*The Gunpowder Age*

The author is Tonio Andrade, and the subtitle is China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History.  This is an excellent book, full of history, science, and political economy, think of it as a parallel history of the evolution of guns across China and Europe, with an eye toward explaining larger state structures.  Some of the things I learned or learned in a new way were:

1. The “competing states” argument for the rise of Europe is in some ways overvalued, as it neglects some critical time periods of competition across states in Chinese history.

2. Walls and guns co-evolved, in both China and Europe.  And in earlier times, China had much bigger and stronger walls.  That may have lowered the rate of return on investing in guns.

3. By 1510 or 1520, European guns already were better than Chinese guns.  But through the following centuries, the Chinese were more aware of the need to catch up than is often realized.

4. Guns and gunpowder co-evolved, and when it comes to gunpowder some historians argue Europe had a second-mover advantage.  Yet the exact source of European superiority in this regard is murky.

5. Korea developed one of the most effective musket-based armies of the seventeenth century.

6. The British development of “cylinder powder” in the late eighteenth century was a major advance over Chinese techniques at the time, and represented a final and decisive relative advance for the West.

Recommended, due out in January.


Chinese walls is actually a compliment...for strong walls. Byzantines also 'won' many times due to thick walls (and Greek fire).


Post here if you've been to the Great Wall of China, and, for bonus points, have rode the "toboggan slide" down the wall (a sure-fire tourist catch).

I've visited the reconstructed parts at Badaling a couple times while living in Beijing a few years back. But it's so packed with tourists that it's hard to enjoy.

But the best was hiking on part of the "wild Great Wall", camping overnight in a guard tower, and watching the sun set and rise with endless knifetooth mountains in nearly every direction.

Lol. Hadn't heard about the toboggan slide.

I've been to three of the less touristy (I assume) segments of the wall, where there was no real crowd and the hike up was pleasantly meditative.

I'm no armchair war historian like J. Keegan is (apparently a pencil necked geek who never served a day in the military, which is actually perfect for that occupation), but from what I understand, the most effective firepower for muskets--which are not accurate beyond about 30 to 50 meters, is for everybody to load and shoot at the same time (which makes it like throwing a grenade, so accuracy is not important). Hence the British "box" formation where everybody shoots and people behind them reload, then change places. I'm sure some West Point type has more to say on this...

My uncle hunts, effectively, with a musket (wild turkey). They can be relatively accurate, certainly far beyond 50 meters. One of the main problems with muskets as used by early infantry was that they did not have sights, and so couldn't be aimed consistently. Add in that live-fire practice was relatively uncommon, and you have poorly trained (at shooting) soldiers using weapons that can't be effectively aimed. Add in that the concussive force of the firing affected the musketeers to the left and right of the shooter, and you have more reason to fire simultaneously.

Why wouldn't early musket makers put more effort into sights? Perhaps because the infantry evolved from men carry pikes to men carrying muskets with bayonets. It was the coordinated use of bayonets that were considered the key to victory. Blast a couple of rounds of volley fire, then charge with bayonets into the now gapped and irregular lines of the enemy, and you're likely to win. There are cases in the American Civil war where this was still a very effective strategy.

@Kevin - thanks, I do recall reading about bayonets as you mention in the US Civil War. OT, wild turkey is a hard bird to hunt. It is said that by the time you see it, it has already seen you.

The Book of the Rifle, by Thomas Fremantle, 1901, is on Google Books and as an eBook. He has lots of period quotes and long range shooting results. Short answer, muskets work well againts massed groups.

Is the turkey hunter shooting round ball? There are musket solutions to provide spin (some very old), but basically think shotguns and sabots.

@ Ray -- yes, wild turkey are very hard to hunt. My uncle is such a skilled hunter, over the years he has had to make it harder and harder on himself to have any challenge. He long ago moved beyond hunting with rifles, and then bows. Sitting in a tree stand atop a baited food plot is the opposite of what he considers hunting. He really just loves being out in nature in conditions that few modern folk will tolerate, and testing how well he understand the game he's hunting.

