Crossbows of the Ming Dynasty

Ming Chinese Crossbow
Drawing of a crossbow, from 'Chou Hai Tu Bian (《籌海圖編》)'.
Contrary to popular misconception, crossbow was never popular in the Ming army. The Mongol Yuan Dynasty that ruled China previously favoured bow and horse archery over crossbow, and the advent of true guns and cannons (instead of primitive firebombs and fire lances) during Yuan Dynasty rendered crossbow obsolete. Consequently, the use of crossbow in the Chinese army declined sharply, and this trend would continue into the Ming and Qing period. There were even signs of regression of crossbow technology during early and mid Ming Dynasty, although this was largely averted during late Ming Dynasty, and crossbow technology continued to advance despite its diminished importance.

Miao Ren Mu Gong (苗人木弓, lit. 'Wooden bow of the Miao people')
Ethnic Miao Crossbow
Drawing of a Miao Ren Mu Gong, from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'.
Miao Ren Mu Gong is the wooden crossbow of Miao people. It is considered powerful but very unwieldy. Without any spanning device, extremely powerful Miao crossbow has to be spanned by more than one people.

A Miao elderly shooting a large crossbow, Dajie Township, China.
Auxiliary elements of the Ming army that consisted of ethnic minorities continued to field crossbowmen in significant number. Miao people from Guangxi region were especially renowned for their powerful crossbow and poisoned arrow. The design of Miao crossbow remained essentially the same for hundreds of years. It is the same crossbow that many would call a "Montagnard crossbow" today.

Miao People Heavy Crossbow
Qing period painting of a heavy Miao crossbow spanned by three men. From 'Qian Miao Tu Shuo (《黔苗圖說》)'.

Miao Ren Zhu Nu (苗人竹弩, lit. 'Bamboo crossbow of the Miao people')
Miao Montagnard Crossbow
Drawing of a Miao Ren Zhu Nu, from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'.
Miao Ren Zhu Nu is much weaker than typical Miao crossbow, as its prod is made of twenty thin bamboo sticks bundled together. It is a double-shot crossbow that shoots poisoned arrows, most often used in trip wire hunting trap.

Xuan Hu She Hu Zhu Nu (宣湖射虎竹弩, lit. "Tiger-shooting bamboo crossbow from Xuanhu*')
Ming Dynasty Hand Crossbow
Drawing of a Xuan Hu She Hu Zhu Nu, from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'.
Xuan Hu She Hu Zhu Nu is the standard hunting and military crossbow of the Ming army. Its prod is made of five flat strips of bamboo lashed together. Like all hand-spanned crossbows, it is not very powerful, and relies on poisoned arrows to be effective.

*Note: Xuanhu (宣湖) was an ancient place name. Its exact location is yet unknown.

Zhu Ge Nu (諸葛弩)
Ming Chu Ko Nu
Drawing of a Zhu Ge Nu, from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'.
See my other post.

Shen Bi Nu (神臂弩, lit. 'Divine limb crossbow')
Ming Dynasty Heavy Crossbow
Drawing of a Shen Bi Nu, from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'.
Also known as Shen Bi Gong (神臂弓, lit. 'Divine limb bow'), this is a crossbow design inherited from Song Dynasty and the first truly "military grade" crossbow in the Ming army. Shen Bi Nu is a "one-foot crossbow" that has a wooden or rope stirrup. It has a prod length of four chi five cun (slightly larger than Song Dynasty Shen Bi Gong), and shoots a seven cun five fen long crossbow bolt weighing six maces. Shen Bi Nu can have a draw weight of ninety catties, one hundred twenty catties, or one hundred fifty catties, depending on its grade.

Ming arsenals manufactured Shen Bi Nu, in limited numbers, as late as 1500s. However Shen Bi Nu seems to fall into disuse and basically forgotten soon afterwards, until its rediscovery in Shaanxi province in the 1600s.

Shen Bi Chuang Zi Lian Cheng Nu (神臂床子連城弩, roughly translated as 'Divine limb framed fortress crossbow')
Ming Chinese Tower Crossbow
Drawing of a Shen Bi Chuang Zi Lian Cheng Nu, from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'.
Shen Bi Chuang Zi Lian Cheng Nu is a lightweight defense crossbow that is fixed onto a wooden frame. It is a multi-shot crossbow that shoots four poisoned arrows at once. The arrow poison is usually stored inside a box under the wooden frame.

