There are a number of timelines of handguns on-line, but most have only a single date for the 14th century (and not even the dates listed by the others). Then I found this one, by the Medieval Combat Society. Good stuff! I won’t repeat it all below–most of these dates have come from multiple sources.
Current archaeological and textual evidence shows that gunpowder originated in China, and migrated across Europe, first by word of mouth, then in actual form, arriving in England by the late 13th c.
First, from the Royal Armouries Yearbook, Volume 1, 1996:
Graeme Rimer’s article “Early Handguns” compiles textual evidence from the writings of Roger Bacon, dating between 1257-1265 and referring to the making of black powder, and its use in toys. The second source he mentions is Marcus Graecus, in Liber Ignium or “book of fires”, which certainly sounds like a promising title!–and dates to around 1300, then there is the oft-noted reference in Albertus Magnus De mirabiibus mundi. If he’s actually the author of this work, it has to have been written before his death in 1280.
One of the problems of textual evidence is that written references are often scattered. People might not have noted the first time something was done, made or seen, they often wrote chronicles and other documents long after the date they are describing, making textual evidence notoriously difficult to pin down.
An illuminated manuscript of about 1326-7 made for Edward III by Walter de Milemete shows a soldier firing a small cannon. Though the detail is lacking, the image is unmistakable. In this case, the cannon is firing an arrow (likely with a metal shaft and brass fletching). One site I surfed stated that the English used cannon like this against the Scots the following year.
In 1340, the Battle of Sluys, an important naval victory for the English, ship inventories include references to firearms.
However, we also have archaeological evidence that gunpowder was being manufactured at the Tower of London by 1346, the same year at the battle of Crecy, during which the British are said to have used firearms against the French–theoretically, the debut of gunpowder in battle in Europe. We know Edward III used them at the Calais the following year. (Italian references show bullets and cannon being ordered for city defense in Florence as early as 1326–and in such a quantity as to suggest that their manufacture was well established.)
Gunpowder weapons don’t seem to have been a decisive factor in these battles (that distinction goes to the much more efficient and effective longbow), although the guns at Crecy are said to have frightened a troop of Genoese mercenaries so badly that they fled the line. By 1386, handguns are also listed in the royal treasury.
In order to make the decision to produce or procure these weapons, train the men to use them, and transport them to the front, the weapons must have already taken hold. Handguns of the time are very like miniature cannon: cast in bronze or iron, with a small touch-hole at the back, the barrel would have been strapped to a staff to be braced for firing. I saw just such a weapon in a museum at Bury St. Edmunds, but was unable to find anyone to answer questions about it, and the signage was uninformative. It looked very like the one in Germany I wrote about here. Perhaps I have an enterprising reader in that area who wants to do some legwork on that.
English Weapons and Warfare, 449-1660, by A.V.B. Norman and Don Pottinger
Handgonnes in the Middle Ages, by Don Justinian Syke of Rakovec (produced by the Society for Creative Anachronism)
collections and publications of the Royal Armouries
Haven’t seen this one yet, but I’d like to: