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date: 09 December 2023

Asia in the Gunpowder Revolutionfree

Asia in the Gunpowder Revolutionfree

  • Scott C. LeviScott C. LeviDepartment of History, The Ohio State University


Contrary to long-held notions that gunpowder weapons technologies were devised in the West and gradually transmitted eastward into Asia, more recent scholarship indicates that innovations flowed in both directions. Scholars have also come to recognize that there was no uniformity in the ways that states implemented gunpowder weapons, and that multiple factors relating to environment, demographics, and cultural preferences informed decisions about when and how to embrace the new technology. The major Asian agrarian states of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals (the so-called Gunpowder Empires) and the Ming and Qing dynasties in China implemented gunpowder weapons differently. The Ottomans were the most aggressive in this regard, the Mughals preferred a hybrid force, and the Safavids long favored cavalry. Chinese militaries employed hybrid forces to great effect, but in later years a lengthy peace during the Qing era slowed the implementation of new technologies. In Central Asia and other places where rulers could rely on large numbers of well-trained, fast-moving mounted archers and a nearly endless supply of horses, they found little reason to rush to embrace what for several centuries represented an expensive, slow, and unreliable technology.


  • Central Asia
  • Military

The Discovery of Gunpowder

Gunpowder was invented in China and knowledge of it was transmitted from the East to the West.1 The earliest known reference to gunpowder is found in a 9th-century Tang manuscript.2 According to historian of Chinese science Joseph Needham, the author of this passage cautions alchemists experimenting with chemical compounds not to mix potassium nitrate (a chemical compound extracted from soil suffused with organic animal waste) together with sulfur and carbon-rich material (such as charcoal) because the result would be a “fire-chemical” or “fire-drug” that would violently combust with potentially deadly results

Figure 1: Potassium nitrate.

Needham finds irony in the fact that the alchemist who discovered this explosive compound did so while on a quest to find the “elixirs of life and material immortality.”3 Nevertheless, although the author of this passage did not present a specific formula (that would have to wait until 1044), he did identify the three key ingredients that are critical in producing the chemical explosive gunpowder—potassium nitrate (saltpeter), sulfur, and carbon—and he described the dramatic result. Before long, gunpowder was used for a great variety of purposes in China, including entertainment, medicine, engineering, and warfare.

The Chinese had experimented with incendiary devices for military purposes since long before the discovery of gunpowder. Chinese militaries had earlier acquired from Arab traders the distilled petroleum product naft (naphtha), known in the West as Greek Fire, or, because of its role in naval warfare, Sea Fire.4 Needham notes that large quantities of this chemical were used in Chinese warfare during the 10th-century Five Dynasties period, which strongly suggests that the Chinese had learned to distill it and had mastered its military application. In addition to shooting flames in the direction of opposing forces, the incendiary chemical was also loaded into grenades so that it could be catapulted great distances.

Greek Fire was an effective weapon, but gunpowder far exceeded it in its destructive capacity. By the end of the 10th century, the Chinese were already putting gunpowder in grenades and bombs, which could be launched against opposing forces. As long as the level of potassium nitrate in the gunpowder compound remained low, as low as 30 percent, the explosion’s destructive capacity was principally a product of its highly incendiary reaction. As people experimented with increasing the nitrate levels, they found a corresponding increase in the compound’s detonation velocity and destructive capacity. By the 13th century, the Chinese weapons were able to produce brisant explosions, meaning that the resulting shock wave itself was sufficiently violent to inflict structural damage.5

Already in the 11th century, Chinese armies were using a great variety of highly inventive techniques to maximize the destructive capacity of gunpowder.6 These included early types of bombs, mortars, grenades, and landmines, as well as “fire-lances”: hollowed-out bamboo tubes to direct low-nitrate, slow-burning explosions as a defensive measure against enemy troops.7 The result would have appeared somewhat like a modern firework, an exceptionally large Roman candle, for example, which would have been quite effective at discouraging one’s opponents. Chinese bamboo was abundant, cheap, and it made for an effective fire-lance. But bamboo is also flammable, and so Chinese engineers developed more durable tubes out of metal to take their place. Over time, engineers experimented with increasing the size and capacity of the metal tubes, so that a controlled explosion within one could erupt with sufficient force to launch projectiles.

By about 1280, during the late Sung (960–1279) or early Yuan (1271–1368) period, Chinese engineers had constructed the first “true” gun. It had taken more than three centuries, but the Chinese had combined three key elements that, together, made this extraordinary invention possible: a gunpowder compound sufficiently high in nitrate to cause an explosion (at least 40 percent though 75 percent is optimal); a metal barrel sufficiently durable to withstand that explosion; and a spherical projectile that fit tightly inside the barrel, so that the explosion behind it would propel it outward toward a target at a high velocity.8 The gun was born, and it rapidly made its way across Eurasia.

By the time of his death in 1227, Chinggis Khan’s Empire stretched westward across the Inner Asian steppe and southward through the sedentary stretches of Central Asia, reaching even into Persia. In subsequent decades, Chinggis Khan’s sons and grandsons extended Mongol rule into northern China and far to the west, reaching eastern Europe in 1241 and bringing an end to the ‘Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad in 1258. After seventy years of sustained effort, in 1279, Qublai Khan (r. 1260–1294) led the Mongols to victory over the Sung dynasty and completed the conquest of China. As Mongol forces gradually extended their control across the region, they made a deliberate effort to learn from their opponents and assimilate useful military technologies.9 Invading Mongol forces faced the Sung dynasty’s gunpowder weapons, they learned its secret from their defeated opponents, and they were responsible for its rapid transmission across their empire and beyond.

In the Middle East, Muslim scientists had learned the secrets of extracting saltpeter (also known as “Chinese snow”) from nitrous earth and purifying it to make gunpowder by the 1280s at the latest, and very likely several decades earlier. In one of his manuscripts, an Arab alchemist named Hassan al-Rammah (d. c. 1294 or 1295) provides detailed instructions for crystalizing saltpeter, as well as 107 recipes for producing gunpowder compounds for various applications, including rudimentary, but apparently quite effective, torpedoes.10 Bert Hall, a historian of medieval Europe, observes that gunpowder was introduced to Europe at roughly the same time, “a period when Christendom, Islam, and the Orient enjoyed unusually free exchanges of people, goods, and ideas.”11

It is extremely unlikely that the Mongols deliberately transmitted the secret to gunpowder to their enemies in the Middle East and Europe. It seems more reasonable to suggest, as do both Thomas Allsen and Timothy May, that the secret knowledge passed westward with any of the large numbers of merchants, scientists, soldiers, ambassadors, and other foreigners who traveled in and out of Mongol territory.12 Thus, the earliest European reference to gunpowder appears to be in a 1267 text authored by the English philosopher and Franciscan friar Roger Bacon (c. 1214–1294).13 Although it may be coincidental, it is possible that Bacon drew his information from another Franciscan Friar, William of Rubruck, who from 1253 to 1255 undertook a mission to the court of Chinggis Khan’s grandson, the Mongol ruler Möngke Khan (r. 1251–1259).

Regardless of the precise chain of transmission, knowledge of gunpowder clearly reached Europe in the 13th century and spread rapidly. Within just a few years, four recipes for gunpowder sufficiently strong to be used for military applications made their way into a section of another medieval European manuscript, the Liber ignium ad comburendos hostes.14 By the 1320s, European engineers had joined their colleagues in China and the Middle East in making their own gunpowder weapons for use in the field. Documentary evidence demonstrates that Europeans were using cannons by 1331, and by mid-century, they were being used throughout the Continent.15

Gunpowder weapons would have a profound impact on Eurasian states and societies, but historians have found that their application in the field was both gradual and uneven. In the 14th and 15th centuries, gunpowder weapons became more widely used, but they remained supplementary to traditional modes of combat. Early gunpowder weapons were bulky, slow to load, and unreliable, and they suffered from limited range and poor accuracy. Additionally, Europe lacked substantial natural saltpeter reserves. This left Europeans almost entirely dependent on expensive imports, which both limited gunpowder production and slowed weapons development. For the time being, European military forces continued to rely principally on cavalry, archers, pikemen, and other supporting troops. In Asia as well, it would be several centuries more before technological developments in the use of gunpowder weapons would fully erode the military advantage enjoyed by fast-moving nomadic cavalry troops employing traditional weaponry.