@Gochujang and mkt42 -- he doesn't use a rifled barrel. As I said, he's into the challenge of it, and if he can't get within a few dozen yards of the turkey, then what's the point.

The best way to describe that would be to use this analogy. If you know baseball and how to through a knuckleball. Its pretty damn hard, but if you can you know it "dances". This is pretty much the opposite of what you want to happen when shooting. Having a barrel that isn't rifled is pretty much the equivalent of throwing a knuckleball at a target.

Is your uncle's musket rifled? Rifling increases the accurate range of a musket from around 50 meters to over 200.

But as T. Shaw has already noted, for decades rifles were not a practical weapon for massed armies, because they took too long to reload and required special equipment. They were usually limited to use by sharpshooters. American militia during the Revolutionary War were often armed with rifles, but continually found themselves at a disadvantage on the battlefield; the backbone of the Continental army was regulars armed with un-rifled muskets.

It took the invention of the Minie ball to make rifled muskets practical for regular infantry use. This made the guns so lethal that tactics had to change; frontal assaults against massed troops were now suicidal, as many a Civil War general discovered to his chagrin (Robert E. Lee with Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg; Burnside at Fredericksburg, etc.)

The early weapons (and really up until almost WW1) threw off a vast amount of smoke, so a bit of artillery / musketry, and you had a very obscured battlefield. So focusing a lot on longer range aiming didn't make as much sense.

Of course, rifled grooves made accuracy more reliable in the 19th century, and in fact the octagon (yes, eight sided) rifle barrel was one of the more accurate barrels around, a few were made by a famous gunsmith during the US Civil War that resulted in a high-profile sniper death of a US Union general. (Ray Lopez showing, from memory, his depth at all things academic. No surprise he was at the top of his class and in the 1%).

Ray, That would have been General Reynolds at the first day Gettysburg.

Because it took longer to load than the smooth-bore musket and the weapon fouled more quickly, the rifle was avoided for military purposes. I think the Brits began deploying battalions armed with rifles in the Napoleonic wars: Wellington in Spain.

Gun powder and weapons were important and interesting developments. However, the most deadly weapon is the gray matter giggling between men's ears. And, the West advanced because of its civilization and polity, which, became superior to the East and Africa.

I think you are referring to the notorious British square, which was impressively successful. Kipling writes with awe and admiration fpor their effectiveness and valor that a British Square was broken by "Fuzzy Wuzzy"/dervishes during the Sudan War in the late 19th century.

"a British Square was broken by “Fuzzy Wuzzy”/dervishes during the Sudan War in the late 19th century."

Broke the square in the sense that a few dervishes got inside the square before being killed. I could not find an example of a square being overwhelmed. By the time of the Sudan War the British infantry was equipped with breach loading rifles which would have given them an enormous advantage in the speed and accuracy of fire over native troops using muskets.

I believe the squares were broken at the battle of Islandlwana in 1879, when the Zulus annihilated a British army. A sideshow of this battle was the stand at Rorke's Drift, where a British detachment held off the Zulus, and were rewarded with more Victoria Crosses than for any other single action. Engagingly filmed in the Michael Caine movie Zulu. Men of Harlech.

The soldiers at Isandlwana were not organized in square. They were much more spread out and as a result had problems being supplied with ammunition. At Rorke's Drift, a small group of soldiers defending a small area from behind improvised fortifications were able to hold off the Zulu.

Jorgenson is correct, the British were annihilated at Islandlwana because they were lax in their intelligence and tactics, and were caught unprepared and failed to form a concentrated defensive formation -- such as a square.

The Boers had already learned that they could fend off attack by forming a laager -- i.e circling their wagons like American settlers in a Hollywood movie. With their breech-loading rifles and a halfway decent defensive position, even a small British force could defeat a vastly outnumbering Zulu army, as Rorke's Drift showed.

How does Tyler Cowen do it? He seems to be a busy person professionally yet he reads so much. Does he simply have a high IQ and goes through books in the manner of Matt Damon's character in "Good Will Hunting"?

It took me a month to read "Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph" which Tyler plugged...and that was while skimming the highly analytical sections that required education in music theory to absorb.

