views updated May 23 2018


FIREARMS. Firearms first emerged through Chinese alchemical experimentation, which produced gunpowder explosives by the ninth century and gradually developed early gunpowder weapons technologies. Gunpowder mixtures and weapons slowly diffused throughout Eurasia over Chinese trading networks, but contemporary political, cultural, and technical conditions inhibited firearms' impact on the practice of war. When gunpowder was introduced in Europe in the late medieval period, firearms began to change European warfare radically.


In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Europeans developed relatively inexpensive methods of manufacturing gunpowder, producing stable powder mixtures, and forging large siege guns, often known as bombards. These guns fired immense stone shot weighing hundreds of pounds, and their gunners personified them, giving them names such as Mons Meg and Pumhart von Steyr. When employed in sieges, bombards could pummel medieval walls and towers into ruin, allowing attacking soldiers to storm fortifications, if the town or castle did not surrender first. Late medieval sieges are often remembered for Shakespeare's dramatic rendering of Henry V's siege of Harfleur and the theatrical king's appeal for his soldiers to head "once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more." The Elizabethan playwright prudently avoided mention of the powerful French royal siege train that battered English castles in Aquitaine and northern France and ultimately produced the French victory in the Hundred Years' War of 13371453.

Outside of siege operations, firearms initially had little impact on late medieval warfare. Late medieval artillery pieces were heavy and difficult to move, so these firearms were not practical for battles in open plains. Most medieval infantry and cavalry continued to use a variety of handheld personal weapons, and the emergence of coherent infantry pike squares, especially in Flanders and in the Swiss cantons, had a much stronger effect on fifteenth-century warfare than did handheld firearms. While a few late medieval soldiers employed hand cannonearly experiments in infantry firearmscrossbows and longbows represented the most significant infantry projectile weapons throughout the fifteenth century. These weapons systems could deliver their arrows or bolts with great force and accuracy, but the slow-loading, delicate mechanisms used in crossbows and the social technology, including intensive muscular training, necessary to fire long-bows ensured that firearms would eventually replace them.


European royalty and nobles rapidly adopted firearms and promoted their use. All of the "renaissance monarchs" of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries recognized the dramatic power of siege artillery. Renaissance artillery was so crucial to the latter stages of the Reconquista in Spain that Weston F. Cook's study refers to the "cannon conquest" of Granada. Ottoman emperors recognized the devastating potential of siege artillery and sponsored the forging of immense artillery pieces. The Ottoman army of Mehmed II besieged Constantinople in 1453 and used immense artillery pieces firing stones to bash the city's famous walls, which had long been considered impregnable. Mughal armies employed firearms and artillery in their swift conquest of northern India in the early sixteenth century. Renaissance armies also used tunneling operations to plant large gunpowder mines beneath fortifications and then to detonate them.

Renaissance engineers experimented with a variety of new fortification designs intended to respond to the threat of the powerful siege artillery of the fifteenth century. Medieval round towers could be modified to serve as platforms for defensive artillery, and walls could be reinforced to protect against besiegers' guns. During the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, many rulers constructed new artillery towers to maximize the potential of artillery to defend towns and strategic sites. Many fortification experiments were more pragmatic and improvised, however. Defenders relied on earthworks, ditches, and outworks to disrupt besiegers' attacks and keep enemy siege artillery at a distanceespecially during the Italian Wars of 1494 to 1559, which provided an impetus for rapid military developments.


By the beginning of the sixteenth century, military engineers in Italy began to transform the pragmatic earthwork fortification techniques into a system of bastioned fortifications, the trace italienne. These fortifications were often known as "star forts" because of the pointed protruding bastions and the regular diamond or pentagonal plans of many bastioned citadels. The defenses are perhaps more properly referred to as artillery fortifications because the real defensive mechanism of the fortification system was artillery firepower. The mutually supporting bastions created well-protected firing platforms for guns, which could use interlocking lines of sight to create devastating crossfire on besieging forces. Printed treatises with complex plans and diagrams communicated the architectural principles of the trace italienne, and bastioned fortifications multiplied quickly through Europe between the 1500s and 1550s. Strategic concerns and prestige competition combined to pressure monarchies, small principalities, and cities to build expensive bastioned fortifications, brimming with artillery. The enormous costs of forging artillery, digging trenches, constructing fortifications, and maintaining garrisons meant that fortress building often required noble and state patronage, and sometimes produced financial exhaustion or serious political ramifications.

The new artillery fortifications were not impregnable, but they often forced long, costly sieges. The newly refortified city of Siena, for example, succumbed to a siege in 1555, but only after a sustained attack against the vigorous Sienese and French defenders. Taking a fortress defended by artillery involved envelopment operations, followed by a laborious process of digging approach trench systems and siting batteries of siege artillery. Often, months of digging and mining activities had to be endured before besiegers could breach the defenses of an artillery fortress. Then, if the defenders still refused to surrender, costly assaults had to be launched by besieging infantry.


Fighting campaigns that involved sieges of artillery fortifications encouraged European infantry to adopt harquebus firearms as their principal projectile weapons and produced new armies. Harquebus firearms used a matchlock systemcomposed of a serpentine mechanism, which held a slow-burning match that would ignite gunpowder in the barrelto fire the weapon's lead ball. Projectiles fired through a harquebus's smoothbore barrel took erratic trajectories, making the weapon highly inaccurate. To be effective, the harquebus had to be used at close range by groups of harquebusiers, soldiers who specialized in using the weapon, firing together. Infantry who used the harquebus in combat were highly vulnerable, though, since their weapon required numerous, complex movements to reload. Further, using the firearms proved highly dangerous, since infantrymen had to use individual doses of gunpowder, usually carried in pouches suspended from bandoliers around the soldier's chest; sparks from the slow-burning match could touch off one of the doses of gunpowder on one's own (or a neighboring soldier's) bandolier, producing an explosion. The transformations of armies did not just involve technological changes, but also organizational changes. Spanish tercios (infantry regiments) and other new armies increasingly relied on the coordination of infantry using firearms to avoid accidents, and on the support from pikemen who could protect harquebusiers while reloading.

While the growing numbers and importance of infantry in warfare might suggest that European nobles' prominence in military systems was threatened, firearms did not lead to the end of noble participation in warfare. Nobles remained in elite cavalry units and some noble horsemen developed caracole tactics, using complex rotating maneuvers to fire their delicate wheel-lock pistols in succession. Other nobles became officers, commanding infantry units and capitalizing on the new armies' demands for military leadership, experience, and firearms expertise. Swiss mercenaries, German Landsknechts, and other stipendiary troops were led by noble and non-noble military elites, who attempted to profit from warfare as military entrepreneurs, known as condottiere in Italy. Military enterprisers recruited, outfitted, and trained their infantry and engaged in conflicts throughout Europe.

