Nothing since the dawn of time has influenced our lives more than the firearm, well, maybe the automobile. For over 500 years, it has provided us with protection and food.
The exact date of the development of gunpowder is unknown, but is believed to be early 11th century in China. The earliest record of the use of gunpowder in the western world was in the mid 11th century. Roger Bacon was one of the greatest scientists of the middle Ages. He was born in 1241 in Somerset, England. Between 1257 and 1265, Bacon wrote a book of chemistry called Opus Majus in which he included a recipe for gunpowder. The earliest picture of a gun is in a manuscript dated 1326 showing a pear-shaped cannon firing an arrow. Crude cannons were used by King Edward III against the Scots in the following year.
The design of the firearm components has remained almost unchanged since the first hand-held weapons were built; with the exception of the firing mechanism. The earliest guns had a simple hole in the barrel, called a touch-hole, where the powder inside the barrel was exposed. The gun was fired by touching either a burning wick, called a match, or a red-hot iron to the exposed powder in the touch-hole. Over the centuries, the development of more sophisticated and reliable firing mechanisms marked the progression of firearm development from the earliest crude cannon to the modern cartridge fed firearms we have today.
Early cannons were prone to bursting and, in many cases; convicts were released from prison for the purpose of loading and firing cannons. The first rifled gun barrels were made in the 1400s. This early date may be surprising, but makes perfect sense when one considers that arrow makers had learned to angle the fletchings on an arrow’s shaft to make it spin as it flew through the air, giving it greater stability. This technique carried over to firearms. Rifled barrels were rare until improvements in manufacturing techniques in the 1800s made them easier to fabricate.
The hand-held firearm has its roots from large crude cannon which caused mass casualties to amassed foot soldiers. These soldiers quickly learned to avoid the gaping maw of the cannon and the fusiliers realized they needed a more mobile “Hand Cannon” to provide more accurate fire at the dodging forces. The earliest ‘hand Gonne’, as it was called, was developed in the fifteenth century, but was not a great influence in battle. It was small cannon with a touch-hole for ignition. It was unsteady, required that the user prop it on a stand, brace it with one hand against his chest and use his other hand to touch a lighted match to the touch-hole, and had an effective range of only about thirty to forty yards. It surely must have taken iron nerves to use one of these against a charging knight, nearly within his lance’s reach, when the powder might not even ignite.
Users of primitive cannons and ‘hand gonnes’ came to realize that a more reliable ignition system was needed. It was just too difficult to use one hand to touch a lit match to an open hole in the gun barrel in the heat of battle while trying to hold the gun steady with the other hand. Also, there was often not enough gunpowder exposed at the touch-hole to ignite reliably. So, the gun designers had to come up with a more reliable system to get the gunpowder lit in a hurry.
Eventually, a clever invention was devised to solve the problem. The touch hole was moved to the side of the gun barrel, and a cup was placed at the opening with a lid on it. This cup would hold a small amount of gunpowder which could be easily ignited. When the powder began to burn, some of the fire would go through the touch hole and ignite the gunpowder inside the barrel, thereby firing the gun. This cup was called the “Flash Pan”. The cover on the flash pan prevented the powder from blowing away in the wind or from getting wet in fog.
All the later ignition systems on guns with a flash pan were designed to automatically ignite the gunpowder in the flash pan at the press of a lever or trigger. This was accomplished by either putting the end of a burning wick into the flash pan or using a flint and steel combination to throw sparks into the flash pan.
The Matchlock was a welcome improvement in the mid-fifteenth century and remained in use even into the early 1700s, when it was much cheaper to mass produce than the better classes of firearms with more sophisticated ignition systems. The Matchlock secured a lighted wick in a moveable arm which, when the trigger was depressed, was brought down against the flash pan to ignite the powder. This allowed the musketeer to keep both hands on the gun, improving his aim drastically. The gun had its weaknesses, though; it took time to ignite the end of the wick, which left the musketeer useless in case of a surprise attack. Also, it was difficult to keep the wick burning in damp weather, for the most part; longbow men were more effective in battle than the musketeers.
The one real advantage the musketeers possessed was the intimidation factor which their weapons provided. The first important use of musketeers was in 1530 when Francis I organized units of Arquebusiers or matchlock musketeers in the French army. By 1540 the matchlock design was improved to include a cover plate over the flash pan which automatically retracted as the trigger was pressed.
The matchlock was the primary firearm used in the conquering of the New World. In time, the Native Americans (Indians) discovered the weaknesses of this form of ignition and learned to take advantage of them. Even Henry Hudson was defeated by an Indian surprise attack in 1609 due to unlit matches. The matchlock was introduced by Portuguese traders to Eastern countries around 1498, particularly India and Japan, and was used by them well into the 19th century.
