UNIT: Ming Liaodong Mongol Cavalry 辽东蒙古骑兵 Part. 2 Edge of the Empire

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Northeastern China, the historical region of Manchuria and boundaries of modern provinces of Liaoning (circled) Jilin, and Heilongjiang marked in dark yellow in the east. The fortress of the Liaodong garrison marked with "軍" it would become the most important Ming settlement beyond the inner Great Walls~ 沈阳中卫. Eventually the garrison would become the modern city of Shenyang. The Mongol vassals that guarded the regions beyond the northern defense lines of the Ming were called the Three Guards of Wuliangha 兀良哈三卫


The culture of Ming's northern frontier was rough and uncompromising. Many ethnic groups lived side by side while all maintained an uneasy watchfulness over each other. Nearly 500,000 Ming soldiers served along the northern frontier and possessed at least 100,000 warhorses. But like all dangerous frontiers across the swaths of human history, frontier military law held supreme sway- and all individuals must figure out their own roles within it. Among those who must figure out their places included tens of thousands of Mongol auxiliaries and some of the roughest settlers from the other parts of the Ming domains. Recruits from Liaodong, and people from Liaodong in general, were considered unruly, and little better than thugs. One could say the men of the north were untamed.

Attitude problem: the first quality many who are not native to the region will observe from the locals is the coarse manners they exhibited, be they Mongols or the Han. Speeches are unpolished and direct here. Non-northern foreigners were routinely looked down upon, especially those who immigrated from the southern provinces. 

To the Mongols who identified with the north, they regarded southerners as complete aliens. Generally, all the groups minded their own business. On top of it all, these collective "northerners"- be they Mongols or Han also exhibited a strong authoritarian strain, they followed orders ruthlessly and cared little for niceties. After all the Hongwu Emperor and later, the Yongle Emperor were gruff life-long military men of a similar stripe, their coarse personalities also molded the northern frontiers.

Liaodong Penninsula closeup, situated between two rivers thus channeling whatever land invasion from only one direction. Defensive lines could easily be set up so long as the defenders who held the southwestern tip of the peninsula possessed a robust navy. Whoever held the peninsula also safeguarded the expansive Bohai Sea that served as the inner harbor of China.


The word 辽东 Liaodong came from the portmanteau of 辽 "Liao" of the historical Khitan Liao dynasty that once ruled in the region and 东 "Dong" meaning "east." During the Liao dynasty the area was known as the Shen Prefecture (沈州; Shěn Zhōu) through to the end of Jin dynasty, and became the Shenyang Circuit (沈阳路; Shěnyáng Lù) during the Yuan dynasty. 

Shanhai Pass, the illustration above corresponds to the end of the 16th century, when the Ming built expensive fortifications in this area. Shanhai Pass (shanhaiguan), also known as the "First Step under Heaven" served as the inner gate of northeastern China. Liaodong Garrison would serve as an outlying military province outside the Great Wall.

During the Ming dynasty, it was designated as a "guard town" (militarized settlements, such as walled/heavily garrisoned cities or towns) named Shenyang Central Guard (沈阳中卫; Shěnyáng Zhōngwèi) and gradually became one of the most important strongholds beyond the Shanhai Pass. It was the most important fortress outside the inner perimeter of the Great Wall. For the Ming it was a key stepping stone to project their influence north into the deep forests and basins of the Amur River. The garrisons there allowed the Ming to completely secure its eastern flank ending all the way into the Pacific Coast. 

Outer Gate and the Inner Gate: after the disastrous Tumu Crisis, the Great Wall was reconstructed along the whole of the Ming's northern boarder. The Ming Great Wall extended from western Ming in the Gansu Province until it ended at Shanhai Pass (Circled) in the east. Liaodong (Gold) served as an outlying military frontier that jutted beyond the hard shell of the Great Walls. Another series of defensive lines (the Liaodong Wall) protected its provincial boarders until it ended at the Fushun Pass (also Circled.) So long as it is held the Ming would still be entrenched in the north. In the west it bordered Mongol lands, in its northeast it boardered the Jurchens (later became the Manchus) in the east it bordered Korea. 

Other than its function as a massive military depot and frontier fortress Liaodong also served as the forward diplomatic center of the Ming Empire, contact with various Jurchen Princes, Mongol Khans, and Korean Emissaries were first conducted here. The Ming were also keen to make the area a headquarter to coordinate campaigns for both the Ming army and its coalition allies. Mercenaries were hired here as well. Lastly the Liaodong garrison served as a conduit for the fur and pelt trade between the Ming and the Jurchen hunters that prowled deep into the Siberian forests. In this manner, one could conceptualize the Ming northern garrisons like the French trading forts along the Mississippi River basin or the Russian forts in Siberia. 


The primary duties of the Ming Northern Army required them to act as a fast response force against any hostile trespassers, their secondary roles included rooting out bandits and peacekeeping. Bandits of all ethnic stripes have historically plagued the jagged black mountains of China's north. Common wisdom dictates the further you go outside and away from large Ming fortifications and you were bound to run into the mountain bandits. Since time immemorial they have been kidnapping children and impressing the locals into their ranks. From the chaos of the Three Kingdoms all the way to the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949 the mountain bandits have constantly been a fixture of the local identity. 


The Northern Army of the Ming stationed in the Liaodong area were predominantly- if not almost exclusively composed of mounted soldiers. They were usually marked by their scarlet brigandine armor and the black flag pennon that extended from the top of their helmets. In terms of weapons they were typically equipped with a recurved bow along with a cavalry saber. 

