UNIT: Ming Dynasty Gunners 神机营


The elite Shenjiying 神机营, or "Divine Machine Division," alternatively "God Machine Camp" was one of the three elite divisions of the Ming dynasty stationed around the imperial capital at Beijing. Its name has been variously translated as Firearms Division, Artillery Camp, or Firearm Brigade.

Ming volley gunner armed with a 迅雷銃 rapid thunder bolt gun

For over 200 years, this legendary division was entrusted with the research and development of gunpowder weapons as well as training and deploying elite gunners for the Ming campaigns. In their two centuries of service they would have fought in nearly all fronts of the empire, from the frigid northern frontiers against the Mongol hordes to the nearly impenetrable mountain passes of Yunnan, from the jungles of Burma and Vietnam~ where they fought against charging elephants, to a devastated Korea where they contended with Hideyoshi's samurais and finally- in the death throes of their dynasty they stood against an unstoppable rolling tide of Manchu invaders. We will discuss their armaments and achievements below.

Above: Ming dynasty at its zenith in early 15th century during the reign of the Yongle, Hongxi, and Xuande Emperors. The Divine Machine Division was created during this era to augment the aggressive Ming attempts to disrupt and ultimately dislodge the Mongol threat using advanced firearms. 

Above: A drastically weakened Ming in the 16th century after long periods of internal misrule and after suffering ceaseless invasions from the northern steppes. It should be noted that as the dynasty weakened, the reliance for modern firearms- and by extension the Divine Machine Division skyrocketed. As the dynasty neared its fatal collapse they were seen as one of the last bulwarks of the tottering state- by then, the fate of the empire was keenly riveted to this elite division.


Established in the reign of the Yongle Emperor (1360–1424,) the Divine Machine Division served as one of the three elite guard divisions stationed near the imperial capital, (the other two guard camps being the 五军营 "Five Garrison Division" or "Five Barracks Camp" composed of veteran cavalry and infantry, and the 三千营  "Three Thousand Camp" composed of 3000 (usually much more than 3000) crack 虎賁 "Tiger Guards," elite Mongol trained mounted scouts and shock troops tasked with escorting imperial families and dignitaries on campaigns.) Where as the Five Garrison Division relied on experience and outperforming their foes, the Three Thousand Camp relied on their fearless persistence and superior equipment, the Divine Machine Division relied on endless innovation.

In conjunction with their role as guardsmen for the imperial court and capital, they were also the main R&D branch for all firearm related innovation in the entire empire. The division was well drilled with the use of grenades, bombs, bombards, primitive hand cannons, volley guns, and various assortments of rockets. As the Ming came into contact with Portuguese privateers and Japanese invaders in the 16th century, the division was tasked with the integration and mass deployment of western arquebuses. Unlike the other two guard camps, which fell to stagnation and obsolescence, as the dynasty weakened, more and more emphasis was placed on the Divine Machine Division until they became a large, integral wing of the regular army.

During the Yongle Emperor's long military career, the Ming invaded Annam (modern Vietnam,) one of the results of this aggressive extension into the south was the enlistment of many native Annamese to serve as firearm instructors for the division. The Vietnamese had always been innovative with their firearms (one of the main reasons they were able to effectively launch forays into modern Laos and completely subjugate Champa to their south) and during both Vietnam's Le Dynasty and Mac Dynasty, Annamese guns were highly prized by Ming soldiers.

The total number of its enlisted members are as follows: 3,600 infantry (all with firearms);  3,600 volley gunners; outfitted with with 9,000 pounds of refined powders, 900,000 rounds of 八钱铅 ammo. 1,000 cavalry; around 400 artillery crew (heavy field heavy artillery and later, true western artillery); a total of 5,000 officers and aides. Of the artillery pieces; there were 200 multi-barreled cannons; and around 160 pieces of heavy field artillery.

By the 1600s the Ming had began to field great numbers of musketeers in every division of its army completely independent of the Divine Machine Divsion. In Zhao Shizhen's manual of 1598, the Shenqipu, or "Catalog of Divine Machines" he listed that the Divine Machines Division had introduced and fielded hundreds of Ottoman Turkish muskets, along with "Frankish" European musketeers, as well as reverse- engineered native Ming muskets. There were many illustrations showing Chinese gunners adopting the Ottoman kneeling firing position while using Frankish muskets.


