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The phalanx-charging fire-gourd, one of many hand cannon types discharging lead pellets in the gunpowder blast, an illustration from the Huolongjing, 14th century.
The phalanx-charging fire-gourd, one of many hand cannon types discharging lead pellets in the gunpowder blast, an illustration from the Huolongjing, 14th century.
Hand cannon from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).
Hand cannon from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

The history of the firearm goes back to 10th-century China, when bamboo tubes containing gunpowder and pellet projectiles were mounted on spears to make the portable fire lance,[1] operable by a single person, which was later used effectively as a shock weapon in the Siege of De'an in 1132. In the 13th century, fire lance barrels were replaced with metal tubes and transformed into the metal-barreled hand cannon.[2] The technology gradually spread throughout Eurasia during the 14th century. The 19th and 20th centuries saw an acceleration in the evolution of firearms, with the introduction of the magazine, belt-fed weapons, metal cartridges, and the automatic firearm. Older firearms typically used black powder as a propellant, but modern firearms use smokeless powder or other propellants. Most modern firearms (with the notable exception of smoothbore shotguns) have rifled barrels to impart spin to the projectile for improved flight stability.


Hand cannon, Ming dynasty, 1379
Hand cannon, Ming dynasty, 1379

In China, the earliest firearm was the fire lance, a black-powder–filled tube attached to the end of a spear and used as a flamethrower (different from older Greek fire-powered Byzantine flamethrower); shrapnel was sometimes placed in the barrel so that it would fly out together with the flames.[3][4] The earliest known depiction of a gunpowder weapon is the illustration of a fire-lance on a mid-10th century silk banner from Dunhuang.[5] The De'an Shoucheng Lu, an account of the siege of De'an in 1132 during the Jin–Song Wars, records that Song forces used fire-lances against the Jurchen.[6]

The proportion of saltpeter in the propellant was increased to maximize its explosive power.[4] To better withstand that explosive power, the paper and bamboo of which fire-lance barrels were originally made came to be replaced with metal.[3] To take full advantage of that power, the shrapnel came to be replaced by projectiles whose size and shape filled the barrel more closely.[4] With this, the three basic features of the gun emerged: a barrel made of metal, high-nitrate gunpowder, and a projectile that totally occludes the muzzle so that the powder charge exerts its full potential in propellant effect.[7]

The earliest depiction of a gun is a sculpture from a cave in Sichuan dating to the 12th century of a Chinese figure carrying a vase-shaped bombard with flames and a cannonball coming out of it.[8][9] The oldest surviving firearm is the Heilongjiang hand cannon dated to 1288, which was discovered at a site in modern-day Acheng District where the History of Yuan records that battles were fought at that time; Li Ting, a military commander of Jurchen descent, led foot soldiers armed with guns in battle to suppress the rebellion of the Christian Mongol Prince Nayan.[10]

Middle East

Main article: Historiography of gunpowder and gun transmission

Guns - Safavid Empire - Iran (Persia)
Guns - Safavid Empire - Iran (Persia)

Firearms appeared in the Middle East between the late 13th century[11][12][13] and early 14th century.[14] Ahmad Y. al-Hassan claims that the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260 saw the Mamluks used against the Mongols "the first cannon in history" with gunpowder formula which are almost identical with the ideal composition for explosive gunpowder.[15][16] However, Iqtidar Alam Khan argues that it was invading Mongols who introduced gunpowder to the Islamic world[17] and cites Mamluk antagonism towards early riflemen in their infantry as an example of how gunpowder weapons were not always met with open acceptance in the Middle East.[18]

The first references to the use of what may have been arquebuses (Ottoman Turkish: tüfek) by the Janissary corps of the Ottoman army date them from 1394 to 1465.[19] However, it's unclear whether these were arquebuses or small cannons as late as 1444, but the fact that they were listed separately from cannons in mid-15th century inventories suggest they were handheld firearms.[20]

The musket first appeared in the Ottoman Empire by 1465.[21] In the Shen Qi Pu (神器譜), a firearms manual written in 1598, Chinese firearm designer and writer Zhao Shi Zhen described Turkish muskets as being superior to European muskets.[22] At some point before 1598, the Turkish developed a pivoting matchlock mechanism which was later modified by Zhao into the first mechanism using a rack-and-pinion.

