Gunpowder Empires

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The Gunpowder Empires were the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires. Each of these three empires had considerable military success using the newly developed firearms, especially cannon and small arms, in the course of their empires, but unlike Europe for example, the introduction of the gunpowder weapons prompted changes well beyond simply army organization.[1]

The Hodgson-McNeill concept[edit]

Mughal Army artillerymen during the reign of Akbar.

The phrase was coined by Marshall G.S. Hodgson and his colleague William H. McNeill at the University of Chicago. Hodgson used the phrase in the title of Book 5 ("The Second Flowering: The Empires of Gunpowder Times") of his highly influential three-volume work, The Venture of Islam (1974). Hodgson saw gunpowder weapons as the key to the "military patronage states of the Later Middle Period" which replaced the unstable, geographically limited confederations of Turkic clans that prevailed in post-Mongol times. Hodgson defined a "military patronage state" as one having three characteristics:

first, a legitimization of independent dynastic law; second, the conception of the whole state as a single military force; third, the attempt to explain all economic and high cultural resources as appanages of the chief military families.[2]

Such states grew "out of Mongol notions of greatness," but "[s]uch notions could fully mature and create stable bureaucratic empires only after gunpowder weapons and their specialized technology attained a primary place in military life."[3]

McNeill argued that whenever such states "were able to monopolize the new artillery, central authorities were able to unite larger territories into new, or newly consolidated, empires."[4] Monopolization was key. Although Europe pioneered the development of the new artillery in the fifteenth century, no state monopolized it. Gun-casting know-how had been concentrated in the Low Countries near the mouths of the Scheldt and Rhine rivers. France and the Habsburgs divided those territories among themselves, resulting in an arms standoff.[5] By contrast, such monopolies allowed states to create militarized empires in Western Asia, Russia, and India, and "in a considerably modified fashion" in China and Japan.[4]

Recent views on the concept[edit]

More recently, the Hodgson-McNeill Gunpowder-Empire hypothesis has been called into disfavour as a neither "adequate [n]or accurate" explanation, although the term remains in use.[6] Reasons other than (or in addition to) military technology have been offered for the nearly simultaneous rise of three centralized military empires in contiguous areas dominated by decentralized Turkic tribes. One explanation, called "Confessionalization" by historians of fifteenth century Europe, invokes examination of how the relation of church and state "mediated through confessional statements and church ordinances" lead to the origins of absolutist polities. Douglas Streusand uses the Safavids as an example:

The Safavids from the beginning imposed a new religious identity on their general population; they did not seek to develop a national or linguistic identity, but their policy had that effect.[7]

One problem of the Hodgson-McNeill theory is that the acquisition of firearms does not seem to have preceded the initial acquisition of territory constituting the imperial critical mass of any of the three early modern Islamic empires, except in the case of the Mughal empire. Moreover, it seems that the commitment to military autocratic rule pre-dated the acquisition of gunpowder weapons in all three cases. Nor does it seem to be the case that the acquisition of gunpowder weapons and their integration into the military was influenced by which variety of Islam the particular empire promoted.[8] Whether or not gunpowder was inherently linked to the existence of any of these three empires, it cannot be questioned that each of the three acquired artillery and firearms early in their history and made such weapons an integral part of their military tactics.

Gunpowder weapons in the three empires[edit]

Ottoman Empire[edit]

The first of the three empires to acquire gunpowder weapons was the Ottoman, as by the 14th century, the Ottomans had adopted gunpowder artillery.[9] The adoption of the weapons by the Ottomans was so rapid that they "preceded both their European and Middle Eastern adversaries in establishing centralized and permanent troops specialized in the manufacturing and handling of firearms."[10] But it was their use of artillery that shocked their adversaries and impelled the other two Islamic empires to accelerate their weapons program. The Ottomans had artillery at least by the reign of Bayezid I and used them in the sieges of Constantinople in 1399 and 1402. They finally proved their worth as siege engines in the successful siege of Salonica in 1430.[11] The Ottomans employed European foundries to cast their cannons, and by the siege of Constantinople in 1453, they had large enough cannons to batter the walls of the city, to the surprise of the defenders.[12]

The bronze Dardanelles Gun on display at Fort Nelson in Hampshire. Similar cannons were used by the Ottoman Turks in the siege of Constantinople in 1453.

The Ottoman military's regularized use of firearms proceeded ahead of the pace of their European counterparts. The Janissaries had been an infantry bodyguard using bows and arrows. During the rule of Sultan Mehmed II they were drilled with firearms and became "perhaps the first standing infantry force equipped with firearms in the world."[11] The combination of artillery and Janissary firepower proved decisive at Varna in 1444 against a force of Crusaders, Başkent in 1473 against the Aq Qoyunlu,[13] and Mohács in 1526 against Hungary. But the battle which convinced the Safavids and the Mughals of the efficacy of gunpowder was Chaldiran.

Persian Musketeer in time of Abbas I by Habib-Allah Mashadi after Falsafi (Berlin Museum of Islamic Art).

