Firearms (13th Century)

A firearm is a portable gun – a barreled weapon that launches one or more projectiles, often driven by the action of an explosive force caused by pressure during the discharge of ammunition. The first primitive firearms originated in 13th-century China when the one-person-portable fire lance was combined with projectiles.

Emperor Charles V’s Wheellock Pistol

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What is a Firearm?

A firearm is a mechanical device that uses pressure from a burning powder or an explosive charge to force a projectile through and out of a metal tube; a weapon, especially a pistol or rifle, capable of firing a projectile and using an explosive charge as a propellant.

Although firearms have changed in design a great deal since they were first invented, the components and the terms used for their parts have changed very little. All firearms have three basic groups of parts.

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ancient firearm
  • Action: The action is the heart of the firearm-the moving parts that load, fire, and eject the shells or cartridges. Several types of actions are used in modern firearms. Muzzleloaders have locks, consisting of the hammer (cock) and a flash plate that held powder, instead of actions.
  • Stock: The stock serves as the handle or support of the firearm. It can be composed of one or two pieces and is usually made of wood or a synthetic material.
  • Barrel: The barrel is the metal tube that the projectile travels through (bullets travel through the barrels of rifles and handguns; shot travels through the barrel of shotguns).
Early 17th Century Wheel-Lock Pistol from England

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The basic components of ammunition are:

  • Case: The container that holds all the other ammunition components together. It’s usually made of brass, steel, copper, paper, or plastic.
  • Primer: An explosive chemical compound that ignites the gunpowder when struck by a firing pin. Primer may be placed either in the rim of the case (rim-fire) or in the center of the base of the case (center-fire).
  • Gunpowder: A chemical mixture that burns very rapidly and converts to an expanding gas when ignited. Modern smokeless powder will burn slowly when ignited in the open (outside of the case). Black powder is less stable and can be explosive when ignited in the open.
  • Projectile: The object(s) expelled from the barrel. A bullet is a lead or copper encased projectile fired through a rifle or handgun barrel. A slug is a lead projectile fired through a shotgun barrel. Shot is a group of lead, steel, tungsten, or bismuth pellets fired through a shotgun barrel.
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    example of first projectile

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Who invented the gunpowder?

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first gunpowder use

Few substances in history have had as profound an effect on human history as gunpowder, yet its discovery in China was an accident. Contrary to myth, it was not simply used for fireworks but was put to military uses from its time of discovery. Eventually, this secret weapon leaked out to the rest of the medieval world.
Ancient alchemists in China spent centuries trying to discover an elixir of life that would render the user immortal.
During the Tang Dynasty, around 850 A.D., an enterprising alchemist (whose name has been lost to history) mixed 75 parts saltpeter with 15 parts charcoal and 10 parts sulfur. This mixture had no discernable life-lengthening properties, but it did explode with a flash and a bang when exposed to an open flame.

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Who invented the first gun?

It all started in China, where gunpowder was first created. In the ninth century, alchemists blended charcoal, saltpeter and sulfur into a powder called huo yao, which was used to treat skin infections. Armies quickly learned the powder could be used in bombs, mines and other weapons. Gunpowder was transported to Europe in the 13th century, likely over the Silk Road trade routes through central Asia. Rival nations refined gunpowder recipes in the ensuing centuries before arriving at the optimum mixture: approximately 75 percent saltpeter, 15 percent charcoal and 10 percent sulfur.
Historians typically recognize Chinese fire lances, which were invented in the 10th century, as the first guns. These bamboo or metal tubes projected flames and shrapnel at their targets. Cannons appeared in Italy around 1320, where they were modified as European nations waged many wars. By the 16th century, European firearms had become far more advanced — and far more deadly — than their counterparts in the East.

Examples of arquebuses.

Guns slowly replaced old-guard weapons, because they were more economical, rather than more lethal.
Besides increasing the field of soldiers, guns have had far-reaching influence on the nature of armed combat, from the distances at which dueling armies engage one another to the types of wounds soldiers incur. Only the horse — which dominated battlefields for millennia — has proven more important than the gun.

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How were the first firearms made?

The first record describing the combination of charcoal, sulphur, and saltpeter, to produce a rapidly burning or exploding powder is a coded writing by Franciscan monk Roger Bacon shortly before 1250 A.D.

Within 50 years, early cannon had been developed. A large thick metal tube with one closed end (the breech) and an open end (the muzzle) was loaded first with gunpowder and then with a projectile. The powder was ignited with a torch or smoldering ember through a small hole in the rear (the touchhole). The rapidly expanding gases from the exploding gunpowder would throw the projectile from the barrel.  This basic principle still applies today.

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hand cannons

It took another half-century for this concept to be applied to individual hand-held weapons. The first firearms, ca. 1350, called “hand cannons” or “hand gonnes,” were essentially miniature cannons designed to be held by hand or attached to a pole for use by individual soldiers.  They were loaded and fired in the same manner as the full-size cannons.

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When was the first time that firearms were used in a battle?

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Picture of The Siege of Algeciras (1342–44)

 The Siege of Algeciras (1342–44) was undertaken during the Reconquest of Spain by the Castillian forces of Alfonso XI assisted by the fleets of the Kingdom of Aragon and the Republic of Genoa. The objective was to capture the Muslim city of Al-Jazeera Al-Khadra, called Algeciras by Christians. The city was the capital and the main port of the European territory of the Marinid Empire.
This was one of the first military engagements in Europe where gunpowder was used.
The siege lasted for twenty one months. The population of the city, about 30,000 people including civilians and Berber soldiers, suffered from a land and sea blockade that prevented the entry of food into the city. The Emirate of Granada sent an army to relieve the city, but it was defeated beside the Río Palmones. Following this, on 26 March 1344 the city surrendered and was incorporated into the Kingdom of Castile.