One of the major hurdles that prevented matchlock guns from being adopted on a large scale was complaints that strong wind and rain could either blow away or ruin priming powder placed in the flash pan. Also mentioned in the Shen Qi Pu, Zhao later developed the Xuanyuan arquebus (軒轅銃) which used a novel rack-and-pinion mechanism. This firing mechanism was connected to both the serpentine and flash pan cover and designed so that whenever the trigger is pulled, the serpentine was lowered at the same time as flash pan cover opened, minimizing the priming powder's exposure to open air and thus reducing the risk of priming powder being blown away by strong wind or spoiled by rain. The combination of trigger-operated flash pan cover and small copper rain cover mounted on a pendulum was considered a more sophisticated approach to the Japanese solution of covering the entire firing mechanism with a lacquered box, which could hamper aiming, shooting and reloading. The Chinese military book Wu Pei Chih (1621) describes Turkish muskets that also began using similar rack and pinion mechanisms, which were not known to have been used in European firearms at the time.[23]

Southeast Asia

Istinggar, a result of Indo-Portuguese gun-making traditions.
Istinggar, a result of Indo-Portuguese gun-making traditions.

Even though the knowledge of making gunpowder-based weapons in Nusantara archipelago has been known after the failed Mongol invasion of Java (1293), and the predecessor of firearms, the pole gun (bedil tombak), was recorded as being used by Java in 1413,[24][25]: 245  the knowledge of making "true" firearms came much later, after the middle of 15th century. It was brought by the Islamic nations of West Asia, most probably the Arabs. The precise year of introduction is unknown, but it may be safely concluded to be no earlier than 1460.[26]: 23  Before the arrival of the Portuguese in Southeast Asia, the natives already possessed primitive firearms in the form of the Java arquebus.[27]

The technology of firearms in Southeast Asia further improved after the Portuguese capture of Malacca (1511).[28] Starting in the 1513, the traditions of German-Bohemian gun-making were merged with Turkish gun-making traditions.[29]: 39–41  This resulted in the Indo-Portuguese tradition of making matchlocks. Indian craftsmen modified the design by introducing a very short, almost pistol-like buttstock held against the cheek, not the shoulder, when aiming. They also reduced the caliber and made the gun lighter and more balanced. The Portuguese, who conducted much fighting aboard ships and river craft, valued a more compact gun, and thus this type of matchlock gun were very popular.[30]: 41 [31] The Malay gun founders, regarded as being in the same level with those of Germany, quickly adapted these new firearms, and thus a new type of arquebus, the istinggar, appeared.[32]: 385 

South Asia

Nau Gaj Cannon, the third largest cannon in India at Narnala fort.
Nau Gaj Cannon, the third largest cannon in India at Narnala fort.
Mughal Officer in 1585, holding a Toradar.
Mughal Officer in 1585, holding a Toradar.

The first recorded use of firearms in South Asia was at the Battle of Adoni in 1368. In the Deccans, the Bahmani sultanate led by Mohammed Shah I used a train of Artillery against the Vijayanagara Empire under Harihara II.[33] Sultan Mohammed Shah of Gujarat in the fifteenth century have been recorded.[34] When the Portuguese reached India in 1498, they brought with them firearms, among them the matchlock musket and man-o-war (ships) armed with cannons. However, it was documented by portuguese travelers that that firearms in the Indian subcontinent were already in use.[35]Peasants of the Gangetic plains used cheap handguns made by local blacksmiths. Travancore, Kashmir, Rajasthan, Punjab and Sindh possessed sites of arms manufacture.[36] In the early 16th century, Zamorin of Calicut, had begun to emulate the Portuguese and began to arm his ships with naval gun pieces, combining native and portuguese technolagy.[37]

In the 16th century, Central Asian prince Babur, the first Mughal emperor, brought Turkish firearms, which Mughal adversaries against the Delhi Sultanate in the First Battle of Panipat. the Rajputs and the Afghans, in turn adopted.[36] Across the 16th and 17th century, firearms played an important role in the Mughal military. Known as the tufang, Mughal emperor Akbar introduced many improvements in the manufacture of the matchlock.[38] However until the 18th century, Firearms, because of their slow loading time, were inferior to Archery. It was not until the middle of the 18th century, when the way had been shown by the French and the English, that efforts were made to improve the arms and discipline of the foot soldier.

Firearms were also developed by the Marathas, although weaker than their counterparts such as the Mughals and Mysore. Balaji Baji Rao organised the arm in professional lines and Madhavji Sindhia established a fairly efficient gun manufacturing foundry under the supervision of European gun makers. During the 18th century, Tipu Sultan was notable in using guns, mortar, rockets and howitzers to effective use; the Nizam of Hyderabad manufactured his own guns with the help of his French officers and the Sikhs under Maharaja Ranjit Singh pioneered the development of horse-artillery on the same lines as that of the East India Company.[39][40]


A model of a Hussite warrior behind a Pavise shield, carrying a píšťala on his arm
A model of a Hussite warrior behind a Pavise shield, carrying a píšťala on his arm

One theory of how gunpowder came to Europe is that it made its way along the Silk Road through the Middle East; another is that it was brought to Europe during the Mongol invasion in the first half of the 13th century.[41][42] English Privy Wardrobe accounts list "ribaldis," a type of cannon, in the 1340s, and siege guns were used by the English at the Siege of Calais (1346–47).[43]

