Cannon facts for kids

Kids Encyclopedia Facts
Cannon pic
A cannon that can be moved around on wheels. The back of the cannon is on the right

A cannon is a type of artillery, usually large and tubular in shape, that uses gunpowder to propel a projectile over a distance. Cannons vary in size, range, mobility, rate of fire, and fire power; different types of cannon combine these attributes in varying degrees to carry out their intended purpose.

First used in China, cannon were among the earliest form of gunpowder artillery. The first cannon in Europe probably appeared in Iberia, in the Islamic wars against Spain, during the 12th century. English cannon were first used during the Hundred Years War, when small, primitive cannon were used at the Battle of Crécy, in 1346. The end of the Middle Ages saw the introduction of more standardized and effective cannon.

Some of the largest cannon ever constructed were of Asian origin, such as the Indian Jaivana cannon. Some European cannon were also large, but were abandoned in favor of larger numbers of lighter, more maneuverable pieces; this eventually lead to the use of modern field artillery. While the Medieval Great Turkish Bombard required two hundred men to operate, 18th century English cannon required only a dozen men;—including two gunners—by the Napoleonic Wars, only five men operated the British cannon.

Etymology and terminology

Siege orleans
The first Western image of a battle with cannon: the Siege of Orléans in 1429

The term cannon is derived from the Old Italian word, "cannone",—meaning "large tube"—from Latin, "canna", originating from the Greek word, "kanna", and ultimately Akkadian, "qanu"—which meant "tube". The word cannon has been used to refer to a gun since 1326, in Italy, and 1418, in England. Bombardum—or "bombard"—was the earliest-used word for "cannon", but from 1430 onwards, it came to refer only to the largest weapons. "Cannon" serves both as the singular and plural of the noun, although the plural "cannons" is also correct.

Any large, smoothbore, muzzle-loading gun—used before the advent of breech-loading, rifled guns—firing explosive shells may be referred to as a cannon, though the term specifically refers to a gun designed to fire a 42 lb (19 kg) shot as opposed to a "Demi-cannon" (32 lb (15 kg)), Culverin (18 lb (8.2 kg)), or Demi-culverin (9 lb (4.1 kg)). When on board a warship, a cannon is usually called a gun, while a cannonball is a roundshot. The term cannon also applies to the autocannon, a modern gun with a caliber of 20 mm or more. Autocannon have been used extensively in fighter aircraft since World War II, and are sometimes used on land vehicles as well.


Ming Dynasty eruptor proto-cannon
An illustration of an "eruptor," a proto-cannon, from the 14th-century Ming Dynasty book Huolongjing. The cannon was capable of firing proto-shells, cast-iron bombs filled with gunpowder.

Cannon operation during the 18th century is described by the 1771 Encyclopædia Britannica. Each cannon would be manned by two gunners, six soldiers, and four officers of artillery. The right gunner was to prime the piece and load it with powder, while the left gunner would fetch the powder from the magazine and keep ready to fire the cannon at the officer's command. Three soldiers stood on each side of the cannon, to ram and sponge the cannon, and hold the ladle. The second soldier on the left was charged with providing 50 bullets.

Prior to loading, the cannon would be well cleaned with a wet sponge to extinguish any smoldering material from the last shot (because fresh powder was about to be poured in, and any lingering ignition sources would set it off prematurely). The powder was added, followed by a wad of paper or hay, and the ball was thrown in. After ramming the cannon would be aimed with the elevation set using a quadrant and a plummet. At 45 degrees, the ball had the utmost range—about ten times the gun's level range. Any angle above the horizontal line was called random-shot. The officer of artillery had to ensure the cannon was diligently served. Water was available to dip the sponges in and cool the pieces every ten or twelve rounds.

It was said that a 24-pounder could fire 90 to 100 shots a day in summer, or 60 to 75 in winter. A 16- or 12-pounder would fire a little more, because they were easier served. The Britannica mentions "some occasions where 200 shots have been fired from these pieces in the space of nine hours, and 138 in the space of five."

During the Napoleonic Wars, a British gun team consisted of 5 numbered gunners. The gun's "No. 1" was the gun commander, and a sergeant, who aimed the gun. The No. 2 was the "spongeman" who cleaned the bore with the sponge dampened with water between shots; the intention being to quench any remaining embers before a fresh charge was introduced. The No. 3, the loader, inserted the bag of powder and then the projectile. The No. 2 then used a rammer, or the sponge reversed, to drive it in. At the same time, the No. 4 ("ventsman") pressed his thumb on the vent hole to prevent a draught that might fan a flame. The charge loaded, the No. 4 pricked the bagged charge through the vent hole and filled the vent with powder. At the No. 1's command the No. 5 would fire the piece with his slowmatch.


