The Invention of Guns

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The Invention of Guns


The invention of guns followed the development of the explosive black powder in China. The first guns were simple tubes from which to shoot explosive charges, but gradually they were made easier to load, aim, and fire. Guns revolutionized warfare and effectively ended the age of the armored knight and the castle stronghold. They have had a profound effect on human history.


Gunpowder is an explosive mixture of 15% charcoal, 10% sulfur, and 75% potassium nitrate, or saltpeter. It was already being used in ninth-century China for making fireworks. Chinese books from as early as 1044 include recipes describing the necessary proportions of the three ingredients. The first primitive guns were probably bamboo tubes, fragile and ineffective firearms used in futile attempts to stop the Mongol invaders.

Europeans obtained gunpowder in the thirteenth century. A formula for making it was discovered in writings dating from the year 1249 and attributed to Roger Bacon (1220-1292). However, most scholars now believe that it was not developed independently in Europe, but was brought there from China, perhaps by Arabs or Mongols. The Europeans, having gotten hold of gunpowder, seemed more determined than the Chinese to develop it into ever more efficient weapons.


The first European firearms were cannons, and they helped to bring about the end of feudalism. Defenders behind castle walls previously could withstand long sieges from the outside, as long as they had sufficient food and water. Every nobleman had his own stronghold and was little bothered by any central authority. Beginning with the siege of Metz in 1324, castle walls started to crumble under bombardment by cannonballs. Monarchies were able to vanquish troublesome barons and enforce their power.

Cannons were very effective weapons in a siege, but soldiers soon wanted guns they could carry. At first, simple "hand gonnes" were used side-by-side with traditional weapons such as crossbows, pikes, and lances. The development of small arms quickly changed how military battles were fought. The metal armor that had protected knights from spears and lances was not sufficient protection against guns. Armor began to be perceived as not being worth its weight and impracticality, and its use gradually declined. Full metal suits eventually disappeared, to be replaced by helmets and breastplates.

So it was that the explorers who sailed out during the Age of Discovery wore little armor, but carried guns on their ships. With firearms it became easier to colonize lands that were already inhabited, like Africa and the Americas. The indigenous people, even though they were far more numerous than the invaders, could be overcome with these frightening weapons they had never seen before.

All firearms operate by the same basic process. A firing mechanism causes the gunpowder to detonate, and the explosion shoots a projectile out through a long tubular barrel. Today, some guns use compressed air or a spring instead of an explosive to launch the projectile, but gun technology was greatly refined over the centuries.

The first guns were essentially portable cannons: simple tubes, or barrels, generally made of iron or brass. These were loaded from the front with gunpowder and a lead ball. Near the sealed rear end, or breech, was a small hole for igniting the charge. Lighting the gunpowder by hand through the tiny opening was tricky in the heat of battle, and these guns had a range of only about 35 yards (32 m) even if the powder did ignite.

In the 1400s, the first mechanical firing mechanism, the matchlock, was developed. Its movable S-shaped arm, or serpentine, held a lit, slow-burning wick. Movement of the arm caused the wick to be lowered into a small pan of priming powder. The resultant "flash in the pan" ignited the main charge through a hole in the breech. The lock protected the working elements, and the mechanism freed the user's hand for aiming. However, the wick was easily extinguished by wind or rain, and its glow could give away the gunner's position at night. Still, because they were relatively inexpensive and easy to manufacture, matchlocks were in common use long after more advanced firing mechanisms were developed. They were the guns with which the Europeans colonized the New World. Introduced in India and Japan by the Portuguese before 1500, they were still being used there into the nineteenth century.

The first gun designed with a buttstock allowing it to be fired from the shoulder was the harquebus, a type of matchlock gun invented in Spain in the mid-1400s. The musket was developed about a century later as a larger version of the same basic firearm. Like its predecessors, it was loaded from the front; breech-loading guns were not invented until the nineteenth century. Early guns were all quite limited in terms of their range, accuracy, and reloading rate, but they did intimidate the enemy, and by about 1525 guns had already been the decisive factor in several battles between Spain and France.

Further innovations were to follow. The flintlock used a sparking mechanism rather than a lit wick to ignite the gunpowder. These guns, the first to have a trigger, were easier to aim and could be used while on horseback. However, they were still unreliable in the rain. This problem was not solved until 1807, when a Scottish clergyman and hunter named Alexander Forsythe invented the percussion firing mechanism. It depended upon a mercury fulminate compound that would explode upon impact. The percussion firing mechanism led to the development of cartridges that combined the mercury fulminate, gunpowder, and projectile in a single package and standard caliber gun barrels to accommodate them.

To increase the accuracy and range of the weapons, rifling was developed. Rifling involves incising spiral grooves in the inside of the barrel to cause the bullet to spin as it is ejected. As anyone who has tried to throw a football knows, spinning it on its axis helps it fly farther and straighter. Medieval archers had observed this phenomenon with their arrows as well, and rifling was tried out as early as the fifteenth century. However, large-scale manufacture of the rifle was not feasible until the nineteenth century.

It is almost impossible to overstate the impact of guns on human civilization, even beyond their effect on the methods of waging war. Although humans have always had a tendency towards violence, guns made it easy to kill from a distance. They are often used legally for hunting, for defense of home and family, or for recreational target shooting. Tragically, they are even more often associated with criminal activities. History-changing political assassinations, which in earlier times required close access to the intended target, now require only a suitable vantage point. Societies worldwide continue to struggle with the Pandora's box opened by the invention of guns.


Further Reading

Boothroyd, Geoffrey. Guns through the Ages. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., 1962.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: Norton, 1997.

Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilization in China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962.

Pope, Dudley. Guns. London: Spring Books, 1969.

Temple, Robert. The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery and Invention. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986.

Williams, Suzanne. Made in China: Ideas and Inventions from Ancient China. Berkeley, CA: Pacific View Press, 1997.