10 November 2014

Matchlock firearms of the Ming Dynasty

UPDATED MAY 4, 2022, minor update NOVEMBER 10, 2023

Ming Tanegashima Matchlock
A Ming Dynasty matchlock arquebus found in Xuzhou.

Early matchlock

Ming Dynasty came into contact with matchlock arquebus—which they called Niao Chong (鳥銃, 'Bird gun') or Niao Zui Chong (鳥咀銃, 'Beak gun')—through the Portuguese no later than 1521 (and could be as early as 1519), and had begun to produce and equip Ming troops with this advanced weapon as early as 1541. However, early Chinese matchlocks suffered from shoddy craftsmanship and poor quality control, and were only used in limited numbers.

Nevertheless, this began to change in 1548. Following Ming crackdown and destruction of the smuggling haven of Shuangyu, a number of Portuguese gunsmiths were captured and were forced to teach their Chinese counterparts the know-how of matchlock gunsmithing and gunpowder making. Chinese gunsmiths quickly mastered the knowledge and were even able to create improved copies that surpassed the original. Before long, quality of Chinese matchlock began to improve, and the use of matchlock guns quickly spread. In addition, after the arrest of Wokou leader Wang Zhi (王直) in 1557, he was ordered to produce matchlock gun for Ming court as well, further disseminate the skill. In 1558, Ming Central Military Weaponry Bureau manufactured 10,000 matchlock arquebuses, marking the first recorded instance of large scale production of matchlock gun in Chinese history, although Chinese gunsmiths were already churning out matchlock guns by the thousands well before that. 

Even so, the problem of poor quality control did not simply vanish overnight, and many still held Japanese arquebus in high regard and strove to emulate it throughout the height of Wokou era. Nevertheless, by Imjin War period Chinese matchlock had improved to the point that some Ming commanders confidently boasted that Chinese arquebuses outrange their Japanese counterparts by a factor of two, and were feared by the Japanese.

Drawing of a Niao Zui Chong, from 'Chou Hai Tu Bian (《籌海圖編》)'.
Derived from Indo-Portuguese matchlock gun, Ming matchlock arquebus shares many similarities with its Portuguese predecessor, as well as other matchlock guns derived from the same source such as Malay Istinggar and Japanese teppō (鉄砲). Shared features include snapping matchlock mechanism, forward-dipping serpentine, externally placed V-shaped spring, and the absence of shoulder stock.

Further improvements

Chinese gunsmiths did not simply content themselves with mastering Portuguese knowledge, and strove to continuously improve the matchlock gun, either by experimenting with imported firearms from other parts of the world or tinkering with their own indigenous designs, with a particularly strong emphasis on improving reliability and usability of matchlock firearm in the dry and windy North China, as well as range and firepower of the weapon. 

A mechanism to automatically open and close flash pan cover (lower left, highlighted) of a matchlock gun. By late Ming period, such device had become widespread enough that it was no longer seen as a novelty gadget. Image taken from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'.
One prominent figure in the push to improve Ming firearms was Zhao Shi Zhen (趙士楨), a firearm specialist and enthusiast that designed no less than fourteen matchlock guns (in addition to many other weapons) of his own. A brilliant man way ahead of his time, Zhao Shi Zhen was unfortunately caught in a political scandal known as Yao Shu An (妖書案, lit. 'Evil pamphlet case') and died a mentally broken man, and most of his handiwork were being put on ice indefinitely. Somewhat luckily, some of his early designs (e.g. Lu Mi Chong) were known and appreciated by his contemporaries and being slowly disseminated into Ming army, while others came out with similar ideas (e.g. Jiu Tou Niao/Jingal gun and breechloading matchlock gun) independently on a later date.

