29 September 2015

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 numbers. 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 present-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 two poisoned arrows at the same time, and was often used in tripwire 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, also known as Zhu Dan Nu (竹擔弩, lit. 'Bamboo prod crossbow'), is a standard hunting and military crossbow of the Ming army. The prod of Xuan Hu She Hu Zhu Nu is made of five flat strips of bamboo lashed together, and is evidently not very powerful, as the crossbow has to rely on arrow poison to increase its lethality.

*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》)'.
For more information, 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 one of the few truly military-grade crossbows in the Ming arsenal. 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.

Specifications of Shen Bi Nu (Ming Dynasty)

  • Prod length: 144 cm
  • Prod thickness: N/A
  • Stock length: N/A
  • Brace height: N/A
  • Draw length: N/A
  • Power stroke: N/A
  • Draw weight: 117 lbs (light), 156 lbs (medium) or 195 lbs (heavy)
  • Quarrel length: 24 cm
  • Quarrel weight: 22.14 g (341.7 grains)

Lian Bi Nu (連臂弩, lit. 'Linked prod crossbow')

Chinese handheld multiprod crossbow
Drawing of a Lian Bi Nu, from 'Wu Bei Ji Yao (《武備集要》)'.
Lian Bi Nu is a highly unusual handheld crossbow with two linked composite horn prods and a bronze stirrup.

Specifications of Lian Bi Nu

  • Prod length (first prod): 76.8 cm
  • Prod length (second prod): 80 cm
  • Prod thickness (closest to the stock): N/A
  • Stock length: 83.6 cm
  • Brace height: N/A
  • Draw length: 38.4 cm (measured from second prod)
  • Power stroke: N/A
  • Draw weight: N/A
  • Quarrel length: ~48 cm (estimation based on length of quarrel groove)
  • Quarrel weight: N/A

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 multi-shot crossbow that shoots four poisoned  gunpowder arrows at once, and is mounted on a wooden frame that can be chained together to form a defensive barrier. Its arrows can be stored inside a box under the wooden frame.

Shen Bi Chuang Zi Lian Cheng Nu is usually operated by a team of three, 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 can be inserted under the wooden frame so that the crossbow can be carried by two (or four) men like a stretcher.

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

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.

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 that is nearly identical to Han Dynasty design, but replaced the simple "I" shaped rear sight on the trigger mechanism with a more accurate Patridge sight. In addition, he also introduced belt-and-hook spanning method, a much needed improvement that allows Chinese crossbowmen to span more powerful crossbows.

A Han Dynasty-style bronze crossbow trigger mechanism (left) and the improved crossbow mechanism designed by Cheng Zong You (right), from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'.

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 the first of the new crossbows designed by Cheng Zong You. It is a "one-foot crossbow" similar to Shen Bi Nu, but can have a draw weight as high as three hundred catties. The prod of Jue Zhang Nu is made of six carefully selected bamboo strips lashed together. Cheng Zong You preferred bamboo prod over wooden or composite prod because it can stay spanned for a longer period of time without losing tensile strength.

Interestingly, Jue Zhang Nu is not spanned with a belt-hook.

Specifications of Jue Zhang Nu

  • Prod length (longest bamboo strip): 76.16 cm
  • Prod thickness (closest to the stock): 5.76 cm - 6.40 cm
  • Stock length: 52.16 cm
  • Brace height: N/A
  • Draw length: 16 cm (6.3")
  • Power stroke: N/A
  • Draw weight: 312 lbs - 390 lbs
  • Quarrel length: ~25.28 cm (estimation based on length of quarrel groove)
  • Quarrel weight: 6.64 g/102.5 grains quarrel for 312 lbs crossbow (~0.33 grains-per-pound)

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 You, and the most powerful handheld crossbow in Ming arsenal. It has a very large wooden prod that spans 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 may smash into the crossbowman's groin if his legs slipped.
Similar spanning method existed since ancient Qin period, although ancient crossbowmen spanned their crossbows without the aid of belt-hook.

Specifications of Yao Kai Nu

  • Prod length: 195.2 cm
  • Prod thickness (closest to the stock): 5.76 cm
  • Stock length: 51.2 cm - 54.4 cm
  • Brace height: ~6.4 cm (~2.52")
  • Draw length: 32.32 cm (12.75")
  • Power stroke: 25.92 cm (10.2")
  • Draw weight: 1,041 lbs
  • Quarrel length: ~46.4 cm (estimation based on length of quarrel groove)
  • Quarrel weight: N/A

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'), as well as Shuang Jian Nu (雙箭弩, lit. 'Double arrow crossbow'),  this is a crossbow specifically designed to be used in a tripwire crossbow trap. It is similar in construction to Jue Zhang Nu.

Crossbow trap continued to be used in China as late as 1930s. Image cropped from 'China at Work' by R.P. Hommel.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  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.

  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)

  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.)

    1. Biggest problem with even Han heavy crossbows / footbows is that at best, you get 300 joules of initial energy. 3mm plate (2mm was closer to the sweet spot in terms of cost, weight, and protection though) can survive up to 325 joules. Now, while plate armor was not common in East Asia, you definitely had shields. It's trivial to reinforce a shield to the point where it can survive even 6 dan crossbows, and in some historical accounts, heavy shields allowed Chinese troops to survive crossbow bombardment by cavalry.

