Firearms and Artillery in Pre-Colonial Vietnam

By Philip Tom

The adoption and use of gunpowder-actuated weapons by the Vietnamese
reflect the patterns of cultural influences that have shaped their civilization
as a whole. Study of this subject by modern scholars has been hampered
by the relative inaccessibility of source materials, and the loss of many
artifacts during the country’s turbulent history. What little that remains
suggests that the Dai Viet people, like the Japanese, showed considerable
talent for adaptation, but little proclivity for innovation in this field.


Unlike China, where the military use of gunpowder precedes the 11th cent.
AD and where the earliest metal-barreled guns are believed to have originated
in the mid-13th, Vietnam appears not to have acquired such technologies
until the early 15th. The Vietnamese are thought to have ~ their first
cannons circa 1414 from Ming forces stationed in Annam (central Vietnam).
The Chinese had defeated and deposed Vietnam’s Ho Dynasty in 1407, and
established a military occupation of the country which lasted until they
were expelled by the hero Le Loi in 1427. … While in the country, the
Chinese followed the well-known policy of “divide and conquer”, favoring
collaborators while cruelly suppressing the opposition. The introduction
of gunpowder and artillery occurred under this political climate.

The Vietnamese apparently took readily to the new weaponry during the
ensuing centuries. The French explorer J. B. Tavernier noted in the second
half of the 17th cent. that the quality of gunpowder produced in Tonkin
(northern Vietnam) and also in Thailand was excellent. Though “corned”
or granulated gunpowder had been known in Europe and China at an earlier
date, Tavernier noted that the Vietnamese and Thai powders were molded
into little rods. The purpose of "corning” is to increase the consistency
and efficiency of combustion, and thus the power of the explosion. The
more uniform the grains, the better. It is interesting to note that the
rod-like form is one of the predominant types of granulation used in today’s
smokeless powders, loaded into a wide variety of ammunition.

II. CANNON (Sung dai bac)

Very few early pieces of artillery have survived in Vietnam. The author,
on a recent visit, saw nothing dated prior to the latter 17th cent., and
those earliest guns were imports from western Europe. The country’s long
record of warfare, and the lack of sentimental attachment to such artifacts
has probably meant that older cannons were used until they wore out, or
were simply melted down and recycled when improved models were made available.
The earliest surviving reference to the manufacture of artillery describes
a foundry located at the Annamite capital of Hue, circa 1630, run by artisans
under the direction of a Portuguese master named Joao da Cruz. However,
it is clear that native production was not sufficient to satisfy demand,
since other records show considerable purchases of arms and munitions
from Holland, Spain, and Portugal throughout the 17th cent.

Further developments occurred with the foundation of the Nguyen Dynasty,
Vietnam’s last ruling house, in 1802. The first ruler, the Gia Long Emperor
(named Nguyen Anh before his enthronement), came to power after defeating
the so-called Tay Son revolt in the closing years of the 18th cent. During
the long campaign against the Tay Son, Nguyen Anh enlisted the support
of an influential Catholic bishop, Pigneau de Behaine (Ba Da Loc). He
had hoped to use Bishop de Behaine’s good offices to obtain French military
backing, in exchange for certain commercial and territorial concessions
in southern Vietnam. The Bishop sailed to France on this mission, accompanied
by the dauphin Canh, but was not to return until after Nguyen Anh had
effectively defeated the Tay Son in 1789.

The French provided a considerable amount of arms and ammunition. More
important was a group of French technicians whose work revolutionized
Vietnam’s heavy armaments industry. The most influential of these master
artisans were:

  • de Forcant (Le Van Lang)
  • Olivier (Ong Tin)
  • Vannier (Nguyen Van Thanq)
  • Chaigneau (Nguyen Van Chan)

These men brought the latest developments in artillery to the Far East.
During the latter 18th cent, French artillery had gained the reputation
of being the best in Europe. After the waning of Jesuit influence in China,
there was no other instance of sustained production of high-quality, Western-style
armaments on the Pacific Rim until the modernization of Japan in the 187Q’s
Ironically, such acceptance of French material and technical aid allowed
France to put a political foot through a door which Vietnam’s Confucian
ruler preferred to remain closed, a development which was to eventually
cost the nation its independence,

In Vietnam, these improved French designs, often embellished with Eastern
decorative motifs and inscribed in the Chinese-based writing system in
use at the time, completely supplanted the earlier Chinese, Portuguese,
and Dutch models Despite losses due to war and plunder, Vietnam’s museums
are graced with many examples of guns cast during the Gia Long (1802-20)
and Minh Mang (1820-40) reigns. They show that the French were superb
teachers who had first-rate students. The guns are impeccably made and
some of them have an aesthetic quality that surpasses many of their European

A typical example of a field-gun cast during the Gia Long reign, one
of about a dozen identical and serially-numbered examples now preserved
at the History museum in Saigon, is shown in Fig. 1. Made of bronze, it
is designed after French prototypes. The workmanship is first-rate, On
the breech, directly behind the touchhole are three characters “(by) command
(of) Gia Long". To the right of this is the name of this type of
cannon, "Victorious and Majestic General 100 Degrees”, followed by
the serial number, 53 (see Fig. 2). To the left is an inscription giving
the date of manufacture (Fig. 3). For our purposes, it is significant
to note that the gun was cast in the 16th year of the Gia Long reign (AD

The ends of the trunnions display dimensional data and specifications
for the ammunition (Figs. 4 and 5). Units of measurement are in the traditional
Chinese decimal system; using equivalents which were standard during the
Ming Dynasty, the – English equivalents can be calculated as follows:

  • Weight: 632 jin = 840.6 lb.
  • Length: 3 chi 4 cun 2 fen = 4 ft. 1 in.
  • Length of bore: 3 chi = 3 ft. 7 in. (gun is smoothbore)
  • Bore diameter: 2 cun 2 fen = 2 41/64 in.(see also Fig. 6)
  • Shot diameter: 2 cun 1 fen = 2 17/32 in.
  • Projectile wt.: 2 jin 4 liang – 3 lb. 3 1/5 oz.