Xi Yang Chong (西洋銃, lit. 'Western Ocean arquebus') or Da Xi Yang Chong (大西洋銃, lit. 'Greater Western Ocean arquebus')

European Matchlock Gun
Drawing of a Xi Yang Chong, from 'Shen Qi Pu (《神器譜》)'.
Xi Yang Chong is one of the improved matchlock guns designed by Zhao Shi Zhen. Derived from a European fowling piece, Xi Yang Chong is characterised by its sear matchlock mechanism, backward-dipping serpentine and long squeeze bar trigger. Curiously, it lacks a shoulder stock (unlike typical European musket of the time), although Zhao Shi Zhen added a primitive foregrip known as Tuo Shou (托手, lit. 'Hand prop'), which is essentially a musket rest without the stick, to facilitate aiming.

Lu Mi Chong (噜密銃, lit. 'Rûm arquebus')

Fitilli Tufek
Drawing of a Lu Mi Chong without obvious foregrip, from 'Shen Qi Pu (《神器譜》)'.

Drawing of a Lu Mi Chong with foregrip, from a different print of 'Shen Qi Pu (《神器譜》)'. It is possible that design of Lu Mi Chong went through multiple iterations before being finalised.
Lu Mi Chong is another improved matchlock guns designed by Zhao Shi Zhen. Derived from Turkish fitilli tüfek, Lu Mi Chong features the same internally-mounted pivoted matchlock mechanism as its Turkish counterpart, but differs in that it has a built-in foregrip as well as a sharpened blade at its shoulder stock (so that it can double as a close combat weapon). Zhao Shi Zhen also designed a shorter and lighter version of Lu Mi Chong for use by Emperor's attendants.

Having handled, studied, and reverse-engineered many matchlock guns, both local and foreign, Zhao Shi Zhen made astute observations on pros and cons of their designs. Table below summarises his opinion on Turkish, European, Indo-Portugnese, Japanese and early variant Chinese matchlock:
With this knowledge and experience, Zhao Shi Zhen went on to design a new weapon that combines all the advantages of foreign matchlock guns he encountered (see below), and eventually created an indigenous Chinese matchlock gun not derived from foreign designs.

San Chang Chong (三長銃, lit. 'Three advantages arquebus')

Drawing of a San Chang Chong, from 'Shen Qi Pu (《神器譜》)'.
San Chang Chong is a further refinement of Zhao Shi Zhen's previous improved matchlock guns, combining the stock of Indo-Portuguese/Japanese matchlock (already familiar to most Ming arquebusiers), long barrel and lightweight of European matchlock, and internally-mounted pivoted matchlock mechanism of Turkish matchlock into one compact weapon. 

In addition, Zhao Shi Zhen also made his own modifications to fix the flaws he found in previous designs. He slightly lengthened the Indo-Portuguese/Japanese-style grip so that it can be braced against the shoulder without adding too much weight, reinforced the barrel so that it can withstand more powerful gunpowder charge, and modified the matchlock mechanism so that it lowers serpentine and opens flash pan cover at the same time with one pull of the trigger. The resulting firearm is a potent weapon, featuring all the advantages of previous designs with none of their downsides.

In search for more firepower

Efforts to improve the potency of matchlock firearms took on an accelerated pace at the turn of the century as Ming Dynasty faced increasing pressure from its many enemies. Already in 1603 Zhao Shi Zhen designed Jiu Tou Niao, an oversized matchlock gun likely inspired by Japanese ō-deppō (大鉄砲) encountered by Ming troops during Imjin War, not to mention there were pushes to upgrade standard Chinese arquebus to or exceed Lu Mi Chong standard.

A compilation of records of matchlock gun found in various Ming sources. While  the sample size is small and incomplete, in general it trends towards stronger gunpowder charge and heavier bullet.
Around the same time, unfamiliar names such as Da Niao Chong (大鳥銃, lit. 'Big bird gun'), Ying Chong (鷹銃, lit. 'Eagle gun'), Ying Zui Chong (鷹咀銃, lit. 'Eagle beak gun'), Ban Jiu Chong (斑鳩銃, lit. 'Turtle dove gun'), Ban Jiu Jiao Chong (斑鳩腳銃, lit. 'Turtle dove leg gun') and Ban Jiu Tie Chong (斑鳩鐵銃, lit. 'Turtle dove iron gun') began to crop up in military discourses and treatises as a new type of matchlock weapon, namely true musket, spread to China through Portuguese Macau. As before, Chinese gunsmiths quickly mastered the knowledge, and before long the neighbouring Guangdong Province was turned into manufacturing centre for matchlock musket.

