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Military Technology



Impact of Gunpowder. The first use of gunpowder in bombs in the military did not revolutionize war. About 919 gunpowder was used in the form of a flamethrower. When explosive gunpowder did appear, real explosive bombs, rather than merely incendiary bombs, were produced in large quantities. As the proportion of saltpeter in the gun-powder mixture was increased, up to 75 percent of the gun-powder was saltpeter, roughly the proportion used in modern gunpowder. Upon ignition, gunpowder of this type rapidly created three thousand times its bulk in gas, reaching a temperature of 3888C. The speed of the occurrence was made possible because oxygen was in the saltpeter within the mixture, so that no oxygen needed to be sucked in from the nearby air. When the Chinese reached this stage, “barrel guns” and cannons became available.

Protoflamethrowers. A flamethrower is a device to produce an incessant stream of flame in warfare. As early as 675 the Byzantines used such a device to defend their empire. It had a “siphon,” which seemingly pumped flame by means of a single-acting force pump that looked like a large syringe. The protoflamethrower of the Byzantines was actually unable to eject a continuous stream of flame. It sent out a burst of flame with each pumping.

Flamethrowers. By the tenth century B.C.E. the Chinese were able to produce a continuous stream of flame because of the invention of a double-acting piston bellows, which was used in chemical warfare in the fourth century B.C.E. for spraying soldiers with clouds of poison gas. The Chinese device was the first genuine flamethrower. The superiority of Chinese metallurgy was obvious because the flamethrower was made of the best cartridge-quality brass, having 70 percent copper. The first use of the flamethrower in China probably was in the year 904; Lu Chen in Histor ical Record of the Nine Countries mentioned it. This dreadful mechanism sprayed enemies with burning liquid. As the liquid passed from the pump, it was ignited by the gun-powder-impregnated fuse, so that a sheet of flame fell on them. Shi Xupai’s Discussion at Fisherman s Rock has a clear account of flamethrowers in the naval battle on the Yangzi (Yangtze) River in 975. In the same year another book, Record of the Southern Tang Dynasty, recorded their use. Dreaming of the Good Ancient Times, published in 1137 by Kang Yuzhi, illustrated the storage and use of flammable liquid for flamethrowers. A military encyclopedia, Compilation of the Most Significant Military Techniques (1044),illustrated design details.


The Chinese made significant strides in military technology. Below is an excerpt from Zeng Kongliang’s Collection of the Most Important Military Techniques(1044):

The crossbow is the strongest weapon of China and what the four kinds of barbarians most fear and obey. . . . The crossbow is the most efficient weapon of any, even at distances as small as five feet. The crossbowmen are mustered in separate companies, and when they shoot, nothing can stand in front of them, no enemy formation can keep its order. If attacked by cavalry, the crossbowmen will be as solid as a mountain, shooting off such volleys that nothing can remain alive before them. Although the charge may be impetuous it will not reach them. Therefore the barbarians fear the crossbow. Truly for struggling around strategic points among mountains and rivers and defiles, overcoming men who do not lack bravery, the crossbow is indispensable.

Source: Robert Temple, The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery, and Invention (New York: Simon <x Schuster, 1986).

Color Fireworks. Color fireworks appeared in China as early as 200 B.C.E. when pieces of bamboo were thrown into fires and exploded in bright colors. After gunpowder was invented, the Chinese quickly developed every conceivable type of fireworks and colored explosions, using a wide variety

of special materials. They could obtain luminous sparkling effects by mixing gunpowder with steel dust or tiny shavings of cast iron, which were reduced to powder. Blue-green flashes could be gained by utilizing indigo; white flashes by utilizing white lead carbonate; red flashes by utilizing red lead tetroxide; purple flashes by utilizing cinnabar; black flashes by utilizing lignite and soap beans; and yellow flashes by utilizing arsenical sulfides.

Fire Arrows. There was a long history of incendiary weapons of all kinds throughout the world, but when gunpowder became available in China it was incorporated into incendiary weapons to deadly effect. The first bombs used gunpowder with insufficient saltpeter to cause a proper explosion. By the tenth century new types of incendiaries had appeared. Fire arrows were tipped with little gunpowder bundles folded into papers sealed with wax and had gunpowder-impregnated fuses. These projectiles would set fire to anything inflammable, such as tents, wagons, clothing, besieging engines, trench walls made of wood, and stores of hay or food. In 1083 the Song army had a supply of 250,000 gunpowder-armed arrows.

