12 November 2014

Breech-loading arquebuses of the Ming Dynasty

UPDATED JANUARY 7, 2022, minor update MAY 14, 2023

One of the major weaknesses of early black powder firearms was the abysmal firing rate. Chinese people certainly weren't strangers to this problem, and showed remarkable ingenuity in their attempts to solve this issue. The most prominent figure in the development of breech-loading matchlock gun was Ming firearms specialist Zhao Shi Zhen (趙士楨), who pioneered the idea of combining Fo Lang Ji (佛狼機) breech-loading swivel gun and matchlock gun into one weapon.

Che Dian Chong (掣電銃, lit. 'Lightning arquebus')

Variant 1

Ming Dynasty Breechloading Arquebus
Drawing of a Che Dian Chong, from 'Shen Qi Pu (《神器譜》)'.
The first variant of Che Dian Chong seems to be Zhao Shi Zhen's early or prototype design, as it appears much more primitive, lacking many safety features of later variants. Essentially a slightly shortened Lu Mi Chong (嚕密銃) fused with a miniaturised breech-loading cannon, this variant of Che Dian Chong is loaded by using chambers/breech blocks directly adapted from breech-loading cannon, which do not have built-in flash pans, and have to be held in place inside the chamber holder by a copper wedge.

Lacking a built-in vertical foregrip, the gun is often used together with a Tuo Shou (托手, lit. 'Hand-prop') identical to that of Xi Yang Chong (西洋銃).

Variant 2

Ming Dynasty Breechloading musket
Drawing of Che Dian Chong variant 2, 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 leakage only results in diminished power and effectiveness in most guns, it has the potential to turn into a serious hazard if the firearm in question is a long gun, due to the fact that the shooter has to hold the gun close to his face in order to aim properly. Unfortunately, the technology to solve this problem (i.e. self-contained metallic cartridge and interrupted screw) did not yet exist, so Zhao Shi Zhen could only make modifications to Che Dian Chong to mitigate the problem as much as possible.

The second variant of Che Dian Chong is a significant improvement over its predecessor, incorporating a slightly redesigned shoulder stock that resembles Japanese matchlock, an integrated vertical foregrip, as well as improved loading chambers with built-in flash pans. It also replaces the wedge with a top-mounted copper plate, which secures the loading chamber, shields the shooter from hazardous gas leakage, as well as serving as rear sight.

Variant 3

Ming Chinese improved breechloading arquebus
Drawing of a Che Dian Chong variant 3, from 'Shen Qi Pu (《神器譜》)'.
Unable to completely seal off the breech and solve the gas leaking problem, Zhao Shi Zhen took a radical approach to eliminate the problem altogether. The third variant of Che Dian Chong is a drastically redesigned version of previous variants, featuring a very short gun barrel that is nothing more than an open-ended tube with an iron sight, as well as extremely long chambers that have been turned into gun barrels in their own right. It is less a breech-loading arquebus and more a matchlock gun with quick-interchangeable barrel, which has the added benefit of allowing the gun to be reloaded normally (from the muzzle) after all pre-filled chambers are spent.

Ming Dynasty multipurpose volley gun shield
Accessories for the Che Dian Chong variant 3, from 'Shen Qi Pu (《神器譜》)'.
Due to the fact that these lengthened chambers are too long to be stored inside a small pouch, Zhao Shi Zhen also designed a special chamber holster to go with the weapon. The chamber holster also serves as a shield as well as a gun mount, and can even be turned into a makeshift volley gun. He also added a steel fork to complete the set.

Top: An arquebusier using Che Dian Chong variant 3 together with his reload assistant, propping his gun on the chamber holster. Bottom: An arquebusier and his reload assistant hiding behind chamber holster, preparing for close combat. The arquebusier is holding a steel fork, while his assistant carries the chamber holster, using it as a shield.
An arquebusier and his reload assistant are operating the weapon set separately. Top: The arquebusier shoots his Che Dian Chong variant 3 like a normal muzzleloader. Bottom: Reload assistant turns the chamber holster into a makeshift volley gun.