The Early Modern Military Revolution

For more than sixty years, scholars have been working to understand how the development of gunpowder weapons affected early modern European states and societies. In 1955, Michael Roberts theorized a European “Military Revolution” that stemmed from the widespread implementation of mobile gunpowder weaponry in Sweden during the century from 1560–1660.16 Roberts argued that the introduction of improved muskets and other artillery led military commanders to devise new battlefield tactics and strategies that relied more heavily on infantry than cavalry. This led to a striking increase in the size of European armies, which grew from several tens of thousands of soldiers in the 15th century to several hundreds of thousands in the late 17th century. According to Roberts, maintaining significantly larger standing armies required large amounts of money, the acquisition of which led to increasingly centralized administrations, more efficient taxation structures, and, ultimately, to the rise of the modern state.

While the concept has been around for some time, the phrase “The Military Revolution” gained widespread attention beyond the perimeter of European history only after Geoffrey Parker published the first edition of his book by that title in 1988.17 In his work, Parker advances a modified and more ambitious vision of what this revolution entailed, as well as its global importance. He achieves this largely by extending the period of the revolution from the mid-15th century to the beginning of the 19th century, and linking the associated advancements in military technology to the debate on the rise of the West.18

One key distinction is that, rather than the widespread implementation of muskets propelling the early modern Military Revolution as theorized by Roberts (who in 1968 served as the external examiner on Parker’s thesis), Parker considers the driving force to have been the construction of dramatically improved fortifications. Specifically, Parker refers to the late-15th-century Italian innovation in fortification design, the star-shaped and bastioned trace italienne. Parker argues that, earlier in the 15th century, “it became obvious that the improvements in gun founding and artillery had rendered the high, thin walls of the Middle Ages quite indefensible. A brief cannonade from the ‘bombards’ brought them crashing down.”19 The new, sturdier fortresses were constructed with shorter and considerably thicker fortification walls, which enabled them to withstand field cannons. At least as important is that they were designed in the shape of a star, a feature that eliminated defensive blind spots.20 Parker explains:

First the walls were made both lower and thicker; but this meant that the defenders, although better protected against bombardment, could no longer watch the ground immediately below them and so became more vulnerable to a surprise assault. Effective flanking fire was therefore needed, and it could only be provided by constructing gun-towers which projected at an angle beyond the walls and carried artillery which could not only cut down any assault on the main defences, but also keep the enemy’s siegeguns at bay and cover the blind spots around the neighboring bastions. Although many alternative designs were tried, the construction of quadrilateral, angled bastions at regular intervals along all walls, first attempted around the Papal port of Civitavecchia in 1515, was found to offer the best system of mutually supporting fields of fire. As time passed, further refinements were added.21

Figure 2: Bastion, or star fortress of Nicosia, Cyprus (1567).

The expense associated with undertaking such major construction projects initially inhibited their adoption. But this changed as, one after another, medieval fortresses fell victim to heavy artillery. By the middle of the 16th century, a substantial number of cities in Italy and Spain had already found constructing trace italienne fortifications to be a worthwhile investment. As warfare raged throughout 17th-century Europe, the construction of even more elaborate fortifications spread across the Alps to France and northern Europe.

Parker argues that wherever such fortifications were found the importance of cavalry and other traditional methods of warfare diminished. As defensive powers came more to rely on their stronger fortifications, the open field battles of the medieval era gave way to siege warfare. At the same time, the exceptional difficulties associated with laying siege to a trace italienne fortress required opposing forces to raise significantly larger armies and develop more elaborate methods to maintain supply lines. By Parker’s calculations, “between 1530 and 1710 there was a ten-fold increase both in the total numbers of armed forces paid by the major European states and in the total numbers involved in major European battles.”22 By the beginning of the 18th century, European wars involved upward of 400,000 soldiers on either side, and as many as 100,000 men might take part in a single battle.23

In addition to magnifying the impact of war, Parker argues alongside Roberts that raising and maintaining such large armies had a profound impact on the nature of the early modern European state. Europe’s “new monarchies” developed extensive military bureaucracies charged with supervising the recruitment and maintenance of these armies.24 Meanwhile, military commanders worked with heads of state and other governing bodies to devise new logistical systems, to produce increasingly advanced (and more expensive) military supplies, and to maintain critical supply lines that brought artillery, along with food, water, and other necessities, to their increasingly large armies. At the same time, cities invested heavily in fortifications, and they devised new economic models to pay for it all. This required a far greater degree of centralized authority and more financial resources than had been the case during the medieval era. Thus, for Parker, the Military Revolution represents a major causal factor, if not the major factor, in the rise of the absolutist political ideology of the early modern European empires. Similar arguments made in reference to the “Gunpowder Empires” of the Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals are discussed in the section “Islamic Gunpowder Empires.”

Looking back at over a half-century of historiography on the Military Revolution, one finds as many critics of the concept as adherents.25 The list of eminent historians to have contributed to this ongoing debate is long, and while much of this work challenges and undermines specific elements of Parker’s thesis, in other ways their work collectively reinforces the notion of an early modern Military Revolution. John Lynn, for example, analyzes demographic evidence to challenge Parker’s thesis that it was the trace italienne that led to the exponential increase in the size of European armies.26 Kelly DeVries argues that medieval fortifications were far from vulnerable to early gunpowder weapons.27 Jeremy Black similarly finds Parker’s conceptualization of a “Military Revolution” to be valuable as a conceptual framework, especially insofar as it contributes a technological component to explanations for the “Rise of the West” that had previously been grounded only in economics and global trade.28 But, like Lynn, he finds Parker’s thesis to be deterministic and overstated. Instead of one long revolution lasting more than three centuries, Black identifies three distinct revolutionary periods, with more modest, but continued, innovations interspersed between them.

It is the first of these periods, c. 1470–c. 1530, that witnessed the key developments in firearms and improved fortifications that Parker analyzes. Black argues that Parker largely overlooks the second and significantly more important revolutionary period, which unfolded c. 1660–c. 1720 and which is of the most importance to concerns in early modern Asia.29 It was during this period that the addition of the bayonet rendered the pike antiquated, and most importantly, the widespread implementation of the flintlock musket dramatically improved the effectiveness of gunpowder weapons on the field. Black argues that it was only then that European armies began to expand in size so dramatically. Rather than the trace italienne, Black identifies the state as the principle driver behind technological innovation and the development of “effective forces able to use concentrated and disciplined firepower” with considerable success across the globe.30 Black’s third period of revolutionary change in European militaries falls between 1792 and 1815, a period that witnessed an exponential increase in the size of armies as a product of the levée en masse.

Black, however, fails to recognize another element critical to the success of early modern militaries: the concomitant expansion of the English East India Company’s saltpeter imports from India. It is one thing to have a large army equipped with technologically current weaponry. But such an army would be effectively useless without a large and reliable supply of gunpowder, and though sulfur and charcoal are relatively easy to access, potassium nitrate is not. The search for this organic material represents another critically important aspect of the Military Revolution.

