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The evolution of firearms in History

September 27, 2018

You may wonder why I decided to write about guns, a subject that may seem a bit exotic. Well it is because I would like to work in a gun manufacture as designer.  Each time firearms had some problems, gunsmiths attempted to fix them with various upgrades throughout history. The evolution of firearms follows the evolution of technology and historical context.

One of the most important and first components for the proper function of a firearm is  black powder, which was invented in China during the 9th century. It was used in many different ways, like fireworks, but was first used for the purposes of combat around the 10th century. Chinese troops attached a small pyrotechnic device on the end of a spear, which was supposed to burn a powder charge that would fire some pellets in the direction where the soldier was pointing his spear. This was meant to deliver a greater amount of damage to the enemy, and possibly to inflict burn wounds. Thus, the first firearm in history was born.

Fire lance

This invention spread beyond Asia, and was transmitted around the 13th century to Europe. The first cannons were produced, and became very effective especially when the troops needed to breach an obstacle such as a wall, because they developed a greater impact. Their main problem was their weight, and even the smallest ones needed many people to transport them. Around the 15th century, smaller and portable hand-cannons were developed, creating the first personal firearm. These new firearms were called “Arquebuses”. It featured a smoothbore barrel with a chamber where was loaded through the muzzle of the barrel a propellant (black powder) and a projectile (metal ball). The arquebus was actioned by lighting a wick that would then detonate the powder in the barrel. This weapon was the first one to have the shape of a rifle, with a butt and sights. The problem of this system is that it took a long time between the moment the user lit the wick, and when the firearm actually shot.


An improved version of the arquebuse made its apparition around the 16th century : the flintlock rifle, or musket. Now instead of using a wick to fire the powder, the rifle featured a flint that could be cocked and released to hit a platine to produce a spark that  detonated the powder. This new system was actioned by a trigger, and in that way eliminated the delay between the time when the user wanted to fire, and the moment the rifle fired. This type of firearm met with success. Even though it was still heavy and suffered from a lack of precision, it remained very effective. The musket was even produced in a smaller scale, to be able to be used with one hand, the handgun or pistol.

Mechanism of a flintlock rifle

At the same time firearms manufacturers in Germany began to create barrels with rifling inside the bore. This type of barrel made the projectile spin inside the bore, increasing its stability and aerodynamics when exiting the muzzle. This type of barrel was compatible only with bullets, and not pellets (used in shotguns). Firearms became very accurate to shoot and even more deadly.

Rifling inside the bore

One big disadvantage of the musket and pistol was that the flint could be damaged or ineffective with humidity. In the 19th century the discovery of high explosives allowed to create a detonation charge that could be actioned with a hit with a “hammer”; this is called a “primer”.

Another problem was that it took a long time to reload the firearm. One of the solutions was to add more barrels to the firearm, allowing multiple shots before reloading. Pepperbox revolvers made their apparition, and the user had to rotate the block of barrel to make ready the next shot. This brought a significant advantage, but also added weight. The solution to that was to stick to one barrel on the firearm, but with a revolving chamber instead. The most famous ones came from Samuel Colt in the USA with it’s “Colt Paterson” designed in 1836 and featuring a self rotating chamber mechanism after the shot.

Colt Paterson     &     Pepperbox

Even if the possibility of a multiple shot firearm was invented, it didn’t resolve the problems of reloading, because it was still a very slow process. This was due to the number of components to put in a precise order into the chamber. The idea of one piece that could fit all the elements needed to fire a projectile was then developed, and was designated as a “cartridge” or “round”. A French gunsmith called Casimir Lefaucheux developed the first cartridge during the end of the 1830’s. A cartridge is made out of 4 elements : the bullet, the primer, the powder and finally the casing. This last one holds in place all three previous elements at once. When the cartridge is fired, the primer detonates the powder, which shoots the bullet; the spent case can be replaced by another new cartridge when reloading. Cartridges had different sizes, each size being designated as “calibers”. Firearms could be reloaded much faster and more easily, since the rounds were now fed by the rear, and not from the muzzle as before; some rifles and shotguns used these cartridges and were “break-action”.