The many long conflicts of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries gave ample opportunities for the new armies to demonstrate their power. The Habsburgs' firearms-based armies waged seemingly interminable warfare against Ottoman expansion in the Balkans, in Hungary, and even at the gates of Vienna, which endured long sieges in 1529 and 1683. Emperor Charles V launched campaigns against the Ottomans in the Mediterranean and in North Africa that relied heavily on artillery. Religious divisions between Protestants and Catholics fueled conflicts and intensified hatreds between contending armies beginning with the wars of the Schmalkaldic League in Germany. A militant French Protestant minority in France successfully raised powerful armies during the French Wars of Religion of 15621629, but Catholic forces' superiority in artillery and numbers gradually wore down the French Protestant cause. Catholic Spanish rulers used tercio armies in their attempts to suppress the Dutch Revolt of 15661648. The Protestant Dutch forces led by Maurice of Nassau began to develop new techniques of military discipline, drill, and linear tactics to increase the firepower of their infantry units. These trends were reinforced by the advent of the matchlock musketessentially a larger, more powerful version of the harquebuswhich was such a heavy and clumsy weapon that infantry had to use a forked rest to support the barrel when aiming and firing it.

The internationalization of the Thirty Years' War, which engulfed central Europe between 1618 and 1648, ensured that firearms techniques and developments were shared and spread throughout Europe. Near-constant warfare produced a widespread proliferation of firearms that allowed many people to have firearms in their homes. European nobles and monarchs built up huge arms collections, such as Louis XIII's personal armory. It is no surprise that contemporary artists heavily emphasized camp scenes and military imagery in their works. Imperial, Spanish, Catholic League, Protestant Union, Swedish, and French armies crisscrossed Germany, wreaking devastation. Jacques Callot's Miseries of War portrayed the brutalities of seventeenth-century warfare, which often involved conflicts between peasants and soldiers, in addition to more conventional battles and sieges. The most horrifying atrocities involved the sacking of cities after sieges. Contemporaries referred to the "law of the siege," a set of conventions over military practices that allowed besieging armies to pillage towns that refused to surrender when a breach was made in their walls. Rampaging troops pillaged numerous towns in the war zone, and General Tilly's army utterly destroyed the German city Magdeburg after a siege in 1631. Gustavus Adolphus's Swedish army perhaps utilized firearms most effectively, but all of the armies fighting in the Thirty Years' War began to use smaller, more mobile guns extensively as field artillery, which could support infantry in pitched battles. The immense financial and human costs of warfare gradually exhausted all of the states involved in the continuing warfare, leading to the famous compromise Peace of Westphalia of 1648.


The most important interpretive framework for assessing the impact of firearms on early modern European history has been the much-debated concept of a "military revolution." Michael Roberts, whose famous essay is reprinted in The Military Revolution Debate, originally articulated the notion of revolutionary changes in firearms tactics, strategy, the scale of warfare, and administrative demands that reshaped European military practices, states, and societies between 1560 and 1660. Geoffrey Parker and other historians have since adopted the concept of a "military revolution" but used it in radically different ways: debates have erupted over the periodization, dynamics, and development of the "military revolution," and even over whether it existed at all. All of the competing notions of a military revolution support the notion that "war made the state and the state made war." Governments invested in organizational and bureaucratic developments to support and supply their armies' "hungry guns" with firearms and gunpowder. Spanish armies used garrisons in Milan and the elaborate transportation system of the Spanish Road to supply their troops. Successive French monarchs patronized and updated the Arsenal at Paris, which manufactured, organized, and supplied French royal artillery throughout the early modern period. States began to develop permanent standing armies, despite some politicized debates questioning the wisdom of such structures. Growing armies and burgeoning state bureaucracies went hand in hand, especially in Louis XIV's France.

The "military revolution" also clearly had global implications. Military changes that began prominently in Europe and the Mediterranean diffused throughout the world as a result of early modern European imperialism and mercantilism. Spanish conquistadores used artillery and European siege tactics to conquer cities like Tenochtitlán (Mexico). Dutch and Portuguese fortifications at ports in Morocco, Goa, and Indonesia secured their trading networks. While the techniques developed in the "military revolution" allowed European states to extend empires over broad areas of the globe, some non-Western states and regions, such as Japan, China, and the Mughal Empire, developed ways of using firearms and fortifications that aided them in resisting European expansion.

At sea, however, the naval dimensions of the military revolution allowed European ships to dominate all of the world's oceans by the beginning of the seventeenth century. European shipbuilders had begun to adopt artillery as early as the fifteenth century. Venice's naval Arsenal, which dated from the medieval period, was reorganized to outfit and supply Venetian ships with artillery. The sixteenth century saw the development of the heavily armed sailing ship, or galleon, which packed dozens of guns into multiple decks to produce firepower that no other type of ship could match. Galleons carried gold and silver from mines in the Americas to Spain, but equally well-armed Dutch fleets and English privateers preyed upon them. The Spanish Armada of 1588 showcased battles between two competing designs of galleons. Galleons allowed fleets to pound ports into submission around the world, unless they were well defended by artillery fortifications. State-sponsored permanent navies developed during the seventeenth century, preparing the way for the refined ships of the line and linear naval warfare of the eighteenth century.


Rulers, nobles, and municipalities used fireworks and firearms in city entries, displays, processions, and ceremonies. Militants participating in Catholic League processions in Paris brandished firearms in the late sixteenth century, and municipal festivities at the city's Hôtel de Ville frequently employed cannonades of artillery. Elite corps of musketeers and bodyguards including the gardes françaises of Louis XIII, Russian streltsy, and Ottoman Janissaries demonstrated rulers' fascination with firearms.

Firearms shaped European popular imagination in the early modern period as well. Fears of the explosive power of gunpowder animated the English public's responses to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, while the awesome force of the "infernal machines" (fireships packed with explosives) used by the Dutch against Spanish besiegers at Antwerp in 1585 frightened soldiers throughout Europe. The need to produce firearms inspired new research, knowledge, and techniques. Artists and artisans such as Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer, and Michelangelo Buonarroti developed designs for fortifications and experimental weapons. Galileo Galilei and many of the leading early modern scientists performed chemical and ballistics experiments related to firearms and fortifications. The horrifying wounds caused by firearms stimulated anatomical research and new medical techniques. The proto-industrial production of gunpowder, firearms, and instruments for siege warfare employed artisans throughout Europe.

The late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries brought subtle refinements and increasing systemization of military changes that had begun earlier. Transitions in infantry weaponry to flintlock muskets and bayonets represented mere technological fine-tuning, simplifying arms procurement, logistical services, drill, and discipline. The Enlightenment brought an increasingly technical, "scientific" approach to firearms production and use, reflected in the military articles in Diderot and d'Alembert's Encyclopédie. Military intellectuals theorized military structures, emphasized precision, and introduced standardization. Throughout the early modern period, military vocabulary related to firearms infused modern languages: "half-cocked," "first-rate," and "martinet" were just a few of the words that emerged from early modern military practices. The expanding process of industrialization, coupled with the social dimensions of the American and French revolutions, would quickly transform modern warfare as the mechanization of firearms exponentially increased firepower and the scale of destruction in the nineteenth century.

