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》)'.
Zhao Shi Zhen was quick to discover the gas leaking problem that plagued all pre-modern breech-loading firearms. While gas leaking usually only result in diminished power and effectiveness, it has the potential to turn into a hazard if the firearm in question is a long gun, as the gunner has to hold the gun close to his face in order to aim properly.
Auxiliary accessories for the improved Che Dian Chong, from 'Shen Qi Pu (《神器譜》)'.

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 with iron sight mounted at the end of the forestock.

Since these modified chambers became too long to be stored inside a bag or bullet pouch, Zhao Shi Zhen also designed a large chamber holder that doubles 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.

Zi Mu Chong also incorporates a specially-designed socket bayonet called Chong Jian (銃劍, lit. 'Gun-sword') that can be pinned to the gun barrel's front sight. Chong Jian predates the first recorded use of bayonet in Europe (memoirs of Jacques de Chastenet, Vicomte de Puységur, 1647) by some forty-one years, making it the earliest bayonet in the world.

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!

    1. Thanks for the info. In the case of the Chinese breechloaders, they were likely inspired directly from the Portuguese breech-loading cannons, so I won't call that their own innovation/invention.

      The examples in this blog post are simpler and presumably cheaper than their European counterparts, but also MUCH less reliable and dangerous to the shooter.

      Few Ming matchlock survived (as far as I am aware only one survived in half-rotten state) so we don't know how common they were.

    2. "Thanks for the info."

      Well it is nice to see you appreciate my input.

      "The examples in this blog post are simpler and presumably cheaper than their European counterparts,"

      Well that is mostly true, King Henry the Eighth's matchlock breachloader probably isn't that much more mechanically complex then any matchlock shown here though it does probably have a lot more bells and whistles given that it was the personnel possession of a King.

      "but also MUCH less reliable and dangerous to the shooter."

      Well that to is mostly true, the only exception to your statement out of all the examples I gave was the Cookson repeater. It was known to have a defect in its design that can cause it's magazine to explode.
      "However, unlike the Kalthoff, the Cookson system had a dangerous flaw in that flame could leak from the firing chamber into the powder magazine, making the gun explode at high risk to the user. Many of the surviving specimens have shattered stocks from such accidents."

      Though aside from this one flaw it is noted as being more sturdy then the Kalthoff(And cheaper.)
      "Until the Nineteenth century, the only mechanism that could fire faster was the Kalthoff repeater, which was more delicate and expensive."

      "Few Ming matchlock survived (as far as I am aware only one survived in half-rotten state) so we don't know how common they were."

      I know very little, but I guess since they are simpler and cheaper then the European examples then at least once someone probably had a few hundred or so guns manufactured. The Danish for example made a hundred or so of the vastly more complex and expensive Kalthoff repeaters to outfit their Royal Guard with, though Denmark was a fairly wealthy nation for the time I imagine the Ming Dynasty probably could have mustered far more funds for such an endeavor.

    3. It is documented on Chinese records that the Ming already had the ability to manufacture a rather large number of matchlocks. For example in the year 1558, the Ming court ordered 10,000 matchlock muskets to be manufactured by the state-owned factories for the Ming army.



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