The Inglorious History of Firearms


This post is a bit lengthy but explains the evolution of weapons and how they have been developed primarily for military use and aided our species in our evolution on earth but, sadly, have found their way into the hands of villainous civilians and the hands of the aggrieved and mentally disturbed who have filled graveyards with their victims.

The advent of guns has played a major role in the evolution of our species as we overcame the wilderness and made us equal or superior to animals that were a threat to our survival. And, like so many innovations by the human species, there has always been a minority that saw the new technology as a tool of power and domination or a way to gain personal wealth at the expense of others.

So many new discoveries that promise a better future, such as nuclear energy, also become weapons of mass destruction that threaten our very existence in the wrong hands of people with ignoble intentions.

Today, in addition to the endless number of guns used for violence in society, we face another quantum leap in technology, artificial intelligence (AI). Like firearms, it can potentially vault the human species to a new level of evolution. And, like firearms, there are undoubtedly people who see this technology as a tool of oppression, power, and personal gain that will cause harm to others.

In industry and government, a popular pastime is discussing "lessons learned." Yet, as much as we study the mistakes of the past, we seem incapable of preventing disasters in the future. That would seem to be the history of our species.

Initially, black powder, as it was known, was used for fireworks, but the substance soon found its way into weaponry. Around 850 A.D., alchemists in China stumbled upon the explosive properties of gunpowder (a combination of potassium nitrate, sulfur, and charcoal) while seeking an elixir of life. A Chinese Buddhist alchemist wrote the earliest known account of the substance, saying, "Some have heated together the saltpeter, sulfur, and carbon of charcoal with honey; smoke and flames result, so that their hands and faces have been burnt, and even the whole house burnt down."

From the beginning, emperors and the military saw the advantage of using explosives to overrun the enemy Cannons and grenades were among the earliest weapons to incorporate gunpowder, followed by primitive handheld firearms, which consisted of a hollow bamboo tube packed with gunpowder and small projectiles. The devices had limited range and were likely used only in hand-to-hand combat. By the 13th century, ancestors of the modern firearm had spread from Asia to Europe, where they were further developed as weapons in the form of matchlock, wheel lock, and flintlock firearms.

Among the firearms commonly associated with the early colonists was the German-made blunderbuss, an early version of the shotgun with a flared muzzle and a broad opening at the top, making for faster and easier loading. Colonists also carried matchlock muskets, which used a match—in the form of a small piece of burning rope—to ignite gunpowder through a small hole in the gun's loaded barrel.

For early settlers pioneering the wilderness of North America, gunsmiths became vital members of small settlements. These skilled metal smiths developed the American long rifle, also known as the Kentucky, Ohio, or Pennsylvania rifle. These rifles were sometimes elaborately carved and decorated with finely etched brass or silver plates.

But the rifle's most critical quality was its extended barrel that featured twisting grooves along the interior bore. These grooves guided a lead ball or other projectile to spin as it exited the barrel, ensuring a straighter line shot and a better aim for the gunner. The improved aim was especially critical for early settlers when hunting game for a meal.

General George Washington ordered the establishment of the Springfield Armory in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1776 to boost the fledgling nation's home-grown arsenal. At first, the armory stored ammunition and gun carriages, but by the 1790s, the armory began to manufacture muskets and, eventually, other guns. Following the Revolutionary War, Congress also established Harpers Ferry Armory in West Virginia in 1798 to boost weapon and ammunition production.

The U.S. government and some states began hiring smaller gun-making outfits to produce guns or parts based on the weapons produced at the U.S. armories. Some of the oldest U.S. gun makers got their start then, including Eliphalet Remington, who began producing flintlock rifles in 1816.

Remington Arms Company has persisted to date (although the company filed for bankruptcy in February 2018 due to sluggish sales). Also getting his start during this period was Henry Deringer. Deringer produced flintlock rifles for the U.S. government starting in 1810. Today the name Deringer is commonly associated with small, concealable handguns. Eli Whitney, originally famous for inventing the cotton gin in the 1790s, developed a system to produce interchangeable rifle parts.

