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Thread: 14th Century Chinese Gunpowder Warfare

  1. #1 14th Century Chinese Gunpowder Warfare 
    Forum Freshman Anaxagoras's Avatar
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    Jul 2007
    Virginia, USA

    This is a very interesting article, definitely worth the read. This 14th century Chinese book outlines the use of shrapnel bombs, poisonous gunpowder solutions, firearms, flamethrowers, bombards, cannons, exploding cannonballs, land mines, naval mines, rocket launchers, aerodynamic winged rockets, and multistage rockets with a booster rocket to launch the missile up before igniting a swarm of smaller rockets.


    The Huolongjing (Wade-Giles: Huo Lung Ching; Simplified Chinese: 火龙神器阵法; English: Fire Drake Manual) is a 14th century military treatise that was compiled and edited by Jiao Yu and Liu Ji of the early Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD) in China. It outlined the use of various 'fire–weapons' involving the use of gunpowder.

    The Huolongjing provided info for various gunpowder compositions, including 'magic gunpowder', 'poison gunpowder', or 'blinding and burning gunpowder'.[1] It had descriptions of the Chinese hollow cast iron grenade bomb, shrapnel bombs, and bombs with poisonious concoctions.[2] The book had descriptions of the 10th century Chinese fire arrow, a simple wooden arrow with a spherical soft casing attached to the arrow and filled with gunpowder, ignited by a fuse so that it was propelled forward (and provided a light explosion upon impact).[3] However, the book explained how this simple 'fire arrow' evolved into the metal-tube launched rocket.[4] The book provided descriptions of various rocket launchers that launched tons of rockets at a time,[5] the advent of the two stage rocket having a booster rocket igniting a swarm of smaller ones that were shot from the mouth of a missile shaped like a dragon,[6] and even fin–mounted winged rockets.[7] The book described the use of explosive land mines[8] and descriptions of explosive naval mines at sea and on the river; this incorporated the use of a complex trigger mechanism of falling weights, pins, and a steel wheellock to ignite the train of fuses.[9] The book described various proto–guns including the fire lance (a short-burst flamethrower that emitted a charge of shrapnel), multiple metal barrel handguns (with up to ten barrels),[10] and descriptions of handguns with possible serpentine locks, used as components in matchlock firearms.[11] The book provided descriptions of the early bombard and cannon,[12] including the use of hollow gunpowder–packed exploding cannonballs,[13] cannon barrels filled with tons of metal balls containing poisonous gunpowder solutions,[14] and cannons that were mounted on wheeled carriages so that they could be rotated in all directions.[13]

    Although Jiao Yu did not provide the book's preface until the Nanyang publication of 1412 AD,[15] the book was previously published in the 14th century, and was a compilation of material written since the late 13th century.[16] From his own personal accounts Jiao Yu also described gunpowder weapons that were used since 1355 AD, with his involvement in the Red Turban Rebellion and revolt against Yuan Dynasty Mongol rule.[17]

    By the 15th century, European innovations in firearms, cannons, and other gunpowder weapons began to surpass Chinese innovation that was made in the 14th century. This included the European breech–loading gun and culverin, the wheellock musket, and then the flintlock musket of the mid 17th century. By the late 16th century, the Chinese adopted Western-style muskets while employing Ottoman Turkish style firing positions.[18]


