By: Billy Hallowell
While people on both sides of the Second Amendment debate are consumed by the contemporary legalities surrounding guns, few have taken the time to pause and consider the unique history of firearms — a robust and colorful timeline that dates back centuries. Regardless of where one stands on the legislative front, it’s hard not to appreciate the unique developments that have been ingrained in the protection and progression of our society.
Firearms have been around for quite some time. Believe it or not, guns were being used as early as 1364. Obviously, the weaponry being employed in early days is nothing like what we have today, but understanding this expansive history offers a fascinating lens into the past. From primitive guns to modern-day automatic weapons, the evolution is noteworthy.
THE WORLD’S FIRST GUNS
It was in 1364 that mankind first recorded the use of a firearm. These weapons, called “hand cannons,” were the first step in the creation of guns. Just 14 years later, handguns were already making their way across Europe.
Guns, in their infancy, were very different from today’s multifaceted weapons. Originally, a wick was tied to “touch hole” inside of the barrel of guns. Then, when one lit the wick, the powder would inevitably be ignited inside, creating the reaction needed to launch the projectile.
It wasn’t until the matchlock gun arrived in the 1400s that guns began to evolve. This particular firearm was the first gun that used mechanics to release a bullet. Finding early examples of these guns is difficult, as they are rare. The NRA’s National Firearms Museum provides more information about how these weapons worked:
The first gun to combine all three components was the matchlock, in the early 1400’s. Many early hand cannons were ignited with a “slow match” – a length of slender rope or cord that had been chemically treated so that an end could be ignited and would continue to burn or smolder, much like a 4th of July punk used to shoot fireworks. Obviously it was awkward to hold both gun & slow match while trying to dip the match to the touch hole of the hand cannon.
The matchlock solved this problem by using an arm called a serpentine on the gun to hold the slow match. By mechanical linkage, a trigger on mounted on the bottom of the lock could be pressed to lower the match to the touch hole, which now included a small pan of fine gun powder that would be ignited first, transmitting the fire through the hole to fire the main charge in the barrel.
THE GUN’S FIRST MAJOR EVOLUTION
In 1498, the gun experienced its first major evolution with the discovery of rifling (putting grooves in the barrel of a gun to improve accuracy). The National Firearms Museum explains the concept:
Archers had found that if the fletching feathers on the rear of their arrow were at a slight angle, causing the arrow to rotate in flight, their ability to hit the target was improved. This concept was applied to gun barrels by cutting slowly twisting grooves down the interior length of the barrel, imparting a spin to the bullet as it left the muzzle. These grooves were called rifling, and “rifled muskets” or “rifles” so equipped were found to be much better at hitting their mark over further distances than “smooth-bore” muskets.
And just a few years later in 1509, the creation of the wheel lock made for an even more intriguing and advanced weapon. Contrary to the matchlock, which required a wick to ignite the gun for usage, the wheel lock was a steel wheel that created the spark needed to ignite the gun.
As PBS notes, the wheel lock technology was extremely expensive, leading some to still choose the matchlock despite improvements (the latter was half the price of the former).
THE EMERGENCE OF THE FLINTLOCK
The next major advancement in gun technologies came in 1640, when the first true flintlock emerged. As PBS notes, this particular technology solved a problem that had been hampering shooters for quite some time. For much of the gun’s existence up to this point, a lid was used to protect or expose powder — a tool that had to be moved manually.
The flintlock solved this annoyance by being designed to both push back the lid and spark a flint simultaneously. The development was so profund, in fact, that it lasted for two centuries without any major alterations. Here’s how HowStuffWorks.com describes the technology:
The basic goal of the flintlock is simple: to create a spark that can light the gunpowder stored in the barrel of the gun. To create this spark, the flintlock uses the “flint and steel” approach. The idea behind flint and steel is straightforward. Flint is an amazingly hard form of rock. If you strike iron or steel with flint, the flint flakes off tiny particles of iron. The force of the blow and the friction it creates actually ignites the iron, and it burns rapidly to form Fe3O4. The sparks that you see are the hot specks of iron burning! If these sparks come near gunpowder, they will ignite it.
Before guns there were swords (known as rapiers). Men would carry these weapons and use them for self-defense and duels. But around 1750, PBS notes that people began carrying guns rather than rapiers.
While a variety of firearms were initially used, around 1777, a more standard practice of using a flintlock was being employed. These pistols were used in this fashion until the mid-1800s when dueling was no longer a fad.
The flintlock’s technology finally peaked around 1825 when the percussion-detonating principle was in general use. About.com claims that percussion-cap guns, invented and patented by the Rev. John Forsyth in the early 1800s, no longer required a flash pan. By the time the Civil War rolled around, both the Union and Confederate forces were using the newfound technology.
