Assuming a technological progression roughly similar to that of Europe in our world, what is the earliest that a civilization could have developed rigid-frame Guns?

As far as I know the Chinese even had fireworks in 200 BC. Some even argue that the Romans could have invented guns as well.

Given the technologies and and resources involved with creating and maintaining firearms, how early could a civilization realistically have developed them?


Your question is a bit contradictory. First you assume

a technological progression roughly similar to that of Europe in our world

and then you ask

how early could a civilization realistically have developed them?

If introducing guns doesn't change the technological progression, what will?

Your questions should be this:

  1. What is the earliest time a civilization could have discovered black powder?
  2. What is the earliest time a civilization could have realized that black powder can be used to guns and not just fireworks?
  3. Assuming black powder is available, what is the earliest time a civlization could have produced a matchlock musket or cannon which is reliable enough for military use and cheap enough to be deployed in significant numbers?

Regarding the first question, that's probably very early. It just took some chemist to mix stuff and burn it, and to realize that it would go bang. Regarding the second question, that would certainly have been possible for the Greeks.

The third question is different because it uses "reliable enough" and "cheap enough". Are you thinking about a single proof-of-concept design or enough muskets to equip an army?

  • Siege guns might become significant even if just a few dozens are available. They would force a redesign of fortifications.
  • Would it be acceptable if each weapon requires individually produced ammo, or do you insist that it should be interchangeable?
  • How often are they allowed to explode before they are no longer feasible? A siege gun with a 1:100 change of bursting might be viable, a musket won't be.

I can't think of any reason that the Babylonians couldn't have made gunpowder, had a time-traveller given them the recipe. However, there isn't any obvious reason for mixing sulphur, charcoal and saltpeter and then setting the mixture on fire. We don't know why someone in China did just that. Was gunpowder an incredibly unlikely invention, or did history get delayed several milennia by our unaccountable failure to invent it sooner?

Canons as we know them require a certain level of metallurgical expertise. We know from history that early canons were extremely dangerous to the people firing them. and to anyone neaby. Barrels often burst.

Here's a question. Can you make a crude canon with a wooden barrel instead of a cast-metal one? Obviously, not wood alone. It would split along the grain when fired. But what if you wrapped it tightly with hemp rope, or shrank iron bands onto it as coopers do with barrels, or laminated thin strips of boiled wood around a cylindrical form? (There are ancient composite bows; the idea of plywood is not recent). Then most of the charge should propel the ball, at least the first time it was fired. How many shots could such a barrel survive? How great a charge? It's crying out for a bit of alt-historical research.

If I'm guessing right, there's a place in the multiverse where Babylon had canons.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ "Can you make a crude canon with a wooden barrel instead of a cast-metal one?" Can you say "Mythbusters"? youtube.com/watch?v=AJgYtt99V5s I knew you could. And yes, you can throw a stone ball a goodly (but undetermined) distance. And yes, you can blow it up, too. $\endgroup$ Sep 26 '15 at 21:11
  • $\begingroup$ I'd never seen that. Thanks. Wish they'd taken it seriously, though: I'd have liked to see what that stone could have gone through, and what charge a wooden canon could take without blowing up. $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Sep 26 '15 at 22:15
  • $\begingroup$ You expect scientific investigation from MythBusters? $\endgroup$ Sep 26 '15 at 22:39
  • $\begingroup$ I did say "wish"! $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Sep 26 '15 at 22:49
  • $\begingroup$ I heard somewhere that in the ancient times the Chinese emperor seeks an elixir that grants immortality and he was prescribed gunpowder instead :) $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Sep 27 '15 at 1:59

Cannons predate hand-held guns and they were probably invented by the Chinese during 12th century AD. It is hard to tell exactly when gunpowder combination would be discovered by a nation. For example, all the nations have had saltpeter and sulphur ores but only the Chinese came up with the ingenious combination of gunpowder. I assume if chemistry is pursued diligently, a nation would hit something close to gunpowder at most around 1500 AD.

Once you have gunpowder and know its explosive potential, canon would be invented real soon. Within nearly 50 years of gunpowder discovery (if it is publicised) I presume. After cannons, it is only a matter of miniaturization till you end up with hand held guns. I think another 50 years would be a safe estimate.

  • $\begingroup$ Even without gunpowder, if alchemy goes as in OTL, sooner or later someone will soak paper or wood fiber in Aqua fortis, and later someone else will survive the explosion to relate the event. The idea of putting the explosives into a metal tube to propel the projectile is what requires a touch of genius and a lot of experimentation to get it right. $\endgroup$ Sep 27 '15 at 9:30
  • $\begingroup$ There are a lot of explosive possibilities in alchemy but I don't think there are good propellants for use in cannons (other than gunpowder). Gunpowder was in use in China far before cannons were invented. $\endgroup$ Sep 27 '15 at 9:36

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