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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

May 17, 2021

The rapid expansion of the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth century cannot be attributed to a single new military invention providing technological supremacy over their enemies. The weaponry and equipment of the Mongols differed little from those of their enemies or from previous nomadic empires. Still, the Mongols were adept in employing the tools of their foes. As historian Timothy May wrote, “the Mongols rarely met a weapon they did not like.” Therefore, many questions have been raised regarding the usage, or lack thereof, of gunpowder weapons in Mongolian expansion, particularly outside of China. Today, we give a brief introduction to gunpowder weapons, both their history of use, their use by the Mongols, and the possible role of the Mongol Empire in the dissemination of these weapons. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


For some historians, like J.J. Saunders or Kate Raphael, the Mongols as both users of gunpowder and transmitters of its knowledge to the west is a total negative or extremely unlikely. They see no clear indication of it’s usage in the western historical sources, seeing possible mentions as too equivocal to be relied upon. But the great British sinologist Joseph Needham and his associates, after a thorough study of well over a millennium of Chinese written sources and archaeology, has demonstrated thoroughly that not only were a number of a gunpowder weapons a common feature of Chinese warfare by the thirteenth century, but that the Mongols also used these during their wars in China. More recent historians such as Iqtidar Alam Khan, Thomas T. Allsen and Stephen G. Haw, have advanced Needham’s arguments, arguing that the Mongols carried gunpowder weapons, such as bombs, fire-lances and rockets, west in their conquests over the rest of Eurasia. Stephen Haw in particular has suggested that the infamous smoke-screen employed by the Mongols in Poland at the battle of Liegnitz in 1241 was a gunpowder-based weapon. 


To demonstrate this, we must very briefly give an introduction to Chinese usage of gunpowder. Chinese alchemists and engineers had been mixing various chemicals for medicinal and experimental purposes for centuries, including some of those which constitute gunpowder. Gunpowder itself was not the result of any single individual’s experiments, in the style of the old European fable of Berthold Schwarz, but rather a long series of trials combining materials -often, rather ironically, in search of elixirs to eternal life- which ultimately resulted in discovering a rather flammable substance. The first recipe for gunpowder finally appears during the Tang Dynasty in the 8th century CE, in a Taoist work urging alchemists not to mix saltpetre (potassium nitrate), sulphur and carbon-rich materials like coal, and to especially not add arsenic to the mixture, as the result would light aflame. The Chinese quickly found the energy produced by these materials quite mesmerizing when used in fireworks display, and found use for it in civil engineering and mining,  but contrary to some popular sentiments that the Chinese only used it for peaceful purposes, it appears they rather quickly applied this new material for warfare. From the 10th century to the 13th, the Chinese created a great number of weapons to violently disseminate knowledge of gunpowder. By 1044, possibly in reaction to military defeats against the newly established Tangut ruled Xi Xia Dynasty, the Song Dynasty was presented a collection of nine kinds of gunpowder weapons and three distinct gunpowder recipes in the Wujing Zongyao. This technology advanced under the Song Dynasty, which faced a collection of ever-more fearsome foes on its northern borders.


From the 10th century onwards, these weapons took a number of forms.  Bombs thrown from catapults (huopao), enclosed in pottery or fragmenting metal shells. Arrows (huojian) with incendiary packages strapped to them, launched from bows or massive mounted crossbows, developing into early rockets over the twelfth century.  Most infamous was the fire-lance (huojiang): a bamboo or metal tube capable of shooting a jet of flame three metres in length, sometimes with shrapnel and toxic materials packed into the tube to form a terrifying, flame-spouting shotgun. The proportions of consitutent chemicals were refined to increase power, with other additives such as lime to even human faeces to produce a number of horrific bombs; some to explode and throw armour piercing shrapnel, some to spread flame and destroy buildings, with others to have a choking, blinding gas dispersed by the explosion to envelop and confuse the enemy.


