Chinese armies of the Ming period made wide use of artillery. Both on the field as well as for the siege and defence of fortifications. It would seem almost every military expedition had a substantial artillery train. This undoubtedly contributed to the success of early Ming armies against Mongol nomads and rivals.
Chinese cannons were cast with both bronze and iron. Ammunition came in the form of stone, iron and lead balls, or large steel-tipped “arrows” with leather fins. Grapeshot was also widely used. Early Ming cannons usually have thickened walls around the explosion chamber, as well as reinforcing rings cast along the length of the barrel. Weight and calibre vary widely, though Chinese cannons seem to have been much smaller than European bombards. Firearms were produced in very large numbers, from 1380 onwards 1000 bronze cannons were manufactured a year, in 1465 alone 300 very large artillery pieces were manufactured. And in 1537 soldiers in Shanxi were supplied with 3000 brass cannon. In the late 14th century, each warship was armed with 4 cannons, 20 fire lances, 16 handguns, and large numbers of grenades and fire arrows.
Several field pieces are illustrated in Ming sources. From 1350 onwards, one of the most popular designs was the “long range awe-inspiring cannon”, this weighed in at 160lbs and could fire a 2lb lead ball hundreds of paces, grapeshot came in the form of 100 small pellets held inside the same bag. A more interesting type is the “Crouching Tiger Cannon”, a small bombard weighing 47lbs and carried on the shoulder, it had two “legs” for elevation and was stapled onto the ground with iron pins before firing. These designs continually advanced over the next few hundred years, and indeed the latter remained in use until the 18th century. Many other artillery pieces existed, but we need not cover them here.
Artillery seems to have performed well when it was used. In Yongle’s Mongolian campaign of 1414, the Ming army arrayed cannons in front of cavalry units and obliterated a Mongol cavalry charge, killing “countless” Mongols and terrifying the enemy horses. In the conquest of Annam, the Chinese used artillery to great effect in the field, on water, and in sieges.
Though effective in the field, early artillery was probably more effective in the defence and siege of fortifications. In 1412 Yongle ordered the stationing of five cannons at each of the frontier passes. Gunpowder weapons had almost completely replaced trebuchets in sieges. During the siege of Suzhou in 1366, large earth platforms were built and “bronze general” cannons placed on top of them to batter the walls, trebuchets were used to launch diseased corpses into the city rather than attacking the walls directly, and thousands of rocket-arrows were fired to set Suzhou alight.