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This essay explores the advent of gunpowder weapons and how the use of these weapons changed the balance of power in warfare, transforming global history by leading to a period of dominance by Western European powers. The essay compares European, Russian, Islamic, Chinese, and Japanese uses of gunpowder weapons and explores how these powers fit guns into their political, military, and cultural systems.

William H. McNeill is Robert A. Millikan Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Chicago.

1989. 49 pages
ISBN 0-87229-043-3

One of the recurring themes in history is the cyclical nature of nations and empires.
Civilizations are born, reach their zenith under extraordinary leaders, and over time lose their vitality and strength. The remarkable feature in this cycle is that new civilizations emerge out of the decadence of the old, regenerated by new leaders and by outside cultural influences, often resulting in cultural synthesis. Such were the circumstances under which the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires emerged between 1300
and 1650. Coming on the heels of the Mongol and Timurid conquests in Southwest Asia and Anatolia, new
Muslim Turcic dynasties began the process of consolidating and extending their realms with military might enhanced by the use of gunpowder weaponry.

Conquering an empire is not synonymous with establishing imperial authority, and the
rulers of the new empires faced a monumental task in establishing an effective governing
structure for their domains. Built upon the foundations of pre-existing cultural
institutions and ethnically diverse populations, the most outstanding emperors realized
that the vitality of their empires required a considerable degree of toleration for their
non-Muslim subjects-an ideal that stood in sharp contrast to the policies adopted by their
contemporary counterparts in Christian Europe.

In the sixteenth century, the Asian empires were clearly ascendant, controlling the
East-West trade routes and drawing on the ample resources and manpower existing within
their realms. Emperors also encouraged artistic endeavors which endure both as an
expression of cultural synthesis and as evidence of imperial greatness. But in the
latter-half of the seventeenth century, the
“gunpowder empires” began to decline
. A primary factor in
their decline was Christian Europe’s economic and technological advances during the
seventeenth century. Other significant factors include the degeneration in the character
of ruling dynasties, the increasing inefficiency and ineffectiveness of governing
institutions over time, and deviation from policies that drew on the strengths of
multiculturalism and ethnic diversity as pillars of the imperial system.

Rise of the Gunpowder Empires
One of the most notable worldwide developments of the
seventeenth century was the emergence of several large-scale empires. Using newly
developed firearms, especially cannon, a small number of states extended their control
over the Americas, large parts of Asia, and central Eurasia. In addition to firearms,
these empires had the advantage of expanding transportation and trade networks.

Locale: Worldwide
: Expansion and land acquisition; science and technology; government and

Key Figures
Akbar (1542-1605), Mughal emperor of India, r. 1556-1605
Mehmed II (1432-1481), Ottoman sultan, r. 1444-1446, 1451-1481
Mehmed IV Avci (1642-1693), Ottoman sultan, r. 1648-1687
Alexis (1629-1676), czar of Russia, r. 1645-1676
Ismail I (1487-1524), shah of Persia and founder of the Safavid Dynasty, r.
Abbas the Great (1571-1629), shah of Persia, r. 1588-1629
Shah Jahan (1592-1666), Mughal emperor of India, r. 1628-1658
Ivan the Great (1440-1505), grand duke of Moscow, 1462-1505
Philip II (1527-1598), king of Spain, r. 1556-1598, and Portugal as Philip I, r.
Charles II (1661-1700), king of Spain, r. 1665-1700

Summary of Events
The term “gunpowder empire”
is usually traced to the work of historian Marshall G. Hodgson, who sought to explain the
rise of empires in the Islamic world. He used the term to describe new forms of states
that appeared in Turkey, Persia, and Mughal India. According to Hodgson, artillery and
other firearms had wide social and political consequences for these states. Because
acquiring and maintaining guns demanded a highly developed government administration and
extensive financial resources, the use of gunpowder tended to produce highly centralized
governments that could buy large quantities of tin and copper, manufacture weapons, and
train soldiers in the use of firearms. Other historians have adopted this term to refer to
states outside the Islamic region that used gunpowder technology to extend their control
over territories that were less advanced technologically

The Chinese appear to have been the earliest people to make use of gunpowder for warfare.
In the thirteenth century, the Chinese developed gunpowder
that was high in nitrates and made use of it in cylindrical metal barrels. By the end of
the thirteenth or beginning of the fourteenth century, the Chinese were making use of
small handguns. The technology quickly made its way to Europe, and the Europeans improved
on it to create large cannon. The effectiveness of cannon in warfare led others to take
them up eagerly.

