The effectiveness of hand-cannons

Haakbus

Ad Honorem
Aug 2013
3,806
United States
Hand-cannons were the first handheld guns, appearing in the 13th century, and were gradually replaced by arquebuses/muskets by the late 15th century in Europe and the 16th-17th centuries in East Asia.

Obviously they weren't as powerful or easy to use as arquebuses/muskets, but how good were they? How did they compare to bows? Crossbows?
 
Last edited:
Sep 2017
786
United States
Well, I'm guessing they didn't have nearly the power, fire rate, range, or accuracy of any bow or crossbow.

That being said, I think they might've had two distinct advantages. One would be the armor piercing. Not sure if more than the most powerful of warbows/crossbows of the time, but I can certainly see it breaking through the very good armor of time at close ranges.

Another big one is the psychological advantage. The loud noise, the smoke, the flash of light, and the projectiles ripping through your buddies gives it a lot of scare factor.
 
Feb 2017
133
Pacific Ocean
Also they required much less training to be effective at.
I don't know if effective is the right word, at least considering the first hand cannons. I remember reading that the first ones were very unreliable, accuracy-wise, and gave their user more of a psychological than a military advantage, as pointed by Spike117. Also, even arquebuses weren't that reliable; firearms only got effective in more recent centuries.
 

Haakbus

Ad Honorem
Aug 2013
3,806
United States
I don't know if effective is the right word, at least considering the first hand cannons. I remember reading that the first ones were very unreliable, accuracy-wise, and gave their user more of a psychological than a military advantage, as pointed by Spike117. Also, even arquebuses weren't that reliable; firearms only got effective in more recent centuries.
I mean within the context of the weapons and their time. You could be effective as a gunner could with little training compared to an archer. Likewise none of these guns would be considered very effective in our current era, but were at the time.
 
Feb 2017
133
Pacific Ocean
I mean within the context of the weapons and their time. You could be effective as a gunner could with little training compared to an archer. Likewise none of these guns would be considered very effective in our current era, but were at the time.
But what would 'effective' really mean in this context? Yes, you could use a hand cannon more easily than a bow, which required years of daily practice to master, but what does this give to a military commander? If the point was psychological advantages, the cannon surely could easily be considered effective, but in terms of ratio of fire and accuracy it lagged behind bows.

By themselves, cannons, arquebuses, muskets, weren't really that effective at killing people. They needed to be combined with other kinds of troops in a battle formation, and required not only individual training but also training as a group to make these troops really useful in combat. I can't provide specifics, though; the only work I've read on the subject was Kenneth Chase's Firearms (which I recommend), and that was a while ago.
 
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Haakbus

Ad Honorem
Aug 2013
3,806
United States
But what would 'effective' really mean in this context? Yes, you could use a hand cannon more easily than a bow, which required years of daily practice to master, but what does this give to a military commander? If the point was psychological advantages, the cannon surely could easily be considered effective, but in terms of ratio of fire and accuracy it lagged behind bows.

By themselves, cannons, arquebuses, muskets, weren't really that effective at killing people. They needed to be combined with other kinds of troops in a battle formation, and required not only individual training but also training as a group to make these troops really useful in combat. I can't provide specifics, though; the only work I've read on the subject was Kenneth Chase's Firearms (which I recommend), and that was a while ago.
Umm, good enough to be useful on the battlefield, perhaps? Apparently they used them, which must have meant they had some degree of usefulness.
 
Feb 2017
133
Pacific Ocean
Umm, good enough to be useful on the battlefield, perhaps? Apparently they used them, which must have meant they had some degree of usefulness.
It depends on the situation... In close quarters and against infantry, they could be more useful than bows, but at long range not so. Also the troops that used them needed to be infantry troops, not cavalry, which is another limitation to their use. The book I mentioned defends that they were marginally better than bows in some specific situations, such as the one described, but in others they were clearly worse.
 
May 2009
1,346
The Chinese predecessor, the fire-lance, was most effective when used in large numbers. The Chinese would often deploy large racks filled with dozens of them to unload on the enemy. They could fire bullet-like projectiles, but were also sometimes loaded with arrows or poison gas. They could also be used as short burst, one-use flamethrowers. Obviously they worked best against large groupings of soldiers. Up close, along with bombs, they could be pretty devastating, but they were definitely limited in terms of range, and they were hardly a precision weapon.

The Vietnamese (Dai Viet) actually outdid the Chinese fire-lance in the 1400's, creating one with an effective range of 300 paces.
 
Last edited:
Sep 2017
786
United States
It depends on the situation... In close quarters and against infantry, they could be more useful than bows, but at long range not so. Also the troops that used them needed to be infantry troops, not cavalry, which is another limitation to their use. The book I mentioned defends that they were marginally better than bows in some specific situations, such as the one described, but in others they were clearly worse.
Not sure if true, but I heard that sometimes they used multiple tiny projectiles (like a blunderbuss). Even if they didn't, close quarters I'm sure their disadvantages in accuracy were significantly diminished. I've also heard that they could be used as clubs if needed and that their carriers were decently armored if things got to melee.

Being suited for close quarters, combined with the raw psychological impact, could probably make them effective for breaking enemy charges.