Saltpeter had long been produced in India, a warm, agrarian zone rich in nitrous soil. But it was only in the 17th century that Indian producers systematized its production and elevated it as an export commodity.31 In 1638, the young German traveler, Johan Albrech de Mandelslo (1616–1644), made his way from Persia to India, where he witnessed the method for producing large quantities of saltpeter:

Most of the saltpeter which is sold in Guzuratta [Gujarat] comes from Asmer [Ajmer], sixty leagues from Agra, and they get it out of lands that have lain long fallow. The blackest and fattest ground yields most of it, though other land affords some, and it is made thus. They make certain trenches which they fill with their salpetrous earth, and let into them small rivulets, as much water as will serve for its soaking, which may be the more effectually done, they make use of their feet treading it till it become a broth. When the water hath drawn out all the saltpeter which was in the earth, they take the clearest part of it, and dispose it into another trench, where it grows thick, and then they boil it like salt, continually scumming it, and then they put it into earthen pots wherin the remainder of the dregs goes to the bottom; and when the water begins to thicken, they take it out of these pots, to set it drying in the sun, where it grows hard, and is reduced into that form, wherein it is brought into Europe.32

English traders brought an exceptional amount of saltpeter to Europe from India. In 1664, the first year that figures become available for exports from Bengal, East India Company ships brought some 589 tons of saltpeter to London. Average annual imports for the 1670s are placed at 632 tons, rising to 733 tons for the following decade, and upward from there.33 The figures continued to grow over the course of the 18th century, the total of all European annual saltpeter exports from Bengal reaching an estimated 4,500 tons in the 1770s.34

This trajectory was greatly facilitated by the British conquest of Bengal in 1757, an event that James Frey notes effectively gave the British control over some 70 percent of global saltpeter production at the time.35 Regarding its transport to Britain, Frey elaborates: “Sometimes saltpeter was shipped in heavy bags, weighing between 150 and 170 pounds, but usually it was shoveled loose into the bottom of the hold, a marketable ballast that looked like mud and smelled like sewage.”36 This equipped the British military with a significant advantage, and for quite a number of years brought considerable profit to the East India Company as well.

Regardless of whether there was one Military Revolution or several, there has developed a general consensus that the dramatic changes in warfare over the early modern era had profound social implications as well. During this period, gunpowder weaponry transformed from slow, crude, and unreliable incendiary devices to effective and essential military hardware that was produced in abundance and distributed to a rapidly increasing number of infantry troops working on behalf of the state. The widespread implementation of this technology changed the nature of European warfare, the political geography of Europe, and the very nature of the European state and society. The conclusions from this debate are as relevant for Asia as they are for Europe.

Islamic Gunpowder Empires?

Shifting attention to the role that gunpowder weaponry played in the early modern consolidation of power by the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires, historians long followed Marshall Hodgson in identifying the set as the Islamic Gunpowder Empires.37 The implication in this designation is that each of the three Turkic Muslim dynastic families to govern these empires rose to power in their respective realms by incorporating new gunpowder weapons technologies into their militaries. Recognizing the revolutionary advantages that this new technology provided, all three states dedicated considerable resources to producing gunpowder, cannons, and thousands upon thousands of smaller shoulder-braced firearms and pistols to arm their infantry and artillery regiments. Because it was more expensive than traditional weapons technologies, gunpowder artillery became a monopoly of the state, and, Hodgson theorized, this enabled these rulers to increase their levels of political centralization and eventually to rule as absolute monarchs. The results were striking: during the 16th and 17th centuries, their astounding achievements ushered in a new age of Islamic cultural efflorescence, a “brilliant renewal of political and cultural life.”38

Hodgson’s argument has been critiqued on multiple grounds and it now stands largely discredited. Some have questioned, for example, the degree to which even the greatest of the early modern Muslim rulers—the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman (r. 1520–1566), the Safavid Shah ‘Abbas I (r. 1588–1629), or the Mughal Emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605)—ever exercised anything approaching the “absolute” authority Hodgson and his followers bestow upon them. Hodgson incorrectly assumes that gunpowder weapons already had become “a dominant force in warfare” in the 15th century. Scholars now recognize that their use at that time was quite limited, and that military forces across both Europe and Asia employed hybrid tactics that incorporated gunpowder weaponry as an auxiliary force and would continue to do so for centuries to come.39

Stephen Dale is one of a number of recent scholars to find fault with the concept as advanced by Hodgson, and reshaped by McNeil.40 In a comparative study of the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal Empires, Dale observes, “The suggestive idea that firearms triggered fundamental changes in the organization of a particular Muslim empire is often alluded to but rarely demonstrated in a systematic fashion, and has not yet been applied to these three states.41 Taking this into consideration, Dale advocates for tossing the term into the dustbin of history.

Writing at nearly the same time, military historian Douglas Streusand takes a slightly different position in his book Islamic Gunpowder Empires: Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals. Defending his decision to use the term, he explains that “the phrase ‘gunpowder empires’ in the title means ‘empires of the gunpowder era’ not ‘empires created by gunpowder weapons.’”42 Streusand recognizes that these states’ widespread implementation of gunpowder weapons is only one of a number of similarities they shared. Most notably, all three overcame the corporate-style appanage system of the Central Asian Turks and other, similar obstacles to political centralization, although they did so in ways that fit their own unique contexts, and they achieved their goals at different rates and to varying degrees. Refraining from the hyperbolic implication of categorizing the early modern Islamic states as “absolute monarchies,” Streusand finds that gunpowder weaponry contributed to their military superiority, which was one critical element of their success.43

Streusand advances his argument with good justification and he makes a number of important points, but there are good reasons to question just how far one can take the concept of the early modern “Gunpowder Empire.” As it evolved, the concept has commonly been employed as part of a Eurocentric construct involving Europeans developing progressively more advanced military technologies, which were then transmitted eastward to less technologically advanced Asian consumers. This framework has been used to support the antiquated notion of absolute monarchs, or early modern Oriental despots, who used this new European military technology to centralize their authority and further subjugate and extract wealth from their subjects.

As noted, it is now generally accepted that the discovery of gunpowder happened in China and that the recipe reached the Middle East in the 13th century, at roughly the same time it was transmitted to Europe. It has long been known, though too infrequently appreciated, that in the following decades, Muslim chemists and engineers were similarly experimenting with the destructive capacity of the gunpowder compound and that their achievements had a significant impact on the rate and trajectory of technological developments.44 Work by Peter Lorge and others goes some distance toward rectifying this issue. Rather than a unidirectional and gradual eastward movement of European technological innovations, one finds that gunpowder weapons technologies were advanced in both Europe and Asia, that innovations flowed in both directions, and that they did so quite rapidly.45

It is well known that the Ottomans quite early on developed an artillery corps. Early in his reign, Sultan Murad I (r. 1362–1389) established the Janissaries (yeniçeri, “New Troop”), a special force of Ottomanized Christian soldiers from the Balkans who were loyal directly to the Sultan. As early as 1402, Ottoman forces employed gunpowder artillery in a failed effort to lay siege to Constantinople during the reign of Sultan Bayazid I (r. 1389–1402), just prior to their devastating loss to Tamerlane (1336–1405) at Ankara that same year. Although artillery proved insufficient to tip the balance at that stage, in subsequent decades the Ottomans strengthened their Janissary corps, and, quite famously, Ottoman engineers developed substantially more powerful siege cannons.

In his study of the Ottoman firearm industry, Gábor Ágoston observes that the Ottomans established a specialized artillery corps, paid for out of the treasury, as early as during the reign of Sultan Murad II (r. 1421–1551), quite some time before any European power did the same.46 In 1430 at Salonica, the Ottomans successfully used siege cannons for the first time.47 A couple of decades later, Sultan Mehmed II enlisted the Hungarian engineer Master Orban to design several extremely large cannons for use in the 1453 conquest of Constantinople.48

Figure 3: Ottoman Dardanelles Gun (1464).

This new industry was expensive, but the Ottomans clearly found it to be a worthwhile investment for a power seeking to expand its territory when possible, and defend itself from hostile neighbors when necessary. In the second half of the 15th century, the Ottomans further expanded their industrial capacity in mining for ore, weapons production, ammunition production, and the development and maintenance of supply lines. John Guilmartin, a specialist in early modern European military history, found 16th-century Ottoman weapons production to be every bit as advanced as that of Spain.49

Technological innovations were important and they could be decisive in specific instances. But they only provided a temporary advantage, as opposing forces were quick to assimilate new technologies and adapt them to their own circumstances. As Ágoston argues, “In the long run, the adequate and steady supply of weaponry and military hardware proved to be more important than (usually temporary) technological or tactical advantages.”50 Cutting-edge technologies were no substitute for a well-trained and well-supplied army. The same was true in Persia and South Asia, where the transition from the earlier cavalry-based steppe warfare was also gradual and uneven, and propelled forward as much by defeat as by victory. The narrative of the eastward movement of this technology from the Ottomans to the Safavids and then on to the Mughals is outdated, but its brief rehearsal here highlights the achievements of more recent scholarship on Asian military history, discussed in the section “New Perspectives and Their Implications.”