The percussion cap was made possible by the discovery of a chemical compound called mercuric fulminate or fulminate of mercury. Its chemical formula is Hg(ONC)2 — it is made from mercury, nitric acid and alcohol.
Mercuric fulminate is extremely explosive, and it is shock sensitive. A sharp blow, or even too much finger pressure, can cause it to detonate. By putting a small amount of mercuric fulminate in a pre-made cap (a tiny cup about the size of a pencil eraser) and affixing the cap to a nipple and tube leading into the barrel, the cap can ignite the gunpowder in the barrel.
THE COLT REVOLVER
The first multi-shot, revolving firearms that were mass produced came from Samuel Colt. Colt produced a gun that enabled people to fire multiple shots without reloading — a development that forever changed warfare. By mass producing these weapons, the inventor made them more affordable and their accuracy and reliability made them useful among hunters and soldiers, alike.
The first Colt revolver emerged in 1835. The Colt web site has more about this fascinating history:
Sam Colt’s success story began with the issuance of a U.S. patent in 1836 for the Colt firearm equipped with a revolving cylinder containing five or six bullets. Colt’s revolver provided its user with greatly increased firepower. Prior to his invention, only one- and two-barrel flintlock pistols were available. In the 163 years that have followed, more than 30 million revolvers, pistols, and rifles bearing the Colt name have been produced, almost all of them in plants located in the Hartford, Connecticut, area.
GUN TECHNOLOGIES VASTLY IMPROVE
It was the second half of the 19th century that gun technologies monumentally expanded. In 1840, the pinfire cartridge was introduced (more about this here). And by 1850, true shotguns were in use. Guns were given new life, again, in 1860, with the introduction of the Spencer repeating carbine:
Introduced at the start of the Civil War, Spencer repeating guns were technically advanced, used cartridges (a recent development), and could fire 7 shots in 15 seconds. But the Army didn’t want a repeating gun, fearing that soldiers would fire more often, constantly need fresh ammunition, and overtax the supply system. But in 1863, President Lincoln test-fired a Spencer. His approval led to the purchase of 107,372 Spencer repeating carbines and rifles (of 144,500 made), and the Spencer became the principal repeating gun of the Civil War.
While most guns in use until the mid-1800s were muzzle-loading (from the front of the barrel), breech-loading (from the back of the barrel) firearms were in common use by 1861. To provide some context, most guns originally required the former system of loading bullets.
From the matchlock phase through the percussion era, muzzle loading was the norm. Through this system, the projectile and powder were dropped down the muzzle at the front of the gun’s barrel and rammed to the rear prior to firing a shot, the National Firearms Museum claims. Eventually, breech-loading took precedence.
MACHINE GUNS COME TO FRUITION
In 1861, the Gatling Gun came on the scene — a magnificent technology, considering its usefulness. About.com provides a snapshot of its capabilities and history (it is considered the precursor to the modern machine gun):
In 1861, Doctor Richard Gatling patented the Gatling Gun, a six-barreled weapon capable of firing a (then) phenomenal 200 rounds per minute. The Gatling gun was a hand-driven, crank-operated, multi-barrel, machine gun. The first machine gun with reliable loading, the Gatling gun had the ability to fire sustained multiple bursts.
Richard Gatling created his gun during the American Civil War, he sincerely believed that his invention would end war by making it unthinkable to use due to the horrific carnage possible by his weapons. At the least, the Gatling Gun’s power would reduce the number of soldiers required to remain on the battlefield.
The 1862 version of the gatling gun had reloadable steel chambers and used percussion caps. It was prone to occasional jamming. In 1867, Gatling redesigned the Gatling gun again to use metallic cartridges – this version was bought and used by the United States Army.
THE WINCHESTER RIFLE EMERGES
In 1873, the Winchester Rifle emerged, distinguishing itself as an immensely-popular firearm. In 1887, the first repeating shotguns were released by the company and, in 1903, Winchester again made history when it created the first automatic rifle.
And in 1892, the first automatic pistol was created by Joseph Laumann. Just just one year later — in 1893 — the Borchardt pistol emerged, complete with a separate magazine. Within eight years, automatic weapons were in regular use.
According to the National Firearms Museum, the first truly fully automatic machine guns (firearms that fire continuously while the trigger is held down) emerged in the 1880s when Hiram Maxim perfected the technology. Then, John Moses Browning followed these weapons up with the .30 caliber Model 1917 and the .50 caliber M-2 “Ma Deuce” — the latter of which is still used today.
In 1900, the historical firearms period came to a close and contemporary technologies abounded.