The inscription also includes admonitions to use good quality powder,
and to shoot steel (iron) cannonballs only.

During the Gia Long reign, Vietnamese artisans were capable of casting
finely decorated guns of considerable size. The best known examples of
these larger-scale guns are the Nine Sacred Cannons, which are the symbolic
guardians of the Citadel at Hue. Each of the bronze tubes measures about
sixteen feet eight inches and weighs approximately ten tons. Although
designed to be fully functional in every respect, they have never been
fired. The cast barrel ornamentation and the carving on the carriages
are exquisite.

Another example of early l9th cent. Vietnamese artillery is the short
howitzer barrel shown in Fig. 7. Preserved at the Imperial Museum at Hue,
the bronze barrel sits in a concrete display carriage, which has no resemblance
to the original. The inscription on the cascabel (Fig. 8) indicates that
the piece was made in the 13th year of the Minh Mang reign (1833). The
inscription to the right of the touchhole (Fig. 9) shows that it was made
in an Imperial workshop, and the remainder of the inscription at the circumference
of the breech gives the name of the gun, “Divine Majesty Foe-Destroying
Generalissimo, First Rank" (see also Fig. 10). As with the previous
example described above, it is interesting to note that the names of the
artillery Pieces still reflect Chinese usage, even though the guns themselves
are of purely European design.


Until large-scale importation of flintlock muskets and rifles (sung may
da) from France began in the early Nguyen Dynasty, the Vietnamese relied
on shoulder-fired weapons similar to those used in neighboring areas.
The primitive hand-cannon (sung ma truong) long remained in use, even
if only as a signaling device. In Western collections are encountered,
on rare occasions, Tonkinese matchlocks with slender, elongated, pistol
shaped butts reminiscent of Taiwan aborigine guns, but with mechanisms
of Indian or Chinese type. Rather more common, at least in America, are
the small bore muskets of the hill tribes, with pistol stocks and primitive
flintlock mechanisms which were brought home as souvenirs during the Vietnam

Private Collection, Vietnam


This article will focus on a curious type of matchlock seen by the author
on his recent sojourn, a form which has until now been little known amongst
Western collectors (Fig. 11). The barrels, generally octagonal and always
smoothbore, vary greatly in length. Calibers range from .40 to about .50
in. They are mounted by means of narrow metal capucines into simple stocks
with short, downward-curving butts, fashioned of very dense native hardwood
and often provided with ivory or bone butt- and toeplates. From the shape
of the butts, they are clearly intended to be rested against the cheek
while firing. The locks are of iron, with minimal embellishment, and feature
a forward falling serpentine released by a transverse sear and propelled
by a single leaf mainspring (Fig. 12). Vietnamese antiquarians and collectors
who were queried on their origin insist that they are typical of the Hue
area. This might explain their radically different appearance and mechanical
design to the rare Tonkin muskets mentioned above. However, the contention
by some that they represent borrowed Japanese technology is questionable
for several reasons:

1. Japanese Hinawa-ju, though superficially similar, have butts whose
toe areas feature a chamfered contour. These Vietnamese guns have flat
butts, which puts them in a class with some Malay guns.

2. Japanese barrels are almost always pin-fastened to the stock fore-ends,
whereas the Vietnamese ones are attached with bands or capucines (as are
Malay, Javanese, Burmese, and Chinese examples). However, it must be noted
that the Vietnamese gunstocks do have a longitudinal saw-cut visible along
the underside of the fore-end as is the case with Japanese (and Korean)

3. The mainspring on the Vietnamese lock is single-leaf, whereas Japanese
locks have a V-shaped external’ or coiled internal spring. Also, all Vietnamese
locks seen by the author are of iron, whereas brass was almost universally
used in Japan.

4. The shape and mounting of the trigger-guard is akin to Malay, not-Japanese,

5. The position of the trigger relative to the serpentine and buttplate
is more akin to the proportions found on Malay and Javanese guns (closer
to the serpentine than the Japanese).

The snapping matchlock with forward-falling serpentine and transverse
sear activated by a conventional trigger was introduced to various Southeast
Asian and Far Eastern cultures in the first half of the 16th cent. by
the Portuguese. It is in itself a product of the fusion of Indo-Portuguese
technologies. It is interesting to note that these Vietnamese guns-retain
the single leaf mainspring of the Lusitanian prototypes, whereas the versions
produced later by the Chinese’ Japanese, and Koreans all utilized V-shaped

This brief introduction is intended to present to Western students of
arms and military technology a subject on which comparatively little has
been written. It is hoped that it can be suitably expanded as more material
comes to light.

c. 1999 Philip Tom


Blackmore, Howard, Guns and Rifles of the World, NY: Viking 1965 .

Daehnhardt, Rainer, Espingarda Feiticeira / the Bewitched Gun, Lisboa:
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Elgood, Robert, Firearms of the Islamic World, London/NY: I. B. Tauris,

Huard, Pierre & Ourand, Maurice, Connaissance du V]et-Nam, Hanoi:
Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient, 1954

Needham, Joseph, Science & Civilization in China, Vol. v, No. 7,
Cambridge: University Press 1986.

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