1519: A tale of two guns

In 1519, in the far East, the Chinese warlord and Confucian philosopher Wang Yangming (1472-1529) was spending a considerable amount of time dealing with uppity peasants in and around the south-east province of Jiangxi, where he was governor.  This was at the time when the Ming Dynasty was at its height and there were rebellions everywhere, and prior to doing battle with Zhu Chenhao, another rebellious prince, Yang casually mentioned using the fo-lang-ji in battle.  This would be the first known Chinese reference to a breech-loading cannon, as distinct from the muzzle-loading weapon first developed in 12th-century China. The fo-lang-ji was not one cannon but several.  Variants came with exquisite names such as ‘Flying mountain divine cannon’, ‘Flying dragon gun’ and ‘Divine might wind and fire cannon’. Chinese engineers were most likely inspired to build fo-lang-ji based on similar weapons they would have seen during the great Portuguese renaissance in the 15thand 16th centuries during which major trade and diplomatic missions were sent to Ming China.  The name itself– fo-lang-ji – derives from the local term for ‘Franks’ or ‘Westerners’.  The Portuguese culverin, or berço, was probably something similar to the Japanese example at the top of the page from the same era.

Note the rear section into which wasplaced a pre-charged ‘shell’ or sabot complete with shrapnel, solid shot, or a variety of both.  Breech-loaders offer a much faster loadingcycle than traditional muzzle-loading cannon, though it would be another threehundred years and more before the use of such weapons was commonplace in Europe.

We know that Yang Wangming was ultimately successful in his struggle with Zhu Chenhao, but aside from his military exploits he was also a renowned philosopher, said to be one of the four great masters of Confucianism.   He was an advocate of what we today generally term idealism in that it is the mind that shapes the world around us and not the other way around.  To Yang, the mere acquisition of knowledge for its own sake was what he called “vulgar learning”, and that all knowledge should be converted into action at every opportunity.  Clearly, it would seem he applied his knowledge of the fo-lang-ji very quickly, and effectively, indeed.

The other gun-related event of 1519 was the first recorded fatality by use of a firearm in the village of Welton in the East Riding of Yorkshire.   A woman from Hull had walked in front of the gun, not really knowing what it was, just as the owner was taking aim at a target, and she found herself in the wrong place at very much the wrong time.  This was a snippet that went viral around the internet in 2010 because of its novelty, but the backstory is much more interesting.   Henry VIII had banned the personal use of the crossbow and the handgun in an attempt to compel every adult male to use a longbow, though prosecutions for illegal gun ownership were more numerous than for failing to practice archery.  Around the time of the poor woman’s death inWelton, British authorities were lamenting the “wanton pleasure” that men took in playing with crossbows and handguns. And yet at the same time the British government was complaining about gun use, they were stockpiling them in fear of a military advantage being gained by the continental powers.  In fact, by the late 1530s, most of Britian’s military leaders had given up on longbows and gunnery schools were appearing.  The man who shot the unfortunate lady from Hull, a French bookbinder named as Peter Franchman (not Frenchman as reported by the internet) probably only had a gun in the first place because foreigners were forbidden to use a longbow.

From the mid-1540s onwards, guns rapidly replaced the longbow as the weapon of choice, and armies and town militia were increasingly equipped with them,  But as did the official usage of guns advance, so did the reckless use of them amongst civilians, mainly for sport but also for personal defence.  Guns were also relatively cheap, costing around £150 ($190) in today’s money.  By the early 1560s, accidental deaths by firearms had overtaken accidents involving longbows.

Wheel lock pistol

The device used by the careless Mr Franchman was probably either a wheel lock pistol like the example here:

Or a matchlock pistol like the example below.  Both types were developed at the beginning of the 16th century, though for reasons of economy Mr Franchman might have chosen the matchlock for his sport.


Useful sources:

Steven Gunn:  Archery Practice in Early Tudor England (Past & Present, November 2010)




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