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The Jaivana cannon, cast in 1720 in Jaigarh Fort in India, is the largest wheel-mounted cannon in the world. Note the figure at extreme right for scale.
A cannon is any large tubular firearm designed to fire a heavy projectile over a long distance. They were first used in China, and were the archetypal form of artillery. The first cannon in Europe probably appeared in Islamic and Christian Spain. English cannons were first used during the Hundred Years War, when primitive cannons were used at the Battle of Crécy in 1346. The end of the Middle Ages saw the construction of larger and more powerful cannon, and their spread in warfare throughout the world. Asia saw the construction of some of the world's largest cannon, such as the Indian Jaivana cannon.

The "giant gun" trend was by then disappearing in Europe, in favor of lighter, more manoeuvrable pieces in larger numbers, and the early use of true field artillery. While the medieval Dardanelles Gun had required 200 men to operate it, 18th century English cannon required only a dozen men, including two gunners, while during the Napoleonic Wars five gunners were used.

Cannon are also sometimes used in certain pieces of music, such as Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture and AC/DC's For those about to rock, we salute you.

Etymology and terminology

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Cannon in the Middle Ages
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List of cannon projectiles
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English cannon
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By Type
Field gun

The term cannon comes through Old French from Old Italian cannone, ultimately derived from Latin canna—a tube.[1] The Latinised word canon was used for a gun since 1326 in Italy, and 1418 in England. Bombardum, or "bombard", was earliest used for "cannon", but from 1430 it came to refer only to the largest weapons.[2] "Cannon" serves both as the singular and plural of the noun, although the plural "cannons" can also be used. The term can apply to a modern day rifled machine gun with a calibre of 20 mm or more (see autocannon).

Any large, smooth-bored, muzzle-loading gun used before the advent of breech-loading, rifled guns firing explosive shells may sometimes be referred to as a cannon, though the term specifically refers to a gun designed to fire a 42 lb shot as opposed to a "Demi-cannon" (32 lb), Culverin (18 lb) or Demi-culverin (9 lb).

When on board a warship a cannon is called a gun, while a cannonball is a roundshot.


Main article: History of cannon

Early history

For more details on the history of gunpowder, see Gunpowder.
For more details on development of gunpowder warfare in China, see Technology of Song Dynasty.
Ctesibius of Alexandria invented a primitive form of a cannon, operated by compressed air, before 200 BC.[3]

Like firearms, cannon are a descendant of the fire-lance,[4] a gunpowder-filled tube attached to the end of a spear and used as a flamethrower; shrapnel was sometimes placed in the barrel so that it would fly out together with the flames.[5] Eventually, the paper and bamboo of which fire-lance barrels were originally made came to be replaced by metal.[5] The earliest depiction of a gun is a sculpture from a cave in Sichuan dating to the 1100s of a figure carrying a vase-shaped bombard with flames and a cannonball coming out of it.[6][5] The oldest surviving gun, dated to 1288, has a muzzle bore diameter of 2.5 cm; the second oldest, dated to 1332, has a muzzle bore diameter of 10.5 cm.[8]

The first documented battlefield use of artillery with gunpowder propellant took place on January 28, 1132 when Song General Han Shizhong used escalade and Huochong to capture a city in Fujian. The first illustration of a cannon is dated to 1326.[9] In his 1341 poem The Iron Cannon Affair, one of the first accounts of the use of gunpowder artillery in China, Zhang Xian wrote that a cannonball fired from an eruptor could "pierce the heart or belly when it strikes a man or horse, and can even transfix several persons at once".[10]

Needham suggests that the proto-shells described in the Huolongjing may be among the first of their kind.[11] The Chinese mounted more than 3,000 bronze and iron casted cannons on the Great Wall of China in defence against the Mongols. The weapon was taken up by the Mongol conquerors later, and was also used in Korea.

