Chinese Cannons: Fundamentals
Simply put, a cannon is a hollow tube containing gunpowder and a projectile inside the tube and a hole or fuse where the user can get fire to the gunpowder and set off an explosion. Gases from the lit gunpowder force the projectile through the tube and into the air.
But how did the Ancient Chinese come up with the idea to create cannons? Well, first they developed gunpowder, which when lit, causes an explosion. Searching for a way to make their emperor live forever, Daoist scholars found that a combination of potassium nitrate, sulfur, and charcoal would explode when lit. This is why gunpowder in Chinese means fire medicine or huǒ yào.
First Chinese Cannons
Gunpowder went from its use as a Daoist medicine to a military weapon in the early 900’s during the Tang (618 – 907 CE) dynasty when armies filled hollow bamboo tubes with gunpowder. These first gunpowder-filled tubes were attached to a spear and then thrown at the enemy. This weapon was known as a fire lance.
The soldiers had to be close to the enemy for an accurate hit. The gunpowder would explode, which would result in burns, and other wounds would be suffered from the spear and shards of bamboo from the hollow bamboo tube.
During the Northern Song (960 – 1126 CE), Southern Song (1127 – 1279 CE), and Yuan (1279 – 1368 CE) dynasties, the armies began adding small objects, such as stones, pieces of pottery or metal to the gunpowder-filled fire lance. When the gunpowder was lit, the exploding gas would project the small objects onto the enemy soldiers. No spear was needed as the Ancient Chinese had now invented a gun or a bombard. Crude but effective, these early weapons were the beginning of modern cannons.
Additional early weapons were: gunpowder-filled bombs made from pottery or metal; catapults or trebuchets from which stones were flung or held gunpowder-filled tubes, which when lit exploded projectiles over the enemy; and eruptors holding about one hundred lead balls, which were placed into a chamber on the side of the tube and were moved into the lit gunpowder when the tube was rotated causing the balls to spray out rapidly.
Early Chinese Cannons
Early Chinese cannons were small guns or bombards, which were made from bronze (a mixture of copper, tin, and minerals such as phosphorus and magnesium). These small weapons were about 14 inches (34 centimeters) long, had an inner diameter (muzzle bore) of 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) and weighed about 8 pounds (3.5 kilograms). They were handheld or placed on a wheeled cart.
In the Yuan dynasty, the bombards remained about the same length, but the inner diameter was bigger (approximately 4 inches or 10 centimeters) and the weight was about twice as much (15 pounds or 7 kilograms) as the earlier style bombard. As the bombards became bigger, the term cannon took over.
Early Chinese cannons were vase shaped – rounded bottoms with a long narrow neck, which provided for a thicker wall of iron around the gunpowder in the bottom of the cannon.
After the Ancient Chinese had a better understanding of how to smelt iron in the late Yuan dynasty, the cannon shaped changed to a long tube and sometimes, the iron was shaped into rings or bands around the longer iron tube shape. The iron rings may have been molded onto the cannon tube to support metal spikes that were used to anchor the cannon to the ground during firing of the gunpowder. These early Chinese cannons were over 2 feet (60 centimeters) long and weighed about 48 pounds (about 22 kilograms).
Prior to the 1500’s during the Ming dynasty, Chinese cannons did not have sights. The cannons were aimed at the enemy with the hope that the projectile would hit its target.
Cannon balls were filled with gunpowder so that when they struck an object, the resulting explosion would cause more harm. They were also filled with chemicals that were poisonous (arsenic), created smoke, burns or blindness (ammonia).
Chinese Rapid-Fire Cannons History
The Ancient Chinese developed repeating or rapid-fire cannons. For example, two cannons were placed on a movable table or cart. After the first cannon was fired at the enemy, the table or cart was moved around into position and the second cannon fired.
Other rapid-fire cannon included a seven-barreled cannon attached to a cart, which had a large central cannon surrounded by six smaller cannon and nine cannons stacked on a stand and lit by one fuse, which fired stone cannon balls weighing 26.5 pounds each (12 kilograms).
Chinese Cannons: Military Use and Trade
Although Chinese cannons were placed on ships during the Yuan dynasty, they really took off as a military weapon during the Ming (1368 – 1644 CE) dynasty. Ancient Chinese generals fighting against the Vietnamese in southern China and the Mongols and tribes in northern China, requested cannons to be used.
Additionally, Chinese cannons were sold or given to South Korea and Japan during the Ming dynasty.
*Chinese hand cannon photo taken by Yannick Trottier.