Another big bang theory

April 29, 2005

This accessible book covers much ground, despite its generous type and the small size of the pages. It follows the lead of books such as Cod in using a single product to spin a rich narrative web. The problem with this approach is that it can lead to an exaggeration of the importance of the author's subject, and this is true of Jack Kelly's treatment of gunpowder.

The emphasis on its impact is linked to a conventional view of European development in which cannon were the cause of modernisation, bringing down castle walls, favouring "strong centralised states" and helping to build "the foundations of modern nations". Kelly would have done well to resist the tendency to exaggerate the role of the cannon, and by introducing a wider context within which to compare the trajectories of different societies with knowledge of gunpowder.

Although it is true that gunpowder provided the basis for hand-held firearms, the technique of massed projectile weaponry was not new.

Moreover, it was some time before handheld firearms were self-evidently superior to longbows and crossbows. They were, variously, heavier, slower to fire and inconsistent in terms of accuracy.

Aside from problems rooted in the mechanical properties of the weapons, the chemical nature of the gunpowder reaction - and the lack of consistent purity of its chemical reagents - was also an issue. On the battlefield, the relative immobility of cannon restricted their usefulness. New machines of war have often enjoyed an impact on the imagination greater than that on the battlefield, particularly if their use is accompanied by dramatic sounds and sights. This was as true of the early use of firearms as it was later to be of the tank.

Kelly stresses the role of gunpowder supplies in the American War of Independence, but the writing is overblown and unbalanced, possibly reflecting his background as a novelist. He writes: "Gunpowder had become the principal means of making war and the volatile fuel of social unrest - only determination and a careful marshalling of available powder allowed the Americans to prevail."

In the case of the French Revolution, Kelly discusses Lavoisier and the digging up of barnyards to obtain saltpetre. He also adds extraneous material such as the details of how the Governor of the Bastille was killed in a passage concluding portentously: "The show had begun."

More generally, Gunpowder's flaws are a reminder that an emphasis on technology can lead to an underplaying of the tactical and organisational factors crucial to its effective use. Arguably, gunpowder weaponry can be seen as an agent, not a cause, of changes in warfare.

Kelly is clearly an effective writer of popular history. His account of gunpowder is interesting, his range impressive and most of his details accurate, but the willingness to contest an interpretation and to invite debate strengthens a book.

Jeremy Black is professor of history, Exeter University.

Gunpowder: A History of the Explosive that Changed the World

Author - Jack Kelly
Publisher - Atlantic Books
Pages - 260
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 1 84354 190 4

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