The Song Dynasty government was so reliant on these weapons -and so terrified of their foes acquiring them- that it prohibited the sale of any of the materials composing gunpowder to the Khitan Liao Dynasty or Tangut Xi Xia in the 11th century. Both lacked access to natural reserves of saltpetre producing lands. But with the Jurchen conquest of the Liao and Northern Song in the early 12th century, the newly formed Jin Dynasty seized not only stores of these weapons, but the knowledge and resources to produce their own. Now facing a powerful, gunpowder armed foe, this spurred a new stage of gunpowder experimentation by the Song Dynasty. The first textual references to fire-lances, rockets, and new kinds of bombs appear as Song forces desperately resisted Jin invasions. The Song were imaginative when it came to employing these against the Jurchen. The narrow crossing over the rivers into south China became the main lines of defence, and the Song quickly took to arming their ships with rockets and huopao, catapults capable of lobbing bombs against Jin troops, to destroy ships or cast poisonous clouds against men and horses. As early as 1127, Song officials were recommending that all warships be equipped with such weapons to repel the Jin. Other uses speak of the desperation of defenders, coupled with considerable access to gunpowder. The 1207 siege of Te-an is a well known example: the Song defenders filled tea sacks with rice straw, used matting and gunpowder to hurl against the Jin troops assaulting the walls. The Jin were quick to pick up such weapons too, a cause for no shortage of alarm amongst the Song court, among other things. While perhaps effective in slowing the Jin invasions of southern China, gunpowder weapons were neither key in the initial Jurchen conquests of the north, or in actually repelling them. Skilled leadership and political will, in addition to general miltiary resources and logistics, were by far the determining factors. Gunpowder weapons were another tool in an arsenal, rather than the defining strategic component as they often appear in popular imagination. 


When Chinggis Khan invaded the Jin Dynasty in 1211, whole companies of Chinese siege engineers entered into his service, either willingly deserted to him or forced into service, bringign with them knowledge to construct various siege machines from catapults to rams. There is not, however, clear indication of the usage of gunpowder weapons against the Jin in these very first years of the conflict. One such Chinese siege specialist who willingly deserted, Guo Baoyu, accompanied Chinggis Khan west on his camapign against the Khwarezmian Empire. According to his biography in the Yuanshi, when the Mongols attempted to force a crossing of the Amu Darya, a number of Khwarezmian ships blocked their path. Guo Baoyu ordered a volley of huojian to be launched against the fleet. The ships were all set aflame, allowing the Mongols passage. While huojian originally and literally meant fire arrows, according to Joseph Needham, Jixing Pan, and Thomas Allsen, over the twelfth century the term came to signify rockets, when powdered gunpowder mixtures with higher percentages of saltpetre, charcoal and less sulphur made for effective rocket propellants.


In addition, the Persian historian Juvaini often makes a distinction between “fire, naphtha and stones,” being thrown into cities during Chinggis Khan’s Khwarezmian campaign, as if there were distinct incendiary weapons being used in addition to the naptha (i.e, petroleum) derived weapons more familiar in the Islamic world. According to Needham, naptha has been utilized for military purposes since the 4thc entury BCE, and remained a feature of armies in the Middle East up until the Mongol conquest. Juvaini’s flowery language makes it difficult at times to know if he was simply being poetic, or literal in terms of the weapons being used, even when he was an eyewitness to the events he describes. While Chinggis Khan certainly brought Chinese siege engineers westwards with him, it does not seem that gunpowder weapons made up a key component of his tactics. Likely, Chinggis lacked the resources to manufacture gunpowder and gunpowder weapons, and if he was making use of them, it was in limited quantities- his tactics for taking cities relied on skillful use of Chinese siege machines in great numbers alongside local forced labour and his powerful Mongol warriors. As mentioned earlier, gunpowder weapons were a tool in the arsenal, rather than a defining component. They lacked the ability to destroy walls by themselves: this was still the job of stones thrown from catapults, which the Mongols are expressly described using throughout the Khwarezmian campaign. 


After Chinggis Khan’s death in 1227, his son and successor Ogedai completed the war with the Jin Dynasty, in the process cquiring greater experience with gunpowder weapons, and the natural and manpower resources to produce them. In the early 1230s there are a number of references in Chinese sources to the use of these weapons in the last years of the Mongol-Jin war. In 1231, for instance, the Jin utilized a new development in bomb technology, the heaven-shaking thunder-bomb (zhen tien lei), to sink Mongol ships in a naval engagement. These were bombs with high nitrate content in their  gunpowder mixture encased in a cast-iron shell. When set off, they created a monstrous noise like thunder, while also splintering the iron shell into a wave of armour and flesh tearing shrapnel, an early fragmentation grenade.