By the twilight years of the Ming Dynasty, Vietnamese matchlock, already spread to various Tusi tribes in Southwest China for some time, also caught the attention of various rivaling factions in China and began to be adopted en masse.

Jiu Tou Niao (九頭鳥, lit. 'Nine-headed bird')

Ming Chinese Matchlock Wall Gun
A gunner firing a Jiu Tou Niao off the shoulder of his partner, from 'Shen Qi Pu (《神器譜》)'.
Jiu Tou Niao is an super-sized heavy matchlock gun designed by Zhao Shi Zhen specifically for use in night raid. It can be seen as an early predecessor of Qing period Tai Qian (抬槍), also known as Jingal gun, which is typically fired off the shoulder of another person.

Ban Gou Chong (搬鉤銃, lit. 'Moveable hook musket')

Ming Chinese Heavy Matchlock Musket
Drawing of a Ban Gou Chong, from 'Jing Guo Xiong Lue (《經國雄略》)'.
Potentially the most powerful of all Chinese matchlocks, Ban Gou Chong is a heavy matchlock gun with an unremovable Y-shaped swivel mount fitted to its forearm. Usually fixed to ship's rail and used as deck sweeper, the swivel mount of Ban Gou Chong can also be inserted into a hollow wooden prod, allowing it to be used like an oversized musket.

It is highly likely that both Ban Jiu Chong and Ban Gou Chong refer to the same weapon.

Jiao Chong (交銃, lit. 'Jiaozhi arquebus')

Drawing of a Jiao Qiang, from 'Huang Chao Li Qi Tu Shi (《皇朝禮器圖式》)'. Despite its name, this Qing period Jiao Qiang shows very clear Central Asian, instead of Vietnamese, influence.
Also known as Zua Wa Chong (爪哇銃, lit. 'Java arquebus'), Vietnamese matchlock spread to China during Ming-Qing transition period through border conflicts between the dying Later Mạc dynasty and various Tusi tribes in Southwest China, particularly Guangxi and Yunnan. Ethnic minority auxiliaries such as Lang Bing (狼兵) were among the first to pick up this fearsome weapon, although Southern Ming loyalists, Chinese rebels, as well as the nascent Qing Dynasty alike quickly followed suit.

Not much about Jiao Chong can be learned from Chinese sources as few written records survive that tumultuous period, although glimpses from the few Southern Ming texts that do survive, as well as Qing period sources, reveal that Jiao Chong is a very long matchlock gun of fine craftsmanship, and is said to be very powerful, capable of killing two to five people with one shot, or pierce multiple layers of iron armours. Fortunately, there are a few surviving 17th century examples currently in the possession of Rijksmuseum, shedding more light on this fascinating weapon.

Vietnamese matchlock, known as Súng hỏa mai, is also derived from Indo-Portuguese snapping matchlock, and shares many similarities with other matchlock guns derived from the same source. Nevertheless, Northern Vietnamese variant (which was more likely to be encountered and adopted by the Chinese) differs from other Indo-Portuguese matchlocks in that it has a very elongated grip that doesn't appear to serve the purpose of a shoulder stock, and is very long for its size, lending credence to the reliability of Chinese records.

One curious detail about Jiao Chong is that Vietnamese arquebusiers were said to made use of a secret gunpowder mixture that contains wheat flour imported from China as its ingredient, which allows their guns to be fired relatively silently yet remain powerful. Nevertheless, such fabled "silent gunpowder" was simply a myth. In fact, rumours of silent gunpowder were already circulating in China during Zhao Shi Zhen's time (which he promptly debunked), and contemporary Europeans also experimented with it to no avail.


  1. "By late Ming period, Vietnamese matchlock was considered "the best in the world", surpassing Japanese, European, and even Ottoman matchlocks. Jiao Chong enjoyed the reputation of being highly accurate, extremely powerful (said to be able to kill two to five men with one shot), yet relatively quiet."
    This paragraph may be exaggerated. There is no way Vietnamese matchlock can be that powerful.

