Crossbows of the Ming Dynasty

Ming Chinese hand crossbow
Drawing of a crossbow, from 'Chou Hai Tu Bian (《籌海圖編》)'.
Contrary to popular misconception, crossbow was never popular in the Ming army. The Mongol Yuan Dynasty that ruled China previously favoured bow and horse archery over crossbow, and the advent of true guns and cannons (instead of primitive firebombs and fire lances) during Yuan Dynasty rendered crossbow obsolete. Consequently, the use of crossbow in the Chinese army declined sharply, and this trend would continue into the Ming and Qing period. There were even signs of regression of crossbow technology during early and mid Ming Dynasty, although this was largely averted during late Ming Dynasty, and crossbow technology continued to advance despite its diminished importance.


Miao Ren Mu Gong (苗人木弓, lit. 'Wooden bow of the Miao people')
Ming period Miao crossbow
Drawing of a Miao Ren Mu Gong, from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'.
Miao Ren Mu Gong is the wooden crossbow of Miao people. It is considered powerful but very unwieldy. Without any spanning device, extremely powerful Miao crossbow has to be spanned by more than one people.

Southwest China crossbow
A Miao elderly shooting a large crossbow, Dajie Township, China.
Auxiliary elements of the Ming army that consisted of ethnic minorities continued to field crossbowmen in significant number. Miao people from Guangxi region were especially renowned for their powerful crossbow and poisoned arrow. The design of Miao crossbow remained essentially the same for hundreds of years. In fact, identical crossbows can still be found in modern-day Southwest China.

Miao People Heavy Crossbow
Qing period painting of a heavy Miao crossbow spanned by three men. From 'Qian Miao Tu Shuo (《黔苗圖說》)'.


Miao Ren Zhu Nu (苗人竹弩, lit. 'Bamboo crossbow of the Miao people')
Miao crossbow trap
Drawing of a Miao Ren Zhu Nu, from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'.
Miao Ren Zhu Nu is much weaker than typical Miao crossbow, as its prod is made of twenty thin bamboo sticks bundled together. It is a double-shot crossbow that shoots poisoned arrows, most often used in trip wire hunting trap.


Xuan Hu She Hu Zhu Nu (宣湖射虎竹弩, lit. "Tiger-shooting bamboo crossbow from Xuanhu*')
Ming Chinese hand crossbow
Drawing of a Xuan Hu She Hu Zhu Nu, from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'.
Xuan Hu She Hu Zhu Nu is the standard hunting and military crossbow of the Ming army. Its prod is made of five flat strips of bamboo lashed together. Like all hand-spanned crossbows, it is not very powerful, and relies on poisoned arrows to be effective.

*Note: Xuanhu (宣湖) was an ancient place name. Its exact location is yet unknown.


Zhu Ge Nu (諸葛弩)
Ming Dynasty Zhu Ge Nu
Drawing of a Zhu Ge Nu, from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'.
See my other post.


Shen Bi Nu (神臂弩, lit. 'Divine limb crossbow')
Ming Dynasty divine limb crossbow
Drawing of a Shen Bi Nu, from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'.
Also known as Shen Bi Gong (神臂弓, lit. 'Divine limb bow'), Shen Bi Nu is a crossbow design inherited from Song Dynasty and the first truly military grade crossbow in the Ming army. Shen Bi Nu has a prod length of four chi five cun, and shoots a seven cun five fen long crossbow bolt weighing six maces. Ming period Shen Bi Nu may have a draw weight of ninety catties, one hundred twenty catties, or one hundred and fifty catties, depending on its grade.

A variant of Shen Bi Nu, known as Ke Di Nu (克敵弩, lit. 'Enemy-defeating crossbow'), shoots two or three arrows at once.

Ming arsenals manufactured Shen Bi Nu in limited numbers as late as 1500s. However Shen Bi Nu seems to fall into disuse and essentially forgotten soon afterwards. Luckily, some decades-old crossbows apparently survived in relatively good condition and rediscovered in the early 1600s.


