Gunpowder weapons in the Ming dynasty

The Ming dynasty continued to improve on gunpowder weapons from the Yuan and Song dynasties. During the early Ming period larger and more cannons were used in warfare. In the early 16th century Portuguese breech-loading swivel guns and matchlock firearms were incorporated into the Ming arsenal. In the 17th century Dutch culverin were incorporated as well and became known as hongyipao.[1][2] At the very end of the Ming dynasty, around 1642, Chinese combined European cannon designs with indigenous casting methods to create composite metal cannons that exemplified the best attributes of both iron and bronze cannons.[1][3][4] While firearms never completely displaced the bow and arrow, by the end of the 16th century more firearms than bows were being ordered for production by the government, and no crossbows were mentioned at all.[5][6]

Early Ming period

Number of gunners

The Ming dynasty founder Zhu Yuanzhang, who declared his reign to be the era of Hongwu, or "Great Martiality," made prolific use of gunpowder weapons for his time. Early Ming military codes stipulated that ideally 10 percent of all soldiers should be gunners. By 1380, twelve years after the Ming dynasty's founding, the Ming army boasted around 130,000 gunners out of its 1.3 to 1.8 million strong army. Under Zhu Yuanzhang's successors, the percentage of gunners climbed higher and by the 1440s it reached 20 percent. In 1466 the ideal composition was 30 percent.[7]


Gunpowder corning had also been developed by 1370 to increase the explosive power of land mines.[8] It's argued that corned gunpowder may have been used for guns as well according to one record of a fire-tube shooting a projectile 457 meters, which was probably only possible at the time with the usage of corned powder.[9] Around the same time Ming guns transitioned from stone shots to iron ammunition, which has greater density than stone.[10] They also made use of shells since at least 1412.[11]


The Hongwu Emperor created a Bureau of Armaments (軍器局) which was tasked with producing every three years 3,000 handheld bronze guns, 3,000 signal cannons, and ammunition as well as accoutrements such as ramrods. His Armory Bureau (兵仗局) was responsible for producing types of guns known as "great generals," "secondary generals," "tertiary generals," and "gate-seizing generals." Other firearms such as "miraculous [fire] lances," "miraculous guns," and "horse-beheading guns" were also produced. It is unclear what proportion or how many of each type were actually manufactured.[12]

Most early Ming guns weighed only two to three kilograms while guns considered "large" at the time weighed around only 75 kilograms. During Siege of Suzhou in 1366 the Ming army fielded "large" cannons weighing up to 80 kilograms, which were about a meter in length, and had a muzzle diameter of about 21 centimeters.[13] A gun known as the "Great Bowl-Mouth Tube" (大碗口筒) dated to 1372 weighs only 15.75 kilograms and was 36.5 centimeters long, its muzzle 11 centimeters in diameter. Other excavated guns of this type range from 8.35 to 26.5 kilograms. They were usually mounted on ships or gates as defensive weapons. Accuracy was low and they were limited to a range of only 50 paces or so.[14]

In China cannons had played a significant role in siege battles since the mid 14th century. For example in 1358 during the Siege of Shaoxing the Ming army attacked the city and the defenders "used ... fire tubes to attack the enemy's advance guard".[13] The siege was won by the defenders, whose "fire tubes went off all at once, and the [attacker's] great army could not stand against them and had to withdraw."[15] In 1363 Chen Youliang failed to take Nanchang due to the defenders' use of cannons and was forced to set up a blockade in an attempt to starve them out.[16] Cannons were also used on the frontier as garrison artillery from 1412 onwards.[17]

Cannons were less useful for the besieging army. In the Siege of Suzhou of 1366, the Ming army fielded 2,400 large and small cannons in addition to 480 trebuchets, but neither were able to breach the city walls despite "the noise of the guns and the paos went day and night and didn't stop."[18] Chinese city walls tend to be much thicker than other parts of the world, and Suzhou was no different. Contemporary documents show that the wall had a width of 11 meters at the base, a height of 7 meters, and a length of 17 kilometers all around.[13] The city defenses were eventually overcome through a breach in the gates made by traditional manual mining and battering. This was only possible because the defenders were already starving by mid-autumn of 1367 and unable to put up a proper resistance, succumbing to the onslaught of a frontal assault.[19]

