A Brief History of the Gun

January 20, 2013
A (Not So) Brief History of the Gun
By Trevor Thomas

As debates about guns and gun rights in America rage, 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 also at science, business, politics, justice, and morality.  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, “[t]he 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 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.

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.

These early 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 shortcomings.  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 costly 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, not to mention 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 and 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 and lighter, and it 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, though.  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 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 but 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.

Though such guns put more firepower in the hands of an individual than ever before, 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 John Browning, Baron Von Odkolek, John Thompson, Mikhail Kalashnikov, and several others built off Maxim’s success, and machine guns became smaller and lighter.

This brings us into the 20th century, where fully automatic weapons that could be carried and operated by a single man were commonplace and necessary for any successful army.

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.”

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 Grant Thomas: at the Intersection of Politics, Science, Faith, and Reason. http://www.trevorgrantthomas.com

Read more: http://www.americanthinker.com/2013/01/a_not_so_brief_history_of_the_gun.html#ixzz2JVrSNaXS
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America owes a lot to John Browning. We could not have won World War II without the Browning 50 caliber machine gun. The M2, often called “Ma deuce,” was the weapon used in every American bomber and fighter aircraft during World War II. The M2 machine gun is still in use today.

His model 1911 Colt pistol is still the favorite of millions of gun owners. It also holds the record for the longest service of any sidearm in American military history.

Every over and under, pump, lever action, or semi automatic shotgun is based on an original Browning design. He was the greatest inventor of guns the United States has ever known.


1 week ago


Browning was the di Vinci of firearm design, probably unrivaled the world over. Scads of early Winchester classics were Browning designs.

The story is told that a Browning falling block rifle wound up in the hands of the president of Winchester Arms in the late 1800’s and he was so impressed with the design that he traveled to Utah to meet Browning (which was no small journey in those days). He walked into the shop in, I think, Ogden and asked to see John Browning, and was directed upstairs. He went up, looked around, came back down, and said that he saw only ‘a kid running a lathe’. “That’s John Browning” was the reply.

Let us not forget John Garand, either. Without the M1 our task would have been much harder.


Ms. Genie, Google “McMinn County War”. It happened back in 1946, but it is a shining example of how real Americans react to government control and unconstitutional behavior.

I think that time for such a revolt like this is fast approaching.

Good article. Let me try to add a little to it.
The reason muskets remained so popular after rifles came into being is that they were not only easier to use in combat, but back on the farm, they could be loaded with shot as well as ball so a hunter could go after a wider variety of game for his family to eat. Technically, it was John C Hays of the Texas Rangers who placed the order for the Walker Colts which saved Colt from bankruptcy. Hays was also instrumental in the design of a pistol that would be more effective than the original Paterson .36 caliber guns. Finally, if you look at the first 5 amendments, they are all very specific compared to later ones. All prohibited a government from excesses that the English King and his soldiers had committed just a few years earlier, making the intent of the 2d even more clear.


Nice summary. Back in 2000 I went to the local bookstore and saw “Arming America” by Michael Bellesiles. What a waste of 25 bucks. If what he said was true then how on earth did Yanks push back the Redcoats ? After a few months it turned out that the “research” was a crock. Now there is a wikipedia article on the whole sordid affair – just google ‘arming america’ . It is quite amazing how ‘gun control’ manages to bring out the liars and frauds in droves. They are even willing to risk their professional reputation. Joyce Lee Malcolm exposes some of the articles in the New England Journal of Medicine for their idiotic ‘methodology’. Of course, the NY Times, and Alternet and many other libs, then yelp about how ‘the rightwing is anti-science’, and that science is being suppressed.


Let’s not forget the sins of omission from the Left. Between 1911 and 2011, The US population grew, and gun ownership doubled…and according to the FBI and Department of Justice, violent crime involving firearms DROPPED by nearly half. And the long guns (hunting rifles, shotguns, and those pesky “assault guns”) accounted for only 5% of gun homicides (that includes the massacres). And Chicago, which has some of the most restrictive gun regulations in the country, is ignored by the progressives and media, as the 500+ gun homicides in 2012 just do not fit their narrative.


Again showing his business savvy, Colt built his model to hold the exact same ammunition as the Winchester model 1873.
That was one heck of a trick! Samuel Colt died in 1862.

Trevor Thomas

Oops! Should have been a reference to the Colt Company (my mistake). Trying to get it fixed.


Any government that can entrust its citizens with firepower and weapons is a government that promotes a secure and healthy civilization. Any government that can entrust its people to believe in God and the Transcendent for themselves (rather than forcing citizens to accept the state as the Transcendent) is a government that is confident. We are blessed to have such a system granted to us by the Founding Fathers. When I see any other system attempting to tear it down then I have to ask if that system is healthy, secure, and confident. When I say that I embrace Tea Party Principles that is what I have in mind and I am getting sick and tired of being labeled some kind of demented fool for believing them.