Thunderclap Bombs. By the first half of the eleventh century a new kind of gunpowder bomb became available. Called the “thunderclap bomb,” this device had a high percentage of saltpeter. Enclosed in a weak casing of bamboo or paper, the thunderclap bomb was hurled from trebuchets. Thunderclap bombs were efficient in starting fires and terrifying the enemy’s horses with explosive sounds, and many barbarian soldiers were demoralized by the noise. These bombs either had fuses or were ignited by a red-hot poker just before being thrown. One eyewitness account details the successful employment of such weapons during a siege in the late eleventh century.

Thunderclap Grenades. Thunderclap bombs also appeared in the form of grenades that could be thrown by hand. In 1187 the scholar Yuan Haowen recounted the use of thunderclap grenades by a hunter. This grenade would most likely have been housed in a narrow-mouthed pottery vessel, and the hunter almost certainly used a match to light the fuse.

Soft-Shelled Bombs. The Chinese invented the soft-shelled bomb in the thirteenth century. In 1276 they fired flares to send messages to distant troop detachments when the city of Yangzhou was being attacked. These soft-shelled bombs were timed to explode in midair, possibly colored like fireworks.

Thundercrash Bomb. By 1221 a new type of bomb had appeared in China. It was called the “thundercrash bomb.” These bombs were much more deadly than earlier versions because, rather than having soft casings, they were hard bombs with casings of metal, similar to modern ones. The shrapnel would kill and wound many more of the enemy. Since their purpose was to burst the metal casings asunder, these new bombs were made with gunpowder containing a higher content of saltpeter. Gunpowder of this strength was equal to the modern version. The Jin armies probably first used thundercrash bombs around 1221 at their successful sieges of cities of the Song empire (960-1279). Since the new bombs were in cast-iron casings, they made a noise like thunder, shook the walls of houses, and killed and wounded countless people. The term thundercrash bomb was not used until 1231 when the Jin armies were overwhelmed by the Mongols in the Shanxsi province. The Jin general fled down the Yellow River with three thousand soldiers, pursued along the northern bank by fierce Mongol armies who fired a constant rain of arrows upon him. Historians used the term thundercrash bomb when writing of this battle. The only surviving picture of a bursting bomb-shell of the period was a Japanese depiction made in 1293, showing a Chinese-style thundercrash bomb in a cast-iron casing exploding in the air. Europeans probably did not use cast-iron bombshells until 1467.

Other Bombs. By the thirteenth century the Chinese developed a variety of bombs with special uses. Some were filled with antipersonnel material in order to increase the shrapnel result. There were also poison bombs, gaseous bombs, and bombs packed with feces. Some of the well-known bombs and grenades were the “bone-burning and staining fire-oil magic bomb”; the “magic fire dramatic bomb that flies against the wind”; the “dropping-from-sky bomb”; the “bee-swarm bomb”; the “equal to 10,000 enemies bomb discharging 10,000 fires”; the “flying-sand mysterious bomb”; and the “wind and dust bomb.”

Land Mines. By 1277 the Chinese had developed land mines, and in the middle of the fourteenth century illustrations of how to make land mines were published in books. The Fire-Drake Artillery Guidebook, published in 1412, included some information on the land mines of the fourteenth century, such as a network of mines called the “ground-thunder explosive site.” Another land mine illustrated in the same book was called the “highest pole mixture mine,” which had a battery of eight small guns pointing in different directions, all detonated by an automatic trigger device. (The first appearance of land mines in Europe was not until the war between Pisa and Florence in 1403.)

Trigger Devices. Some of the trigger devices of Chinese land mines involved arrangements of flint and steel. These land mine triggers trace back to 1360 and seemed to be the forebear of the flintlock musket (first appearing in Europe in 1547). The first European land mines using triggers for ignition at a distance were not created until 1573.

Sea Mines. The Chinese also developed sea mines, which are recorded in The Fire-Drake Artillery Guidebook.Called the “submarine dragon-king,” the sea mine made of wrought iron was carried on a submerged wooden board. The mine was enclosed in an ox bladder, and a thin joss stick in a container was arranged to drift above the mine. The burning of this incense stick determined when the fuse caught fire, but without air its flame would certainly go out, so the container was linked with the mine by a long piece of goat’s intestine through which the fuse went. At the upper end the joss-stick container was kept drifting by an arrangement of goose and wild-duck feathers, so that it floated unevenly with the ripples of the water. At night the mine was sent downstream toward the enemy’s ships, and when the joss stick burned down to the fuse, a great explosion occurred. The Chinese sea mine of the fourteenth century was two hundred years earlier than the European one, which did not appear until 1574.

Rockets. The rocket, a great technological contribution to the world, was perhaps the most significant invention of the Chinese. They invented rockets by 1150 and used them in warfare by 1206. By 1280 the Arabs called rockets “Chinese arrows.” The Europeans did not develop rockets until the beginning of the fifteenth century.