    ==Firearms and Flamethrowers==

    The military treatise of Jiao Yu and Liu Ji went into a great amount of detail on the gunpowder weapons of their time. The fire lance and fire tube (i.e. a combination of a firearm and flamethrower)[19] came in many different versions and were styled with many different names by the time Jiao Yu edited the Huolongjing.[20] The earliest of these were made of bamboo tubes, although the earliest transition to metal was made in the 12th century.[20] Others, according to description and illustrated pictures of the Huolongjing, emitted arrows called the 'lotus bunch' accompanied by a fiery blast.[21] Some of these low–nitrate gunpowder flamethrowers used poisonous mixtures, including arsenious oxide, and would blast a spray of porcelain bits as shrapnel.[22][23] The earliest depiction of a fire lance is dated c. 950 AD, a Chinese painting on a silk banner found at the Buddhist site of Dunhuang.[24] Furthermore, the oldest existent bronze handgun is from the Heilongjiang archeological excavation, dated to 1288 AD.[25] For that year, the Yuan Shi historical text describes the rebellion of the Christian Mongol prince Nayan and the Jurchen-born military commander Li Ting who, along with a Korean brigade conscripted by Kublai Khan, suppressed Nayan's rebellion by using foot soldiers armed with handguns and portable bombards.[26] The earliest metal barrel guns were not designed for high–nitrate gunpowder and a bore–filling projectile; rather, they were designed for the low–nitrate flamethrower fire lance that shot small co–viative missiles.[27] This was called the 'bandit–striking penetrating gun' (ji zei bian chong), and was illustrated in a drawing of the Huolongjing.[27] In the Islamic world the fire lance first appears in a book of 1280, written by Hasan al–Rammah, and again appears in a manuscript of 1320.[28] In Europe the first representation of the fire lance is of a horse–mounted knight wielding the weapon in a Latin manuscript illustration dated to 1396,[29] and also appeared in an illustration of Taccola's De Mechinis (1449). The Huolongjing also described and illustrated metal–barrel handguns as well, including guns with three barrels, five barrels, six barrels, and even up to ten barrels.[30] Furthermore, it described the use of a 'match–holding lance gun' (chi huo–sheng qiang), possibly an early serpentine matchlock.[11] Although a proper illustration for this one was not included, it described its arrangement as a match brought down to the touch hole of three gun barrels one after the other.[31] During the reign of the Yongle Emperor (1402–1424 AD), the Shenji Brigade was formed, with cavalry horses that were said to have tubes filled with flammable materials holstered to their sides, along with troops with firearms and light artillery on carriages.[32]

    In addition to firearms and fire lances, the Huolongjing also illustrated the tall vertical mobile shield to hide and protect infantry gunmen, known as the 'mysteriously moving phalanx–breaking fierce–flame sword–shield'.[33] This large rectangular shield would have been mounted on wheels, with five rows of six circular holes each where the gun barrels could be placed, and the shield itself would have been accompanied by swordsmen on either side to protect the gunmen.[33]

    ==Bombards and Cannons==

    In China, the first cannon–barrel design portrayed in artwork was a stone sculpture dated to 1128 AD, found in Sichuan province,[34] although the oldest archeological discovery of a cannon is a bronze cannon of China inscribed with the date "2nd year of the Dade era, Yuan Dynasty" (1298 AD). The prototype to the metal barrel was of course one made of bamboo, which was recorded in use by a Chinese garrison commander at Anlu, Hubei province, in the year 1132.[35] One of the earliest references to the destructive force of a cannon in China was made by Zhang Xian in 1341, with his verse known as The Iron Cannon Affair.[36] Zhang wrote that its cannonball could "pierce the heart or belly when it strikes a man or horse, and can even transfix several persons at once."[36] Jiao Yu wrote that the cannon, called the 'eruptor', was cast in bronze, and had an average length of 4 ft and 5 in.[13] He wrote that some cannons were simply filled with 100 or so lead balls, but others had large rounds that produced a bursting charge upon impact, called the 'flying–cloud thunderclap eruptor' (飞云霹雳炮; feiyun pili pao).[13] He wrote of how the Chinese in his day had figured out how to pack hollow cast iron shells of cannonballs with gunpowder to create an explosive effect upon contact with enemy targets.[13] In perspective, exploding cannonball rounds were not discovered in Europe until the 16th century.[37] Furthermore, he noted the use of the 'poison–fog magic smoke eruptor', where 'blinding gunpowder' and 'poisonous gunpowder' were packed into the hollow cannonball shells, and were effective in burning the faces and eyes of enemies, along with choking them with a formidable spray of poisonous smoke.[14] He wrote that cannons were mounted on frames or on wheeled carriages, so that they could be rotated in all directions.[38]

    ==Land Mines and Naval Mines==

    The first recorded use of a land mine stated that the officer Lou Qianxia of the late Song Dynasty created them in order to kill invading Mongol troops in 1277 AD.[39] Jiao Yu wrote that land mines were spherical in shape, made of cast iron, and their fuses ignited by the enemy movement disturbing a trigger mechanism.[40] Although his book did not elaborate on the trigger mechanism, a late Ming Dynasty book of 1606 AD revealed that a complex system of a pin release, dropping weights, and chords and axles worked to rotate a spinning 'steel wheel' that acted as a flint to provide sparks that ignited the mines' fuses underground.[41] For the use of naval mines, he wrote of slowly burning joss sticks that were disguised and timed to explode against enemy ships floating nearby:

