The Emerging And Controversial History Of Firearms

The history of guns is an interesting one. In fact, the first guns would be completely unrecognizable to us and we wouldn’t think of them as guns at all. But they paved the way for the idea of the firearm that we now know today.

The storied timeline of guns and who invented them has also included plenty of controversy, opinion, and political action. As the uses of guns evolved, so did the way they were viewed by the general public.

History and Timelines

Interested in where guns came from? You should be. It’s a fascinating journey that all gun owners should understand, because it will likely give you a better respect for the power you hold in your hands today.

1000 AD

While the Chinese had already invented gunpowder about 100 years earlier, the first gun invention to be identified was actually a bamboo tube. It used gunpowder to fire a spear, and it showed up in China around 1000 AD.

1132 AD

The earliest depiction of a firearm in the media is the fire lance. This was a tube filled with black powder and used as a flamethrower. It was attached to the end of a spear, and sometimes shrapnel was inserted into the barrel as well, so it would fly with the flames.

This gunpowder weapon is illustrated on a silk banner from Dunhuang, dating back to the mid-10th century. It records how the Song forces used these lances in battle with the Jerchens.

Earliest known representation of a fire lance (upper right), Dunhuang, 950 AD.
Oldest known visual of the fire lance (upper right), Dunhuang, 950 AD.

1300 AD

By 1300 AD, the bamboo chutes were replaced by metal to better withstand the propellant and the explosive power of these early firearms. The shrapnel was also replaced with projectiles that fit the barrel better.

This is the beginning of a firearm with three basic features. The barrel was made of metal, the gunpowder was a high-nitrate explosive, and the projectile fits the muzzle well enough that the powder has a fuller effect with more propellant power.

1336 AD

The Majapahit Empire used cetbang guns in their conquest of Nusantara, starting in 1336 AD. These swivel mounted guns were breech-loading and they had a transformative effect on the style of warfare in archipelago kingdoms.

1340 AD

By the 1340s, gunpowder had made its way to Europe. There are several different theories as to how this happened. One says that it came to Europe on the Silk Road from the Middle East. Another says that the Mongols brought it during their invasion.

The first cannon was found in Europe in the 1340s while there is still a firearm in existence that dates back to 1396 in Otepää, Estonia.

 "Vaso", the earliest illustration of a European cannon, from around 1327
“Vaso”, the earliest illustration of a European cannon, from around 1327, by Walter de Milemete / Public domain

14th Century

Personal firearms showed up sometime in the 14th Century, when Europeans created smaller, more portable cannons that were light enough to be handheld. The Ottoman empire used these types of guns as late as the 15th century to equip their infantry.

1860

Firearms didn’t see much improvement or invention until the 19th century, when Richard Gatling developed the Gatling Gun and equipped Union forces during the Civil War. This early version of a machine gun was a rapid-fire, spring loaded firearm with a hand crank.

The front page of the Scientific American on December 4, 1869, had a story of an improved version of the Gatling gun produced by Colt's Armory.
Woodcut by Richard Ten Eyck (signature lower right) / Public domain

1918

The first fully automatic firearm to be operated by a single individual was the MP18, by inventor Theodor Bergmann, and introduced by the German Army in 1918, during World War I. It was used primarily in trench combat.

Bergmann MP18.1 submachine gun with drum magazine
Bergmann MP18. Daderot / Public domain

1940s

We have the Germans to thank again, who invented the first assault rifle and first introduced it during World War II. The StG 44 is the first rifle made that combined elements of long range rifles, short range sub-machine guns, and machine guns.

Since this time, guns that can shoot without the means of gunpowder have been developed at light speed.

Sturmgewehr 44 stg44
An early image of the Sturmgewehr 44 AKA the StG44

Different Types of Guns

There are more types of guns than we could possibly count. It depends on how you categorize them. Technically, a cannon is a type of early firearm, but these days, we think of guns as something you can carry without assistance and fire on your own.

Revolvers

two colt revolvers

Revolvers are named for the way they dispense ammunition. The cylinder accepts ammo in the shape of a circle, then revolves to fire each bullet one a time from the next chamber. As the hammer is cocked, the cylinder rotates, indexing the next chamber. When the trigger is pulled, the chamber is fully indexed, dispensing the cartridge.

At first, it was called a wheel gun, and it was an early solution to the problem of having to reload after every shot. It’s a primitive form of semi-automatic pistol.

While revolvers are outdone in terms of convenience and capacity by semi-automatic pistols, they’re still common methods of backup protection for many law enforcement officers.

Rifles

rifle

The thing that distinguishes rifles from other long barrel guns is the pattern of grooves cut into the bore wall. This rifling is where the name comes from. These long barrelled firearms are designed to be more accurate than other guns.

Because they focus on accuracy, they’re designed for bracing with both hands, they have a firm buttstock, and they increase the shooter’s ability to keep the rifle stable during shooting.

While they were called rifled guns originally, the term rifle as a verb came about when referring to the process of cutting the grooves into the bore wall. Rifle as a noun was in prevalent use by the 20th century.

Today, the term rifle is used for any long barrel, handheld, accurate firearm activated by a trigger pull.

Assault rifles

assault rifle
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

This subcategory of rifle includes selective-fire rifles that use a detachable magazine with an intermediate cartridge. This cartridge is shorter than a battle rifle cartridge but longer than a pistol or a personal defense weapon cartridge.

These rifles were first used in World War II. Many nations were slow to accept them into regular use, but now they are the standard weapon of most country’s armies.

Machine guns

PEO M249 machine gun

The machine gun category has several subcategories that include a variety of different types of guns that fall under this general definition. While for military purposes, a machine gun is a fully automatic, rapid-fire gun that is fired from a mount, tripod, or bipod attached to a vehicle or the ground.

