A (Not So) Brief History of the Gun
I love guns. I grew up with them. My father (an avid and excellent hunter) owned (and still owns) many. One of my most memorable gifts as a young man was a single-shot 410 shotgun. Before I was old enough to own a real gun, my friends and I were quite skilled in using all sorts of scrap wood, duct tape, nails, and so on to manufacture the most magnificent replicas. Back then, if I was not playing with some sort of ball, I was in some sort of battle.
As debates about guns and gun rights in America rage (and as some states are on the threshold of a near total ban on guns), truly to understand the gun, one needs to look at its history. The story of the gun is a fascinating and riveting look not only at history, but science, business, politics, justice, and morality as well. Throw in a great deal of ingenuity, a good deal of heroism, and a small dose of romance, and the story of the gun is the world’s greatest tale of human invention.
The gun’s story begins with the invention (or discovery) of gunpowder. Gunpowder most likely was invented just prior to 1000 A.D. It became rather prominent around the turn of the twelfth century. Theories abound about who actually invented gunpowder, but no one really knows.
According to noted historian Ian Hogg, “The first positive statement relating to gunpowder appears in a document written in 1242 by Roger Bacon entitled On the Miraculous Power of Art and Nature.” Hogg also notes that, since, during that period, “fiery compositions” were considered to be an element of the “Black Arts,” Bacon, a Franciscan friar, concealed his formula in an anagram (which remained unsolved for over 600 years).
Early guns were really cannons. The first illustration of a cannon appears in a 1326 work entitled On the Duties of Kings prepared for King Edward III of England. These early cannons fired large stone balls — sometimes weighing up to 200 pounds. However, such stones were still lighter than iron shot of a similar diameter, and due to the relative weakness of early gunpowder, were safer to use.
Such cannons were massive and thus, difficult to move. Smaller calibers that were more mobile were much desired. This led to the development of the “hand-gonne.” These were simply miniature iron or bronze cannon barrels attached to the end of a lengthy wooden staff. (A 1475 German manuscript depicts such a device.)
By the 15th century, “arms of fire” with a lock, stock, and a barrel — the same basic look we have today — became somewhat common. The first weapon that could be carried, loaded, and discharged by a single man became known as the matchlock. This was a muzzle-loading gun that was discharged when a hand-lit match was lowered into the flash pan.
The term “lock” most likely originated from the fact that the gun-lock operated in a similar fashion to the locking mechanisms of the day. American Pilgrims were very familiar with this gun.
However, these guns were not very accurate or reliable. They could be quite dangerous to use (as the burning wick necessary to ignite the powder in the flash pan was often in close proximity to the stores of powder on the user), and were virtually useless in wet weather. The matchlock also was not very useful for hunting, as the burning wick alerted most every type of game.
A new lock design for igniting the powder was needed. Thus, around 1500 A.D. the world was introduced to the wheel lock. The wheel lock made use of a centuries-old process for lighting fires: striking stone against steel and catching the sparks. No longer was a cumbersome and dangerous burning cord necessary for discharging a gun.
For the first time, a firearm could now be carried loaded, primed, and ready to fire. Again, the actual inventor is unknown, but Leonardo da Vinci had one of the earliest drawings of a wheel lock design.
The wheel lock also led to another advancement in firearms: the pistol. For the first time, a weapon could now be carried concealed. It was at this point that many of the first laws against carrying firearms came into being.
Like the matchlock, the wheel lock had its short-comings. If the wrench necessary to wind the wheel was lost, the weapon was rendered useless. Also, with over 50 individual parts, the wheel lock was of a complicated and intricate design. This made the gun very expensive to own and difficult and expensive to maintain.
Efforts toward a simpler, less expensive, and more reliable gun led to the next significant step in firearms: the flintlock. The first flintlock design was by the Frenchman Marin le Bourgeoys around 1615. The flintlock was a more simple design and most of the moving parts were inside the gun. This made it much more weather-proof than its predecessors.
For over 200 years, the flintlock was the standard firearm of European armies. It was used in the greatest battles of the 18th century and helped determine many of the rulers of Europe, and helped set the borders of many European nations. The flintlock brought to an end the armor-wearing knight and also saw the end of the Napoleonic wars.