    1. Not necessary. Chinese records describe Vietnamese guns of up to 2.2m in length. That's way beyond the length of mere musket and closer to PUNT GUN in size. These guns should be propotionately more powerful with that size alone.

      Loading multiple shots at the same time and fire it shotgun-style was a common practice in Ming China. So one shot killing many wasn't that far-fetched.

    2. I mean look at the rare Vietnamese matchlocks on display. You can see it wasn't considered "the best in the world" when compare to Japanese, European, and even Ottoman matchlocks. There is a record about something like PUNT GUN but is wasn't those matchlocks.

    3. Huh? I fail to see anything wrong with the weapons. Those are fine matchlocks.

    4. Yes, fine matchlocks they are but not good enough to be described as "the best in the world". The correct order about quality of matchlock is European > Ottoman > Japanese > Vietnamese. Vietnamese was famous for theirs shooting skill not the quality of theirs matchlock.

    5. We simply don't know what standard was used by Ming Chinese to measure the quality of matchlock guns. If for example they thought longer = better, then 2.2m Vietnamese guns were undoubtedly the best.

      Also, I personally don't think European guns were superior to the Ottomans, or Japanese guns being inferior to both. All countries produced good guns and terrible guns.

    6. William Dampier in Supplement of The New Voyage Round The World 1688 had described that there were Tonkinese artillery pieces. Each gun has a long barrel of about 6~7 feet and a tripod or a three-spikes-fork to land on the ground.
      I think it could look like this picture: http://warspot-asset.s3.amazonaws.com/articles/pictures/000/027/557/content/6-7-f9eb77831c6c00beb40e4a0aab0ae1bc.jpg

      Anyway, can you read the vertical scripts on the right of this picture?
      I mean those 2 letters above "大交鎗"

    7. Long barrel can give a powerful shot with high muzzle velocity and high accuracy. That's the reason why Turkish and Indian prefer longer barrels.

    8. @Unknown

      Your first picture depicts a Jingal gun, which was already in (limited) use during Ming Dynasty, but I agree that Vietnamese matchlock could be somewhat similar.


      TBH the first thing that spring to my mind is the Hmong "monkey gun", although to my knowledge 17c Vietnamese matchlock was closer in design to Portuguese (Japanese) style.

      Yes, I can read Chinese. The first two letters are "素鐵", literally "plain iron", or undecorated iron. "素鐵大交鎗" means "Big Vietnamese musket with undecorated barrel".

      I suspect another Qing musket known as Xian Qiang 線鎗 came from Vietnam as well.

    9. Thank you.

      I forget to add that William Dampier actually said that Tonkinese didn't have any artillery piece and he said that Tonkinese use those gun instead and it came well. Those gun could be carried well on one man's back and required 2 persons to deploy on battlefield. Those gun could be used to shoot across rivers and soldiers usually use them to clear a pass.

    10. @Unknown

      I don't know the exact context, but aren't Vietnamese made quite a lot of cannons (those they put on their warships, for example)?

    11. Cannon were used only in great campaigns and defence. There were several great battles in the period of "Trinh Nguyen phan tranh". And of course there were many small scaled marches in gaps between two great campaigns.
      In those occasions, those long guns were usually used.

    12. The longer the gun, the higher the velocity of the bullet. It would have travelled further and with more killing power.

  2. Do you know if the Ming ever manufactured pistols?

    1. Most likely not (although they were aware of the pistol), but I need to double check.

  3. Would you happen to know specifically, what made the Jiaozhi Arquebus so advanced (specifically with regards to its design features, such as bore, caliber etc.)? Thank you in advance, and great article by the way.

  4. I posted a comment here the other day, but I think my internet at that very moment also glitched out and prevented me from sending it through. So I'd like to send another one just in case. Sorry about any possible inconvenience this may have caused.

    As was the case prior to this day, I was just curious regarding whether you could tell me as to what made the Vietnamese "Jiaozhi Arquebus" so good, with regards to the characteristics and features of the rifle including (but not limited to) caliber, bore etc.