The Turkish Ottoman Empire was one of
the earliest and longest-lasting of the gunpowder empires promoted by the spread of cannon
and other firearms. The Turks had been pushed into the Near East from the eighth century
onward by Mughal expansion in their original territory, around what is now Turkestan. At
the beginning of the fourteenth century, the Turkish leader Osman I (c. 1258-1326)
declared himself sultan, founding the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans spread their control
over the area formerly held by the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine
Empire. In 1453, Sultan Mehmed II (r. 1444-1446 and 1451-1481) conquered Constantinople,
bringing the Byzantine Empire to an end.

In their early years, Ottoman power was based on its cavalry. The Turks would make
extensive use of firepower, using large cannon in their siege of Constantinople. They
coordinated artillery with the use of cavalry and created an elite infantry corps known as
the Janissaries. The Janissaries were child slaves taken from Christian parents and raised
Muslims. They were trained to be expert in the use of firearms.

With its capital in Istanbul, as
Constantinople became known, the Ottoman Empire developed into a centralized
administration, funding the military use of firearms to spread its power through most of
the Middle East and north and west into the Balkan Peninsula of Europe. For a time, it
looked as if the guns of the Ottomans would carry them even farther. In 1529, the Turks
laid siege to Vienna. Sultan Mohammed IV attempted a second assault on Central Europe
beginning in 1663, and he put Vienna under siege again in 1683. Although the Turks
continued to hold much of the territory they had taken by the end of the seventeenth
century and fought other wars against the Europeans, their empire was in a state of
decline until its end in the early twentieth century

The Safavid Empire of Persia also
relied on the use of gunpowder for its power, and gunpowder seems to have shaped its
structure. During the first half of the sixteenth century, Shah Ismail I led his Safavid
warriors to found a new Persian empire in Iran. The Safavid Empire lasted until 1722, and
the Shiite branch of the Islamic faith established by Ismail continues to be the dominant
and contemporary religion of Iran today. Under Shah Abbas the Great, at the end of the
sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth centuries, Safavid Persia took on the
characteristics identified by Marshall Hodgson as those of a gunpowder empire.

The Safavids‘ hold on their
territory had weakened considerably after the death of Shah Ismail. Shah Abbas drove out
foreigners, including Ottomans, who had made incursions into his territory. In doing this,
he used a military force based on the use of gunpowder. He
brought in an English adviser to help him reorganize and train his army. He divided this
army into three bodies of troops–the slaves, the musketeers, and the artillerymen–all of
whom were paid from a central treasury. He also created a strong, professionalized,
central administration for organizing, training, and supplying this military force. In
order to obtain the funds to maintain the political and military structures of the nation,
the sixteenth century Safavids fostered trade with Europe,
industry, and an elaborate system of communication.

To the east of the Ottomans and the
Safavids, the Mughals shaped an Indian empire. The founder of this empire was Babur
(1483-1530), a Turkic prince of Central Asia said to be descended from the conquerors
Tamerlane (Timur) and Genghis Khan. Babur was driven out of Central Asia and descended
into northern India, where he established Mughal rule. Babur’s grandson, Akbar, is
considered the greatest of the Mughals. Akbar extended his empire to include all of
northern and part of central India. His ability to do this resulted from the centralized
organization of his political and military structures. The emperor ruled through high
officials known as mansabs, who were top administrative or military officials who
governed provinces, occupied key bureaucratic positions, or recruited and trained
soldiers. Akbar’s army relied heavily on the infantry, which was supplied with muskets,
and on heavy artillery, using cannon. Much of his success came from the inability of
competing powers in India to afford artillery or to train and maintain armed infantry.

Akbar was succeeded by his son Jahangir and his grandson Shah Jahan, builder of the famous
Taj Mahal. These two rulers maintained the army and administration created by Akbar. Under
Jahan, the Mughal Empire is said to have reached its highest point culturally.