The flintlock was also the customary firearm of the young United States and was instrumental in our battle for independence. In fact, to battle lawlessness, Indians, and to put food on the table, the gun was the most essential and prized tool in early America. As soon as they were old enough properly to hold and fire a flintlock, many young American boys were expected to help feed their families. Thus, generations of boys growing up and using guns from a young age played no small part in America winning her Independence. “The Americans [are] the best marksmen in the world,” lamented a minister of the Church of England in 1775.
The first original American contribution to firearms was the Kentucky rifle (which was made in Pennsylvania). This gun was superior to most every European contemporary. It was longer, lighter, and used a smaller caliber than other muzzle-loading guns at the time. Most importantly, as the name indicates, the Kentucky gun was “rifled.” This process, which involves cutting helical grooves inside the gun barrel, greatly increased accuracy.
A bullet fired from a rifled gun spins and thus helps stabilize any bullet imperfections (which were usually significant in the 18th century) that otherwise would distort flight (think bow-and-arrow vs. slingshot).
In spite of all this, most American Revolutionaries still carried smooth-bore muskets. Kentucky rifles did take longer to load than smooth-bore muskets, and often the volume of fire was/is more important than accuracy. General George Washington did make significant use of American marksmen armed with the Kentucky rifle. These riflemen played major roles (as in picking off British officers) in such conflicts as the Battle of Saratoga (see Morgan’s Riflemen).
The birth of a new nation meant the need for a national armory. In 1777, General Washington settled on a strategic location in Springfield, Massachusetts, as the setting for the armory. In addition to being important for our national defense, the Springfield Armory led the world in technological advancements that would change manufacturing forever.
The manufacture of firearms at Springfield helped usher in the age of mass production. An ingenious inventor named Thomas Blanchard, who worked for the Springfield Armory for five years, created a special lathe for the production of wooden gun stocks.
Such a lathe allowed for the easy manufacture of objects of irregular shape. This led, for example, to the easy mass production of shoes. Many other technical industries — such as the typewriter, sewing machine, and the bicycle — were also born out of the gun industry. Factories that produced such products were often located near firearm manufacturers, as the firearms industry possessed the most skilled craftsman necessary for creating the complicated parts for such machines.
The Springfield Armory also introduced contemporary business practices to manufacturing. Concepts such as hourly wages, and cost accounting practices became customary at Springfield and were important steps in modernizing manufacturing.
The next step in firearms development came from a minister. Due to his severe frustration with the delay between trigger pull and gunfire (which too often allowed for the escape of his prized target: wild ducks) from his flintlock, the Reverend Alexander Forsyth invented the percussion cap.
Inside the cap is a small amount of impact sensitive explosive (like fulminate of mercury). Thus, muzzle-loading guns now did not have to rely on exposed priming powder to fire, were quicker to fire, and were almost completely weather-proof. However, gun users were still plagued by a centuries old problem: they were limited to a single shot before reloading. Enter Samuel Colt.
Making use of the percussion cap, in 1836 Colt (with the aid of a mechanic, John Pearson) perfected and patented a revolving handgun. Although little of Colt’s design was original, he ingeniously brought together existing features of previous guns and fashioned them into a mechanically elegant and reliable revolver.
Along with being an inventor, Colt was a shrewd and capable businessman. His genius was not only in his gun design, but in the techniques used to manufacture it. His guns were made using interchangeable parts (made by machine and assembled by hand).
In 1847, with an order of 1,000 pistols from the U.S. Army, and no factory to build them, Colt looked to noted gun-maker Eli Whitney (often called “the father of mass production”) to help fill the order. It was the production of guns, and men such as Whitney and Colt, that led the way in the pioneering and perfection of the assembly line.
When Colt’s American patent expired in 1857 there were many who stood ready to take the next step in firearms. None more so than a pair of men who had spent much of their time perfecting ammunition: Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson. In 1856, just in time to take advantage of Colt’s expiring patent, their partnership produced the world’s first revolver that fired a fully self-contained cartridge. This cartridge was a “rimfire” variety that Smith and Wesson patented in 1854.
As handguns were progressing, long arms were beginning to catch up. This is where another American icon enters our history: a wealthy shirt maker named Oliver Winchester. Winchester took over a fledgling arms company in 1855 and in 1857 hired a gunsmith named Tyler Henry to turn it around.
By 1860, Henry had created a breech-loading lever-action repeating rifle (firing 16 rounds). The Henry Repeating Rifle was a tremendously popular, useful, and reliable gun. It was this weapon that began to make the single-shot muzzle-loading rifle obsolete.