    The sea–mine called the 'submarine dragon–king' is made of wrought iron, and carried on a (submerged) wooden board, [appropriately weighted with stones]. The (mine) is enclosed in an ox–bladder. It subtlety lies in the fact that a thin incense(–stick) is arranged (to float) above the mine in a container. The (burning) of this joss stick determines the time at which the fuse is ignited, but without air its glowing would of course go out, so the container is connected with the mine by a (long) piece of goat's intestine (through which passes the fuse). At the upper end the (joss stick in the container) is kept floating by (an arrangement of) goose and wild–duck feathers, so that it moves up and down with the ripples of the water. On a dark (night) the mine is sent downstream (towards the enemy's ships), and when the joss stick has burnt down to the fuse, there is a great explosion.[42]

    In the later Tiangongkaiwu ('The Exploitation of the Works of Nature') treatise, written by Song Yingxing in 1637 AD, the ox bladder described by Jiao Yu is replaced with a lacquer bag instead, along with a cord pulled from a hidden ambusher located on the nearby shore, which would release a flint steel–wheel firing mechanism to ignite the fuse of the naval mine.[42]

    ==Gunpowder and Explosives==

    There were several gunpowder compositions proposed by Jiao Yu, with additions to the standard formula of saltpetre, sulphur, and charcoal by adapting gunpowder weapons to early chemical warfare. He described the suitable uses of 'magic gunpowder', 'poison gunpowder', or 'blinding and burning gunpowder' in warfare, which displays the various amounts of compositions used in his time.[43] For the making of poisonous gunpowder in hand–lobbed or catapult–launched grenade bombs,[23] he advised that a mixture of tung oil, urine, sal ammoniac, feces, and scallion juice be heated and then coated upon dozens of tiny iron pellets and bits of broken porcelain.[44] For this, Jiao Yu wrote "even birds flying in the air cannot escape the effects of the explosion".[44] His book also outlined the use of the 'flying–sand magic bomb releasing ten thousand fires'. This included the use of a tube of gunpowder put into an earthenware pot that was previously filled with quicklime, resin, and alcoholic extracts of poisonous plants, which would be released in the explosion.[45] It is important to note that during the 14th century, Chinese gunpowder solutions had reached their maximum explosive potential, with levels of nitrate ranging from 12% to 91% and at least 6 formulas in use by the Chinese that were considered to have maximum explosive force.[46] This also came about due to the enrichment of sulfur from pyrite extracts during the earlier Song Dynasty period,[47] while Chinese gunpowder formulas by the late 12th century and at least by 1230 AD were potential enough for explosive detonations and bursting cast iron shells.[48] The root of all this was a Chinese military handbook (the Wujing Zongyao) of 1044 AD, which outlined the earliest use of explosive yet crude formulas for blackpowder.[48] Later, Wei Xing (d. 1164) of the Song Dynasty was said to have created a gunpowder formula of saltpetre, sulphur, and willow charcoal for his projectile carriages launching 'fire–stones' up to 400 yards.[49] Although its destructive force was widely recognized even by the 11th century, the Chinese had earlier termed gunpowder as a 'fire–drug' (huo yao), due to Chinese beliefs in its pharmaceutical properties.[50] Its valuable use in festival entertainment could be seen in fireworks displays, such as the martial demonstration in 1110 AD to entertain the court of Emperor Huizong, with dancers in strange costumes moving through clouds of colored smoke.[50] Leading up to its 10th century use with Fire Arrows and in fuses for igniting flamethrowers shooting Greek Fire, Daoist alchemists had experimented with various blackpowder solutions in the Han Dynasty and Tang Dynasty.[51] After the Wujing Zongyao of 1044 had explicitly stated formulas for gunpowder, the Chinese government became frightened that its use could fall into the hands of surrounding enemies at the borders, and in 1076 enacted a strict governmental monopoly over the production and distribution of sulfur.[52] Although saltpetre was a central component of the 'fire–drug' and a flavor enhancer for food during the Tang and Song periods,[53] in 1067 the Song government banned the people of modern Shanxi and Hebei provinces to sell foreigners both sulfur and saltpetre in any form.[54]