In 1388 cannons were used against war elephants successfully during the Ming–Mong Mao War and again in 1421 during the Lam Sơn uprising.[20][21] In 1414 the Ming army clashed with an Oirat force near the Tula River and frightened them so much with their guns that the Oirats fled without their spare horses, only to be ambushed by concealed Chinese guns. According to a Chinese observer the Oirats avoided battle several days later, "fearing that the guns had arrived again."[22]

Cannons were less decisive in naval battles. In the Battle of Lake Poyang on 29 August 1363 Zhu Yuanzhang's fleet arrived armed with "fire bombs, fire guns, fire arrows, fire seeds [probably grenades], large and small fire lances, large and small 'commander' fire-tubes, large and small iron bombs, rockets."[23] His fleet engaged Chen's under orders to "get close to the enemy's ships and first set off gunpowder weapons (發火器), then bows and crossbows, and finally attack their ships with short range weapons."[24] However it was fire bombs hurled using ship mounted trebuchets that succeeded in "burning twenty or more enemy vessels and killing or drowning many enemy troops."[25] Zhu eventually came out victorious by ramming and burning the enemy fleet with fire ships. While guns were used during the battle, ultimately they were not pivotal to success, and the battle was won using incendiary weapons.[26]

Early Ming cannons coalesced into a few typical designs. There was the crouching tiger cannon, a small cannon fitted with a metal collar and two legs for support.[17] There was a middling cannon known as the "awe-inspiring long range cannon" which added a sight and weighed around 85 kilograms.[27] Larger cannons such as the great general and great divine cannons were also developed and at least 300 of them were being made in 1465.[17] The muzzle loading wrought iron "great general cannon" (大將軍炮) weighed up to 360 kilograms and could fire a 4.8 kilogram lead ball. Its heavier variant, the "great divine cannon" (大神銃), could weigh up to 600 kilograms and was capable of firing several iron balls and upward of a hundred iron shots at once. These were the last indigenous Chinese cannon designs prior to the incorporation of European models in the 16th century.[28]

Chinese wall theory

While China was the birthplace of gunpowder the guns there remained relatively small and light, weighing less than 80 kilograms or less for the large ones, and only a couple kilograms at most for the small ones during the early Ming era. Guns themselves had proliferated throughout China and become a common sight during sieges, so the question has arisen then why large guns were not first developed in China. According to Tonio Andrade, this was not a matter of metallurgy, which was sophisticated in China, and the Ming dynasty did construct large guns in the 1370s, but never followed up afterwards. Nor was it the lack of warfare, which other historians have suggested to be the case, but does not stand up to scrutiny as walls were a constant factor of war which stood in the way of many Chinese armies since time immemorial into the twentieth century. The answer Andrade provides is simply that Chinese walls were much less vulnerable to bombardment.[29] Andrade argues that traditional Chinese walls were built differently from medieval European walls in ways which made them more resistant to cannon fire.

Chinese walls were bigger than medieval European walls. In the mid-twentieth century a European expert in fortification commented on their immensity: "in China … the principal towns are surrounded to the present day by walls so substantial, lofty, and formidable that the medieval fortifications of Europe are puny in comparison."[29] Chinese walls were thick. Ming prefectural and provincial capital walls were ten to twenty meters thick at the base and five to ten meters at the top.

In Europe the height of wall construction was reached under the Roman Empire, whose walls often reached ten meters in height, the same as many Chinese city walls, but were only 1.5 to 2.5 meters thick. Rome's Servian Walls reached 3.6 and 4 meters in thickness and 6 to 10 meters in height. Other fortifications also reached these specifications across the empire, but all these paled in comparison to contemporary Chinese walls, which could reach a thickness of 20 meters at the base in extreme cases. Even the walls of Constantinople which have been described as "the most famous and complicated system of defence in the civilized world,"[30] could not match up to a major Chinese city wall.[31] Had both the outer and inner walls of Constantinople been combined, they would have only reached roughly a bit more than a third the width of a major wall in China.[31] According to Philo the width of a wall had to be 4.5 meters thick to be able to withstand artillery.[32] European walls of the 1200s and 1300s could reach the Roman equivalents but rarely exceeded them in length, width, and height, remaining around two meters thick. It is apt to note that when referring to a very thick wall in medieval Europe, what is usually meant is a wall of 2.5 meters in width, which would have been considered thin in a Chinese context.[33] There are some exceptions such as the Hillfort of Otzenhausen, a Celtic ringfort with a thickness of forty meters in some parts, but Celtic fort-building practices died out in the early medieval period.[34] Andrade goes on to note that the walls of the marketplace of Chang'an were thicker than the walls of major European capitals.[33]

