- Is there a difference in meaning? For example, on wikipedia it is said that 砲 means "catapult", due to the stone radical.
- Was 砲 a made-up variant used for Xiangqi? I know that for Xiangqi, different characters were chosen, which sometimes lead to arbitrary choices (e.g. 傌 which has nothing to do with horses)
- Or were there deeper historical reasons? For instance, it's hard to believe that 炮 existed before gunpowder, so it's plausible that 砲 was used earlier, to mean "catapult".
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Usually, people use 炮.
According to the dictionary [http://dict.revised.moe.edu.tw/] : 砲
We can say 砲火連天/炮火連天, 砲響/炮響, 馬後砲/馬後炮, 弩砲/弩炮, 開砲/開炮. Boths are acceptable and interchangeable.
炮's meaning involves fire but 砲's meaning involves stone.
The early cannonballs (sling) were made by stone, so people use 砲 to describe it. With the time past, fire was much counted so 炮 was derived from 砲 to describe gunpowder and the bullets. Therefore, 炮 appears and become more commonly used. You can find some relevant sentences in the ancient chinese books:
Gunpowder is also from that time but slinging machines were still used in military aspect. Therefore, 砲 was used in Xiangqi until now.
In fact, not every Chinese can tell the difference between them. Nowadays, people are more familiar with 炮. So if you write 砲, some people may think it's not so proper.
First, people used 砲 in xiangqi before，then when people invented gunpowder, it changed to 炮。 Second, you are right, 砲 was used earlier than 炮， because 砲 does means "catapult"., and 炮 existed after gunpowder.
砲 is only used in Weapon
炮 has many usage/meanings
1 same as 砲,so u also can say "炮彈"