The invention of gunpowder birthed the first firearms, and through the centuries we have witnessed the evolution of guns in their use for both personal defense, and in war. The long, illustrious history of guns contains the spread of their use via trade routes and through master craftsmen- who brought their skills into America to help shape much of what defines modern firearm technology.
This article briefly explores the origins of the firearm and how it has changed through the years to introduce the art of weaponry used around the world in various ways. Whether you are an enthusiast who spends their weekends enjoying match competitions, hunting, or simply enjoying the various makes and models you can shoot, this information will help you better appreciate the technologies that brought your favorite guns to fruition.
The Invention of Gunpowder
What we call gunpowder, or black powder, was first described in China during the Han Dynasty close to 2000 years ago. The description included a mixture of powders that could fly and dance, and by 300 AD the ingredients and measurements had been written down, along with a warning of the explosion they caused.
Considered medicinal for many years, it was used in a rudimentary type of gun by the 10th Century. The ingredients included saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal were perfected by the 11th Century with a detailed formula to make the substance recorded and shared via trade. This explosive more or less stayed the same until it was replaced by smokeless powder in the late 19th Century.
Smokeless powder is a propellant made from nitrocellulose mixed with nitroglycerin and sometimes nitroglycerin and nitroguanidine into a small pellet or flake. It is cleaner burning and leaves behind less residue, plus it is considered easier to measure and more powerful – making it more accurate in its use.
The First Firearm: When Were Guns Invented?
The first mention of propelling a projectile through a tube using gunpowder was in 904 AD. These used bamboo tubes and rocks, and narrowing it down to who made the first gun is truly impossible if you consider these rudimentary models were technically a firearm. The invention was not associated with any one person, but rather was common through the Current Chinese Dynasty and Asia at this time. By 1000 AD these had advanced into what is known as a fire lance. The fire lance was a pyrotechnic, spear-like projectile attached to a lance-like object that was first used in wars between battling tribes and local self-defense. These vary in sizes from handheld options to larger models that were mounted on a base or held by multiple men.
The Spread to Europe
The opening of overland trade routes into Asia by the Europeans through the 13th Century introduced gunpowder to the Western world, and with it, rudimentary firearms. As with the natural progression of technologies, by 1346 there is mention of the use of a cannon at the Battle of Crecy between the French and English, and by 1364 ‘guns with handles’ were in use.
These early, handheld firearms were a hybridized cannon that elongated the barrel and were light enough to be carried into battle, loaded, and fired by a single man holding a burning wick to where the powder was held. This is truly the beginning of firearm history as we know it in that the explosive power of black powder has been put into use in such a manner that warfare will never be the same again.
Although not as popular, or accurate, as a bow, these early models could fire a powerful arrow, rock, lead ball (or anything else that could fit into the barrel) in a manner that could pierce armor- something an arrow could not often do. Used through the second half 14th Century, it was only a matter of time before the design was improved upon even further.
15th and 16th Century Advancements
The matchlock and wheel lock designs were born of these early handgonnes, and the addition of a stock and serpentine lock allowed a two-handed grip and improved accuracy to no end. These guns were referred to as Arquebuses and Muskets. Arquebuses were often long-barrelled and required a forked rest or tripod to help stabilize and increase shooting accuracy. Muskets were heavier, although a shorter barrelled option, and were more deadly in its force.
The invention of the serpentine lock allowed the powder to be held in a pan, while a match was held in a moveable clamp that could be released without the shooter having to release their two-handed grip, and lose their target.
Wheel Lock Guns
By 1509 the wheel lock gun had improved upon the ignition of gunpowder even further. Rather than needing a light match or fuse, the wheel lock allowed a mechanically generated spark to ignite the powder to fire the projectile. With no wick to worry about, this made reloading and firing a much faster process, although the shooter still needed to move the protective powder pan cover before firing.
The Discovery of Rifling
While the design of accurate handheld firearms advanced, it made sense that it wasn’t only the firing mechanism gaining ground for accuracy purposes. First applied in Germany in 1498, the rifling principle was discovered in relation to its use in the barrels of firearms.
Rifling is the art of stabilizing a projectile through a controlled spin. The idea was already known in use with bows and arrows, but many difficulties arose when the concept was applied to the inside of a gun barrel as black powder leaves behind a lot of residue upon combustion. This filled the rifling and made it difficult to shoot with any accuracy, but like all things, by 1540 rifling was a common addition to new firearms.
The Flintlock and a New Era
In 1610, a French gunsmith, Marin le Bourgeoys, introduced his version of a new flintlock design that moved the cover of the powder pan and spark the flint at the same time- without the need of having to manually move the cover before engaging the flint. Although many different versions existed prior to this, Monsieur le Bourgeoys’s design was much more advanced and became the accepted ‘true flintlock’ that remained unchanged for 200 years, and was the same style used during the American Revolution.