@Abe - how does Cowen beat tyros at chess, even when giving time odds? Same thing. The man puts aside his prejudice and looks at every position with a fresh pair of eyes, quickly and accurately. In fact, it's been shown that speed readers not only read faster than the rest of us mortals, but, surprisingly, their reading comprehension is actually above average. Insult added to injury! PS--I read "War and Peace" in one, one hour sitting. It's about Russia.

TC employs a non-standard definition of book "reading".

He has discreetly stated here previously... that he does not fully read most of the books he references here. He reads only the first chapter and/or skims some content of the many non-fully-read books. No person in his position could possibly read fully all the books discussed here.

Learn to read without subvocalizing and you're half-way there.

The British development of “cylinder powder”: I used to instruct my students that inverted commas had no explanatory power. Has no one told you?

I thought cylinder powder might be cordite or other smokeless powder, since it can be extruded in cylinders; but late 18th century is too early for that. Perhaps Rayward knows what it is.

I assume they are talking about the steam engine and specifically James Watt.

Well, I think that would be cylinder power, not powder.

Well... Never mind then. I got nothing.

Of course, dynamite was invented by Alfred Nobel - it was originally called Nobel's Blasting Powder. Nobel later changed the name to dynamite, which he derived from the Greek word dynamis, which means power. In the U.S. dynamite was manufactured by the du Pont and by a company called Hercules Corporation, which was an affiliate of du Pont. Du Pont and Hercules were the two major producers of so-called smokeless powder for warfare in the 20th century, with du Pont specializing in "single base" nitrocellulose gunpowders, while Hercules specialized in "double base" gunpowders that combined nitrocellulose with nitroglycerine. Du Pont eventually spun off Hercules as the result of an anti-trust order, and in 2008, Hercules merged with Ashland, Inc. The name Hercules is derived from the Greek word Heracles, who was the son of Zeus, famous for killing his wife and children in a fit of madness. No, Zeus didn't use gunpowder for the deed. Why the history lesson? Nobel, for one, but also because one of the original Hercules plants is located only a few miles from my house and one of my closest friends, an engineer, worked there when it was still called Hercules. The du Ponts owned enormous swaths of pine groves in South Carolina, Georgia, and north Florida - cellulose is a fancy word for paper. Chemical plants are ubiquitous in the low country, as are the contaminated lands and waters nearby. Gun powder is no longer made at the old Hercules plant near my house, so I'm not worried about a big explosion. But I once resided in a house not far from a plant that made the triggers for nuclear weapons, a "secret" location that was a secret only in the minds of the government. We weren't so much worried about the triggers exploding (they didn't make the nuclear weapons there), but a nuclear attack on the place by the Russians. Is it ironic that the Nobel Peace Prize is named after the man who invented dynamite?

Not ironic, the peace prize was created by Nobel and funded from the profits of dynamite as a means to offset the increase in destructiveness of war allowed by Nobel's invention.

Also not ironic, because dynamite wasn't used in a military context until World War I. About fifteen years *after* the institution of the Nobel Prize.

Wasn't Bernard Shaw who said, "“I can forgive Alfred Nobel for having invented dynamite, but only a fiend in human form could have invented the Nobel Prize" ?

OT, bonus trivia: a major cement company in Greece--which is big on cement and has partnered with the famous Cemex of Mexico--is called Hercules. Cement is exogenous with heat but cannot, because it contains no organic matter, form an explosion like fertilizer, grain dust or coal dust can.

It would be fiendishly difficult to make cement dust explode, but I would not rule out the possibility. Depends on what you put in it.

However the real reason it does not explode is not that it is non-organic. Lots of non-organic powders will explode very nicely. The real reason is that it is largely made with natural materials that have only been lightly cooked. If something can burn, the chances are pretty good it burnt a billion years before people got to it. So things lying around waiting to be oxidized are rare on this planet. Which means that the things that are tend to be organic - like wood, paper, whale blubber and things like that. But that does not apply to things we make ourselves.

If you take a whole range of very finely powdered metals - even plain iron - blow them into the air and then provide a source of heat, you will get a very satisfactory explosion. Iron is as non-organic as you can get.