A remarkably well preserved bronze head of a three eyed gun, most were made from cast iron or crude steel, each of the three eyed gun's metal tubes would have a small hole that allows the gunner to pour in gunpowder. 


The distinctive San Yan Chong 三眼銃, or three eyed gun was one of the most common Ming hand cannons ("gonne" to be more precise, since "銃"- "chong" is an archaic word that denotes something akin to primitive pot shaped handcannons as opposed to the more specific rendering of "枪" or "qiang" which describes a modern gun that has a thin elongated barrel and stocks)

Three eyed guns were usually made from cast iron or crude steel, each of the three eyed gun's metal tubes would have a small hole that allows the user to pour in gunpowder. Functionally they were no different from many contemporary European hand cannons- a solid metallic head with an aperture behind it for different tail fittings to be attached~ ranging from the butt of a staff, a spearhead, to a specialized short curved stock with a raised sight that enabled the gunner to fire it while kneeling- these would be called "Divine Machines." (see section below)

The spear staff configuration of a three eyed gun. 

Historians have attributed their design to be refined from primitive fire lances- which consisted of bundles of single joint of bamboos tied around a spear. As time progressed though, metal barrels appeared during the 12th century, and could not only shoot out spouts of flames like a small flame thrower but they could also fire porcelain shards or metal scraps as shrapnel. The three headed gun would standardize the rounds and became the next evolution of the fire lance- on top of standardizing the rounds, which ranged from rounds of steel balls to shrapnel, to rough iron sand.

Weapon History

Even before the Ming dynasty was established by Zhu YuanZhang- who would one day become the progenitor of the Ming as the Hongwu Emperor, millions of rebels in China~ including his own Red Turban rebels were well familiar with fire lances and crossbows loaded with explosive rounds. In the chaotic civil war following his death- both his successor Jianwen Emperor and the usurper Zhu Di (the future Yongle Emperor) heavily relied on divisions of crossbowmen and primitive hand-gunners.

By the zenith of the Ming dynasty - the three eyed guns were a common sights on the Ming battlefield and were carried- not only by the elite Divine Machine Division but ubiquitously by the Ming infantry as well. At this time, many of the three eyed guns would have a spear head attached between the three barrels and could be used as a melee weapon as well as a hand cannon.

Various configurations of multi-barreled Ming hand guns fitted for melee combat, ranging, from the left: spade and spear form to the shape of glaives and war forks on the right, there were also guns made in the form of two handed spiked mace that would have looked nearly identical to the famous King Henry VIII's "Walking Stick."

Combat Effectiveness

They would have been used in roles similar to that of a shotgun or blunderbuss since their range was shorter than that of a typical crossbow~ roughly 100- 120 paces. Their extraordinary long reload time also prevents them from being used in an overtly aggressive manner. Rather, many commanders preferred to use them either as a preamble before commiting his troops in a charge or deployed lines of them defensively then waited for the enemy to charge the entrenched gunners. We will talk about both of their stances in detail in several sections below.

To offset their long reload time and general inaccuracy- most of the gunners were equipped like medium infantry and provided with a fighting saber as well as infantry helmets and a brigandine armor (until the introduction of European muskets the primary role of the Ming "gunners" has never meant to be used as as accurate long range shooters- a role traditionally relegated to veteran Ming crossbowmen and archers- rather, most Ming gunners were employed to decisively mow down rows of enemy troops at relative close range or break an enemy cavalry charge.)

As the Chinese had long been familiar with the notion of volley fire- it's not uncommon to find two squares of volley gunners firing at an enemy formation obliquely from two different directions- the formations would also time their volleys one after another so to maximize the demoralizing effect of their salvo and provide a constant stream of bullets against the rattled enemy. 

Regardless, their ability to deliver a barrage of three bullets- five if the gunners were equipped with a modified version that has five barrels (and later there was a portable seven barreled version as well) meant that they were a force multiplier however they were deployed- so long as their commanders possessed keen understanding of timing and battlefield placement.

