The Gunpowder Empires of the 16-17 Century

May 31, 2018 General Studies

The term Gunpowder Empire refers to the military exploits of the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal Empires in the 16-17th century when these three empires flourished. Previously, the strength of their armies relied on well trained, horse mounted soldiers. During the 17 century, this changed to a new military resource of gunpowder and weapons. Large canons could destroy fortresses and walled cities and armed soldiers could use small handguns to shot and kill the opposition who had no gunpowder weapons. Each of these three Near/Middle Eastern, Islamic empires made use of the technology of gunpowder and firearms to create and strengthen their empires.

To maintain a gunpowder empire the leader had to consolidate and centralize his power base in order to keep an economy going to buy and manufacture the weapons as well as train the soldiers in their use. The central monarch controlled the government all its resources. By creating strong central administrations, he was able to finance, equip, train and mobilize gunpowder armies. The Safavids of Iran, beginning with Shah Ismail I set up a gunpowder empire in the early 16th century which continued under Shah Abbas the Great until 1722.

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The Shah’s army carried muskets and used large artillery weapons like the canon. Shah Abbas hired English advisors to train soldiers in firearms. The Mughals of India under Babur and then Akbar was able to consolidate power in Central Asia with the use of gunpowder and firearms. Akbar centralized his administration with high officials called mansabs who organized provinces who held key positions and trained soldiers. Part of the Mughals success was because competing powers could not afford to buy or make guns or train and maintain an army.

The Ottomans, first under Selim and through to Suleiman the Magnificent captured Constantinople and were powerful in the Eastern Mediterranean with the use of gunpowder and firearms. Suleiman’s conquest of Christian populations, and his tolerance for conquered peoples’ differences, allowed him to recruit a new group of gun carrying infantrymen from his new subjects. Well trained Janissaries, a slave recruited army, were conscripted into service as expert in the use of firearms. The technology of gunpowder weapons and the centralizing of administrations helped transform weaker states to strong empires.


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