Triple Barrel Cannon Leonardo da Vinci Buy Art Prints Now
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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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The Triple Barrel Cannon was invented by Leonardo da Vinci in 1481. Throughout this decade Leonardo would produce a large number of military engineering designs, in the hope of gaining employment and also helping to protect against invasion.


Leonardo was very much a maverick when it came to military engineering, re-inventing old ideas in ways not tried before. He also combined different weapons in ways not seen before, with his guns and cannons having considerable cross-over within his drawings.

Up to this point, a number of different civilisations had already tried out cannons in a variety of guises, but would continually run into the issue of being able to re-load fast enough to avoid a decisive counter-attack from the enemy. Leonardo understood this problem, and set about resolving it within his triple barrel cannon design.

There were several reasons for why Leonardo, a pacifist by most accounts, chose to enter the field of military engineering. He believed that the additional income from working in this field could help him to finance his large studio of assistants and potentially his weapons could actually intimidate opponents, preventing war in the first place.

Whilst attempting to seek approval for his various ideas, Da Vinci would invent early versions of a number of weapons and modes of transport with which we are all familiar today, including a diving suit, parachute, ornithopter and even a form of helicopter. Whilst being unable to create working prototypes of these within his own lifetime, others have since proven his theories themselves.

The item in front of us here contained three cannons, which were fused together. They could be wheeled around the battlefield fairly easily, and each one could be reloaded whilst the others fired. Leonardo may not have served as a soldier, but he quickly learnt about the requirements for his designs and how they could be as effective as possible during real life scenarios.

Whilst none of his inventions would ever see the light of day, Leonardo made a number of important discoveries whilst sketching out his ideas that would benefit engineers in later centuries. He could pinpoint issues, and find solutions for them, but unfortunately some of these ideas were simply impossible until other technologies evolved.

This article examines Leonardo's Triple Barrel Cannon in detail, outlining the sketches that he made of it back in the early 1480s, as well as discussing whether it was actually ever built or not, and the likelihood of it working within a real-life setting. We also touch on later cannon designs, and how the weapon has evolved over time.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Leonardo's Triple Barrel Cannon Design
  3. How Did it Work?
  4. Da Vinci's Innovations
  5. History of the Cannon
  6. References

Leonardo's Triple Barrel Cannon Design

The three barrels are adjoined, ensuring their solidity. They could be raised or lowered together using pegs to the side by those responsible for also re-loading each barrel. They was a simple wooden structure holding them in place with a pair of large wheels, allowing the whole contruction to be wheeled to and around the battlefield.

The design is not disimilar to Da Vinci Machine Gun invention, where a series of guns are lined up in a fan-shape, but the triple barrel approach found here looks considerably stronger in its build. It could be argued that this design is also much simpler, which reduces the number of potential problems that might occur in real-life usage.

Prior to Da Vinci's designs, most cannons within Italy would have a permanent position, such as being hidden being fortified walls. They were never intended to be moved, not did their design allow for it. Whilst this was fine for protecting cities from attack, Leonardo wanted to produce something more dynamic, where it could be adapted to multiple scenarios, depending on the style and angle of attack.

Whilst Da Vinci struggled in comparison to engineers from centuries later, because of the heavier nature of materials during the 15th century, he was still keen to make this design as light as possible, and simplifying it helped in this regard. Nothing was included that did not need to be there, which is entirely typical of military design.

How Did it Work?

Burning coal would be used to generate extreme heats, producing steam that would fire the projectiles from the cannon. Da Vinci was a knowledgeable engineer who tried out other methods of firing guns but found a number of benefits with this approach. He would go on to produce singular mortars, where large boulders and explosive shells could be fired into the air, potentially causing catastrophic damage to the enemy, whilst this three-barrel alternative offered more consistent, but less powerful fire power.

Da Vinci's Innovations

The use of a stream-powered firing method was an exciting innovation by Da Vinci and would actually continue to be used for centuries, even being found within WWI. He also understood the importance of mobility within war more than many, working hard to make his designs as adaptable as possible.

Leonardo was essentially re-imagining how cannons would be used, freeing them from their traditional role behind fortified structures, with a fixed location, and allowing them new possibilities. We can only wonder what Leonardo might have come up with in today's world, with all the exciting opportunities that might have come his way, in terms of technologies and evolved materials.

History of the Cannon

The definition of a cannon is a "a large, heavy piece of artillery, which can normally be moved around on wheels." Its role within battle lasted many centuries, but it has since been replaced by more modern weaponry.

Da Vinci's own role within its evolution was to allow its movement around the battlefield, leading to other engineers re-imagining its role within an army. The weapon dates back to 12th century China, a region which invented many of the famous weapons of the past, and their approach was copied by other empires based in modern-day India plus the Middle East and Europe.

Limber carts appeared in the 15th century and these gave inventors new opportunities to transport heavy goods around for the first time. Da Vinci himself saw this opportunity within a number of designs, but he was far from the first European to devise this idea. The overall design of the cannon itself would evolve over time, but the fundamental barrel shape remained much the same.

The cannon would remain a popular choice until around WWI, and has been rarely seen since. The advancements in military technology leading up to, and during WWII would see a number of common weapons from past centuries finally being replaced. Many historical cannons remain in place today, and their place within military history is assured.