Handheld Huo Jian Launchers
3rd August 2005
From the humble fire arrow of the late Tang/Song era, and having abandoned the mechanically fired fire arrows of yesteryear, Chinese military Engineers made the transition in rocket development to the gunpowder propelled arrow. These true rockets were naturally strung together to be fired simultaneously. Then the idea to group rockets together to create a denser projectile field of fire was just a simple step away.
First appearing in the early Ming dynasty were simple handheld rocket launchers. These were simple clusters of gunpowder-strapped arrows packed into a launcher for simultaneous ignition. Zhu Di (fourth prince of the first Ming Emperor Taizu) during the Jingnan war of A.D. 1401-1403, led an army against the reigning Emperor Jianwen and was attacked by rocket launcher batteries. This was the earliest recorded use of handheld rocket launchers in battle.
The handheld rocket launcher was a close-range support weapon, suitable for use in a defensive role or as a psychological terror weapon which would not only fill the air quickly with a dense saturation of fire but also set ablaze clothing, wooden structures and buildings. From the Wubei Zhi we find many different illustrations of the rocket launcher, showing great variation in the numbers of rockets fired and in the shapes of the launcher boxes, differing according to different possible fields of fire from the straight narrow focused tubes to the wide angled flared tubes. The launcher tubes were generally made out of three different materials, basket weave, bamboo and wood, and were known by various highly descriptive names.
The basic principle behind all the different variants however, was the same. However they were called, they were all handheld launchers, ignited simultaneously via a single fuse to expel multiple rockets, and aimed by exposing the open end or ends towards the enemy.
Simple yet effective, these were the world's first handheld rocket launchers. Groups of Ming rocket troops would have marched into battle, each soldier holding an individual launcher which could loose anywhere from three to a hundred rockets per launcher depending on the type. This must have been an incredible sight, striking terror into the hearts of their enemies.