Above: 鹰车, or "Eagle Wagons:" were specially designed in order to protect ranks of gunners and provide them with a mobile defensive mantlet. Essentially a wheelbarrow with a foldable pavise and several gun ports, a team of multi-gunners or rapid gunners could secure defensive lines and ring them around their army camp at night. During battles they could be moved both horizontally as well as vertically as a missile repellent screen.


These deadly late Ming modifications of the three eyed guns were referred to as 三捷神机 "Three Victory Divine Machies" and the five barreled version were called 五雷神机 "Five Thunder Divine Machines." Aside from the addition of sights which extended from their curved grips, these divine machines were also fitted with a slow match clamp that were used to ignite the flammable seal of each barrel.

Above: Diagram of a three victory divine machine 三捷神机 with its bigger cousin, the five thunder divine machine 五雷神机, fitted with curved gun-stock with raised sight that enabled the gunner to fire while kneeling and fire his rounds progressively. Each gun was also fitted with a slow match clamp that would be used to ignite the flammable seal of each barrel.  

Unlike the typical three eyed guns, they could fire each barrel independently. Were as three eyed guns were akin to shotguns used to deliver sudden a sudden scattershot, these were like shortened arquebuses with exceptionally large reserve of ammo. Since these machines lacked both a trigger and an ignition lock, they couldn't be considered as true "matchlocks," their accuracy was also somewhat lacking. However, their ability to discharge multiple rounds did mean that the gunners were a threat as long as most still has a chambered round left.

When grouped in thick ranks they were extremely dangerous especially if most wielded the five barreled and seven barreled variants- to maximize the rate of a continuous volley and drastically off set the delay of reloads, Ming commanders sometimes paired a shooter with a loader so that the gunner- and thus by extension the entire regiment would always have a chambered volley ready to fire. The fact that whole, mobile sections of troops could fire, reposition, and fire again several times without spending long stretch of times reloading (in the 17th century no less) was a nightmare to any enemies they encountered.

Though they the three eyed guns and all of its variants were developed roughly in tandem with contemporary European hand guns, even after superior European guns were introduced to China via Portuguese merchants in the 16th century the Ming still fielded them in the tens of thousands to work in conjunction with whole new divisions fully equipped with western muskets.

Interestingly, as the Ming dynasty neared its collapse, the production and deployment of these multi- barreled guns actually rose drastically against the rising Manchu threat.

When the Manchus vanquished all of the Ming remnants and established their own imperial dynasty~ the Qing, they would have very little interest in these weapons and would unilateral discontinue the production of multi barreled guns and instead equip most of their gunners with European styled arquebuses, and huge 鸟枪 or "bird guns" alternatively "fowling guns" (long wall guns) to conquer most of east Asia.

Late Ming gunners, Above: Illustration of the Manchu warlord Nurhaci's biography depicting the battle of Sarhu (1619)- the front line of the Ming army (to the right) was clearly lined with rows of three eyed gunners. Often- regardless whether the formation was composed of infantry or crossbowmen, they were provided with a hard shell of multi- barreled gunners to break up an enemy charge.

Weapon Legacy

This would not be the end for the three eyed gun though, for they were still privately forged by many commoners and rebels that resisted the Manchu dominance of China. Many of China's Hakka minority (many of whom had rebelled against the Manchus) would used them to protect their massive fortress like villages, and even today- Hakka shamans and village elders would use ceremonial version of three eyed guns that fired firecracker balls to purify against evil spirits during special festivals.

Daoist magicians performing "spells" using gunpowder, including miracles such as siphoning streams of fire from their fingertips. Historically, they were the first to discover the properties of gunpowder.


Above: Various types of three barreled and five barreled Ming hand cannons with different attachments ranging from a pick, a spade to a spike (notice that the spiked version has the barrels inversed, likely a breaching weapon similar to a petard against a door with enemies behind it) and on the right, a "马上三眼銃-" a three eyed gun for mounted troops with a long spearhead.

Aside from the infantry, the three eyed gun was also one of the favorite weapon for some of the Ming cavalry. In fact, it was the preferred firearm of the border cavalry among China's northern frontier, particularly those from Liaodong (辽东, modern day Liaoning) Garrison along the Korea- Jurchen (Manchu) boarder. Unlike the infantry version, the mounted three eyed guns would mostly be augmented with a spearhead- also unlike the infantry version, horsemen equipped with the three eyed guns would be aggressively deployed.