cross-section view of a cartridge and break action rifle

These new cartridges allowed a much faster reload, but the cartridges still needed to be extracted by hand. An American company, Winchester, designed the model “1841”. This rifle was “lever-action” : once a round was shot, the user pulled the trigger guard (the lever) to open the bolt and action the extractor, which threw out the spent case. When the user replaced the lever in its original place, the bolt closed and chambered a new round and cocked the hammer. All these actions are called  a “cycle”. The cartridges are brought into place horizontally by an internal tubular magazine located under the barrel, with a spring that pushes them. Pump action shotguns used the same mechanism, except that it wasn’t a lever that charged the rounds, but a pump which moved back and forward on the tubular magazine.



Lever action rifle and blueprint of the mechanism of a shotgun with a tubular magazine

Later, bolt action rifles were produced, but this time the cartridges were stacked vertically. These were much easier to produce because of the simple mechanism, and remained at the same time reliable and extremely accurate; so accurate that on some of them were mounted telescopic scopes with a cross reticle. This allowed the shooter to observe targets at a greater distance than ever before, and increased the rifle’s practical range. Nowadays, sniper rifles are usually used at ranges that are beyond one kilometer; the world’s longest kill has been attributed in 2017 to a Canadian sniper in Iraq : 3540 meters!

Bolt action rifle with a scope (Sniper variant)

Manually repeating firearms had become very sophisticated, but in some situations it was necessary to fire multiple shots in a short delay. To respond to that need, Richard Gatling designed the first automatic firearm in 1862. It used a revolving array of six barrels to automate the firing and cycling sequences through mechanical means. It was operated with a hand crank which was responsible for the the rotation of the barrels and the trigger. In that way, each time a barrel passed in front of the chamber, a round was shot. The cartridges were stacked vertically in top of the chamber, so the feeding solution simply worked with gravity. This new heavy firearm took the name of it’s inventor, The Gatling Gun, and was capable to provide a rate of fire up to 400 rounds per minute. Even if the Gatling gun became extremely effective, it’s use was very limited since it wasn’t portable and needed at least two men to operate it. Rifles were still practical and mainly used in combat.

The Gatling gun

In 1884, a French chemist named Paul Vieille created “smokeless powder”. It is three times more powerful than black powder, and as its name says, it burns completely and leaves no trace of powder after the cartridge has been fired. In 1887 Alfred Nobel improved this powder. This next generation powder became the new propellant, and is still used in today’s cartridges.

When a bullet is fired, the explosion of the powder creates a powerful blast of gases that come out of the muzzle. An inventor called Hiram Maxim had the idea to use these gases to operate the mechanism of weapons, especially the ones that are necessary to cycle rounds. Therefore in 1884 the first recoil-operated firearm was created and named “The Maxim gun”. It fired rounds as long the trigger was pulled, and the gases pushed a piston that actioned the bolt. Unlike the Gatling gun, this new machine gun has one barrel with a “gas-blowback” system that cycles cartridges with a rate of fire of 500 rounds per minute. The cartridges were fed with a belt. This method gave the possibility to attach a huge number of cartridges, which also meant less reloading. But there’s a major problem with automatic firearms : the barrel gets very hot and can even melt in case of really long sustained fire. In order to solve that, the Maxim gun was water-cooled. Later heavy machine guns had an improved cooling system, and water became unnecessary.

the Maxim gun

Self-loading systems begun to be more and more scaled down, and started to be also used in handguns in the early 1900’s. Some prototypes were made and became the first “semi-automatic pistols”, like the German Mauser C96. But the one that highly influenced the design of true modern pistols is the American Colt 1911. As its name says, this pistol has been produced since 1911 and is still used today because of its reliability and build quality, even if the design is now more than a century old. This handgun features a “detachable magazine” feeding system : you load first the cartridges into the magazine, and then load the magazine into the firearm; reloading became now even faster.