See also Military ; Thirty Years' War (16181648) .


Arnold, Thomas F. The Renaissance at War. London, 2001.

Black, Jeremy. War and the World: Military Power and the Fate of Continents, 14502000. New Haven, 1998.

Contamine, Philippe. War in the Middle Ages. Translated by Michael Jones. Oxford, 1984.

Cook, Weston F., Jr. "The Cannon Conquest of Nasrid Spain and the End of the Reconquista," Journal of Military History 57, no. 1 (Jan. 1993): 4370.

. The Hundred Years' War for Morocco: Gunpowder and the Military Revolution in the Early Modern Muslim World. Boulder, Colo., 1994.

Hale, J. R. War and Society in Renaissance Europe, 1450 1620. London and Leicester, 1985.

Hall, Bert S. Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe: Gunpowder, Technology, and Tactics. Baltimore, 1997.

Lynn, John A. Giant of the Grand Siècle: The French Army, 16101715. Cambridge, U.K., 1997.

Parker, Geoffrey. The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 15001800. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K., 1996.

Pepper, Simon, and Nicholas Adams. Firearms and Fortifications: Military Architecture and Siege Warfare in Sixteenth-Century Siena. Chicago, 1986.

Rogers, Clifford J., ed. The Military Revolution Debate: Readings on the Military Transformation of Early Modern Europe. Boulder, Colo., 1995.

Tilly, Charles. Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 9901992. 2nd ed. Cambridge, Mass., and Oxford, 1992.

Tracy, James D., ed. City Walls: The Urban Enceinte in Global Perspective. Cambridge, U.K., 2000.

Brian Sandberg


views updated Jun 11 2018



NAICS: 33-2994 Small Arms Manufacturing

SIC: 3484 Small Arms Manufacturing

NAICS-Based Product Codes: 33-29941 through 33-29943546


The manufacture, sale, and ownership of firearms have played an integral role in the development and culture of the United States since its inception. From the establishment of the first national armory at Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1794 to the technological advances of the nineteenth century and the often controversial federal oversight of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the gun industry has helped shape a national consciousness that is, for good or ill, distinctly American. Once a necessity in the acquisition of food and for general protection, guns became a topic of political debate in the late twentieth century. The U.S. firearms industry found itself in an uncertain regulatory environment in the early twenty-first century.

This essay will confine itself to a discussion of the firearms commonly known as small arms, as opposed to those used for military purposes. Small arms is a term first seen in English in the early eighteenth century and denotes those weapons designed for personal, generally hand-held, use. The category includes such weaponry as rifles, shotguns, revolvers, pistols, assault rifles, and submachine guns.

The very early history of guns, including the invention of gunpowder, is somewhat murky. Gunpowder or black powder, as it became known, is variously alleged to have originated in China, Arabia, Germany, or yet someplace else entirely. The fog begins to lift, however, by the fourteenth century, when the initial references to cannons were made in Italy and England. Handgun references appeared by the middle of that century, and the ensuing evolution of small arms is fairly well documented.

Advances in the ignition systems of firearms were crucial to the development of modern guns. Beginning with muzzleloaders, which were fired by applying a lighted match or wick to gunpowder and a projectile that had been loaded into the muzzle end of the weapon, firing mechanisms on small arms gradually became safer and more reliable. In the matchlock systems developed in the early fifteenth century, for example, the lighted wick was no longer in a person's fingers. It was now in the mechanism of the gun. The wheel lock of the next century did away with the need for a match at all, replacing it with a steel and iron pyrite interaction that created a spark to light the powder. Flint and steel combined to create the necessary spark in the flintlock ignition of the late seventeenth century, and the percussion lock, or caplock, of the early nineteenth century was the forerunner of contemporary self-contained ammunition.

By the nineteenth century, the United States had become a hotbed of weaponry innovation, especially in an area of the Connecticut River Valley known as Gun Valley. Among the many notable names of that era and a sampling of their inventions were: Samuel Colt (inventor of the revolver), Richard J. Gatling (first machine gun), Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim (semiautomatic rifle and fully automatic machine gun), and John M. Browning (semiautomatic pistol, gas-operated machine gun, and the Browning Automatic Rifle, or BAR). It was a heady time in which fortunes were made, technological ground was broken, and the subject of small arms engendered very little discussion at all. Not incidentally, it was also a time of fewer people, more available land, hunting as a means of procuring sustenance, and the U.S. Civil War fresh on the collective mind of the populace.

The world had changed by the onset of the twenty-first century. An increasingly urbanized society became divided on the need or desirability of small arms in the hands of its citizens. One faction saw personal gun ownership as a fundamental entitlement guaranteed by the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Hunting, competitive shooting, and self-protection were considered perfectly legitimate pursuits. The other side blamed the relative accessibility of small arms for such societal ills as crime and suicide. It also voiced concern over the proliferation of such weapons worldwide. The small arms industry was caught in the middle.

The 1990s were particularly volatile for the gun industry. Increased government regulation, such as 1994's Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, had a mixed impact as consumers stocked up on weapons before new measures went into effect. The unprecedented initiation of litigation against manufacturers by major cities, starting with New Orleans in 1998, was another immense challenge as the prospective costs of defending such lawsuits forced manufacturers to explore new ways to prosper in the coming years. Some companies, for instance, filed for bankruptcy protection, while others entered into settlement negotiations. Still others broadened their product offerings, branching into such ancillary markets as specialty clothing and sporting goods. Perhaps most notably, however, the adversity prompted the famously competitive industry to begin to band together as a group.

The small arms industry is in the durable goods sector, with products that do not quickly wear out and are unlikely to need replacement in a consumer's lifetime. Despite two factors that are causing uncertainty for the industry—concerns presented by a changing customer base and the social debate about imposing greater gun control regulation—it is in little fear of extinction. The twenty-first century saw sales, particularly of handguns, on the rise once again. Manufacturers continue to investigate new marketing avenues, from cutting-edge technologies to foreign-made weapons to shooting accessories to the Internet. Cultivating or reviving non-traditional customer bases, such as women and youth, are also in play. Market growth is an ongoing worry, but hunters still hunt, police officers still police, and competitive shooters still compete. Small arms are what each of these groups use.