Light cavalry equipped in this manner could harass enemy infantry from the distance by running parallel along their lines, they could even aggressively counter- charge against the best of enemy heavy cavalry- if they held their barrage until the last moment before impact it could potentially wipe out whole section of the enemy's best veteran horsemen and decide the outcome of battle right there.

As previously stated, the three eyed gun served as a force multiplier, in terms of cavalry, it makes the least well trained mounted warrior potentially capable to taking down the best of enemy elites.


The bizarre and unmistakable Xunlei Chong 迅雷銃, or "rapid thunder gonne" was invented at a curious period of Ming history. In the middle of the 16th century, western muskets brought by Portuguese merchants began to appear in the coastal Chinese markets (likely variations of the Japanese "Tanegashima" arqubuses permeated from trade with Japan.)

These early muskets came from the Japanese island (Tanegashima) where a Chinese junk with Portuguese adventurers on board was driven to anchor by a storm in 1543. The lord of the Japanese island, Tanegashima Tokitaka purchased two matchlock muskets from the Portuguese and put a swordsmith to reverse engineer it. Within ten years of its introduction, over 300,000 copies of "tanegashima" firearms were reported to have been manufactured across all of Japan- it had been a military revolution.

The Wokou or Wako pirates- a multi-ethnic consortium of pirates, raiders and outlaws led at its head by disenfranchised Japanese ronins. They were anything but a ragtag pack of bandits and more akin to roving sea faring warbands fully armed with swords- and the exotic newly arrived muskets recently brought forth by the Portuguese (above right.) 

During the Muromachi period, Tanegashima functioned as a relay station of one of the main routes of Chinese trade that connected Sakai to Ningbo. It was through this cross cultural osmosis that the Ming were quickly exposed to the superior western guns.

However- it was not only through peace and trade that China was first introduced to the superiod muskets but also through the ravages of war and rape brought on by the Wokuo (or "Wako") Japanese - led pirates, composed of disenfranchised ronins and local bandits who were also equipped with this dangerous weapon.

For 300 hundred years these pirates had been the bane to the security of East Asia's coast, and where ever they went they burned, looted, and raped, completely disrupting the local economy of south eastern China. Worse yet, by the middle of the 16th century, the 150 years of civil war in Japan in what would be known as the Sengoku period only compelled thousands of disgruntled samurai and refugees to piracy and raiding- all armed and geared with military grade weapons and almost to a man familiar with the way of war. 

In fact, the Wokou were such a menace to the Ming, Korea, and Japan that at one time they established many autonomous pirate strongholds along the east coast of China and ruled as bandit kings- displacing hundreds of thousands of locals from their homelands in the process. The local Ming forces were not only out-matched but also-outgunned as well. 

Witnessing the invader's keen expertise with these newly introduced muskets- a refugee, provincial scholar, and inventor from the devastated Zhejiang region named Zhao Shizhen 趙士楨 (1553-1611) wrote extensively to Qi JiGuang, the new Ming general appointed to relieved the region and advocated for Ming military to put greater emphasis on developing and training of firearms, attributing the high performance of the Japanese raiders to their expertise of superior European handguns.

Radical Scheme

His radical proposal was an invention named 迅雷銃 "Rapid Thunder Bolt Gun" that not only could out perform the outdated but still ubiquitous three eyed gun- but also one that could quickly be "converted" and disassembled into a melee weapon as well. For his design, he connected five thin gun barrels (based on the new Portugese muskets) behind a reinforced shield: like the five thunder divine machine the gunner could rotate the fuse 72 degrees and swiftly light each barrel with his match. These weapons would serve as defensive weapons and be fired from walls or high positions like hillocks and ridges. They were recorded to be deadly at 120 paces.

However, what served to differentiate it from a standard multi barreled hand cannon was the gun's components. If one were to inspect this weapon in detail, one would find that almost every part of the weapon was compartmentalized and detachable- a giant LEGO weapon composed of small seperate weapons. The central firing device is actually a combination of a detachable spear + five tubings + a firing mechanism, fitted together with interlocking grooves. The shield could be pulled off from the front and slung on the hand, the gun's rest is actually a double sided hand axe. Essentially a Swiss Army gun that could transform a row of deployed and entrenched gunners into rows of spearmen or axmen for whatever the battle conditions required...In theory at least.

