Hand grenades play an important part in modern war as lightweight and hard-hitting infantry weapons.
But their development hasn’t been a steady one, and for a while it looked like they would be abandoned entirely.
Something approximating a hand grenade existed long before the handgun.
Joints of bamboo filled with gunpowder were flung by the Chinese while warriors in Europe had yet to hear the roar of an explosion.
When gunpowder reached Europe, the military of that continent proved adept at turning it to new designs. Cannons and simple handguns appeared in the 14th century, and grenades are recorded in the 15th century.
These were simple devices – iron spheres packed full of black powder with a hole in the top for the fuse. The fuse was lit, the device was thrown, and as long as the throw was good and the fuse kept burning then destruction could be caused amid the enemy.
The Age of the Grenadier
Grenades first played a significant role in the 17th century. They had become a little more sophisticated over the course of 200 years.
The grenade was now filled with pistol balls as well as gunpowder so that the targets would be hit by flying projectiles as well as the blast of the explosion.
This was where the device got its name, as the bullets loaded in the grenade looked to many people like seeds in a pomegranate, called a “grenade” in Middle French.
War in 17th century Europe was largely based around static engagements in which armies tried to capture fortified strongpoints.
Flung over walls or through windows, grenades could shock and devastate the troops inside, clearing the way for an assault.
The problem with these early grenades was that they weighed three pounds. Throwing them any distance was difficult and so tall, strong men were chosen for this work, becoming grenadiers.
Even they had to duck behind walls after flinging their grenades, to avoid being hit by the flying balls.
Grenadiers Without Grenades
In the 18th century, the grenade was almost abandoned. Bags of grenades were heavy and unwieldy to carry on the battlefield.
A spark in the wrong place could set off a whole bag of grenades, killing the grenadier and many men around him.
They could be made ineffective by weather and terrain – when the Duke of Marlborough sent grenadiers to assault a position outside Bouchain in 1710, their grenades got soaked crossing a river, making them useless for the attack.