The most famous gunpowder engagement came the next year well recorded in a detailed description in the dynasty history of the Jin, the Jinshi, compiled under Mongol auspices in the fourteenth century. In 1232, the great Mongol general Subedei besieged the Jin capital of Kaifeng, in a year-long siege in which sides utilized gunpowder weapons. Subedei had catapults launched gunpowder bombs into the city, while the Jin defenders had a variety of gunpowder tools in their defensive arsenal. Mobile shelters pushed up to the walls of Kaifeng were annhilated by thunder-crash bombs dropped onto them via an iron chain. Additionally, great number of ‘flying-fire-spears’ (feihuojiang) were employed. Depending on the interpretation of the historian, these were either fire-lances packed with wads of shrapnel and arrows which when fired acted as a sort of flaming shot gun, while others like Jixing Pan suggets these were infact rockets. 


Either way, they were used to great effect and in great numbers. At one point in the siege, a Jin commander took 450 men armed with fire-lances into the Mongol encampment, a surprise attack resulting in hundreds of Mongol troops killed or drowned then they tried to flee. The Jinshi remarked that the thunder-clap bombs and flying-fire-spears were the only two weapons of the Jin the Mongols feared. Yet, these devices could not arrest the fate of the dynasty. A scovered back in episode 14 of this series, the Emperor abandoned Kaifeng before the siege was complete, and the city fell in 1233, and the Jin Dynasty itself finally extinguished the next year.


We must emphasize again, that while terrifying, these gunpowder weapons were not themselves the key determining factors in these wars. The modern concept of all powerful, destructive guns, bombs and cannon must be ignored. The reliability of these early medieval weapons was questionable. Different proportions of the necessary chemicals, or in the design of a given weapon, might result in a device going off early, too late, or not at all. The range of these weapons was often short, and they were best utilized in the defense, in situations where their effect on enemy morale could be maximized. These bombs were not yet the secret to destroying city walls, though they could set fire to wooden structures, towers or gates along the battlements. 


Regardless, they were a frightful weapon when used properly. Thus it seems unusual that Subedei, the commander of the final campaigns against the Jin who faced these gunpowder weapons, made little use of them in the great western campaign begun only a few years later. Though specialized Chinese artillery was employed against the Alans of the north Caucasus, Rus’ principalities and Hungarian, there is little direct indication of the use of gunpowder weaponry in the west. Many of the mostly wooden cities of the Rus’ principalities were burned, it is true, but the Rus’ sources generally offer no description of how this occurred, only that it did. Usually they imply the fire was started after the city already fell. In the case of the siege of Vladimir, the Nikonian Chronicle specifies that a great volume of stones were shot into the city, and that the church at Vladimir was burnt only after the Mongols stacked a great pile of wood next to it and set that on fire.


A possible indication of gunpowder usage is supplied by the Franciscan friar John de Plano Carpini, who travelled through the Rus’ principalities late in the 1240s bearing messages from the Pope to the Great Khan. In his report of his travels, Carpini offers a very accurate description of Mongol battle and siege tactics, with the intention that his observations be used to help prepare Christendom against further attacks. Carpini’s short description is worth quoting:


They reduce fortresses in the following manner. If the position of the fortress allows it, they surround it, sometimes even fencing it round so that no one can enter or leave. They make a strong attack with engines and arrows and they do not leave off fighting by day or night, so that those inside the fortress get no sleep; the Tartars however have some rest, for they divide up their forces and they take it in turns to fight so that they do not get too tired.  If they cannot capture it in this way they throw Greek fire; sometimes they even take the fat of the people they kill and, melting it, throw it on to the houses, and wherever the fire falls on this fat is almost inextinguishable. It can however be put out, so they say, if wine or ale is poured on it. If it falls on flesh, it can be put out by being rubbed with the palm of the hand.


As the Mongols, as far as is known, did not have access to Greek Fire, it seems that Carpini is attempting to describe an incendiary of unusual properties using cultural terms he was familiar with. And as Carpini’s knowledge of Mongol siege tactics largely came from his discussions with survivors in the Rus’ territories, it seems to imply that a special type of fire-causing weapon was used against the Rus’: quite possibly gunpowder weapons Subedei had brought from China.