The Wheel Lock was the next step in firearms evolution. It is said to have been invented by Johann Kiefuss of Nuremberg in 1517, and the idea probably came from the spring driven tinder lighter in use at the time. The idea of this mechanism is simple, similar to a modern lighter which has a flint pressed up against a roughened metal wheel. When you spin the wheel with your finger, the flint pressed against its surface throws off sparks. The same system was used in these firearms to create sparks as needed to ignite the gunpowder to fire the gun. No more waiting to get a wick lit, and no more stressing about it going out when it rains. The wheel lock design was eventually improved with more durable springs, their main weak point, and a cover over the wheel mechanism to protect it and keep it dry. The wheel lock was an expensive gun to make and a matchlock cost less than half as much, so it was impossible to equip a complete army with the more costly mechanism. Only a person of substantial wealth could afford one for himself.
In 1530, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor who ruled over Spain and Austria, imported the brothers Marquarte to transfer their workshops from Augsburg to Madrid. They brought to Spain unsurpassed knowledge of firearms production. By around 1560, German gunsmiths were using wooden stocks and adorning them with inlays of ivory and horn. At about this time the metal parts were fire-blued to add extra beauty and to protect against corrosion. Also, metallurgy had improved to the point that gun barrels were no longer bursting very often. The strongest barrels were of damascene manufacture. In this process, strips of metal about the thickness of a man’s finger are wand together. Then, another strip is wound around them for the full length of the piece, and then the whole thing is heated and welded. It is hammered and forged into the final shape, then bored out. The damascene barrel was the only one that could survive being packed for its full length with gunpowder then fired. Other gun barrels were at risk with only a quarter of their length packed.
The Snaphaunce first appeared around 1570, and was really an early form of the Flintlock. This mechanism worked by attaching the flint to a spring-loaded arm. When the trigger is pressed, the cover slides off the flash pan, then the arm snaps forward striking the flint against a metal plate over the flash pan and hopefully produces enough sparks to ignite the powder. This mechanism was much simpler and less expensive than the Wheel Lock. The German gunsmiths, who tended to ignore the technical advances of other nationalities, continued to produce and improve upon the wheel lock up until the early 18th century.
The Flintlock was developed in France around 1612. A key contributor to this development was Marin le Bourgeoys who was assigned to the Louvre gun shops by King Henri IV of France. The Flintlock’s manufacture slowly spread throughout Europe, and by the second half of the century it became more popular than the Wheel Lock and Snaphaunce. The main difference between the Flintlock and Snaphaunce is that in the Flintlock the striking surface and flash pan cover are all one piece, where in the Snaphaunce they are separate mechanisms. This made the mechanism even simpler, less expensive, and more reliable than its predecessor. This simplicity allowed for more creative gun designs, such as guns with multiple barrels and miniature pistols which could be concealed easily inside a garment. By 1664 experiments with rotating-block repeating firearms were under way (like a revolver which holds a number of shots in a rotating cylinder) but such weapons were dangerous to operate and would have to wait for another century and a half to be made a standard weapon.
In the early 1700s the Brown Bess Flintlock made its appearance, it suggested that it got its name from the acid-brown treatment of its barrel. By this time, the flintlock was accurate up to about 80 yards but nobody could aim at a man and kill him at 200 yards. A shooter of average experience could load and fire two to three rounds per minute. Going through several incarnations, it wasn’t until the 1760s that the Brown Bess was standardized.
In the late 1740s, the first Kentucky rifles began to be produced in America. Several gun makers in the colonies made them, the most famous being those made in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
The Percussion Cap ignition system was developed in 1805 by the Reverend John Forsyth of Aberdeenshire. This firing mechanism was a great step in advancement from its predecessors because it does not use an exposed flash pan to begin the ignition process. Instead, it has a simple tube which leads straight into the gun barrel.
The key to this system is the explosive cap which is placed on top of the tube. The cap contains fulminate of mercury, a chemical compound which explodes when it is struck. This is the same stuff as is used in the paper or plastic caps in a child’s cap gun. When the cap is struck by the hammer, the flames from the exploding fulminate of mercury go down the tube, into the gun barrel, and ignite the powder inside the barrel to propel the bullet.
This firing mechanism provided a major advance in reliability, since the cap was almost certain to explode when struck. This mechanism is almost immune to dampness, though in a rainfall one must still be cautious to avoid getting water in the gun barrel or into the ignition system while loading the weapon. The percussion cap was the key to making reliable rotating-block guns (revolvers) which would fire reliably, and in the early 1800s several manufacturers began producing these multiple-shot sidearms in mass quantities. The percussion cap firing mechanism gave an individual soldier a weapon of precision and reliability which was used to devastating effect in the U.S. Civil War.
Some of the information on this page was sourced from Wikipedia