In 1836, Samuel Colt received a U.S. patent for a handheld pistol with a multi-firing system based on a rotating barrel with multiple chambers that could fire bullets through a lock and spring design. Colt's name would become synonymous with the revolver, especially the Colt Single Action Army revolver, often called a Colt .45. The Colt .45 revolver is sometimes referred to as "the gun that won the West," though other firearms, including the 1873 Winchester repeater rifle, also claim that title.

With help from Eli Whitney, Colt developed molds at his armory in Hartford, Connecticut, to forge metal pieces for the revolver. The innovation enabled Colt to mass produce the weapon and market it to the military and cowboys in the Southwest, Gold Rush miners in the Rockies, and law enforcement officials nationwide. One of the company's advertising slogans, "God created man, Sam Colt made them equal," became a legend to gun lovers. Colt's patent assured his company dominated the market on rotating barrel revolvers, shotguns, and rifles until the patent expired in the mid-1850s.

Once Colt's patent was lifted, other companies, including Remington, Starr, Whitney, and Manhattan, began manufacturing revolver-type weapons. The firearm became one of the main side arms for Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Among the most famous revolver manufacturers was Smith and Wesson, whose versions proved faster to discharge and reload.

Other improvements included breechloading systems allowing the gunner to load the weapon from the rear rather than having to tamp it down from the gun's muzzle end. Rear-loading or breechloading systems were developed by gun manufacturers who packed the projectile and powder together in a single, combustible cartridge. The system not only saved time but it also avoided exposing gunpowder to wet conditions.

Next, gun manufacturers set their focus on speeding up the time required to reload a weapon. Colt's revolver system offered one method for rapid reloading, but by the mid-19th century, it wasn't the only game in town. The Spencer Repeating Rifle Company patented a design at the start of the Civil War that was capable of repeated firing following a single ammunition load. The Spencer gun (a favorite of President Abraham Lincoln) loaded multiple cartridges at once by storing them in a magazine at the rear of the gun. Each shot was then fed into the chamber through a manual mechanism.

Benjamin Henry developed a similar model in the Henry and patented the design in 1860. During the Civil War, the Henry was called "the rifle you could load on Sunday and shoot all week long." Perhaps more importantly, the Henry inspired the classic Winchester rifle.

One of the most acclaimed firearms designers in history, John Moses Browning of Ogden, Utah, began designing for the New Haven-based Winchester Repeating Arms Company in 1883 and created a version of the rifle incorporating a pump action. Pump or slide-action guns feature a mechanism where the shooter pulls back a grip on the gun's forearm and then pushes it forward to eject the empty shell and reload it with a new shell. Browning, however, would become best known for his contributions to automatic loading firearms.

In automatic weapons, power generated by the weapon's firing is used to eject empty cartridges and reload. Among Browning's 128 gun patents, some of his best-known weapons include the M1911 pistol, the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), and the M2 .50 caliber machine gun, which he designed in 1933. The U.S. military adopted the M2, and became the main U.S. sidearm issued through the Vietnam War after only slight modifications. The M1911 was the U.S. military's first semi-automatic handgun, and versions of it remain a weapon of choice among military, law enforcement, and sports shooters.

Richard Gatling had already created an earlier, more primitive version of the machine gun.

In the early 1860s, Gatling received a patent for a hand-cranked, multiple-barreled weapon that could fire 200 rounds per minute. The Gatling gun could fire for as long as the gunner turned the weapon's crank and an assistant fed the machine ammunition.

Hirem Maxim, an American-born British inventor, would take the machine gun to the next level with his Maxim gun. The weapon harnessed the recoil energy from each bullet fired to eject a used cartridge and pull in the next one. The Maxim machine gun of 1884 could fire 600 rounds per minute and soon armed the British Army and then the Austrian, German, Italian, Swiss, and Russian armies.