In 1866, Winchester improved on the Henry rifle and produced a model named after himself. The Winchester model 1866 fired 18 rounds, had a wooden forearm to make it less hot to handle, and contained the familiar side-loading port.
It was in 1873 that the two most legendary guns of the Old West were produced — the Winchester model 1873 (which was a larger caliber than the 1866 model) and the Colt model 1873, otherwise known as “The Peacemaker.” Carrying on with the savvy business sense of its founder, the Colt Company built this model to hold the exact same ammunition as the Winchester model 1873.
Integral in the success of Winchester Arms was the greatest gunsmith in the history of America (and maybe the world): John Browning. Over a 19 year relationship Winchester manufactured 44 firearms designed and built by Browning. A devout Mormon, Browning held 128 gun patents and sold designs not only to Winchester, but also Colt, Remington, Savage, and Fabrique Nationale.
Browning had his hand in almost every type of firearm design. Everything from single-shots and lever-actions to rifles and shotguns bears the influence of John Browning. Browning’s guns, along with those by Colt, Winchester, et al put more fire-power in the hands of an individual than ever before. However, they paled in comparison to what was next. With virtually every step in gun advancement, there were many attempts toward the same goal. This was no different for the “machine gun.”
Certainly the most famous of the early versions of the machine gun was the Gatling Gun. Mounted on a central axis with six rotating barrels, the Gatling Gun was fired by hand turning a rotating crank mounted on the side. Although not a true automatic, the Gatling could achieve several hundred rounds per minute.
The most successful and famous of the early fully automatic guns was the Maxim gun. Invented by an American-born Brit, Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim, this gun was introduced in 1884. The maxim was completely automatic in the sense that it was “self-powered.”
In other words, using the tremendous amount of energy that was released when the gun was fired, it was now unnecessary for a discharged cartridge to be manually ejected and the next cartridge to be manually loaded. With the Maxim gun, this action continues with a single trigger pull. Maxim’s gun could fire 10 rounds per second.
Maxim spent several years studying how to put the recoil energy of a gun to good use. He patented virtually every possible way of automatically operating a gun. So much so that, as Ian Hogg put it, “he could have probably quoted [only] one of his many patents and stifled machine gun development for the next 21 years, since almost every successful machine gun design can be foreseen in a Maxim patent.”
Men like Browning, Baron Von Odkolek, John Thompson, Mikhail Kalashnikov, and several others built off of Maxim’s success, and machine guns became smaller and lighter. Browning is perhaps most famous for his automatic designs. By the 1890’s Browning had designs that were vastly superior to the Gatling guns used by the U.S. military at the time.
This brings us into the 20th century where fully automatic weapons that could be carried and operated by a single man were common place and necessary for any successful army. When the U.S. entered WWI our soldiers were armed with rifles that were significantly inferior to those of our enemies and allies. In 1918 Browning equipped the U.S. military with his .30 caliber Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR).
Though it was highly successful, the BAR did not become standard issue for the U.S. military until 1938. Towards the end of WWI, with the introduction of the tank, to serve as an anti-tank weapon, Browning upgraded his .30 caliber design to a .50 caliber. This machine gun was officially designated as the Browning M2, but was affectionately referred to as “Ma Deuce.”
Though improving tank armor made it ineffective as an anti-tank weapon, the M2 became standard equipment for many U.S. vehicles, including planes and ships. Still in use today, and with nearly 100 years of service, the M2 is the longest serving fully automatic weapon in the U.S. arsenal.
From before the founding of this great nation, firearms have been essential to the preservation of life, the enforcement of law and justice, and the establishment and protection of liberty. Our Founding Fathers understood well how important the gun was to the founding and maintaining of liberty in the U.S.
Thus, they gave us: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state…” And just what is the “militia?” No less than the co-author of the 2nd Amendment, George Mason, tells us: “I ask, sir, what is the militia? It is the whole people … To disarm the people is the best and most effectual way to enslave them.” Even Jesus Christ Himself understood the significance of an armed man. In Luke He states, “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are safe.”
What’s more, the technology that drove the progression of firearms and the improved manufacturing and business practices adopted at gun factories propelled the U.S. into the Industrial Age. America owes much to the gun. Americans, whether they are gun owners or not, whether they love them or despise them, would be wise to remember all that the gun has meant to this nation and hope and pray that guns remain in the hands of its citizens.
Trevor and his wife Michelle are the authors of “Debt Free Living in a Debt Filled World.” Contact him at [email protected]
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