Cannons have been in use in warfare for hundreds of years. For a period of time, the cannon was the dominant weapon on land and sea. New innovations, changes in tactics, and technological advances, however, have changed the role of the cannon. Let's take a brief look at the history of the cannon, its "glory days," and how it is used today.

The word "cannon" is derived from the Latin "canna," meaning tube.

The Chinese Factor

The Chinese invented gunpowder, and along with that, weapons that used gunpowder. The earliest known drawing of a "cannon" dates to the 12th century, and shows a demon with a weapon that fired flames and a cannonball. The first documented use of a cannon in battle was by the Chinese in 1132, though cannons were likely used prior to that. The Chinese also protected their country from the Mongols by placing more than 3,000 cannons along the Great Wall. During the mid-13th century, the Mongols used cannons themselves in sieging Chinese cities, eventually ruling China for nearly 100 years.

The Arabs were introduced to gunpowder and cannons during the Mongol invasion of Western Asia. Europe was also introduced to gunpowder by the Mongols, and the first use of cannons in Europe was believed to be in the Iberian Peninsula during the Christian wars against the Muslims in the 13th century.

The Glory Days of the Cannon

By the latter part of the Middle Ages, the use of the cannon became commonplace throughout the world.

On Land

Cannons replaced the siege tower and trebuchet as the siege weapon of choice. In 1521, Italian philosopher Machiavelli wrote, "There is no wall, whatever its thickness that artillery will not destroy in only a few days." This realization helped end the era of the castle. New types of fortifications, called "star forts" for their shape, emerged that had lower, thicker, sloped walls to better stand up to bombardment. Many of them incorporated cannon batteries for defense.

Napoleon was one of the first generals to realize the full potential of the cannon in land battles. He became a hero during the French Revolution when he used cannons firing grapeshot to defend Paris from an overwhelming, but poorly trained, mob of royalists. He continued to use artillery, organizing them in batteries, improving them, and making his artillery some of the finest fighting units in Europe.

The field artillery during the American Civil War adopted Napoleon's philosophy of mobility, moving to different areas of a battlefield as the need dictated. Around this time, improvements were made that allowed the mass-production of rifled cannons, which had far more accuracy and firing range.

During World War I and II, the cannon remained mobile, with horses being replaced by tanks, and the tank's counterpart, mobile anti-tank vehicles. At the same time, there was a rush to make bigger and bigger cannons. During World War I, Germany built the cannon nicknamed Big Bertha. A total of 12 were made, each weighing 47 tons, and requiring a crew of 240 men. In the late 1930s, Germany designed a railroad-based cannon that could fire 7 ton shells over 25 miles. The majority of combat deaths in the two World Wars were from artillery.

During the Civil War, the Confederates attempted to create a double-barreled cannon that connected the shot fired from each barrel with a chain. This was designed to whip through infantry, decimating the ranks. It was used just once, and today is on display in Athens, Georgia.

On the Sea

From 1571 to 1862, during the "Age of the Sail, cannons were the main weapon on the sea, as well. Before rifling, cannons were not very accurate. To save on weight, many naval cannons had shortened barrels, making them even more inaccurate and reducing the firing range (generally the longer the barrel, the further the cannon could fire). This resulted in the types of tactics portrayed in Hollywood movies like The Pirates of the Caribbean and Master and Commander. Ships were built with multiple decks lined with cannons that would unleash withering fire from close range to counter the lack of accuracy and range. By the 1800s, some naval ships had more than 100 cannons on board.

As it did on land, the cannon changed warfare. The development and use of explosive shells by cannons effectively spelled the end for wooden ships, leading to the rise of the ironclad.

The HMS Victory, with 104 cannons, was put into service in 1765 and is the oldest commissioned warship in the world, serving today as a floating museum in Portsmouth, England.

In the Air

Though experimented with during World War I, cannons first began being widely used in planes during World War II. There were obvious limitations to the number of cannons that could be mounted, due to the size, weight, and the amount of ammo that could be carried. Nevertheless, because of the increased capacity to inflict damage, especially against armored bombers, the U.S., Germany, Great Britain, and Japan all had their versions of flying cannons. Fighters had them mounted on wings, under the fuselage, and in the nose cone. The autocannon, smaller than field artillery, but larger than machine guns, increased the firepower. Aircraft fitted with cannons were also used in anti-submarine and anti-tank roles. For example, the Americans converted B-52s to use the same cannon found on the Sherman tank, as well as front-facing heavy caliber machine guns, for use as tank busters.

The AC-130 Specter has the largest weapon ever mounted on a plane, a 105mm howitzer. It has seen combat in multiple venues, including Vietnam, Iraq, Kosovo, and Afghanistan.

The Role of the Cannons Today

While there are no longer large batteries of cannons bombarding troops, or ships going toe-to-toe in broadside battles, the cannon still plays an important part in warfare today.

After World War II, there was a shift from huge cannons back towards smaller, more maneuverable artillery. Since 2005, the U.S. has been using the M777, an ultralight howitzer that uses titanium for weight control. It is transported to the battlefield by helicopter.

The navy has turned to cruise missiles; however, new warships are incorporating improved cannons that have been tested to a range of 65 miles with circular area of accuracy within 160 feet. Firing at 10 rounds per minute, its rate is the equivalent of a battery of six standard howitzers. Its ammo is also far less expensive than a cruise missile.

Air forces, too, still use cannons. Some fighters in the 1950s were missile-only equipped, but when close combat situations arose, they found themselves at a loss. Almost every modern fighter today uses autocannons as a primary weapon.