Earlier scholars assumed that Ottoman troops acquired knowledge of gunpowder weaponry through their exploits in Europe. Then, as Ottoman and Safavid forces met on the battlefield of Chaldiran in 1514, Sultan Selim’s Janissaries used their artillery to great effect and soundly defeated their Safavid Qizilbash opponents. Wounded, the young Safavid Shah Isma‘il fled, his reign intact but his reputation in tatters. In 1516–1517, Selim pressed his advantage further, defeating the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt; occupying Jerusalem, Mecca, and Medina; and laying claim to the titles of Protector of the Holy Cities.

Twelve years after Chaldiran, in 1526, the Timurid founder of the Mughal Empire in India, Zahir al-Din Muhammad Babur, deliberately mimicked Ottoman military strategies in his battle against the Delhi Sultanate, ruled at the time by Ibrahim Lodi. At the Battle of Panipat, Babur’s much smaller force of some 15,000 troops was dwarfed by the Lodi forces, which included some 100,000 men and 1,000 elephants. Apparently heeding the advice of Ustad ‘Ali-Quli, a skilled soldier and close companion to Babur who had been present at Chaldiran in 1514, in preparation for the battle Babur had ordered his men to collect carts. His soldiers returned with seven hundred, which he ordered to be “joined together in Ottoman fashion” so that they would provide cover for his matchlockmen.51

Babur describes in his memoirs how his troops employed a limited number of matchlocks and field cannon to augment his archers and create an advantage against the much larger opposing forces. His strategic use of muskets and wheeled field cannons was the decisive factor in his victory, not least because the cannon fire frightened the Lodi Sultan Ibrahim’s war elephants, prompting them to break ranks and flee in reverse, trampling their own troops. In Babur’s own words:

Orders were given for Muhammadi Kukuldash Shah Mansur Barlas, Yunas-i-‘ali and ‘Abdul-lah to engage those facing them in front of the centre. From that same position Ustad ‘Ali-quli made good discharge of firingi [i.e., “European-style,” or swivel] shots; Mustafa the commissary for his part made excellent discharge of zarb-zan [field cannon] shots from the left of the centre. Our right, left, centre and turning-parties having surrounded the enemy, rained arrows down on him and fought ungrudgingly. He made one or two small charges on our right and left but under our men’s arrows, fell back on his own centre. His right and left hands (qul) were massed in such a crowd that they could neither move forward against us nor force a way for flight.52

Figure 4: First Battle of Panipat, 1526.

Scholars have long theorized that, having learned of the great utility of this revolutionary technology from the Ottoman victory at Chaldiran, Babur and his Mughal successors were the first rulers in the subcontinent to employ artillery effectively. Babur himself promotes this view, recounting that when his forces moved from Kabul into Baujar, just east of the Khyber Pass, he found the locals completely unfamiliar with firearms: “As the Bajauris had never before seen matchlocks (tufang) they at first took no care about them, and indeed they made fun when they heard the report and answered it by unseemly gestures. On that day Ustad ‘Ali-quli shot at and brought down five men with his matchlock.”53 But contrary to Babur’s suggestions otherwise, gunpowder weaponry had been employed in India since long before Babur’s victory at Panipat, and indeed long before Babur was born. Even as Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople in 1453, Indians were also casting large cannons and building fortresses designed to maximize the strategic advantage they provided.

Indian military historian Iqtidar Alam Khan has until recently stood nearly alone as an advocate for the notion that Indian militaries were already employing matchlock muskets and cannons during the 15th-century Delhi Sultanate era.54 Writing in 2002, Jos Gommans found Khan’s assertions to be “stimulating but not (yet) convincing,” and expressed doubt that documentary sources proved the use of artillery in India at any time before the 16th century.55 In his own publications on the subject, Khan recognizes that his position is not without its problems, especially insofar as the supporting textual evidence that earlier researchers had marshaled was commonly drawn from sources written well after the fact, including the late-16th-century Tabaqat-i Akbari and the early-17th-century Tarikh-i Firishta.56 Other problems stem from the military vocabulary that these sources use. One encounters technical terms in 14th- and 15th-century sources that are later used in reference to gunpowder weapons, but these terms are known to have had quite different meanings in their earlier usages, leaving one uncertain as to whether they are being used to refer to firearms or something else. Considering the textual evidence, Khan concludes that, already in the 14th century, gunpowder was widely used throughout India as an explosive and incendiary device, and that, from the 1440s, cannons and muskets were also in use.57 Gommans, and others, have disagreed.

New Perspectives and Their Implications

Augmenting documentary sources with archaeological evidence, the work of Richard Eaton and Philip Wagoner strongly supports Khan’s conclusions, and makes several additional advancements. Eaton and Wagoner reference a telling quotation from none other than the Portuguese viceroy of the Estado da India, Alfonso de Albuquerque. The quote comes from a letter that Albuquerque dispatched to King Manuel I of Portugal (d. 1521) while in Goa, on the southwest coast of India, in the year 1513. Albuquerque states:

I also send your highness a Goan master gunsmith; they make guns as good as the Bohemians and also equipped with screwed in breech plugs. There he will work for you. I am sending you some samples of their work with Pero Masquarenhas.58

Thus, thirteen years before Panipat and one year before Chaldiran, the Portuguese viceroy found Goan master gunsmiths to be every bit as skilled as the most advanced Europeans. Illustrating how impressed he was with the abilities of the Goan gunsmiths, Albuquerque further reports that they had become “our masters in artillery and the making of cannons and guns, which they make of iron here in Goa and are better than the German ones.”59

By the time Vasco da Gama reached Calicut in 1498, Indians had many decades of gunsmithing experience. Reminiscent of Parker’s trace italianne in Europe, already in 1468–1469, the proliferation of gunpowder weaponry in central India’s Deccan Plateau had motivated the Bahmanid rulers to enhance their great fortress Raichur by adding bastions and curtain walls constructed specifically to withstand artillery and incorporating gun ports from which the defenders could fire cannons.60 Similar architectural techniques can be found at other Bahmanid fortresses as well, dating at least as early as 1461.61

Eaton and Wagoner demonstrate that, in the decades before and after the Portuguese entrance into the Indian Ocean, Indian states drew materials and technologies from multiple sources, including the Mamluks in Egypt, the Ottomans, and later the Portuguese and other European sources. If the Deccan powers lagged behind the Mediterranean world in technological advancement, it was not by much, and at times they were clearly ahead of the Europeans. Quite the opposite of notions that European technology flowed eastward, Eaton and Wagoner demonstrate that gunsmiths in the western Deccan had assimilated technologies from both the Ottomans and the Portuguese and had improved upon them, and at the turn of the 16th century, they “were now transferring technologies in precisely the opposite direction, from India to western Europe.”62 Advancements continued in the Deccan over the 16th century, spurred as much by local innovation as by the transfer of foreign technologies.

This is consistent with another recent argument that Geoffrey Parker and Sanjay Subrahmanyam advanced in a collaborative study of the various ways that certain early modern Asian societies received gunpowder weaponry. In an article that in some ways represents a break from Parker’s earlier Military Revolution thesis, Parker and Subrahmanyam suggest that some Asian societies, such as Japan, eagerly embraced gunpowder weaponry and independently devised innovations ahead of Europeans, whereas other Asian societies integrated gunpowder weaponry into their militaries in hybrid fashion or completely rejected it in favor of traditional technologies and strategies.63

One can point to multiple studies that identify a number of distinctive reasons that gunpowder weaponry was incorporated in one region and not in another. Briefly turning to African history, Weston Cook’s analysis of 16th-century Morocco, for example, illustrates a willingness to embrace firearms in an ultimately successful effort to fend off both Iberian and Ottoman forces.64 David Ayalon’s classic study of the Mamluk failure to do the same and their resulting defeat at the hands of the Ottomans represents another model.65 Ayalon lays out an array of reasons why the Mamluks were in a position to embrace gunpowder weapons, including evidence that they actually had done so to a limited extent. Ultimately, however, he concludes that the Mamluks suffered from a cultural bias against them. For the Mamluks, gunpowder weapons debased notions of military chivalry that they held dear, and on which they based their claim to elevated social standing. The Mamluks were not alone in this regard.