Middle East

Main article: Muslim military technology

The first explosive portable hand cannons (midfa in Arabic) were used by the Egyptians to repel the Mongols at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260, and again in 1304. The gunpowder compositions used for the cannons at the battles were later described in several manuscripts in the early 14th century. According to Shams al-Din Muhammad (d. 1327), the cannons had an explosive gunpowder composition (74% saltpetre, 11% sulfur, 15% carbon) almost identical to the ideal composition for explosive gunpowder used in modern times (75% saltpetre, 10% sulfur, 15% carbon). The gunpowder compositions for an explosive cannon were not known in China or Europe until the 14th century.[12][13]

Medieval Europe

The first mention of the composition of gunpowder in express terms in Europe appeared in 1216, in Roger Bacon's "De nullitate magiæ" at Oxford.[14] Later in 1248, his "Opus Maior" describes a recipe and recognized military use:
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A reconstruction of the vase cannon that fired arrows.
"We can, with saltpeter and other substances, compose artificially a fire that can be launched over long distances... By only using a very small quantity of this material much light can be created accompanied by a horrible fracas. It is possible with it to destroy a town or an army ... In order to produce this artificial lightning and thunder it is necessary to take saltpeter, sulfur, and Luru Vopo Vir Can Utriet".
Bacon described firecrackers, "used in certain parts of the world". Bacon's mixture resembles the assumed composition of Chinese slow-burning powder as used in fire arrows and rockets, but will probably not function well as cannon gunpowder - the saltpeter content is too low.

The first use of gunpowder in Europe was the Moorish cannon first used by the Andalusians in Spain at the siege of Seville in 1248, and the siege of Niebla in 1262.[12]

By 1250, "coal and sulphur" had been recognised as the best weapon for ship-to-ship combat,[15] while hand guns were probably in use at this time, such as against the Mongols, and Italian scopettieri ("gun bearers") were mentioned in conjunction with crossbowmen in 1281. The Spanish Kings enlisted "the first artillery-masters on the Peninsula" in the mid-14th century.[16]

Cannon saw its first real use on the European battlefield during the Hundred Years War, being only used in small numbers by a few states during the 1340s. "Ribaldis", shot large arrows and simplistic grapeshot, were first mentioned in the English Privy Wardrobe accounts during preparations for the Battle of Crécy between 1345 and 1346.[17] The Florentine Giovanni Villani recounts their destructiveness on the field, indicating that by the end of the battle, "the whole plain was covered by men struck down by arrows and cannon balls."[18]
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The Dardanelles Gun used at Constantinople.
Similar cannon appeared also at the Siege of Calais in the same year, although it would not be until the 1380s that the "ribaudekin" clearly became mounted on wheels.[17] Around the same period, the Byzantine Empire began to accumulate its own cannon to face the Ottoman threat, starting with medium-sized cannon 3 feet long and of 10" calibre.[19] The first definite use of artillery in the region was against the Ottoman siege of Constantinople in 1396, forcing the Turks to withdraw.[19] The Turks acquired their own cannon by the siege of 1422, using "falcons", which were short but wide cannon. By 1453, the Turks used 68 Hungarian-made cannon for the 55-day bombardment of Walls of Constantinople, "hurling the pieces everywhere and killing those who happened to be nearby."[19] The largest of which required an operating crew of 200 men,[20] and 70 oxen and 10,000 men just to transport them.[19] Gunpowder had also made the formerly devastating Greek fire obsolete, and with the final fall of what had once been the strongest walls in Europe on May 29, "it was the end of an era in more ways than one".[21]

Post-Medieval use

See also: , and , and
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1586 Tsar Cannon, the largest howitzer ever made, by Andrey Chokhov.
The end of the Middle Ages saw the construction of larger and more powerful cannon, and their spread in warfare throughout the world. The Tsar Cannon, founded by Russian founding master Andrey Chokhov in 1586, was the largest howitzer ever made. The cannon, which still survives today, was intended to fire grapeshot and to defend the Kremlin, but was never used. In fact, with such a large cannon, it may have been intended as a showpiece of military might and engineering from the beginning.

