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Pointy End Forward: The Korean Hwacha

Continuing the history lesson from last month, Korea continued to innovate archery and the design of bows over the centuries. The concept behind the science is fairly straightforward:


  • What’s better than one archer? Two archers.

  • What’s better than two archers? Ten archers.

  • What’s better than ten archers? If you ask me this again, I’m building a cart that fires a hundred rocket-propelled arrows.


And thus, the Hwacha was created and a friendship ended!


Now, no blog post about a siege weapon is complete without seeing it in action. Luckily, the MythBusters has provided the best introduction to the Hwacha! https://youtu.be/TQhSXA3AKh4?t=66


 

History


As you can imagine, the sticking point for creating the Hwacha was the gunpowder and know-how to make the rockets. The translation literally means “Fire Cart”; a translation that I’m sure didn’t make much sense to the opposing forces right up until the fuse went off.


Gunpowder was invented in China around the 10th century (https://www.britannica.com/technology/gunpowder). It wasn’t really being used in a proper weaponized way until a bit later when it was loaded into bamboo tubes alongside a projectile, sometime between the 10th and 12th century. Guns, made with metal, began appearing by the late 13th century. As you can imagine, metal made for a bit more of a reliable container for explosions and marked the decline of the market for even-fingered gloves.


Meanwhile, in Korea, the early ballistic weapons and firearms were being developed at the same time. From http://contents.history.go.kr/mobile/tz/view.do?levelId=tz_b32:


“A ballistics bureau was established, and gunpowder was eventually manufactured according to Choe Museon’s teachings. The cannons were the daejanggunpo, ijanggunpo, samjanggunpo, and yukhwaseokpo (…)”

- Veritable Records of King Taejo, April 19, 1395 (Year 4 of King Taejo)


Predictably, the single rockets came first. Named the Juhwa (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hwacha), these rockets were well in-use by 1395 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korean_cannon). The Juhwa is how you’d picture a rocket: a tube with black powder for acceleration, and fins for stabilization. These were developed further during the Joseon Dynasty in the 14th century into the Singijeon (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singijeon), or “Divine machine arrows”. There were three sizes of these arrows: small, medium, and large. The latter 2 had an explosive component to them in the form of a small warhead.


Now, why would you swap out a full-blown rocket for an arrow? The Juhwa rockets were too bulky to fit inside the Hwacha, thus spurring on the development of the Singijeon. Throughout human history, it’s a fact of life that you always skip the first generation of a new technology so they can work out the kinks. This especially holds true for explosives travelling around at high velocity.


The final design of the Hwacha itself came into being around 1451 from King Sejong. Much like Peanut Butter and Chocolate, King Sejong combined his Singijeon fire arrows with King Munjong’s Hwacha (http://contents.history.go.kr/mobile/tz/view.do?levelId=tz_b32).


 

How It Works


The Singijeon fire arrow rockets had different sizes (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singijeon). The medium and large rockets would have a fuse running up the length into the “warhead”, so the fuse would light both the initial black powder to launch the rocket, then detonate the warhead some time later. However, the small Singijeon that were of a simpler, but similar design: the same rocket, minus the explosive warhead: the rocket was just attached to a large arrow.


The Hwacha could be loaded with 100 medium-sized Singijeon. In a similar video to the Mythbusters one, the Smithsonian has one of their own https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UImDMIKEFgQ which shows a much wider shot of the arrows firing. Here, you can see the downside of the Hwacha: accuracy. For large numbers, the Hwacha works great as you’re bound to hit something. However, for situations that would require more accuracy, the Hwacha comes up quite short. The work and resources that would go into creating the Hwacha and Singijeon, then loading it, would be much better directed elsewhere when facing a smaller force – in theory.


In reality, this kind of chaos could easily cause a unit to break and start fleeing. War isn’t always about total annihilation of an enemy, especially on the defensive side. If you can put up enough resistance to stop them from attacking, you’ve won as a defender. Add in some small explosions that the medium-sized Singijeon can produce, and you have a recipe for a routed enemy with minor casualties. When you’re vastly outnumbered, it pays to have weapons like these that can be prepped ahead of time. With a single person able to fire off a hundred arrows in seconds, you can have a fairly small force be able to defend effectively against a much larger force. You can see how the Hwacha became Korea’s most famous war machine.


 

Korea’s Hwacha encapsulates one of the core concepts of Martial Arts so well: how to do a lot with a little. You don’t necessarily need to beat your opponent into submission when you’re defending yourself. Their goal is to attack; you just want the encounter to end, preferably without being hurt. This is why in Kuk Sool Won, we teach things like Pressure Points and Joint Locks. You can control the opponent using mechanical advantage, even if they’re much larger than you.


The moral to this story is that no one will attack you if you’re hauling a Hwacha around.

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