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The Korean Military Revolution: Muskets and Volley Fire

It is commonly known, among historians, that Europe underwent a military revolution during the early modern period (1500-1800). They developed new, upgraded styles of warfare, which is often seen as giving them "a clear advantage over the other peoples of the world" (Andrade, Kang, Cooper, 52). However, were these military developments truly unique to Europe? In reality, when set in a global context, this "European" way of war was not entirely unusual (Andrade, Kang, Cooper, 52). Similar developments were occurring at the same time in East Asia. In Japan's Warring States Period (1457-1615), frequent battles among regional lords led to significant improvements in military technology. During the Imjin War (1592-1598), when Japan invaded Chosŏn Korea and the Koreans fought them off with the help of the Ming Chinese, the Koreans took notice of these technological improvements and decided to make use of them as well.

At this point, readers may be wondering what exactly this upgraded military technology was. In particular, the fuel behind the revolution was the adaptation of musketry. Both Europe and Asia were developing musket technology and something called the "volley fire" technique, (Andrade, Kang, Cooper, 55) which will be discussed further on. Koreans especially took hold of this technique and made it their own

Korean cannon makers first came into the possession of muskets in the middle of the 16th century (Kang, 241). However, as they were trying to reverse engineer the muskets (or basically figure out how to make these new weapons for themselves), they did it using preexisting Korean cannon making technology, which was quite different from how the guns were originally made. This resulted in muskets that were actually similar in shape to the ones they found, but with crucial differences that would lead to some problems in battle (Kang, 241). Most notably, they were casted in bronze as opposed to being forged with iron, and they were missing important parts, which made the guns liable to burst when fired (Kang, 249). This changed after Koreans encountered Japanese muskets first-hand in the Imjin War. The power of these iron-forged muskets were shown, and so Koreans started forging their own muskets with iron as well (Kang, 250). They were still not exactly the same, but much closer and definitely less likely to burst. With this, Korean musketeers became a common sight in the East Asian military sphere, and Chosŏn Korea continued to develop their musketry as time passed.

Just as important as the muskets themselves was the way they were used, both in Europe and in Asia. Andrade, Kang, and Cooper discuss the importance of drill in the European military revolution and how it allowed their soldiers to be so dominant. The concept of drill combined with musket technology is what allowed for the volley fire technique. To explain in more detail, early guns had a very low firing rate (Andrade, Kang, Cooper, 54). In order to keep musket fire constantly raining down on the enemy, musketeers took turns firing and reloading, cycling in and out as they were ready (Andrade, Kang, Cooper, 54). This is essentially what volley fire is all about. It allowed for continuous fire, which made it very difficult to handle for the enemy force. Integral to this process working out properly, however, was drill. Soldiers had to be disciplined and experienced enough with this technique to actually be able to use it in real combat. Musketeers were largely left vulnerable as they were firing, so they had to be protected by other soldiers. In Europe, during the cycling process, they moved behind pikemen as they were reloading, which allowed them to be protected from charging cavalry (Andrade, Kang, Cooper 57). When they finished reloading, they had to be able to quickly get to their position, fire, cycle back, and then reload to do it all over again without being distracted by the cavalry running at them, and this required discipline. The best way to achieve such a state was through intense drilling (Kang, Andrade, Cooper, 58): repeated practice of the technique until it was so ingrained in the soldiers that they could carry it out in battle without even thinking about it.

Drilling in such a way is often attributed as being a European invention, but there is evidence that similar techniques were developed in Asia. In fact, the start of the military revolution itself can be attributed to China in the 14th Century. The founder of the Ming dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang (1328-1398) first incorporated guns and new firearm tactics in his armies as he formed the Ming dynasty in 1368, and then he turned those techniques outwards, which caused them to spread throughout the neighboring states and eventually reach Europe (Andrade, Kang, Cooper, 59-60). During the Warring States period in Japan, infantry was trained to face down cavalry in order to cut down costs using discipline and drill, and they carried not only swords but also muskets within their ranks (Andrade, Kang, Cooper, 60). Various Korean sources show that Japan used volley fire against them in the 1590's, so it is quite certain that Europe and Asia both developed this technique within two decades of each other (Andrade, Kang, Cooper, 61).

"Before the Japanese invasion, Korea's armed forces were largely unprofessional and inadequately drilled" (Andrade, Kang, Cooper, 62). This was a fact that originally caused the Koreans to be outmatched by the invading Japanese, and so they were forced to change their system from the ground up. Their new military was specifically formed around musketeers and did not use many cavalry units (Andrade, Kang, Cooper, 62). They managed to fight off the Japanese with the help of Ming soldiers, especially troops trained by the famous Chinese general Qi Jiguang (1528-1588), who was well versed in drilling techniques, and so they incorporated his ideas into their own military force (Andrade, Kang, Cooper, 63). Adapting his principles into the volley fire technique, they created the "three-unit technique," involving a musketeer unit, an archer unit, and a swordsman or spearman unit where the latter two would provide support for the more deadly musketeers (Andrade, Kang, Cooper, 66), similarly to how Europeans used their pikemen. Korean musketeers became core to their army, and they were deployed to help the Manchus fight back Russian invaders in the mid-1600s. By this time, Korean musketeers were very experienced in their techniques and had developed them to be quite effective, and so they were able to play a large role in victories against the Russians (Andrade, Kang, Cooper, 78). The Korean musketeers came to be known for their accuracy and discipline, crucial to the allied military effort.

Europe developed use of muskets and volley fire tactics during their military revolution which gave their troops a solid advantage, but East Asia also developed similar techniques at around the same time. The Japanese and the Dutch invented the volley fire technique within twenty years of each other, and the Koreans further refined the technique, leading it to become a core, effective part of their military force. There is no doubt many people out there knowledgeable about the European military revolution who have no idea about the Asian, and notably in this context, the Korean military revolution, and so this discussion has aimed to bring this knowledge to light. Doing so can create a more fully informed global context during the early modern period and lead to future discoveries and comparisons from historians within such a context, or it can simply provide some cool information to anyone who would be interested.


Timothy Junkin (Asian Humanities, UCLA ' 23), “The Korean Military Revolution: Muskets and Volley Fire,” UCLA Korean History and Culture Digital Museum, accessed May 28, 2024,