History of the firearm

The phalanx-charging fire-gourd, one of many hand cannon types discharging lead pellets in the gunpowder blast, an illustration from the Huolongjing, 14th century.
Hand cannon from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

Black powder (or gun powder) was invented by China during the 9th century;[1][2][3] these inventions were later transmitted to the Middle East and Europe. The direct ancestor of the firearm is the fire lance. The prototype of the fire lance was invented in China during the 10th century and is the predecessor of all firearms.


In China, the earliest firearm was the fire lance, a black-powder–filled tube attached to the end of a spear and used as a flamethrower (different from older Greek fire-powered Byzantine flamethrower); shrapnel was sometimes placed in the barrel so that it would fly out together with the flames.[3][4] The earliest known depiction of a gunpowder weapon is the illustration of a fire-lance on a mid-10th century silk banner from Dunhuang.[5] The De'an Shoucheng Lu, an account of the siege of De'an in 1132 during the Jin–Song Wars, records that Song forces used fire-lances against the Jurchen.[6]

The proportion of saltpeter in the propellant was increased to maximize its explosive power.[4] To better withstand that explosive power, the paper and bamboo of which fire-lance barrels were originally made came to be replaced with metal.[3] And to take full advantage of that power, the shrapnel came to be replaced by projectiles whose size and shape filled the barrel more closely.[4] With this, the three basic features of the gun emerged: a barrel made of metal, high-nitrate gunpowder, and a projectile which totally occludes the muzzle so that the powder charge exerts its full potential in propellant effect.[7]

The earliest depiction of a gun is a sculpture from a cave in Sichuan dating to the 12th century of a Chinese figure carrying a vase-shaped bombard with flames and a cannonball coming out of it.[8][9] The oldest surviving firearm is the Heilongjiang hand cannon dated to 1288, which was discovered at a site in modern-day Acheng District where the History of Yuan records that battles were fought at that time; Li Ting, a military commander of Jurchen descent, led footsoldiers armed with guns in battle to suppress the rebellion of the Christian Mongol Prince Nayan.[10]

Middle East

Guns - Safavid Empire - Iran (Persia)

Firearms appeared in the Middle East between the late 13th century[11][12][13] and early 14th century.[14] Ahmad Y. al-Hassan claims that the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260 saw the Mamluks use against the Mongols "the first cannon in history" with gunpowder formula which are almost identical with the ideal composition for explosive gunpowder.[15][16] However, Iqtidar Alam Khan argues that it was invading Mongols who introduced gunpowder to the Islamic world[17] and cites Mamluk antagonism towards early riflemen in their infantry as an example of how gunpowder weapons were not always met with open acceptance in the Middle East.[18]

The first references to the use of what may have been arquebuses (Ottoman Turkish: tüfek‎) by the Janissary corps of the Ottoman army date them from 1394 to 1465.[19] However it's unclear whether these were arquebuses or small cannons as late as 1444, but the fact that they were listed separate from cannons in mid-15th century inventories suggest they were handheld firearms.[20]

The musket first appeared in the Ottoman Empire by 1465.[21] In 1598, Chinese writer Zhao Shizhen described Turkish muskets as being superior to European muskets.[22] The Chinese military book Wu Pei Chih (1621) later described Turkish muskets that used a rack-and-pinion mechanism, which was not known to have been used in European or Chinese firearms at the time.[23]

Southeast Asia

Istinggar, a result of Indo-Portuguese gunmaking traditions.

Even though the knowledge of making gunpowder-based weapons in Nusantara archipelago has been known after the failed Mongol invasion of Java (1293), and the predecessor of firearms, the pole gun (bedil tombak), was recorded as being used by Java in 1413,[24][25]:245 the knowledge of making "true" firearms came much later, after the middle of 15th century. It was brought by the Islamic nations of West Asia, most probably the Arabs. The precise year of introduction is unknown, but it may be safely concluded to be no earlier than 1460.[26]:23 Before the arrival of the Portuguese in Southeast Asia, the natives already possessed primitive firearms in the form of the Java arquebus.[27]

The technology of firearms in Southeast Asia further improved after the Portuguese capture of Malacca (1511).[28] Starting in the 1513, the traditions of German-Bohemian gun making were merged with Turkish gun making traditions.[29]:39–41 This resulted in the Indo-Portuguese tradition of making matchlocks. Indian craftsmen modified the design by introducing a very short, almost pistol-like buttstock held against the cheek, not the shoulder, when aiming. They also reduced the caliber and made the gun lighter and more balanced. The Portuguese, who conducted much fighting aboard ships and river craft, valued a more compact gun, and thus this type of matchlock gun were very popular.[30]:41[31] The Malay gunfounders, regarded as being in the same level with those of Germany, quickly adapted these new firearms, and thus a new type of arquebus, the istinggar, appeared.[32]:385