Conventional siege artillery, such as siege towers and trebuchets, became vulnerable and obsolete with the development of large cannon and changes in fortification. However, wooden "battery-towers" took on a similar role as siege towers in the gunpowder age, such as that used at siege of Kazan in 1552, which could hold ten large-calibre cannon and 50 lighter cannon.[22]

As wheeled gun carriages became more common by the end of the 15th century, field artillery began to emerge.[23] In The Art of War, Niccolò Machiavelli observed that "small pieces of cannon… do more damage than heavy artillery. The best remedy against the latter is making a resolute attack upon it as soon as possible…"[24] As was the case at Flodden in 1513, the English field guns outpaced the Scottish siege artillery firing twice or even thrice as many rounds.[25]

Most notable in this period, however, is the effect of cannon on conventional fortifications. Machiavelli wrote, "There is no wall, whatever its thickness that artillery will not destroy in only a few days".[26] Although castles were not immediatedly made obsolete by cannon, their importance declined.[27] Instead of majestic towers and merlons, the walls of new fortresses were thicker and angulated, while towers became lower and stouter.[27]

Forts featuring cannon batteries were built during the Renaissance, such as the trace italienne of Italy and the Tudors' Device Forts in England.[27] To guard against artillery and gunfire, increasing use was made of earthen, brick and stone breastworks and redoubts, such as the geometric "Star forts" of the 17th century French Marquis de Vauban. These soon replaced castles in Europe, and eventually castles in the Americas were superseded by bastions and forts.[28]

18th and 19th century

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68-pounder naval carronade.
The lower tier of 17th century English ships of the line were usually equipped with demi-cannon — a naval gun which fired a 32-pound solid shot. A full cannon at this time fired a 42-pound shot, but these were discontinued by the 18th century as they were seen as too unwieldy. By the end of the century, principles long adopted in Europe specified the characteristics of cannon of the British ship design and the types and sizes of acceptable defects. The U.S. Navy tested guns by measurement, proof by powder (two or three firings), and using compressed water for leak detection.[29]

The carronade was adopted by the Royal Navy in 1779, and the lower muzzle velocity of the round shot was intended to create many more of the deadly wooden s when hitting the structure of an enemy vessel. It was much shorter and a third to a quarter of the weight of an equivalent long gun: for example, a 32 pounder carronade weighed less than a ton, but a 32 pounder long gun weighed over 3 tons. The guns were thus easier to handle and also required less than half the gunpowder of long guns mounted on naval garrison carriages, allowing fewer men to crew them.[30] Carronades were manufactured in the usual naval gun calibres, but they were not counted in a ship of the line's rated number of guns. As a result, the classification of Royal Navy vessels in this period can mislead, since they would often be carrying more pieces of ordnance than were listed.

The Turkish cannons of the siege of Constantinople, after being on permanent display for four centuries, were used to battle a British fleet in 1807. The artillery hit a British ship with two 700 pound cannonballs, killing 60 sailors. In 1867, Sultan Abdul Aziz gifted Queen Victoria the 17 ton "Dardanelles Gun" - one of the cannons used at the siege of Constantinople.[20]
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U.S. troops fire during the 1899 Battle of Manila, Philippine-American War.
But in contrast to these antiquated weapons, later western guns during the 19th century became massive, destructive, more accurate, and covered a very long range - such as the American 3 inch wrought-iron muzzle-loading howitzer used during the American Civil War with an effective range of over 1.1 miles (1.83Km). In the 1810s and 1820s, greater emphasis was placed on the accuracy of long-range gunfire, and less on the weight of a broadside. The carronade, although initially very successful and widely adopted, disappeared from the Royal Navy from the 1850s after the development of steel, jacketed cannon by William George Armstrong and Joseph Whitworth. Nevertheless, carronades were used in the American Civil War in the 1860s.