Shen Bi Chuang Zi Lian Cheng Nu is usually operated by three men, each one also armed with a Chong Gun (銃棍). One is the shooter, the other a loader, and the third one guards the crossbow. When the crossbow need to be repositioned, two Chong Gun are inserted under the wooden frame so that the crossbow can be carried by two (or four) men like a stretcher.

Note that while the drawing above does not depict any visible trigger mechanism, this weapon does in fact have one.

Cheng Zong You's improvements
Late Ming Dynasty martial artist Cheng Zong You (程宗猷) (re)introduced several new technologies to improve the performance of Chinese crossbow. He designed a new trigger mechanism based on the ancient Han Dynasty design, turning the simple "I" shape rear sight on the trigger mechanism into a Patridge sight. He also introduced belt-and-hook spanning method, a much needed (and much belated) improvement that finally allows Chinese crossbowmen to span more powerful crossbows.

A Han Dynasty-style crossbow trigger mechanism (left) and the improved crossbow mechanism designed by Cheng Zong Yuan (right), from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'.
Drawing of a belt-hook spanning device, from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'.

Jue Zhang Nu (蹶張弩, lit. 'Foot-spanned crossbow')
Ming Chinese Single-shot crossbow
Drawing of a Jue Zhang Nu, from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'.
Jue Zhang Nu is first of the new crossbow designed by Cheng Zong Yuan. It is a "one-foot crossbow" like Shen Bi Nu, but can have draw wight as high as three hundred catties. Its prod consists of six carefully selected bamboo strips. Bamboo prod is preferred over wooden or composite prod because it can stay spanned for a longer period of time without loss of tensile strength.

Oddly it is not spanned with a belt-hook.

Yao Kai Nu (腰開弩, lit. 'Waist-spanned crossbow')
Ming Chinese Crossbow
Drawing of a Yao Kai Nu, from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'.
Yao Kai Nu is the second crossbow designed by Cheng Zong Yuan, and the most powerful handheld crossbow in Ming arsenal. It has a very large wooden prod that span six chi one cun, and has a draw weight of eight hundred catties (Note: This draw weight is commonly thought to be impossible to span without the aid of a windlass or cranquin. It remains to be seen whether this draw weight is practical or exaggerated). Because of its size and extreme draw weight, Yao Kai Nu cannot be spanned standing up. Instead the crossbowman has to sit down and span the crossbow with both his legs and his back, with the aid of a belt-hook.

Spanning a Yao Kai Nu, from 'Jue Zhang Xin Fa (《蹶張心法》)'. Spanning of Yao Kai Nu has to be executed slowly and carefully, the stock will smash into the groin of the crossbowman if his legs slipped.  
While similar spanning method existed since ancient Qin Dynasty, crossbows from that period were nowhere near as powerful as the Ming period Yao Kai Nu, as ancient Chinese crossbowmen spanned their crossbows barehanded, and only using their fingers (there's only so much weight one can pull with his bare hands before his finger bone dislocate or break).

Wo Nu (窩弩, lit. 'Nest crossbow')
Chinese Trap Crossbow
Drawing of a Wo Nu, from "Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)".
Also known as Fu Nu (伏弩, lit. 'Concealed crossbow' or 'Ambush crossbow') or Ye Fu Geng Ge (夜伏耕戈, roughly translated as 'Night ambush ploughing weapon'), this is a crossbow specifically designed to be used in a trip wire crossbow trap. It is similar in construction to Jue Zhang Nu.

Crossbow trap continued to be used in China as late as 1930s. Image cropped from 'China at Work' by R.P. Hommel.  
Crossbow traps were often employed by Ming army as camp and choke point defense to deter enemy spies and scouts. To prevent enemy spy from using a ten foot pole to spring the trap prematurely, multiple Wo Nu, each positioned at slightly different angle, can be linked to one trip wire.

Shuang Jian Nu (雙箭弩, lit. 'Twin arrows crossbow')
Ming Chinese Double shot trap crossbow
Drawing of a Shuang Jian Nu, from 'Jun Qi Tu Shuo (《軍器圖說》)'.
Shuang Jian Nu is simply the double-shot version of Wo Nu.

Shuang Fei Nu (雙飛弩, lit. 'Twin flying crossbow')
Ming Chinese Double-shot crossbow
Drawing of Shuang Fei Nu, from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'.
Shuang Fei Nu is a defensive crossbow system that links multiple double-shot crossbows together. It is triggered by stepping on a mechanism.


