The Musket in Korea

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A Korean musketeer during the Imjin War, 1592 – 1598.

Sengoku Jidai: Shadow of the Shogun Collector’s Edition

Korea is not known as a military power, and most historians will be surprised to learn that this small country, dwarfed by China and Japan, developed one of the most effective musket-based armies of the seventeenth-century world.

Firearms had been used in Korea long before the introduction of the musket in the late 1500s. Korean archaeologists have unearthed many guns from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Some were imported from China, but the Koreans also made their own gunpowder weapons, some of which were impressive enough to be presented as tribute gifts by the Korean court to the Ming emperor. In fact, Koreans seem to have employed some kind of volley principle with guns by 1447, when the Korean king Sejong the Great instructed his gunners to shoot their “fire barrels” in squads of five, taking turns firing and loading.” We have much to learn about early firearms in Korea, but what does seem clear is that Korean firearms warfare was revolutionized after 1592, when Japan invaded Korea.

The invasion set off one of the most destructive wars in East Asian history, a conflict that Kenneth Swope has called the First Great East Asian War. For six years, Ming China, a newly unified Japan, and Korea fought bitterly in the Korean Peninsula and its waters. At first, Japanese musketeers proved overwhelming. As the Korean prime minister Yu Songnyong (1542–1607) lamented, “When [our] soldiers are lined up against the enemy ranks, our arrows do not reach the enemy while their musket balls rain down upon us.” Korean and Chinese sources show that Japanese musketeers employed the volley technique.

Ming forces helped the Koreans push the Japanese back, but the war lasted until the death of Hideyoshi in 1598, and the bitter experience shocked Koreans into military reform, a process that continued well into the tumultuous seventeenth century. At the heart of their reorganizations was the musket. As one of the great reformers put it, Koreans must do precisely as the Chinese had done and learn from the Japanese: “In recent times in China they did not have muskets; they first learned about them from the Wokou pirates in Zhejiang Province. Qi Jiguang trained troops in their use for several years until they [muskets] became one of the skills of the Chinese, who subsequently used them to defeat the Japanese.” In the same way, he said, Koreans must learn from foreigners how to improve their military.

Historian Hyeok Hweon Kang compellingly argues that King Seonjo (r. 1567–1608) became a “zealous proponent” of the musket. King Seonjo ordered that Japanese musketeers be captured alive so they could instruct the Koreans, and he established a new standing army called the Military Training Agency, whose core units were musketeers. His preference for musketeers irritated archers, who believed that they practiced a venerable and noble art. Once, when the king bestowed upon the musketeers a gift of thirty horses, proclaiming that they had conducted a drill better than the archers, some archers resigned in protest. King Seonjo’s interest in the musket extended even to design: he developed a rapid-fire version himself.

Korean musketeers were trained in Qi Jiguang’s volley technique. A Korean drill manual of 1607, based closely on Qi Jiguang’s Ji xiao xin shu, notes that “every musketeer squad should either divide into two musketeers per layer or one and deliver fire in five volleys or in ten.” Another manual, first published in 1649, elaborates further, again, based very closely (usually verbatim) on Qi Jiguang’s work: “When the enemy approaches to within a hundred paces, a signal gun is fired and a conch is blown, at which the soldiers stand. Then a gong is sounded, the conch stops blowing, and the heavenly swan [a double-reed horn] is sounded, at which the musketeers fire in concert, either all at once or in five volleys.” Korean reforms built explicitly on Qi Jiguang’s work, but his manuals are at times challenging, presupposing a familiarity with the very techniques he proposes. As we’ve seen, although he refers frequently to musketry volley techniques, he doesn’t lay out the procedures in detail.

So Korean military manuals filled in the blanks, interpreting, explaining, and commenting on the Qi manuals. They even contain diagrams that present the clearest explanation of the East Asian musketry volley technique that has yet been discovered. One diagram, for example, shows a team of musketeers halfway through a volley sequence. Just as in Qi Jiguang’s teams, this Korean squad has ten musketeers and a team leader. The men stand in two lines, with the team leader standing between them. The two empty circles denote a place where no men are currently standing. They have left their position, marched to the front of their respective lines, and are currently firing at the enemy. When the team leader gives a signal, they will return to their place to reload, while the musketeers behind them will march to the fore and fire. The sequence can go on indefinitely.

The method is different from European methods, in which the musketeer in the front row fired and then went to the back of his line to reload. To be sure, European commanders experimented with various ways of effecting his return to the rear, but in general that’s how it worked: shoot, then go to the back and start reloading. In the Korean diagram, however, the musketeers step to the front, fire, and then return to their original position to reload while the next shooters step to the front, and so on. Was this the way that Qi Jiguang’s musketry teams worked? It’s not clear, but it’s likely. After all, the Koreans learned the volley technique from Chinese Southern Troops, who were trained and organized according to Qi Jiguang’s methods. On the other hand, it’s quite possible that the Koreans developed this technique on their own or perhaps even conceived and systematized it with the help of other foreigners—Japanese or Dutch. The Korean military reforms were carried out with the help of many foreign experts.

An early test of Korea’s new musketry corps came in 1619, when ten thousand Korean musketeers were sent to help the Ming against the Manchus in the famous Battle of Sarhu. The Manchu cavalry overwhelmed the allies, striking lightning blows to the main Korean musketry corps, who were hindered by unfavorable wind. Yet one division of Korean musketeers, fighting under Ming commander Du Song, managed to fell many Manchus by firing in volleys before being forced to give up the attack because their Chinese allies surrendered. Over the following years, the de facto king of Korea, Prince Kwanghae (r. 1608–1623), strove to learn from this episode, realizing that against such powerful horsemen—and the Manchus had the best cavalry in the world—musketeers had to be supported by traditionally armed support troops. So musketeers trained in concert with spear and cavalry units to create a more robust force. That force was tested when the Manchus invaded Korea in 1627 and again in 1636. The Koreans lost both wars, but their musketeers performed well, inducing respect in Manchu leaders. The first emperor of the newly declared Qing dynasty, Hong Taiji (r. 1626–1643), wrote: “The Koreans are incapable on horseback but do not transgress the principles of the military arts. They excel at infantry fighting, especially in musketeer tactics.”

Thus the Koreans, like the Japanese and the Chinese, not only integrated muskets into their armed forces, but also employed the volley technique and had systematized drill. The fact that all three East Asian powers so successfully adapted muskets—with the Chinese employing the musketry volley technique perhaps before the Europeans themselves—suggests that East Asia was far from militarily stagnant in the 1500s. East Asians were eager to learn about new technologies developed in Europe, but they also found instruction and inspiration in their own military institutions and traditions. Some Sinophone historians refer to this period as the era of Sino-Western military hybridization.

It continued into the following century. During the 1600s, even as Japan relaxed into an era of peace (in which, some have famously, if controversially, argued, it “gave up the gun”), China exploded into sustained and bitter conflict, which ensnared Korea as well.

Some of that conflict involved Europeans. The two most expansive European powers of the seventeenth century—the Russians and the Dutch—both fought wars against the forces of China, and they both lost.

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