    ==Fire Arrows and Rockets==

    For the earliest fire arrows launched from bows (not rocket launchers), Jiao Yu had termed these "fiery pomegranate shot from a bow". The term pomegranate stemmed from the fact that the lump of gunpowder–filled paper wrapped round the arrow just below the metal arrow–head resembled the shape of a pomegranate.[55] He advised that a piece of hemp cloth should be used to strengthen the wad of paper, and then sealed fast with molten pine resin.[56] Although Jiao Yu described the fire arrow in great detail, it was mentioned by the much earlier Xia Shaozeng, when 20000 fire arrows were handed over to the Jurchen conquerors of Kaifeng City in 1126 AD.[56] An even earlier Chinese text of the Wujing Zongyao (武经总要, "Collection of the Most Important Military Techniques"), written in 1044 AD by the Song scholars Zeng Gongliang and Yang Weide, described the use of three spring or triple bow arcuballista that fired arrow bolts holding gunpowder.[56] Although written much later in 1630 (second edition in 1664), the Wulixiaoshi of Fang Yizhi asserted that fire arrows were presented to Emperor Taizu of Song in 960 AD.[57] Even after the rocket was invented in China the fire arrow continued in use; this could be seen in the Second Opium War, where Chinese used fire arrows against the French in 1860.[58]

    By the time of Jiao Yu, the term 'fire arrow' had taken on a whole new meaning and incorporated what were the earliest rockets found in China.[4][23] The simple transition of this was to use a hollow tube (of bamboo or metal) instead of a bow or ballista firing gunpowder–impregnated fire arrows. The historian Joseph Needham asserts that this fundamental discovery came sometime before Jiao Yu, however, during the late Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279 AD).[4] From the section of the oldest passages in the Huolongjing,[4] the text reads:

    One uses a bamboo stick 4 ft 2 in long, with an iron (or steel) arrow–head 4.5 in long...behind the feathering there is an iron weight 0.4 in long. At the front end there is a carton tube bound on to the stick, where the 'rising gunpowder' is lit. When you want to fire it off, you use a frame shaped like a dragon, or else conveniently a tube of wood or bamboo to contain it.[4]

    In the late 14th century, the Chinese had figured out how to combine the rocket launching tube with the fire lance.[59] This involved three tubes attached to the same staff, and as the first rocket tube was fired, a charge was ignited in the leading tube which expelled a blinding lachrymatory powder at the enemy, and finally the second rocket was fired.[59] A depicted illustration of this was featured in the publication of the Huolongjing, where it described the effectiveness of this weapon to confuse the enemy of where the rockets were fired from.[59] Apart from these hand–held rocket launchers, the Huolongjing also provided description and illustration for two different kinds of mounted rocket launchers that featured the firing of multiple rockets.[60] There was a cylindrical basket–work rocket launcher called the 'Mr. Facing–both–ways rocket arrow firing basket', as well as an oblong–section rectangular box rocket launcher known as the 'magical rocket–arrow block'.[5] Rockets described in the Huolongjing weren't all in the shape of standard fire arrows, however, as there were some that had artificial wings attached.[61] An illustration of this was provided, showing that fins were clearly used to increase aerodynamic stability for the flight path of the rocket,[62] which according to Jiao Yu could rise hundreds of feet before landing at the designated enemy target.[63]

    From an illustration and description in the Huolongjing is the oldest known multistage rocket; this was the 'fire–dragon issuing from the water' (huo long chu shui), used mostly by the Chinese navy.[64] It was a two–stage rocket that had carrier or booster rockets that would eventually burn out, yet before they did they automatically ignited a number of smaller rocket arrows that were shot out of the front end of the missile, which was shaped like a dragon's head with an open mouth.[64] This multi–stage rocket may be considered the ancestor to the modern exocet.[64] Needham points out that the written material and depicted illustration of this rocket come from the oldest stratum of the Huolongjing, which can be dated roughly 1300–1350 AD (from the book's part 1, chapter 3, page 23).[64]


    Gunpowder warfare found its birthplace in medieval China, yet its technological and methodical perfection would occur outside of it. Although the inventions and written work of Jiao Yu and the Chinese 'fire–weapons' of his time revolutionized warfare in China, there wasn't an incredible amount of Chinese innovation in gunpowder weapons (i.e. firearms, cannons, etc.) during the 15th century onwards.[65] When the Portuguese arrived in China during the early 16th century, they were not very impressed with Chinese firearms in comparison to their own.[65] With the continual progression of the earliest European arquebus, to the matchlock, to the wheellock, and then the advent of the flintlock musket of the 17th century, they surpassed the level of earlier Chinese innovation.[66] The Chinese of the late Ming Dynasty would even adopt the Ottoman Turkish rifleman's kneeling position, while purchasing European firearms for their infantry riflemen.[67] Illustrations of Ottoman and European riflemen with detailed illustrations of their weapons appeared in Zhao Shizhen's book Shenqipu of 1598 AD.[18]

