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Cannon and the Fall of Constantinople

Almost simultaneous with the great French triumphs, came the news that gunpowder had contributed to another remarkable victory, this time against what was rightly regarded as the stoutest fortress in the world, Constantinople.

For centuries the gigantic triple walls of Constantinople had permitted the Byzantine Empire, heir to Rome , to survive repeated onslaughts of barbarian, Persian, Arab, and Turk, never falling save to Christian armies aided by civil strife within the city. By the 15th Century the old empire was feeble, with but litle territory from which to draw strength. The Byzantine army, moreover, had failed to keep up with technological advances, acquiring few cannon, which were unsuited for use on the ancient walls.

Not so the Turks, who share with the French the distinction of raising the first modern army. The Ottoman Turks had originally been nomadic light cavalrymen. Securing territories from the Byzantines in the early 14th Century, they had adopted more sedentary ways. The Turks proved to be aggresive conquerors, and gradually eroded the Byzantine Empire down to little more than the city of Constantinople itself. They several times essayed attempts to take the city, but its stout defenses proved too much for them. Despite this problem, Turkish armies were uniformly successful and they gradually came to dominate southeastern Europe and Asia Minor. Turkish success was based on their extensive use of light cavalry and their possession of what was perhaps the finest infantry in the world at the time, the Janissary Corps. The Janissaries were recruited through the devsirme system, a form of taxation in which the eldest son of each Christian family in the sultanate had to be yielded up for the Sultan's service, to be raised as a Muslim and trained to fight his masters' battles . The Janissaries were among the first infantrymen to be regularly armed with handguns and proved themselves useful in numberless battles. But the Janissaries could not take Constantinople, which was so magnificently fortified that a relative handful of men could hold it against countless attackers.

Nevertheless, when the young and ambitious Mohammed II (reigned 1451-1481) came to the throne he resolved to take the city regardless of cost. And it did cost, though by now the revenues of the sultanate were enormous. Mohammed secured the services of a Christian gunfounder, Urban of Hungary, who seems to have learned his trade in France. Urban designed and cast 70 great cannon. The largest piece, named "Basilica", was of cast iron reinforced with hoops, weighing in excess of 19 tons and firing a ball of some 800 pounds. The gun was something of a white elephant; it required 42 days for a team of 60 oxen to drag the thing 120 miles, despite the fact that the barrel was made in two pieces which screwed together, thereby making it theoretically easier to move. Morover, it took hours to load and its maximum rate of fire was no more than three shots a day. On top of that the barrel began to crack after only two day's firing and the piece had to be reinforced. A matched set of eleven bombards firing 500 pound balls were a bit more useful, but the best of the lot were some fifty 200-pounders. Mohammed dragged his guns into position in the Spring of 1453, setting up fourteen separate batteries. On 1 April these commenced the greatest bombardment hitherto known. Despite "Basilica's" problems, Urban had done his work well and his cannon soon proved their effectiveness. Unfortunately he did not live to see their success, for one burst during the siege, killing him. Cannon were getting better, but safety was still very much a matter of luck.

The defense of Constantinople was heroic, but doomed. With but few cannon, and those frequently too heavy to be mounted on the walls, the defenders did what they could. The first breach was made at the military gate of St. Romanus on 11 April. Through herculean efforts the defenders beat off a storming party and managed to patch the walls. Other breaches followed, and though each time the defenders beat off attempts to storm the breech and repaired the damage, the overall effect was to further weaken the aged walls. Finally, on Tuesday, 29 May the weakened structure on both sides of the St. Romanus gate collapsed, the Janissaries swept over the pitiably few defenders. The city fell amid great slaughter. Thus, by the middle of the 15th Century the gun was everywhere triumphant over masonry. Its primacy would be confirmed over the next half-century.