6 August 2015

San Yan Chong (三眼銃)

Chinese three-eye-gun
A typical San Yan Chong.
Perhaps the most iconic handheld firearm of Ming army, San Yan Chong (三眼銃, lit. 'Three-eyed gun') is an iron handgonne that has three short barrels arranged in a triangular layout. It allows the gunner to discharge three shots in quick succession before needing to reload, thereby compensating for its short range and lack of accuracy somewhat. San Yan Chong was the preferred firearm of border cavalry, particularly those from Liao Dong (遼東, present-day Liaoning) garrison.

During mid-Ming period, the adoption of matchlock firearms had rendered older handgonnes largely obsolete. Nevertheless, Ming army never phase out handgonnne from its arsenal entirely. On the contrary, use of handgonne, particularly San Yan Chong, somewhat increased towards the end of Ming Dynasty.

San Yan Qiang (三眼鎗, lit. 'Three-eyed spear')
Drawing of a San Yan Qiang, from Qing Dynasty military treatise 'Fang Shou Ji Cheng (《防守集成》)'.
San Yan Qiang is a closely-related variant of San Yan Chong. Despite similar-sounding names, this variant is actually not a handgonne at all, but a three-shot rocket launcher attached to a spear. Its three tubes are made of bamboo.

Zhao Shi Zhen's Improvements
Ming Dynasty firearm specialist and inventor Zhao Shi Zhen (趙士楨) recorded or developed several variants of the San Yan Chong in an attempt to keep up with the performance of matchlock arquebus. While this was ultimately an exercise in futility, his designs substantially improved the performance and versatility of this ageing weapon.

Zhao Shi Zhen advocated the use of longer and thinner wrought iron barrels, made in the same way as that of the matchlock gun, to replace the short and thick (and thus heavy and unwieldy, not to mention inaccurate) cast iron barrels of the old San Yan Chong. He also designed a wooden bedding to separate the barrels, so that shooting from one barrel will not heat up the other two.

Guo Chu San Yan Qiang (國初三眼鎗, lit. 'Three-eyed spear from the early years of the Ming Dynasty')
Ming Chinese San Yan Qiang
Drawing of a Guo Chu San Yan Qiang (highlighted), from 'Shen Qi Pu (《神器譜》)'.
The supposed progenitor of San Yan Chong (indeed it closely resemble a fire lance), this variant has a spearhead fixed between its three barrels. Although Zhao Shi Zhen claimed that he learned Guo Chu San Yan Qiang from a mysterious old Daoist outside of Gongde Temple, this weapon was most probably devised by himself or his contemporaries, as multiple barrel handgonne was uncommon during the early years of Ming Dynasty.

It is uncertain if this is the same weapon as rocket-launching San Yan Qiang (see above) or not.

Ma Shang San Yan Chong (馬上三眼銃, lit. 'Horseman's three-eyed gun')
Ming Chinese San Yan Chong with Spearhead
Drawing of a Ma Shang San Yan Chong (highlighted), from 'Shen Qi Pu (《神器譜》)'.
This variant is also known as San Yan Qiang (三眼鎗, lit. 'Three-eyed spear'), but different from the rocket launching variant. It has a spearhead mounted at the butt of the pole. Like its namesake, it is usable on horseback.

Xin Gai Ma Bu Xiang Yi San Yan Qiang (新改馬步相宜三眼鎗, lit. 'Newly modified three-eyed spear that is suitable on foot and on horseback')
Ming Dynasty Upgraded Triple barrel Handgonne
Drawing of a Xin Gai Ma Bu Xiang Yi San Yan Qiang, from 'Shen Qi Pu (《神器譜》)'.
This is simply a Ma Shang San Yan Chong with all upgrades advocated by Zhao Shi Zhen installed. Zhao Shi Zhen designed two version of this weapon—a longer version used by infantry, and a shorter version used on horseback.

Xian Chong (鍁銃, hoe gun) and Jue Chong (镢銃, spade gun)
Highlighted Xian Chong (above) and Jue Chong (below), from 'Shen Qi Pu (《神器譜》)'.
Xian Chong and Jue Chong are simply Ma Shang San Yan Chong with its spear attachment replaced with a hoe and a spade, respectively.