Similar distinctions can be found even within the relatively tight parameters of the Deccan, where the use of gunpowder weapons also remained inconsistent, albeit for different reasons. Cannons were powerful, but they were also expensive, large, unwieldy, and insufficient on their own to overcome poor strategy in securing a battlefield victory. A dramatic loss could, and did, dissuade observers from placing too much faith in the miracle of gunpowder. Still, within the Deccan there was a general trend toward innovation. Over the course of the 16th century, old fortresses across the Deccan were retrofitted with bastions, gun ports, and other architectural components that would enable the defensive use of cannons. But if the Europeans became locked into the trace italienne model of fortress, in the Deccan gunsmiths developed larger guns, devised swivels to make them easier to maneuver, and then modified the architecture of their fortresses so that they could function effectively.66 Eaton and Wagoner conclude that the sustained military adaptations throughout this period improved defenses and brought stability to the Deccan sultanates, which resulted in a period of general prosperity and cultural efflorescence throughout the region. If there was such a thing as an early modern Military Revolution, the Deccan was clearly involved.67

To an extent, the same could be said for the Mughal Empire, where Babur and his descendants paid a handsome price to recruit Ottoman gunsmiths and military advisers. Mughal armies deployed magnificent bronze cannons and siege guns, and written sources describe the widespread use of matchlocks, often proudly represented in ornately decorated Mughal miniatures. There were additional innovations, too, both in defensive structures and artillery design. Not the least of these was the introduction of the zambūrak (“little bee,” also zanbūrak), or shutarnāl, a light field cannon that could be mounted on a swivel placed on the back of a camel for transport across difficult terrain and fired either from a mobile or stationary position.68

Figure 5: Zambūrak.

The Mughals clearly took gunpowder weapons seriously, and from Panipat onward they strategically incorporated them into their military. But at no time in Mughal India did gunpowder weaponry become the sole, or even the most important component of the empire’s military might. In another dismissal of the validity of the “Gunpowder Empire” model, André Wink observes, “artillery was not often the main and certainly never the only impetus toward centralization. It merely was one contributing factor among others and only for as long as the imperial center could maintain a monopoly on it.”69 Throughout its existence the Mughal military was a hybrid force: cannons, muskets, and other artillery were used to great effect, but the Mughals were able to import large numbers of Central Asian horses—estimates reach as high as 100,000 in a single year—and so gunpowder weapons remained secondary to fast-moving cavalry, mounted archers, and other traditional forces.70

Figure 6: Mughal Soldier with Musket, 16th Century.

Figure 7: Mughal Siege of Ranthambhor Fort, 1568.

This is recognized by Gommans and Kolff, who overstate the case with their assertion that, apart from the earlier introduction of Central Asian cavalry warfare during the Ghaznavid and Delhi Sultanate eras, the real Military Revolution reached India only in the 18th century with the introduction of the much faster and more efficient flintlock muskets equipped with socket bayonets, combined with new modes of training introduced by European officers.71 As in Europe, the flexible and effective integration of artillery was an important factor that facilitated Mughal military and administrative successes.

Even more than for the Mughals, the “Gunpowder Empire” designation is especially problematic for the Safavids, who, Dale summarizes, “never really warmed to the use of heavy artillery.”72 Others take this objection still further. Citing cultural factors that echo Ayalon’s conclusions regarding the Mamluks, the Safavid historian Rudi Matthee observes that Qizilbash troops also had strong cultural reasons to retain the emphasis on cavalry warfare rather than dismounting to fire muskets, again because of tradition and the social status associated with the cavalry as opposed to the lower infantry.73 Matthee further notes that, unlike the Mughals, the frequent Safavid conflicts with the Ottomans meant that the Safavids would not have had ready access to Ottoman military advisers.

The Safavids produced and used artillery, but they found it cumbersome and slow, and so they exhibited a strong, sustained preference for the rapid movement of cavalry. In general agreement, Ágoston adds that, immediately following his defeat at Chaldiran, Shah Ismail created a special corps of musketeers whose numbers quickly rose into the thousands, reaching as high as 20,000 by 1521.74

Figure 8: Safavid Soldier with Musket.

These were used to great effect against Uzbek troops in Khurasan the 1520s and 1530s.75 But, Ágoston notes, “the absence of wheeled transportation and of navigable rivers, as well as the land-locked nature of the country, made it extremely difficult to move large artillery trains.”76

The Safavid emphasis on cavalry is also related to another distinctive aspect of Safavid warfare: the lack of walled cities. Unlike in Europe or India, Safavid cities did not incorporate anything like trace italienne style fortresses. In fact, in Safavid territories the trend was reversed, as many Persian cities that were walled in the 15th-century Timurid era had actually cast off those defenses by the end of the 17th century.77 As the European states invested in constructing elaborate fortresses and their armies engaged in lengthy sieges, the Safavids de-emphasized siege warfare, preferring instead to engage their opponents far away from urban centers.

The reason for this strategic move is clear enough: the Safavids recognized that they were at a sizeable disadvantage in terms of manpower and the strength of their artillery corps. They compensated by employing a strategy that emphasized speed and agility, and applied a scorched-earth policy in the west that complicated Ottoman logistics.78 Other than a few strategic locations on their territorial frontiers, the Safavids defended their cities the most effectively by using fast-moving cavalry forces to confront slow-moving invading forces before they could reach the interior. In that environment, it was simply unnecessary to invest in building and maintaining expensive fortifications for even the most important cities in the interior. In 1720, the Ottoman ambassador to the Safavids, Duri Efendi, seemed shocked to find that “Persians have only three fortresses in their entire realm: Qandahar on the confines of India, Darband on the side of the kingdom of Astrakhan, and Erevan near Erzurum. All other towns are open like Scutary.”79 Conflict with Bukharans, Afghans, Kurds, and the Safavids’ other nomadic neighbors did little to change this position since they exhibited a similar animosity toward gunpowder weapons and a cultural preference for cavalry warfare and archery.80

Cultural factors played a role in the Safavid decision to rely more heavily on traditional cavalry, but one must not overlook or understate the importance of environmental factors. On the one hand, semi-arid and comparatively sparsely populated states such as the Safavid Empire and Bukharan Khanate had little motivation to shift the focus of their military to infantry and begin building defenses in preparation for siege warfare. Considering population demographics, doing so would have left them at a permanent disadvantage vis-à-vis their larger neighbors who were capable of raising much larger infantry forces. At the same time, the Safavids, like their Afghan and Uzbek neighbors, enjoyed access to a substantial supply of horses, which they used to maintain a formidable cavalry. In these environments, gunpowder weapons were useful and valuable, but the benefit to be gained by the rapid deployment of cavalry was even more decisive. For example, during Shah Jahan’s aborted annexation of Balkh in 1646–1647, Uzbek cavalry were able to use speed and agility to wear down the much larger Mughal infantry forces armed with bulky field artillery. Farther to the east, the Manchu used the superior mobility and flexibility of their cavalry to achieve a decisive advantage over the exceptionally strong Ming artillery forces in the conflicts leading up to the establishment of the Qing dynasty in 1644.81

This contrasts sharply with those early modern military forces that suffered a chronic inability to maintain sufficient supplies of horses for their armies. Thus, even in the 16th and 17th centuries, environmental factors motivated some Asian powers to rely more heavily on infantry troops, and to maximize their impact by equipping them with matchlock muskets and other weapons technologies. But given the awkwardness, expense, and unreliability of these weapons, it is not difficult to imagine why military leaders would be cautious in implementing them, and some elected not to rush headlong into a new technology when their established strength and skills rested elsewhere. Surveying the Mamluk, Ottoman, and Safavid cases, Ágoston finds that the decision of one state or another to integrate gunpowder weapons technology was “a complicated matter and that the modes of timing, success or failure of it depended upon historical, social, economic, and cultural factors, as they also did in Europe. There is very little peculiar to Islam in this process. All these empires were rather pragmatic in their decisions.”82

Pragmatism informed Chinese military policies as well, and the Qing Empire was no less engaged in the Military Revolution—at least during its early stages. In his recent study of Chinese military history, Tonio Andrade observes that persistent external conflicts drove innovations in military technology in both Europe and China even into the 18th century. But while conflict in Europe increased in subsequent years, innovation in China diminished significantly during the Great Qing Peace that stretched from 1760 to 1839. Andrade suggests that, following the conquest of Xinjiang in 1756–1759, the Qing Empire enjoyed an uncharacteristically long period of minimal military conflict during which, “China’s armies atrophied, and military innovation slowed.”83 Of course, the Qing military remained substantial in its size and a formidable force in both East and Central Asia throughout this period. But when faced with British imperialism during the Opium Wars (1839–1842), the Qing military found itself at a critical technological disadvantage.