The practice of rifling, involving casting spiralling lines inside the barrel, was first applied to artillery in the 1860s, giving new cannon gyroscopic stability and improving their accuracy. The cynical attitude towards recruited infantry in the face of ever more powerful field artillery is the source of the term "cannon fodder", first used by François-René de Chateaubriand in 1814;[31] although the concept of regarding soldiers as nothing more than "food for powder" dates back at least to Shakespeare's time.[32]

The superior cannon technology of Westerners in later years would bring them tremendous advantages in warfare. For example, in the Opium War in China during the 19th century, the British battleships bombarded the coastal areas and fortifications safe from the reach of the Chinese cannon. Similarly, the shortest war on the record, the Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896, was brought to a swift conclusion by shelling from British battleships.[33]

Modern cannon

A modern cannon is a dual-purpose weapon. It can operate as a direct fire, low trajectory gun, high velocity weapon, firing directly at its target like a modern main battle tank. It can also operate as a lower velocity, high trajectory, indirect fire weapon or howitzer. Since World War I, the term has been used to refer to a gun of around 20 mm to 125 mm calibre, sometimes with an automatic loading action capable of firing explosive ammunition, an auto-cannon. Lower muzzle velocity modern artillery is used almost exclusively in the indirect fire mode, while higher-velocity cannons from 20 mm up to 125 mm calibre are used in a direct fire mode. Nevertheless, tanks can fire high trajectory missions and artillery cannons can fire direct fire missions if the battlefield situation calls for it. Both tank and artillery gunners are trained for these non-typical missions.

The minimum calibre of a cannon, 20 mm, has been a de facto standard since World War II, when heavy machine guns of 12.7 mm (0.5 inches) and 13.2 mm calibre were used side by side with 20 mm and larger guns, the latter using explosive ammunition (eg. RAF fighters with 20 mm Hispano cannon and Luftwaffe with 20 mm and 30 mm cannon). The Bofors 40 mm gun and Oerlikon 20 mm cannon are two examples largely used during World War II, and still in use today.
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An American 5-inch Mark 45 gun, immediately after the shell has left the barrel.

Most nations use these modern cannons on their lighter vehicles; typical of the type is the 25 mm 'Bushmaster' chain gun mounted on the LAV and Bradley armoured vehicles.[34] At the same time, the guns used aboard the Iowa class USS Wisconsin and USS Missouri were capable of firing projectiles a distance of 39 km.[35]

Significant innovations have been made regarding the cannon's place in modern warfare. "Superguns" have been developed since the early 20th century, and the 20 cm (200mm) calibre "Paris Gun" of World War I had the greatest range of a gun, achieving 122 km.[36] Testing has also been carried out on nuclear cannon in the 1950s, as in the United States' Operation Upshot-Knothole. Today, United States 152 mm artillery fires Shillelagh missiles, which are guided to their targets by infra-red beams, while the Super High Altitude Research Project artillery can fire shells 75.75 mi. above the earth's surface.[20]

Cannon have also found peaceful application outside warfare, such as water cannon, snow cannon, hail cannon and cannon netting.


Main article: Cannon operation
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The parts of a cannon described, John Roberts, The Compleat Cannoniere, London 1652.
Cannon operation during the 18th century is described by the 1771 Encyclopædia Britannica. Each cannon would be manned by two gunners, six soldiers, and four officers of artillery. The right gunner was to prime the piece and load it with powder, while the left gunner would fetch the powder from the magazine and keep ready to fire the cannon at the officer's command. Three soldiers stood on each side of the cannon, to ram and sponge the cannon, and hold the ladle. The second soldier on the left was charged with providing 50 bullets.[37]

