I know that gunpowder was first invented in China around the 10th century, and it seems that gunpowder likely made its way to Europe via the "Silk Road." However, there doesn't seem to be a ton of information on just how gunpowder made its way to Europe, and what led to its adoption.

So, why, and how, did gunpowder makes it way to Europe, and what led to its adoption?

I am looking for a synopsis of specific academic sources addressing the issue on point, or at the minimum, tangential sources that make a compelling argument as to how and why gunpowder came to Europe.

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    Wikipedia has a good article on it and links to references: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_gunpowder#Europe
    – jfrankcarr
    May 1, 2012 at 3:13
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    @jfrankcarr that was what I read, and what prompted my surprise that there wasn't more concrete information on the topic. I was curious if someone here knew from their own research a more robust answer. Thanks though.
    – ihtkwot
    May 1, 2012 at 3:16
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    So Europeans invented gunpowder? The dominant narrative is that explosive powder (gunpowder) was invented in China. I'm not doubting the veracity of your statement. Do you have a source, online or otherwise?
    – ihtkwot
    Dec 29, 2015 at 14:46
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    @TylerDurden, here's a quote from Tome Pires about the king of Cochin China: "He has countless musketeers and small bombards. A very great deal of powder is used in his country..." If you have some other source of Tome Pires claiming there was no gunpowder in those parts, I'd love to see it.
    – Joe
    Feb 6, 2016 at 0:17
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    @TylerDurden: I found the identical quote in a copy printed in 1944, in Great Britain at the University Press, Glasgow, from the McGill University Library. link (pp 114-115): ia800202.us.archive.org/14/items/McGillLibrary-136385-182/… Aug 22, 2016 at 3:48

4 Answers 4


All the sources I've perused can, just as Wikipedia does, only surmise on the how and why gunpowder made its way to Europe.

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology offers a nutshell overview of the possible routes that might have been taken:

Just how the secret of gunpowder traveled west-ward to Europe will probably never be fully known, although it seems likely that there was not just one route but several—via the ancient trading route known as the Silk Road; by travelers from the west; by the Mongols; or by peoples of the Russian lands.

That said, a Dr. Guangqiu Xu in "China at War" provides a persuasive answer to both the how and the why:

When gunpowder's advantage as a weapon was made clear, the Chinese began to apply gunpowder to warfare. They started experimenting with gunpowder-filled tubes.

By the thirteenth century, Chinese military forces adopted gunpowder-based weapons technologies such as rockets, guns, and cannons, and explosives such as grenades and different types of bombs for use against the Mongols when they attempted to invade and breach the Great Wall on the northern borders of China. After the Mongols conquered China and founded the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), they used the Chinese gunpowder-based weapons technology in their invasion of Japan and Korea, and other countries.

... at the beginning, the formula for making gunpowder was not common information, and only a few special weapon makers knew how to make it. This hazardous and highly explosive weapon, however, spread to Europe through the Silk Road, the world's oldest and most mysterious trade route.

In the tenth century, Arab scientists began to study and carry out experiments with gunpowder and its applications in warfare. When Europeans invaded Arabian countries during the crusade movement from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, the Arabs used their newfound weapon again the Christian troops, sparking both fear and interest from the crusaders. The technology would later be adapted by the Europeans for use in their military.

The Arab-Crusades theory is bolstered by the fact that gunpowder was initially known simply as black-powder or more suggestively, as Saracen powder:

Historians believe that gunpowder originated in China, where the 'black powder' or 'Saracen powder' had been used to manufacture explosive bombs and rockets since at least 1,000 BC. Knowledge of its powerful and destructive secrets most likely traveled west along the ancient Silk Road, a trade link that crossed the Asian continent and eventually linked the kingdoms of Europe with suppliers of exotic spices, gems, and of course silk. In the 10th century, Arab warlords had perfected the science of using gunpowder and turned its awesome power against the Crusaders, and this triggered the adoption of the black powder as a warfaring tool in the West.

Although the dates do not really conform to the Mongol defeat of the Chinese in an earlier excerpt, in "Firearms: A Global History to 1700", Kenneth Chase suggests that the Mongols were the ones who brought gunpowder westward:

The Mongols were probably responsible for bringing gunpowder and firearms to Europe. Chinggis Khan organized a unit of Chinese catapult specialists in 1214, and these men formed part of the first Mongol army to invade Transoxania in 1219. This was not too early for true firearms, and it was nearly two centuries after catapult-thrown gunpowder bombs had been added to the Chinese arsenal. Chinese siege equipment saw action in Transoxania in 1220 and in the north Caucasus in 1239–40.

William of Rubruck was a Franciscan friar who traveled to the court of the Mongol khaghan Möngke between 1253 and 1255. Although his account of his journey did not circulate widely in Europe, one person who took a keen interest in his experience was Roger Bacon, a fellow Franciscan. Whether by coincidence or not, the earliest European reference to gunpowder is found in Bacon's Epistola de secretis operibus artiis et naturae from 1267.

