Breech-loading arquebuses of the Ming Dynasty

One of the major weakness of early black powder firearms was the abysmal firing rate. Chinese certainly weren't strangers to this problem, and showed remarkable ingenuity in their attempts to solve this issue.

Che Dian Chong (掣電銃, lit. 'Lightning arquebus')
Ming Dynasty Breechloading Arquebus
Drawing of a Che Dian Chong, from 'Shen Qi Pu (《神器譜》)'.
Developed by Zhao Shi Zhen (趙士楨) in the late sixteenth century, Che Dian Chong is a modified Lu Mi Chong that combines a breech-loading swivel gun with a matchlock gun. Gunpowder and lead balls are pre-filled in several tube-shaped chambers that can be quickly loaded into an open breech at the rear portion of gun barrel.

Improved Che Dian Chong
Ming Chinese improved breechloading arquebus
Zhao Shi Zhen's modified Che Dian Chong, from 'Shen Qi Pu (《神器譜》)'.
Auxiliary accessories for the improved Che Dian Chong, from 'Shen Qi Pu (《神器譜》)'.
Zhao Shi Zhen was quick to discover the gas leaking problem that plagued all pre-modern breech-loading firearms. While gas leaking usually only resulted in diminished power and effectiveness, it turned into a hazard if the firearm in question was an arquebus, as the gunner had to held the gun extremely close to his face in order to aim properly.

Lacking effective means (i.e. rubber, which was not discovered until eighteenth century) to seal the chamber, Zhao Shi Zhen redesigned the Che Dian Chong, hoping to at least mitigate this problem. This modified Che Dian Chong is more of an arquebus with exchangeable gun barrels than a breech-loader. It has extremely long chambers, four times the original length, that are basically gun barrels in their own right. On the other hand, the "gun barrel" of modified Che Dian Chong becomes a very short tube mounted on the end of the forestock.

Since these modified chambers became too long to be stored inside a bag or bullet pouch, Zhao Shi Zhen designed a large chamber holder that doubled as shield and gun mount. He also included a steel fork to complete the set.

Ying Yang Pao (鹰扬砲, lit. 'Soaring eagle cannon')

Ming Chinese Breechloading Wall Gun
Drawing of a Ying Yang Pao and its chambers, primming bottle and powder flask, from 'Shen Qi Pu Huo Wen (《神器譜或問》)'.

Different ways of shooting Ying Yang Pao, from 'Shen Qi Pu (《神器譜》)'.
Designed by Zhao Shi Zhen as the Chinese answer to Japanese ō-deppo (大鉄砲), Ying Yang Pao is an upsized, jingal gun version of Che Dian Chong. Because of its weight and size, Ying Yang Pao has to be fired from a weapon mount (or shoulder of another soldier).

Zi Mu Chong (子母銃, lit. 'Mother-and-child arquebus')
Ming Chinese Breechloading Arquebus with Bayonet
Components of Zi Mu Chong (left) and Zi Mu Chong with attached bayonet (right), from 'Bing Lu (《兵錄》)'.
This early seventeenth century Zi Mu Chong is similar to Che Dian Chong, which utilise pre-filled chambers known as Zi Chong (子銃, lit. 'Child gun'), loaded into the barrel called Mu Chong (母銃, lit. 'Mother gun') from the breech.

It also incorporates a plug bayonet, which predates the first recorded military use of bayonet in Europe by some thirty-two years.

Unfortunately, no one was able to solve the issue of gas leaking and loss of power of these breech-loading guns. Shot for shot, these weapons are less powerful than their muzzle-loading counterparts.


  1. Interesting article it seems many different people will naturally come up with the same solution. Though I think a big reason(Can't say for sure, please correct if I'm wrong.) why they didn't take off is because they where to expensive to manufacture in masse. I remember almost all surviving early Breachloaders(And repeaters.) in Europe are obviously extremely expensive ornate pieces meant for use by Aristocrats and Royalty and where not something any common soldier could even hope lay his hands on. Also most of the early mechanisms are extremely fragile and consequently are very easy to break and also hard to repair. So despite the plethora of designs there where very few of these types of guns actually made during that time period.
    Now I do remember that there where a few pre 19th century designs that a few nations attempted to make a few hundred or so of for use by Elite soldiers; the Kalthoff Repeater and the Ferguson Rifle. In both of these examples it is well known they where extremely expensive to manufacture and where discontinued due to these extreme costs involved in their construction and due to their comparatively(To muskets) great fragility.

    They also took an inordinately long time to manufacture for example in the Ferguson's case"Its superior firepower was unappreciated at the time because it was too expensive and took longer to produce – the four gunsmiths making Ferguson's Ordnance Rifle could not make 100 in 6 months at four times the cost per arm of a musket." now just imagine how difficult it was to make one hundred Kalthoff Repeater's for the Danish royal guard!

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