A model of a Hussite warrior behind a Pavise shield, carrying a píšťala on his arm

One theory of how gunpowder came to Europe is that it made its way along the Silk Road through the Middle East; another is that it was brought to Europe during the Mongol invasion in the first half of the 13th century.[33][34] English Privy Wardrobe accounts list "ribaldis," a type of cannon, in the 1340s, and siege guns were used by the English at the Siege of Calais (1346–47).[35]

The first mention of firearms in Russia is found in the Sofiiskii vremennik chronicle, where it is stated that during the 1382 defense of Moscow from Tokhtamysh's Golden Horde, Muscovites used firearms called tyufyaki (Russian: тюфяки), which were of Eastern origin; this word derives from Turkic tüfäk "gun".[36][37]

Around the late 14th century in Italy, smaller and portable hand-cannons or schioppi were developed, creating in effect the first smoothbore personal firearm. The earliest surviving firearm in Europe was found in Otepää, Estonia and it dates to at least as early as 1396.[38]

Firearms underwent a fast development during the 1419-1434 Hussite Wars. The Hussite army consisted mostly of civilian militia, both men and women, who lacked the skill, experience and often weapons and armor comparable to that of the professional Crusader invaders that they faced. Gradually, Hussites pioneered battlefield use of firearms together with war wagons. Firearms were employed in auxiliary roles in 1419-1421. The first use of firearms as primary offensive weapons took place in the 1421 Battle of Kutná Hora. From this moment on, firearms were at the core of Hussite war strategy and tactics as well as a staple of Czech civilian possession. The Hussite militia used a number of handheld fireams, including píšťala [cs], which later found its way through German and French into English as the term pistol,[39] hákovnice [cs], an infantry weapon heavier than píšťala, and yet heavier tarasnic (fauconneau). As regards artillery, Hussites used the Czech: houfnice, which gave rise to the English term, "howitzer" (houf meaning crowd for its intended use of shooting stone and iron shot against massed enemy forces),[40][41][42] bombarda (mortar) and dělo (cannon).[43]

In the late 15th century, the Ottoman Empire used firearms as part of its regular infantry.

Early modern age

Page showing a musketeer (Plate 4) from Jacob de Gheyn's Wapenhandelinghe van Roers, Musquetten ende Spiessen (1608)

During the early modern age, these hand-held cannons evolved into the match lock, wheel lock, dog lock, and flintlock rifle, respectively, then the breech loader and finally the automatic weapon. As ignition devices, matchlocks, wheellocks, snaplock, flintlocks and percussion caps were used in turn. The paper cartridge was introduced sometime before 1586, and the bayonet came to use in 16th century France. Hand grenades, thrown by grenadiers, appeared around the same time.

Early cartridge firearms had to be cocked and caught by the "sear", which holds the hammer back, before each shot. Pulling the trigger allows the hammer or striker to fly forward, striking the "firing pin," which then strikes the "primer," igniting an impact-sensitive chemical compound (historically, first fulminate of mercury, then potassium chlorate, now lead styphnate) which shoots a flame through the "flash hole" into the cartridge's propellant chamber, igniting the propellant.

The Springfield Armory in Springfield, Massachusetts became important to the history of firearms during the 1850s, when it debuted the Springfield rifle.[44] Springfield rifles were among the first breech-loading rifles, starting production in 1865. By that time, metallurgy had developed sufficiently so that brass could be made into ammunition cases. Previously, each round was custom made as needed: the shooter poured loose powder down the barrel, used leather or cloth for wadding if time allowed, selected a suitable projectile (lead ball, rocks, arrow, or nails), then seated the projectile on top of the powder charge by means of a ramrod. Performance was erratic. Fixed ammunition combined a primer, the pre-measured charge, and the projectile in a water-resistant brass cartridge case. Most importantly, the soft brass expanded under pressure of the gas to seal the rear end of the barrel, which prevented the shooter from being maimed by escaping high-pressure gas when they pulled the trigger.