Shen Bi Chuang Zi Lian Cheng Nu (神臂床子連城弩, roughly translated as 'Divine limb bed linked fortress crossbow')
Ming Chinese great crossbow
Drawing of a Shen Bi Chuang Zi Lian Cheng Nu, from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'.
Shen Bi Chuang Zi Lian Cheng Nu is a lightweight defence crossbow that is fixed onto a wooden frame. It is a multi-shot crossbow that shoots four poisoned arrows at once. The arrow poison is usually stored inside a box under the wooden frame.

Shen Bi Chuang Zi Lian Cheng Nu is usually operated by three men, each one also armed with a Chong Gun (銃棍). One is the shooter, the other a loader, and the third one guards the crossbow. When the crossbow need to be repositioned, two Chong Gun are inserted under the wooden frame so that the crossbow can be carried by two (or four) men like a stretcher.

Note that while the drawing above does not depict any visible trigger mechanism, this weapon does in fact have one.



Cheng Zong You's improvements
Late Ming Dynasty martial artist Cheng Zong You (程宗猷) (re)introduced several new technologies to improve the performance of Chinese crossbow. He designed a new trigger mechanism based on the ancient Han Dynasty design, turning the simple "I" shape rear sight on the trigger mechanism into a Patridge sight. He also introduced belt-and-hook spanning method, a much needed (and much belated) improvement that finally allows Chinese crossbowmen to span more powerful crossbows.

Ming Dynasty improved crossbow trigger
A Han Dynasty-style crossbow trigger mechanism (left) and the improved crossbow mechanism designed by Cheng Zong You (right), from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'.
Ming Dynasty belt-hook spanning device
Drawing of a belt-hook, from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'.


Jue Zhang Nu (蹶張弩, lit. 'Foot-spanned crossbow')
Ming Chinese one-foot crossbow
Drawing of a Jue Zhang Nu, from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'.
Jue Zhang Nu is first of the new crossbow designed by Cheng Zong Yuan. It is a "one-foot crossbow" similar to Shen Bi Nu, but can have draw wight as high as three hundred catties. Its prod is made of six carefully selected bamboo strips lashed together. Bamboo prod is preferred over wooden or composite prod because it can stay spanned for a longer period of time without loss of tensile strength.

Oddly it is not spanned with a belt-hook.


Yao Kai Nu (腰開弩, lit. 'Waist-spanned crossbow')
Ming Chinese waist crossbow
Drawing of a Yao Kai Nu, from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'.
Yao Kai Nu is the second crossbow designed by Cheng Zong Yuan, and the most powerful handheld crossbow in Ming arsenal. It has a very large wooden prod that span six chi one cun, and has a draw weight of eight hundred catties. Because of its size and extreme draw weight, Yao Kai Nu cannot be spanned standing up. The crossbowman has to sit down and span the crossbow with both his legs and his back, with the aid of a belt-hook.

Ming Dynasty waist-span crossbow
Spanning a Yao Kai Nu, from 'Jue Zhang Xin Fa (《蹶張心法》)'. Spanning of Yao Kai Nu must be executed slowly and carefully, as the stock can smash into the crossbowman's groin if his legs slipped.
While similar spanning method existed since ancient Qin Dynasty, crossbows from that period were nowhere near as powerful as the Ming period Yao Kai Nu, as ancient Chinese crossbowmen spanned their crossbows barehanded, and only using their fingers (there's only so much weight one can pull with his bare hands before his finger bone dislocate or break).


Wo Nu (窩弩, lit. 'Nest crossbow')
Ming Chinese crossbow trap
Drawing of a Wo Nu, from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'.
Also known as Fu Nu (伏弩, lit. 'Concealed crossbow' or 'Ambush crossbow') or Ye Fu Geng Ge (夜伏耕戈, roughly translated as 'Night ambush ploughing weapon'), this is a crossbow specifically designed to be used in a trip wire crossbow trap. It is similar in construction to Jue Zhang Nu.