The various components of a rapid thunder bolt gun, a central firing device consisting of a detacheable spear, five gun barrels and a removeable matchlock fire mechanism. The gun rest is actually a double sided hand axe, and the frontal shield could be removed and slung on the hand.

In reality, the gun was rather a nightmare for the gunners, the weapon itself was not only too heavy for extended campaigning but they were also notoriously difficult to disassemble and reassemble, considering that most of the enlisted provincials who made up the majority of General Qi's men had some difficulty working with paddle wheels and the mechanism of crossbows, complex interlocking mechanisms on this gun was practically alien technology to most of them. This- coupled with the fact that its complex mechanisms required a lot of standardized components and crafting meant that it could never be mass produced like Zhao would have preferred. The fact that many battle records neglect to mention them have led many historians to conclude they were not deployed in any pivotal or aggressive manner.

Another illustration of the various component of the rapid thunder bolt gun. The right side of the image showed the proposed dual use of the gun. One, detached was used as a combined melee infantry weapon, the converted, gun version is depicted at the bottom. Typically the rapid thunder bolt guns required a two man team who would at various times act as the gunner/ loader, and other times as spear man/shield bearer. 

Nevertheless, both Zhao and General Qi made both great strides in their careers. Zhao eventually became one of the instrumental pioneers of the Divine Machine Division and would develop and convert many western muskets for the Ming army. He would write volumes of extensive and richly detailed treatises: including《倭情屯田議》The Treatise on Wokou Field Tactics,《神器譜》The Catalog of Divine Machines (from which nearly all the diagrams of this blogpost are drawn from,)《續神器譜》 Catalog of Divine Machines- an Addendum,《神器譜或問》Catalog of Divine Machines- Followup and Commentary.

Late Ming multi- barreled guns with stocks and with multiple barrels.

Late Ming multi-barreled gun which incorporated the wooden stock as well as elongated smoothbore barrels. 

Divine Machine Division would provide half of Qi Jiguang's army with firearms- from long ranged Annamese fowling muskets to the traditional multi barreled guns, and most crucially- one cannon for every twelve soldiers (mostly swivel guns) but still an extremely high ratio compared to contemporary 16th century armies. This high ratio of firearms combined with Qi's legendary Mandarin Duck Formation, which he developed for his low level conscripts to effectively gang up on every group of Wokou they encountered would one day lead him to permanently eradicate all of the Wokou from China's coasts. By the end of his 12 year campaign all of China's east coast was returned to its natives, and Qi was promoted to personally train the imperial guards.


The core tactics of the Divine Machine Division emerged from the meticulous volley- firing tradition of previous millennium's crossbow divisions. For thousands of years, despite the crossbow's impressive penetration powers, a keen weakness of the weapon has always been its considerable long reload time after firing. During that time the enemy can close or return fire unmolested. In the time it takes to reload, a unit can be cut down, its half-loaded weapons useless in the face of an aggressive foe.

Thus, it quickly became sensible to make sure that not everyone in an infantry unit is reloading at the same moment; which meant that not everyone should be firing at the same time. Although volley fire is most often associated with firearms, the concept of continuous and concerted rotating fire was practiced using crossbows since at least the early days of the Tang dynasty.

Images of the old ways: a conservative crossbowman section's gears, a Ming war banner featuring a flying tiger, and masses of elite Mongol cavalry, the endless encroachments from the northern and eastern steppes would goad the Ming to rapidly develop their own firearms.

During the An Lushan Rebellion the Tang general Li Guangbi successfully deployed a spear crossbow formation against the rebel cavalry forces under Shi Siming. The 759 CE text Tai bai yin jing (太白陰經) by Tang military official Li Quan (李筌) contains the oldest known extant depiction and description of the volley fire technique.