Aside from their immense size, Chinese walls were also structurally different from the ones built in medieval Europe. Whereas European walls were mostly constructed of stone interspersed with gravel or rubble filling and bonded by limestone mortar, Chinese walls had tamped earthen cores which absorbed the energy of artillery shots.[35] Walls were constructed using wooden frameworks which were filled with layers of earth tamped down to a highly compact state, and once that was completed the frameworks were removed for use in the next wall section. Starting from the Song dynasty these walls were improved with an outer layer of bricks or stone to prevent corrosion, and during the Ming, earthworks were interspersed with stone and rubble.[35] Most Chinese walls were also sloped rather than vertical to better deflect projectile energy.[36]

The Chinese Wall Theory essentially rests on a cost benefit hypothesis, where the Ming recognized the highly resistant nature of their walls to structural damage, and could not imagine any affordable development of the guns available to them at the time to be capable of breaching said walls. Even as late as the 1490s a Florentine diplomat considered the French claim that "their artillery is capable of creating a breach in a wall of eight feet in thickness"[37] to be ridiculous and the French "braggarts by nature."[37] In fact twentieth century explosive shells had some difficulty creating a breach in tamped earthen walls.[38]

We fought our way to Nanking and joined in the attack on the enemy capital in December. It was our unit which stormed the Chunghua Gate. We attacked continuously for about a week, battering the brick and earth walls with artillery, but they never collapsed. The night of December 11, men in my unit breached the wall. The morning came with most of our unit still behind us, but we were beyond the wall. Behind the gate great heaps of sandbags were piled up. We 'cleared them away, removed the lock, and opened the gates, with a great creaking noise. We'd done it! We'd opened the fortress! All the enemy ran away, so we didn't take any fire. The residents too were gone. When we passed beyond the fortress wall we thought we had occupied this city.[39]

Nohara Teishin

Andrade goes on to question whether or not Europeans would have developed large artillery pieces in the first place had they faced the more formidable Chinese style walls, coming to the conclusion that such exorbitant investments in weapons unable to serve their primary purpose would not have been ideal.[40]

Middle Ming period


The middle Ming period saw the arrival of European guns in China. As early as 1518 Portuguese breech-loading swivel gun known as folangji could be purchased in the Ming dynasty.[41] In 1523 a test batch of 32 were produced for the court and in 1528 4,000 were produced for border fortifications.[42]

Fa Gong

The Fa Gong was a super heavy artillery piece that entered the Ming arsenal in the mid 16th century. Probably derived from falconets of European design, the Fa Gong was a bronze muzzle loading cannon that could weigh from 630 to 3,000 kilograms. The largest ones however were only used for coastal defense.[43] Both the Jixiao xinshu and Chouhai tubian record the Fa Gong as a cannon that ships should carry, with the caveat that improper use risked damage to one's own ship. However, accompanying illustrations typically depict soldiers with hand-held weapons only; the illustrations show no cannon onboard ships.[44]


Arquebuses may have been introduced to China in 1523,[45] and by 1548, arquebuses were being used in small numbers by Ming forces. They were primarily used against wokou pirates and their success led to the manufacture of more matchlocks. Thousands of matchlock firearms were being ordered for production a few years later. For example, in 1558, the Central Military Weapon Bureau gave an order for the production of 10,000 matchlocks.[46]

In 1560, Qi Jiguang, who was originally ambivalent towards matchlocks but turned to it after suffering defeats at the hands of the wokou, described the matchlock in the following fashion:

It is unlike any other of the many types of fire weapons. In strength it can pierce armor. In accuracy it can strike the center of targets, even to the point of hitting the eye of a coin [i.e., shooting right through a coin], and not just for exceptional shooters.… The arquebus [鳥銃] is such a powerful weapon and is so accurate that even bow and arrow cannot match it, and … nothing is so strong as to be able to defend against it.[47]

