The Earliest Gunpowder Weapons in History

  • The second in Environmental Graffiti’s two-part series about the origins of firepower

    China (Dunhuang) / Earliest Firelance, 10th century
    Digital Scan / Historic Painting

    The earliest gunpowder weapons can be credited to China in the 10th century. Not guns, but fire arrows, gunpowder rockets, Greek Fire, bombs, mines and grenades had raised the bar on lethality on the battlefield. Let’s take a journey back in time and raise our eyes to the skies, where the incendiary weapons of the Chinese ancients could be seen, blazing a trail in military history.

  • Byzantium Greek Fire / 12th century
    Skylitzes Ms / Madrid

    1. Greek Fire

    The earliest gunpowder weapons in history were invented in China and they are not at all what might be imagined. Do not think muskets or cannons but syringes and flame shooting across the sky – the Chinese invention of the piston syringe dates back to sometime in the Han Dynasty, between 202 BC and 220 AD!

    In his book of 919 AD, Lin Yu recorded that China acquired ‘Greek Fire’ from Arab traders in the Indian Ocean. The launching mechanism for Greek Fire requires precise knowledge about the piston syringe and piston pump. The earliest record of a battle in China using the piston-pump, flame thrower and erupting Greek Fire is between Wenmu Wang and Qian Yuanguan in 932 AD (Five Dynasties / Ten Kingdoms Period).

  • China – 11th century flamethrower (Wujing Zongyao)
    Digital Scan / Historic Print

    Gunpowder was first used in warfare in China in 919 AD as a fuse to light the two-piston flame thrower and thereby ignite Greek Fire. Greek Fire is a Byzantine incendiary compound, whose composition was such a closely guarded state secret that it is still not known today. The specific delivery system was the two-piston flame thrower in which the fuse was impregnated with black powder. Greek Fire was widely deployed in Europe and East Asia and was the ultimate shock-and-awe weapon of its time.

    This illustration appears to be a double-acting pump with two pistons. Such a device delivers ‘Greek Fire’, as a continuous unbroken stream of flame. Notice the tank for the petrol compound (i.e. ‘Greek Fire’)

  • China – Multi-stage Rocket / 14th century

    2. Fire Arrows

    As with ‘fire crackers’, earliest fire arrows and rocket-thrown grenades could not be precisely aimed and were first used as psychological weapons to scare the enemy and cavalry horses with their fire and loud noise. Early fire arrows in China were gunpowder weapons with a lump of paper-wrapped gunpowder sealed with pine resin fitted around the arrow just below the metal arrow head. Triple spring arcuballista were designed that fired arrow bolts holding gunpowder. Fire arrows were presented to Emperor Taizu of the Song Dynasty in 960 AD and 20,000 fire arrows were handed over to the Jurchen when they conquered Kaifeng in 1126 AD.

  • China – Gunpowder Rocket / ‘back-to-back’

    3. Gunpowder Rockets

    In the late 14th century, the rocket-launching tube was combined with the fire lance to produce a new, more powerful weapon that was still small enough to be hand held. Three tubes were attached to the same staff. As the first rocket was fired, a charge was ignited in the leading tube which expelled a blinding powder at the enemy, causing uncontrollable crying. Afterward, the second rocket was fired.

  • China – Multistage Rocket / 14th century (Huolongiing
    Digital Scan / Historic Print

    The Huolongjing or “Fire Dragon Manual” is a 14th-century military treatise that has priceless information about earliest gunpowder types, bombs, mines, fire arrows and rockets in China. The Huolongjing describes fire arrows (impregnated with gunpowder) that were launched from early rockets that used a hollow bamboo or metal tube.

    The Huolongjing also describes two different types of mounted rocket launchers that fired multiple rockets: “There was a cylindrical basket–work rocket launcher called the ‘Mr. Facing–both–ways rocket arrow firing basket’, as well as an oblong–section rectangular box rocket launcher known as the ‘magical rocket–arrow block’.”

  • China – ‘Fire Dragon Out of Water’
    Digital Scan / Historic Print

    Fins were used on advanced rockets to stabilize their flight path, and these rockets could rise hundreds of feet into the air.

  • China – Multistage Rocket
    Digital Scan / Historic Print

    The Huolongjing also described the oldest known multistage rocket – the ‘fire–dragon issuing from the water’ (huo long chu shui) that was used mostly by the Chinese navy.

  • China – Battle with Multistage Rockets
    Digital Scan / Historic Print

    The earliest description of this two-stage rocket with a booster rocket that ignited smaller rockets shot out of its front stems from the Huolongjing and is dated to around 1300-1350 AD.

  • China – Fire Lance with Pellets / 14th century (Huolongiing)
    Digital Scan / Historic Print

    4. Fire Lance

    Fire lances were very important in China and Europe because they were effective. They also mark the beginning of a design path in gunpowder weapon development that lead to guns and cannons. Even though it used a bamboo tube, the earliest fire lance had aspects of a flame thrower. The transition to metal tubing was made in the 12th century.

  • China – Cart Mounted Battery of Fire Lances 1 / 10th century
    Digital Scan / Historic Print

    The earliest depiction of a fire lance in any culture may be that on a Buddhist silk banner found at the Dunhuang excavation dated around 950 AD (see lead image above). Though the image is not detailed and precise interpretation is difficult, it is believed that some of these flame throwers used a low nitrate gunpowder laced with arsenic oxide that would spray a blast of porcelain fragments. Fire rockets continued to be in use through the centuries, for example against the French in the Second Opium War in 1860.

  • China – Rocket Infantry Assault / Ming Dynasty
    Digital Scan / Historic Print

    Fire lances of this design had a gunpowder charge that shot out a blast of flame and lead pellets.

    As was the case in Europe, the first firearms had serious competition as battlefield weapons of choice. The crossbow, for example, has a long and distinguished history in China, dating back to the 5th century BC at least.

  • China – Bronze Crossbow / Warring States or Western Han Dynasty (202 BC – 9AD)

    By the 14th century AD, however, gunpowder weapons had at last achieved parity with the crossbow by virtue of their shorter and less expensive training time and easier mass production. Undoubtedly, war in Asia and Europe would never be the same thanks to these new killing machines, here to stay and ironically derived from the Taoist quest for immortality.


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Scribol Staff
Anthropology and History