Chinese general Qi Jiguang adopts musketry

A history book I read about a year ago said that Qi Jigaung, a 16th century general famous for defeating the pirate invasion of southern China, had mostly ignored musketry and focused on contact weapons. Since it didn’t seem like there would be any bow/musket comparison I forgot about him until coming across the name again in Tonio Andrade’s The Gunpowder Age. Andrade is kind enough to provide several translated quotations highly relevant to the bow vs. gun debate. There are pages of great material. Andrade has collected many East Asian sources that I had to discover on my own. I wish that I’d bought this book years ago.

[Qi Jiguang] explained that he first understood the power of arquebuses when he lost his first battles against the Japanese pirates. “Having suffered setbacks and been thus forced to consider things, [I] used defeat to strive for victory and replaced [our] bows-and-arrows with the tactic of proficiently firing muskets.” Perhaps he was predisposed to favor guns because his father had been vice commander of the firearms division of the capital army in Beijing. In any case, Qi became a partisan of the the arquebus. “It is,” he wrote, “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 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.” Arquebuses, used in combination with traditional weapons, allowed him to fight successfully against the pirates.

Andrade devotes several pages to the drilling techniques Qi developed for the harquebuze, casting doubt on the idea that he adopted guns because of supposed quick and easy training. Qi’s musketeers were expected to be robotically disciplined, not firing their guns until ordered, following the steps of their drill patterns without any mistakes.

So Qi drilled his troops pragmatically, writing dismissively of training regimes involving lance dances and fancy martial arts moves. The first step was to train recruits in the individual skills of their weapons, and the matchlock arquebus was notoriously tricky. As the great military historian Sir Charles Oman once quipped, “It was said that muskets would be more practical if Nature had endowed mankind with three hands instead of two.” The problem was the fuse. It couldn’t be allowed to go out, and so one had to keep it burning while pouring powder first insto the barrel and then into the flash pan. Careless arquebusiers blew themselves to pieces. European commanders famously divided the task of shooting an arquebus into multiple steps, which authors have considered to be a sign of Europe’s incipient modernity.

Qi, too, divided the process of loading and shooting into discrete steps, painstakingly training his musketeers to load and shoot according to a precise sequence. They practiced together in rhythm to a special musket-loading song:

One, clean the gun.
Two, pour the powder.
Three tamp the powder down.
Four drop the pellet.
Five drive the pellet down.
Six put in the paper (stopper).
Seven drive the paper down.
Eight open the flashpan cover.
Nine pour in the flash powder.
Ten close the flashpan cover,
and clamp the fuse.
Eleven listen for the signal,
then open the flashpan cover.
Aiming at the enemy,
raise your gun and fire.

Something interesting here (to me, at least) is that Qi’s method was to load the main charge first and the priming charge second, while in Europe it was the opposite. Qi’s countermarch technique was also opposite. European musketeers who had just fired would leave the front rank and go to the back. In Qi’s method, the soldiers in the rear rank would come forward and stand in front of the soldiers who had just fired to take their turn.

The harquebusiers were inspected frequently.

Once the equipment passed inspection, the men demonstrated their mastery of the loading sequence, carrying out the procedures as officials sang the song. Then, guns loaded, they advanced to the shooting range and lined up in ranks, a hundred paces from the target. In the Ming period, a pace was about a meter and a half, which would put the target about a hundred fifty meters away.

I hate when historical sources use “paces” as a unit of measure. You never know if it’s meant to mean a pace with one foot or both. Fortunately Andrade clarified the distance.

Incentives and punishments were collective, although individual skill was also rewarded. Qi even included in his manuals sample assessment forms, with blank spaces to be filled in with the names of soldiers and spaces for recording grades. When filling them in, a commander was to consider not just target strikes but also posture and composure. If a gunner flinched while he fired, he got a lower mark, even if he hit the target. Expectations for accuracy seem to have been quite high, and wages depended on performance in trials (and, of course, in combat).

Qi’s experiences demonstrate how important it was that harquebusiers are willing to let themselves be trained. As in other nations, there were those who clung to the old weapons.

His most pessimistic discussions of the musket seem to have referred to his experiences in northern China. Whereas he’d been able to start with a clean slate in the south, raising and training his own forces of peasant mercenaries, in the north he found himself in command of soldiers entrenched in their weapons, such as the fast lance (kuai qiang), a type of gun similar to a fire lance, with a long handle and, in some cases, more than one barrel: “In the north,” he wrote, “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, 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.”

Many people wouldn’t believe that a musket is five times more accurate than a bow and arrow, or that they were effective to the 150m Qi’s harquebuzers practiced at. Andrade speculates that Qi’s troops may have been using rifles. I don’t think so. A muzzleloading rifle must have a patch wrapped around the bullet like a little coat to help it grip the rifling as it is shot out, or else the rifling will provide no benefit. A naked lead ball would be very difficult to size against a rifle barrel. Barrels are often not of perfectly uniform size all the way down, and barrels expand and contract based on temperature. Fouling would make the bullet too hard to ram down after the first or second shot. Using a slightly undersized ball wrapped in a patch was the only satisfactory way to get the rifle to impart spin on the bullet until the invention of the miniè ball. No patch is mentioned in the loading song. The loading song specifically has the bullet rammed down first, followed by paper wadding. Paper wadding would not be necessary to secure the ball if it was already secured by a patch.

Qi’s musketeers were to carry their powder and shot in “thirty [bamboo] tubes, and put them in the leather sack, and hang it on the waist.” Descriptions from the Opium War indicate that Chinese musketeers were carrying their powder in a similar fashion about 250 years later. The problem with carrying powder in this manner was that it could spill out onto the musketeer’s clothes and get ignited by the matchcord.