Jixiao Xinshu

In Zhao Shizhen's book of 1598 AD, the Shenqipu, there were illustrations of Ottoman Turkish musketmen with detailed illustrations of their muskets, alongside European musketeers with detailed illustrations of their muskets.[48] There was also illustration and description of how the Chinese had adopted the Ottoman kneeling position in firing while using European-made muskets,[49] though Zhao Shizhen described the Turkish muskets as being superior to the European muskets.[50] The Wubei Zhi (1621) later described Turkish muskets that used a rack-and-pinion mechanism, which was not known to have been used in any European or Chinese firearms at the time.[51]

Volley fire

Qi Jiguang applied the concept of volley fire to matchlock firearms and deployed teams of 10 musketeers. The optimal musketry formation that Qi proposed was a 12 man musket team similar to the melee mandarin duck formation. However, instead of fighting in a hand to hand formation, they operated on the principle of volley fire, which Qi pioneered prior to the publication of the first edition of the Jixiao Xinshu.[47] The teams could be arranged in a single line, two layers deep with five musketeers each, or five layers deep with two muskets per layer. Once the enemy was within range, each layer would fire in succession, and afterwards a unit armed with traditional close combat weapons would move forward ahead of the musketeers. The troops would then enter into melee combat with the enemy together. Alternatively, the musketeers could be placed behind wooden stockades or other fortifications, firing and reloading continuously by turns.[52]

In 1571 Qi prescribed an ideal infantry regiment of 1,080 musketeers out of 2,700 men, or 40 percent of the infantry force. However it is not known how well this was actually implemented, and there is evidence that Qi was met with stiff resistance to the incorporation of newer gunpowder weapons in northern China while he was stationed there.[53] He writes that "in the north soldiers are stupid and impatient, to the point that they cannot see the strength of the musket, and they insist on holding tight to their fast lances (a type of fire lance), and although when comparing and vying on the practice field the musket can hit the bullseye ten times better than the fast-lance and five times better than the bow and arrow, they refuse to be convinced."[53]

The musket was originally considered a powerful weapon, and in attacking the enemy is one that has been much relied upon. But how is it that so many officers and soldiers don't think it can be relied upon heavily? The answer lies in the fact that in drills and on the battlefield, when all the men fire at once, the smoke and fire settle over the field like miasmal clouds, and not a single eye can see, and not a single hand can signal. Not all [soldiers] hold their guns level, or they don't hold them to the side of their cheek, or they don't use the sights, or they let their hands droop and support it to hold it up, and one hand holds the gun and one hand uses the fuse to touch off the fire, thus failing to use the matchlock grip— what of them? It's just a case of being out of practice and uncourageous, hurrying but not being able to take out the fire fuse and place it in the matchlock grip, trying for speed and convenience. In this way, there is absolutely no way to be accurate, and so how could one value muskets? Especially given that the name of the weapon is "bird-gun," which comes from the way that it can hit a flying bird, hitting accurately many times. But in this way, fighting forth, the power doesn't go the way one intends, and one doesn't know which way it goes— so how can one hit the enemy, to say nothing of being able to hit a bird?[54]

Late Ming period

Some early Ming cannon designs continued to see service well into the late Ming era. For example the crouching tiger cannon was still being used during the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592–98).[17]

Lord Ye's divine gun

In the latter half of the 16th century Ye Mengxiong developed a breech loading cannon with a range of 800 paces known as "Lord Ye's divine gun". This new variant lengthened the chamber to around two meters and weighed around 150 kilograms.[17][55]

In 1592 it made up a part of the Ming artillery train during a campaign against a Mongol rebellion in Ningxia.[17]

Breech loading matchlock

Zhao Shizhen developed breech loading matchlocks in the late 16th century. These used pre-loaded tube shaped chambers that could be loaded into the breech of the gun barrel. Gas leaking limited the effectiveness of these weapons and could even pose a danger to the user due to the close proximity of the matchlock mechanism. To prevent gas leaks Zhao designed interchangeable gun barrels, but these were very long and unwieldy.[56]

Rain cover

Zhao Shizhen also developed a rain cover for the matchlock. The bronze rain cover was connected to a weighted pendulum that always pointed downwards even if the gun's orientation changed. This addition was cost prohibitive and could not be produced in large amounts.[57]