  1. To put it in a more understandable format:

    Ming Dynasty Shen Bi Nu
    Draw weight - 117 lbs, 156 lbs or 195 lbs
    Prod length - 144cm
    Quarrel length - 24cm
    Quarrel weight - 22.14g or ~341 grains

    Jue Zhang Nu
    Draw weight - 312~390 lbs (maximum)
    Prod length (longest bamboo strip) - 76.16cm
    Stock length - 52.16cm
    Draw length - ~32 cm or 12.59in (Estimates, as the bamboo prod is very thick)

    Yao Kai Nu
    Draw weight - ~1041 lbs (maximum)
    Prod length - 195.2cm
    Stock length - 51.2 - 54.4cm
    Draw length - ~35.2cm or 13.85 in, gives or takes ~4.3cm

    Cheng Zong You also mentioned, in a very generalizing manner, that most Chinese crossbows only have powerstroke of five cun (~6.3 in), which is actually not very different from Medieval European crossbow.

  2. Which Chinese crossbow had such short powerstrokes? Ancient Han/Qin crossbows certainly didn't, based on surviving pieces. In theory, a longer powerstroke is just better, and it's what you see on 21st century hunting crossbows. I'd like to see more detailed reconstructions of both Chinese and European crossbows to better determine the actual performance of these weapons.

  3. @Incanur
    Good day and welcome to my blog.

    The author Chen Zong Yuan did not specify what crossbow, but from his tone, he means ALL crossbows.

    Almost all surviving/replica Warring States/Qin/Han crossbows with long powerstroke are fairly low in power/poundage, as are many modern crossbows.

    Some surviving Han period crossbow stocks that are supposedly high power(the prod rot away, so it is speculated based on its massive crossbow trigger) have significantly shorter stock that the usual "Han crossbow" we know and thus very short powerstroke.

    IMHO, this has more to do with longer wooden crossbow STOCK being unable to withstand the tremendous power of the crossbow, so it has to be shortened, resulting in shorter powerstroke.

    (i.e. longer stick is easier to break than shorter stick, assuming all other things being equal)

  4. 6-dan crossbows were apparently common. 330lbs or so at an 18-or-so-inch powerstroke would make for a powerful weapon, assuming decent efficiency. Assuming a linear force curve, it'd store about 335 J. Even at 50% efficiency it'd manage 168 J of initial energy. That's most than almost any simple wood bow, though Manchu-style big-ear bows might do better (we need more bow tests too). And the efficiency would likely be much higher, maybe 70-75%.

    Is this sort of analysis misguided? Did the 6-dan Han-era crossbows have shorter powerstrokes?

    Thank you for this blog, by the way. I've been studying historical warfare for a while now, particularly Western and Central Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. I'm fascinated by the Chinese context but can't read the characters so I have to rely on folks like you. (I can read Spanish too, and stumble through French/Italian/Portuguese with a dictionary and enough time. That's okay for Europe but not great for China.)

  5. @Incanur
    6-dan crossbows were probably quite common during Han period, based on several excavated arsenal records as well as (I think) export prohibition enforced on certain Han Empire borders.

    I've seen that (or similar) analysis on Myarmoury and Historum forums. While the analysis is mathematically sound, it simply slaps an extremely powerful prod onto the common long stock, long powerstroke and low-power Chinese crossbow and assume it would work.

    In reality both wooden stock and bronze trigger don't have infinite durability and strength. To use a more powerful prod, the stock and trigger have to be similarly enlarged/reinforced. Powerstroke was most likely reduced to avoid breaking the stock. Alternatively, one can keep the long powerstroke and high power, but he will likely end up with a siege weapon instead of a handheld crossbow.

    Triggers for Chinese crossbow varied greatly in size. See imgur link below for comparison. Left trigger is for low-powered crossbow, right trigger is for larger one.

    For powerstroke, high powered Han crossbows are hard to come by, so I don't have any concrete data with me. However, what worked for the Ming (and Europeans) probably worked for the Han as well.

  6. @Incanur

    I actually dabble into medieval weapons and military history through European warfare first (Italian war actually, and early 16th century remained one of my favourite period. Because gendarmes.) and then to Chinese warfare.

    English isn't my primary language, although I have enough mastery to read, write and understand most of the info and discussions available online (not so much on the speaking part though). Some more subtle meaning in the language, as well as period usage of specific/historical terms, might still be lost to me though.