Firearms in the Vietnamese military

Edited by Hien V. Ho.


Most of us Vietnamese would think of Cao Thang as the most famous armorer of Vietnamese history. Most of the technical schools or centers in South Vietnam before April 1975 were named after him.

 According to Le Van Duc in Viet Nam Tu Dien (Khai Tri Publisher) , Cao Thang was born in  1866 in the province of Ha Tinh (Central Vietnam). An orphan, at the age of 13, he joined the anti-French insurgent group Co Vang (Yellow Standard Gang) led by Doi Luu (Caporal Luu) in Ha tinh. After the death of the Co Vang leader, for a while he became  a protégé of an intellectual named Phan Dinh Thuat who was the brother of Phan Dinh Phung, a prominent intellectual and high level mandarin at the imperial court (An Sat Do Ngu Su), who later became an important figure in the Vietnamese perpetual fight against French colonialism.. Eight years later, he joined a member of a gang of robbers. When Phan dinh Phung  started his revolutionary movement Van Than against the French colonialists in 1885, Cao Thang surrendered all his gang to Phan Dinh Phung and was assigned as a sergeant major (quan co). Thanks to his leadership, the revolutionary movement became well organized, with many successful ambushes of the French units. 

 . Cao Thang set up improvised factories to produce imitations of the French weapons which were the most advanced by the 19th century standards. .According to Viet Nam Su Luoc, Captain Gosselin, in his book ‘’Empire d’Annam’’ described Cao Thang’s  firearms as of 1874 model, manufactured in great numbers, and working  identically  compared to  those made in France.  The only defect was the absence of the  grooves inside the cannon, which prevented the bullet from going far enough.

Cao Thang ascended rapidly in the ranks of  the revolutionary movement where  his precocious  genius in strategy and guerilla combat tactics brought many  successes in the fight against the French. However, he  died at the age of 27 during an audacious attempt to capture the Province of Nghe An in 1893.

Less well known to most of us modern Vietnamese is the originality and the advanced state of the Vietnamese army and military technology even before the arrival of the French colonists in the 19th century. Classic Vietnamese history texts like Tran Trong Kim’s Viet Nam Su Luoc (A Synopsis of Vietnamese History) give only a cursory account of  military techniques and technology and stress more on the chronology of military events or heroic exploits of individual generals and kings. Besides, there was a bias against education and training in the martial arts and the importance of the military: “ Although the Emperor wanted to pay attention to the military matters, all our countrymen at the times were in favor of  civil services to the detriments of the martial arts (trong van, khinh vo), and in normal times, nobody paid any attention to the army or their equipments. If some event occurred, then they became upset and confused. ‘’(Viet Nam Su Luoc,.Trung Tam Hoc Lieu , 1971. page 199)

            The following  excerpts are from: The Cambridge History of South East Asia (Volume 2,Part 1), edited by Nicholas Tarling, Cambridge University Press, 1999.



“Vietnam was another mainland Southeast Asian state which came to produce and use firearms on a relatively large scale in warfare. By recovering guns from Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch shipwrecks in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and by employing European gunsmiths, the Vietnamese had come to learn about the latest European developments which they then applied to their own foundries. A Portuguese mestizo, Joao da Cruz, offered his services to the Nguyen family in south Vietnam and established a foundry in Hue to build guns in the European way. The Vietnamese quickly applied the new techniques to their own considerable skills in casting. In the late seventeenth century, they cast two bells of 500 pounds (230 kilograms) for the Christian churches in Ayutthaya at the request of Phaulkon. When the Vietnamese asked the English to send a gunfounder in 1678, it was not to learn about founding but to assess European techniques. They were able to recognize quality workmanship, and in 1689 the Nguyen lord refused to accept from the English two cannon which had certain flaws. At another time only seven of twenty cannon sent by the English were deemed to be of acceptable quality.

            The armoury of the Trinh lord in north Vietnam in the seventeenth century contained some fifty to sixty iron cannon from falcons to demi-culverins. There were two or three whole culverins or demi-cannon and some iron mortars. The largest weapon was a locally cast bronze cannon of 3500-4000 kilograms, which was considered by a European observer to be ill-shaped and more for display than combat. Cannon were so highly valued in the north that the Trinh lord had the sole right to purchase them, and guards were posted along rivers and major road intersections to prevent their export. Around the Nguyen court in the south were some 1200 bronze cannon of different calibers. Some bore the Spanish or the Portuguese coat of arms, while others-most likely of local manufacture- were beautifully crafted in the form of dragons, sphinxes, and leopards.” (p.39)



            …“The civil wars in Vietnam encouraged the production and use of firearms. A Jesuit observer in 1631 commented on the proficiency of the Vietnamese in handling both cannon and arquebuses:

            The Cochin-Chinese have now become so expert in the managing of them [artillery and arquebuses] that they surpass our Europeans; for indeed they did little else every day but exercise themselves in shooting at a mark. They are so good they could hit with the artillery better than others would with an arquebus. And with arquebus, too, they are good. They go daily to the fields to practise.

                For the field artillery the Vietnamese relied on a small cannon which could be borne on the backs of the soldiers and fire a four-ounce(112-gram) shot. One man carried the barrel, measuring about 2 metres, while another took the carriage, consisting of a round piece of wood about 10 centimetres thick and the same length as the barrel. In action, one end of the carriage was propped up by two legs or by a fork about one metre off the ground, and the cannon was placed on the carriage, lying in a an iron socket with a swivel. The gunner could thus control and adjust his aim, aided by a short stock resting against his shoulder. These small cannon were used to clear a pass or to disperse enemy forces waiting to repel a crossing. The soldiers were all taught to make their own gunpowder with little ‘engines’ to mix the ingredients and to make whatever quantity required. But the Vietnamese suffered the same poor results with their gunpowder as their neighbours. The cause was attributed to the poor corning of the powder which produced unequal lumps.

            In the wars between the Nguyen and the Trinh in the seventeenth century, the latter kept ready a force of seventy or eighty thousand men, armed with swords or thick, heavy matchlocks with barrels of 1 to 1.2  metres in length. Soldiers were provided with hollow bamboo to protect the barrel of the gun from dust when it was hanging on a rack in the house, and another larger lacquered bamboo case to protect the entire gun from the elements while on the march. The Vietnamese were considered among the quickest of any nation in the loading and firing of their muskets. In four motions they were able to draw their ramrod, insert the powder and lead, ram he charge down, remove the rod and replace it, and then fire at first sight very successfully. Every soldier carried a leather cartridge box containing small sections of bamboo filled with powder and shot. Each of these sections was sufficient for one charge and could be neatly poured down the barrel of the musket. En Englishman at the same period required some twenty motions to load and fire.

            By the middle of the eighteenth century, firearms had become a permanent part of Vietnamese warfare. When the Tayson forces routed the Chinese army sent in aid of the Le emperor in 1789, the leader of the Tayson is described as entering Than-long (Hanoi) with ‘his armour… black from the smoke of gunpowder’. Many fleeing Chinese were also killed by mines, demonstrating Vietnamese familiarity with their use.” (pp.47-48).