In terms of their general effectiveness, fast-moving cavalry enjoyed an advantage over artillery troops even to the end of the 17th century, and because they had easy access to horses, the Safavids elected to press that advantage.84 The same can be said for the Uzbeks and other Central Asian powers. Before long, however, further technological advancements, including especially the flintlock musket, would provide a decisive advantage to infantry troops armed with gunpowder weaponry, and even the strongest cavalry forces, those that resisted gunpowder weapons as long as possible, would find themselves unable to resist any longer. As Parker and Subrahmanyam note, “Matters came to a head in the 18th century . . . Many Asian states were now forced to adapt: to take firearms out of their niche and generalize their use . . . While some states succeeded in this, many began to transform themselves too late.”85

This final observation can be applied nowhere more accurately than in Central Asia, where the Bukharan Khanate and its main power base, the Uzbek tribal amirs, clung to traditional military technologies and strategies as long as they could. Early modern Central Asian rulers were aware of the technological advancements happening across Eurasia and the globe. Some rulers (the non-Chinggisid Jungars, for example) eagerly sought out and incorporated new military technologies, adapting them to their own local circumstances and even developing their own centers of weapon production.86

In Bukhara as well, the last two Chinggisid Bukharan khans aimed to use military reform as a way to assert a more centralized control over their Uzbek amirs.87 But late efforts to develop a network of defensive fortresses manned with slave troops equipped with firearms proved both ineffective and expensive. The final collapse of Chinggisid legitimacy in the region arrived in the wake of the 1737 Persian invasion led by Nadir Shah’s son, Reza Quli Mirza, which decisively demonstrated that the Uzbeks’ traditional forces were no match for the Persian invaders’ very recently updated and technologically current artillery forces. Nadir Shah himself led another invasion three years later, and this time, knowing that they were faced with a technologically superior force, the Bukharans simply submitted. Seven years later, following Nadir Shah’s assassination, in 1747, the Uzbek Manghit tribal elite usurped authority in Bukhara, and reorganized their Central Asian forces along precisely those same lines.88


Moving beyond antiquated notions of European innovations being disseminated eastward, recent scholarship has demonstrated that the Military Revolution was a collaborative process involving many powers across the globe. The Ottomans were exceptionally advanced in the Mediterranean arena, as were the Spanish and the Italians. Yet as the Portuguese were establishing themselves in the Indian Ocean in the early 16th century, they found Goan gunsmiths whose technical skills and knowledge exceeded those of even the best of the Europeans. Individual technological advancements were rapidly disseminated among competing powers, who modified them to suit local needs and advanced them further. Technology could provide an army with a competitive edge in battle, and it was the desire for that competitive edge that drove innovation. But careful training, organizational planning, and the maintenance of reliable supply lines proved even more important in terms of securing a victory and winning the war. The early modern Military Revolution unfolded differently in different places, and the ways in which it unfolded were shaped by the regional environment, the availability of manpower for infantry, the availability of horses for cavalry, cultural preferences, and historical contingencies.

Discussion of the Literature

The literature on the Military Revolution is substantial. The field began more than sixty years ago when Michael Roberts sought to identify the effects that advancements in military technology had on European states during the 16th and 17th centuries. Geoffrey Parker then expanded the scope of analysis from the mid-15th century to the 19th century, and linked early modern military innovations to European expansion. Jeremy Black, John Lynn, and others have challenged certain aspects of Parker’s thesis, refined others, and added their own observations. As this debate has unfolded it has produced a more complete and nuanced understanding of early modern military history, especially in the European arena.

Work on early modern Asian military history has proceeded at a slower rate, as earlier practitioners labored under the general assumption that advancements in military technologies moved from the West to the East. In the 1970s, Marshall Hodgson and William H. McNeil theorized that the introduction of gunpowder weapons in the Islamic East and their monopolization by the ruling elite led to the development of new forms of absolutist governments, which they termed Gunpowder Empires. Subsequent work has exposed a multitude of flaws in this concept, and researchers have directed attention to the many different ways that gunpowder weapons have been incorporated into Asian militaries. Collaborating with Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Parker himself has advanced a substantially revised understanding of the Military Revolution, one in which some innovative Asian powers occupied a position of parity with Europeans while others remained resistant and fell behind.

More recent scholarship in Asian military history offers new insights into the multiplicity of factors that informed when, and how, Asian militaries incorporated gunpowder weaponry. Gabor Ágoston demonstrates that the Ottoman military was on par with its contemporary European powers and that technological innovations flowed rapidly in both directions. Turning attention to the Deccan, Richard Eaton and Philip Wagoner demonstrate much the same for South Asian militaries, where rulers in the Deccan retrofitted their fortresses with swivel cannons and innovative gun ports, and the Portuguese found the Goan gunsmiths to be in many ways superior to their most advanced European counterparts. In northern India, Jos Gommans and Dirk Kolff have found that the Mughals eagerly sought out weapons technologies from abroad, but having access to a vast supply of Central Asian horses they preferred to maintain a hybrid force that combined slow-moving artillery with the speed and agility of more traditional cavalry.

Some scholars have pointed to cultural preferences for traditional forms of military combat and a disdain for gunpowder weaponry in explaining the hesitance of some Asian powers to embrace the Military Revolution. David Ayalon advanced a similar argument regarding the Mamluks as early as 1956, and it remains relevant. However, more recent scholarship suggests that other factors must also be given consideration. In his analysis of why and how various Islamic powers elected to incorporate gunpowder weaponry into their militaries, Ágoston emphasizes pragmatism over culture.

Analyses of the Safavid and Bukharan cases highlight both cultural and environmental factors in understanding why both states chose to severely limit the extent to which they would incorporate gunpowder weaponry into their militaries. The Safavids governed a comparatively small population in a semi-arid environment and, having access to large supplies of Central Asian horses, Matthee finds that they exhibited a strong preference for cavalry. The Safavids even cast off city walls and other expensive defenses in favor of fast-moving cavalry capable of engaging enemy forces on their frontier. Holzwarth finds that, in a similar environment and with even greater access to horses and a comparable cultural bias in favor of cavalry, the Bukharans’ Uzbek troops were even more resistant to gunpowder weapons than the Safavids. The relative parity of these two powers came to an end after Nadir Shah overthrew his Safavid rulers and imposed sweeping military reforms. This equipped the Persians with a decisive advantage over the Uzbeks, and it was one of several contributing factors behind the collapse of Chinggisid rule in Bukhara in 1747.

Primary Sources

An abundance of published military handbooks, imperial chronicles, travel literature, and other sources offer information and insights into many aspects of early modern Asian military history. Here is a selection of primary sources that have been useful for this article. Readers interested in pursuing the subject further are encouraged to investigate the bibliographies of the relevant secondary literature cited throughout the article and the more general surveys listed in the “Further Reading” section.

