27 April 2015

Breech-loading cannons of the Ming Dynasty


A small bronze Fo Lang Ji made for cavalry dated to 1538, currently kept in Lanzhou Museum, China.
Fo Lang Ji (佛郎機, lit. 'Frankish engine'), named after the Chinese name for Portuguese people (itself a Chinese transcription of related terms farang/farangi/ferenggi, used in the Muslim world to refer to White Europeans) is the Chinese version of breech-loading swivel gun, which they reverse-engineered from the Portuguese. 

Fo Lang Ji actually entered Chinese arsenal surprisingly early—the weapon came to the attention of Ming court in October 1517, after a translator working on a Portuguese ship (likely part of Fernão Pires de Andrade's fleet which visited China in the same year) gifted a cannon and gunpowder formula to Gu Ying Xiang (顧應祥) during an anti-piracy operation. However, Imperial prince Zhu Chen Hao (朱宸濠) already manufactured some Fo Lang Ji in secret as early as May 1517 in preparation for his rebellion two years later, suggesting that general populace may had already learnt of this weapon well before Ming court did. After Sino-Portuguese relations turned sour, Ming navy sent to evict the Portuguese from Guangdong quickly found itself at the receiving end of this devastating weapon during Battle of Tunmen in 1521. In the ensuing blockade, naval commander Wang Hong (汪鋐), through military inspector He Ru (何儒) acting as undercover agent, successfully enticed two Chinese sailors working for the Portuguese to defect to the Ming. With technical know-how acquired from these defectors, Wang Hong successfully reverse-engineered Fo Lang Ji in a little under 40 days, then proceeded to use the new weapon to defeat the Portuguese. 

After the conflict, Wang Hong became a fervent advocate of Fo Lang Ji, and wrote several memorials to the throne to promote the weapon. In 1523, Beijing arsenal began to manufacture Fo Lang Ji in official capacity, soon followed by Nanjing arsenal in 1524. By 1529, mere seven years after the initial production run, virtually entire China had been equipped with this new weapon. Fo Lang Ji quickly supplanted older Chinese cannons and became the most important artillery piece in the Ming arsenal. 

Fo Lang Ji (佛郎機)

A standard Fo Lang Ji swivel gun, from 'Lian Bing Za Ji (《練兵雜紀》)'.
While the basic design of Fo Lang Ji is virtually unchanged from its Portuguese predecessor, Chinese gunsmiths created a great number of variant designs of nearly every size, power, and platform imaginable ranging from downsized handheld guns, to standard-sized models mounted on small gun carriages or saddle frames similar to zamburak, to heavier piece mounted on war carts, warships and gun emplacements.

Bai Zi Fo Lang Ji (百子佛郎機, lit. 'Hundred bullet Frankish engine')

Drawing of a Bai Zi Fo Lang Ji, gun carriage, and three chambers. From Qing period 'Yi Hai Zhu Chen (《藝海珠塵》)'.
Bai Zi Fo Lang Ji is an improved Fo Lang Ji designed by Zhao Shi Zhen (趙士楨) with a longer and reinforced gun barrel. The gun is mounted on a wooden bed, which is in turn mounted on a special gun carriage equipped with two metal hooks and a recoil dampener made from iron bucket filled with cotton. The carriage allows the gun to be maneuvered easily and offers increased stability while firing, although its wheels must be detached before the gun can be used.

Fei Shan Shen Pao (飛山神砲, lit. 'Flying mountain divine cannon')

Fei Shan Shen Pao
Drawing of a Fei Shan Shen Pao, from 'Lian Bing Za Ji (《練兵雜紀》'.
Fei Shan Shen Pao is a medium-weight Fo Lang Ji with two pair of trunnions.

Wu Di Da Jiang Jun (無敵大將軍, lit. 'Invincible great general')

Chinese Giant Breechloading Cannon
Drawing of a Wu Di Da Jiang Jun, from 'Lian Bing Za Ji (《練兵雜紀》)'.
Wu Di Da Jiang Jun is a heavy breech-loading cannon primarily designed for close range anti-personnel duties. A single blast from this cannon can rain death over a very large area in a manner not unlike a giant shotgun—each of its three chambers are loaded with one heavy stone ball and a whopping 365 iron pellets—although the stone ball is still capable of pulverising walls and buildings.