From "A Brief History Of Rocketry":

The rocket seems to have arrived in Europe around 1241 A.D. Contemporary accounts describe rocket-like weapons being used by the Mongols against Magyar forces at the battle of Sejo which preceded their capture of Buda (now known as Budapest) Dec. 25, 1241. Accounts also describe Mongol's use of a noxious smoke screen -- possibly the first instance of chemical warfare. Rockets appear in Arab literature in 1258 A.D., describing Mongol invaders' use of them on February 15 to capture the city of Baghdad. Quick to learn, the Arabs adopted the rocket into their own arms inventory and, during the Seventh Crusade, used them against the French Army of King Louis IX in 1268.

In summary, the question of why gunpowder made its way to Europe can very likely be blamed on its use in warfare. The how, on the other hand, is sketchy as, based on these sources, both the Mongols and the Arabs, or both, might have introduced it to the "Ferenghi" on the battlefield.

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    or they just came up with the idea all by themselves. A lot of things have been invented/discovered in multiple locations independently, often at (nearly) the same time on historical timescales.
    – jwenting
    Jan 25, 2013 at 15:18
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    It would still be interesting to see why it's the Europeans who developed it further. All the previous users of gunpowder had it as just something to slightly spice up the battle, it's the Europeans who made it into the main force of warfare.
    – vsz
    Jan 24, 2014 at 16:28
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    Should that be "manufacture explosive bombs and rockets since at least 1000 A.D."?
    – user4139
    Mar 22, 2015 at 1:25
  • Is there proof as opposed to "surmise" that gunpowder wasn't independently invented in multiple places? It seems to be an assumption that everything must have a single origin. Gunpowder is easily within the grasp of medieval alchemists, and likely ancient ones as well, if they thought to mess with the materials. It may have taken no more than a rumor of saltpeter and sulfur being used in warfare to trigger yet another discovery. Or not. But is there any hard evidence?
    – Mark Olson
    Oct 25, 2023 at 15:22

Firstly, weapon technology is difficult to research because it is usually secret and gunpowder is no exception, so most important evidence is purely indirect; you have infer the invention from other evidence, such as metallurgical evidence.

Secondly the idea that gunpowder came by the "silk road" or that it originated in China, Mongolia, Arabia or other such places are fanciful ideas without basis. Due to the mystery of the subject, it is human nature to ascribe an exotic origin to it, so people like to imagine all sorts of distant, exotic explanations for it. For example, in one post above they mention "saracen powder", a completely invented term of modern origin that has no antiquity at all.

The first possible European mention of gunpowder is in the writings of Roger Bacon circa 1280, but these mentions are very vague and taken in the context of the wide variety of related pyrotechnical alchemy, cannot in my opinion be considered to be inventive. Note that gunpowder is not actually a powder, but is actually composed of very small pellets and producing these in a way that they can be used as a ballistic propellant is a non-trivial technology, which I doubt Bacon had any knowledge of, based on what I have read of his writings.

Although there is no certain ideas of the origin, it is very likely the first practical experiments and developments took place in Prague. Whether the supposed person Berthold Schwartz existed or had anything to do with it is unknown, but his association with Prague is suggestive. What is definitely known is that Prague was the first center of gun technology. For example, both the words "pistol" and "howitzer" are of Czech origin. Although the first significant use of guns, at the Battle of Crecy (1346), was in France, it seems likely the technology used was of Czech origin. Also, the siege gun used by the Ottomans to reduce Constantinople in 1453 was of Hungarian make, however, the Hungarians received this technology from Prague. The first widespread and decisive use of gunpowder was in the Hussite Wars (1419-1434) in Bohemia, once again arguing for a Prague origin.

In general, all of the early production and use of guns that I have researched always have a trail that reaches back to Prague, therefore, in my opinion the invention must have occurred first in Prague in approximately 1325-1335.

Concerning the "Chinese" origin idea; I am not sure how this got started, but it is a modern idea (20th century) which appears based on some very vague 17th century Chinese encyclopedia entries. These encyclopedias were highly collated works that combined many different facts and often ascribed false antiquity to various sciences. Even the entries that supposedly refer to gunpowder are highly ambiguous and could be interpreted in many different ways.

What is definitely known is that the first recorded introduction of cannon to China was in 1621 when the emperor requested three cannon and crews of the Portuguese resident in Macao, and in 1636 to fight certain of the Manchus then invading the Jesuits were asked by the emperor to teach the Chinese the casting of cannon. The next development was that Ferdinand Verbiest directed the acquisition of some hundred small cannons for the emperor in addition to his construction of astronomical instruments for them. That the Chinese (and Manchu) had no prior knowledge whatsoever of guns or ballistic propellants is evident from the accounts of the Portuguese.