The famous smoke screen employed by Mongol forces at the battle of Liegnitz in Poland in April 1241 may also have been a type of gunpowder weapon, as suggested by Stephen Haw. 

Firstly, for those of you unaware of the context, here is the relevant quote from the description of the battle of Liegnitz, recorded in the fifteenth century Polish chroncile by Jan  Długosz.


“Among the Tatar standards is a huge one with a giant X painted on it. It is topped with an ugly black head with a chin covered with hair. As the Tatars withdraw some hundred paces, the bearer of this standard begins violently shaking the great head, from which there suddenly bursts a cloud with a foul smell that envelopes  the Poles and makes thm all but faint, so that they are incapable of fighting. We know that in their wars the Tatars have always used the arts of divination and witchcraft, and this is what they are doing now. Seeing that the all but victorious Poles are daunted by the cloud and its foul smell, the Tatars raise a great shout and return to the fray, scattering the Polish ranks that hitherto have held firm, and a great slaughter ensues.”


Haw suggests that the smoke weapon used at Liegnitz was the same as a category of smoke bombs used in Chinese warfare over the preceding centuries. Devices to deploy toxic smoke and smoke screens have been used in Chinese warfare since at least the 4th century CE, but during the Song Dynasty more effective versions were developed with gunpowder. in easily shatterable pottery containers, these weapons were packed with poisons, foul-smelling ingredients, shrapnel, arsenic and lime. Dispersed by the force of the explosion, these bombs unleashed a cloud or fog of painful gas containing lime and arsenic in order to blind, disorient and confuse enemy forces- very similar to the smoke weapon described at Liegnitz. Not understanding it was a gunpowder weapon, either a bomb or modified fire-lance, the Poles focused on the most visible ‘tool’ as the origins of the smoke, mistakenly identifying a Mongolian horse-hair standard as the device. The failure of the chronicle to describe the sound of the weapon going off could be attributed to the confusion of battle distance in time of Jan  Długosz’s compilation from the actual event. None of the contemporary Polish observers would have known what gunpowder was, and therefore failed to associate obvious things we would associate with it, such as the sound, lash of flight or actual mentions of delivering the weapon. 


This is a point we must emphasize. The ambiguity of language of many western sources on the Mongols makes it difficult to  identify if a new gunpowder weapon was used. Not knowing what the device was, or lacking words for these new devices which the Mongols were almost certainly unwilling to let non-military individuals examine, it is hard to determine when a medieval author is using a term they were familiar with, such as Greek Fire or Naptha, to refer to a new technology which served a similar purpose. The fact that most chroncilers were not first hand witness, but recording accounts from survivors, means it is hard to  know how many details of a given day or battle’s events were accurately recorded, particularly as in the case of Jan  Długosz, who was writing almost two centuries after the battle of Liegnitz, and was at the mercy of whatever was recorded or survived discussing the battle in 1241.


On the other hand, it can be hard to tell if a source is  just providing a dramatic description of a more ‘mundane’ weapon. Such is the case of the Persian writer Juvaini’s account of Hulegu’s campaign in the 1250s, to which he was a direct eye-witness. Juvaini writes of how Hulegu was provided by his brother, the Grand Khan Mongke, a thousand households of Chinese catapultmen, as well as naphtha throwers. As the siege of the Nizari Assassin fortress of Maymun Diz, covered  back in episode 28, Juvaini mentions a large crossbow-like weapon deployed by Hulegu’s Chinese siege engineers, which he called an  ox-bow, in Persian, kaman-i-gav, a direct translation of the Chinese term for the weapon, ba niu nu, “eight-ox-bow.”.

Juvaini writes that it delivered meteoric shafts which burnt the enemy, in comparison to stones lobbed by the defenders, which did little but harm a single person. The passage is as follows: 


[A] kaman-i-gav [‘ox’s-bow’ ], which had been constructed by Khitayan craftsmen and had a range of 2,500 paces, was brought to bear on those fools, when no other remedy remained and of the devil-like Heretics many soldiers were burnt by those meteoric shafts. From the castle also stones poured down like leaves, but no more than one person was hurt thereby.


