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Gunpowder artillery in the Song dynasty included the 'multiple bullets magazine erupters' ('bai zu lian zhu pao' 百子連珠炮), consisting of a tube of bronze or cast iron that was filled with about 100 lead balls,[1] and the 'flying-cloud thunderclap eruptor' (fei yun pi-li pao 飛雲霹靂炮), an early cast iron proto-cannon. The use of proto-cannon, and other gunpowder weapons, enabled the Song dynasty to ward off its militant enemies—the Liao, Western Xia, and Jin—until its final collapse under the onslaught of the Mongol forces of Kublai Khan in the late 13th century.


An illustration of an "eruptor," a proto-cannon, from the 14th-century Ming dynasty book Huolongjing. The cannon was capable of firing proto-shells, cast-iron bombs filled with gunpowder.[2]

Although the destructive effects of gunpowder were described in the earlier Tang dynasty by a Daoist alchemist, the earliest-known chemical formulas for gunpowder come from the Wujing Zongyao text of 1044, which describes explosive bombs hurled by trebuchets.[3] Development of the gun barrel and the projectile-fire cannon began in 10th century China as 'fire lances' which appeared as early as the year 950.[4] These 'fire-lances' were in widespread use in China by the early 12th century, and commonly featured hollowed bamboo poles as tubes to fire gunpowder with lead pellets, bits of sharp metal and pottery shards.[5] Perishable bamboo was replaced with durable composite paper material, and then with hollow tubes of cast iron, after which the 'fire-spear' ('huo qiang') became known as the 'fire-tube' ('huo tong').[6] These fire tubes were also known as 'eruptors,' which fired co-viative projectiles, unlike true cannons. The 'multiple bullets magazine erupter' ('bai zu lian zhu pao') was a tube of bronze or cast iron that was capable of firing 100 lead balls.[1]

The earliest known depiction of a gun comes from the Dazu Rock Carvings in Sichuan, dated to 1128. It portrays a figure carrying a vase-shaped bombard, firing flames and a cannonball.[7] However, the oldest existent archaeological discovery of a metal barrel handgun is from the Chinese Heilongjiang excavation, dated to 1288.[8] The Chinese also discovered the explosive potential of packing hollowed cannonball shells with gunpowder. Written later by Jiao Yu in his Huolongjing (mid 14th century), this manuscript recorded an earlier Song-era cast iron cannon known as the 'flying-cloud thunderclap eruptor' (fei yun pi-li pao). The manuscript states that:

The shells are made of cast iron, as large as a bowl and shaped like a ball. Inside they contain half a pound of 'magic' gunpowder. They are sent flying towards the enemy camp from an eruptor; and when they get there a sound like a thunder-clap is heard, and flashes of light appear. If ten of these shells are fired successfully into the enemy camp, the whole place will be set ablaze…[9]

As noted before, the change in terminology for these new weapons during the Song period was gradual. Early Song proto-cannons were at first termed the same way as the Chinese trebuchet. The Ming dynasty scholar Mao Yuanyi would explain this use of terminology in his Wubei Zhi, written in 1628:

The Song people used the turntable trebuchet, the single-pole trebuchet and the squatting-tiger trebuchet. They were all called 'fire trebuchets' because they were used to project fire-weapons like the (fire-)ball, (fire-)falcon, and (fire-)lance. They were the ancestors of the cannon.[10]



  1. 1.0 1.1 Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 263-364.
  2. Needham 1986, p. 266
  3. Ebrey, Cambridge Illustrated History of China, 138.
  4. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 224–225.
  5. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 220–221.
  6. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 221.
  7. Gwei-Djen, Lu; Joseph Needham (July 1988). "The Oldest Representation of a Bombard". Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 594–605. Digital object identifier:10.2307/3105275. JSTOR 3105275. 
  8. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 293.
  9. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 264.
  10. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 22.


  • Ebrey, Patricia Buckley (1999). The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43519-6 (hardback); ISBN 0-521-66991-X (paperback).
  • Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilisation in China: Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part 7, Military Technology, the Gunpowder Epic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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