At Chaldiran, the Ottomans met the Safavids in battle for the first time. Sultan Selim I moved east with his field artillery in 1514 to confront what he perceived as a Shia threat instigated by Shah Ismail in favor of Selim's rivals. Ismail staked his reputation as a divinely-favored ruler on an open cavalry charge against a fixed Ottoman position. The Ottomans deployed their cannons between the carts that carried them, which also provided cover for the armed Janissaries. The result of the charge was devastating losses to the Safavid cavalry. The defeat was so thorough that the Ottoman forces were able to move on and briefly occupy the Safavid capital, Tabriz. Only the limited campaign radius of the Ottoman army prevented it from holding the city and ending the Safavid rule.[14]

Safavid Empire[edit]

Although the Chaldiran defeat brought an end to Ismail's territorial expansion program, the shah nonetheless took immediate steps to protect against the real threat from the Ottoman sultanate by arming his troops with gunpowder weapons. Within two years of Chaldiran, Ismail had a corps of musketeers (tofangchi) numbering 8,000, and by 1521, possibly 20,000.[15] After Abbas the Great reformed the army (around 1598), the Safavid forces had an artillery corps of 500 cannons as well as 12,000 musketeers.[16]

The Safavids first put their gunpowder arms to good use against the Uzbeks, who had invaded eastern Persia during the civil war that followed the death of Ismail I. The young shah Tahmasp I headed an army to relieve Herat and encountered the Uzbeks on 24 September 1528 at Jam, where the Safavids decisively beat the Uzbeks. The shah's army deployed cannons (swivel guns on wagons) in the centre protected by wagons with cavalry on both flanks. Mughal emperor Babur described the formation at Jam as "in the Anatolian fashion."[17] The several thousand gun-bearing infantry also massed in the centre as did the Janissaries of the Ottoman army. Although the Uzbek cavalry engaged and turned the Safavid army on both flanks, the Safavid centre held (because not directly engaged by the Uzbeks). Rallying under Tahmasp's personal leadership, the infantry of the centre engaged and scattered the Uzbek centre and secured the field.[18]

Mughal Empire[edit]

Mughal matchlock.

By the time he was invited by Lodi governor of Lahore Daulat Khan to support his rebellion against Lodi Sultan Ibrahim Khan, Babur was familiar with gunpowder firearms and field artillery and a method for deploying them. Babur had employed Ottoman expert Ustad Ali Quli, who showed Babur the standard Ottoman formation—artillery and firearm-equipped infantry protected by wagons in the center, and mounted archers on both wings. Babur used this formation at the First Battle of Panipat in 1526, where the Afghan and Rajput forces loyal to the Delhi sultanate, though superior in numbers but without the gunpowder weapons, were defeated. The decisive victory of the Timurid forces is one reason opponents rarely met Mughal princes in pitched battle over the course of the empire's history.[19]

Gunpowder Empires of East Asia[edit]

The three Islamic Gunpowder Empires are known for their quickly gained success in dominating the battle fields using their newly acquired firearms and techniques. East Asian powers and their military success are commonly overlooked in this subject due to the success of not only the Islamic Empires, but also European Empires. The success and innovation of gunpowder combat in East Asia however, are worth mentioning in the same context as that of the Islamic Gunpowder Empires for their military advancements.


The Japanese adopted the use of the Portuguese arquebus in the middle of the 16th century. Multiple accounts have said that Portuguese men working for Chinese pirates ended up in Japan by chance and impressed the local ruler with the weapons. Soon after, the Japanese started mass producing the Portuguese style weapon for themselves. In other accounts, this firearm technology may have trickled in to Japan as early as 1540 from the constant in and out flow of Japanese mercenaries who could have picked up firearms in their travels. Soon, Japanese soldiers carrying firearms would greatly outnumber those with other weapons.[20]

Tonio Andrade cited that the Military Revolution Model that gave the Europeans so much military success included the use of superior drilling techniques. The drilling technique he was speaking of was the musketeer volley technique.[20] The volley technique was said to have been invented by Japanese Warlord Oda Nobunaga. He used the same technique that Japanese archers used, but the effect that the technique had to allow soldiers to reload at the same time others could fire was devastating to their enemies.[21]


Similar to how arquebus technology trickled into Japan, there were various ways that the Portuguese style small firearms came to China. During the golden age of East Asian Piracy between the 1540s and 1560s, it was most likely that through their battles and other encounters with these pirates, the Ming forces inevitably got hold of the weapons and copied them. It was also likely that a powerful mariner Wang Zhi, who controlled thousands of armed men eventually surrendered to the Ming in 1558 and they replicated his weapons. This particular account on arquebus technology was the first to spark the interest of Ming officials for the Chinese to broaden their use of these weapons.[20]

The Chinese also intensively practiced tactical strategies based on firearm use which resulted in military success. Qi Jiguang, a revered Ming military leader, drilled his soldiers to extremes so that their performance in battle would be successful. In addition, Qi Jiguang also used innovative battle techniques like the volley, counter march, dividing into teams, and even encouraged having a flexible formation to adapt to the battle field.[20]

During the Sino-Dutch War beginning in 1661, Ming commander Zheng Chenggong used similar tactics to Qi Jiguang effectively in battle. While the Dutch may have had superior weapons, the Chinese were able to defeat Dutch forces through their strict adherence to discipline and to stay in formation. Ultimately, it was their technique and training that defeated the Dutch weapons.[20]

A soldier from the Qianlong era, holding an arquebus.