    Although not perfected until the 19th century with the cartridge of Samuel Johannes Pauly in 1809, Johann Nikolaus von Dreyse's 'Needle Gun' in 1836, and the steel–cast Krupp cannon in the 1850s, the history of the European breech–loading gun spans back to the late 14th century, the earliest models found in Burgundy.[68] Before the improvements by those mentioned above, these early breech loading rifles and cannons were somewhat unsatisfactory due to serious loss of gas when firing, resulting in the decreased force of the propellant.[69] Nevertheless, the 16th century breech–loading model entered China after the Portuguese attempted to assault southern China from Tuen Mun and were expelled by the Ming Dynasty navy in 1521.[70] In 1523 the Chinese navy captured two Western ships with Portuguese breech–loading culverins aboard, which the Chinese called a fo–lang–ji (Frankish culverin). According to the Ming Shi, these cannons were soon presented to the Jiajing Emperor by Wang Hong, and their design was copied in 1529 AD.[70] However, earlier Ming records indicate that it was actually the War Ministry official He Ru who first acquired these guns in 1522, while copies of them were made by two Westernized Chinese at Beijing, Yang San (Pedro Yang) and Dai Ming.[71] In an even earlier account of Wang Yangming (1472–1529), the philosopher and governor of Jiangxi, he intended to use fo–lang–ji cannons in suppressing the rebellion of Prince Zhu Chen–hao in 1519 AD.[71] In any case, the arrival of the breech loading rifle and cannon into China signified the beginning of continual European influence upon Chinese firearms and artillery.[71]


    1. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 180–187.
    2. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 183.
    3. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 153–154.
    4. ^ a b c d e Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 477.
    5. ^ a b Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 489.
    6. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 508.
    7. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 498–502.
    8. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 192–196.
    9. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 203–205.
    10. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 229.
    11. ^ a b Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 459.
    12. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 314–325.
    13. ^ a b c d e Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 264.
    14. ^ a b Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 267.
    15. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 25.
    16. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 24.
    17. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 26.
    18. ^ a b Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 447–454.
    19. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 232.
    20. ^ a b Embree, 185.
    21. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 241, 242, 244.
    22. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 232–233.
    23. ^ a b c Cowley, 38.
    24. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 224–225.
    25. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 293.
    26. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 293-294.
    27. ^ a b Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 237.
    28. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 259.
    29. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 260.
    30. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 459–463.
    31. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 458–459.
    32. ^ Partington, 239.
    33. ^ a b Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 416.
    34. ^ Embree, 852.
    35. ^ Norris, 10.
    36. ^ a b Norris, 11.
    37. ^ Cowley, 49.
    38. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 264–265.
    39. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 192.
    40. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 193.
    41. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 199.
    42. ^ a b Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 205.
    43. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 192–193.
    44. ^ a b Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 180.
    45. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 187.
    46. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 345–346.
    47. ^ Yunming, 489–490.
    48. ^ a b Khan, 2.
    49. ^ Partington, 239–240.
    50. ^ a b Kelly, 2.
    51. ^ Kelly, 2–4.
    52. ^ Yunming, 489.
    53. ^ Kelly, 4.
    54. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 126.
    55. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 154–155.
    56. ^ a b c Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 154.
    57. ^ Partington, 240.
    58. ^ Partington, 5.
    59. ^ a b c Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 485–486.
    60. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 486–489.
    61. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 498.
    62. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 501–503.
    63. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 502.
    64. ^ a b c d Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 510.
    65. ^ a b Khan, 4.
    66. ^ Khan, 4–5.
    67. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 449–452.
    68. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 366.
    69. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 366–367.
    70. ^ a b Needham Volume 5, Part 7, 369.
    71. ^ a b c Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 372.


    Cowley, Robert (1996). The Reader's Companion to Military History. Boston: Houghton–Mifflin Company.
    Embree, Ainslie Thomas (1997). Asia in Western and World History: A Guide for Teaching. Armonk: ME Sharpe, Inc.
    Kelly, Jack (2004). Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive that Changed the World. New York: Basic Books, Perseus Books Group.
    Khan, Iqtidar Alam (2004). Gunpowder and Firearms: Warfare in Medieval India. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part 7, Military Technology; the Gunpowder Epic. Taipei: Caves Books Ltd.
    Norris, John (2003). Early Gunpowder Artillery: 1300–1600. Marlborough: The Crowood Press, Ltd.
    Partington, James Riddick (1998). A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder. The Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-5954-9.
    Yunming, Zhang (1986). Isis: The History of Science Society: Ancient Chinese Sulfur Manufacturing Processes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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