Prior to loading, the cannon would be well cleaned with a wet sponge to extinguish any smoldering material from the last shot (because fresh powder was about to be poured in, and any lingering ignition sources would set it off prematurely). The powder was added, followed by a wad of paper or hay, and the ball was thrown in. After ramming the cannon would be aimed with the elevation set using a quadrant and a plummet. At 45 degrees, the ball had the utmost range—about ten times the gun's level range. Any angle above the horizontal line was called random-shot. The officer of artillery had to ensure the cannon was diligently served. Water was available to dip the sponges in and cool the pieces every ten or twelve rounds.[37]
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Cannon in a Civil War re-enactment: The large amounts of gunpowder often affected visibility significantly. Gunners hope for a strong wind that will allow them to continue to see their target.
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The smoke-filled Battle of Borodino, which marked 1812 as a turning point in the Napoleonic Wars and inspired the 1812 Overture.
It was said that a 24-pounder could fire 90 to 100 shots a day in summer, or 60 to 75 in winter. A 16- or 12-pounder would fire a little more, because they were easier served. The Britannica mentions "some occasions where 200 shots have been fired from these pieces in the space of nine hours, and 138 in the space of five."[37]

During the Napoleonic Wars, a British gun team consisted of 5 numbered gunners. The gun's "No. 1" was the gun commander, and a sergeant, who aimed the gun. The No. 2 was the "spongeman" who cleaned the bore with the sponge dampened with water between shots; the intention being to quench any remaining embers before a fresh charge was introduced. The No. 3, the loader, inserted the bag of powder and then the projectile. The No. 2 then used a rammer, or the sponge reversed, to drive it in. At the same time, the No. 4 ("ventsman") pressed his thumb on the vent hole to prevent a draught that might fan a flame. The charge loaded, the No. 4 pricked the bagged charge through the vent hole and filled the vent with powder. At the No. 1's command the No. 5 would fire the piece with his slowmatch.[38]

In music

The cannon can be used as a kind of percussion instrument in certain pieces of music. The best known example is the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky, which should properly be played using an artillery section together with the orchestra. It is supposed to simulate the Battle of Borodino. The version using cannon fire was first laid down on a recording by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra in the 1950s. Subsequent similar recordings have been made by other groups, exploiting the advances in audio technology. Cannon fire is used annually on the Fourth of July by the Boston Pops during their annual concert on the shores of the Charles River and by the National Symphony Orchestra during their annual concert on the steps of the US Capitol Building.

The hard rock band AC/DC also use cannon in their song For those about to rock, we salute you. The album of the same name also features a cannon on its cover.

Due to their impracticalities, cannon are used for only grand, theatrical pieces, often with a military theme. In the case of the 1812, the cannon may be replaced with bass drums or timpani. Less frequently strongly accented snare drum diminuendos can be heard.



1. ^ American Heritage Dictionary
2. ^ Cannons and Gunpowder
3. ^ Ctesibius of Alexandria
4. ^ Needham 1986:263–275
5. ^ Crosby 2002:99
6. ^ Lu, Needham & Phan 1988:99
7. ^ Chase 2003:99
8. ^ Needham 1986:290
9. ^ "Weapons: An International Encyclopedia from 5000 B.C. to 2000 A.D.", by the Diagram Group, 1990 ed., p. 111
10. ^ Norris 2003:290
11. ^
12. ^ Ahmad Y Hassan, Gunpowder Composition for Rockets and Cannon in Arabic Military Treatises In Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries
13. ^ Ahmad Y Hassan, Technology Transfer in the Chemical Industries
14. ^ (1771) "Gunpowder", Encyclopedia Britannica. “frier Bacon, our countryman, mentions the compoſition in expreſs terms, in his treatiſe De nullitate magiæ, publiſhed at Oxford, in the year 1216. ; Note the Long s
15. ^ King's Mirror, Chapter XXXVII: The duties, activities and amusements of the Royal Guardsmen
16. ^ Hoffmeyer, p. 217.
17. ^ Nicolle, p 21
18. ^ Nicolle, p 65
19. ^ Turnbull, p 39-41
20. ^ Military and War Weapons the Cannon
21. ^ Turnbull, p 43
22. ^ Nossov, p 53-55
23. ^ Sadler, p 22-23
24. ^ Niccolò Machiavelli, The Art of War, p.97; Quoted by Sadler, p. 61
25. ^ Sadler, p. 60
26. ^ Niccolò Machiavelli, The Art of War
27. ^ Wilkinson, p 81
28. ^ Chartrand, Spanish Main 1492-1800
29. ^ Knox, Naval Documents related to the United Stats Wars with the Barbary Powers, Volume I
30. ^ The Historical Maritime Society
31. ^ (French) — full text in the French Wikisource.
32. ^ William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 1
33. ^ Guinness Book of World Records, 2002 edition, p 112
34. ^ Bradley M2 / M3 Tracked Armoured Fighting Vehicles, USA
35. ^ Guinness Book of World Records, 2002 edition, p 184
36. ^ Guinness Book of World Records, 2002 edition, p 113
37. ^ (1771) "Gunnery", Encyclopedia Britannica. 
38. ^ Holmes, Richard Redcoat: the British Soldier in the age of Horse and Musket