The concept of the gunpowder empire also has been extended to include non-Islamic nations
that achieved wide territorial power through firepower and centralized administration.
Russia, in the center of the Eurasian landmass, followed a pattern of expansion similar in
ways to that of the Ottomans, the Safavids, and the Mughals. Ivan the Great (1440-1505),
grand duke of Moscow from 1462 to 1505, combined a centralized state with the new
technology of artillery to begin Russia’s rise from a marginal territory dominated by the
Mughals in the south to a major empire.

Ivan’s son, Ivan the Terrible, became the first czar of Russia. In the seventeenth
century, the Romanov Dynasty came to power and accelerated the development of the state
and the army. In particular, during the reign of Czar Alexis, the Russian army became a
permanent, professional force, trained in the use of artillery and muskets. This made
Russia successful in its wars against its western neighbors, Sweden and Poland, and
prepared it for its spread across the east and southeast. Alexis’s son, Peter the Great,
on the throne from 1682 to 1725, pushed the centralization of authority, the organization
of bureaucracy, and the professionalization of the military even further. Under Peter,
Russia created an effective navy armed with artillery.

The maritime empires of the Iberian states, Portugal and Spain, also are frequently
described as gunpowder empires.
Both of these nations
at the southwestern tip of Europe made use of ships designed to carry large cannon to
dominate other parts of the world. During the reign of King Philip II, Spain’s heavily
armed ships made Spain one of the major European powers, as it took over much of the
Americas. By 1600, the vast territories from New Mexico and Florida in the north to the
tip of South America were under Spanish control.
Only Brazil, taken by the Portuguese, was outside the Spanish Empire. Portugal had employed its own ships to establish itself in Goa, on India’s
Malabar Coast; in the Moluccas, in the East Indies (now called Indonesia); and in Macao,
off the coast of China. However, Portugal was forced into a union with Spain from 1580 to
1740. By the end of the seventeenth century, the period of the Iberian empires had passed.
Following the death of Spanish king Charles II, in 1700, other European powers became
involved in fighting over who would succeed Charles and Spain’s period of greatness ended.

By the seventeenth century, the
advancement of firearms technology by well-organized military forces enabled a small
number of states to spread their power over vast portions of the globe. The Ottoman Empire
came to dominate much of the Islamic world. Even after centuries of decline, at the
beginning of World War I, in 1914, the Ottoman Empire still controlled or influenced much
of the Middle East. Although the Safavid Dynasty did not conquer as wide a territory as
did the Ottomans, or survive as long, the Safavids had a lasting influence on the
civilization of Iran and helped to establish Shiite Islam in several countries in the
Middle East.

Similarly, weapons and centralized administration enabled Russia to begin its
transformation from a weak marginal state under the grand duke of Moscow into one of the
world’s largest empires. The rise to power of Spain and Portugal, just before and during
the seventeenth century, placed much of the Western Hemisphere under Iberian
control and
resulted in Spanish becoming one of the world’s most widely spoken languages.

Carl L. Bankston III

Further Reading
Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W.
W. Norton, 1996. Offers an alternative to the
gunpowder empire explanation of
political dominance, placing an emphasis on the role of the physical environment in
shaping the development of nations.

Hodgson, Marshall G. S. The Venture
of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization
. Vol. 3 in The Gunpowder
Empires and Modern Times
. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974. The key work on
gunpowder empires in the Islamic world and on the concept of the “gunpowder
empire” in the development of civilizations around the world.

McNeill, William H. The Age of Gunpowder Empires, 1450-1800. Washington, D.C.: American Historical Association.
Describes how different nations adapted the cultural, political, and military systems to the use of gunpowder and how gunpowder changed the global balance of power.

_______. The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society Since A.D. 1000.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. Considers how military conflict and technology have been connected in bringing about change in human societies.

_______. A World History. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. A grand narrative of world civilizations. Part 3 explores gunpowder empires and world history.

See Also: 17th century: Rise of Proto-Industrial Economies; 1623-1640: Reign of Murad
IV; 1632-c. 1650: Shah Jahan Builds the Taj Mahal; 1629: Safavid Dynasty Flourishes Under
Abbas the Great; January 14, 1641: Capture of Malacca Leads to Dutch Trade Dominance;
1642-1666: Reign of Shah Abbas II; February 13, 1668: Spain Recognizes Portugal’s
Independence; 1687-1697: Decline of the Ottoman Empire.

Related Articles
In Great Lives from History: The 17th Century, 1601-1700: Abbas the Great; Alexis;
Charles II (of Spain); Shah Jahan.



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