The first mention of firearms in Russia is found in the Sofiiskii vremennik chronicle, where it is stated that during the 1382 defense of Moscow from Tokhtamysh's Golden Horde, Muscovites used firearms called tyufyaki (Russian: тюфяки), which were of Eastern origin; this word derives from Turkic tüfäk "gun".[44][45]

Around the late 14th century in Italy, smaller and portable hand-cannons or schioppi were developed, creating in effect the first smoothbore personal firearm. The earliest surviving firearm in Europe was found in Otepää, Estonia and it dates to at least as early as 1396.[46]

Firearms underwent a fast development during the 1419-1434 Hussite Wars. The Hussite army consisted mostly of civilian militia, both men and women, who lacked the skill, experience and often weapons and armor comparable to that of the professional Crusader invaders that they faced. Gradually, Hussites pioneered battlefield use of firearms together with war wagons. Firearms were employed in auxiliary roles in 1419–1421. The first use of firearms as primary offensive weapons took place in the 1421 Battle of Kutná Hora. From this moment on, firearms were at the core of Hussite war strategy and tactics as well as a staple of Czech civilian possession. The Hussite militia used a number of handheld firearms, including píšťala [cs], which later found its way through German and French into English as the term pistol,[47] hákovnice [cs], an infantry weapon heavier than píšťala, and yet heavier tarasnic (fauconneau). As regards artillery, Hussites used the Czech: houfnice, which gave rise to the English term, "howitzer" (houf meaning crowd for its intended use of shooting stone and iron shot against massed enemy forces),[48][49][50] bombarda (mortar) and dělo (cannon).[51] The first English source about handheld firearm (hand cannon) was written in 1473.[52] In the late 15th century, the Ottoman Empire used firearms as part of its regular infantry. The earliest type of Turkish hand cannons are called as "Şakaloz", which word came from the Hungarian hand cannon "Szakállas puska" in the 15th century.[53]

Early modern age

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Page showing a musketeer (Plate 4) from Jacob de Gheyn's Wapenhandelinghe van Roers, Musquetten ende Spiessen (1608)
Page showing a musketeer (Plate 4) from Jacob de Gheyn's Wapenhandelinghe van Roers, Musquetten ende Spiessen (1608)

During the early modern age, these hand-held cannons evolved into the match lock, wheel lock, dog lock, and flintlock rifle, respectively, then the breech loader and finally the automatic weapon. As ignition devices, matchlocks, wheellocks, snaplock, flintlocks and percussion caps were used in turn. The paper cartridge was introduced sometime before 1586, and the bayonet came to use in 16th century France. Hand grenades, thrown by grenadiers, appeared around the same time.

Early cartridge firearms had to be cocked and caught by the "sear", which holds the hammer back, before each shot. Pulling the trigger allows the hammer or striker to fly forward, striking the "firing pin," which then strikes the "primer," igniting an impact-sensitive chemical compound (historically, first fulminate of mercury, then potassium chlorate, now lead styphnate) which shoots a flame through the "flash hole" into the cartridge's propellant chamber, igniting the propellant.

The Springfield Armory in Springfield, Massachusetts became important to the history of firearms during the 1850s, when it debuted the Springfield rifle.[54] Springfield rifles were among the first breech-loading rifles, starting production in 1865. By that time, metallurgy had developed sufficiently so that brass could be made into ammunition cases. Previously, each round was custom-made as needed: the shooter poured loose powder down the barrel, used leather or cloth for wadding if time allowed, selected a suitable projectile (lead ball, rocks, arrow, or nails), then seated the projectile on top of the powder charge by means of a ramrod. Performance was erratic. Fixed ammunition combined a primer, the pre-measured charge, and the projectile in a water-resistant brass cartridge case. Most importantly, the soft brass expanded under pressure of the gas to seal the rear end of the barrel, which prevented the shooter from being maimed by escaping high-pressure gas when they pulled the trigger.

Repeating and automatic firearms

A repeating firearm or "repeater" is a firearm that holds more than one cartridge and can be fired more than once between chargings. One example of a repeater is the American Springfield Model 1892–99—also made at the Springfield Armory in Springfield, Massachusetts—which were used during the Spanish–American War. Some repeating firearms require manipulation of a bolt (as in bolt action), lever, or slide to eject the fired cartridge case, draw a fresh cartridge from the magazine, and insert it into the firing chamber, and "cock" (draw to the rear and place under spring tension) the hammer or striker, so that pulling the trigger will fire the weapon. Others use either the firearm's recoil or a small portion of the propellant gas drawn from the barrel, to operate the firearm's mechanism and ready it for the next shot. Such firearms are sometimes called "self-loading," but are more commonly known as semi-automatic, if they fire one shot for every pull of the trigger, or automatic or "full-auto" if they continue to fire until the trigger is released or the magazine is empty.