    Thank you so much in advance for your response, and great answer by the way.

    1. Yes, I notice the comment the other day and wonder why it went missing.

      Surviving Vietnamese matchlocks (that I've seen) are quite similar to the Japanese ones, so the difference in quality probably lies with craftsmanship/accuracy/barrel length/calibre etc. In fact, the Jiaoqiang pictured above is quite diffent from actual Vietnamese arquebus.

    2. May I ask what is the Vietnam arquebus source? The one pictured looks like Indonesian design, like this ancient Indonesian matchlock musket :

      Or this Indonesian flintlock musket:

      Or this obsolete 19th flintlock musket with Jenawi swords (pedang Jenawi) :

      They all shows very crude design, maybe the design originates from 15th or 16th century without Western influence?
      Javanese flintlock blunderbuss with seemingly Western influence can be seen at:
      Another blunderbuss from Nias Island, Indonesia also has Western feel to it:

      Batak "Western" blunderbuss:

      Sasak muskets... Obvious import from the West

      Now you may notice obvious differences between "native" and "western" design.... May I ask what is the source of Java arquebus? Maybe a readable source? I need it for research about Indonesian pre-17th century firearms, thank you.

    3. Hmmm, maybe that's the reason why Vietnamese arquebus was also called Java arquebus? The Indonesian guns you linked look almost identical to Hmong “monkey gun”.


    4. I'm aware of Monkey guns of the Hmong people, my theory is both Indonesian and Hmong gun is older than European influenced guns.... But it's need more research. That's why I asked you the source of the Vietnam and Java arquebus...

    5. The soure that liken the Vietnamese gun to Java gun come from a Qing period record known as 《南越筆記》, among several others. They don't come with illustrations though.

  5. Where arquebus with fork like prong to rest the weapon to aim often used by central Asian ever used in Ming China?

    1. Unfortunately I can't give you a definitive answer. I THINK yes, and vaguely remember reading about it in some obscure Ming-period source, but I can't recall and locate the source any longer. In any case it was probably quite rare if used at all.

  6. " Xi Yang Chong (西洋銃, lit. 'Western arquebus') or Da Xi Yang Chong (大西洋銃, lit. 'Big Western arquebus') "

    "Xi Yang Chong is the Chinese name for European matchlock"

    Does the historical source really say European? Or You better decided to translate west as European? .. because the west for old china it was all west of them, no? Generically to refer to all regions to the west of China through the silk road and beyond, such as the Indian subcontinent (as in the novel Journey to the West ).
    I remember the Jesuit missionaries at Ming Court emphasizing the term Great West or Far West to avoid associations with the West of Muslims and indians/Buddhist legacy, Muslims who were also part of the Ming Court..


    泰西/大西 Vs. 西洋?

    1. "Da Xi Yang" in Ming context, means anything coming from the west of Indian Ocean (which was known as Xiao Xi Yang/Lesser Western Ocean).

      So "Da Xi Yang Chong" specifically refers to the European gun, while "Xiao Xi Yang Chong" refers to "Indian (i.e. Portuguese Goa)" gun.

      Nothing to do with Taixi.

      I should've translate it as "Greater" and "Lesser" Xi Yang instead. Will correct my translation.

    2. so it might be indian ocean /south asian origin after all, the "tanegashima gun type/Xiao Xi Yang Chong" and would have arrived in china and japan before the Portuguese contact through the wokou/chinese presence in southeast asia, whose main occupation was trade and not looting...because...

      The quote comes from a letter that Albuquerque dispatched to King Manuel I of Portugal (d. 1521) while in Goa, on the southwest coast of India, in the year 1513. Albuquerque states:

      "I also send your highness a Goan master gunsmith; they make guns as good as the Bohemians and also equipped with screwed in breech plugs. There he will work for you. I am sending you some samples of their work with Pero Masquarenhas."

      Albuquerque further reports that they/local indians had become “our masters in artillery and the making of cannons and guns, which they make of iron here in Goa and are better than the German ones.”