  • Ahmad Dourry Efendi. Relation de Dourry Efendy, ambassadeur de la Porte Othomane auprès du roy de Perse, ed. Louis Langlès. Paris: n.p., 1810.
  • Beneveni, Florio. Poslannik Petra i na Vostoke: Posol’stvo Florio Beneveni v Persiyu i Bukharu v 1718–1725 godakh. Edited by N. A. Khalfin. Moscow: Nauka, 1986.
  • Bernier, Francois. Travels in the Mogul Empire, AD 1656–1668. Translated by Irving Brock. Edited by Archibald Constable. Westminster, UK, 1891.
  • Islam, Riazul. A Calendar of Documents on Indo-Persian Relations (1500–1750). 2 vols. Tehran: Iranian Culture Foundation, 1982.
  • Jenkinson, Anthony. Early Voyages and Travels to Russia and Persia. Edited by E. Delmar Morgan and C. H. Coote. 2 vols. 1st ser., nos. 72–73. London: Hakluyt Society, 1886.
  • Manucci, Niccolao. Storia do Mogor, or Mogul India 1653–1708. 4 vols. Translated by W. Irvine. London, 1907–8.
  • Olearius, Adam. The Voyages & Travels of the Ambassadors Sent by Frederick Duke of Holstein, to the Great Duke of Muscovy, and the King of Persia. Translated by John Davies. London, 1662.
  • Zahir al-Din Muhammad Babur. Babur-nama: Memoirs of Babur. Edited and translated by Annette Beveridge. London: Luzac, 1922.

Further Reading

  • Ágoston, Gábor. Guns for the Sultan: Military Power and the Weapons Industry in the Ottoman Empire. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Andrade, Tonio. The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.
  • Chase, Kenneth. Firearms: A Global History to 1700. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Crosby, Alfred W. Throwing Fire: Projectile Technology through History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Davies, Brian L. Warfare, State and Society on the Black Sea Steppe, 1500–1700. New York: Routledge, 2007.
  • Eaton, Richard M., and Philip B. Wagoner. “Warfare on the Deccan Plateau, 1450–1600: A Military Revolution in Early Modern India?,” Journal of World History 25, no. 1 (2014): 5–50.
  • Gommans, Jos. Mughal Warfare: Indian Frontiers and Highroads to Empire, 1500–1700. London: Routledge, 2002.
  • Gommans, Jos J. L., and Dirk H. A. Kolff, eds. Warfare and Weaponry in South Asia, 1000–1800. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Holzworth, Wolfgang. “Bukharan Armies and Uzbek Military Power, 1670–1870: Coping with the Legacy of a Nomadic Conquest.” In Nomad Military Power in Iran and Adjacent Areas in the Islamic Period. Edited by Kurt Franz and Wolfgang Holzwarth, 273–354. Wiesbaden, Germany: Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 2015.
  • Khan, Iqtidar Alam. Gunpowder and Firearms: Warfare in Medieval India. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Lee, Wayne E. Waging War: Conflict, Culture, and Innovation in World History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.
  • Lorge, Peter A. The Asian Military Revolution: From Gunpowder to the Bomb. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  • Matthee, Rudi. “Unwalled Cities and Restless Nomads.” In Safavid Persia: The History and Politics of an Islamic Society. Edited by Charles Melville, 389–416. London: I. B. Tauris, 1996.
  • McNeill, William H. “The Age of Gunpowder Empires, 1450–1800.” In Islamic and European Expansion: The Forging of a Global Order. Edited by Michael Adas, 103–139. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.
  • McNeill, William H. The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force and Society since A.D. 1000. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
  • Parker, Geoffrey, and Sanjay Subrahmanyam. “Arms and the Asian: Revisiting European Firearms and Their Place in Early Modern Asia.” Revista de Cultura (Macau) 26 (2008): 12–42.
  • Streusand, Douglas. Islamic Gunpowder Empires: Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010.
  • Waley-Cohen, Joanna. The Culture of War in China: Empire and the Military under the Qing Dynasty. London: I. B. Tauris, 2006.


  • 1. See Thomas Allsen, “The Circulation of Military Technology in the Mongolian Empire,” in Warfare in Inner Asian History (500–1800), ed. Nicola Di Cosmo (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2001), 272–273 and notes.

  • 2. Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, pt. 7, Military Technology: The Gunpowder Epic (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 1. For additional discussion on early weapons technologies external to China, see Alfred W. Crosby, Throwing Fire: Projectile Technology through History (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002); and Kenneth Chase, Firearms: A Global History to 1700 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003). See also the discussion on the discovery of gunpowder and development of gunpowder weapons in Tonio Andrade, The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016), 15–17.

  • 3. Needham, Science and Civilisation, 6–7.

  • 4. Needham, 6–7.

  • 5. Andrade, Gunpowder Age, 15–17.

  • 6. Andrade, 15–17.

  • 7. Andrade, 15–17; Chase, Firearms, 31–32.

  • 8. Cf. Needham, Science and Civilisation, 10, cf. Andrade, Gunpowder Age, 15–17; and Chase, Firearms, 32. Andrade suggests that that the gun was invented around 1250. Chase suggests that the invention of the first gun may date as early as the first half of the twelfth century, but he cautions that the evidence is sketchy.

  • 9. Andrade, Gunpowder Age, 44–54.

  • 10. See Belal Ahmed Ghazal and Ahmad F. Ismail, “The Contribution of Hassan al-Rammah to Gunpowder and Rocket Technology,” in Contributions of Early Muslim Scientists to Engineering Studies and Related Sciences, eds. Abdi O. Shuriye and Waleed F. Farris (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: IIUM Press, 2011), 36–40.

  • 11. Bert S. Hall, Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 42.

  • 12. Timothy May, The Mongol Art of War (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2007), 141–142. See also Allsen, “Circulation of Military Technology,” 265–294.

  • 13. See the description of saltpeter causing explosions in the 13th-century text of Roger Bacon, The Opus Majus of Roger Bacon, vol. 2, trans. Robert Belle Burke (New York: Russell and Russell, 1962), 629. Originally published in 1928.

  • 14. Hall, Weapons and Warfare, 42–43. Liber ignium ad comburendos hostes, authored by Marcus Graecus, loosely translates as The Book of Fires for Burning the Enemy.

  • 15. Hall, 45.

  • 16. See the reprinted edition, Michael Roberts, “The Military Revolution, 1560–1660,” in The Military Revolution Debate: Readings on the Military Transformation of Early Modern Europe, ed. Clifford J. Rogers (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1995), 13–35.

  • 17. See the introductory chapter in Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500–1800, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 6–44.

  • 18. Parker, 156.

  • 19. Geoffrey Parker, “The ‘Military Revolution’: A Myth?,” in Military Revolution Debate, ed. Rogers, 41.

  • 20. Parker, Military Revolution, 8–12.

  • 21. Parker, 10.

  • 22. Parker, ‘Military Revolution’: A Myth?,” 43.

  • 23. Parker, 48.

  • 24. Parker, Military Revolution, 162.

  • 25. See especially Jeremy Black, Beyond the Military Revolution: War in the Seventeenth-Century World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

  • 26. John A. Lynn, “The Trace Italienne and the Growth of Armies,” in Military Revolution Debate, ed. Rogers, 169–189.

  • 27. Kelly DeVries, “‘The Walls Come Tumbling Down’: The Campaigns of Philip the Good and the Myth of Fortification Vulnerability to Early Gunpowder Weapons,” in The Hundred Years War, eds. L. J. Andrew Villahon and Donald Kagay (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2005), 429–446.

  • 28. Jeremy Black, “A Military Revolution? A 1660–1792 Perspective,” in Military Revolution Debate, ed. Rogers, 95–114.

  • 29. Black, 97, 110.

  • 30. Black, 102.

  • 31. David Cressy, Saltpeter: The Mother of Gunpowder (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 136–151.

  • 32. “The Voyages & Travels of J. Albert de Mandelslo,” in The Voyages & Travels of the Ambassadors Sent by Frederick Duke of Holstein, to the Great Duke of Muscovy, and the King of Persia, ed. Adam Olearius, trans. by John Davies (London, 1662), pt. 2, 84, cited in Cressy, Saltpeter, 136.