You’re right about machine guns being belt fed. Normally weapons which fire continuously as long as the trigger is held back and which are clip fed or magazine fed are referred to as automatic weapons and are handheld versus fired from a tripod or bipod. This would include M16’s and M4’s with auto capability. It would not include the civilian version of the M16, the AR-15, because they are semiautomatic only. Not making a distinction between the two means that the semiautomatic would come to be seen as an automatic weapon and given the same restrictions by people who don’t know that they are different.


“People who object to [privately-owned] weapons aren’t abolishing violence, they’re begging for rule by brute force, when the biggest, strongest animals among men were always automatically ‘right.’ Guns ended that, and social democracy is a hollow farce without an armed populace to make it work.” – L. Neil Smith

Abolishing privately-owned arms will not only hasten our enslavement, it will guarantee it sooner or later.


I think one of the things that we Americans have to do is stop thinking that putting our foot down and demanding that our government act within it’s boundaries is somehow akin to treason. If I hear one more time that we shouldn’t critize the president or any of his commie cronies because it’s “un-American” I think I will have a hissy fit of atomic proportions. It is “un-American” in my opinion to NOT critize him or others who are in our government. It is our RIGHT to do so and that right is enshrined in the Constitution (freedom of speech). We have far too many people on both sides of the aisle who worship our government (as well as the current president, ACK!) and think that it is somehow akin to blasphemy to criticize it or him. While I hold the truths of the our nation to be sacred I do not worship nor do I hold sacred anyone who is supposed to be serving the people of our nation. We need to wake up to the fact that we as a nation have commited the sin of idolatry with our government and president worship. I respect the office of president and will give it honor but I do not nor will I ever treat it as if it is God. Folks WE are the government. Those people we elect are only OUR representatives. They are not better than we nor should they be treated better than we are. Time to stop coddling them and spoiling them and making them feel as if they rule us rather than the other way around!!

Robert Fowler
The Beretta company was established in 1526. The oldest continuous family held manufacturer. That is a amazing accomplishment.


The answer to this problem may lie in video games. I wonder if the NRA would support a limit on the size of ammo magazine clips for guns in video games. And if so, then maybe they would support elimination of assault weapons from video games as well.

After all, a video game is the only place where a person can actually “bear” all the arms suggested by a broad interpretation of the 2nd amendment. Want to shoot some people with a machine gun, a gatling gun, or a rocket launcher? Video games allow that. Want a 100-thousand-round ammo clip? Why sure! Killing hundreds or thousands of people is all just virtual fun.

Since the NRA has already blamed violent video games for this problem, I’d like to see them wriggle as they attempt to avoid supporting my above suggestions. I guarantee they will never support them, because doing so would be akin to admitting the real world problem is also ammo clips and assault weapons.


You didn’t answer the question. What is your explanation of the huge incidence rate in the US for mass shootings and murder by gun? If as you say it is just evil people (therein lies my reference to circular logic), then is the USA proportionally more evil than other countries with low rates of gun violence?

Take Canada, for instance. Our rate of homicide by firearm (incidents per 100 thousand people) is 5.5 times higher than Canada’s rate. And our rate is almost 25 times higher than England’s rate. Are they less evil, or just smarter?


Reply for Genie: I think the NRA was saying we are past the point of ignoring problems like violent video games and expecting market adjustments to solve our problems. That approach brought us to this point. It gave us Columbine, Sandy Hook, the Virginia Tech shooting, the Gabby Giffords shooting, the Denver theatre shooting, well, you get the idea. If the NRA is not right about everything, maybe they are wrong regarding their current positions on ammo clips and assault weapons.

Robert W. Mann

Sure, you may need to defend yourself in your home but for every time that happens, there are 43 instances of family members being injured by having that firearm in the home. The odds are you are one of the people that will be harmed, not one of those that might defend themselves. It’s just not worth it no matter how fearful you are. We are all sorry that your fear has overcome your good judgement. Be brave. Get firearms out of your house before you or someone you love is injured.

Read more: http://www.americanthinker.com/2013/01/a_not_so_brief_history_of_the_gun_comments.html#disqus_thread#ixzz2JWFc49X5
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About arnash

“When you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect.” - Mark Twain - Politicians and diapers - change 'em often, for the same reason. "Government is like a baby. An alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other." Ronald Reagan "Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views." William F. Buckley, Jr. “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” - Bertrand Russell The people are the masters of both Congress and the courts, not to overthrow the Constitution, but to overthrow the men who pervert it. Abraham Lincoln “Good people sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” - George Orwell “Satan will use a lake of truth to hide a pint of poison”.
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