It is notoriously difficult to pinpoint the numbers of U.S. citizens who own guns or, accordingly, the number of weapons within a given household. One reason for this is that such statistics are typically gathered by survey and people have many motivations for giving false information. By combining survey statistics provided by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Reason Magazine, the percentage of private gun owners appears to be stable at between 39 and 49 percent. Another way to track private firearm ownership is to rely on the National Instant Background Check System (NICS) that was initiated with the passage of the Brady Act of 1994. The background check is required for gun purchase or permits. The NICS numbers, as cited by Shooting Industry, indicate that gun ownership is flourishing. In May of 1999, for instance, the number of NICS background checks performed was 576,272. In May of 2007, that number was 803,051. The rise is even more notable when one considers that the May 2007 numbers are closer to those normally associated with the peak buying season in the autumn. Neither a survey nor the NICS is a perfect system, as they do not account for firearms already in the household or those that were illegally obtained. Nonetheless, one can accurately glean some ownership trends from such data.

Excise taxes, calculated as a percentage of wholesale receipts, are yet another way to assess activity within the small arms industry. According to Shooting Industry, excise taxes demonstrated a 5.6 percent increase in sales for all firearms from 2005 to 2006. Handguns did particularly well, posting a 21.94 percent increase in 2006 over the previous year. Research and Markets data, as cited in a Business Wire article, show the industry's overall 2006 revenue at approximately $2.15 billion with a gross profit of nearly 36 percent.

A vital point about the small arms industry, however, is the ongoing influence of the global marketplace and foreign trade. For many years, U.S. firearm exports have been eclipsed by the number of imports. Shooting Industry pointed out that in 2003, for example, the value of gun exports was $42 million and the value of imports was $380 million, creating a trade deficit of a whopping 84 percent. While that was not necessarily a negative situation for such industry participants as importers, distributors, and dealers, it certainly posed a problem for U.S. manufacturers. Nor, given the popularity of foreign-made weapons, was the trend apt to reverse itself anytime soon. Manufacturers addressed the challenge in several ways, including cutting costs, making better guns, and adding foreign-made firearms to their own product offerings. The Remington Arms Company jump-started matters in 2004 with its introduction of a line of Russian-made shotguns. It went on to add others, and competing companies be-gan to follow suit. Results of the manufacturer's efforts were quickly realized—U.S. exports rose 18.66 percent in 2005 and imports fell 2.2 percent. The top three exporting companies in that year were Remington, Smith & Wesson, and Sturm, Ruger and Company. The primary importing countries were Brazil, Austria, and Italy.

The political climate also has a tremendous impact on the small arms industry. An example of this is the dramatic reduction in the number of licensed gun dealers through the end of the twentieth century. According to the Christian Science Monitor, there were approximately 245,000 licensed dealers in the United States in 1996. By 2006 that number had dropped nearly 80 percent. The decrease was clearly attributable to tightened government firearm regulations that had been put in place during the Democratic administration of President Bill Clinton. The Brady Act, and new zoning and reporting requirements for dealers were among those changes. Gun control advocates heralded the downsizing as a victory against crime, while the pro-gun side maintained that the measures had simply driven out individuals who had received licenses in order to buy guns at wholesale prices. The crux of the matter does not lie in which position is correct, however. Instead, the point is that the decrease did take place and politics played an integral role in that process.

Finally, a discussion of the small arms market must include mention of two distinct factions within its domestic confines—private citizens and law enforcement. No numbers were available to express the exact percentage of buyers within these markets, but there is little question that one may be at least partially offsetting the other. Particularly in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States, the government budget for small arms is expanding, according to the New York Times, as quoted in the International Herald Tribune. However, government agencies are also investing more money into guns and homeland security. It follows that police forces, especially in major cities, are doing so as well. Thus, it may be that any increases in small arms sales owe more to the law enforcement market than to the civilian market.


According to the U.S. Census Bureau's Current Industrial Report series, there were 177 small arms manufacturing companies in the United States in 2002. Most were located in Texas, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, with California and Wisconsin close behind. As is the case with many mature industries, the small arms business had undergone its share of upheaval throughout the years. The venerable Winchester factory, for example, closed its doors in March of 2006. Colt's Manufacturing had seen various owners and undergone bankruptcy proceedings. Others, such as Springfield Armory, no longer bore any real relationship to their storied pasts. Nonetheless, familiar brands remained among the top manufacturers of 2005. Those included Marlin; Mossberg; Remington; Smith & Wesson; and Ruger.

Marlin Firearms Company

Founded by John Mahlon Marlin in 1870 in New Haven, Connecticut, Marlin makes rifles. Such famous characters as sharpshooter Annie Oakley and cowboy movie actor Tom Mix were Marlin fans. The company was bought by a syndicate and became the Marlin Rockwell Corporation in 1915, but came into a new family legacy in 1924 when it was bought by Frank Kenna for just $100 (and a large mortgage). The Kennas still owned Marlin in 2007. In 2000 the company acquired H&R 1871, the biggest manufacturer of single-shot shotguns and rifles in the world. Marlin was the third largest maker of rifles in 2005.

O.F. Mossberg & Sons

The second largest producer of shotguns in 2005, Mossberg was founded in 1919 by Oliver F. Mossberg. It began making .22 rifles in 1922 and introduced its shotgun line in 1957. Since that time, shotguns have been a primary focus of the company. Mossberg is headquartered in North Haven, Connecticut.

Remington Arms Company

Begun in upstate New York in 1816 by Eliphalet Remington, the strictly long-gun company is now located in Madison, North Carolina. It claims to be one of the oldest continuously operating firearm manufacturers in the United States, as well as the sole U.S. producer of both guns and ammunition. It has been the top U.S. manufacturer of firearms for five consecutive years as of 2005.

Smith & Wesson

Perhaps most famous for introducing the .44 magnum popularized by actor Clint Eastwood in the movie Dirty Harry, Smith & Wesson's past has been more checkered than most. It was founded, after a failed initial partnership by Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1856 and was run by Wesson's descendents until 1967. A long history of innovation and profit was notably marred in 2004 when the company's then-chairman was discovered to be a convicted felon and accounting irregularities were investigated. By 2005, however, it was back on top as the leading U.S. manufacturer of handguns, and in 2007 it implemented a turnaround strategy of product expansion and acquisition (Thompson/Center Arms). As a result profits soared 41 percent.

Sturm, Ruger & Company

The number two producer of both handguns and rifles in 2005, William Batterman Ruger opened for business in 1949 after working as a gun designer for the original Springfield Armory. Although a relative latecomer to the small arms business, Ruger quickly established a reputation as an industry leader with an enviable balance sheet. The company makes rifles, shotguns, pistols, and revolvers, and is the only leading U.S. small arms manufacturer that is publicly held.

Springfield Armory, Inc.

The original Springfield Armory was the first national armory in the United States. It was in operation until 1968. The name was adopted by Robert Reese in 1974, when he founded a firearms manufacturing company in Geneseo, Illinois. Springfield ranked third among the leading handgun producers of 2005.


