The Chinese invented the forerunner to the modern machine gun—a repeating crossbow. If you watch the video, you will see that firing the repeating crossbow takes the pull of one lever. The arrows are in a clip above the firing mechanism.
Then the Chinese invented the stirrup. Prior to that, all of the ancient people on earth rode horses without stirrups and staying on horseback and fighting was difficult without the stirrup.
Thanks to stirrups, the horse became a more stable platform for war. Prior to the stirrup, it was common for a man to ride about seven miles a day. After the stirrup, that distance was extended to as much as 70 miles a day.
The invention of the stirrup along with the repeating crossbow created a powerful weapon. The Chinese could also manufacture items in mass, quickly and efficiently. The Chinese used pottery molds to accomplish this—even to build the advanced trigger mechanism for the crossbow. When it came to cast iron, the Chinese were a thousand years ahead of the rest of the world.
However, by the time of the Sung Dynasty, the world was catching up—meaning China’s enemies were stealing their technology. It’s ironic that today, many in the West accuse the Chinese of stealing innovations. If so, China is only doing what was done to them centuries ago.
The invention of gunpowder did not come from weapons makers but from alchemists. Chinese alchemy has a long tradition that is interwoven with other areas of learning.
There was no clear line between alchemy and politics. In Chinese, the word for politics and finding a cure meant the same thing.
All Chinese alchemists had sulfur, charcoal and saltpeter. They just hadn’t combined them. Since saltpeter is white and many other powders used by China’s alchemist were white, there was a simple test to make sure. If a small amount of the saltpeter were heated in a charcoal fire, there would be a purple flame.
The first account of the discovery of gunpowder comes from about 850 AD. Soon after, they envisioned new kinds of weaponry. By the 11th century AD, there were gunpowder weapons—crude rifles, cannons, etc.
The first gun or “fire lance” was produced in 905 AD. The next innovation was to add bullets to the fire lance.
The first firearm was invented in China about one thousand years ago. It was made of bamboo, fired pebbles and had a range of about thirty yards.
Bamboo is strong, flexible and hollow in the center. It was perfect for the first crude gunpowder weapons. Over time, bamboo was replaced with bronze, and the pebbles became cast-iron chips or pellets. In fact, the first bronze handgun dates to 12th century AD. It was about a foot long and weighed eight pounds.
From these early weapons came cannons. Long before the rest of the world knew anything about heavy artillery, the Chinese were making strong, mobile cannons from bronze. Since the Chinese already had repeating crossbows, the next step was repeating cannons along with exploding artillery shells.
During the Ming Dynasty, in the 14th century, the Great Wall was equipped with more than 3,000 cannons. In Europe, the first cannons were still being developed. The Chinese also invented the hand grenade about a thousand years ago along with grenade launchers—the bow powered grenade.
A computer analysis demonstrated that China’s largest cannons could fire more than a third of a mile. It would take centuries before Europeans could match the weaponry of China.
The Chinese invented rockets long before anyone in the West did. By the 15th century, the Chinese had mass rocket launchers that fired hundreds of rockets in battle. In one battle during the Ming Dynasty, more than one-hundred rocket launchers were used capable of launching 32,000 rockets in an instant.
The Chinese also invented one of the most dangerous weapons on earth—the landmine. The first landmines were invented in 13th century China. The triggering mechanism for these weapons was kept a secret until the 16th century. Then this concept was used to create the first musket.
During world war I, armies used colored flares to send messages. The Chinese invented this signal method in the 13th century.
The most important contribution to warfare took place during in the 6th century BC — The Art of War by Sun Tzu. Today, American generals study this Chinese book for fighting wars.
Some might ask, if the Chinese were so advanced in waging war, why not conquer the world? The answer—they had no desire because they were satisfied with what they had in China.
Ironically, the Mongols (Yuan Dynasty 1277 – 1367) conquered China using the weapons that the Chinese had invented.
Discover more about Chinese inventions at Ancient Chinese Inventions that Changed the World
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.
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This post first appeared as a four part series starting July 31, 2010 as Chinese Crossbow and Other Inventions – Part 1