The Art of American Gunsmithing
The art of gunsmithing was carried across the Atlantic, and with it new ideas for a New World. Many blacksmiths were gunsmiths as well since they had the skills and tools to fashion guns, and families carried forward their talents from one generation to another as they emigrated to America. Although still fired using a flintlock, handguns and long guns were both popular for shooting sports, hunting, and military might, and their designs became intricate and artistic depending on their use. Through the 17th and 18th Century, gunsmiths were sought out in both Europe and America for their skills, as well as talents to customize hefts and feel for their customers. Stylistic experiments helped birth accuracy and a love of the weapon itself.
These early settlers were crucial to the weapon stores used during the American Revolution. Generational gunsmithing families, such as the Henry’ and Molls of Pennsylvania, had contracts with both state and government entities both before and after the Revolution, and most likely were well wanted for treason by the English. The American love of both liberty and guns were born in this rich, historical past.
From Art to Enterprise
With the establishment of Harper’s Ferry Armory to boost weapon and ammunition production following the Revolutionary War, the fine art of gunsmithing soon became an enterprise. Gun manufacturing, for the sole purpose of arming military troops, was in demand as England continued to pressure the newly founded US Government. Names associated with quality firearm and firearms parts began in the decades following this time period, such as Remington, one of the oldest weapon manufacturers still in existence; Deringer, still known for their small, concealable handguns; and Whitney, who was first known for inventing the cotton gin, but later introduced interchangeable, mass-produced, rifle parts.
With two centuries of firearm expertise under their belts, Remington & Sons were founded by Eliphalet Remington II in 1816 when he decided he could make a better gun than what he could buy. Proving his talent in a shooting match, he was in the gun business before he left the match field, and was soon expanding his manufacturing from Ilion Gulch, New York to a larger plant In Erie Canal that is still in use to this day.
The companies notoriety grew due to their continued advances in quality firearm creation. They were the first to introduce the hammerless solid breech repeating shotgun, the first hammerless auto-loading shotgun, the first successful high-power slide action repeating rifle, and the first lock breech auto-loading rifle. These popular firearms helped advanced sports shooters and hunters, and by 1888 they were acquired by a sporting good magnet and continued under the name, Remington Arms.
Through the 20th Century, they continued to merge, dropping the Arms from their name, and expanding into other outdoor supplies, household goods, and clothing. Under contract with the US Government, they expanded their ammunition production for use in World Wars I and II, and continues to offer new shooting technologies and is a recognized name with anyone familiar with firearms.
Samuel Colt is another entrepreneur who sought out a means to produce a handheld firearm capable of repeat shooting without having to stop and reload. HIs multi-firing vision was based on a design with multiple chambers located in a rotating barrel that used a lock and spring firing system. Created in 1836, the Colt Single Action Army revolver was soon known as the Colt .45.
And thus was born the revolver. A model which is well known to this day.
With a little help from Eli Whitney, he soon developed molds in his armory to better mass produce the pieces that made up the revolver, making them affordable and easy to come by. He soon marketed these firearms to not only the military, but those rushing West for land, gold, and the spread of law enforcement positions in the hundreds of settlements popping up across the country.
Colt Firearms continued to introduce new ideas and worked with other manufacturers through the 20th Century to provide groundbreaking advancements- such as the first semi-auto pistol in 1900. They are still a popular brand as they provide a quality, dependable firearm.
Smith and Wesson
Once Colt’s patent lifted, other companies rushed to improve upon the design, and with the unrest within the US leading to the Civil War, firearms for military use were once again in high demand. Smith and Wesson, founded in 1852, took the revolver idea one step further.
Still known for their dependable firearms, their creation of a double-action revolver proved to be a faster option for discharging and reloading due to the ability to swing the revolver cylinder out to the side.
In 1887, they developed the first double-action concealed hammer revolver. This lightened the overall design, making it more compact and easier to carry as well. Through the 20th Century, they introduced the idea of an automatic pistol, new models that became popular with law enforcement both in the US and overseas, and the Model 39- the first American-made double-action auto-loading pistol.
To this day they are leaders in handgun manufacturing due to their quality styles that fit a wide range of shooting needs.
Born in Utah in 1855, John Moses Browning was creating rifles out of spare parts by the time he was 14. By 1879 he held a patent for the single-shot rifle, and quickly established an arms factory with his brothers in 1880.
His advances in firearm technology only continued, with patents for bolt-action repeating rifles; lever action, exposed hammer, tubular magazine rifles; and sliding vertical locks (no name just a few), all occurred within just a few years of their opening doors.
In 1883, Browning and Remington formed an alliance, selling technologies and developing firearms in a manner that advanced firearm creation and changed the course of this art for all time.
Their technologies were not just bought and used by Remington either, it was Browning’s design that was used by Colt when the first semi-automatic pistol was introduced in the US in 1900. The rest of the 19th Century and 20th-century company advancements surround handgun, shotgun, and rifle development to create highly accurate, high power options popular with gun enthusiasts worldwide.