The Austrian-based semiautomatic pistol maker Glock bears special mention as the producer of this small arm of choice for many—particularly police officers. Other notable manufacturers include Savage, Kimber, Beretta, Beemiller, and Bushmaster.


The basic materials required for small arms manufacturing are fairly straightforward. They include iron, steel, copper, and aluminum, as well as various plastic products and fastening devices such as bolts, nuts, and screws. At least as important as the raw materials necessary to production are the technical design and, often, the artistry of the weapon. Many guns, for instance, are elaborately engraved to be aesthetically pleasing. Others rely on trademark innovations to set themselves apart. Accuracy, reliability, and safety are further important considerations, depending on the nature of the weapon (target shooting vs. self-protection, for example). In short, the small arms business depends less on the manufacturing materials involved than the expertise behind it.

Guns can be, and are, manufactured all over the world. In this respect, especially with regard to imports, cost may come more in alignment with expertise. Just as with domestic manufacturers, however, this possibility depends largely on the maker—a Glock, for example, would hardly be considered a cheap import. Thus, while costs also come into play when looking at supply chain logistics, where the weapon is made ultimately matters very little.


Small arms manufacturers generally get their products to consumers through retail outlets. Those outlets primarily consist of gun dealers, sporting goods stores, and broader-based, Big Box retailers such as Wal-Mart. Retailers must possess a federal license. Most major manufacturers also maintain websites with information that includes firearm offerings, dealer/retailer locations, and accessories that can be purchased directly from the maker online. Accessories may include gun stocks and barrels, collectibles, and apparel.

A subset of the gun dealer faction involves the highly-charged retail category known as gun shows. Gun shows are temporary exhibitions held in such public spaces as shopping malls, hotels, or stadiums. In addition to weapons, gun parts, ammunition, knives, collectibles, and gun literature are often found for sale. The controversy surrounding gun shows stems from the NICS provision of the Brady Act, which only applies to those in the business of selling firearms and, thus, those who hold a license. Unlicensed vendors have no obligation to conduct the NICS background check required of licensees. The underlying assumption in this loophole is that private citizens have a right to sell or trade weapons from their own collections, much as they sell their cars without going through a car dealership. The concern, however, is that potential buyers who would be denied if a background check were conducted can bypass that problem by patronizing an unlicensed dealer. Debate about the issue continues, as do gun shows.


Small arms purchases can loosely be divided into five categories—hunting, competitive and target shooting, self-protection, law enforcement, and collecting. Although the ranks of hunters have been decreasing over the years, public support for hunting appears to be on the rise. The number of hunters dropped 4 percent from 2001 to 2007, while the number of those who disapprove of the sport has fallen from 22 percent in 1995 to 16 percent in 2007. States, anxious to maintain or increase hunting license revenues in order to keep up conservation efforts, are banding together with gun groups to reverse the declining trend. Prime among such campaigns are those aimed at attracting young people and families to the sport.

Competitive and target shooting also have their aficionados. The NRA alone sanctions approximately 10,000 shooting tournaments per year and conducts over 50 national championships. The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) estimates that there are approximately 17 million active target shooters in the United States. Those involved in sporting clays grew by 8.4 percent from 1998 to 2005.

It is difficult to estimate how many gun owners purchase weapons for self-defense. Reason Magazine, however, cited Gallup Polls of 1999 and 2000 that placed the percentage of private owners who have firearms for protection against crime at 65 percent.

A major outlet for small arms is law enforcement. Once the domain of the revolver, Colt and Smith & Wesson had the market tied up for many years. Ruger and others eventually joined the fray, but the law enforcement market drastically changed when greater criminal firepower prompted departments to switch to 9-millimeter handguns in the 1980s. This brought in overseas competition, bringing Glock to the forefront. By the turn of the century, Glock enjoyed a market dominance of over 70 percent.

Collectors are another important group of gun owners. Many collectors appreciate weaponry primarily for its artistic or investment value. As with many of these users, this objective in gun ownership may overlap with other interests. The collector may also enjoy target shooting, for instance. Or a police officer might hunt in his spare time. Thus, it is not uncommon for a gun-owning household to have more than one small arm.


The small arms industry supports an array of other markets. Prime among these is ammunition. Federal data showed 110 ammunition manufacturing companies operating in the United States as of 2002. It was over a billion dollar per year industry at the time, and supported nearly 7,000 employees.

Other adjacent markets range from specific firearm accessories, including scopes, holsters, gun racks, and cleaning equipment, to corollary hobby and professional supplies for reloading and gunsmithing, to broader sporting equipment and accompaniments such as binoculars, camping gear, pocket knives, and GPS systems. Additional markets include everything from eye/ear protection, decoys, and clothing to targets, shooting rests, and duck calls.

Another, less quantifiable influence, is the crime rate and/or other perceived threat to the U.S. citizenry. For the reasons cited above, these factors are hard to translate into reliable statistics. A good example, nonetheless, is the surge in weapons sales after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Tangible or not, self-defense can be a motivator among the gun-buying public.


Much of the recent research and development surrounding the small arms industry focuses on safety and crime control. It should be noted that not all of this investigation is being undertaken by the manufacturers themselves, but by such independent institutions as the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ).

One of these investigations is the quest for a so-called smart gun that would only function in the hands of an authorized user. Colt, Smith & Wesson, and the foregoing independent institutions are among those who have explored the possibilities of such a firearm. The idea behind the development of a smart gun is to prevent gun deaths in such situations as children playing with firearms or police officers who have their own weapons turned against them by suspects or criminals. The various technologies looked into have included biometrics (reading unique body signatures) and radio frequency devices. A prototype was introduced at the NJIT in 2004, but commercial availability remained in the future as technology was fine-tuned and political debate continued over the viability and necessity of safe guns.

Another intriguing and controversial development was a technology known as micro-stamping, which would stamp a firearm's make, model, and serial number onto shell casings every time the gun was fired. Applicable to semiautomatic weapons, as revolvers retain their casings in their chambers, California's state assembly passed a bill in 2007 that would require such technology on all semiautomatic pistols sold in the state beginning in 2010. The premise in this case was to provide a further means of evidence gathering for law enforcement. Predictably, pro-gun advocates objected and gun-control fans cheered. It was not made clear how such technology would be useful in the case of illegal, unregistered weapons.


Today's trends in small arms manufacturing, from new research and development efforts to the incorporation of foreign-made weapons into domestic product lines, are largely fueled by the saturation level within the industry and the consequent quest for fresh markets. Although a fairly stable market continues to exist, the maturity of the industry and the inherent nature of firearms combine to offer manufacturers a continuing challenge in finding new customers. For instance, given the shelf life of most small arms, a gun owner often has no real need to replace an existing weapon. He or she may covet the latest thing, but, unlike, say, the instance of a broken refrigerator, there is no necessity to buy a new one. Developing smart guns and cultivating young shooting enthusiasts are but two avenues toward that goal.


