From a small tribe to a huge Empire, the Mongol empire in the 13th and 14th centuries spent most of its labor forces on outward expansion. At that time, the Mongol army was invincible on the battlefield and conquered most kingdoms without difficulties. Their strength came from many aspects. Strong horses, war-skilled man, wise tactics, these are all the reason behind Mongol’s strong military power. However, their conquest could never go such smoothly without the usage of one essential technology – gunpowder. As gunpowder played an important role in the Mongol expansion, the Mongols’ use of gunpowder on the battlefield also notably promoted the popularization of it.


Dispute Over Whether Mongols Used Gunpowder


In common sense, we believe that gunpowder was a great aid for the Mongols to establish a huge empire spread across Asia and Europe. But some historians dissent the idea that Mongols used gunpowder to accomplish their expansion and deny their role in the spread of gunpowder technology. The reasons for them are, partly, that none of the historical sources, including Yuanshi, History of the world conqueror, and Collection of Chronicles, mentioned it in their texts. Kate Raphael said that the historical sources didn’t “note anything unusual or new concerning the arsenal of Hulegu s army.”[1] This implies she expects the gunpowder usage by the Mongols to be something strange and shocking, like the usage of cannons that appeared later in Europe. However, that’s not the way gunpowder worked in that period. In the Mongol Army, gunpowder was served as an incendiary, applied on the arrows to ignite wood stuff while performing their siege strategy.[2] Although there is no enough evidence for the Mongols using gunpowder weapons like cannons, the accounts with regards to firing arrows are not scarce, indicating the use of gunpowder by the Mongols.[3]

[1] Kate Raphael (2009), 361

[2] Tonio Andrade (2016), 44

[3] Tonio Andrade (2016), 44-45


Also, the warfare between the Mongol Empire and the Jin dynasty enabled the Mongols to obtain gunpowder knowledge. Every time they conquered a city, they would enslave the solider and technicians to work for them.[4] As Jin being a dynasty with advanced gunpowder technique, it would be reasonable to conclude that the technicians that the Mongols captured transmitted the knowledge of gunpowder to the Mongols.[3] Based on these sources, It is highly possible Mongols did use gunpowder during their expansion.


[4] Peter Jackson (2018), 225


Possible Ways of the Introduction of Gunpowder in Europe


How did gunpowder arrive in Europe is still a mysterious question. No precise official or personal records could answer this question, so the historians developed several hypotheses about this. Some historians claim that gunpowder made its way from the Arabian world to Europe through the silk road. The Mongols operated gunpowder weapons in the attack toward Syria in 1256, which possibly include huo pao and huo ch’iang when they were performing the siege.[5] Later, during the period known as “Pax Mongolica”, gunpowder technology was transmitted from the Arabian world to Europe through silk road by the merchants.[6] Another hypothesis is that it was directly introduced into Europe through the battle of Mohi in 1241. The use of gunpowder weapons and Chinese firearms in the battle of Mohi was mentioned in some secondary sources, but they are all based on the authors’ deduction instead of clear primary sources.[7][8]


There are still some hypotheses saying that gunpowder in Europe was developed locally. Nevertheless, this was proved impossible since the formula of gunpowder in china varied widely while the variation level in Europe is much lower than the level in China, indicating that the gunpowder used in Europe was a mature technology. Thus it can’t be originated from Europe.[9]


The earliest record of gunpowder in Europe was in 1267, long after all the hypothetical date.[8] We might never know the exact date that gunpowder arrived in Europe, but whichever of the hypotheses is true proves that the Mongol Empire did play an important role in European gunpowder history.


[5] Iqtidar Alam Khan (1996), 45

[6] John Norris (2003), 11

[7] William Hardy McNeill (1991), 492

[8] Kenneth Warren Chase (2009), 58

[9] Tonio Andrade (2016), 76


Development after gunpowder introduction in Europe


After the arrival of gunpowder, the first explicit reference to guns emerged around 1326.[10] It draws a gun with a man holding a long stick to ignite it.[11] Before long, guns and gunpowder weapons spread everywhere in Europe. Within ten years, the European gunpowder weapons evolved from simple guns to cannons.[12] The reason behind this rapid development was the tense social context of Europe at that time. As Europe experienced a warring period, every kingdom competed for military power, so technical innovations on gunpowder warfare were nursed at that time.[13]


