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A breech-loading swivel gun, called a "Perrier à boîte" in French, in wrought iron, 1410. Length: 72 cm, caliber: 38 mm, weight: 41.190 kg.

A breech-loading swivel gun was a particular type of swivel gun and a small breech-loading cannon invented in the 14th century. It was equipped with a swivel for easy rotation and was loaded by inserting a mug-shaped device called a chamber, pre-filled with gunpowder and projectiles. It had a high rate of fire, as several chambers could be prepared in advance and quickly fired in succession and was especially effective in anti-personnel roles. It was used for centuries by many countries of Europe, Asia and Africa.


Breech-loading swivel gun with mug-shaped chamber, and wedge to hold it in place.

Although breech-loading is often considered as a modern innovation which facilitated the loading of cannons,[1] breech-loading swivel guns were invented in the 14th century,[2] and used worldwide from the 16th century onward by numerous countries, many of them non-European. They have been called by many names, sometimes "Murderer" in English, "Perrier à boîte" in French, "Berços" in Portuguese, "Versos" in Spanish,[3] "Stangenbüchse" in German, "Folang zhi" ("佛朗机炮/佛朗機砲, Frankish gun") in Chinese, "Furanki" (仏郎機砲, "Frankish gun") or 子砲 ("Child cannon") in Japanese.[4][5] Some of them were used until the 20th century.[5]

Breech-loading swivel guns were developed surprisingly early, and were used from 1370 onward.[2] The guns were loaded with mug-shaped chambers, in which gunpowder and projectile had been filled in advance. The chamber was then put in place, blocked with a wedge, and then fired. As the loading was made in advance and separately, breech-loading swivel guns were quick-firing guns for their time.[6] An early description of a breech-loading swivel gun puts the weight of the gun at 118 kg, equipped with three chambers for rotations, each 18 kg in weight, and firing a 280 g lead shot.[7] The guns had a disadvantage: they leaked and lost power around the chambers, but this was compensated by the high rate of fire as multiple chambers could be prepared in advance.[8] Breech-loading swivel gun could fire either cannonballs against obstacles, or grapeshot against troops.[9]

A Japanese breech-loading swivel gun of the time of the 16th century, obtained by Ōtomo Sōrin. This gun is thought to have been cast in Goa, Portuguese India. Caliber: 95 mm, length: 2880 mm.

During the Middle-Ages, breech-loading swivel guns were developed by the Europeans also partly as a cheaper alternative to the very expensive bronze cast muzzle-loading cannons, as bronze was many times more expensive than iron. As cast iron was not yet technologically feasible for the Europeans, the only possibility was to use wrought iron bars hammered together and held with hoops like barrels. With this method, a one piece design was very difficult, and a fragmental structure, with separated chamber and barrel was then selected.[9][10]

Breech-loading swivel cannon, left by Gustavus Adolphus at Munich, 1632.

Around 1500, Europeans learnt how to cast iron, and shifted their cannon productions to one-piece iron muzzle-loaders. China started to adopt European breech-loading swivel guns from 1500 onward, limiting at the same time the production of their own muzzle-loaders, because of the high effectiveness of the breech-loading swivel gun as an anti-personnel gun, which to them was more interesting than the sheer power of a cannonball.[9]

Usage of the breech-loading swivel gun continued in Europe however, with, as early as the 17th century, characteristics very similar to the modern machine-gun or mitrailleuse.[11]


Bali Museum breech-loading swivel gun.

United States 30mm 1890 steel rifled breech-loading swivel gun, brought from Madagascar to France in 1898. Length 230cm.

Breech-loading swivel guns were used to advantage at the bow and stern on warships, but were also used in fortifications.[6]

In China and Japan, breech-loading swivel guns were brought by the Portuguese in the 16th century. A shipwreck in 1523 apparently brought the gun to China, but the transmission may have occurred earlier.[7] In Japan, Ōtomo Sōrin seems to have been the first recipient of the guns, possibly as early as 1551. In 1561 the Portuguese, allied with Otomo in the Siege of Moji, bombarded rival Japanese position, possibly with swivel guns.[1] In the Battle of Takajō in 1587, Ōtomo Sōrin used two swivel guns obtained from the Portuguese. The guns were nicknamed Kunikuzushi ("Destroyer of Provinces").[7]

In the later portions of the Ming dynasty (mid 16th century onward) it appears that these type of guns were the most common and numerous type of artillery used by the Ming forces. a great deal of variation of such cannons were produced, and it appeared in pretty much all of the conflicts of this time, including the Imjin War. Until the introduction of heavy Dutch cannons in the early 17th century, there were even attempts by the Ming to make large heavy versions of such guns.

Other countries also used swivel guns. In Bali, such a gun was found in the possession of the Raja of Badung, and is now located in the Bali Museum. Numerous such guns were also used in Northern Africa by Algerian rebels in their resistance to French forces.[5]

Breech-loading swivel guns were also used extensively in Southeast Asia as early as the 16th century, apparently even before the arrival of the Portuguese and Spanish there, and continued to be in use as a preferred anti-personnel weapon as late as the 20th century.[12] The Americans fought Moros equipped with breech-loading swivel guns in the Philippines in 1904.[12]

Steel rifled breech-loading swivel guns are known which were manufactured by the United States towards the end of the 19th century, and used in colonial theaters such as in Madagascar.[13]


See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Turnbull, p. 105
  2. 2.0 2.1 Samurai - The World of the Warrior Stephen Turnbull p. 105
  3. Spanish Galleon 1530-1690 by Angus Konstam p.15
  4. Samurai - The World of the Warrior Stephen Turnbull p. 106
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Musée de l'Armée, Paris.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Perrin, p. 29
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Turnbull p. 106
  8. Turnbull p. 105-106
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Firearms: a global history to 1700 by Kenneth Warren Chase p.143
  10. Tudor Warships (1): Henry VIII's Navy Angus Konstam p.34
  12. 12.0 12.1 Southeast Asia: a historical encyclopedia, from Angkor Wat to East ..., Volume 1 by Keat Gin Ooi p.505 [2]
  13. Musée de l'Armée exhibit


  • Perrin, Noel 1979 Giving up the Gun, Japan's reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879 David R. Godine, Boston ISBN 0-87923-773-2

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