Early Types. Inspiration for the rocket came from a type of firework known as the “ground rat” or “earth rat” that sped along the ground sending out flames behind it. Another type of firework, known as the “water rat,” was tied to floats or little skis and went skidding across lakes or pools in firework festivals. The book Traditions and Organizations of the Old Capital (thirteenth century) illustrated celebrations of the 1100s and mentioned fireworks of those days. Some were similar to wheels while others resembled comets. The Chinese introduced stabilizing devices such as fins and wings for rockets soon after 1300.

Weight Balancing. By the twelfth century the Chinese had identified weight balancing. An iron weight was fastened at the rear end of the rocket arrow behind the feathering. These counterweights allowed the rockets to move significant distances by holding down their ends so as to prevent the rocket arrows from hitting the ground.

Delicate Procedure. When the gunpowder inside a rocket burns, there needs to be equal areas of combustion along the internal cavity. Illustrations from the twelfth century demonstrate that if the hole bored through the gunpowder charge was straight sided the arrow would fly straight, and if angled the arrow would fly off at a tangent. If the hole was too deep the rocket would lose too much flame at the rear; if it was too shallow, it would not have enough power, so the arrow would fall to the ground almost immediately.

Modification. By 1300 extreme modification of rockets had taken place, whereby the orifice of the rocket tube was narrowed to increase the flow velocity of the issuing gases, providing greater strength. This choke or nozzle results in the Venturi-tube effect, which is one of the most basic rules of aerodynamics, allowing for lift in connection with the use of wings. (The rule was not discovered in Europe until the eighteenth century.) Gunpowder used in these early Chinese rockets is thought to have had about 60 percent saltpeter, and they could fly for a distance of 50 to 1,150 yards.

Basket Launchers. The Chinese soon saw the military advantage of mass rocket firings. By fixing the rockets within frames of launchers, the Chinese could control them better. Conical basket launchers would not survive one mass firing, but were easily replaceable.

Wheelbarrow Launchers. Wheelbarrows were frequently used as portable batteries and were called”flames-frame-fighting-vehicles.” The splayed rocket launchers had internal diaphragms with holes in them to keep the rockets separate, and the launcher was broadened at the top from a narrower base in order to insure a wide area of dispersion of the points of impact of the rockets. Each battery could dispatch 320 rockets at one time. These batteries consisted of four long-serpent rocket launchers in rows on wheelbarrows, together with two rectangular wooden hundred-tiger rocket launchers, one on either side. In Ming times (1368-1644) a super-battery was supposedly able to launch 32,000 rockets at a single moment, and during a battle approximately one million rockets might be used.

Multistage Rockets. By the early fourteenth century the Chinese had developed multistage rockets. According to The Fire-Drake Artillery Guidebook, the Fire-Dragon rocket had a range of one mile. When the gunpowder in the rocket tubes was nearly finished, the rocket continued to fly because of the automatic lighting by a fuse of its second stage. This rocket was a forerunner of the modern multi-stage version.

Fire-Lance. By 905 the Chinese had developed the first protogun, called a “fire-lance.” A silk banner painted no later than 950 illustrated comprehensively the world’s oldest gun. In the picture Buddha was contemplating while the demons of the evil goddess Mara the Temptress were attempting to sidetrack him. One demon held a fire-lance while the other demon wielded a bomb from which fire had already begun to come out. This unquestionable historical statement indicated the invention of the gun occurred much earlier than other monographs described. In the beginning the fire-lance was basically a Roman-candle firework fixed firmly to a spear. It was exceptionally useful for defending city walls against besiegers. Large numbers of fire-lances were wheeled around in trolleys. In 1233, when Mongols were besieging Jin armies in a city, Jin troops launched a brave night raid using the fire-lances. In following decades fire-lances were modified. Starting as lengths of bamboo tube that simply spurted fire, fire-lances advanced to metal barrels, so they could function as pikes in close battle. Later, fire-lances dropped their spear points, especially when they proceeded to stronger and longer metal barrels. The earliest description of fire-lances in Europe was a Latin manuscript of 1396 illustrating them clearly with a picture of a mounted horseman. Even after the true gun was invented, fire-lances remained popular and were used until the middle of the twentieth century in China as protection against pirates.

Cannons. Illustrated in The Fire-Drake Artillery Guidebook, a Chinese protocannon called the “eruptor” first appeared in the thirteenth century. Its projectile was a hollow shell of cast iron; inside, it held half a pound of powerful gunpowder. An early European cannon, depicted in a German manuscript circa 1450, was virtually identical to the earlier Chinese one. The first true cannon, the “long-distance grand cannon,” weighed seventy-two kilograms. The barrels were more than half covered by large flattened bands.