In the early 17th century He Rubin added a plug bayonet to the breech loading matchlock.[58]


Chinese began producing hongyipao, "red barbarian cannons", in 1620. These were European style muzzleloading culverins.[59] The hongyipao played a pivotal role in the Ming defense against the Jurchens at the Battle of Ningyuan, but the technological advantage didn't last long. Kong Youde defected to the Later Jin (1616–1636) in 1631, taking with him knowledge of the hongyipao.[1]


Around 1635 the Chinese acquired flintlock firearms or at least had some detailed knowledge of their existence. The new mechanism doesn't catch on however and the Chinese never incorporated it into their arsenal.[60]

Composite metal cannons

Chinese gunsmiths continued to modify "red barbarian" cannons after they entered the Ming arsenal, and eventually improved upon them by applying native casting techniques to their design. In 1642 Ming foundries merged their own casting technology with European cannon designs to create a distinctive cannon known as the "Dingliao grand general." Through combining the advanced cast-iron technique of southern China and the iron-bronze composite barrels invented in northern China, the Dingliao grand general cannons exemplified the best of both iron and bronze cannon designs. Unlike traditional iron and bronze cannons, the Dingliao grand general'rs inner barrel was made of iron, while the exterior of brass.[1][4] Scholar Huang Yi-long describes the process:

They ingeniously took advantage of the fact that the melting temperature of copper (which is around 1000C) was lower than the casting temperature of iron (1150 to 1200C), so that just a bit after the iron core had cooled, they could then, using a clay or wax casting mold, add molten bronze to the iron core. In this way, the shrinkage that attended the cooling of the external brass would [reinforce the iron, which would] enable the tube to be able to resist intense firing pressure.[1]

The resulting bronze-iron composite cannons were superior to iron or bronze cannons in many respects. They were lighter, stronger, longer lasting, and able to withstand more intensive explosive pressure. Chinese artisans also experimented with other variants such as cannons featuring wrought iron cores with cast iron exteriors. While inferior to their bronze-iron counterparts, these were considerably cheaper and more durable than standard iron cannons. Both types met with success and were considered "among the best in the world"[61] during the 17th century.

Soon after the Ming started producing the composite metal Dingliao grand generals in 1642, Beijing was captured by the Manchu Qing dynasty and along with it all of northern China. The Manchu elite did not concern themselves directly with guns and their production, preferring instead to delegate the task to Chinese craftsmen, who produced for the Qing a similar composite metal cannon known as the "Shenwei grand general." However, after the Qing gained hegemony over East Asia in the mid-1700s, the practice of casting composite metal cannons fell into disuse until the dynasty faced external threats once again in the Opium War of 1840, at which point smoothbore cannons were already starting to become obsolete as a result of rifled barrels.[4]

The concept of composite metal cannons is not exclusive to China. Although the southern Chinese started making cannons with iron cores and bronze outer shells as early as the 1530s, they were followed soon after by the Gujarats, who experimented with it in 1545, the English at least by 1580, and Hollanders in 1629. However the effort required to produce these weapons prevented them from mass production.The Europeans essentially treated them as experimental products, resulting in very few surviving pieces today.[62][63] Of the currently known extant composite metal cannons, there are 2 English, 2 Dutch, 12 Gujarati, and 48 from the Ming-Qing period.[4]

Other gunpowder weapons


The basic rocket weapon, otherwise known as the fire arrow in Chinese, was a tube of gunpowder and a fuse attached to an arrow. Variants of the basic variety included:

  • "Sail-nailing arrow", a naval weapon used to set fire to the sails of enemy ships. It included a poisonous smoke and barbed arrowhead to prevent enemies from putting out the fire.[64]
  • "Flying saber, spear, sword, and swallowtail arrows", which had specialized arrowheads and larger rocket tubes to punch through armour.[65]

Rocket launchers

Rocket launchers included:

  • "Fire basket", a handheld bamboo basket holding 20 fire arrows.[66]
  • "Long serpent enemy breaker", a handheld rocket pod with 32 fire arrows.[67]
  • "Convocation of eagles chasing hare", a double ended handheld rocket pod containing 30 fire arrows on each side for a total of 60 fire arrows.[68]
  • "Nest of bees", a hexagonal, wagon mounted, 32 shot fire arrow launcher.[69]
  • "Charging leopard pack", an octagonal rocket pod carrying 40 fire arrows.[70]
  • "Hundred tiger rush", a box shaped rocket launcher carrying 100 fire arrows.[71]
  • "Divine fire arrow screen", a stationary rocket launcher with a pressure plate trigger. It carries 100 fire arrows.[72]