While markets and segmentation with the small arms industry have been largely covered in the forgoing discussion, the role of women should be given special attention. According the NSSF, 16 percent, or over 3 million, of all active firearm hunters in 2005 were female. That same year, 23 percent, or 5 million, target shooters were women. These figures alone make women an attractive target market for gun makers, but there is another consideration that gives them even more allure—the youth market. That is, as the industry attempts to maintain its longevity by reeling in another generation of avid consumers, there are hardly better champions it could have than the women of that next generation. By involving more women and, by hopeful extension, families, in small arms pursuits, gun makers can see a saturated market base become filled with potential.


Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence,

National Rifle Association (NRA),

National Shooting Sports Foundation,

United States Fish & Wildlife Service,

United States Practical Shooting Associations,

Violence Policy Center,


Ayoob, Massad. "Guns 50th Police: It's Been a Helluva Ride the Last Half Century, with an Almost Complete and Diametric Reversal of the Traditional Paradigm." Guns Magazine. January 2005. Available from 〈〉.

Clayton, Mark. "Hunters as Endangered Species? A Bid to Rebuild Ranks." Christian Science Monitor. 27 September 2005. Available from 〈〉.

"The False Hope of the 'Smart' Gun." Violence Policy Center. Available from 〈〉.

"Gun Ownership: The Numbers." Reason Magazine. May 2001. Available from 〈〉.

"Gun Shows: Arms Bazaars for Terrorists and Criminals." Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Available from 〈〉.

"Guns and Ammo: History." Dyer Laboratories, Inc. Available from 〈〉.

"Guns, Gun Ownership, & RTC at All-Time Highs, Less 'Gun Control,' and Violent Crime at 30-Year Low." National Riffle Association, Institute for Legislative Action. Available from 〈〉.

"History of Firearms." Today's Hunter in South Carolina. Available from 〈〉.

Marks, Alexandra. "Why Gun Dealers Have Dwindled." Christian Science Monitor. 14 March 2006.

Moyer, Ben. "Hunting: Number of Hunters is Dropping, But Not Public Support for Those Who Hunt." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 1 July 2007.

"National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation." U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish & Wildlife Service. Available from 〈〉.

"Shots Fired at Bayonne Range Prove Smart Gun Technology Works." Press Release. New Jersey Institute of Technology. 16 December 2004.

"Small Arms." Encyclopedia of American Industries. Thomson Gale, 2006.

"Small Arms Ammunition Manufacturing: 2002." Current Industrial Reports. U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. January 2005.

"Small Arms Manufacturing: 2002." Current Industrial Reports. U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. January 2005.

"The Small Arms Manufacturing Industry's Revenue for the Year 2006 Was Approximately $2,150,000,000." Business Wire. 11 April 2007. Available from 〈〉.

Thurman, Russ. "Business Hits Robust Level: An Energized Industry Enjoys Brisk Sales." Shooting Industry. July 2007.

――――――. "It Ain't Your Grandfather's Gun Business: Intense Government Scrutiny, Relentless Anti-gun Assaults, Increased Imports and An Erratic Economy—They've All Changed the U.S. Firearm Business!" Shooting Industry. July 2004.

Wayne, Leslie. "Gun Maker Banks on Pentagon." New York Times. 11 April 2006.

Yi, Matthew. "Assembly OKs Micro-stamp on Some Guns." San Francisco Chronicle. 30 May 2007.


views updated Jun 11 2018


The right to carry a gun, whether for purposes of self-protection or hunting animals, is an emotional issue embedded deep in the cultural consciousness of the United States. By the 1990s, after some eight decades of destruction wrought by the use of guns by organized crime, political assassins, and dangerous psychopaths, many Americans were growing disturbed by their gun heritage, but they remained in a hopeless minority when it came to effecting anti-gun legislation.

The American love of firearms probably originated in a combination of frontier actuality and propaganda coup. When English colonists and Native American cultures collided, the usual result was gunfire from the colonists, who won the Pequot and King Philip's wars and secured their toeholds in North America. When Revolutionaries created an icon of independence, it was the Minute Man, usually portrayed with plow in the background and long rifle in hand. According to Samuel Adams and the Concord Battle Monument, it was the Minute Man who defeated the British and won the Revolution. That heroic figure of the liberty-loving, citizen-soldier hovers over all twentieth-century discussions of gun control and the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, whose complete text reads, "A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." Those individuals and organizations like the NRA (National Rifle Association) who favor individual gun ownership stress the last two phrases of the Second Amendment. Those who support gun control or elimination argue that the complete Amendment provides for police organization, not for an individual right.

In the twentieth century, certain specific weapons have achieved iconic status for Americans. In popular military imagination, there are only two American rifles. The first is the M1, or Garand Semi-Automatic Rifle, which General George S. Patton memorialized in his famous assertion, "In my opinion, the M1 rifle is the greatest battle implement ever devised." The M1 is the final development of infantry doctrine which stresses target selection, accuracy, and measured fire. (The original design specifications excluded full automatic firing.) For perhaps 25 years (1944-1969), the M1 was a symbol of American might, rooted in GI grit and bravery, and reluctantly deployed in order to save the world. Some of the best movie images of M1s in skilled acting hands can be seen in William Wellman's Battleground (1949) and Samuel Fuller's Fixed Bayonets (1951).

The second legendary American military weapon is the M16 rifle. Imaginatively speaking, the M16, which can be toggled for either semi-automatic or full automatic firing, figures in the moral ambiguities of the late Cold War and post-Cold War periods. Late twentieth-century infantry doctrine takes as fundamental the statistical fact that, under fire, the majority of riflemen in World War II did not fire their weapons, and those who did tended to fire high. The M16, with its automatic-fire option and light recoil, lets a soldier "cover" a target area without particular target selection. Probability, more than aim, determines the results.

One of the most enduring and disturbing images of the M16 resides in a television interview during the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam. The reporter questions a rifleman (Delta Company, 5th Brigade, 1st Marine Division) who repeatedly jumps into firing position, shoots a burst of automatic fire, and drops down to relative safety. He first tells the reporter, "The hardest thing is not knowing where they are." After another burst, he says, "The whole thing stinks, really."

When such confusion, which must be common to the experience of all soldiers in the field, is replayed uncensored on television, the iconography shifts from democratic Dogface to enduring but victimized Grunt, doing the will of (at best) deluded leaders. The M16 shares in this imaginative legacy of the Vietnam War, whereas M16s in the hands of young, drug-busting Colombian soldiers, or crowd-controlling Israeli soldiers are more likely to provoke sympathy for peasants and protesters than concerns for enlisted men.