Comments on the Battle of Mohi (1241)

In another answer to the question it says "rocket-like weapons" were used at the "Battle of Sejo" by Mongols, a "fact" obviously pillaged from NASA's completely unsourced "history of rocketry". First of all, the battle is usually known as the Battle of Mohi which took place near the Sajo river, not the Sejo river. Secondly, none of the European accounts of this battle mention any "rockets" whatsoever. Thirdly, the Chinese accounts, which are only known from books written HUNDREDS of years later THOUSANDS OF MILES away in China, mention only fire arrows and "fire pots", which apparently is a reference to naptha bombs, a technology known to the ancient Greeks and Persians. Transforming hard-to-translate Chinese accounts of fire arrows, which are obviously second-hand accounts originally written in Mongolian into "rockets" is a typical example of how obscure sources are re-interpreted to create exotic origins for technology. This wild exaggeration is a typical example of how 20th century historians, most of whom cannot even read Chinese at all, uncritically have created this false mythology of Chinese (or in this case Mongolian) technology.

It suffices to say that if actual rockets had been used with effect at the Battle of Mohi, the European accounts of the battle would have mentioned them.

  • Would any of the down voters mind to comment? @answerer: can you read Chinese yourself?
    – user5001
    Mar 3, 2015 at 14:17
  • @user5001 I cannot read Chinese. Like most historians I have to rely on translations. My experience with Chinese translations is that two different translators will often translate the same symbols in completely different ways, especially if the symbols are old. This is apparently is a consequence of written Chinese being an ideographic (not linquistic) writing system. In other words the symbols represent ideas, not sounds, so we do not know what the underlying words were which prompted the symbols. Mar 3, 2015 at 14:21
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    @user5001 I doubt you will get much response. Most downvotes on a post like this are not because the information is "wrong" per se, but because it conflicts with a social ideology. If this was posted in 1880 it would have been widely approved, but in 2015 the current ideology is that the "Chinese invented X Y and Z", Z being gunpowder. As I wrote in my post, this ideology is not based on real historical facts, but on social propaganda designed to boost China's importance in world history for political reasons. Mar 3, 2015 at 14:26
  • I don't understand why you think writing that represents ideas create multiple interpretations. I know sometimes Chinese translations differ because characters have complex meanings and the grammar can be very ambiguous, though.
    – user5001
    Mar 3, 2015 at 14:35
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    As a Czech, this idea that gunpowder was invented in Prague is certainly news to me. The most significant counter-argument I have here is that there are no mentions of widespread use of firearms in Czech lands between Crecy and Hussite wars. This is a period that spans four kings and a not insignificant amount of warfare, until firearms were taken up (for occasional use with no great effect other than spooking horses) by what was basically a rebel movement.
    – Mike L.
    Mar 10, 2015 at 17:55

Like most other commentators I do not read Chinese. There is however a highly respected commentary on Chinese Technology by Joseph Needham. His work is preserved and continued at the Needham Research Institute in Cambridge https://www.nri.org.uk/ A highly detailed account is also contained in The Gunpowder Age; Tonio Andrade, Princtown University Press. My own contribution to the debate is published at https://www.academia.edu/10603213/The_Pre_History_of_gunpowder

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    While we appreciate citations in answers, we do usually expect them to support a written answer rather than substituting for an answer. Link only answers are usually deleted.
    – Steve Bird
    Oct 25, 2023 at 15:25
  • The comment was made in response to the observation above that few read Chinese. The reference is to a published paper offering an alternative origin for gunpowder. If I answered in the wrong place I apologise Oct 25, 2023 at 16:18
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    HI, welcome to the History stack. You reference several sources, but offer no relevant information from those sources. For our purpose here, we look for properly cited quotes from the sources which aid in answering the question. The inclusion of links to your own works without showing how those articles directly provide an answer to the question might be considered Spam. See our help article on How to Answer.
    – justCal
    Oct 25, 2023 at 16:57

Europe was small and poor and was behind other civilizations of the East. The Arab's Muslim empire was stretched from the Mauritania of today to India. Further east it was the Arabs who controlled the Indian Ocean, as well as much of the Mediterranean at the time, and the whole of the Saharan trade, including the most advanced and civilized country in Europe (Spain), which was under Muslim control.

It was for these reasons that the Portuguese rulers sent an expedition to India but using the only existing maps, which were in Arabic as Europeans had never been there.

The question of the gun, obviously, they obtained it from the Arabs the powder, and the first gun; but most likely Arabs got it also from the East.

  • This is illegible. Jan 19, 2016 at 21:15
  • This site provides a nice summary of the early history of gunpowder, with a bibliography. May 30, 2016 at 15:24
  • revisionist history at its finest.
    – jwenting
    Mar 26, 2019 at 4:51

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