Early history

Ctesibius of Alexandria invented a primitive form of a cannon, operated by compressed air, before 200 BC.

Tippu's cannon
Cannon used by Tipu Sultan's forces at the battle of Srirangapatna 1799

Like firearms, cannon are a descendant of the fire-lance, a gunpowder-filled tube attached to the end of a spear and used as a flamethrower; shrapnel was sometimes placed in the barrel so that it would fly out together with the flames. Eventually, the paper and bamboo of which fire-lance barrels were originally made came to be replaced by metal. The earliest depiction of a gun is a sculpture from a cave in Sichuan dating to the 1100s of a figure carrying a vase-shaped bombard with flames and a cannonball coming out of it. The oldest surviving gun, dated to 1288, has a muzzle bore diameter of 2.5 cm; the second oldest, dated to 1332, has a muzzle bore diameter of 10.5 cm.

The first documented battlefield use of artillery with gunpowder propellant took place on 28 January, 1132 when Song General Han Shizhong used escalade and Huochong to capture a city in Fujian. The first illustration of a cannon is dated to 1326. In his 1341 poem The Iron Cannon Affair, one of the first accounts of the use of gunpowder artillery in China, Zhang Xian wrote that a cannonball fired from an eruptor could "pierce the heart or belly when it strikes a man or horse, and can even transfix several persons at once".

Needham suggests that the proto-shells described in the Huolongjing may be among the first of their kind. The Chinese mounted more than 3,000 bronze and iron casted cannons on the Great Wall of China in defence against the Mongols. The weapon was taken up by the Mongol conquerors later, and was also used in Korea.

Chinese soldiers under the Mongols appear to have used hand cannons in battles in Manchuria in 1288, a date deduced from archaeological finds on the sites of these battles.

In the 1593 Siege of Pyongyang, 40,000 Ming armies deployed a variety of cannons to bombard 40,000 Japanese army and defeated them in one day. During the 7-Year Battle in Korea (1591-1598), Chinese-Koren coalition and Japanese widely used artillery (muskets and cannons) in land and sea battles.

Middle East

Portable hand cannons (midfa in Arabic) were first used by the Egyptians to repel the Mongols at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260, and again in 1304. The gunpowder compositions used for the cannons at the battles were later described in several manuscripts in the early 14th century. Four different gunpowder compositions were used at these battles, the most explosive having a gunpowder composition (74% saltpetre, 11% sulfur, 15% carbon) almost identical to the modern composition for gunpowder (75% saltpetre, 10% sulfur, 15% carbon). These gunpowder compositions were more explosive than those known in China or Europe at that time.

Medieval Europe

The first mention of the composition of gunpowder in express terms in Europe appeared in 1216, in Roger Bacon's "De nullitate magiæ" at Oxford. Later in 1248, his "Opus Maior" describes a recipe and recognized military use:

Earliest picture of a European cannon, "De Nobilitatibus Sapientii Et Prudentiis Regum" Walter de Milemete, 1326.
Western European handgun, 1380.

Template:Long quotation Bacon described firecrackers, "used in certain parts of the world". Bacon's mixture resembles the assumed composition of Chinese slow-burning powder as used in fire arrows and rockets, but is not a good propellant, as the saltpeter content is too low.

The first use of gunpowder in Europe was the Moorish cannon first used by the Andalusians in Spain at the siege of Seville in 1248, and the siege of Niebla in 1262. By 1250, "coal and sulphur" had been recognised as the best weapon for ship-to-ship combat, while hand guns were probably in use at this time, such as against the Mongols, and Italian scopettieri ("gun bearers") were mentioned in conjunction with crossbowmen in 1281. The Spanish Kings enlisted "the first artillery-masters on the Peninsula" in the mid-14th century. while hand guns were probably in use at this time, such as against the Mongols, and Italian scopettieri ("gun bearers") were mentioned in conjunction with crossbowmen in 1281. The Spanish Kings enlisted "the first artillery-masters on the Peninsula" in the mid-14th century.