Chinese crossbow trap
Crossbow trap continued to be used in China as late as 1930s. Image cropped from 'China at Work' by R.P. Hommel.  
Crossbow traps were often employed by Ming army as camp and choke point defence to deter enemy spies and scouts. To prevent enemy spy from using a ten foot pole to spring the trap prematurely, multiple Wo Nu, each positioned at slightly different angle, can be linked to one trip wire.


Shuang Jian Nu (雙箭弩, lit. 'Twin arrows crossbow')
Ming Chinese double-shot trap crossbow
Drawing of a Shuang Jian Nu, from 'Jun Qi Tu Shuo (《軍器圖說》)'.
Shuang Jian Nu is simply the double-shot version of Wo Nu.


Shuang Fei Nu (雙飛弩, lit. 'Twin flying crossbow')
Ming Chinese defensive crossbow
Drawing of a three Shuang Fei Nu linked together, from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'.
Shuang Fei Nu is a defensive crossbow system that links multiple double-shot crossbows together. It is triggered by stepping on a mechanism.

12 comments:

  1. To put it in a more understandable format:

    Ming Dynasty Shen Bi Nu
    Draw weight - 117 lbs, 156 lbs or 195 lbs
    Prod length - 144cm
    Quarrel length - 24cm
    Quarrel weight - 22.14g or ~341 grains

    Jue Zhang Nu
    Draw weight - 312~390 lbs (maximum)
    Prod length (longest bamboo strip) - 76.16cm
    Stock length - 52.16cm
    Draw length - ~32 cm or 12.59in (Estimates, as the bamboo prod is very thick)

    Yao Kai Nu
    Draw weight - ~1041 lbs (maximum)
    Prod length - 195.2cm
    Stock length - 51.2 - 54.4cm
    Draw length - ~35.2cm or 13.85 in, gives or takes ~4.3cm

    Cheng Zong You also mentioned, in a very generalizing manner, that most Chinese crossbows only have powerstroke of five cun (~6.3 in), which is actually not very different from Medieval European crossbow.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Which Chinese crossbow had such short powerstrokes? Ancient Han/Qin crossbows certainly didn't, based on surviving pieces. In theory, a longer powerstroke is just better, and it's what you see on 21st century hunting crossbows. I'd like to see more detailed reconstructions of both Chinese and European crossbows to better determine the actual performance of these weapons.

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  3. @Incanur
    Good day and welcome to my blog.

    The author Chen Zong Yuan did not specify what crossbow, but from his tone, he means ALL crossbows.

    Almost all surviving/replica Warring States/Qin/Han crossbows with long powerstroke are fairly low in power/poundage, as are many modern crossbows.

    Some surviving Han period crossbow stocks that are supposedly high power(the prod rot away, so it is speculated based on its massive crossbow trigger) have significantly shorter stock that the usual "Han crossbow" we know and thus very short powerstroke.



    IMHO, this has more to do with longer wooden crossbow STOCK being unable to withstand the tremendous power of the crossbow, so it has to be shortened, resulting in shorter powerstroke.

    (i.e. longer stick is easier to break than shorter stick, assuming all other things being equal)

    ReplyDelete
  4. 6-dan crossbows were apparently common. 330lbs or so at an 18-or-so-inch powerstroke would make for a powerful weapon, assuming decent efficiency. Assuming a linear force curve, it'd store about 335 J. Even at 50% efficiency it'd manage 168 J of initial energy. That's most than almost any simple wood bow, though Manchu-style big-ear bows might do better (we need more bow tests too). And the efficiency would likely be much higher, maybe 70-75%.

    Is this sort of analysis misguided? Did the 6-dan Han-era crossbows have shorter powerstrokes?

    Thank you for this blog, by the way. I've been studying historical warfare for a while now, particularly Western and Central Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. I'm fascinated by the Chinese context but can't read the characters so I have to rely on folks like you. (I can read Spanish too, and stumble through French/Italian/Portuguese with a dictionary and enough time. That's okay for Europe but not great for China.)

