The Zhuge Nu
17th July 2005

The Zhuge Nu, named after the military genius Zhuge Liang, the Shu (Han) Prime Minister of the Three Kingdoms period, was strictly speaking not a siege weapon. However, its widespread use as a handheld defensive weapon in the defense of fortifications made this a vital weapon during a siege.

The Zhuge Nu suffered from a lack of accuracy. Fired from the hip, the bolts were fired in sequence from pumping the corking lever forward and backward, arming and releasing in a continuous cyclic process until the magazine was emptied. This rocking action did not allow for precision firing, nor did the inability to sight along the barrel as in a crossbow or a modern gun.

The short effective range of the Zhuge Nu also made it useless except for close-quartered fighting. This was where the Zhuge Nu excelled and proved its worth. The short maximum range of approximately 80 meters and effective killing range of only 10-20 meters in comparison to regular contemporary Chinese crossbows, was offset by the rapid rate of fire achievable. Used for concentrated fire, the deployment of the Zhuge Nu was limited in the field, possibly to provide covering fire for an infantry charge or a retreat, or conceivably for the close range fighting required when performing what modern armies now call a "reconnaissance-in-force", to keep the heads of your enemy down in an event of a firefight.

However, what the Zhuge Nu lacked in the field, it made up for in a defensive environment. Zhuge Nus used a magazine of between 7-10 metal tipped bolts which could be emptied within 15-20 seconds. This rapid discharge of large quantities of bolts was ideal when used as a defensive weapon as small teams of Zhuge Nu armed soldiers could fill the air in front of a door or window or on top of fortress battlements with lethal bolts when attacked.

The bolts used were also often dipped in a fast acting poison to increase its effectiveness, compensating for the relatively low penetration power. In this way, even a simple scratch by a Zhuge Nu bolt could prove lethal.

Scaled Model: Left to Right - Barrel, Trigger, Corking, Magazine of the Zhuge Nu

The Chinese crossbow, first invented during the Spring and Autumn period according to the Wu-Yue Chunqiu (history of the Wu-Yue War) written in the Eastern Han, was credited to an invention by a Mr. Qin from the State of Chu. A double bolt repeating crossbow was also believed to have been invented in the State of Chu. Remains of some of these intriguing devices have been excavated from Chu tombs of the Spring and Autumn / Warring States period. This dual-barrel repeating crossbow was probably the forerunner of the Zhuge Nu.

Picture of a Well Preserved Spring and Autumn / Warring States Period Repeating Crossbow Excavated from a Chu Tomb

Along with the mention of the use of normal crossbows, the multiple-bolt crossbow and the repeating crossbow had cropped up often, mentioned in various forms throughout Chinese military writings and records. Obscurity brought about by different terminology usage and constantly evolving form of the multibolt and/or repeating crossbow over the 2 millennia of Chinese history since the Warring States period, make interpreting and defining the lineage of the Zhuge Nu somewhat difficult.

Pictures of Parts of a Naval Battle Scroll from the Imjin War

A naval version of the Zhuge Nu appeared during the Ming dynasty about the time of the Imjin war (A.D. 1593-1598). A Korean battle scroll depicting the battle prominently featured them used against Japanese ships, side by side with early gunpowder weapons. The ability to saturate the field of fire with bolts must have made the Zhuge Nu the perfect weapon when either boarding or repelling boarders in close ship to ship fighting. One possible scenario of the use of Zhuge Nus in close quarter ship-to-ship fighting might have gone somewhat like this:

"As grappling hooks launch across the gulf to latch onto the enemy ship, the initial assault is made with a dozen naval Zhuge Nus fired from the attacking ship to quickly clear the near deck of defenders. Long gangplanks are then launched to close the distance as teams of men pull the ships together with the ropes that now held the two ships fast. Throwing large eggshells of egg white and tung oil to retard defenders with a slippery deck, a primary team of assault marines, one for each gangplank would then race across under cover of the final volley of Zhuge Nu bolts to create the first beachheads on the enemy deck. Armed with 2m long daos they would then sweep a lethal arc in front of them as their comrades following closely behind, surging across with short swords to exploit the breach."

One could well imagine a similar use of the Zhuge Nu in the defense of battlements. As attackers surged up a cloud ladder to clamber over the wall or through a gap in the fortifications, soldiers armed with the rapid fire Zhuge Nu could easily lay down a lethal arc of defensive fire, and hence effect a complete closure of the breach.

Illustration of the Zhuge Nu from "The Crossbow", Ralph Payne-Gallwey, 1903 Longman's, Green & Co. London

We can only conclude that the form of the Zhuge Nu stabilized into its final version somewhat during the late Song to early Ming period. The persistence of the use of Zhuge Nus was seen when during the Boxer Rebellion of A.D. 1900, an uprising in China against both the weakened ruling Manchu Qing dynasty and against the foreign powers occupying and carving spheres of influence within Chinese territory, Zhuge Nus were carried into battle and pitted directly against the modern guns of the Qing and Western armies sent to quell the rebellion. However, outclassed and outmatched, it very quickly became obvious that the heyday of the Zhuge Nu had passed by then, no longer able to compete with the range, power and accuracy of modern rifles and the precursor of the modern machine-gun, the gattling gun.

Illustration of Zhugenu Armed Guards Defending the Inner Keep of a Tang Nobleman's Home

Working copies of the Zhuge Nu were still in use as late as the mid 20th century A.D., as home anti-burglar weapons. Its ease of use also meant that anyone could use the weapon, including housewives and even children, making this unique weapon the longest continuously used mechanical device in the world!

| Recreating the Zhuge Nu |


Copyright 2005 Leong Kit Meng
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