Cannon saw its first real use on the European battlefield during the Hundred Years War, being only used in small numbers by a few states during the 1340s. "Ribaldis", shot large arrows and simplistic grapeshot, were first mentioned in the English Privy Wardrobe accounts during preparations for the Battle of Crécy between 1345 and 1346. The Florentine Giovanni Villani recounts their destructiveness on the field, indicating that by the end of the battle, "the whole plain was covered by men struck down by arrows and cannon balls."

Dardanelles Gun Turkish Bronze 15c
The Dardanelles Gun used at Constantinople.

Similar cannon appeared also at the Siege of Calais in the same year, although it would not be until the 1380s that the "ribaudekin" clearly became mounted on wheels. Around the same period, the Byzantine Empire began to accumulate its own cannon to face the Ottoman threat, starting with medium-sized cannon 3 feet (0.91 m) long and of 10" calibre. The first definite use of artillery in the region was against the Ottoman siege of Constantinople in 1396, forcing the Turks to withdraw. The Turks acquired their own cannon by the siege of 1422, using "falcons", which were short but wide cannon. By 1453, the Turks used 68 Hungarian-made cannon for the 55-day bombardment of Walls of Constantinople, "hurling the pieces everywhere and killing those who happened to be nearby." The largest of which required an operating crew of 200 men, and 70 oxen and 10,000 men just to transport them. Gunpowder had also made the formerly devastating Greek fire obsolete, and with the final fall of what had once been the strongest walls in Europe on May 29, "it was the end of an era in more ways than one".

Post-Medieval use

The end of the Middle Ages saw the construction of larger and more powerful cannon, and their spread in warfare throughout the world. The Tsar Cannon, founded by Russian founding master Andrey Chokhov in 1586, was the largest howitzer ever made. The cannon, which still survives today, was intended to fire grapeshot and to defend the Kremlin, but was never used. In fact, with such a large cannon, it may have been intended as a showpiece of military might and engineering from the beginning.

Conventional siege artillery, such as siege towers and trebuchets, became vulnerable and obsolete with the development of large cannon and changes in fortification. However, wooden "battery-towers" took on a similar role as siege towers in the gunpowder age, such as that used at siege of Kazan in 1552, which could hold ten large-calibre cannon and 50 lighter cannon.

As wheeled gun carriages became more common by the end of the 15th century, field artillery began to emerge. In The Art of War, Niccolò Machiavelli observed that "small pieces of cannon… do more damage than heavy artillery. The best remedy against the latter is making a resolute attack upon it as soon as possible…" As was the case at Flodden in 1513, the English field guns outpaced the Scottish siege artillery firing twice or even thrice as many rounds.

Most notable in this period, however, is the effect of cannon on conventional fortifications. Machiavelli wrote, "There is no wall, whatever its thickness that artillery will not destroy in only a few days". Although castles were not immediatedly made obsolete by cannon, their importance declined. Instead of majestic towers and merlons, the walls of new fortresses were thicker and angulated, while towers became lower and stouter.

Forts featuring cannon batteries were built during the Renaissance, such as the trace italienne of Italy and the Tudors' Device Forts in England. To guard against artillery and gunfire, increasing use was made of earthen, brick and stone breastworks and redoubts, such as the geometric "Star forts" of the 17th century French Marquis de Vauban. These soon replaced castles in Europe, and eventually castles in the Americas were superseded by bastions and forts.

18th and 19th century

See also: Field artillery in the American Civil War
Antoine Morel-Fatio pl10
30-pounder long gun at the ready

The lower tier of 17th century English ships of the line were usually equipped with demi-cannon — a naval gun which fired a 32-pound solid shot. A full cannon at this time fired a 42-pound shot, but these were discontinued by the 18th century as they were seen as too unwieldy. By the end of the century, principles long adopted in Europe specified the characteristics of cannon of the British ship design and the types and sizes of acceptable defects. The U.S. Navy tested guns by measurement, proof by powder (two or three firings), and using compressed water for leak detection.

The carronade was adopted by the Royal Navy in 1779, and the lower muzzle velocity of the round shot was intended to create many more of the deadly wooden splinters when hitting the structure of an enemy vessel. It was much shorter and a third to a quarter of the weight of an equivalent long gun: for example, a 32 pounder carronade weighed less than a ton, but a 32 pounder long gun weighed over 3 tons. The guns were thus easier to handle and also required less than half the gunpowder of long guns mounted on naval garrison carriages, allowing fewer men to crew them. Carronades were manufactured in the usual naval gun calibres, but they were not counted in a ship of the line's rated number of guns. As a result, the classification of Royal Navy vessels in this period can mislead, since they would often be carrying more pieces of ordnance than were listed.

