28 November 2014

Unique weapon of the Ming Dynasty — Shen Huo Fei Ya (神火飛鴉)

Shen Huo Fei Ya (神火飛鴉, lit. 'Divine fire flying crow' or 'Flying crow with magic fire'), is a unique, bird-shaped rocket made of papered bamboo or reed basketry. It is a long range incendiary weapon designed to attack stationary or slow-moving targets such as enemy encampments, fortresses and warships.

There are actually two variants of this rocket, detailed below.

Huo Long Shen Qi Zhen Fa (《火龍神器陣法》) variant

A badly drawn Shen Huo Fei Ya, from 'Huo Long Shen Qi Zhen Fa (《火龍神器陣法》).'
Huo Long Shen Qi Zhen Fa variant of Shen Huo Fei Ya is filled with a mixture of potent poisonous blinding smoke, poison smoke-incendiary gunpowder, incendiary gunpowder, caltrops, as well as numerous Fei Yan (飛燕). It is propelled by a single rocket mounted below the crow's tail, and thus is infinitely more aerodynamically stable than the Wu Bei Zhi variant (see below).

Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》) variant

A Shen Huo Fei Ya with four rockets, from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'.
Wu Bei Zhi variant of Shen Huo Fei Ya is filled with incendiary-explosive gunpowder. It is propelled by four rockets mounted under the crow's wings. This variant of Shen Huo Fei Ya shares a similar design problem with Huo Long Chu Shui (火龍出水) in that it is extremely difficult to ignite four rockets at nearly the same time to achieve stable flight. However, it is theoretically feasible to build a workable four engine cluster rocket even with the technology of the time, especially with the aid of a launch rail.

It should be noted that the illustration above contains numerous glaring errors, and shouldn't be taken at face value. For example, the illustration depicts a lifelike crow complete with feathery wings and legs, even though the text clearly describes a simply constructed paper model bird. Besides, the rockets are all mounted at the wrong places, and come with unnecessary stabilising sticks and fins (not mentioned in the text). It is most likely that the author of Wu Bei Zhi heard about this weapon from unreliable sources and hearsay, and reproduced it incorrectly in his military treatise.

EXTRA: European bird rocket

European Shen Huo Fei Ya
Venetian bird-shaped rocket, from 'Bellicorum instrumentorum liber, cum figuris et fictitys litoris conscriptus' by Johannes de Fontana.
It seems that bird-shaped rocket weapon is not unique to China after all. This bird-rocket seems to be quite sensibly designed, and is possibly the most aerodynamically stable rocket out of the three.


  1. So I'm worldbuilding a fantasy setting, and I'm considering adding rocket-and-fire-lance era gunpowder technology to it. I'm particularly interested in the use of rockets for sieges, and figuring out the impact they have on the setting as a whole requires determining range. Unfortunately, I'm having trouble locating figures on the range of these weapons.

    How far could one shoot a Shen Huo Fei Ya? 200 meters? 300? 500?

    1. Unfortunately the range of this weapon cannot be found in either treatises.

      Since it is a siege weapon though, I speculate the range should be somewhere around 900 m ~ 2km (assuming the single-rocket version. Four-rocket crow may or may not even work).

    2. Thank you.

      So "siege rockets" tended to have kilometer-ish ranges?

    3. Yes. I'd put ~3km as the maximum though, given that only metal-casing rockets (Mysorean & Congreve rocket) can achieve this range.


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