Soldiers and Guns

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I.  According to some documents, in Vietnam, sung hoa mai [súng hoa mai] (matchlock) was a popular name for guns sung dieu thuong [súng điểu thương] (musket) was less common and used from the 16th to the 19th century. The feudal dynasties (Le, Mac, Trinh, Nguyen [Lê, Mạc, Trịnh, Nguyễn]) fully equipped matchlocks for the army. Historical and literary records described the battles at that time like this: “Flying bullets as falling stars”. Folk songs also recorded the image of soldiers as romantic people:

Yellow belt around the waist
Wearing marked hats, rifle carried on the shoulder
A matchlock in one hand
The other hand held a spear and went down to the boat in the command of the mandarin
Continuous five-beated drum beats were heard
Tears in eyes when entering the boat.

[Ngang lưng thì thắt đai vàng
Đầu đội nón dấu vai mang súng dài
Một tay thì cắp hỏa mai
Một tay cắp giáo quan sai xuống thuyền.
Thùng thùng trống đánh ngũ liên.
Bước chân xuống thuyền nước mắt như mưa]

The gunners sketch below was drawn in 1908 – 1909 in Hanoi [Hà Nội]. It helps us imagine the image of soldiers at that time, before the Nguyen [Nguyễn] Dynasty.

    As for the muskets mentioned above, here are some documents to help us understand them:

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II. Musket is the latest kind of arquebus in Vietnamese military forces during the dynasties of Mac, Trinh, Nguyen [Mac, Trịnh, Nguyễn] (from the 17th century). The composition of muskets imitated the movements of pecking hens with pieces of flint. Operation technique is as follow: “pull the trigger; the trigger touches on the piece of steel for sparking”, meaning: “pull the hammer backwards; put the hook into the joint to keep it. When we pull the trigger, the hammer moves and touches the piece of flint which accelerates the gunpowder.”

    According to John Pinkerston1, Lord Nguyen [Nguyễn] equipped his army with this type of sung dieu thuong [súng điểu thương] (muskets), also known as sung hoa mai [súng hoa mai] (matchlocks).

    Another document showed that in the Qing dynasty (China), there was a type of large matchlock which required two people to operate them: One to put the gun on the shoulder and the other as the bearing point.

    In Vietnam [Việt Nam], this type of gun is currently displayed in museums. As reported, the Tay Son [Tây Sơn] troops received the above-mentioned techniques from Dang Trong [Đàng Trong] (South Vietnam in 17th-18th century) and improved into many other types. Military forces used this weapon proficiently thanks to their everyday practice on the fields, which looked like a game. However, in Dang Ngoai [Đàng Ngoài] (North Vietnam in 17th-18th century), this technique was also used for power fights for two hundred years. Just like water and fire, Lord Trinh [Trịnh] was named Thuy Vuong [Thuỷ Vương] (Lord of Water) due to his strong naval forces; Lord Nguyen [Nguyễn] was named Hoa Vuong [Hoả Vương] (Lord of Fire) because of his forces were equipped with strong firepower weapons. Besides, Lord Nguyen [Nguyễn] had some other weapons common in the army such as hoa long [hoả long] (fire dragon), hoa ho [hoả hổ] (fire tiger) and guns with fragments functioning as simple bombs.

    Originally, the musket (flintlock) was from Europe, then introduced in America and Asia. The Tay Son [Tây Sơn] army was considered a strong army because of their improved muskets which were superior in terms of technical operations (only in four movements needed) while the British and European forces needed twenty movements. Particularly, the Qing’s guns (Figure) caught fire slowly but with a lot of smoke. Emperor Quang Trung [Quang Trung] used this gun in the battles so his robe turned black because of smoke.

Soldiers Gunners -
Soldiers & Gunners in old time (Source: Nguyễn Mạnh Hùng in “Kỹ thuật của người An Nam” – Technique du peuple Annamite of H. Oger (1908 -1909) in Hanoi)

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    Ropes or pieces of flint were used for matchlocks. Later on, matchlocks were replaced by more advanced rifles, using detonators and cartridge similar to European guns at that time. However, during Minh Mang‘s [Minh Mạng] reign, matchlocks were replaced with rifles (because of reduced military forces) but with a more modest number compared to the previous century, ten people holding one gun.

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    According to regulations in the Nguyen [Nguyễn] Dynasty, the troops were divided into two types: Soldiers of combat and soldiers of defense. Soldiers of defense were selected from Nghe An [Nghệ An] to Binh Thuan [Bình Thuận], who were stationed in Hue [Huế]. In the battle between France and Vietnam in the North, Hue [Huế] court sent 8,000 soldiers to defend North Vietnam [Việt Nam], under the authority of a high-ranking martial arts mandarins. Soldiers of combat were stationed in the North. After that, during the French protection, these soldiers were replaced by linh kho xanh (blue-belt soldiers) (Figure). Some remaining soldiers were under the control of provincial governors.

1: JOHN PINKERSTON “Modern geography: A description of the empires, kingdoms, states, and colonies with the oceans, seas, and isles”.
◊  Featured image – source:,


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