These ox-bows in Chinese warfare, as described by the Wujing Zongyao, could have gunpowder packages attached to the bolts, and were used in the same manner as Juvaini describes. While some historians like Stephen Haw see this as a clear usage of gunpowder, it must be remarked that Juvaini’s tendency for over-flowery language makes it difficult to gauge how literal this passage must be taken, though he was an eye-witness to the siege.


Generally it seems that gunpowder was little used in most of the Mongols’ western campaigns. Likely difficulties in travelling with it prevented them from taking great quantities of it, and at the time of the conquests there was not sufficient knowledge in the west which would allow them to procure more supplies. The matter was very different in the continuing Mongol wars in China, where under Khubilai Khan bombs were a main component of the wars against the Song Dynasty, which continued to employ them as well. Thousands of bombs were made every month in the Song Dynasty, though often they failed to properly supply these to the necessary border regions which needed them. One Song official in 1257 inspecting the arsenals of the border lamented how poorly supplied these vulnerable sites were in these weapons, and how despite repeated requests to the central government, amends could not be made. The Song continued to throw whatever they could against the Mongols as they advanced deeper into southern China, but by then the Mongols not only had ample supplies of these weapons for war in China, but manpower reserves, a powerful military structure and a leadership hell-bent on overrunning the south, driven by the energetic Khubilai who believed in the eventuality of his conquest. Khubilai’s great general Bayan set up ranks upon ranks of huopao during his drive to Hangzhou, lobbing stones to pound down the walls, gunpowder bombs to annhilated gates and towers and terrify the defenders withi. Against such an inplacable foe, the last of Song resistance was ground to dust.


Khubilai employed gunpowder weapons against other enemies as well. Most famously against the Japanese, where archaeological evidence, the account of the Hachiman Gudokun and the invasion scrolls of Takezaki Suenaga demonstrates the Yuan forces using iron bombs against the Japanese. Though as we mentioned in episode 26 discussing Suenaga’s scrolls, the addition of the bomb going off in the scroll was likely made later, as it is in different ink and Suenaga fails to mention such weapons. For such a boisterrous warrior like Suenaga to not mention surviving a terrifying grenade like that is rather unlikely.


It appears that an advance in gunpowder weapons was made sometime in the late thirteenth century. Near the ruins of Khubilai Khan’s summer capital of Shangdu, the earliest confirmed cannon has been found. Bearing an inscription in the ‘Phags-pa script dating it to 1298, a serial number, weighing just over 6 kilograms (13 lb 11 oz) and just under 35 cm (approx. 14 in) in length,  it suggests a product of considerable experimentation and systemization. Earlier, much more primitive and rougher models have been found which from archaological context imply they come from the last years of the Tangut Xi Xia Dynasty, crushed in 1227 by Chinggis Khan. It is probable that the evolution of fire-lances from bamboo to metal tubes was a stepping stone to larger metal tubes capable of larger gunpowder charges and projectiles, brought on by the emergency of the Mongol invasions.  Only in the last years of the 13th century did these models reach a level of standardization and sophistication to become bombards, and more and more sophisticated models are known from over the fourteenth century. There are a few passages from 13th and 14th century Chinese texts which may indicate the usage of these cannons, usually in naval engagements; where muzzle flashes seem to be described when Mongol ships fire upon fleeing Jin ships, or on small vessels at the blockade of Xiangyang launch projectiles, but from ships too small for catapult. Much like the western texts, the Chinese did not yet have a name for this new technology though. Calling them huopao, the same name for the catapults which threw gunpowder bombs, it is impossible to know, unless a description is given, which texts refer to bombs, and which to early cannons. 


From 1288 we have perhaps the earliest description of small hand held guns or cannons. In the war against his rebel cousin Nayan, Khubilai Khan led his army against Nayan himself, but attacked from multiple fronts. One such operation was led by a Jurchen commander in Khubilai’s service, Li Ting. Using the word for fire-catapult or cannon, huopao, Li Ting and his small squad of Korean soldiers is described as at night sneaking into an encampment of Nayan’s men and setting off these weapons to great effect. From the context, it is clear that these weapons are too small and mobile to be catapults. In further support of this interpretation, it appears one of the actual weapons has been found. Discovered in 1970 in Heilongjiang province, nearwhere Li Ting’s troops fought Nayan, a small bronze cannon or handgun has been discovered from an archaeological site supporting a late thirteenth century context. Weighing 3 and a half kilograms, 34 cm in length, with a bore of 2 and a half centimeters, these were small, anti-personnal weapons. Not much use against walls, but devastating against men and horses. It is no suprise that Nayan’s rebellion was quickly crushed if Khubilai had men with such armaments at his disposal.