The volley fire technique was perfected by the Song during the Jin-Song Wars against the nearly invincible fully armored cavalry of the Jin. In the fall of 1131 the Jin commander Wuzhu (兀朮) invaded the Shaanxi region but was defeated by general Wu Jie (吳 玠) and his younger brother Wu Lin (吳璘) who divided their shooters with specific subdivisions and ordered them to alternately shoot by turns (分番迭射). In many ways it was an early version of the famous "platoon fire" technique drilled by the British Army which ensured an infantry unit keeps up a continual barrage of shots against an enemy.

Illustration of a Ming volley fire formation using crossbows. 

They were called the "Standing-Firm Arrow Teams" (駐隊矢), and they shot continuously without cease, as thick as rain pouring down- eventually, though only outfitted with archers and crossbowmen, they were able to wipe out whole vanguards of the finest armored Jin cavalry. For the next 500 years both the crossbow and volley fire would remain a popular tactic throughout the Ming dynasty.


According to Ming records, in order to ensure a constant volley of bullets to fall upon their enemies, the Divine Machine Division would usually deploy using the "three-firing" method, this method divides the shooters into three rows. As the first rank came forward the "odds" i.e those soldiers who have been designated as - 1,3,5,7,9, 11 etc would come forward and discharge their volley, afterwards, the "evens" 2,4,6,8,10,12 who stood between them would present and discharge theirs. After the entire first rank (both the odds and evens) has fired, they would rotate to the back of the 3 lines to reload, and the 2nd line, then the 3rd would come forward and fire while the 1st line reloads, the process would repeat until the unit was given further orders. 

Offensive deployment of a mixed ranged formation composed of three eyed gunners (yellow) at the front and a rank of crossbowmen (blue) behind. This formation is usually arranged to support a Ming cavalry charge by maximizing the ranks' fire power as well as often deployed defensively against a charge from enemy cavalry. It should be noted that though it incorporated volley fire, this was a medieval firing formation that dated to the 1400s.

In this manner- the enemy would be constantly bombarded with showers of deadly fire. The total effect of this seeming constant hailstorm would be crippling to the morale of any foes caught underneath. Compared to the platoon firing of the British from 18th century~ which divided firing ranks into two wings~ the left and the right to fire one barrage after another, it also offered a greater saturation of damage (considering that muskets were designed to shoot straight and thus could only wipe out front rows of troops while crossbow bolts could bombard formations from above- the odd/ even division also spread out the damage somewhat.)

This method predated Nobunaga at Nagashino, Maurice of Nassau, and Gustavus Adolphus at Brientenfeld by centuries. Even before the Ming fielded true muskets the Ming employed this method for mixed divisions of three eyed gunners and crossbowmen. One of the first recorded instance of Ming volley fire dated to when the frontier general of Yunnan- and a founding member of the Ming dynasty Mu Ying effectively used this method to destroy dozens of enemy elephants, in the centuries that followed the Ming gradually refined this technique to deal with swarms of mobile cavalry,


On top of the meticulously subdivided shooting order of gunners, as the Ming adopted more and more types of firearms over the course of the 16th and 17th century they also found ways to stagger their volleys progressively based on range as well.

Using a dizzying array of guns~ from huge "snipers" like the 鸟枪 "Bird Guns" Vietnamese fowling guns to the deadly and reliable 佛郎机炮 "Buddha Cannons," the Ming were able to use these long range weapons to wreck havoc upon enemy forces from afar, then as they march closer to deal with the Ming troopers, they would be bombarded by a hailstorm of rockets from above, then- if they managed to survive the cannon shots and the mortar like bombardment of rockets, they would be sprayed with a wall of bullets launched by the three eyed gunners (in odd and even alternating fire order.) In this manner, the Ming guaranteed that at every turn, the enemy formation is continuously bombarded with nightmarish fire both in the front and from above. "Combined arms" is perhaps the best words to describe this array.

三眼銃: our old friend the three eyed gun. Rugged, reliable and cheap to mass produce, soldiers wielding these primitive blunderbusses would have been deployed as the outer crust of formations and would have been the best armored of the formation. They would be relied on to deliver the last salvo against an enemy force before they made contact with the formation. 

