Advances in Firearms

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Advances in Firearms


The first firearms were small canons, the earliest of which was known as the millimete canon, dating from 1326. Public records from Florence in that same year that indicate a provision for guns in the protection of the town. Within about 30 years, there is evidence that handguns were being used for personal protection.

While early handguns had some distinct differences based on where they were made and where they were used, they had many things in common. They consisted of a wooden plank with an iron or bronze barrel attached to it. The barrel was plugged at one end and a hole was drilled through the barrel, which was called a vent. The gun was loaded with powder and ammunition. The ammunition consisted of a ball, shot, or small stones. Finally, after the vent had been sprinkled with powder, the gun was ready to fire. The wood was tucked under the arm and a hot iron was applied to the vent to ignite the powder and discharge the weapon. This method proved to be unreliable in both the discharge and accuracy. In addition, there was tremendous recoil associated with the discharge, so improvements were necessary in design.


The first major improvement to firearms came in the fifteenth century, when a hook was attached at a right angle to the barrel. This could be slung over a wall so that the shock from the recoil of the gun would be absorbed by the supporting structure. These weapons were given the name hakenbuchse (for hook), which eventually evolved into harquebus or arquebus. Further modifications markedly improved the use of the personal firearm.

An important early innovation was a simple design that allowed a lighted cord, rather than a hot iron, to ignite the powder. Initially, the cord was carried by hand, but the serpentine was added to hold the cord and act as a trigger. This freed the gunman from having to be near a hot iron and greatly increased the aim of the weapon. Improvements continued as the vent was moved to the side, then covered to protect the powder from the elements.

The matchlock soon replaced the early serpentine lock. This mechanism consisted of a trigger, an arm holding a smoldering match, a pin connecting the trigger and arm, and a mechanical link that opened the vent as the match descended to ignite the powder. This step proved to be an important one and opened the door to modern gun design. Another refinement was the snap matchlock. This was a spring that drove the matchlock down to the vent. At the same time, the gunstock changed to reflect the increased ability to aim the gun. Rifle butts were enlarged, allowing them to be placed against the shoulder, which absorbed most of the recoil.

These simple firearms were inexpensive to build and operate. They did, however, have certain disadvantages. Because they always needed to be lit, the matchlock made stealth nearly impossible, and harsh weather could severely compromise its effectiveness.

The wheel lock, an ancestor of the cigarette lighter, was probably developed in Germany around 1515. It contained a serrated iron wheel that struck a spark to ignite powder on the vent. This happened when the iron wheel was rotated against a shard of flint or a piece of iron pyrite to form sparks. This was a fairly complicated mechanism, so despite the fact that it was an improvement over the matchlock, it saw little use in the military. It did become the preferred weapon for private citizens, however. It also allowed the firearm to be concealed. There is evidence that as early as 1518 there were laws passed in Europe to forbid carrying concealed weapons.

Since the military was a large market for guns, it was important to design one that was cheaper than the wheel lock, but better than the matchlock. The snaphaunce was invented for just this purpose in the late sixteenth century. It consisted of a cock (the hammer in a gun) and a frizzen (striker) that when brought together caused a spark; it then opened the firing chamber to the spark, causing the gun to fire. This design was modified in the early seventeenth century to become the flintlock.

The flintlock quickly became the gun of choice for the military. It was simple, reliable, strong, easy to repair, and most of all, inexpensive. These guns were also much faster to load. The flintlock had a one-piece frizzen and pan cover that when triggered, made the frizzen strike the flint, showering sparks onto the gunpowder in the priming pan; the ignited powder, in turn, fired the main charge in the bore, propelling the ammunition. This design seemed to be an adaptation of the tinderbox used at the time to start fires—the flint and the steel striking each other created the spark. A further development was the prepared cartridge. This put the bullet and powder together, premixed and ready to fire. The flintlock remained the most widely used gun until the percussion lock was developed in the early nineteenth century.


Early guns like the matchlock made modern small arms possible, with obvious ramifications for both the military and the general public. But they were not immediately adopted by the armed forces. They were expensive, unreliable, and cumbersome, weighing between 15 and 20 lbs (7 and 9 kg). As the guns evolved over time, however, their use became more widespread, and adaptations were made to improve its performance and utility.

As guns gained greater acceptance in the military, their use changed fighting tactics. While swords remained the primary weapon until the eighteenth century, soldiers with guns began to accompany swordsmen. Men riding horses started to use pistols in conjunction with swords as part of their attack. In the heat of battle, gun technology often made the difference between victory and defeat, as shown during the Age of Exploration. Much of the Spanish conquest of America was, in part, due to superior weaponry. Francisco Pizarro's (1470?-1541) army, for example, which numbered fewer than 200 men, used arquebuses to kill nearly 5,000 Inca warriors while sustaining only one casualty. This battle, which lasted less than an hour, began the fall of the Inca empire.

Guns have had profound and subtle effects on society. They afford a great deal of protection and allow people to defend themselves, but, like many forms of technology, can also be used for evil purposes. Ever since the gun was invented, people have argued over whether their benefits outweigh their risks. As early as 1588, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), emperor of Japan, banned citizens from possessing any type of weapon, including firearms. The military, however, were armed with guns, largely to protect the nobility against a peasant uprising. Because the government was able to regulate firearms, many people turned to makeshift weapons, substituting one weapon for another. It remains to be seen what course modern society will take.


Further Reading

Chant, Christopher. The New Encyclopedia of Handguns &Small Arms. New York: Smithmark Publishing, 1995.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of

Human Societies. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.

Hogg, Ivan. An Illustrated History of Firearms. New York: A & W Publishers, Inc., 1980.

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Advances in Firearms

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Advances in Firearms