(And fertilizer is organic? How is ammonium nitrate organic?)

Don't ask me to read a tangential history lesson that's only relevant to you because of your neighbor, and never becomes relevant to the original post at all. If I were interested in everything you had to say because this was your own blog, sure, I'd follow you on your free association from Hercules to Zeus. But in a blog comment, you're supposed to be on topic. And use paragraphs, please.

Wasn't the decisive factor less the chemistry of the gunpowder than the metallurgy of the gun barrels? For example, the Ottoman Turks paid a Hungarian gunsmith to make the siege gun barrels that finally defeated Constantinople in 1453. Building bigger naval guns was an obsession in the early 20th Century, and the Japanese continued with it into the 1940s, building battleships with 18 inch guns, only to discover they were fatally vulnerable to air and submarine attacks.

EVERYONE continued with it, not just the Japanese. The Nazi's used tremendous resources (that could have been more effectively used in smaller ships, aircraft, and more submarines) building the Bismarck and the Tirpitz and Billy Mitchell was court-martialed for insisting to the US military that the time for battleships was over. The Brits, Italians, and Americans continued to build lots of big battleships through WW2.

Yeah, I thought the problem with earlier guns was that they were dangerous to use, because they would quite often blow up in the hands of the holder. These improvements to the gun barrels must have been quite important.

In addition to that, I thought the mathematics of ballistics were more developed in Europe. It increased the return to investing in cannon, because you had a better chance of hitting your target. So naturally Europeans built more cannon, which resulted in greater economies of scale to improving the chemistry and metallurgy.


The 15th century technology that uses an instantaneous chemical reaction to drive a metal pellet with great force through the body of a person who refuses to obey orders is oddly still in use today by a society that can send apparatus far into space and receive information from that apparatus. It must be that humans simply enjoy blowing holes in each other, are satisfied with that technique, and reluctant to adopt less spectacular methods of control.

@CM - the Discovery channel had a show about non-lethal force weapons, including glue guns, light disorienting guns, voltage stun guns, beanbag guns and sound guns that make you vomit, but, as you say, not as spectacular as drilling a hole though you at 100 meters like a rifle.

I'd bet that in the US in 2015, more uncooperative subjects were brought into compliance with tasers than bullets.

Also don't forget Benjamin Robins, the disciple of Newton who helped invent the rifle.

"some historians argue Europe had a second-mover advantage."

Hard to understand how a second mover advantage could last five hundred years....

Brits and Aussies do better at firearms history than Yanks. You call the smokeless stuff "cordite" and sidestep a lot of possible confusion. We call everything "powder" with prefixes like "black" and "smokeless."
18th and 19th century advances in gunpowder were mostly about controlling composition and particle size. One 18th century advance was milling powder in rotating cylinders containing lead or bronze balls; this might be what's called cylinder powder.

That could be it. I didn't know they were ball milling in England in the 18th century, but they certainly would have been capable of it since it is a very old technique.

I think it might refer to the ways of making the charcoal required. As far as I understand the key innovation was to convert the charcoal at a higher temperature/less aerobic atmosphere by heating it in iron cylinders. This innovation seems to have made British gunpowder significantly more powerful than say French or Dutch power of the same time, proved by firing cannon using captured powder in the same guns and measuring the distance traveled. The key element I suppose being more pure charcoal.

That seems to make sense as the first known ball milling machine in England is apparently from around 1870. By using higher temperatures they would produce activated charcoal that should have more volitiles cooked out of it and, thanks to a vast number of microscopic pores, has an extremely high surface area and this would increase the speed of deflagration which is a fancy word for burning.

Free markets and free inquiry are especially effective at developing effective weapons. You can see this at Lepanto, and of course the Cold War. Incentives matter!

European markets in the 1500s were far from "free". All manner of royal regulation, and occasionally confiscatory taxation, hampered them, as well as internal limitations imposed by professional guilds.

And America still had slaves in 1776, but both were relatively free compared to their contemporaries.

Although, I do love the passage in the Baroque Cycle where Eliza finds out it's much easier to import timber from the Baltics than to ship it across France, due to the many tariffs, formal and otherwise.

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