火箭 "Nest of bees": portable braces of rockets for the frontline infantry. Invented in the late 13th century, these very light rocket boxes (2-3 pounds) consisted of hexagonal tubes filled with 32 rocket-tipped arrows. The arrows were often tipped with poison or flammable materials such as pitch, bitumen or resin which cold explode in a fireball. The rocket braces could also have been fitted with shoulder straps and worn like a backpack into battle- a typical infantryman could carry up to five braces. These deadly arrows can penetrate flesh to bone and they could travel quite far - up to 3 football fields away. Thousands of these weapons could have been deployed simultaneously, raining death on the enemy's ranks.

Vietnamese Or 爪哇銃 "Java" Matchlocks (Middle) ~ Giant matchlock 鸟枪 "fowling" guns the Ming adopted from boarder conflicts against the Vietnamese Mạc dynasty. These guns were so large that each was made with a foldable bipod. One could consider them a 17th century version of an anti- tank rifle, in that they could pierce several layers of iron plates and kill through two to five men in one shot~ all while being being very silent. They quickly became a favorite among the Ming ranks, many contemporaries have professed admiration for this weapon and deemed them superior to the standard Ming muskets. By 1644 it had became one of the most fielded guns in the Ming arsenal. 

佛郎机炮 "Buddha Cannons" Ming dynasty breech loading cannons imitated from Portugese designs. During the 16th and 17th century, the Ming (and the Japanese) heavily favored this weapon- which comformed with the Ming doctrine of rapid reload and rapid firing. Unlike the smoothbore cannons which dominated European battlefields until the 19th century, the Ming heavily relied on these cannons and loaded them with grapeshots for anti infantry operations. Before battle, each gun crew would have loaded several dozens of shrapnels in bronze "mugs" (a cup with its top covered with rough fabric and a metal handle for carrying and easy reload) after a shot was fired, a loader would instantly attach another cup to the cannon- thus allowing 3 or 4 mugs (blasts) to be fired in under a minute. They would have been moved on simple wooden wagons.

A full 25 manned gunner section. The outer layer of each flank consisted of 3 Three eyed gunners 三眼銃 (yellow,) 1 rocketeer 火箭 (red,) and 1 crack shot "sniper" 鸟枪 (blue) armed with a fowling gun. The section leader 队长 is marked in tricolor scheme. Each wing of the section would be commanded by a sergeant 什长 (marked with a "+" sign) tasked with lining his shooters, give command to reload and command to unleash their volleys. The torchbearer 火兵, who carried a variety of fuses and rounds is marked in orange.

A full 25 manned gunner section. The inner layer of each flank consisted of 1 pikeman 长枪 (yellow,) 1 long ranged rocketeer, lit. "fire ballistas" or "fire crossbow troop" 火弩 (red,) and 1 long range breech loading "Buddhia Cannon" 佛郎机炮 (blue). Beside the 3 soldiers, the inner section also includes 1 powder crew 装药 or powder monkey and 1 transport crew 运子- both part of a 3 manned cannon crew for the Buddha Cannon. The section leader 队长 is marked in tricolor scheme. Each wing of the section would be commanded by a sergeant 什长 (marked with a "+" sign) tasked with lining his shooters, give command to reload and command to unleash their volleys. The torchbearer 火兵, who carried a variety of fuses and rounds is marked in orange.


During extended campaigns, the division would be deployed defensively in a giant box formation. The exterior of the camp would be entirely filled with rings of portable wooden frames covered with many projecting long iron or wooden spikes or spears (similar to Cheval de Frises.) The outer layer of the camp (marked in blue and yellow) would be garrisoned with sections of gunners who would rest and stay vigilant as if they were in attack order. Precious cavalries (which the Ming had always lacked) and the commanders (marked in tricolor) would be stationed at the formation's center.

It should be pointed out that like most of the Ming armies~ all of whom possessed a number of wagon mantlets and shielded cannons, the outer layer of Divine Machine Division's formation are usually bristled with cannons. From the distance these mobile wagon forts would have looked quite similar to a Hussite Tabor or a Cossack Gulyay Gorod. Whenever the Ming faced against the Mongols, the out gunned Mongols would have had little solution to deal with these cannons. 