Repeating and automatic firearms

A repeating firearm or "repeater" is a firearm that holds more than one cartridge and can be fired more than once between chargings. One example of a repeater is the American Springfield Model 1892–99—also made at the Springfield Armory in Springfield, Massachusetts—which were used during the Spanish–American War. Some repeating firearms require manipulation of a bolt (as in bolt action), lever, or slide to eject the fired cartridge case, draw a fresh cartridge from the magazine, and insert it into the firing chamber, and "cock" (draw to the rear and place under spring tension) the hammer or striker, so that pulling the trigger will fire the weapon. Others use either the firearm's recoil or a small portion of the propellant gas drawn from the barrel, to operate the firearm's mechanism and ready it for the next shot. Such firearms are sometimes called "self-loading," but are more commonly known as semi-automatic, if they fire one shot for every pull of the trigger, or automatic or "full-auto" if they continue to fire until the trigger is released or the magazine is empty.

A revolver is a unique type of firearm in which a rotating cylinder holds a number of cartridges; the cylinder "revolves" to align each "chamber" or "charge hole" with the rear of the barrel, hold the cartridge and contain the pressure (up to 65,000 pounds PSI or 450 MPa) produced when the cartridge is fired. Thus the cylinder serves as both magazine and firing chambers. There are also single barrel and multiple barrel firearms, which hold only one cartridge per barrel and must be reloaded manually between shots.

The earliest repeating firearms were revolvers (revolving rifles were sometimes called "turret guns") and were "single action" in that they could only be fired one way: by manually cocking the mechanism (drawing the hammer to the rear with the thumb) before each shot. This design dates from 1836, with the introduction of the Colt Paterson, or even earlier. Though they are slower to reload and fire than some other types of firearms, single-action revolvers are of a simple, strong design, and are still made, though they are nowadays used more often for hunting than for self-defense. The double-action revolver is a design almost as old as the single action. Some double-action revolvers, called double-action only or D.A.O. revolvers can only be fired using the trigger (e.g., revolvers with bobbed or hidden hammers). Most double-action revolvers can be fired in either of the two ways. One can cock the hammer (the action of which moves levers to rotate the cylinder and align a fresh cartridge with the rear of the barrel), then pull the trigger for each shot ("single-action mode") or one may simply pull the trigger, through a longer, heavier stroke. This causes levers and springs to both rotate the cylinder and draw the hammer to the rear, then release it, firing the cartridge. Firing a double-action revolver in single-action mode tends to be more accurate, because the trigger pull is much shorter and lighter; usually three or four pounds-force (18−22 newtons) of pull is sufficient, instead of the twelve to twenty pounds (50−90 N) required for double-action mode, so the firearm's aim and mobility is less likely to be disturbed by the force of pulling the trigger.

The first successful rapid-fire firearm is the Gatling gun, invented by Richard Jordan Gatling and fielded by the Union forces during the American Civil War in the 1860s. It is operated by a hand crank and rotates multiple barrels. The Gatling gun needs a four-man crew to function, has had many upgrades since its introduction, and has seen use in many conflicts.

Self-loaders are firearms that use some of the discharge energy to reload the firearm. These are also called semi- or full-automatics. These are typically fed from an underbarrel tube or detachable box magazine, sometimes inaccurately referred to as a "clip" (which denotes a magazine reloading device used in certain rifles, or a retainer for flangeless bullets used in certain revolvers). The world's first self-loading firearm is the Maxim gun, developed by British inventor Sir Hiram Maxim in 1884, capable of firing 600 rounds per minute but requires a team of men to maintain and is not portable by one man. The Maxim gun has been used in a vast number of conflicts.

The world's first successful[cite] self-loading rifle is the Mondragón rifle, designed by Mexican general Manuel Mondragón and was the first self-loading firearm able to be operated by a single rifleman[cite]. Since its debut in 1908 it received a few modifications (bipod, 30-round drum magazine) and has been used during the Mexican Revolution (Mexican Army) and World War I (Imperial German Flying Corps).

The world's first submachine gun (a fully automatic firearm which fires pistol cartridges) able to be used by a single soldier is the MP18.1, invented by Theodor Bergmann. It was introduced into service in 1918 by the German Army during World War I as the primary weapon of the Stosstruppen (assault groups specialized in trench combat). Submachine guns came to prominence during World War II, with millions manufactured. During the war, manufacturers moved away from finely crafted but expensive submachine guns such as the Thompson, in favor of cheaper models that were quicker to manufacture, such as the M3.