Rocket carts

  • "Wheelbarrow fire engine", a rocket cart constructed by joining together four 'long serpent' rocket launchers, two square 'hundred tigers' rocket-arrow launchers, two multiple-bullet emitters, and two spears for close quarter combat.
  • "Assault-barrow rocket launcher", multiple assault-barrow rocket-launchers side by side.

No Alternative

A weapon called the "No Alternative" was used during the Battle of Lake Poyang. The No Alternative was "made from a circular reed mat about five inches around and seven feet long that was pasted over with red paper and bound together with silk and hemp— stuffed inside it was gunpowder twisted in with bullets and all kinds of [subsidiary] gunpowder weapons."[23] It was hung from a pole on the foremast, and when an enemy ship came into close range, the fuse was lit, and the weapon would supposedly fall onto the enemy ship, at which point things inside shot out "and burned everything to bits, with no hope of salvation."[23]


  1. Andrade 2016, p. 201.
  2. Andrade 2016, p. 141.
  3. Needham 1986, p. 334.
  4. "The Rise and Fall of Distinctive Composite-Metal Cannons Cast During the Ming-Qing Period". Retrieved 19 December 2016.
  5. Lorge 2005, p. 134.
  6. Swope 2014, p. 49.
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  8. Andrade 2016, p. 110.
  9. Lorge 2008, p. 16.
  10. Andrade 2016, p. 105.
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  15. Andrade 2016, p. 67.
  16. Andrade 2016, p. 59.
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  19. Andrade 2016, p. 70-72.
  20. Andrade 2016, p. 158.
  21. Chase 2003, p. 48-49.
  22. Chase 2003, p. 45.
  23. Andrade 2016, p. 60.
  24. Andrade 2016, p. 61.
  25. Andrade 2016, p. 62.
  26. Andrade 2016, p. 63.
  27. Wei Yuan Pao (威遠砲), retrieved 11 February 2018
  28. Da Jiang Jun Pao (大將軍砲), retrieved 30 October 2016
  29. Andrade 2016, p. 96.
  30. Andrade 2016, p. 92.
  31. Andrade 2016, p. 97.
  32. Purton 2009, p. 363.
  33. Andrade 2016, p. 98.
  34. Andrade 2016, p. 339.
  35. Andrade 2016, p. 99.
  36. Andrade 2016, p. 100.
  37. Andrade 2016, p. 101.
  38. Lorge 2008, p. 43.
  39. Cook 2000, p. 32.
  40. Andrade 103.
  41. Andrade 2016, p. 137.
  42. Andrade 2016, p. 142.
  43. Fa Gong (發熕), retrieved 11 February 2018
  44. Papelitzky 2017, p. 131.
  45. Xiaodong, Yin (2008). "WESTERN CANNONS IN CHINA IN THE 16TH—17TH CENTURIES". Icon. 14: 41–61. JSTOR 23787161.
  46. Andrade 2016, p. 171.
  47. Andrade 2016, p. 172.
  48. Needham 1986, pp. 447-454.
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  51. Needham 1986, p. 446.
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  53. Andrade 2016, p. 178-179.
  54. Andrade 2016, p. 178-9.
  55. Ye Meng Xiong's cannons, retrieved 11 February 2018
  56. Breech-loading arquebuses of the Ming Dynasty, retrieved 11 February 2018
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  59. Andrade 2016, p. 197.
  60. 刘旭 (2004). 中国古代火药火器史 History of gunpowder and firearm in ancient China. 大象出版社. p. 84. ISBN 7534730287.
  61. Andrade 2016, p. 202.
  63. "The Rise and Fall of Distinctive Composite-Metal Cannons Cast During the Ming-Qing Period". Retrieved 21 May 2016.
  64. Rocket weaponry of the Ming Dynasty, retrieved 25 March 2018
  65. Rocket weaponry of the Ming Dynasty, retrieved 25 March 2018
  66. Rocket weaponry of the Ming Dynasty, retrieved 25 March 2018
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