The counterpart to the M16 is the Soviet AK47, which expresses the same combat doctrine. With its characteristic banana-clip and crude wooden stock and fore-piece, the AK47 has a somewhat sharper emblematic presence than the high-industrial M16, perhaps because it is associated with the uprising of the oppressed. It was the weapon of the victorious North Vietnamese Army, and figures in the artful, controlled imagery from that side of the war. In contemporary Mexico, the contrast between M16 and AK47 is stark. The army is equipped with M16s. When one of their most militant opponents, Sub-commander Marcos of the Zapatista National Liberation Army, appears for photo opportunities, he does so "in full military garb with an AK47 automatic rifle strapped across his chest" according to the New York Times.

The M16 carries its ambiguous military significance into equivocal imaginations of civilian life. While there are relatively few images of the M1 deployed on American streets, the M16 figures prominently in urban American drug movies. Police SWAT teams carry the weapons in various configurations, ever more technically advanced. In such modern, nihilistic gangster movies as Michael Mann's Heat (1995), Val Kilmer's split devotion to family and to casually murderous excitement has him emptying uncounted magazines of.223 ammunition at expendable policemen, his weapon always toggled to full automatic. The camera delights in shattered windshields, while the exquisite audio-track records the counterpoint of firing with the clinking sound of spent cartridges hitting the streets and sidewalks.

Moving from long guns to hand guns, the American pistol that probably holds pride of place in twentieth-century civilian imagination is the ".45 Automatic," Colt's Model 1911, semi-automatic military side-arm whose high-caliber, relatively low-velocity cartridge was meant to knock a man down, wherever it struck him. It had a name-recognition advantage, since the other Colt.45, a six-shooter, is the favorite gun of such Western movies as High Noon (1952). A presentation-grade version of the 1911 Semi-Automatic Colt.45 appears in the movie Titanic (1997). The counter-image to the.45 automatic is the German Luger, officer issue in the German army. The pistol's narrow barrel and curved trigger-guard give it a sinuous, European quality, in contrast to the bluff (and heavy) American.45. In cinematic imagination, seductively evil men use Lugers in such movies as Clint Eastwood's Midnight in Garden of Good and Evil (1997).

The more visually and audibly stimulating weapon associated with mid-twentieth-century urban mayhem is the "Tommy gun," whose movie and comic-strip rat-a-tat-tat! lights up the seemingly countless gangster-vs.-cops movies. A Tommy gun is the.45 caliber, fully automatic Thompson sub-machine gun. The "sub" simply means that it is smaller in size and magazine capacity than a military machine-gun. There is a famous photograph of smiling John Dillinger, with a drum-magazine Tommy gun in one hand, a small Colt automatic pistol in the other. The most eroticized, cinematic realization of the Tommy gun's power is in the slow-motion shooting of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway at the end of Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1969).

Other handguns permeate late-twentieth-century popular culture. The James Bond novels and movies briefly popularized the Walther PPK, and Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry series gave us "Go ahead, make my day," but few know the make of gun down which he speaks (it's a Smith & Wesson.44 Magnum). There are Uzis (Israeli micro sub-machine guns) and the MAC-10, but none of these weapons has the imaginative staying power of the M1, M16, AK47, Colt.45, Luger, and Tommy gun.

—Jonathan Middlebrook

Further Reading:

D'Este, Carlo. Patton: A Genius for War. New York, Harper-Collins, 1995.

Gerson, Noel B. The Grand Incendiary; A Biography of Samuel Adams, by Paul Luis. New York, Dial Press, 1973.

Krakow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. 2nd Rev. Ed. New York, Penguin Books, 1997.

Lepore, Jill. The Name of War. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

Newton, Michael. Armed and Dangerous: A Writer's Guide to Weapons. Cincinnati, Ohio, Writer's Digest Books, 1990.

Toland, John. The Dillinger Days. New York, Random House, 1963.

——. Reporting World War II. 2 Vols. New York, Literary Classics of the United States, 1995.


views updated May 11 2018


A firearm is a weapon of attack or defense that expels a projectile via the action of the force exerted by the gases resulting from the rapid combustion of an explosive mixture. A firearm is often associated with the commission of a violent crime and is commonly found at crime scenes or on suspects. Also, many people who commit suicide use a firearm. An interest in firearms in forensic sciences is therefore, paramount. In criminalistics , the study of firearms consists first in the knowledge and identification of firearms and their ammunition, second in the internal, external, and terminal ballistics , and finally in the analysis of powders, primers, and their residues.

The birth and evolution of firearms is directly linked to the discovery of black powder. It is believed that the discovery of black powder dates from 1242, when the French monk Roger Bacon (12141294) wrote a letter describing the recipe for black powder. At that time, it was composed of about 40% saltpeter (potassium nitrate), 30% charcoal, and 30% sulfur. The first barrels, ancestors of the modern firearms, were developed at the beginning of the fourteenth century. At that time, the barrel was loaded from its end (muzzle), first with powder, and then with the projectile. The powder was ignited with a match, which was connected to the powder through the base of the barrel. Around 1800, mercury fulminate started to be used and the first primers were developed. In 1835, French arms manufacturer Casimir Lefaucheux (18021852) invented the first metallic cartridge. One year later, in 1836, American arms manufacturer Samuel Colt (18141862) invented the revolver. The pistol was invented prior to that time, however, it was loaded by the end of the barrel. The modern semi-automatic pistol (using a magazine) was invented after the revolver in 1893.

A firearm expels a projectile at high velocity. The projectile is part of the cartridge. The cartridge consists of a shell holding the primer at one end and the projectile on the other with powder in the middle. The cartridge is inserted either manually or automatically in the barrel of the firearm. The trigger of the firearm is then pulled, which arms the hammer. At some point, the hammer is released and hits the firing pin, which hits the primer. The shock to the primer starts its combustion, which, in turns, ignites the powder in the cartridge. The powder combusts very rapidly and produces gases, which increase the pressure inside the cartridge (and therefore the barrel) tremendously. This pressure is in the order of 2,0004,000 atmospheres. This pressure is exerted on the base of the projectile, which is pushed into the barrel. The projectile then exits the barrel at high velocity, usually ranging from 2501,000 meters per second (2731094 yards per second).

Firearms are classified in two main categories: light and heavy firearms. Light firearms include handguns and shoulder guns. Handguns are then further classified into revolvers, pistols (semi-automatic, automatic, and machine), and Derringers (single-shot and double-barreled pistols). Shoulder weapons are divided into two subcategories: weapons with a rifled barrel, such as rifles and carbines, and weapons with a smoothbore barrel, such as shotguns. It is important to understand that some shoulder weapons may have more than one barrel. They can have two or more one-over-the-other barrels or side-by-side barrels. There are some shoulder weapons that have a combination of rifled and non-rifled barrels. Among the rifled shoulder weapons are the semi-automatic and automatic assault rifles and machine guns. Usually, heavy weaponry includes weapons that shoot calibers above 12.7 millimeter and are found on vehicles or armored tanks. These are specialized, usually military, weapons and are not encountered in the daily routine of a crime scene unit. Finally, there is the category of improvised or homemade weapons, which includes an enormous variety of different weapons of all calibers and functions.