      Goan gunsmiths were sent from India to portugal and to work in the arsenal of lisbon. Babur's invasion employed ottoman experts and tactics, following the decisive Ottoman victory over the Safavid Empire at the 1514 Battle of Chaldiran (one year after albuquerque's letter), Babur incorporated artillery and Ottoman artillery tactics into his military such as the indo-persian/toradar matchlock, Ustad Ali Quli and Mustafa Rumi.
      WELL, According to a Burmese source from the late 15th century, King Meng Khoum II would not dare attack the besieged town of Prome due to the defenders' use of cannon and small arms that were described as muskets. Why does it matter? Portuguese conquest of Goa - 1510, conquest of malacca - 1511, Minkhaung II dies in 1501


      The trigger mechanism of an Istinggar, a classical Malay gun as displayed in Muzium Warisan Melayu (Malay Heritage Museum), Serdang, Selangor. Upon the Fall of Malacca in 1511, it was recorded by Tomé Pires that the Portuguese conquistadors managed to seized 3000 bronze and iron cannons and thousands of Istinggar guns from the capital....

    3. It's not. Da Xi Yang Chong came from the WEST of Indian Ocean, specifically Europe, not Indian Ocean itself.

      Xiao Xi Yang Chong could come from Goa or other places in Southeast Asia with similar trigger mechanism (such as Istinggar Melayu or Vietnamese matchlock), but the design ultimately orginated from Portuguese Goa. Note that Portuguese were also part of the Wokou.

      Goa and Malacca etc may very well had good gunsmiths and matchlock guns well before the arrival of the Portuguese, but it's unclear what kind of trigger design they used.

    4. Also note that the Malay word "Istinggar" itself is a loanword of Portuguese "espingarda".

  7. I am assuming that the Jiao Chong has an integrated bipod, from the looks of it?

    1. @John Able

      Some do, but bipod was not the defining feature of Vietnamese matchlock (it was more common on Tibetan and Afghan matchlocks, although some late Ming matchlocks alread had it).

    2. Speaking of firearm, are there any surviving rifled muskets made by either Ming or (more likely) Qing? Or a record of either of them testing it out?

    3. Rifled musket? I am certain Ming didn't make them, and Qing seems to transition directly from old matchlock to modern rifle (in the few armies it tried to modernize).

    4. I am asking because I saw a couple of picture described as a Qing-era rifled muskets, but they looked like a traditional matchlock rather than any Western imports or licensed products.

    5. @John Able
      First time I've heard of such thing (Qing is not really my focus), can you show me the pic? Very interesting if Qing really did reverse engineer rifled musket.

    6. I'll try to find it, but I never saved the image or link, sorry. And now that I think of it, the term 'rifle' may have been used to describe 'generic long guns' as a whole, as it is often done. Or the description may have been just plainly lying.

    7. In any case, I was trying to find if anyone ever tried rifling the matchlocks. So far, only the Afghani (via the rifled Jezails) and the Koreans (via replacing the caplock mechanism of imported rifled muskets with matchlock) seem to have done so.

  8. "Zhao Shi Zhen considered European matchlock to be light, mobile, reliable, and shoot farther than Japanese matchlock, but less powerful than both Japanese matchlock and Lu Mi Chong. However, it is possible that Zhao Shi Zhen based his opinion on a fowling piece not intended for military use."
    Zhao shi zhen is right to tell them apart, the gun as depicted is definitely not portuguese. Rainer Daehnhardt presides the sociedade Portuguesa de armas antigas since 1972 a world reference for Portuguese empire studies, here he tells one big difference between Portuguese and other european firearms the spanish in particular, watch from 9:48 to 11:45


    For the Portuguese firearms made in goa, watch 12:18 to 12:46. Others made in goa from 9:12 to 9:45

    After all this. I may ask when was Shen Qi Pu/神器譜 was first published? 1598? By that era luzon was already a spanish colony trading with a lot of fujianese chinese sailors and doing diplomacy with toyotomi hideyoshi

    1. Thanks for the link.

      Yes, Shen Qi Pu was published in 1598.


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