Gunpowder and Firearms

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In China, military strategy focused on outsmarting the enemy, by whatever means possible. Fire was used as a weapon of war since it inspired great fear and confusion among the enemy.  Those in charge of defense had to keep the danger of fire in mind and military guidebooks outline in detail the ways to prevent fires from spreading rapidly during attacks.  


As an offensive weapon, fire was delivered to enemy camps in a variety of ways. Animals with unpredictable behavior, such as birds, were frequently used. To the left are oxen stampeding with burning hemp lashed onto their tails, and below is a fire cart. When used in combination with ladder carts, hook carts, battering rams and tanks, fire could be a particularly useful weapon.


Can you think of ways to counteract attacks by fire?     


Fire oxen                                      source



How effective do you think it would be to send burning hemp attached to animals into enemy ranks?

Fire cart                                     source




Chinese military strategists sought ways to create effects from a distance. For example, by Song times they had sophisticated methods for producing smoke.  Gunpowder's potential to move objects therefore made it attractive to military strategists designing weapons.  


Gunpowder was first used by people seeking immortality (though this esoteric use of it was probably not known to most Chinese). The first textual evidence of a proto-gunpowder formula is contained in a work dated about 850. So far as we know, Essentials of the Military Arts records the first true gunpowder formula and describes how to produce it on a large scale. Its first use in warfare was as an incendiary, or fire-producing, compound.


Gunpowder was of many different types. Chinese texts identify blinding powder, flying powder, violent powder, poison powder, bruising and burning powder and smoke-screen powder.


Starting from the Tang or the beginning of the Song, small packages of gunpowder wrapped in paper or bamboo were attached to arrows, which marked the first use of gunpowder in war (see the illustration at left). These would be lit with a fuse of some kind, so that the arrow became an incendiary, intended to set targets afire. 


In the group of projectiles at left, the different styles correspond to two different types of javelin-propulsion methods. Note the arrow with the gunpowder chamber.




Whip-arrows                   source


Two crucial innovations were needed before the Chinese developed rockets propelled by gunpowder. First, the idea of a counter-balance had to be conceived. A counter-balance would allow the rocket to move on a straight trajectory. The second innovation was a hole bored into the exact center of the gunpowder in the missile tube. This would allow the gunpowder to burn evenly and provide efficient thrust. This process of boring into the gunpowder was extremely dangerous. Both of these developments occurred during the 12th and 13th centuries.


Evidence of the first bronze hand-held gun dates to the early Yuan dynasty, but metal barrels were used as early as the Tang dynasty for fire lances that propelled gunpowder bombs intended to burn targets. 

At left is the earliest excavated gun, from the early Yuan dynasty. A wooden tube would have been inserted in the wide mouth for extra range. The gun was mounted on a wooden housing.


Can you think of any similarities between this gun barrel and the "arrows" pictured above?

The earliest known bronze gun, ca. 1332                                         source






During the Song, smoke bombs, incendiary bombs, gunpowder grenades, and the usual shrapnel objects such as rocks were used in siege warfare. 

Hemp or cotton would be soaked in oil, ignited, and catapulted outward. Bombs made of iron shells resembling gourds in shape could shatter a city wall. Gunpowder bombs were a mixture of gunpowder and shrapnel such as charcoal and iron scraps. The range of such "firing balls," or bombs, could be from ten to a hundred yards.


The Essentials of the Military Arts also lists the formula of a gas bomb, which could contain poisonous elements. This would have been used in tunnel warfare, a significant aspect of siege activity. It was also in the 13th century that bombs started to be used as land mines.

Of the different types of bombs discussed above, which ones are pictured here?



Raised "flower" and ball bombs     source

The "thunderbolt-ball," right, was a package of gunpowder and iron scraps attached to a bamboo core. A small amount of gunpowder left outside the ball would explode the contents inside.

"Thunderbolt-ball"               source

Below is a whirlwind catapult, one of several designs that could hurl bombs.  


Can you visualize which of the bomb types would be best to use in the "whirlwind catapult"? 



Can you think of any other methods that could transport a bomb?

"Whirlwind" catapult            source

"Bamboo fire hawk"           source


Non-explosive smoke bombs had been in use since antiquity. Pictured above to the right is an example of a "thunderclap" bomb of the eleventh century. This one, known as the "bamboo fire hawk," had gunpowder and small stones wrapped inside bamboo and hay.

Why would the gunpowder mixture be wrapped in hay?



While Europe, by 675, had a single-acting force-pump contraption that could spurt flames, much like a syringe shoots liquids, it was not a true flame-thrower. For a true flame-thrower a continuous streaming of flames has to be achieved. The Chinese were able to do this by the use of a double-action piston-bellow, which would force the kerosene out of the barrel on both the forward and backward strokes of the pump handle. 

Below is an illustration of a flame-thrower from The Essentials of the Military Arts. We see a tank, a pump, and an ejector. A continuous stream could be maintained because of the use of a double-acting piston-bellows. 

Can you figure out the structure of the flame-thrower from the illustrations? Where do you think the kerosene would have been put?

The components of, and an assembled "fierce fire oil cabinet"                                source


"Fire-spurting lances" were also invented in the Song. Bamboo was used as a barrel to hold the gunpowder, though by the Song, metal barrels were also used. Some had narrow barrels and could be held by one person. Others were mounted on wooden frames and can be understood to precede the modern cannon; these were called eruptors. 

The "eruptor" to the right fired cast-iron shelled gunpowder bombs, some of which would explode only on contact, hence its name, the "flying-cloud thunderclap eruptor."  

What are some of the things you notice about this fire-lance that make it different from modern cannons?

"Flying-cloud thunderclap eruptor"              source