      When you look at pre-modern ranged weapons, they seem to have two main roles. First, ranged weapons can function in a suppressive role; i.e, they don't need to penetrate, but they force the opponent to move with more care, to take cover, or to put shields up. Second, they function in a killing role, which makes them powerful and capable vs unarmored troops, but less useful against armored soldiers.

      I think one thing to note is that between the Song Dynasty and the Ming Dynasty, the former reaching a crossbowman composition of 50%, crossbows fell out of favor and often became suppressive fire devices with short power strokes. Why? Because firearms began to become common in China, with the Ming noted as a great innovator in gunpowder weapons. Since crossbows were pretty useless vs cataphracts and the usual counter-crossbow equipment, you relied on arquebuses for killing power and resorted to short powerstroke crossbows designed for suppressing fire (rate of fire) instead of killing fire.

  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.


    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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

    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?

  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.

    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.

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

  11. Updated (in some cases, corrected) info about Ming period crossbows:

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

    Jue Zhang Nu
    Prod length (longest bamboo strip) - 76.16cm
    Prod thickness (centre) - 5.76cm to 6.4cm
    Stock length - 52.16cm
    **Draw weight - 312~390 lbs (maximum)
    **Draw length - 16cm or 6.3 in

    Yao Kai Nu
    Prod length - 195.2cm
    Prod thickness (centre) - 5.76cm
    Stock length - 51.2 - 54.4cm
    **Draw weight - ~1041 lbs
    **Draw length - 32.32cm or ~12.75in
    **Brace height - 6.4cm or ~2.52in
    **Power stroke - 25.92cm or ~10.2in

  12. Is there any info available about chinese bow trap?

    1. You mean its draw weight and stuffs? No as far as I am aware of. Normal crossbow can be easily modified into trap version anyway.

    2. A quick read on Jue Zhang Xin Fa reveals that this version shoot three arrows at once (two main arrow and one longer auxiliary arrow without fletching). It is very powerful as it requires the aid of a waist band to string, and most likely requires sitting down to span (Yao Kai Nu level of power).

    3. So, do you think the western crossbows and chinese are technically related? Or just evolved from different bow trap cultures? crossbow was limited for hunting in the Roman empire for ages also african and inuit tribes:



    4. @Unknown
      Personally I think they (Chinese and Roman crossbow) were developed independently.

      I've read that there is a possibility that African crossbow might've been influenced by Norwegian whale bow given their similarities in trigger mechanism. But I am not familiar with them anyway.

  13. ive built a han dynasty 120lb crossbow and now ill make a yao kai nu of 300lb, hopefully will be successful https://youtu.be/edaAm2-ZpBo

    1. Are you the owner of Historical Archery YouTube channel? I've been watching your channel for some time now, keep up the good work!

    2. yes i am contact me by leaving a comment on my vids.
      im planning to make Yao Kai Nu, from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'.
      but i dont think 880lb is possible by any average man and the dimensions shown is not going to make 880lb. i have a 290lb@26 longbow that i want to make into this. where did u get 800 catties and 1 catty =?

    3. after talking to the chinese community they say the book says 1080 jin = 36 yun = 600 modern lbs

    4. 800 catties is taken directly from Jue Zhang Xin Fa (the archery book where the crossbow is recorded). I am also using Ming-era unit of measurement where 1 Jin/catty = ~1.32 pound.

    5. Hi I talked to others they said this Yao Kai crossbow is a reproduction of a Han crossbow aka an experiment not a military crossbow
      And the 1000lb is likely exaggerated

    6. No, it was built using a Han-style crossbow trigger (which wasn't generally in use during Ming period), but it wasn't a "reproduction" of a Han crossbow, and not an "experiment". The author wrote the manual to promote his design.

      It is too soon to conclude that the draw weight is exaggerated.

    7. ill test my 290lb@26 and see how hard it is to span with my waist,
      after all the name waist open means its gotta be spanned with muscles, no cranks or windlass involved
      in my personal opinon no average soldier can span 1000lb like that. only professional deadlifters

    8. can you find the specific words that suggest it was more commonly used (or will be)?
      i talked to the wechat community and they said it is a repro of a han crossbow,
      that being said, i struggle to read ming chinese text

    9. @historical archery
      Yes, the crossbow likely wasn't designed with random conscript in mind, but trained professionals.

      The wechat community probably use imprecise terms to describe the crossbow (i.e. they treat all crossbows with Han-style triggers as "Han reproduction"). The crossbow wasn't a direct copy of Han-era crossbow. While the trigger mechanism is inspired by Han-style trigger, Cheng made some modifications to it, and the stock and prod are nothing alike.

      Cheng tried to promote the crossbow, and his designs found their way into several more mainstream military treatises of the time like Wu Bei Zhi, but he lived during the age of firearms so it's doubtful if his crossbow saw much use. He did serve as military instructor at Tianjin for a short while though, so it's possible that Tianjin military was equipped with the weapon.

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. Did the belt hook for the yao kai nu have a doubler pulley?


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