The first successful assault rifle was introduced during World War II by the Germans, known as the StG 44, it was the first-ever firearm which bridges the gap between long range rifles, machine guns, and short range submachine guns. The assault rifle was more powerful and had longer ranges than the submachine gun, yet it can be used comfortably in close, urban environments and in fully automatic mode, fired from the shoulder, unlike heavier machine guns and long semi-auto rifles, thanks to its intermediate round and select-fire option (switch from fully automatic to semi-automatic). After World War II ended, the assault rifle concept was adopted by every world power and is still being used to this day.

The battle rifle was a post-World War II development pushed primarily by the United States that desired a select-fire rifle that retained the long range of the M1 Garand (the US service rifle during World War II and the Korean War). Influenced by the US, NATO members adopted battle rifles of their own. In practice, the powerful cartridge of the battle rifle proved to be difficult to control during fully automatic fire and the concept was not further developed.

During World War II, the term assault rifle was coined. However, during the Vietnam era, the M16 was developed. The AK-47 or "Kalashnikov" became the most widely developed rifle for countries on a global scale.

See also


  1. ^ "Gunpowder".
  2. ^ "Who Built It First?". Archived from the original on 2016-04-18.
  3. ^ a b c Chase 2003, pp. 31–32
  4. ^ a b c Crosby 2002, p. 99
  5. ^ Needham 1986, pp. 8–9
  6. ^ Needham 1986:222
  7. ^ Needham 1986, p. 10
  8. ^ Lu, Needham & Phan 1988
  9. ^ Chase 2003:31–32
  10. ^ Needham 1986:293–294
  11. ^ Al-Hassan, Ahmad Y. (2003). "Gunpowder Composition for Rockets and Cannon in Arabic Military Treatises in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries". ICON. International Committee for the History of Technology. 9: 1–30. ISSN 1361-8113. JSTOR 23790667.
  12. ^ Broughton, George; Burris, David (2010). "War and Medicine: A Brief History of the Military's Contribution to Wound Care Through World War I". Advances in Wound Care: Volume 1. Mary Ann Liebert. pp. 3–7. doi:10.1089/9781934854013.3 (inactive 2021-01-06). ISBN 9781934854013. The first hand cannon appeared during the 1260 Battle of Ain Jalut between the Egyptians and Mongols in the Middle East.CS1 maint: DOI inactive as of January 2021 (link)
  13. ^ Books, Amber; Dickie, Iain; Jestice, Phyllis; Jorgensen, Christer; Rice, Rob S.; Dougherty, Martin J. (2009). Fighting Techniques of Naval Warfare: Strategy, Weapons, Commanders, and Ships: 1190 BC – Present. St. Martin's Press. p. 63. ISBN 9780312554538. Known to the Arabs as midfa, was the ancestor of all subsequent forms of cannon. Materials evolved from bamboo to wood to iron quickly enough for the Egyptian Mamelukes to employ the weapon against the Mongols at the battle of Ain Jalut in 1260, which ended the Mongol advance into the Mediterranean world.
  14. ^ Chase 2003:1 "The Europeans certainly had firearms by the first half of the 14th century. The Arabs obtained firearms in the 14th century too, and the Turks, Iranians, and Indians all got them no later than the 15th century, in each case directly or indirectly from the Europeans. The Koreans adopted firearms from the Chinese in the 14th century, but the Japanese did not acquire them until the 16th century, and then from the Portuguese rather than the Chinese."
  15. ^ Ahmad Y Hassan, Gunpowder Composition for Rockets and Cannon in Arabic Military Treatises In Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries Archived 2008-02-26 at the Wayback Machine, History of Science and Technology in Islam.
  16. ^ Ahmad Y Hassan, Technology Transfer in the Chemical Industries Archived 2007-04-27 at the Wayback Machine, History of Science and Technology in Islam.
  17. ^ Khan, Iqtidar Alam (1996), "Coming of Gunpowder to the Islamic World and North India: Spotlight on the Role of the Mongols", Journal of Asian History, 30: 41–5.
  18. ^ Khan, Iqtidar Alam (2004), Gunpowder and Firearms: Warfare in Medieval India, Oxford University Press.
  19. ^ Needham 1986, p. 443.
  20. ^ Ágoston, Gábor (2011). "Military Transformation in the Ottoman Empire and Russia, 1500–1800". Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History. 12 (2): 281–319 [294]. doi:10.1353/kri.2011.0018. S2CID 19755686. Initially the Janissaries were equipped with bows, crossbows, and javelins. In the first half of the 15th century, they began to use matchlock arquebuses
  21. ^ Ayalon, David (2013). Gunpowder and Firearms in the Mamluk Kingdom: A Challenge to Medieval Society (1956). Routledge. p. 126. ISBN 9781136277320.
  22. ^ Needham 1986, p. 444.
  23. ^ Needham 1986, p. 446.
  24. ^ Mayers (1876). "Chinese explorations of the Indian Ocean during the fifteenth century". The China Review. IV: p. 178.
  25. ^ Manguin, Pierre-Yves (1976). "L'Artillerie legere nousantarienne: A propos de six canons conserves dans des collections portugaises" (PDF). Arts Asiatiques. 32: 233–268. doi:10.3406/arasi.1976.1103.
  26. ^ Crawfurd, John (1856). A Descriptive Dictionary of the Indian Islands and Adjacent Countries. Bradbury and Evans.
  27. ^ Tiaoyuan, Li (1969). South Vietnamese Notes. Guangju Book Office.
  28. ^ Andaya, L. Y. 1999. Interaction with the outside world and adaptation in Southeast Asian society 1500–1800. In The Cambridge history of southeast Asia. ed. Nicholas Tarling. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 345–401.
  29. ^ The bewitched gun : the introduction of the firearm in the Far East by the Portuguese, by Rainer Daehnhardt 1994.
  30. ^ Eaton, Richard M. (2013). Expanding Frontiers in South Asian and World History: Essays in Honour of John F. Richards. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781107034280.
  31. ^ Egerton, W. (1880). An Illustrated Handbook of Indian Arms. W.H. Allen.
  32. ^ Tarling, Nicholas (1992). The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia: Volume 1, From Early Times to C.1800. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521355056.
  33. ^ Norris 2003:11
  34. ^ Chase 2003:58
  35. ^ David Nicolle, Crécy 1346: Triumph of the longbow, Osprey Publishing; June 25, 2000; ISBN 978-1-85532-966-9.
  36. ^ Firearms in Russia
  37. ^ (in Russian) First Gun Volleys
  38. ^ "Ain Mäesalu: Otepää püss on maailma vanim". Archived from the original on 2012-06-14. Retrieved 2010-06-30.
  39. ^ Titz, Karel (1922). Ohlasy husitského válečnictví v Evropě. Československý vědecký ústav vojenský.
  40. ^ Harper, Douglas. "howitzer". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 18 January 2014.
  41. ^ The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (4 ed.). 1956. pp. Howitzer.
  42. ^ Hermann, Paul (1960). Deutsches Wörterbuch (in German). pp. Haubitze.
  43. ^ Gawron, Tomáš. "Unikátní české výročí: 600 let civilního držení palných zbraní [Unique Czech anniversary: 600 years of civilian firearms possession]". zbrojnice.com (in Czech). Retrieved 1 January 2021.
  44. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-05-21. Retrieved 2012-04-04.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)