The Turkish cannons of the siege of Constantinople, after being on permanent display for four centuries, were used to battle a British fleet in 1807. The artillery hit a British ship with two 700 pound cannonballs, killing 60 sailors. In 1867, Sultan Abdul Aziz gifted Queen Victoria the 17 ton "Dardanelles Gun" - one of the cannons used at the siege of Constantinople.

Utah Battery San Juan Bridge
U.S. troops fire during the 1899 Battle of Manila, Philippine-American War.

But in contrast to these antiquated weapons, later western guns during the 19th century became massive, destructive, more accurate, and covered a very long range - such as the American 3-inch (76 mm) wrought-iron muzzle-loading howitzer used during the American Civil War with an effective range of over 1.1 miles (1.83 km). In the 1810s and 1820s, greater emphasis was placed on the accuracy of long-range gunfire, and less on the weight of a broadside. The carronade, although initially very successful and widely adopted, disappeared from the Royal Navy from the 1850s after the development of steel, jacketed cannon by William George Armstrong and Joseph Whitworth. Nevertheless, carronades were used in the American Civil War in the 1860s.

The practice of rifling, involving casting spiralling lines inside the barrel, was first applied to artillery in the 1860s, giving new cannon gyroscopic stability and improving their accuracy. The cynical attitude towards recruited infantry in the face of ever more powerful field artillery is the source of the term "cannon fodder", first used by François-René de Chateaubriand in 1814; although the concept of regarding soldiers as nothing more than "food for powder" dates back at least to Shakespeare's time.

The superior cannon technology of Westerners in later years would bring them tremendous advantages in warfare. For example, in the Opium War in China during the 19th century, the British battleships bombarded the coastal areas and fortifications safe from the reach of the Chinese cannon. Similarly, the shortest war on the record, the Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896, was brought to a swift conclusion by shelling from British battleships.

Modern cannon

British 39th Siege Battery RGA Somme 1916
Royal Artillery Howitzers at the Somme.

A modern cannon is a dual-purpose weapon. It can operate as a direct fire, low trajectory, high velocity weapon, firing directly at its target like a modern main battle tank. It can also operate as a lower velocity, high trajectory, indirect fire weapon or howitzer. Since World War I, the term has been used to refer to a gun of around 20 mm to 125 mm calibre, sometimes with an automatic loading action capable of firing explosive ammunition, an auto-cannon. Lower muzzle velocity modern artillery is used almost exclusively in the indirect fire mode, while higher-velocity cannons from 20 mm up to 125 mm calibre are used in a direct fire mode. Nevertheless, tanks can fire high trajectory missions and artillery cannons can fire direct fire missions if the battlefield situation calls for it. Both tank and artillery gunners are trained for these non-typical missions.

The minimum calibre of a cannon, 20 mm, has been a de facto standard since World War II, when heavy machine guns of 12.7 mm (0.5 inches) and 13.2 mm calibre were used side by side with 20 mm and larger guns, the latter using explosive ammunition (eg. RAF fighters with 20 mm Hispano cannon and Luftwaffe with 20 mm and 30 mm cannon). The Bofors 40 mm gun and Oerlikon 20 mm cannon are two examples largely used during World War II, and still in use today.

5-54-Mark-45-firing edit
A 5-inch (130 mm) Mark 45 gun being fired from a Ticonderoga class cruiser, immediately after the shell has left the barrel.

Most nations use these modern cannons on their lighter vehicles; typical of the type is the 25 mm 'Bushmaster' chain gun mounted on the LAV and Bradley armoured vehicles. At the same time, the guns used aboard the Iowa class USS Wisconsin and USS Missouri were capable of firing projectiles a distance of 39 km.

Significant innovations have been made regarding the cannon's place in modern warfare. "Superguns" have been developed since the early 20th century, and the 20 cm (200 mm) calibre "Paris Gun" of World War I had the greatest range of a gun, achieving 122 km. Testing has also been carried out on nuclear cannon in the 1950s, as in the United States' Operation Upshot-Knothole. Today, United States 152 mm artillery fires Shillelagh missiles, which are guided to their targets by infra-red beams, while the Super High Altitude Research Project artillery can fire shells 75.75 mi (121.91 km). above the earth's surface.

Cannon have also found peaceful application outside warfare, such as water cannon, snow cannon, hail cannon and cannon netting.

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