  • This article incorporates text from the 1771 Encyclopdia Britannica, which is in the public domain.
  • Guinness Book of World Records, 2002 edition
  • Chartrand, René, Spanish Main 1492–1800; Osprey Publishing
  • Chartrand, René, French Fortresses in North America 1535–1763: Québec, Montréal, Louisbourg and New Orleans (Fortress 27); Osprey Publishing, March 20 2005. ISBN 9781841767147
  • id="CITEREFChase2003">Chase, Kenneth (2003), Firearms: A Global History to 1700, Cambridge University Press.
    • id="CITEREFCrosby2002">Crosby, Alfred W. (2002), Throwing Fire: Projectile Technology Through History, Cambridge University Press.
      • Halberstadt, Hans (2002). The World's Great Artillery. ISBN 0-7607-3303-1
      • Hoffmeyer, Ada Bruhn de. Arms and Amour in Spain
      • Holmes, Richard. Redcoat: the British Soldier in the age of Horse and Musket
      • id="CITEREFKelly2004">Kelly, Jack (2004), Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, & Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive that Changed the World, Basic Books.
        • Knox, Dudley W. Naval Documents related to the United Stats Wars with the Barbary Powers, Volume I. Washington: United States Government Printing Office (1939).
        • id="CITEREFNeedham1986">Needham, Joseph (1986), Science & Civilisation in China, vol. V:7: The Gunpowder Epic, Cambridge University Press.
          • id="CITEREFNorris2003">Norris, John (2003), Early Gunpowder Artillery: 1300-1600, Marlborough: The Crowood Press.
            • Nossov, Konstantine. Russian Fortresses, 1480–1682, Osprey Publishing, ISBN 1-84176-916-9
            • Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 4, Part 3. Taipei: Caves Books, Ltd.
            • Nicolle, David (2000). Crécy 1346: Triumph of the longbow. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 9781855329669. 
            • Sadler, John (2006). Flodden 1513: Scotland's greatest defeat (Campaign 168). Osprey Publishing. ISBN 9781841769592. 
            • Turnbull, Stephen (2004). The Walls of Constantinople AD 324–1453 (Fortress 25). Osprey Publishing. ISBN 1-84176-759-X. 
            • Wilkinson, Philip. Castles (Pocket Guides). Publisher: DK CHILDREN; Pocket edition (September 29, 1997). ISBN 0789420473. ISBN 978-0789420473

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            Canon from Greek kanon "rule" (perhaps originally from kanna "reed", cognate to cane) is used in various meanings in fields of knowledge as diverse as literature, medicine, music and religion.
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            Cannon are large tubular firearms designed to fire a heavy projectile over a long distance. They were first used in China and Europe, and were the archetypical form of artillery.
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            It is located at the Jaigarh Fort, Jaipur at ().
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            Bottom: Battle of Waterloo

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            B-side(s) "Let There Be Rock" (live)
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            muzzleloader is any firearm into which the projectile and usually the propellant charge is loaded from the muzzle of the gun (i.e. from the forward, open end of the gun's barrel). This is distinct from the more popular modern design of breech-loading firearms.
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