For our purposes, we will also include semi-automatic rifles and submachine guns.

Fully automatic machine guns

A fully automatic machine gun is typically mounted, but can be portable. They are designed to fire rifle cartridges in rapid succession. Unlike a semi-automatic rifle, a machine gun will fire for as long as you hold down the trigger until ammo runs out.

These types of guns are used strictly in the military to defend against attacks from aircraft, personnel, and light vehicles. They are often mounted on tanks and can sustain continuous, sustained fire for hours at a time.

There are different divisions of machine guns including light, medium, heavy, and general purpose, but even the lightest machine guns are much heavier than standard issue infantry arms.

Medium and heavy machine guns are much too heavy to carry or fire without the support of a mount. When carried on foot, they require the use of additional crew members to help.

Semi-automatic rifles

While some semi-automatic rifles are capable of fully automatic performance, they can’t do it for sustained periods of time. Rather, a semi-automatic rifle is designed to release one cartridge for each trigger pull.

The semi-automatic designation means that you can pull the trigger more than one time in succession without having to cock the hammer or perform any other action to load the chamber.

A semi-automatic gun is self-loading and repeating. The action automatically cycles after each shot but requires a manual release of the trigger to reset the hammer/striker before firing again.

Submachine guns

mp5k submachine gun

Often abbreviated SMG, a submachine gun is an automatic carbine with a magazine. It’s designed to shoot handgun cartridges. It was developed in World War I, but reached its peak of use in World War II.

Today, these have been replaced mostly by assault rifles, which are more effective at short or long range, and can penetrate the body armor and helmets of most modern infantry. However, SWAT teams and military forces still use submachine guns for battle in close quarters because they’re easier to control without over penetrating your target.

Shotguns

shotgun hanging on wood cabin

A shotgun is designed to fire from the shoulder and uses a fixed shell to disburse a number of small, round pellets, called shot. They can also fire solid projectiles called slugs. The pellets spread immediately after leaving the barrel, so the energy of the shot is lower due to being divided among the pellets.

Shotguns come in a huge variety of sizes and styles. Sizes range from 5mm to 5cm bores and styles include single-barrel, double barrel, breech loading, bolt action, lever action, revolver, semi-automatic, and fully automatic.

One of the original differentiating factors between a shotgun and a rifle was that a shotgun had a smooth bore and a rifle had rifling. The original shotguns were used by armies in the 18th century.

Later, shotguns were replaced with rifles on the battlefield because they’re more accurate at long ranges. During World War I trench warfare, shotguns were reintroduced for close-quarters fighting.

Today, shotguns are used primarily for hunting birds and small game. However, it can be used as a defensive weapon and many civilians use them for shooting sports like trap and skeet as well.

Pistols

This type of handgun has a short barrel with a small, handheld grip. The semi-automatic pistol is the most commonly used pistol today, however the derringer and the revolver could also fall into this category.

There are also single-shot pistols that are used mostly for hunting, while fully automatic machine pistols are even less common because of the strict regulations associated with their manufacturing and sale.

Machine pistol

This self-loading pistol is capable of fully automatic performance, much like a full size machine gun. It is a submachine gun without a stock. They were used during World War I by the German artillery crews because they provided the ultimate self defense in a small, lightweight package.

Today, these are special purpose weapons that have limited utility and are very difficult to control for even experienced shooters.

When were Guns Used in War?


For centuries now, guns have been used in war by countries around the world. However, the types of guns used have changed over time, and what is used typically reflects the type of warfare.

In fact, the evolution of guns has had a huge impact on how we conduct our wars and equip our militaries rather than the war having any influence on how we use guns.

Revolutionary War

Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill, American Revolution

Muskets with bayonets were the most popular weapon of the 1700s. They are what soldiers in the Revolutionary War used in combat. These muskets and bayonets led to a certain style of fighting that involved being in very close proximity to opposing soldiers.

Because the propellants used were not very powerful, they couldn’t travel far, meaning in order to hit someone with it, you had to fight in close quarters. In addition to that, they took a long time to reload.

When fighting in close quarters, you often didn’t have the time to reload. Bayonets were used to defend their lines when they were not able to reload in time.

Civil War

union soldiers capture vicksburg during american civil war

Advances in weaponry didn’t change much before the Civil War, but muskets and bayonets were no longer used. They used mostly shotguns, rifles, and revolvers. The propellants went slightly farther and they took less time to reload, eliminating the need for bayonets.

World War I

WWI had one of the most dramatic impacts on modern warfare and how people viewed modern weapons than any other war before. At the beginning of the 1900s, huge advances in ammunition and increases in rate of fire.

With more than one million casualties in the first year, people were in shock at a scale of violence they’d simply never seen before.

World War II

Starting in World War II, soldiers were equipped with more powerful weapons like machine guns, enabling warfare to be fought from a greater distance. Bombs and other long distance projectiles have been used ever since.

With the assistance of more advanced vehicles like airplanes, today’s warfare looks much different than 200 years ago.

Controversies

With great power comes great responsibility. As is evidenced in our world today, many people disagree about how this responsibility should be handled.

Proponents for stricter gun control think it will solve our active shooter situations. Many believe civilians shouldn’t own guns at all. Those proponents of gun control who think it’s okay for civilians to own guns still believe that there should be more audits, more mental health checks, and more background checks required.

People who believe in our second amendment rights and our right to privacy believe that these sorts of invasions are detrimental to our freedom.

We’ll likely never agree on this hot button issue, but regardless of opinion, guns have been around for a long time, and they’re not going anywhere any time soon.

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