Famous Guns in History
There is an incredible array of gun models and technologies that inspired advancements in weaponry, but a few noted models stand out. Not all these weapons were those that you generally kept at home, as some developed for efficient lethal force, and changed the face of war, and history, when used.
What we call the shotgun today has had many names through the years, First developed in 1600 in Germany, it was called the blunderbuss, and was the first short musket load that fired from the shoulder. It became known as a fowling-piece in the 1700 when it became a popular waterfowl hunting long gun that used birdshot in a scatter pattern for accuracy when birds were on the fly.
But the term shotgun wasn’t used until 1776 to differentiate between a smoothbore ‘shotgun’ and a bored rifle, and even then it wasn’t the same as what we consider a shotgun today. It wasn’t until Browning patented the first lever action, pump action, and autoloading shotguns during the last decade of the 19th Century that the comparison to a modern-day shotgun is truly seen.
The Spencer and Henry Rifles
Introduced right at the start of the Civil War, the Spencer used cartridges to fire 7 rounds in under 15 seconds. It became a favorite of President Lincoln who approved an order for over 107,000 pieces. They became the principal repeating gun of the Civil War.
Benjamin Henry created a similar gun during the same time, which became the inspiration for the Remington Rifle design in the upcoming years. Henry Firearms are still popular and many gun enthusiasts have at least one Henry model in their collection.
The Gatling Gun
In the 1860s, Richard Gatling introduced a primitive version of a machine gun that could fire 200 rounds per minute using a hand crank. The invention was actually made to help discourage large scale battles and show the folly of war due to its destructive nature, but Gatling sold to both Union and Confederate armies, and improved upon its early failings to make it standard in the US Army until replaced by The Maxim.
In 1884 Sir Hirum Maxim introduced the first recoil-operated machine gun, the predecessor to the modern machine gun. His design allowed the recoil from one fired round to feed the next, allowing it to operate without manual power. This was a deadly military option and reshaped warfare as we knew it at the time.
The M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle, or BAR, set the standard for automatic military firearms and has been used consistently through the 1970’s in Korea and Vietnam. Reliable and with a powerful velocity, they were a lethal force that soldiers grew to depend upon. The creation of the BAR also inspired advancements in machine guns as well due to the reliable automatic firing technologies used.
The Tommy Gun
Introduced in 1918, the Thompson submachine gun, or Tommy Gun, was a handheld machine gun used during U.S. conflicts in Nicaragua and Honduras. It was not used in WW I, but instead was marketed to law enforcement and soon found its way into criminal hands. Iconic during the years of prohibition, it was used during the era’s most horrifying crimes committed by crime syndicates.
The Tommy Gun inspired the first Federal gun laws, and the National Firearms Act of 1934 restricted ownership of automatic weapons. It soon became a military weapon in WWII, however, but can not be privately owned without special licensing or fittings.
The M1 Garand became the standard service rifle for the US Armed Forces in 1936 after the standard issue rifles were deemed too strong for combat. Inspired by the Maxim, each bullet was able to be chambered due to the energy of the previously fired round. This replaced the bolt action and gave US forces an upper hand in WWII. It was still used through Vietnam before being replaced and is still a popular collectors gun for shooting sports.
Small and lightweight, the UZI was developed in 1948 for the Israeli Army for combat in small, confined spaces. The submachine gun has tremendous firep[ower and gives the shooter an advantage in close combat. It became popular for widespread use for both military and law enforcement, and although has more or less been replaced in most places, can still be found in use in some areas.
Produced for the Soviet Red Army in 1947, the AK-47 is still one of the most popular, and most deadly weapons in military history. This automatic assault rifle is lightweight and portable, and deadly accurate with the ability to shoot up to 600 rounds per minute.
Modern Weaponry Advancements
The above weapons all laid the foundation for the many handguns and long guns we shoot today. In fact, many of what was mentioned are still around, and can regularly be seen in gun enthusiasts’ collections, as well as regularly maintained and shot in the range.
Early gun manufacturers perfected the many styles and designs used in modern weapons, and advancements we see are based on the advanced part manufacturing technologies that are more accurate, as well as ammunition development to work with existing rifling, and gas chambered systems.
Stylistic designs are also popular, such as the AR-15, which is simply a semi-automatic .223 or 5.56 rifle with a more sleek, military-looking body. Although many confuse it with something more powerful or nefarious, it is no different than the gun you will take out hunting.
By no means is this a complete history of firearms and their use, but it does cover the major milestones and weaponry put to use through the centuries. The invention of gunpowder, and its subsequent use in firearms, changed the course of history for those living during those times, and created an art of both producing, and firing these creations that exist to this day.
By the mid-20th Century, the foundation of quality makes and models had more or less been perfected, and the last half-century has seen the application of material technologies applied to both the body and ammunition for various shooting purposes.
We’d love to hear what else deserves a spot in the history, or your own stories of your favorite firearms through the years. As always, please share!