Most people know gunpowder was first invented in China thousands of years ago, but few are familiar with the fascinating history of firearms, hunting, and gun safety in our modern world. In fact, even the part everyone knows may be false. Records are inconclusive about where gunpowder was first developed, and it may have been Turkey or Europe. As far as guns themselves, they have roots tracing as far back as medieval times.
The Earliest Guns: The European Hand Cannon
Gunpowder began to appear in Europe around 1250 A.D. and was soon applied to the battlefield in the form of the cannon. Early cannons were heavy, dangerous to operate, and difficult to aim, but they changed the world forever. Heavy armor and swift steeds offered little defense against even the earliest cannon, and it was only a matter of time before the same concept was used to arm individual troops. The European "hand cannon," arriving around 1350 A.D., was essentially a miniaturized version of the cannon. Though hand-held, it was loaded and fired in the same way.
Hand cannons were devastating at close range, but they were hard to operate under battlefield conditions. Plus, they could easily backfire and do serious harm to the wielder. New, safer ignition methods were needed before the use of early firearms could be popularized. In the early 1400s, the matchlock was the first answer to the ignition problem. Now, a special trigger could be used to ignite the powder instead of doing it by hand before each shot. This was a step in the right direction that was improved upon with the wheel-lock a few decades later.
The Era of the Flintlock Pistol
By this time, early guns had many of the same components we would recognize today, such as the lock, stock, and barrel. By 1560, early gunsmiths were experimenting with the use of struck flint to ignite powder quickly and seamlessly during battle. Early flintlock systems could do little more than shower the powder with sparks due to the brief strike, however, and had a high failure rate. These early firearms were simple to use and were popular for hunting in the American colonies. They were also used by the French, the Dutch, and others throughout Europe.
Early Rifling: A Huge Improvement in Accuracy
Rifling refers to a series of grooves all along the inside of a gun's barrel, providing spin to a projectile as it leaves the barrel. As in archery, this spin makes it easier to strike a target. The development of early rifled muskets made them much more valuable as military weapons. This innovation also made it possible for the weapons to use sights effectively. It was on the tail of this discovery, in the 1600s, that the American colonists began to hone their own take on these new weapons and begin contributions that last until the present day.
The first long rifle of American design appeared in the early 1700s as the result of America's unique status as a "melting pot" of European gunsmithing ideas. Over time, the barrel of this rifle became longer than those of the German-style hunting rifles from which it was most directly descended. These weapons were far more accurate, on average, than those used by British troops of the Revolutionary period, but they were much harder to load. The British relied on large, massed formations and sheer volume of shots, while individual Americans could inflict serious damage.
The Wartime Period: American Shooting Gains its Character
As the American long rifle became the weapon of choice for both hunting and warfare, three major conflicts happened practically back to back across North America: The French and Indian War, the American Revolution, and the War of 1812. In all of these conflicts, Americans became known for effectively hitting a target at extremely long distances, often from behind heavy cover. One of the earliest acts of the new U.S. government was to inaugurate rapid production of rifles. By 1800, federal armories were established at both Springfield and Harpers Ferry.
America's Early Firearm Pioneers
In this early period, the concept of gun safety was rudimentary at best. Able-bodied men often owned guns and practiced alongside their fellows, training to defend the community. Some of the biggest names in modern weaponry have their roots in this period, including Remington and Derringer. This was one of the fastest periods of evolution of weaponry in world history. Some of the innovations developed in America, such as the percussion cap, rapidly spread throughout Europe. In other cases, U.S. manufacturers took ideas from the Europeans.
Earliest Modern Arms of the Civil War
During the Civil War, battles were faster and involved more fighters than ever before. Manufacturers on both sides of the conflict sought ways to make rifles more reliable during all conditions, even in the event they could not be serviced or replaced for months. The result was the twilight of traditional muzzle-loading weapons, where munitions were inserted into the front of the barrel. Breech-loaded weapons were more reliable and quickly appeared in many varieties. Around the same time, the first double-barreled shotguns were developed.
The "Wild West"
Samuel Colt's early revolver first appeared during the Civil War, but it became an inextricable part of American history during westward expansion in the mid-1800s. Revolvers with modern-style cartridges proliferated across the frontier for both hunting and safety purposes. At the same time, large-caliber, single-barreled shotguns enjoyed a renaissance as frontiersmen encountered big game like plains bison. The U.S. military, concerned that repeating weapons would expend ammo too quickly, resisted their adoption.
The World Wars
By the time World War I was beginning in Europe, a truly modern Colt revolver was widely available in the U.S. and smokeless powder was common. Aided by the rise of world-famous gun company Luger, Germany became the foremost producer of firearms in Europe. These included innovative auto-loading weapons as well as designs, such as the Luger P-08, widely used during both world wars. However, full-auto machine guns were the province of the U.S. thanks to the work of gunsmith John Browning, whose .50-caliber design is still used today.
World War II marked a dramatic shift in wartime technology. Sub-machine guns, modern battlefield rifles, and true assault rifles were all designed by dozens of manufacturers worldwide. The fast, immensely powerful M-1 Garand is thought of as one of the greatest American weapons of the period, but many other weapons that would make a significant mark on history also emerged during this time, such as the Thompson sub-machine gun.
The Modern Era
In the modern era, arms of all types have proliferated further and faster than ever before. Both the 9mm Uzi sub-machine gun and the AK-47, or "Kalashnikov," appeared in the early stages of the Cold War and continue to affect conflicts worldwide today. At home, hunting and gun safety have become more sophisticated. As military tactics enter an era of ultra-long-range weapons aided by the most advanced technology, it might seem as if the prime role of the battlefield rifle is coming to an end. However, there will always be a place in the worlds of security, target shooting, and more for these magnificent feats of engineering.