San Shen Tang (三神鎲, lit. 'Three divine ranseur')
Ming Dynasty Matchlock Handgonne Trident
Drawing of a San Shen Tang, from 'Shen Qi Pu (《神器譜》)'.
A general consensus among many Ming generals and bureaucrats was that matchlock arquebus was only suitable in South China, while handgonne was more suitable in North China. While this consensus was ultimately irrelevant (the advantages provided by matchlock arquebus vis-a-vis handgonne still far outweigh any downside of using the weapon in the north), it did influence the development of many Ming Dynasty firearms.

While Zhao Shi Zhen clearly did not buy into the consensus, he still designed San Shen Tang that combines the advantages of the two, presumably as an interim replacement for normal San Yan Chong before the eventual adoption of arquebus (which never happened).

San Shen Tang was designed to be usable in both North and South China. It incorporates a detachable matchlock mechanism as well as a Tang Pa (鎲鈀) head mounted at the butt of the pole. With the matchlock mechanism attached, San Shen Tang can be braced and aimed like a matchlock gun (although it is still more unwieldy than a true matchlock gun), or it can be used like an ordinary handgonne by removing the mechanism.
Shooting San Shen Tang
A soldier shooting San Shen Tang, and a horseman shooting Ma Shang San Yan Chong. From 'Shen Qi Pu (《神器譜》)'.
In a sense, San Shen Tang can be considered a saner and more practical successor of the Xun Lei Chong (迅雷銃).


  1. Hi. Would you happen to know the Korean term for these weapons?

  2. Sorry to bother but I found it. http://younghwan12.tistory.com/3623

  3. I am actually quite surprised to learn that Joseon Koreans inherited so many Ming-style firearms.

  4. Yes. Seungjachongtong. This is probably the most iconic handgun type which became the base for several other variants. http://data.kdata.kr/page/Mallyeogeulmyomyeongseungjachongtong

  5. The Seungjachongtong is similar to some early Ming Dynasty (one-barreled) handgonne, but there are not exact match AFAIK. Probably a Korean indigenous design.

  6. how can they shoot while riding on horse back?

    1. TBH I have no idea. Historical sources only tell us these weapons were used on horseback, but do not teach us how to do so.

      My guess is that the gunner slow down his horse (or stop altogether) before he fire the gun. Alternately, maybe a long fuse can be used.

    2. they probably fired them the way horse archers were able to use their bows

  7. it is weird because arquebus-like firearms without matchlock trigger are attested in joseon before the imjin war:







    do you think they look like anything from the ming arsenal?

    1. I can read Korean. The stocks of those guns look like they are inspired by the stock of Japanese matchlock, so I believe at least some of them are "bootleg" arquebus rushed into service to counter Japanese gunners during Imjin War.

    2. basically the existence of arquebus-like handgonnes are attested by written records (described next to an image) and archaeological finds (inscription on the barrel - 1588), at least 4 years before the imjin war:


      which is quite contrary to the belief: "hand cannons converted to Japanese style matchlock early in Imjin war after Koreans realized the superiority of the Japanese matchlock musket, many hand cannons were converted"

      about this:


      these wooden stocks are just a modern invention " what they might have looked like"

      my guess these korean arquebus-like handgonnes could share the same family of these guys:





      but correct me if i am wrong they are in the handgonne category due to lack of matchlock?

  8. What exactly are the upgrades done on Xin Gai Ma Bu Xiang Yi San Yan Qiang? I think I can see a spear/blade attachment, but I don't know what other modifications are for.

    1. On top of blade attachment, the improved gun switches out the older, cruder handgonne barrel with more refined matchlock-like gun barrel, which increases durability and decrease weight. It also uses three separated barrels (rather than three barrel welded together like normal San Yan Chong), which prevents the gun barrel from heating each other and allows damaged barrel to be swapped out.

    2. How do you think handgonne could have evolved and improved if their usage were continued, either by the hypothetical surviving Ming dynasty or by Qing?

    3. @John Able
      Handheld firearms naturally advance towards more precision, more power, and more user-friendly. Matchlock (and it's more advanced development) basically fulfilled all that. I think the Chinese would've developed matchlock on their own sooner or later even if they never met the Portuguese.

    4. A different question - what caused the increase of handgonne usage at the end of Ming dynasty, despite the adoption of matchlock? I am assuming something about cost.

    5. @John Able
      I am not sure if handgonne really did become more common towards the end of Ming Dynasty. Certain types of handgonne (like three-eye gun) maybe, in comparison to other handgonnes, but overall everyone was trying to adopt matchlock in increasing numbers.

    6. Still used for creating smoke screen and set fire on stuffs (those functions were not replaceable by better guns).


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