Fig.1 Earliest depiction of a European cannon

[10] Nicola Di Cosmo (2002), 275

[11] Tonio Andrade (2016), 77

[12] Tonio Andrade (2016), 78

[13] David Fedman (2016), 1105


Fig.2 European handgun in 1380

[14] Jack Kelly (2004), 61

In the late 14th century, Europeans improved the gunpowder through a process called corning, which could greatly increase the power of gunpowder.[14] From then on, they deviated from the original design of guns in China, which was used for individuals, and turned into something larger and more powerful – cannons.[13] Through their perseverance, the gunpowder and gun technology in Europe soon surpassed China.[13] Then followed by the renaissance and the industrial revolution, European kingdoms formed a complete system for gunpowder weapons with a large scale gunpowder army.


Absence of gunpowder in Marco Polo’s account


In Marco Polo’s book, The Description of the World, we couldn’t find any gunpowder or fireworks account. If he really gained a high status as he described in his book, it was unlikely for him to know nothing about such an essential technology employed by the Yuan dynasty. Thus, he might exaggerate his importance to Yuan. With no denial that he did go to Da Yuan and perhaps was an official of it, his position would be negligible compared to what he said.[15][16]


As mentioned above, gunpowder usage was rudimentary in the Mongol Empire at that time, which was simply used as something inflammable to ignite wooden or bamboo buildings. Due to its crypticity nature, Marco Polo could see the gunpowder without knowing what it is. So it is not surprising that he didn’t describe gunpowder in his book.

[15] Marco Polo, Kindle position 3754

[16] David Morgan (2007), Kindle position 1965

* Notes on Marco Polo and The Book of Marco Polo are not cited as sources since none of them mention gunpowder.




Throughout the research, we validate the use of gunpowder by the Mongols, feasible hypotheses for the induction of gunpowder in Europe, and the later developments on gunpowder weapons in Europe. These findings confirm the significance of Mongols in the westward transmission of gunpowder, and thus the Mongols completed a one-sided exchange of technology. The transmission itself triggered the comprehensive military reform and promoted social reform and scientific progress in Europe, which directly led to the renaissance and industrial revolution that happened a few centuries later. Without the gunpowder, European feudal rulers would not be overturned, so the following ideological and industrial revolution would not happen in Europe. The gunpowder pushed forward the modernization of Europe and enabled them to produce more powerful firearms. In the 19th century, the UK invaded Da Qing with their advanced firearms, transmitting gunpowder technology back to where it originated. After four hundred years, the gunpowder finally made its way into the transcontinental connection among Eurasia. From Da Yuan to Europe first and then back from Europe to Da Qing, it formed a two-sided technological exchange that we may call a connection. Without the Mongol conquest, this connection might never be formed. In sum, the Mongol empire did play a significant role in the transcontinental connection in Eurasia.



Reference List


Primary Source:

Polo, Marco, and Paul Pelliot. The Description of the World. Translated by Sharon Kinoshita, Hackett Publishing Company, 2016.


Andrade, Tonio. Gunpowder Age. Princeton University PRES, 2016.

Jackson, Peter. The Mongols and the Islamic World: From Conquest to Conversion. Yale University Press, 2018.

Norris, John. Early Gunpowder Artillery, C.1300-1600. Crowood, 2003.

McNeill, William Hardy. The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community. University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Chase, Kenneth Warren. Firearms: a Global History to 1700. Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Cosmo, Nicola Di. Warfare in Inner Asian History: 500-1800. Brill, 2002.

Kelly, Jack. Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards and Pyrotechnics: the History of the Explosive That Changed the World. BasicBooks, 2005.

Morgan, David. The Mongols. Blackwell, 2007.

Internet Publications:

Raphael, Kate. “Mongol Siege Warfare on the Banks of the Euphrates and the Question of Gunpowder (1260–1312).” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 2009, pp. 355–370., doi:10.1017/s1356186309009717.


Journal Articles:

Fedman, David. “Review on Gunpowder Age. The Journal of Asian Studies, 2016, pp. 1105–1106. JSTOR, Accessed 22 Dec. 2020.