The Yuan Dynasty continued to produce cannon over the fourteenth century. One well known example from 1332 bears an inscription with its date and purpose of manufacture, intended to be used on board a ship for suppression of rebels. By the rise of Zhu Yuanzhang and the Ming Dynasty in the late fourteenth century, cannons and other  firearms were standard features of Chinese armies.  Over the Ming Dynasty, gunpowder weapons continued to advance into more deadly and efficient variants, but did not replace the basic tools of the Mongol conflict in China. Rockets, fire-lances, and bombs were used even into the Qing Dynasty, but supported by cannon, mines and two-staged rockets and even multiple-rockets launchers, similar to the famous Korean hwacha developed during the Imjin war. The Qing too would face fearsome nomads bearing firearms in the form of the Dzunghars, but by  then the military advantage was considerably in favour of the Qing. 


We can also briefly note evidence for an even earlier usage of firearms, in the form of some controversial iconographic evidence in China. In the Dazu cave system in Sichuan, there is an extensive carved relief featuring individuals armed with a variety of weapons. One carved figure holds something visually very close to early designs of handguns or handcannons, from which clouds of smoke, and possibly a projectile, seem to be carved leaving. As these carvings dates to 1128, this would push back the development of the fire-arm even earlier, and suggest a much more widespread usage of cannon and gun than previously thought. However, the identification is hardly accepted. Some have suggested it was a later addition to the complex during repairs, while others have argued it is not depicting a fire-arm, but merely a wind-spirit holding a bag of wind. As it currently stands, there is no hard evidence for emergence of true fire-arms until the late thirteenth century during the Yuan Dynasty.


So did the Mongols spread gunpowder westwards? Recipes for gunpowder and even the first gunpowder weapons appear in Europe, the Islamic World and India late in the thirteenth century, after contact with Mongol armies. However, the diffusion is difficult to track due to the already mentioned ambiuigisties in terminology. It’s likely the Mongol armies did not travel with great quantities of powder and were reluctant to share it’s knowledge. It is notable though that when perhaps the earliest recipe for gunpowder is recorded in Arabic, circa 1280 by Hasan al-Rammah, he records most ingredients as being Chinese in origin, with saltpetre for instance called Chinese snow, or rockets as chinese arrows. A common word for gunpowder in Arabic and Persian meant [dawā’ in Arabic, and Persian dārū], a literal translation of the Chinese huoyao, fire-drug [ often shortened to just yao in 13th century] which implies that knowledge was transmitted directly from Chinese engineers in Mongol service. By the start of the fourteenth century, fireworks appear as  objects of regular entertainment in the Ilkhanate, and therefore transmission from the Mongols, in some fashion, seems certain.


In Europe there are tantalizing clues to transmission. A great number of diplomats, travellers, priests and merchants made the trek from Europe across the Mongol Empire and back, and many brought gifts from the Khans with them, or observed closely the Mongol army in an attempt to learn its secrets. The Franciscan friar, William of Rubruck, spent much time with a European goldsmith in Mongol service, William Buchier, the man who made the famous Silver Tree of Karakorum. Buchier appears to have worked often in conjunction with Chinese artisans in his work for the Mongols. Though Rubruck’s account does not describe gunpowder, Rubruck is known to have met, while back in Paris, the first European who did: Roger Bacon, who describes with amazement his experience viewing Chinese firecrackers going off in Europe. Even if the Mongol army itself did not directly or intentionally transfer gunpowder, or use it in quantities to replace their own bows and arrows, they opened the pathways which allowed its knowledge to move across the Eurasian continent. Over the early decades of the fourteenth century, fearsome hand guns and bombards became regular features of battlefield across the continent, the secret to gunpowder no longer restricted to the Chinese government.


Our series on the Mongols will continue, so please be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals Podcast to follow. If you enjoyed this and would like to help us continue bringing you great content, please consider supporting us on patreon at This episode was researched and written by our series historian, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next none.