Ying Yang Pao (鷹揚砲, lit. 'Soaring eagle cannon')

Ming Chinese Breechloading Wall Gun
Drawing of a Ying Yang Pao and its chambers, priming bottle and powder flask, from 'Shen Qi Pu Huo Wen (《神器譜或問》)'.
Ying Yang Pao is a tremendously powerful breech-loading wall gun designed by Zhao Shi Zhen as the Chinese answer to Japanese ō-deppō (大鉄砲). It is similar to an enlarged Che Dian Chong variant 2, although it lacks the top-mounted copper plate, and mounts an iron loop foregrip in place of the vertical foregrip. Due to increased weight and size, Ying Yang Pao has to be fired from a weapon mount (or from the shoulder of another soldier).

Different ways of shooting a Ying Yang Pao, from 'Shen Qi Pu (《神器譜》)'.

Jiu Long Chong (九龍銃, lit. 'Nine dragon arquebus')

Jiu Long Chong is a type of breech-loading matchlock gun that was in use by Ming army since circa 1560-1570s. So named because it comes with nine loading chambers, Jiu Long Chong predates, and was developed independently from, Zhao Shi Zhen's more famous Che Dian Chong.

Zi Mu Chong (子母鳥銃, 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》)'.
Zi Mu Niao Chong, sometimes shortened to Zi Mu Chong (子母銃, lit. 'Mother-and-child gun'), is an early 17th century breech-loading arquebus, and the only one not designed by Zhao Shi Zhen. It is quite similar to Che Dian Chong variant 1, although its lacks a shoulder stock, and comes with loading chambers that have built-in flash pans, similar to variant 2.

While otherwise unremarkable compared to Zhao Shi Zhen's various designs, Zi Mu Chong does come with one very unique feature—a specially-designed socket bayonet called Chong Jian (銃劍, lit. 'Gun-sword') that can be locked to the gun's front sight (although unlike later Western socket bayonet, it still prevents the gun to be fired, as the blade is not offset from the barrel centreline), which predates the first recorded use of bayonet in Europe (i.e. memoirs of Jacques de Chastenet, Vicomte de Puységur, 1647) by some forty-one years, making it the earliest military bayonet in the world.


  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.

  2. [[This comment should be posted in the page with Niao Chong, but the page no longer enable comment]]

    Hi, did you have any information about bird beak gun (Niao Tsui) mentioned in J. R. Partington's "A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder" ? [The book is available online]

    He mentioned that the gun was captured from a Japanese invasion in 1522 according to Wu Pei Chih, it's in page 282 of Partington's book. Partington himself thought that the gun is a Portuguese flintlock.

    Is it true that the Portuguese has been using flintlocks before this year? From the page "Matchlock firearms of the Ming Dynasty" you said that Niao Chong were matchlock arquebuses.

    If you have access to Wu Pei Chih, can you confirm that it said that the gun were acquired from 1522? Because this would predate the arrival of Portuguese in Tanegashima (1543).

    1. I disabled commenting on the matchlock post because some bots keep spamming firearms-related ads in the comment section.

      Now, "Niao Tsui (Niao Zui) Chong" and "Niao Chong" are synonymous, both refer to a category of long gun, usually a matchlock. The weapon mentioned in Wu Pei Chih is definitely a matchlock arquebus, not flintlock, nor pistol-sized.

      I don't have Wu Bei Zhi with me right now, and from memory Wu Bei Zhi does not mention a specific date. However Ming Dynasty definitely acquired matchlock technology well before the arrival of Portuguese in Tanegashima.

    2. What is the instance of arquebus turned up in China (in what book and if there is a date, what year?) ?

    3. If I recall, the first time matchlock gun shows up in written records is from a seized arsenal of Prince of Ning rebellion in 1519, although the fact that it had a specific name (Niao Chong) strongly suggests that Ming Chinese already knew the weapon for some time, perhaps as early as 1517 (as soon as they ran into the Portuguese).

      Definite record of Ming army equipping and training with matchlock can be dated to 1541, two years before Tanegashima. Record found in Ming Hui Dian (《明會典》).

