The fire lance (simplified Chinese: 火枪; traditional Chinese: 火槍; pinyin: huǒ qiāng) was a very early gunpowder weapon that appeared in 10th-century China during the Jin-Song Wars. It began as a small pyrotechnic device attached to a spear-like weapon, used to gain a critical shock advantage right at the start of a melee. As gunpowder improved, the explosive discharge was increased, and debris or pellets added, giving it some of the effects of a combination modern flamethrower and shotgun, but with a very short range (3 meters or less), and only one shot (some were designed for two shots). In later larger and more powerful fire lances, the lance-point was discarded, as these versions were too unwieldy to be used in melee. These are considered to be a proto-gun, the predecessor of the hand cannon, and the ancestor of all firearms. Some fire lances were too large for a single man to wield. These were placed upon the ground in a supporting framework, and can be considered proto-cannons.
The first fire lances consisted of a tube, usually bamboo, containing gunpowder and a slow match, strapped to a spear or other polearm weapon. Once ignited, the gunpowder tube would ideally eject a stream of flames in the direction of the spearhead. Co-viative projectiles such as iron pellets or pottery shards were later added to the gunpowder. Upon firing, the gunpowder charge ejected the projectiles along with the flame.
Metal fire lance barrels appeared around the mid-13th century and these began to be used independently of the lance itself. The independent metal barrel was known as an 'eruptor' and became the forerunner of the hand cannon.
The first evidence of fire lances appeared in China in the year 950 and fire lances were also mentioned in the military text Wujing Zongyao of 1044. However usage of fire lances in warfare was not mentioned until 1132 when Song garrisons used them during the Siege of De'an, in modern-day Anlu, Hubei, when fire lance troops led the vanguard in a sortie against the Jin dynasty (1115–1234).
In the late 1100s pieces of shrapnel such as porcelain shards and small iron pellets were added to the gunpowder tube. At some point fire lances discarded the spearhead altogether and relied solely on their firepower.
By 1232 the Jin were also using fire lances, but with improved reusable barrels consisting of durable paper material. According to the History of Jin, these fire lances had a range of roughly three meters:
To make the lance, use chi-huang paper, sixteen layers of it for the tube, and make it a bit longer than two feet. Stuff it with willow charcoal, iron fragments, magnet ends, sulfur, white arsenic [probably an error that should mean saltpeter], and other ingredients, and put a fuse to the end. Each troop has hanging on him a little iron pot to keep fire [probably hot coals], and when it's time to do battle, the flames shoot out the front of the lance more than ten feet, and when the gunpowder is depleted, the tube isn't destroyed.
The Mongol soldiers which they were used against were apparently disdainful of other Jin weapons, but greatly feared the fire lance. Jin soldiers also used them in open combat and in one instance, a contingent of 450 fire lancers routed an entire Mongol encampment.
The metal-barreled fire lance began to be used independently of the lance around the mid to late 13th century. These proto-cannons which fired co-viative projectiles, known as 'eruptors,' were the forerunners of the hand cannon.
By 1280 the Middle East had acquired fire lances.
The last recorded usage of fire lances in Europe occurred during the Storming of Bristol in 1643.
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