    ReplyDelete
  5. @Incanur
    6-dan crossbows were probably quite common during Han period, based on several excavated arsenal records as well as (I think) export prohibition enforced on certain Han Empire borders.

    I've seen that (or similar) analysis on Myarmoury and Historum forums. While the analysis is mathematically sound, it simply slaps an extremely powerful prod onto the common long stock, long powerstroke and low-power Chinese crossbow and assume it would work.

    In reality both wooden stock and bronze trigger don't have infinite durability and strength. To use a more powerful prod, the stock and trigger have to be similarly enlarged/reinforced. Powerstroke was most likely reduced to avoid breaking the stock. Alternatively, one can keep the long powerstroke and high power, but he will likely end up with a siege weapon instead of a handheld crossbow.

    Triggers for Chinese crossbow varied greatly in size. See imgur link below for comparison. Left trigger is for low-powered crossbow, right trigger is for larger one.

    http://i.imgur.com/8MIxqfG.jpg


    For powerstroke, high powered Han crossbows are hard to come by, so I don't have any concrete data with me. However, what worked for the Ming (and Europeans) probably worked for the Han as well.

    ReplyDelete
  6. @Incanur

    I actually dabble into medieval weapons and military history through European warfare first (Italian war actually, and early 16th century remained one of my favourite period. Because gendarmes.) and then to Chinese warfare.

    English isn't my primary language, although I have enough mastery to read, write and understand most of the info and discussions available online (not so much on the speaking part though). Some more subtle meaning in the language, as well as period usage of specific/historical terms, might still be lost to me though.

    ReplyDelete
  7. The points of compression for 1200 lb windlass crossbows, right before the string is drawn to the nut, span from the end of the stock to the front of the prod. So if a handheld crossbow's stock can deal with that draw weight, then I'm sure the han stock can deal with a draw weight that is only a quarter of 1,200 lbs, even given the long draw length. Euler's critical load formal would also show that han crossbow stocks, even with a long draw length, would be able to support a draw weight many, many times their actual draw weight before its stock starts bending. It's harder to use this equation for medieval european crossbows because their trigger design requires a bigger portion of the wooden stock to be hollow.

    ReplyDelete
  8. ^also I am speaking in term of the string being drawn right before it becomes latched on to the nut, not when the string is latched on to the nut. For windlass crossbows the compressional force is located at the end of the stock, not at the trigger nut.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good day CrossbowMayhem.

      If I understand your comments correctly, what you are trying to say is that it is entirely possible to make a Han-style crossbow with high draw weight (~600 lbs), long powerstroke, and the tiller will still holds?

      Delete
  9. Yes, because the stock of a handheld windlass crossbow is dealing with twice as much compressive force, in the moment right before the string reaches the trigger nut. This means the compressive force right before this moment is located at the end of the tiller, not at the nut. Perhaps this picture serves better to illustrate what I mean: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/cf/b3/ac/cfb3ac870fba38ed34dc9fff4c8b232b.png

    From the picture of Ming crossbows you provided, I would say that they chose to sacrifice power for ergonomics. They put the trigger forward of the stock, which allowed the back of the stock to become a rifle-butt or cheek-rest. The exception to this is the YaoKaiNu, which still put the trigger at the back of the tiller in order to maximize draw length, but this means you can't rest the end of the stock against your shoulder or press it against your cheek. Perhaps the advent of gunpowder weapons meant that crossbows were no longer required for shooting hard hitting projectiles, and more importance were put into their ease of use.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good day again.

      Thanks for the explanation and pic. Now I understand your point fully and found a new respect for the ancient crossbow.

      The usage of poisoned quarrels (even on non-repeating crossbow)probably also contributed to the decline in crossbow power.

      Delete
  10. Glad to help! Great website, by the way.

    ReplyDelete

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