A revolver is a unique type of firearm in which a rotating cylinder holds a number of cartridges; the cylinder "revolves" to align each "chamber" or "charge hole" with the rear of the barrel, holding the cartridge and contain the pressure (up to 65,000 pounds PSI or 450 MPa) produced when the cartridge is fired. Thus the cylinder serves as both magazine and firing chambers. There are also single-barrel and multiple-barrel firearms, which hold only one cartridge per barrel and must be reloaded manually between shots.

The earliest repeating firearms were revolvers (revolving rifles were sometimes called "turret guns") and were "single action" in that they could only be fired one way: by manually cocking the mechanism (drawing the hammer to the rear with the thumb) before each shot. This design dates from 1836, with the introduction of the Colt Paterson, or even earlier. Though they are slower to reload and fire than some other types of firearms, single-action revolvers are of a simple, strong design, and are still made, though they are nowadays used more often for hunting than for self-defense. The double-action revolver is a design almost as old as the single-action. Some double-action revolvers, called double-action only or D.A.O. revolvers can only be fired using the trigger (e.g., revolvers with bobbed or hidden hammers). Most double-action revolvers can be fired in either of the two ways: one can cock the hammer (the action of which moves levers to rotate the cylinder and align a fresh cartridge with the rear of the barrel), then pull the trigger for each shot ("single-action mode") or one may simply pull the trigger, through a longer, heavier stroke. This causes levers and springs to both rotate the cylinder and draw the hammer to the rear, then release it, firing the cartridge. Firing a double-action revolver in single-action mode tends to be more accurate because the trigger pull is much shorter and lighter; usually, three or four pounds-force (18−22 newtons) of pull is sufficient, instead of the twelve to twenty pounds (50−90 N) required for double-action mode, so the firearm's aim and mobility is less likely to be disturbed by the force of pulling the trigger.

The first successful rapid-fire firearm is the Gatling gun, invented by Richard Jordan Gatling and fielded by the Union forces during the American Civil War in the 1860s. It is operated by a hand crank and rotates multiple barrels. The Gatling gun needs a four-man crew to function, has had many upgrades since its introduction, and has seen use in many conflicts.

Self-loaders are firearms that use some of the discharge energy to reload the firearm. These are also called semi- or full-automatics. These are typically fed from an under-barrel tube or detachable box magazine, sometimes inaccurately referred to as a "clip" (which denotes a magazine reloading device used in certain rifles, or a retainer for flangeless bullets used in certain revolvers). The world's first self-loading firearm is the Maxim gun, developed by British inventor Sir Hiram Maxim in 1884, capable of firing 600 rounds per minute but requires a team of men to maintain and is not portable by one man. The Maxim gun has been used in a vast number of conflicts.

The world's first successful[cite] self-loading rifle is the Mondragón rifle, designed by Mexican general Manuel Mondragón and was the first self-loading firearm able to be operated by a single rifleman[cite]. Since its debut in 1908 it received a few modifications (bipod, 30-round drum magazine) and has been used during the Mexican Revolution (Mexican Army) and World War I (Imperial German Flying Corps).

The world's first submachine gun (a fully automatic firearm which fires pistol cartridges) able to be used by a single soldier is the MP18.1, invented by Theodor Bergmann. It was introduced into service in 1918 by the German Army during World War I as the primary weapon of the Stosstruppen (assault groups specialized in trench combat). Submachine guns came to prominence during World War II, with millions manufactured. During the war, manufacturers moved away from finely crafted but expensive submachine guns such as the Thompson, in favor of cheaper models that were quicker to manufacture, such as the M3.

The first successful assault rifle was introduced during World War II by the Germans, known as the StG 44, it was the first-ever firearm that bridges the gap between long range rifles, machine guns, and short range submachine guns. The assault rifle was more powerful and had longer ranges than the submachine gun, yet it can be used comfortably in close, urban environments and in fully automatic mode, fired from the shoulder, unlike heavier machine guns and long semi-auto rifles, thanks to its intermediate round and select-fire option (switch from fully automatic to semi-automatic). After World War II ended, the assault rifle concept was adopted by every world power and is still being used to this day. The AK-47, commonly called "Kalashnikov", became the most widely developed rifle for countries on a global scale.[citation needed]

The battle rifle was a post-World War II development pushed primarily by the United States that desired a select-fire rifle that retained the long range of the M1 Garand (the US service rifle during World War II and the Korean War). Influenced by the US, NATO members adopted battle rifles of their own. In practice, the powerful cartridge of the battle rifle proved to be difficult to control during fully automatic fire and the concept was not further developed.

See also


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Further reading