How Constantinople Fell: Sultan Mehmet’s “Bombard” Cannons Did the Trick

How Constantinople Fell: Sultan Mehmet’s “Bombard” Cannons Did the Trick

Warfare History Network, William E. Welsh

History, Europe


Key point: The fall of Constantinople was a catastrophic moment for the West and it was made possible by new cannons called bombards.

In the 15th century the great powers of medieval Europe paid talented gunsmiths to build massive bombards to batter walls and shorten the length of sieges. The introduction of bombards meant that artillery replaced mining as the surest way to breach a stronghold.

Bombards were massive guns, the largest of which weighed 20 tons or more. Smaller guns were referred to during the period as cannons. Bombards were transported on massive carts to the siege site where engineers transferred them by crane onto a wooden platform or frame. Wheeled carriages could not withstand the devastating recoil of these behemoths.

Upon the death of his father Sultan Murad II in 1451, Sultan Mehmet II began making preparations to capture Constantinople, the last and mightiest bastion of the Byzantine Empire. He hired a Hungarian named Urban to oversee the production of bombards and cannons for his campaign against Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI’s army at Constantinople.

The largest bombard made for the siege was a 27-foot-long bronze gun that fired a 1,500-pound stone ball. Urban oversaw the manufacture of 70 bombards and cannons specifically for the siege. The walls of Constantinople had withstood 20 earlier sieges, but the bombards Mehmet commissioned would give the Ottomans a major advantage.

For a 15th-century artillery piece to be effective, it had to use gunpowder made from purified saltpeter. The purified saltpeter was mixed with sulfur and charcoal to create gunpowder. The ingredients in the gunpowder used for bombards tended to separate during the bumpy ride to the battlefield, so the crews transported the ingredients separately and mixed them on site.

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