Weighing one thousand and fifty catties (619.5 kg or 1,366 lbs), Wu Di Da Jiang Jun was one of the heaviest cannons in Ming arsenal until the advent of Hong Yi Pao (紅夷砲). Regrettably, while it is undoubtedly devastating, Wu Di Da Jiang Jun is actually slightly underpowered for a cannon of this size due to its breech-loading nature (and the gas leakage problem that entails), relatively short barrel, and the fact that its projectile weight and black powder load are limited by the size of its chamber. These shortcomings eventually led to the development of lighter and more powerful Ye Gong Shen Chong (葉公神銃).

Wu Di Shen Fei Pao (無敵神飛砲, lit. 'Invincible divine flying cannon')

Chinese Breech-loading Gun
Drawing of a Wu Di Shen Fei Pao, from 'Ji Xiao Xin Shu (《紀效新書》)'.
Wu Di Shen Fei Pao, sometimes shortened to Shen Fei Pao (神飛砲, lit. 'Divine flying cannon'), is a slightly shortened naval variant of Wu Di Da Jiang Jun. Each of its three chambers are loaded with a heavy stone ball and 200 iron pellets, although iron pellets are sometimes omitted to increase the power of stone ball.

Like its land-bound counterpart, Wu Di Shen Fei Pao was the heaviest naval artillery available to Ming navy until the advent of Hong Yi Pao.

Shen Fei Pao (神飛砲, lit. 'Divine flying cannon')

Drawing of a Shen Fei Pao, from 'Jun Qi Tu Shuo (《軍器圖說》)'.
Recorded in seventeenth century military treatise Jun Qi Tu Shuo (《軍器圖說》)', Shen Fei Pao appears to be a streamlined and more powerful version of Wu Di Da Jiang Jun/Wu Di Shen Fei Pao, lacking the iron rings used for lifting the cannon found on Wu Di Da Jiang Jun, but comes with gunsight-equipped, wrought iron chambers.

The largest "Mark 1" Shen Fei Pao is 8 chi (256 cm or 8'5") in length and 1,000 catties (590 kg or 1300 lbs) in weight. Its five chambers are 1 chi 5 cun (48 cm or 1'7") in length, 80 catties (47.2 kg or 104 lbs), and have a bore size of 7 cun (22.4 cm or 8.8"). They are typically loaded with either a heavy 25 catties (14.75 kg or 32.5 lbs) stone ball, or 200 stone pellets plus 500 iron pellets (but not both at the same time unlike Wu Di Da Jiang Jun/Wu Di Shen Fei Pao), propelled by 5 catties (2.95 kg or 6.5 lbs) of black powder.

Fei Long Chong (飛龍銃, lit. 'Flying dragon gun')

Drawing of a Fei Long Chong (highlighted), from 'Huo Gong Qie Yao (《火攻挈要》)'.
Introduced by German Jesuit Johann Adam Schall von Bell in the seventeenth century, Fei Long Chong is an advanced breech-loading demi-culverin that combines the rate of fire of  Fo Lang Ji with the firepower and long range of Hong Yi Pao. 

Other variants

There are also many known models of Fo Lang Ji without accompanying illustrations. Examples include Ma Shang Fo Lang Ji (馬上佛郎機, lit. 'Horseman's Frankish engine') designed to be used on horseback, Bai Chu Xian Feng Pao (百出先鋒砲, lit. 'Hundred discharge vanguard cannon'), a handheld Fo Lang Ji with shortened barrel and a spearhead attachment, Lian Zhu Fo Lang Ji Pao (連珠佛朗機砲, lit. 'Rapid fire Frankish engine'), a cast iron double-barreled Fo Lang Ji with shortened barrels, as well as Liu Xing Pao (流星砲, lit. 'Shooting star cannon'), a type of brass Fo Lang Ji with rectangular-shaped open breech and lengthened barrel.


  1. This is still very strange....
    because the wiki page says:

    "Breech loading cannons were used in Majapahit conquest (1336-1350). Prior to this, the Javanese acquired firearm technology from 1293 Mongol invasion.[18] The cannon is called Cetbang and can be configured as stationary gun or swivel gun, mounted on various vessels of Majapahit navy. At that time soldiers of other kingdoms in the Nusantaran archipelago fought using melee weapons in an elevated platform in their ships called Balai, while also trying to board enemy vessels. Loaded with scattershot, the cetbang is very effective to counter this type of fighting"

    1. The way they worded the article causes some confusion. Mongol-period firerams were really primitive, they were either small (muzzle-loaded) handgonnes, or smallish bombards, or other relatively simple hand-thrown/catapult-launched bombs.