Other times, the Ming camps would be armed with something that was much deadlier than the shielded cannon wagons. The 架火戰車, or rocket wagons (lit. "Fire Chariots") was one of the most dangerous and surprisingly versatile Ming weapons. Essentially 6 detachable packs of rockets laid over a wheel barrow frame. Each incorporates four pods of "Long Snake Soul Breaking Arrows" (長蛇破敵箭) of thirty poison tipped rockets per pod, and two pods of "Rush of Hundred Tigers Arrows" (百虎齊奔箭) of a hundred rockets per pod, for a total of 320 rockets that all have a centralized fuse which enabled them to be fired in one barrage. Aside from these armaments, each cart also consisted of three detachable muzzle-loading swivel guns pre- loaded for the crew to use when the enemy came close, as well as two spears and a thick cotton curtain to defend against incoming arrows.

Because of their light weight, these carts could be easily moved around on the battle field and quickly launched by the simplest of peasant soldiers. The fact that they could saturate a massive area from two whole football fields away then quickly reposition made them a frightening spectacle for enemy formation that was caught beneath it.

Aside from their devastating barrage and mobility, two other factors made these wagons extremely deadly. One is that because all of the rocket pods are compartmentalized like detachable blocks of LEGOs, after firing, all six of the used pods could be easily disassembled then fitted with whole new pre-loaded rocket pods- enabling the crew to ready to fire another barrage within minutes. The second factor is the potential for these rocket wagons to be linked up and provide a mobile line of defense (cont. below)

A detailed diagram of a 架火戰車 rocket wagon (lit. Fire Chariot,) that shows the detachable pods of the 3 thin "Long Snake Soul Breaking Arrows" (長蛇破敵箭) 30 poison tipped rockets per pod, and 2 pods of "Rush of Hundred Tigers Arrows" (百虎齊奔箭) 100 rockets per pod, for a total of 320 rockets that all have a centralized fuse which enabled them to be fired in one barrage. Also showing the 白子銃 detachable muzzle-loading swivel guns for the crew's defense, as well as two spears and a thick cotton curtain to be spanned over the front to defend against incoming arrows.

(cont. from above) We have talked about the construction of standard Ming wagon forts above, as well as mentioned that the rocket wagons had some innate ability to soak up arrow fire (+10 to surrounding units' missile defense!) with its thick cotton screens- the Ming commanders realized very early on that he could chain these wagons together to form a defensive line that could serve as a rally point for his soldiers as well as provide a hellish "wall" for any attackers. At any time any formation ordered to attack this formation would be faced with the prospect of having a steel storm of thousands of incoming rockets and poisoned arrows launched against them. And this is long before they even come within the range of any of the gunner squads.

Extended diagram showing the rocket wagons being linked up together to provide a mobile defensive barrier. They could be both deployed defensively as a protective rally point as well as offensively in the front of the gunners to act as a forward deterrent for any incoming attack. 

Thank you to my Patrons who has contributed $10 and above: 
You helped make this happen!

➢ ☯ Stephen D Rynerson
➢ ☯ SRS (Mr. U)


artget1 said…
Hey man, great post. I recently found this blog and i m loving it! Can you provide some sources or references on what you write? Preferable in English because i have people asking for information on Firearms in Ming/Qing. Or do you draw your sources in Chinese and then translate it into English. Thank you
Old Beast said…
Thanks, I usually collect my sources from Chinese as well as English: For this article I draw mostly from the Chinese translation of the "Catalogue of Divine Machines:" http://catalog.digitalarchives.tw/item/00/08/75/91.html

Brook, Timothy (1998). The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China. Berkeley: University of California Press.: http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520221543

The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History

Kelly, Jack (2004). Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive that Changed the World. New York: Basic Books, Perseus Books Group.

Song, Yingxing, translated with preface by E-Tu Zen Sun and Shiou-Chuan Sun (1966). T'ien-Kung K'ai-Wu: Chinese Technology in the Seventeenth Century. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Temple, Robert. (1986). The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery, and Invention. With a foreword by Joseph Needham. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc. ISBN 0-671-62028-2.

Also Charles Hucker, Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China (Stanford University Press, 1985), p. 417 (entry 5145).
artget1 said…
Thanks for the reply, if you are interested join us at /r/history discord server: https://discord.gg/hEZDq77 We have people interested in your knowledge. People were asking about the authenticity of the Book of the Fire Dragon (火 龍 經) because we were discussing about Ming/Qing firearms.

Popular Posts