Cannon of Granada

They thought that the thunder and the lightning had come down from the skies;
whereas the thunder and lightning are all around them being created by man.
These are things of wondrous shapes,
sent high by Hermes and engineered to demolish mountains when they hit.
Yes, it is this world that always shows you miracles,
since nature’s innate powers are destined to appear

Abu Zakariyya Yahya ibn Hudhayl
poem to celebrate the fall of Huescar, 1324

Historians dispute exactly when European armies first deployed gunpowder weapons, dating them to the late 14th century. The French appear to have been the first to make use of cannon, against the English at Perigord in 1339. Gunpowder weapons first had a major impact during the wars of Jan Hus in Bohemia between 1419 and 1434, and in some of the later battles of the Hundred Years’ War particularly at Formigny in 1450.

Ferdinand of Aragon brought along a large siege train of modern artillery for the Spanish invasion of Granada in 1481. These were bombards, big heavy pieces designed to smash city walls and other fortifications by heaving large stone balls at them. Most of the gunners appear to have been European mercenaries, lured by high pay, religious conviction or some combination of the two.

Slow and Unsteady

A heavy wrought-iron bombard of the early 1400s, a type that would later be classed as a siege mortar.

A typical bombard was a two-piece iron tube mounted on a heavy wooden frame. Wheeled carriages for artillery appeared only in the late 1490s, after the end of Granada’s last war. The larger section, known as the barrel, was loaded from the muzzle end with the heavy ball. The second, smaller section, known as the powder chamber, went behind it and contained of course the gunpowder charge. Bombards were constructed in this manner to allow a narrow powder chamber, thus concentrating the force of the explosion, and a large-diameter barrel to allow use of large projectiles.

Although the two pieces were assembled into one during manufacture, the era’s technology would not allow a perfect seal between them, and gas leakage was a serious problem.

Bombards were made of hammer-forged wrought iron, usually “banded” for greater strength. Because of the forging method, the barrels could not be made of uniform thickness and weak spots were common. If the explosive force broke through one of these spots, the entire gun could explode with devastating effects on the crew (and also on the army’s morale). Barrel explosions were common, and gunners received such high pay because of the danger involved.

By the late 1400s, manufacturers had begun to turn out cast-bronze bombards, which featured much more consistency and thus were less prone to explode. All of the cannon deployed in Granada appear to have been of wrought iron, however.

A bombard required a crew of between 10 and 20, only a few of whom needed to be highly paid specialists — most were laborers needed to shift the heavy gun. They fired projectiles of about 200 pounds, to a range of about 200 meters. Rate of fire was very low; even a skilled crew needed about 30 minutes to prepare and fire the gun. In the Castillian forces assembled by Ferdinand and Isabella the gunners were civilian contractors, not subject to military discipline.

Islamic Artillery

An Austrian bombard of about 1450; very similar to those used by Ferdinand of Aragon.

In siege warfare, a bombard could do terrific damage to the stone battlements of European fortresses, which had not been designed to resist projectiles. In field battle they were less useful but still could be important for a defending army, as their flash and noise frightened both horses and inexperienced soldiers. The Egyptian Mamelukes deployed artillery very effectively to this purpose in 1260 at the Battle of Ayn Jalut, stampeding the horses of the Mongols and inflicting the first defeat suffered by the horde.

During the early Renaissance period, the Islamic world retained a significant technological edge over the European Christians. The Muslim Kingdom of Granada used gunpowder weapons well before its Christian adversaries. During King Ferdinand III’s 17-month siege of Seville in 1248 and 1249 the Muslim defenders deployed both cannon and rockets against the Christians but ultimately could not keep the great city from falling. Many Spanish historians do not accept this early event and instead point to the siege of Niebla in 1262, when the defenders deployed “engines that projected stones and fire accompanied by thundering noises.”

The dispute here is not whether gunpowder was used, but whether or not it provided the propellant force for the weapon. The chronicles are unclear but hint that the Granadans may have been flinging pots of gunpowder with standard catapults and similar devices. In later centuries, European and especially Spanish historians scoffed at the notion that Muslim armies might have been more technologically advanced than their Christian enemies. But even the children of Granada deployed gunpowder fireworks to celebrate holidays by the late 13th century.

By 1324, King Abu al-Walid Ismail ibn Nasr of Granada was definitely deploying cannon in the siege of Huescar. “He headed towards the enemy territory and challenged the fort of Huescar that stands as a bone in the throat of Baza, which he besieged and attacked,” one of his young pages, Lisan al-Din ibn al-Khatib, wrote later. “He struck the arch of the invincible tower with a red-hot iron ball bombarded by the great engine that operates by gunpowder.”

His successor, Muhammed IV, used cannon in his own siege of Alicante in 1331, and the defenders of Al-Jazira (Algeciras) deployed both cannon and hand-operated guns during the 20-month siege of 1341 and 42. Spanish kings began to hire Moorish mercenaries from Granada to introduce cannon to their own arsenals.

Guns at Granada

Granada’s elite Jewish light cavalry skirmishes at the Battle of Higueruela, 1431.

During the 1481 to 1492 war, Granada did not deploy cannon on nearly the same scale as did the Spanish invaders, but the weapons were well known in the kingdom and available for use. In our Granada game, the Moorish player does not have siege guns in his arsenal, though the Spaniard has three of them (and they are vital if the Spanish player hopes to win the game).

As a game variant, add two siege guns to the Moorish player’s order of battle. They are available only as reinforcements, one of them appearing at Granada on a reinforcement die roll result of 8 or better. You can download the new Moorish artillery pieces here.

Don’t wait to put Granada on your game table! Join the Gold Club and find out how to get it for free.

Sign up for our newsletter right here. Your info will never be sold or transferred; we'll just use it to update you on new games and new offers.

Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold has a very fine nose.