The history of firearms is long and complicated, encompassing innovations and developments in ammunition: from crude black powder muzzle loaders to modern brass-cased, centerfire cartridges using smokeless propellant, in ignition systems; from a glowing twig touching gunpowder through a simple flash hole in the barrel to a firing pin which strikes and crushes the priming mixture thereby "instantly" igniting the propellant charge, in mechanical developments; from the simple metal tube attached to a stick to the finely machined high technology firearms which are capable of operating from single shot to fully automatic fire, in metallurgy; from crude iron, which withstood the pressure of the weak early powders, to high tensile metals that can withstand pressures in the tens of thousands of pounds per square inch. The history of ammunition closely parallels the history of firearms as one is designed to accommodate the other.
Firearms were in general use in Europe for two centuries before the introduction of printing; consequently reliable accounts of early arms development are rare. The first firearms were cannons that fired large round stones, iron balls, or a quantity of arrows and would appear to have been introduced into Europe from the Eastern nations around 1300. Early cannons were small, and shot arrows weighing about half a pound, although very large cannons weighing about 4 tons and firing stone shot weighing in the region of 350 pounds were also produced.
The first handguns were really handheld cannons now known as can-nonlocks, with the lock the means of firing the gun. These obviously evolved from the early small cannon and were first used in Europe about 1324.29 The cannonlock had a cylindrical metal barrel, about 9 to 12 inches long, attached to a staff or pike. They were muzzle-loaded with gunpowder; wad; and round stones, metal balls, or bolts (similar to crossbow bolts). In use, they were crudely aimed with one hand, with the staff held under the arm and fired by a glowing twig or hot wire brought into contact with the gunpowder through a touch hole in the barrel.
Hand cannons developed through various stages. They were shortened and redesigned for use from horseback and were used in combination weapons where the weapon could either be used as a firearm or, for example, as a club or an axe. Many different designs of hand cannon were widely used for many years, until the middle of the fifteenth century when they were completely superseded by the matchlock.
The matchlock was developed about 1400,30 and by mechanically carrying the fire to the priming mixture it made possible the fitting of elementary aiming sights to the firearm. Early handguns consisted of a barrel secured to a wooden or metal arm, but with the introduction of the matchlock musket, firearms became much more sophisticated and began to resemble the modern rifle. Numerous variations of the matchlock were produced and were used for many years, until it was eventually superseded in the seventeenth century by the wheellock and the flintlock.
The wheellock was developed about 1515.31 This was an important development in firearms as, apart from dispensing with the need for a glowing match, the wheellock mechanism could be produced in any desired size which made possible the production of pistols small enough to be carried about the person. As with the hand cannon, combined wheellock weapons were produced where pistols were attached to weapons such as maces, swords, and crossbows. The wheellock mechanism was intricate and subject to mechanical failures which were difficult to repair. This prompted a search for a simpler, more reliable mechanism, resulting in the introduction of the flintlock.
The flintlock was developed about 152532 and used a simpler and much more reliable mechanism than the wheellock. The flintlock was used successfully until it was generally superseded by the percussionlock (caplock mechanism) about the middle of the nineteenth century. A measure of the success of the flintlock is demonstrated by the fact that, until 1935, they were made in Germany and Belgium for export to Africa and Asia.33
The percussionlock was developed in 1805, and by 1816 had evolved into a simple and reliable form. The percussionlock was the predecessor of the modern firearm and used a priming cap consisting of a small metal cup in the base of which was a dried paste containing mercury fulminate. This was placed over a permanent hollow nipple leading to the gunpowder so that the mercury fulminate paste would be crushed between the base of the cup and the nipple by the striking action of the hammer of the firearm. This produced a flame that passed through the hollow nipple and ignited the gunpowder.
The modern firearm employs the percussion principle but the percussion cap (primer) is an integral part of the round of ammunition.
The first practical repeating firearm was a revolver manufactured by Samuel Colt in 1835.34 Up to this time the vast majority of firearms were single shot. This was a serious disadvantage as the firer was defenseless for a period of time while reloading. However, the introduction of this revolver heralded the first practical multishot firearm. The revolver principle was not new, as flintlock revolvers were produced prior to 1650.35 However, these were not practical firearms as they were very prone to mechanical failure.
When a bullet leaves the muzzle of a firearm there is recoil in the opposite direction to the travel of the bullet. Although the recoil is a nuisance it can be used to eject the spent cartridge case, load a live round of ammunition, and cock the mechanism. This can also be achieved by using some of the gas generated during discharge.
In the self-loading system the block or slide that moves backward and forward is stopped after each cycle and stays stopped until the trigger is pulled again. This mechanism can be modified so that the firearm continues to fire until either the ammunition is expended or the trigger released (automatic fire). Some firearms incorporate a selector lever, which allows them to deliver either a single shot or a burst of a preset number of shots, or to become fully automatic.
As early as 1718 there was a hand-operated repeating gun, and in 1862 Dr. Richard Gatling demonstrated a weapon of this kind which used revolving barrels. These weapons had severe limitations and it was not until 1884 that the first real fully automatic machine gun was patented by Sir Hiram Maxim. This was the first automatic firearm, and it was recoil operated.36 The development of the Maxim machine gun focused attention on the development of self-loading rifles and pistols.
The rifle evolved from the musket which was a long-barreled firearm with a fore end or forearm extending nearly to the muzzle. Dozens of designs of self-loading rifles were produced. One of the first practical designs was developed in Austria by Mannlicher in 1885 and it was recoil operated.37
The recoil-operated self-loading system was incorporated in the first successful multishot pistol which was designed by Hugo Borcharott, and marketed in 1893. George Luger modified the design and produced a highly successful pistol which was in production until 1942.38
Today, self-loading firearms are either recoil operated or gas operated, and progress since the production of the Maxim machine gun has consisted mainly of a series of mechanical improvements resulting in the modern, highly reliable, self-loading, semiautomatic or fully automatic firearms now employed throughout the world.
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