29 October 2015

Shen Qiang (神鎗)

Early Ming variant
Ming Dynasty Handgonne
Drawing of a dart-shooting Shen Qiang, from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'.
Shen Qiang (神鎗, lit. 'Divine gun' or 'Divine spear'), also known as Shen Ji Chong (神機銃, lit. 'Divine engine gun') and Shen Ji Huo Qiang (神機火鎗, lit. 'Divine engine fire lance'), is a  handgonne of the early Ming Dynasty. It is primarily designed to shoot a heavy metal-tipped dart made of Ceylon ironwood, said to be powerful enough to punch through two men and a horse at the same time, although it can also shoot lead shots or shrapnel.
Early Ming Dynasty handgonne
A Yongle period bronze handgonne with touch hole lid.
The invention of Shen Qiang is often credited to Vietnamese prince Li Deng (黎澄, original Vietnamese name Hồ Nguyên Trừng or 胡元澄), captured during the Ming conquest of Vietnam and subsequently given a position in the Ming court. However, historical sources are silent on what kind of improvement he introduced to existing Chinese firearms. Modern historians varyingly proposed gun dart, wooden sabot, touch hole lid, pre-measured gunpowder scoop, and general improvement in metallurgy with streamlined gun barrel design as the invention Li Deng brought to China. However, the use of gun dart and sabot predates Ming conquest of Vietnam. Additionally, while handgonnes with touch hole lids only appeared in China after the conquest, they still predate similarly designed handgonnes from Vietnam. As such, the most likely candidates for Li Deng's invention are metallurgical improvement and streamlining of gun barrel.

Although a devastating weapon for its time, Shen Qiang gradually fell into obsolescence by mid-to-late Ming period as more advanced firearms such as matchlock gun were introduced into Chinese arsenal (although it was never completely phased out). Ming general Qi Ji Guang (戚继光) complained that the wooden dart was expensive and unreliable, and sabot overcomplicates the reloading process, often leading to inexperienced gunners jamming the dart tip-first into the barrel in a panic. Korean experience during the Imjin War also reveals that cannon-launched darts often shatter mid-flight before hitting their intended targets.

Late Ming variant
Drawing of a late Ming Shen Qiang, from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'.
Late Ming variant of Shen Qiang seems to be an attempt to improve the old handgonne in order to keep up with the performance of more advanced firearms such as matchlock arquebus. It replaces the bronze barrel with a wrought iron one, and shoots poisoned lead shrapnel along with (flammable) rosin dust instead of the usual gun dart.

Korean Chongtong (총통 or 銃筒)
Seungja Chongtong
Joseon Dynasty Seungja Chongtong (승자총통 or 勝字銃筒), a handgonne that can shoot either wooden dart or lead shot.
Koreans also inherited dart-shooting firearm from the Chinese and derived many new designs on their own (the first Hwacha, for example, was mounted with dart-shooting cannons instead of rockets). They also retained the use of gun dart for much longer.


  1. The 天字 gun fired the long stick. Trừng made almost 100,000 of them (looking at the serial number). Attached to the long stick (with a sabot at the other end) was an explosive package with fuse. This is stick with the sabot and package is called the Fire Lance. The Fire Lance is a projectile. The 天字 gun usually has a 15 to 17mm bore and weights a couple of kilograms.
    The next gun by Trung was the 奇字 with a 50mm bore, weighing 6-8 kilos. It fired grapeshot attached to the sabot. Of course Trung devised numerous other guns (how about serial numbers -- perhaps that was Yongle's invention to keep track of his Magic guns. Yonge forbid the use of these guns in souther China.
    However, it was probably these guns which killed the Chinese in Vietnam (then Giao Chi) 50,000 killed in an ambush stretching miles in 1426 (by 3000 Vietnamese) and then 90,000 out of 100,000 Chinese in late 1427 forcing the Chinese to allow Giao Chi to become a separate country!

    1. I haven't research into Lam Sơn uprising that much, so while I have some idea on what happened, I don't know about the weapon/troops composition of both forces. Aren't one of the Ming commander killed by a dart or javelin?

    2. I double-checked the biography of Hồ Nguyên Trừng again. It seems that he stayed with the Ming well after Vietnam regained independence, so it was unlikely that he forged the guns for the uprising.

      (And I think Vietnamese gunsmiths could make their own gun without him anyway)

    3. In late 1426, 4000 men or so from the Lam Son group ambushed 100,000 men under Wang Tong (who was wounded). The initial ambush stretched out some distance and attack the front of the marching column and the second ambush was at the back and cut off the supplies, carts, etc --- Lam Son claimed 50,000 killed and 10,000 captured while the Ming records acknowledge 20,000 to 30,000 killed and 10,000 captured. The net result was Wang Tong was immobilized and called for reinforcements. in Oct 1427 100,000 came down from Gwangsi and never made it to Wang Tong and were completely wiped out. The Lam Son ambush positions were marked by flooded plains/rice fields or mountainous terrain. The Ming were unable to counter-attack, etc. OBVIOUSLY, the Lam Son guns, cross bows were reaching across the mud but face to face combat was out of the question. Although Hồ Nguyên Trừng remained in Beijing, his research and further development obviously was used by the Lam Son group. The intellectual leader of the Lam Son Group was a fellow mandarin (Nguyen Trai) with Trừng beginning in 1400 and is suspected of being in China until circa 1422-3 when he joined the Lam Son group, changed their tactics, strategy and plotted out how to win against the Ming. Xuan De's thoughts on how to get out of Giao-chi were reflected in Lam Son's request to the Ming Emperor on ending the troubles by allowing "Annan (or An Nam in Vietnamese)" to again become a vassal kingdom sending tribute to the Ming Emperor. Since some of the talented Vietnamese became eunuchs working directly with the Ming Emperor, we can surmise they were aware of conversations by the Ming Emperor and could relay the text of those conversations outside the Forbidden City.
      The thing to remember is that the TRUNG guns were not allowed out of northern China before 1424. The small gun fired the Fire Arrow (with an explosive package attached) and a sabot was attached to the arrow. The bigger gun used two sabots -- the first between the powder and the multiple missiles (grape shot) known as 木马子 (or Mộc Mã Tử in VN) and the second was placed atop the missiles (so they didn't spill out) and was known as 木送子 (Mộc Tống Tử ). FYI: the double wads are still used today on smooth-bore muzzle-loading guns but no longer are made of wood. The Koreans used the double wad/wedge/sabot for their guns used against the Japanese boats -- think about it. Grape shot fired from the second deck of a turtle ship down onto the single deck of a Japanese boat -- great advantage and foresee by Trung who also emphasized the Dai Viet (or Dai Ngu) war boats should have a second deck and his guns should go on that deck.

    4. Ahhh, it all makes sense now. So 木馬子 and 木送子 are two different things, I always thought of them as the same thing!

  2. In World War I the British copied the Fire Arrow with the Mills Bomb N°23 fired from an infantryman's rifle by using a blank round. It was basically a grenade attached to a stick placed inside the barrel of the rifle.

  3. How does the touch hole cover work? Is it like a button?

    1. It is a literal cover - it blocks the touch hole from unwanted exposure when closed. You open it manually.

  4. While Rocket Hwacha is definitely more famous, Gun Hwacha (initially with gonne, later with musket barrels) was more widely used since it consumed less gunpowder than the Singijeon rockets.


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