In 1631, "Heavy Troops" that could build and operate European-style cannon,[22] The imported cannons in the Qing Dynasty had a high reputation such as 'Great General in Red'.[23] The Manchu elite did not concern themselves directly with guns and their production, preferring instead to delegate the task to Han-Chinese craftsmen, who produced for the Qing a similar composite metal cannon known as the "Shenwei grand general."[24][25] Cannons and muskets are also widely used in wars known as 'Ten Great Campaigns'.[26][27] However, after the Qing gained hegemony over East Asia in the mid-1700s, the practice of casting composite metal cannons fell into disuse until the dynasty faced external threats once again in the Opium War of 1840, at which point smoothbore cannons were already starting to become obsolete as a result of rifled barrels.[25]


Koreans had been using Chinese and self made firearms as early as the late 14th century. They were also quite adept and innovative with their strategies on the battle field. In fact, there were accounts of Koreans using a type of volley technique in 1447.[20] But a war between the Japanese against the Koreans and the Ming starting in 1592 and ending in 1598 would change the Korean's perspective on warfare. While it was a devastating defeat to the Koreans, this war forced the Koreans to realize that they needed to adopt the use of the musket as well as Japanese and Chinese methods. The Koreans quickly issued the musket as the base of their military tactic, and their musketeers became more than 50 percent of the military by 1594. They trained using manuals based on Qi Jiguang's techniques such as the volley, while incorporating their own methods too. These events marked the beginning of a Korean military revolution in which the Koreans could combat their enemies using modern equipment and methods of warfare.[28]

There were many instances where the Korean military used their new techniques effectively. In 1619, the Koreans aided the Ming against the Manchus, a great military force. While the Koreans and Ming lost, a Korean unit did exhibit their techniques successful in battle. Then, in 1627 and 1636, the Koreans faced the Manchus alone, again showing their competency in battle by using their musket tactics. Again, they lost in battle to the Manchus in both battles.[20]In 1654 and 1658, the Koreans aided the Qing in battle against the Russians for control over land in Manchuria. In these instances, the Koreans showed their superior tactics and were the reason for the Russians' defeat.[28]


  1. ^ Khan 2005, p. 54.
  2. ^ Hodgson 1974, p. II:405-06.
  3. ^ Hodgson 1974, p. III:16.
  4. ^ a b McNeill 1993, p. 103.
  5. ^ McNeill 1993, pp. 110-11.
  6. ^ Streusand 2011, p. 3.
  7. ^ Streusand 2011, p. 4.
  8. ^ Ágoston 2005, p. 192.
  9. ^ Nicolle, David (1980). Armies of the Ottoman Turks 1300-1774. Osprey Publishing, ISBN 9780850455113.
  10. ^ Ágoston 2005, p. 92.
  11. ^ a b Streusand 2011, p. 83.
  12. ^ McNeill 1993, p. 125.
  13. ^ Har-El 1995, pp. 98-99.
  14. ^ Streusand 2011, p. 145.
  15. ^ Matthee 1999.
  16. ^ Ágoston 2005, pp. 59-60 & n.165.
  17. ^ Mikaberidze 2011, pp. 442-43.
  18. ^ Streusand 2011, p. 170.
  19. ^ Streusand 2011, p. 255.
  20. ^ a b c d e f g Tonio, Andrade (2016-01-12). The gunpowder age : China, military innovation, and the rise of the West in world history. Princeton. ISBN 9781400874446. OCLC 936860519.
  21. ^ Parker, Geoffrey (2007). "The Limits to Revolutions in Military Affairs: Maurice of Nassau, the Battle of Nieuwpoort (1600), and the Legacy". The Journal of Military History. 71 (2): 331–372. doi:10.1353/jmh.2007.0142. JSTOR 4138272.
  22. ^ Roth Li 2002, pp. 57–58.
  23. ^ "Weaponry Post Gun Powder of China".
  24. ^ Anrade 2016, p. 201.
  25. ^ a b "The Rise and Fall of Distinctive Composite-Metal Cannons Cast During the Ming-Qing Period". Retrieved 19 December 2016.
  26. ^ Millward 2007, p. 95.
  27. ^ F.W. Mote, Imperial China 900–1800 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 936–939
  28. ^ a b Kang, Hyeok Hweon (2013). "Big Heads and Buddhist Demons: The Korean Musketry Revolution and the Northern Expeditions of 1654 and 1658". Journal of Chinese Military History. 2.


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