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How did firearms evolved over time?

1364 – First recorded use of a firearm.
1380 – Hand guns are known across Europe.
1400s – The matchlock gun appears.

Before the matchlock, guns were fired by holding a burning wick to a “touch hole” in the barrel igniting the powder inside. A shooter uses one hand for firing, and a prop to steady the gun.The first device, or “lock,” for mechanically firing a gun is the matchlock. Powder is held in a “flash pan,” and ignited by a wick, or match, in a movable clamp. Both hands remain on the gun, vastly improving aim. Early matchlock guns are extremely rare. The matchlock shown here was made around 1640, and is typical of the muskets used by militia in Colonial America.

1498 – Rifling principle is discovered.
1509 – Invention of wheel lock (rose lock). 

The next major advance, the wheel lock, generates a spark mechanically. With no wick to keep lit, the wheel lock is easier to use, and more reliable than the matchlock. However, wheel locks are expensive to produce. Matchlocks, at half the cost, remain in common use. This is an early (ca. 1540) multi-shot, wheel-lock pistol, made for Emperor Charles V. In this weapon, two locks are combined in one mechanism, to give each barrel separate ignition.

1540 – Rifling appears in firearms.
1607 – Settlers arrive in Jamestown, Virginia.
1630 – The first true flintlock.

The flintlock solved a longstanding problem. Some time in the late 1500s, a lid was added to the flash pan design. To expose or protect the powder, the lid had to be moved manually. The flintlock mechanism was designed to push back the lid and spark a flint at the same time. The flintlock ignition system reigned for two centuries, with virtually no alteration. The flintlock pictured here is a typical British “Brown Bess” musket. Marks on the gun indicate that it was used by German mercenaries during the American Revolution.

1637 – First use of firearms proof-marks.
1750-1850 – Dueling pistols come into fashion.

Around 1750, men stop carrying rapiers, and guns became the weapon of choice for a duel. Various guns were used, until a true dueling pistol was officially standardized in 1777, as “a 9 or 10 inch barreled, smooth bore flintlock of 1 inch bore, carrying a ball of 48 to the pound.” Often lavishly decorated, the pistols are made until dueling falls out of favor in the mid-1800s. This pair of 1786 flintlock pistols was made with ivory stocks and unusually elaborate decorative details.

1776 – American Revolution.
1807 – Percussion-detonating principle patented.
1825 ca. – Percussion-cap guns are in general use.
1830 – The back action lock appears.
1835 – The first Colt revolver.

Samuel Colt developed the first mass-produced, multi-shot, revolving firearms. Various revolving designs had been around for centuries, but precision parts couldn’t be made with available technologies. Colt was the first to apply Industrial Age machining tools to the idea. Mass production made the guns affordable. Reliability and accuracy made the Colt a favorite of soldiers and frontiersmen. The Colt depicted is a Third Model Dragoon percussion revolver (ca. 1853). A Colt with such lavish decoration and gold inlay is extremely rare.

1840 – Guns begin to use pin-fire cartridges.
1847 – The telegraph is invented.
1850 – True shotguns in common use.

In the second half of the 18th century, musket design branched out. This period produced a number of single-purpose firearms. The forerunner of modern shotguns was the fowling piece, developed specifically for hunting birds. Among the upper classes, fowling was a leisure sport. Fowling pieces for the very affluent were often lovely works of art, but impractical for hunting.

1854-56 – The Crimean War. The last war to use only muzzle-loaded guns.
1859 – The first full rim-fire cartridge.
1860 – Spencer repeating carbine patented.

Introduced at the start of the Civil War, Spencer repeating guns were technically advanced, used cartridges (a recent development), and could fire 7 shots in 15 seconds. But the Army didn’t want a repeating gun, fearing that soldiers would fire more often, constantly need fresh ammunition, and overtax the supply system. But in 1863, President Lincoln test-fired a Spencer. His approval led to the purchase of 107,372 Spencer repeating carbines and rifles (of 144,500 made), and the Spencer became the principal repeating gun of the Civil War.

1861 – Breech loaded guns in common use.
1861-1865 – American Civil War. Both breech and muzzle loaded guns used.
1862 – The Gatling Gun is invented.
1869 – Center-fire cartridge introduced.
1870-1871- The Franco-German War. Breach-loaded guns are dominant.
1871 – First cartridge revolver.
1873 – Winchester rifle introduced.

Winchester rifles were affordable, and produced in such great numbers, that the Winchester became the generic rifle. The Winchester had such a powerful hold in some regions that it actually became known as “the gun that won the West.” In 1887, Winchester came out with their first repeating shotguns. The next major milestone for Winchester came in 1903, when the company introduced the first automatic rifle that would become widely used.

1876 – Custer defeated at Little Big Horn.
1877 – First effective double-action revolver.
1879 – Lee box magazine patented.
 1892- Advent of automatic handguns. 

The first automatic pistol was created by Joseph Laumann in 1892. But the Borchardt pistol of 1893 was the first automatic with a separate magazine in the grip, and this remains the defining feature of the breed. More automatics came in rapid succession, including Browning, Luger, Mauser, and Colt models. By the turn of the century, just 8 years after Laumann, automatics were firmly established.

1900 – Historical firearms period concludes. 
Contemporary period begins.

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