The barrage of fire generated by machine guns on all sides led to the development of trench warfare since shelter became critical for soldiers trying to avoid rapid-fire sprays of bullets from the new weapons.

A generation later, during U.S. conflicts in Nicaragua and Honduras, the advent in 1918 of the lightweight Thompson submachine gun, also known as the Tommy gun, would offer a hand-held version of the deadly machine gun as one of the first portable and fully automatic firearms. While the Thompson was developed too late to be used in World War I, its inventor, John Thompson, marketed the gun through his company to law enforcement. But the weapon also found its way into the hands of criminals whom law enforcement was targeting.

In the age of Prohibition, the Tommy gun became a weapon of choice among gangsters, leading to many of the era's most horrifying crimes, including the infamous Valentine's Day Massacre of February 14, 1929. That slaughter and others like it inspired the first federal gun control law in American history: The National Firearms Act of 1934, which forbade a private market for the Thompson. Eventually, the weapon would find purpose as a weapon in GI's hands on the battlefields of World War II, alongside Browning's automatic rifles and machine guns, the M-1 Garand semi-automatic rifle, and the American-made M3 submachine gun.

Among the most significant firearm inventions during the Cold War era was the AK-47 rifle, developed by Mikhail Kalashnikov for the Soviet military in 1947 (AK stands for "the Automatic by Kalashnikov"). The short-barreled weapon with steep front-sight posts and curved magazines offered the rapid-fire of machine guns with lighter-weight portability. The deadly effectiveness of the Kalashnikov in the Vietnam War led defense forces at the Pentagon to produce a new U.S. assault rifle, the AR-15, which became known as the M-16. Both weapons are gas operated, meaning that a portion of high-pressure gas from the cartridge is used to power the extraction of the spent cartridge and insert a fresh one into the weapon's chamber. Both can fire up to 900 rounds a minute. Into the 21st century, modernized versions of the fully automatic AK-47 and the M-16, chiefly the M4 carbine, have dominated U.S. military rifle power.

In the civilian world, the AR-15, a semi-automatic version of the M-16, has become popular among gun sports enthusiasts, as well as among mass shooters (in Newtown, Conn., Las Vegas, Nevada, San Bernardino, Calif. and Parkland, Fla., and elsewhere).

Today, the term semi-automatic refers to auto-loading guns that require a trigger pull for every shot fired, as opposed to fully automatic weapons, which can fire multiple shots for every trigger pull. Both versions of the modern automatic weapon can fire hundreds of bullets per minute and represent a vast leap beyond the nation's earliest guns, such as flintlock rifles, which even highly skilled gunners only managed to fire three times in one minute.



"Guns-The Evolution of Firearms," by Kevin R. Hershberger (Director), Mill Creek Entertainment, January 8, 2013.
"How the Government Launched the U.S. Gun Industry," by Pamela Haag, May 15, 2016, Politico.
The Oxford History of Modern War, by Charles Townsend, Editor, published by Oxford University Press, 2000.
National Park Service.
Famous Gunsmiths Throughout History, Colorado School of Trades.
Thanksgiving Leftovers: The Guns of the Pilgrims, November 25, 2011,
Guns, Jim Supica, TAJ Books, 2005.
Harpers Ferry Armory and Arsenal, National Park Service.
"The First Gun in America," by Linton Weeks, April 6, 2013, NPR.
Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop, Arms Production at the Whitney Armory.
"The Tools of Modern Terror: How the AK-47 and AR-15 Evolved Into Rifles of Choice for Mass Shootings," by C.J. Chivers, February 15, 2018, The New York Times.
"Mikhail Kalashnikov, Creator of AK-47, Dies at 94," by C.J. Chivers, December 23, 2013, The New York Times.
"How the St. Valentine's Day Massacre Changed Gun Laws," by A. Brad Schwartz, February 16, 2018, The New York Times.