Firearms are characterized by many variables, such as brand, model, size, length of barrel, shape, color, and functionality. Some of the most important variables of the firearm are the general rifling characteristics (when dealing with a rifled barrel), which include the caliber , the direction and degree of twist, and the number and width of grooves and lands. The caliber is correlated to the barrel's diameter and the power of the cartridges for which the firearm is designed. With few exceptions, a firearm is designed to use one given caliber. Upon shooting a projectile, the firearm leaves impressions on the projectile and the cartridge's casing. The observation of these impressions allows the forensic scientist to establish a link between the firearm and the elements of ammunition.

When dealing with a firearm found at a crime scene or on a suspect, the first security measure is to consider it as loaded and ready to shoot. Security with firearms is paramount and must be prioritized over everything else. If the firearm has just been found at a crime scene, it is possible to sketch, photograph, and take notes about it before touching it. Then, it is either placed in a container specifically designed to transport firearms and resist accidental discharges, or it needs to be secured. The firearm is then transported to the forensic laboratory where the firearms and toolmarks examiner can examine it.

see also Ballistics; Crime scene reconstruction; Drugfire; Integrated Ballistics Identification System (IBIS); Microscope, comparison; Trajectory.


views updated May 14 2018


The availability of firearms is clearly associated with an increased risk of homicide, suicide, and deaths from firearm-related accidents. However, there is an active debate in the United States on the right to own and bear arms and the government's role in controlling access to firearms. Apart from the opinions on both sides, there are numerous studies on the topic. For example, countries with very restrictive legislation, including strict licensing of owners, have many fewer nonhunting fatalities from accidental shootings than countries with less restrictive firearm legislation. The United States is the Western country with the least restrictive firearm legislation; the accidental death rate by firearms in the United States is .7 people per 100,000 per year (compared to Sweden, which has restrictive legislation and one-tenth the number of nonhunting fatalities from accidental shootings).

When one factors in the variables of sex, age, income, ethnicity, education, previous violence in the home, and drug use, the presence of a firearm in the home greatly increases the likelihood of a homicide or a death by suicide. In the case of homicide, evidence shows that in many killings the offender did not have a single-minded intention to kill, and thus the lethality of the instrument used in the crime affected the outcome. Because homicides in the home usually follow altercations, and situational factors such as alcohol or drug consumption are often present, the presence of a lethal weapon increases the risk that a death will occur. Unsafe storage is also a risk factor, although the presence of a firearm has been found to be more critical than its accessibility.

In the case of suicide, studies have found that having access to a firearm in the home increases the risk of suicide; suicide rates are five or six times higher than in homes without guns. Restrictions on carrying firearms, enhanced sentences for the use of firearms in criminal offenses and legislation (e.g., in Canada), and compelling firearms in the home to be guarded under lock and key have been associated with reduced deaths by suicide and homicide. According to a study conducted by Colin Loftin and colleagues, a widespread prohibition of handguns in the Washington, D.C., area in 1976 also appeared to be effective in decreasing mortality by 25 percent in the ten years following adoption of those restrictive laws, compared to no similar reductions in adjacent metropolitan areas in Maryland and Virginia where the law did not apply.

Persons opposed to legislative controls on firearms see criminals and suicidal individuals as being motivated by an intransigent need to harm others or themselves that is predetermined before any lethal event occurs. According to this view situational factors, such as the presence of a firearm, are irrelevant because these people will commit their premeditated acts irrespective of the means available. Opponents of gun control also feel that if "guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns." These opinions ignore the reality that many homicides and suicides are impulsive and passionate acts where the presence of a lethal weapon immediately available greatly increases the risk of a lethal outcome. Furthermore, many people who commit acts of violence, including homicide, have no known history of criminal behavior. Research has shown that suicidal people have a much greater likelihood of not dying by suicide if a particular preferred lethal means is not available. Studies conducted since the mid-1970s have shown that situational influences, including the availability of firearms, can be critical in the outcome of an event.

See also: Homicide, Epidemiology of; Suicide


Gabor, Thomas. The Impact of the Availability of Firearms on Violent Crime, Suicide, and Accidental Death: A Review of the Literature with Special Reference to the Canadian Situation. Ottawa: Canada Department of Justice, 1994.

Kellerman, Arthur K., et al. "Suicide in the Home in Relation to Gun Ownership." New England Journal of Medicine 30 (1992):8693.

Loftin, Colin, David McDowal, Brian Wiersema, and Cottey Talbart. "Effects of Restrictive Licensing of Handguns on Homicide and Suicide in the District of Columbia." New England Journal of Medicine 325 (1991):16151620.

Ornehult, L., and A. Eriksson. "Fatal Firearms Accidents in Sweden." Forensic Science International 34 (1987):257266.



views updated Jun 27 2018

firearm Term used usually to describe a small arm – a weapon carried and fired by one person or a small group of people. Firearms were used in Europe in the 14th century. They were, however, ineffective in close combat until c.1425, when a primitive trigger to bring a lighted match into contact with the gunpowder charge was invented. Such firearms, called matchlocks, were heavy and cumbersome, and needed a constantly lit match. The lighter flintlock (which used the spark produced by flint striking steel to ignite the powder) superseded the matchlock in the mid-17th century. During the 19th century there were great changes. In 1805, the explosive properties of mercury fulminate were discovered and, together with the percussion cap invented in 1815, it provided a surer, more efficient means of detonation. It permitted the development by 1865 of both the centre-fire cartridge (which has been the basic type of ammunition used in firearms ever since) and breech loading, not previously practicable. Another major 19th-century advance was rifling – the cutting of spiral grooves along the inside of a barrel in order to make the bullet spin in flight. During the 1830s, Samuel Colt perfected the revolver, a pistol which could fire several shots without the need to reload. By the 1880s, magazine rifles were also in use, and became more effective with the introduction of a bolt action after 1889. Development of a weapon that could fire a continuous stream of bullets began with the manually operated Gatling gun, but the first modern machine gun was the Maxim gun, invented in the 1880s, which used the recoil energy of the fired bullet to push the next round into the breech and recock the weapon. Guns of this type dominated the trench warfare of World War I. By World War II, more portable automatic weapons, such as the Bren gun and sub-machine gun, were in use. Newer developments include gas-operated rifles, firearms with several rotating barrels and extremely high rates of fire, and small firearms that use explosive bullets.


views updated May 21 2018

fire·arm / ˈfī(ə)rˌärm/ • n. a rifle, pistol, or other portable gun.