      As far as I can tell, both the breechloading gun and swivel-mounted gun are European inventions during 14th century. By the time of Majapahit conquest, they MIGHT already had access to some form of breechloading gun through direct or indirect European contact, but Cetbang certainly did not come from the Mongols.

      By the way, the pictured Cetbang at the wikipedia page are all post-1500, as far as I can tell.

    2. There has been a wide confusion among the Indonesian regarding the form of cetbang. The 1300-1400s cetbang is different from post-1450s cetbang. The images about cetbang in the internet is the post-1450 model. Identity of pao used by Mongol in 1293 invasion of Java is debated among historian. Djoko Nugroho interpret pao as thunder bomb-launching trebuchet , Pierre-Yves Manguin interpret it as cannon or firearms, while Zoetmulder interpret it as a kind of rocket.
      Interestingly, in Babad Majapahit (one of the local sources about the Mongol invasion) bedil (gun) and meriam (cannon) is mentioned. Bedil has a broad meaning in Malay languages, from pistol, rocket, and siege cannon can be referred to as a bedil. But by comparing the weapon used in China during this era, I think bedil would mean small handgonne while meriam means larger eruptor/cannon.

  2. So I got intrigued by these:
    In the book Firearms A Global History to 1700 by Kenneth chase page 241 it is stated that the swivel gun was sometimes known as "Javanese gun". Then he cites Xiaoshan leigao p. 392 as the source.
    Xiaoshan leigao can be accessed at:

    In Genre And Empire Historical Romance And Sixteenth Century Chinese Cultural Fantasies by Yuanfei Wang it is mentioned that "Zhang Xie in Dongxi Yangkao (record of the eastern and western ocean) ... the new Portugese cannon as bigger and more powerful than the familiar but less effective Javanese cannon". See
    Dongxi Yangkao can be accessed at:

    I can't read Chinese so I don't really know what's being said in the Chinese literatures mentioned above.

    1. @Raja Warastra
      From Chinese perspective, the Portuguese came from the same general direction as Java (i.e. from the south sea), but generally speaking they could distinguish a Portuguese and Javanese quite easily.

      From my understanding, at least during late Ming period "Javanese gun" was used to refer to Vietnamese muskets and not swivel gun.

      "Zhang Xie Dongxi Yangkao" only mentions that "the Portuguese came from the south of Java. Both kingdoms use similar style of cannon. Portuguese cannon is bigger, Javanese gun is smaller." Nothing in the text suggests that the Chinese considered Portuguese gun as "newer" and "more powerful" or Javanese gun being "familiar".

    2. Thank you for clearing that up. So I presume what written there is Zhuawa chong (Java gun) instead Zhuawa pao (Java cannon)?
      What about Xiaoshan leigao? Is the Javanese gun there written as "chong" or "pao"?

    3. The word used was Chong (銃) for Portuguese gun and Xian (銑) for Javanese gun. But these terms were used interchangeably (more or less) anyway.

      I haven't have time to go through Xiaoshan Leigao, it doesn't seem to have much to do with military matter.

    4. When I searched about Java gun in google books, I got a little confused since they said Java gun has a small size (if it was similar to Jiao gun they would be bigger/longer, if compared to other types of musket). So I guess they're comparing breech-loading swivel guns to muskets?

      I used google translate:
      In addition to equipping the balahu boats, the Ming army was also equipped with firearms produced in Java, called Java guns. Like the Java boat, this kind of fire gun is also famous for its small size and flexibility, high shooting accuracy, and can be used for bird hunting. At that time, the foreign guns imported by China and equipped with the army came not only from Java, but also from France, namely Spain and Portugal. In contrast, "Furang guns are big, Java guns are small"

      Another result:
      ... 但佛郎機銃大,爪哇銃小耳。國人用之甚精
      But the Folang machine has a big gun, and the Java gun has small ears. Chinese people use it very well

      If it was similar to the Vietnam arquebus, logically they must not be very flexible due to their size. Also, what's the significance of "bird hunting" to a musket? I mean, a musket with a shorter (normal) barrel could do it too.

    5. Yes, I would assume they are comparing Folangji cannon and Java musket.

      "bird hunting" implies good accuracy.

  3. The flying dragon cannon looks pretty awesome, any idea of its calibre?

    1. Not stated in the treatise, but looking at other similar treatises, it can be inferred that the cannon is either 13 pdr or 20 pdr, depending on model.

  4. Any idea on the exact calibre of the wu di da jiang jun?


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