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Mughal gunpowder advantage

The Mughals were one of the small bands of organised armed adventurers led by a prince of royal lineage who carried-out aggressive campaigns and carved out their kingdoms.

The Mughals ventured out to India confident that their battle techniques were the product of a fusion of Ottoman and Uzbek methods of warfare. Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur the Turkish warlord and founder of the Mughal Empire used the wagon- laager technique at the Battle of First Panipat fought on 21 April 1526. Replicating the techniques adopted by the Ottomans, the Mughals mortars and musketeers deployed inside the wagons, which were chained with raw ox hide. Their opponent in India led by Sultan Ibrahim Lodhi did not possess catapults or guns to fight the Mughal advance and subsequent victory.

Mughals already had to pay the price for engaging into a battle with the experienced Uzbek force led by Shaibani Khan who employed the battled maneuver of Taulqama technique involving elite archer units moving across the flanks and rear of the enemy force and then encircling and enveloping it. Babur copied this technique and used it to great effect at First Panipat against Ibrahim Lodhi’s army.

guns’ placement

During the first half of the seventeenth century, the Mughal Empire, by deploying a superior number of cavalry and larger number of heavy guns, were able to annex the Deccani sultanates. In the context of the subcontinent the Mughal guns and specific battle maneuvering made them an unbearable power holding sway all over the subcontinent.

The range of the Mughal re-curved bow was 280 yards. Moreover during the later centuries the effective range of the musket was 80 yards and only 50% of the shots hit the target. Mughals had greater supply of horses from Central Asia that provided them with extra facility. This weapon proved the game changer and enabled Mughals to emerge victorious from battles. It also maintained the upper-hand of the Mughals in any battle they fought.

In fact, the Mughal heavy cavalry’s armour could only be penetrated by firing matchlock within 100 yards. With their large numbers of good cavalry, Mughals lacked the incentive to develop drilled and disciplined infantry. The Mughals had a rational reason, therefore, not to go for slow, cumbersome, unwieldy, tightly packed infantry squares armed with slow firing firearms. It was speculated that if about 25,000 mounted archers pounded an infantry force from a distance of about 250 yards and then 15,000 heavy cavalry crashed among the demoralised infantrymen, battles could be one.

During the civil war (1657–1659) among Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s (ruler 1628–1658) four sons, Dara (the eldest son) mobilised an army of 100,000 cavalry, 20,000 infantry and 200,000 followers for logistical support. However, for a particular battle, Dara could deploy at least 50,000 soldiers. Dara’s brother prince Aurangzeb had an army of 40,000 men.

At the Battle of Samugarh (29 May 1658), Dara deployed the cannon in his front. Most of these cannon were big and immobile.

All the pieces were chained together to prevent the entry of hostile cavalry, as in the case of First Panipat. Behind the cannon were stationed rows of shutarnals (camels with light swivel guns attached to them).

camel-mounted gun

These guns could be fired without making the camels to sit down. Bernier noted that these guns were similar to the swivel guns used in the ships. At Samugarh, the shutarnals were used for the first time on the subcontinent. In the use of the shutarnals (equivalent to horse artillery), it was found to be a tactical-cum-technological innovation on the part of the Mughal Army. Behind the camels were stationed musketeer infantry. At the two wings were placed cavalry. The army was divided into three parts: right, centre and the left. In Aurangzeb’s force, some cannons were placed at the wings along with men equipped with bans.

Aurangzeb’s victory was due to better command and superior field artillery, manned by the European gunners.

The Mughals started using firearms and mines in siege warfare from the last decade of the sixteenth century. In 1651, Shah Jahan appointed Sadullah Khan and Prince Aurangzeb with 50,000 cavalry and 10,000 infantry (including gunners, matchlock men, rocket men) with orders to capture the forts of Kandahar, Bust and Zamindar from the Persians.

Sadullah Khan was given eight heavy and 20 light guns. The latter threw projectiles that weighed between four and five pounds. In addition, 20 hathnals (elephant-drawn guns) and 100 shutarnals were present.

About 3,000 camels were employed for carrying lead, powder and iron shot. When the siege had dragged on for 68 days, the Qizilbash garrison sallied out of the Kandahar Fort and attacked the Mughal trenches. The Mughals prevailed and carried on the parallel from zig- zag trenches. The imperial chronicler in his account of the Siege of Kandahar accepts Mughal technical superiority in the field of siege guns and skilled gunners vis-à-vis the Safavids of Iran. Meanwhile, news reached Aurangzeb that the Uzbeks had reached the vicinity of Ghazni. Aurangzeb was afraid that his line of communications with Kabul might be severed, so he decided to raise the siege and retreat.

One European observer noted in 1666 that the Mughals, when manufacturing cannon, melted the metal in different furnaces and then they mingled it all together. He considered this process of manufacturing highly effective. French gun founders were employed in the artillery branch from 1650 onwards. By the mid seventeenth century, most of the gunners in the Mughal Army in Deccan were Christian European mercenaries. Some French mercenaries acted as officers in Aurangzeb’s artillery corps.

Many foreigners, particularly Bernier, moving through Asia Minor and Persia, reached India in 1656. He took employment in Prince Dara Shikoh’s artillery and served until the death of Dara in 1659. Then, he was offered the post of captain of the artillery by the Mughal Mansabdar Raja Jai Singh. He served Jai Singh until 1669. In Dara’s force, Manucci’s pay was 80 rupees per month. When the Dutch expelled the Portuguese from Sri Lanka (Ceylon), they took refuge in Bengal and many of them took service in the artillery branch of Crown Prince Shuja (Governor of Bengal and Emperor Shah Jahan’s son) in 1659.

mughal gun
Bullocks dragging guns

However, the Mughal Army did not gain much from the European mercenaries and Manucci explained that for European artillerymen who took service … had only to take aim; as for the rest – the fatigue of raising, lowering, loading, and firing – this was the business of artificers or labourers kept for the purpose. However, when Aurangzeb came to the throne, he, seeing the insolent behaviour and the drunkenness of such-like men, deprived them of all their privileges and forced them to do sentry duty. It was also argued that because most of the forts in India were built on steep hills and in the midst of inaccessible forests, implementation of the taking artillery up there was hazardous.

The European traveller-cum-adventurer Francois Bernier noted that, in 1658, the Dutch taught the technique of siege warfare to the Mughals when they were engaged in taking the port city of Surat in Gujarat. These techniques were duly learnt by Mughals who quickly became the masters and then continuously maintained their gunpowder advantage throughout.

This article originally appeared in The Weekender and has been reproduced with permission

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