  • 33. “Voyages & Travels” in Cressy, 140.

  • 34. James W. Frey, “The Indian Saltpeter Trade, the Military Revolution, and the Rise of Britain as a Global Superpower,” Historian 71, no. 3 (2009): 535–536.

  • 35. Frey, 536.

  • 36. Frey, 507–509.

  • 37. See the classic study by Marshall Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, vol. 3, The Gunpowder Empires and Modern Times (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1977).

  • 38. Hodgson, 4, 26.

  • 39. Hodgson, 26.

  • 40. Cf. Stephen F. Dale, The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010); William H. McNeill, The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force and Society since A.D. 1000 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982); William H. McNeill, “The Age of Gunpowder Empires, 1450–1800,” In Islamic and European Expansion: The Forging of a Global Order, ed. Michael Adas (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993), 103–139.

  • 41. Dale, Muslim Empires, 6.

  • 42. Douglas Streusand, Islamic Gunpowder Empires: Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 3.

  • 43. Streusand, 4.

  • 44. Sound conclusions regarding this topic were advanced more than six decades ago in David Ayalon, Gunpowder and Firearms in the Mamluk Kingdom: A Challenge to a Mediaeval Society (London: Mitchell Vallentine, 1956).

  • 45. Peter Lorge provides a powerful counterpoint to the entrenched Eurocentric narrative of Western technological innovations passing eastward to less-innovative Asian peoples. Peter A. Lorge, The Asian Military Revolution: From Gunpowder to the Bomb (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 7–10. See also Wayne E. Lee, Waging War: Conflict, Culture, and Innovation in World History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 215–253.

  • 46. Gábor Ágoston, Guns for the Sultan: Military Power and the Weapons Industry in the Ottoman Empire (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 28–29.

  • 47. Streusand, Islamic Gunpowder Empires, 83.

  • 48. Ágoston, Guns for the Sultan, 43. There remains some question as to whether Orban was perhaps German.

  • 49. John Francis Guilmartin, Gunpowder and Galleys: Changing Technology and Mediterranean Warfare at Sea in the Sixteenth Century, 2nd rev. ed. (Annapolis, MD: Conway Maritime Press, 2003), 149, 276.

  • 50. Ágoston, Guns for the Sultan, 43, 2.

  • 51. Zahir al-Din Muhammad Babur, Babur-nama: Memoirs of Babur, ed. and trans. by Annette Beveridge, (London: Luzac & Co., 1922), 468–470. Thackston’s more recent translation is more readable but not always more precise than Beveridge’s much earlier translation.

  • 52. Babur, 473–474.

  • 53. Babur, 368–369.

  • 54. See his article, “Early Use of Cannon and Musket in India, AD 1442–1526,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 24, no. 2 (1981): 146–164, reprinted in Warfare and Weaponry in South Asia, 1000–1800, ed. Jos J. L. Gommans and Dirk H. A. Kolff (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001), 321–336. See also the more recent publication, Iqtidar Alam Khan, Gunpowder and Firearms: Warfare in Medieval India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004).

  • 55. Jos J. L. Gommans, Mughal Warfare: Indian Frontiers and Highroads to Empire, 1500–1700, (London: Routledge, 2002), 146–147.

  • 56. Khan, “Early Use of Cannon and Musket in India,” 321–322.

  • 57. Khan, 331–336.

  • 58. Richard M. Eaton and Philip B. Wagoner, “Warfare on the Deccan Plateau, 1450–1600: A Military Revolution in Early Modern India?,” Journal of World History 25, no. 1 (2014): 5. For this citation, Eaton and Wagoner reference Rainer Daehnhardt, The Bewitched Gun: The Introduction of the Firearm in the Far East by the Portuguese (Lisbon: Texto Editora, 1994), 39.

  • 59. This represents a stark contrast to the traditional interpretation, as articulated, for example, in Chase, Firearms, 134–136. See Eaton and Wagoner, “Warfare on the Deccan Plateau,” 17.

  • 60. Eaton and Wagoner, “Warfare on the Deccan Plateau,”, 8.

  • 61. Eaton and Wagoner, “Warfare on the Deccan Plateau,” 10.

  • 62. Eaton and Wagoner, “Warfare on the Deccan Plateau,” 17. These ideas are developed further in Richard M. Eaton and Philip B. Wagoner, Power, Memory, Architecture: Contested Sites on India’s Deccan Plateau, 1300–1600 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), esp. 241–322.

  • 63. Geoffrey Parker and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, “Arms and the Asian: Revisiting European Firearms and Their Place in Early Modern Asia,” Revista de Cultura (Macau) 26 (2008): 12–42.

  • 64. Weston F. Cook Jr., The Hundred Years War for Morocco: Gunpowder and the Military Revolution in the Early Modern Muslim World (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1994).

  • 65. David Ayalon, Gunpowder and Firearms in the Mamluk Kingdom: A Challenge to a Medieval Society, 2nd ed. (London: Frank Cass, 1978).

  • 66. Eaton and Wagoner, “Warfare on the Deccan Plateau,” 17.

  • 67. Eaton and Wagoner, Power, Memory, Architecture, 271–279.

  • 68. Gommans and Kolff, Warfare and Weaponry, 35; and Rudi Matthee, “Firearms i. History,” in Encyclopaedia Iranica (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982– ), vol. 9, 619–628.

  • 69. André Wink, Akbar (Oxford: Oneworld, 2009), 66–68.

  • 70. Gommans and Kolff, Warfare and Weaponry, 35. Gommans and Kolff emphasize what has been noted here, which is that the same could be said for European armies to the end of the 17th century. A discussion of the literature on the Indian trade in Central Asian horses is found in Scott C. Levi, “India, Russia and the Eighteenth-Century Transformation of the Central Asian Caravan Trade,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 42, no. 4 (1999): 526–528.

  • 71. Gommans and Kolff, Warfare and Weaponry, 40. For the introduction of Central Asian cavalry warfare to South Asia and its impact on South Asian state and society, see André Wink, Al-Hind, vol. 2, The Slave Kings and the Islamic Conquest, 11th–13th Centuries (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1997).

  • 72. Dale, Muslim Empires, 6.

  • 73. Rudi Matthee, “Unwalled Cities and Restless Nomads,” in Safavid Persia: The History and Politics of an Islamic Society, ed. Charles Melville (London: I. B. Tauris, 1996), 392–396.

  • 74. Ágoston, Guns for the Sultan, 59. By 1517, he is said to have had one hundred cannons.

  • 75. Chase, Firearms, 123–124.

  • 76. Ágoston, Guns for the Sultan, 59.

  • 77. Matthee, “Unwalled Cities,” 398–399.

  • 78. Chase, Firearms, 125–126.

  • 79. Ahmad Dourry Efendi, Relation de Dourry Efendy, ambassadeur de la Porte Othomane auprès du roy de Perse, ed. Louis Langlès (Paris, 1810), 50, cited in Matthee, “Unwalled Cities,” 401.

  • 80. Matthee, “Firearms i. History.”

  • 81. Nicola di Cosmo, “Did Guns Matter? Firearms and the Qing Formation,” in The Qing Formation in World-Historical Time, ed. Lynn A. Struve (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2004), 121–166.

  • 82. Ágoston, Guns for the Sultan, 60.

  • 83. Andrade, Gunpowder Age, 7.

  • 84. Gommans and Kolff, Warfare and Weaponry, 29.

  • 85. Parker and Subrahmanyam, “Arms and the Asian,” 38.

  • 86. Cf. Peter Perdue, China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 304–306; and James A. Millward, Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 90.

  • 87. Wolfgang Holzwarth, “Bukharan Armies and Uzbek Military Power, 1670–1870: Coping with the Legacy of a Nomadic Conquest,” in Nomad Military Power in Iran and Adjacent Areas in the Islamic Period, eds. Kurt Franz and Wolfgang Holzwarth (Wiesbaden, Germany: Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 2015), 273–354.

  • 88. Holzwarth, 281.