Firearms. The true handgun was developed in the thirteenth century. A bronze handgun made in 1288 was excavated in Manchuria; it was more than one foot long and weighed about eight pounds. The gunpowder chamber had a small touchhole for ignition and a bulbous shape so as to prevent it from breaking up under the force of its own internal explosion. The Chinese also began to develop repeat-firing guns by doubling the rate of fire with small cannons. This type of gun was composed of two small cannons whose rear ends joined together in one long barrel. After the first one was fired the barrel was quickly rotated so that the second one fired. Another type was developed called the “cartwheel gun.” It had thirty-six barrels radiating from its center like the spokes of a wheel. These guns were so small that a single mule could carry two, one on each side of its pack. In the following centuries hand-held guns proliferated in China.

Tear Gas. The prototype of modern tear gas was a blinding smoke, caused by thinly powdered lime that made the eyes tear profusely. During a sea battle in 1161 thunderclap bombs made with paper cartons and filled with lime and sulfur were launched from trebuchets. When they hit the water, the sulfur they contained burst into flames. The carton case rebounded and broke, spreading the lime to create a smoky fog that blinded the eyes of enemy sailors. A classic tear-gas combination was called “five-league-fog,” containing about 29 percent each of saltpeter and sulfur and 45 percent of charcoal. Burning little by little, it included arsenic, sawdust, resin, human hair, and chicken, wolf, and human excrement. Smoke from burning wolf excrement, which looked red both in the daytime and at night, could also be used for sending warning signals.

Poison Bombs. Poison bombs such as the “bee swarm bomb,” “poison-fog magic-smoke eruptor,” and others came about in the fourteenth century. The Chinese combined animal, plant, and mineral poisons into one mixture. The resulting smoke from an exploding shell would attack defenders’ noses, mouths, and eyes. The improvement of rockets for war-fare added a new method of delivering poisonous bombs. Some bombs would also produce fire. The “flying-sand powerful bomb,” for example, consisted of a tube of gunpowder put into an earthenware pot containing quicklime, resin, and alcoholic extracts of poisonous plants, and its explosion would discharge the deadly poisons. Another poison gas bomb called the “soul-hunting-fog” held a strong explosive with 83 percent saltpeter, 9 percent sulfur, and 8 percent charcoal, together with arsenic sulfides and lethal animal poisons.

Crossbows. The Chinese used crossbows in combat as early as the fourth century B.C.E. A crossbow presented to the emperor in 1068 could penetrate a large elm tree from a distance of 140 paces. Consisting of two bows tied together, a crossbow catapult took several soldiers to draw its string and could shoot several arrows at the same time. The greatest range of a large winch-armed crossbow was about 1,160 yards.

Repeating Crossbows. The attempt to improve the firepower of the crossbow resulted in the invention of machine-gun crossbows in the eleventh century or twelfth century. This improvement solved the problems of arming the slow-loading crossbow. A magazine of bolts was fixed above the arrow groove in the stock of the crossbow, and after each bolt was shot, another would drop into its place. Therefore, twelve arrows could be shot in a minute. Using these repeating crossbows, one hundred soldiers could discharge two thousand arrows in fifteen seconds, but ranges of repeating crossbows were limited. It had an extreme range of two hundred yards with an efficient range of only eighty yards. Although the repeating crossbows were not as powerful as regular cross-bows, such vast, rapid, and continuous showers of bolts raining down on soldiers would be tremendously frightening, particularly when the bolts were usually poison tipped. By the beginning of the seventh century repeating crossbows were used extensively throughout China.

Prankish Bombards. Cannons of the Chinese type widely used in Ming times played an important role in military campaigns, but the German monk Berthold Schwarz, after many experiments, developed more-effective firearms. Perfected in Europe, these new weapons were introduced by the Portuguese to east Asia in the sixteenth century. At the beginning, the Chinese did not value them and continued to use their traditional bombards. The Japanese, however, greatly appreciated the new European weapons. Japanese pirates who devastated the east coast of China in the middle of the sixteenth century used these new weapons to deal a great blow to the Ming armies in battles in Korea between 1593 and 1598. Thereafter the Ming government sought to adopt European cannons known as “Prankish bombards.” In order to resist Manchu attacks, the Ming government asked the Jesuits to arrange for the purchase of European cannons from Macao.


Hsiao Ch’I-ch’ing, The Military Establishment of the Yuan Dynasty (Cam-bridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978).

Wolfgang Franke, An Introduction to the Sources of Ming History (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969).

Charles O. Hucker, The Traditional Chinese State in Ming Times (1368-1644) (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1961).

Robert Temple, The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery, and Invention (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986).

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