      Also note that the Portuguese that went to Japan were on board a Chinese ship.

    4. Interesting... I still don't know about the 1522 Japanese attack on China, if it's true, they certainly already got hold of the Indo-European matchlock, which was developed starting in 1513.

      Japanese historians, Shigeo Sugawa and Udagawa Takehisa, indeed doubted that the tanegashima originated from Portuguese firearms, because Portuguese firearms were different in shape and mechanism (both are using snap-matchlock mechanism though). Takehisa argued that the firearms of Japan may have come from Southeast Asia through the intermediate of Wako (armed merchant group). The source that mentions Japanese firearms originated from Portuguese is a document called Teppoki, written by Tanegashima Hisatoki when the guns were used in peak in Japan. The document itself is not contemporary: It is written in 1606, about 60 years later from the purported first arrival of the gun, not at the same age. Furthermore, the purpose of writing this document was for giving tribute to his grandfather who purchased the gun. So the academic value of this document is not adequately high from the standpoint of historiography.

      Another interesting thing, Japanese matchlock usually has a V-shaped mainspring, which was closer to Javanese and Balinese istinggar. Tanegashima generally has 2 main types of springs: The first is an internal coiled spring (common in Southern Japan), and the second is a V-shaped spring (common in mainland Honshu), while the Portuguese-Lusitanian matchlock and Malay istinggar have a single-leaf spring (Malay istinggar is directly copied from the Portuguese - they are also not actually Malay in origin, but Minangkabauan, the Malays bought the weapon from the Minangkabau lands, just a short way across the strait).

      This seems to indicate that the tanegashima arquebus has its predecessor coming from (or manufactured in) Java or Bali (Bali would have been influenced by Java), instead of Portuguese Malacca or Goa. The internal coiled spring might be Japan's indigenous innovation, while the guns with V-shaped springs can be found in various parts of Asia: Sri Lanka, Java, Bali, Lombok, Vietnam, China, Japan, and Korea.
      Single leaf mainspring of Lusitanian (Portuguese) guns can be found in Goa, Sri Lanka, the Malay peninsula, Sumatra, and Vietnam.

      It can also be argued that the Vietnam gun is the one brought to Japan, although there are problems with this: From the shape of the buttstock, Vietnamese matchlock guns are very different (they have a long and thin butt or a short and square-shaped stock). The Javanese-style istinggar (which is also used in Bali and Lombok) has a similar stock to the tanegashima, but due to variations, it is not 100% the same. In addition, the lock mechanism of Vietnamese guns is made of iron, tanegashima guns and Nusantaran guns have locks made of brass (only a few Japanese guns have iron locks).

    5. @Raja Warastra
      I don't recall there was any major incident in 1522. The Ningbo Incident that kick-start the Wokou raids only happened in 1523 after all.

      I didn't read Shigeo Sugawa and Udagawa Takehisa's research, but their conclusion (based on your comment) doesn't seems to contradict Teppoki timeline-wise, because
      (1) the Portuguese were counted among the Wokou/Wako,
      (2) The Chinese captain of the ship was 五峯, who was identified as famous Wokou leader Wang Zhi, and
      (3) Earliest European descriptions about Japan also began around 1540s,
      (4) I think there are Portuguese records that corroborate with Teppoki that I read somewhere, including identities of those three missionaries. I can't remember which book though...

  3. Were cartridges used in any form? If not what was used to carry and load the powder?

    1. Breech blocks largely eliminate the need for cartridges.

      In general though, no.

    2. What about muzzle-loading firearms (might as well ask here since that article doesn't allow comments anymore)? Also what was used to carry and load the powder?

    3. No for arquebus to my knowledge (they used bandoliers) , possibly yes for larger guns and cannons.

  4. 等等 等等,明代火槍科技已經發展到有了銃劍/刺刀的潛意識,比歐洲早40年,點解會無人用嘅...?

  5. wait wait wait, so the bayonet was invented/thought up of before in the Ming dynasty, why was it not used like ever...?

    1. Ming Dynasty was quickly approaching its twilight years at the time. Many more things would be lost in the coming tumultuous and chaotic dynastic change.


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