Because the Chinese do not distinguish between cavalry and mounted infantry, some of the cavalry would be given infantry weapons if they were required to dismount and operate as mounted infantry. Some would be given a round rattan shield in conjunction with their saber while others were given the powerful "three eyed guns" which could be fired from horseback. Ming mounted divisions were also trained so cavalry and mounted infantry could operate in tandem with each other, they would march and attack using signals from war drums. 


The exert which I will quote below in regards to Ming cavalry tactics came from the Great Ming Military blog that I frequently read (please go check out his blog for detailed analysis of a variety of subjects about the Ming military and lend your support for him): 

Cavalry from Liaodong Garrison usually deployed in two battle formations: the vanguard, consisted of cavalry and usually elites, and the rearguard, which consisted of mounted infantry. During battle, Liaodong cavalry would mount a frontal charge at their enemy. Their charge was always accompannied by a shower of arrows, rockets and gunfires, launched from the cavalry themselves. Once the cavalry impacted on their enemy, mounted infantry would follow up from behind and support their comrade in close combat. The Ming medium cavalry are also very versatile, since the dismounted components could act as gunners and archers while the cavalry that excels in moth melee and archery harasses the enemy.

Other Ming generals deployed their cavalry very differently. The veteran general Qi Ji Guang (戚继光) for example, employed dragoons (mounted arquebusiers) in addition to cavalry and mounted infantry.


This is a common cavalry tactic employed not only by the Ming but also the Mongols and the Jurchen/ Mongols. A large all-cavalry force would usually deploy into several battles and take turns to charge at their enemy. If enemy stood firm, the cavalry would withdraw and regroup slowly (without actually impact against enemy formation) before attempting another charge. This process could be repeated ad infinitum, until the enemy either flee or provoked into breaking ranks and pursue the cavalry. To reduce fatigue, every cavalryman was given more than one horse.

There were very few infantry counters to this tactic due to the versatility of medium cavalry that could harass and deliver shock equally well. Foot archer and arquebusiers could be run down with impunity, while pikemen and other close combat troops could be withered down by arrows and gunfires. It was likely that Chinese infantry put great emphasis on countercharging enemy cavalry in order to prevent this tactic to be used against them.


Ming border cavalry routinely conducted Tao Chao (掏巢, lit. 'Hollow out the nest') operations against hostile Mongols and other steppe foes. Tao Chao was a type of lightning raid aimed to pillage and destroy the dwellings of the steppe natives, essentially turning the nomadic tactic of the Mongols against them. Because most steppe nomads did not settle in one place for long, an effective intelligence network was required to locate their dwellings and relay the intelligence back to Ming border garrisons in a timely manner.

This tactic proved highly effective against nomadic hordes, since nomadic peoples were less capable of recovery from a sudden catastrophe than settled communities. A successful raid could force them to immediately relocate or risk severe starvation, and seriously hamper their ability to perform raid on Ming borders. Other similar tactics include Gan Ma (赶马, lit. 'Chase away the horse', stealing horses from the nomads as well as dispersing their herd) and Shao Huang (烧荒, lit. 'Burning off wildland', burn away potential pastures, especially during winter).

End Quote



Perhaps the most distinctive weapon of the Liaodong Garrison was its favorite weapon, the "three eyed gun" -an early multi barreled hand cannon which was carried by a significant swath of its horsemen. The Northern Army's attachment to this weapon would be so great that it would be used for nearly 200 years continuously throughout the Ming even in its obsoletion. Even in the decades immediately preceding the fall of the Ming dynasty,  they were still deployed by the Ming army across its northern frontiers. 

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 famous Ming general Qi Jiguang who eradicated the Japanese pirates and invented the famous Mandarin Duck formation once described the Northern soldiers as being especially stupid, conservative, and impatient. When he tried to introduce the newly designed muskets in the north, the soldiers there were adamant in continuing to these old faithfuls.

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)

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.

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."


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."


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.

The three eyed gun was one of the preferred firearm of the border cavalry of the Liaodong (辽东) Garrison. 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 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 battlefield 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. We have talked about how these rocket wagons had an innate ability to soak up arrow fire 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.

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.

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. 

Follow us next chapter where we discuss the history of the Liaodong frontier, Ming- Oriat Wars, and the elite Mongol royal guards of the 三千营 "Three Thousand Guard Division" 

Stay Tuned

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Snakey Jones said…
The company that produced the Mongol Cavalry figure; Kong Ling Ge, is really solid, I own several of their pieces. Truth be told, if a company were to approach you and gain your permission i'd love it if i could get 1/6 figures of your artwork, particularly that tiger crown cavalryman. Keep up the good work!
Dragon's Armory said…
That's...really strangely close to home man :D
I don't know if you know this or if you are playing with me but I actually have that exact figure being made into an action figure right now. Lol, it's coming out later this year and here is an example of what you might expect.

Snakey Jones said…
Okay, i honestly had no idea that was happening, that is so cool!

Can i ask what scale is it? 1/6. Also which company is it?
Dmitry said…
Chinese Cossaks!
Dragon's Armory said…
Sort of lol, I'd say the Hui Chinese were more akin to the Cossacks, in both loyalty, military might, and fierce resistance to all foes
Dmitry said…
Ah yes I did hear of the Hui Muslim "Ma clans" of the republican Era. I do not know how far their history goes, or what role they played in Ming or Qing times.

Would be a good topic for an Article me thinks!