The experience gained through the handling of comparatively large bronze castings must have proved of much value when the discovery of gunpowder in Europe brought cannon into use. Cannon appear to have been first cast in iron and were originally quite small. Very early bronze guns are also known and the weapons, which were used by Edward III at Cambrai and Crecy, may possibly have led to the industry becoming established in England soon afterwards. Similar guns were used by the German armies in Italy even earlier, at the siege of Cividale in 1331.
Probably the first recorded instance of brass guns being manufactured in England was in 1385, when three brass cannon are stated to have been made by the Sheriff of Cumberland. From these small beginnings has grown the modern armaments industry which, during the two world wars in the 20th Century, consumed immense quantities of copper, brass and many special copper alloys, primarily for shell and cartridge cases.
Most of the early cannon were breech-loaders. They were cast in two pieces, the barrel being attached after loading to the chamber which contained the charge. Later they were cast in one piece and finished by boring; but they were never very accurate even in Nelson's day, hence the famous order, 'Reserve your fire until you can see the buttons on the Frenchmen's coats'.
As soon as the effect of the early guns was appreciated their size grew, particularly during the 15th Century, There stands on Tower Green, London, a Turkish breech-loading gun made of bronze in two parts which were screwed together after loading. This great weapon was made in 1464 for Sultan Muhammed Khan. It was one of forty-two similar guns mounted at the Dardanelles, twenty-two on the north shore and twenty on the south. Each gun weighed about 18 tons, had a bore of 25 in. and fired a round stone ball weighing about 6 cwt. Even after three hundred years, in 1807, the battery was employed with great effect against a British squadron and caused considerable losses, one shot alone killing and wounding sixty men.
The English ordnance founders were fully occupied during early Tudor times; but when Henry VIII decided to improve and enlarge the Navy he was constantly irritated by delays in the supply of cannon from abroad. England's dependence upon foreign supplies of copper, moreover, caused much uneasiness; hence both Henry and his successors encouraged mining of English copper, also of tin and calamine, with the consequences already noted. Elizabeth I always had a strong sense of strengthening her defences. Her great and farseeing Secretary of State, Cecil, was also personally involved in the development of the two joint stock companies, the Mines Royal and the Mineral Battery Company, both politically and financially.
In recent years quite a number of bronze cannon from this period have been retrieved from the sea-bed, covered in weeds and barnacles ' but otherwise little worse for their centuries of immersion in salt water. One famous old ship, the Mary Rose, sank off Spithead in 1545. The recovery of her armament showed that she carried four kinds of brass or bronze muzzle-loaders-cannon royal, demi-cannon, culverins and culverinbastards. The smallest guns, which were no larger than the modern ship's saluting gun, were invariably pointed towards the waist of the ship, as a warning to unruly crews to behave.
Two bronze cannon, cast in 1535 and 1628 respectively, were recently recovered from the wreck of an old Swedish warship, and were found to be only slightly corroded. The alloys used for these guns contained 84 per cent and 14 per cent of copper respectively with up to 14 per cent of tin and a little lead.
Dover Castle still possesses an ancient bronze cannon of 4 3/4 in. bore and 23 ft long, which is familiarly known as 'Queen Elizabeth's Pocket Pistol'.