branched off into several different gunpowder weapons known as “eruptors” in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, with different functions such as the “filling-the-sky erupting tube” which spewed out poisonous gas and porcelain shards, the “orifice-penetrating flying sand magic mist tube” (鑽穴飛砂神霧筒) which spewed forth sand and poisonous chemicals into orifices, and the more conventional “phalanx-charging fire gourd” which shot out lead pellets.

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. The History of Yuan reports that the cannons of Li Ting’s soldiers “caused great damage,” but also created “such confusion that the enemy soldiers attacked and killed each other.” The hand cannons were used again in the beginning of 1288. Li Ting’s “gun-soldiers” or chongzu (銃卒) were able to carry the hand cannons “on their backs”. The passage on the 1288 battle is also the first to coin the name chong (銃) with the metal radical jin (金) for metal-barrel firearms. Chong was used instead of the earlier and more ambiguous term huo tong (fire tube; 火筒), which may refer to the tubes of fire lances, proto-cannons, or signal flares. The oldest extant hand cannon bearing a date of production is the Xanadu Gun, which contains an era date corresponding to 1298. The Heilongjiang hand cannon is dated a decade earlier to 1288, corresponding to the military conflict involving Li Ting, but the dating method is based on contextual evidence; the gun bears no inscription or era date. Other specimens also likely predate the Xanadu and Heilongjiang guns and have been traced back to the late Western Xia period (1214-1227), but these too lack inscriptions and era dates (see Wuwei bronze cannon).


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 German 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 1372 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. Java was confirmed to use hand cannon in 1413 during Zheng He voyage. In 1511 siege of Malacca, the Malays were using cannons, matchlock guns, and “firing tubes”. Japan was already aware of gunpowder warfare due to the Mongol invasions during the 13th century, but did not acquire a cannon until a monk took one back to Japan from China in 1510, and firearms were not produced until 1543, when the Portuguese introduced matchlocks which were known as tanegashima to the Japanese.

The art of firing the hand cannon called Ōzutsu (大筒) has remained as a Ko-budō martial arts form.

Improvements in hand cannon and gunpowder technology – corned powder, shot ammunition, and development of the flash pan – led to the invention of the arquebus in late 15th-century Europe.

Middle East

The earliest surviving documentary evidence for the use of the hand cannon in the Islamic world are from several Arabic manuscripts dated to the 14th century. The historian Ahmad Y. al-Hassan (2008) argues that several 14th-century Arabic manuscripts, one of which was written by Shams al-Din Muhammad al-Ansari al-Dimashqi (1256-1327), report the use of hand cannons by Mamluk-Egyptian forces against the Mongols at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260. However, Hassan’s claim contradicts other historians who claim hand cannons did not appear in the Middle East until the 14th century.

Iqtidar Alam Khan (1996) argues that it was the Mongols who introduced gunpowder to the Islamic world, and believes cannons only reached Mamluk Egypt in the 1370s. According to Joseph Needham (1986), the term midfa, dated to textual sources from 1342 to 1352, did not refer to true hand-guns or bombards, and contemporary accounts of a metal-barrel cannon in the Islamic world do not occur until 1365. Needham also concludes that in its original form the term midfa refers to the tube or cylinder of naphta projector (flamethrower), then after the invention of gunpowder it meant the tube of fire lances, eventually it applied to the cylinder of hand-gun and cannon. Similarly, Tonio Andrade (2016) dates the textual appearance of cannon in Middle-Eastern sources to the 1360s. Gabor Ágoston and David Ayalon (2005) believe the Mamluks had certainly used siege cannon by the 1360s, but earlier uses of cannon in the Islamic World are vague with a possible appearance in the Emirate of Granada by the 1320s, however evidence is inconclusive.

Khan claims that it was invading Mongols who introduced gunpowder to the Islamic world and cites Mamluk antagonism towards early riflemen in their infantry as an example of how gunpowder weapons were not always met with open acceptance in the Middle East. Similarly, the refusal of their Qizilbash forces to use firearms contributed to the Safavid rout at Chaldiran in 1514.

The earliest Turkish hand cannons were called “Şakaloz”, which comes from the Hungarian hand cannon “Szakállas puska”.

Design and Features

The hand cannon consists of a barrel, a handle, and sometimes a socket to insert a wooden stock. Extant samples show that some hand cannons also featured a metal extension as a handle.

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.


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