6th October 2005
The earliest known illustration of a Huo Qiang or "Fire lance" is from a 10th century A.D. painted silk banner of demons attacking the meditating Buddha, found in Dunhuang. This beautifully well preserved painting shows very clearly a gunpowder tube attached to the end of a long pole being fired by a demon on the top right-hand side of the Buddha. There has been much speculation as to the exact nature of this weapon especially when considering the supernatural nature of the depiction and therefore possibly a similar supernatural weapon in the demon's hands. The exact shape of the weapon was however, seen in later military illustrations and, while it was possible that this early illustration was merely an inspirational representation of an underworld fire-spewing weapon, the resemblance to actual later Song dynasty fire lances was uncannily close.
The most conclusive description of the use of a fire lance in battle was of its use during the tumultuous years of the northern encroachment of the Song dynasty, during the siege of De An in A.D. 1127-1132. Chen Gui, co-author together with Tang Shou, of the military manual Shoucheng lu or "Defense of Towns", was an active participant and therefore a direct eyewitness of the defense of De An. He aided in the defensive efforts by ordering long poles and the gunpowder from their Huo Pao or "fire" catapults (normal traction catapults firing grenade/bombs) to be strapped together to create 20 firelances. These proto-guns were each handled by 2 men and used to defend city walls, either from on top of the walls or thrust through holes in the walls to fire at Jurchen troops outside.
The early Huo Qiangs were single shot close-ranged weapons, which were mere enhancements of the traditional spear of Chinese armies. Triggered at close range to the enemy, the gunpowder tube would fire different concoctions of projectiles, ranging from arrows and buckshot to poisonous fumes and smoke. The obvious this accorded was soon apparent to military Engineers and it was not long before Huo Qiang were soon appearing independent of the spear.
Like Huo Jians (early fire arrows or gunpowder propelled arrows) which arose at approximately the same time, the Huo Qiang filled a very critical gap in Chinese fire power, providing their infantrymen with a tremendous advantage in defensive as well as offensive roles. Formed into batteries and triggered simultaneously, the resulting intense concentration of firepower afforded by a battery of Huo Qiang would have made it an ideal "anti assault ladder weapon" or "gate-stopper", that would increase by several orders of magnitude the level of difficulty for any attacker attempting to assault a fortified position armed with such weapons.
These two innovative leaps in military technology were however, only the intermediate steps in Chinese weaponry development. Together they formed the nucleus for the development of a whole new direction in weapon research in ancient China, engaging the military minds of the day in new thought pathways that eventually paved the way for three distinct but separate branches of weaponry, viz. the rocket, the gun and the cannon of our modern day arsenal.