  • Buchanan, Brenda J. (2006), Gunpowder, Explosives and the State: A Technological History, Aldershot: Ashgate, ISBN 978-0-7546-5259-5
  • Chase, Kenneth (2003), Firearms: A Global History to 1700, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-82274-9
  • Crosby, Alfred W. (2002), Throwing Fire: Projectile Technology Through History, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-79158-8
  • Kelly, Jack (2004), Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards & Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive that Changed the World, Basic Books, ISBN 978-0-465-03718-6
  • Needham, Joseph (1986), Science & Civilisation in China, V:7: The Gunpowder Epic, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-30358-3
  • Norris, John (2003), Early Gunpowder Artillery: 1300-1600, Marlborough: The Crowood Press.
  • Sun Laichen (2006) Chinese Gunpowder Technology Technology and Dai Viet, ca. 1390 -1497. In Vietnam Borderless Histories Eds Nhung Tuyet Tran & Anthony Reid University of Wisconsin Press

Further reading

  • Chase, Kenneth. Firearms: A Global History to 1700 (2008) excerpt
  • DK. Firearms: An Illustrated History (2014) excerpt
  • Pyhrr, Stuart W. (1985). Firearms from the collections of the Prince of Liechtenstein. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ISBN 9780870994258.
  • Silverman, David J. Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America (2016) excerpt
  • Wills, Chuck and Robert Lindley. The Illustrated History of Guns: From First Firearms to Semiautomatic Weapons (2014) excerpt

External links

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