The German Mauser C96 & The American Colt 1911

The blowback mechanism had a great success, and led to the development of a large number of type of firearms, automatic as semi-automatic. One of them is the light machine gun (LMG). They started to be used during World War I, as the first automatic firearms to be completely personal. Among the early models we can quote the French Chauchat (1915), The American BAR (1918), and the Soviet DP-27 (1927).


The American BAR and the Soviet DP-27

After World War I, LMG’s had proved their worth, but were in some situations impractical due to the length of the barrel. John Thompson, an officer during the war, recognised the need of a new type of weapon. He recreated a scaled down version of the maxim gun, which is fed by a 20 rounds detachable magazine or 50 rounds drum, and named it “Thompson M1”. He called this new type of weapon a “Sub Machine Gun” (SMG), and these are machine guns that use small caliber ammunition. The main advantage of using a small caliber was the possibility to take much more rounds for the same weight, and the recoil of the weapon was also easier to manage. Other nations started to also produce sub machine guns during World War II, like the Soviet PPSh (1941), the German MP40 (1940).

the Thompson with drum magazine

SMG’s had on the one hand a lack of power and accuracy at longer ranges, but on the other hand, rifles and LMG’s were hard to control due to their recoil and weight. An intermediate caliber would make a compromise between power and maneuverability. During World War II, Germans designed the “Sturmgewehr 44” with a special caliber for it. The name of the weapon could be translated as “Assault rifle” and began to be used for this new class of firearms. A Soviet designer called Mikhail Kalashnikov worked on that. He inspired himself mainly from the StG 44 but also from other weapons to create his own assault rifle. The final product was made in 1947 and named “Avtomat Kalashnikov”, and became the iconic AK-47. It was chambered for 7.62x39mm cartridges,  had a 30 rounds detachable magazine, and featured a selective fire system between semi-automatic and full auto modes. This assault rifle was produced in more than 100 million units. In fact of all the firearms that exist in the world, 1 out of 5 is an AK. It’s legendary reliability and simplicity to use made the AK so popular that it ranks amongst the firearms that are still used today despite their old age. Later Soviet weapons were all based on the AK platform, such as the “SVD Dragunov” (1963), the “AS VAL” and “VSS Vintorez” (1987), the “PP-19 Bizon” (1993), or the “AK-12” (2012).

In the 1950s, the Cold War had begun, the vision of the world had changed, and so had firearms. Threats such as NATO emerged, and proposed standardization between the different countries that took part. Most nations had bolt action rifles, and needed modern weapons. Before WW II, all firearms were made out of metal and wood. Gun manufacturers begun to use lighter metal and synthetic materials such as polymer and fiberglass in their constructions to reduce overhaul weight. One of the first rifles to have that was the Belgian “FN FAL” (1953). Its name stands for “Lightweight Automatic Rifle” and was chambered for the 7.62x51mm NATO standard ammunition. The problem was that this caliber was too powerful and was not considered as a proper assault rifle cartridge. Then the 5.56x45mm cartridge was adopted by NATO because of its good ballistic properties. An american company, Armalite, worked on the development of a modern assault rifle that could suit this caliber and designed the AR-15, then sold their design to Colt in 1959. The AR-15 was adopted by the US Army in 1962 and received a new name : M16. Later variants like the M16A1 resolved some reliability issues, and the M16A2 variant introduced a new three rounds burst fire mode. This new feature helped the soldiers to preserve their ammunition stock, otherwise it could be easy to quickly empty a magazine due to the high rate of fire of the weapon (900 rpm). The AR-15 is the most common platform today, and many other manufacturers improved it : The Belgian “FN SCAR” (2004), The German “HK G36” (1995) and “HK 416” (2005).


the Belgian FN FAL & the Colt M16

Meanwhile some companies produced assault rifles, some designed semi automatic and automatic shotguns based on the same blowback system, but with 12-gauge shells as caliber. The most iconic weapon of this class is the American “AA-12” (1972) which can be fed by a 32 shells drum and has a rate of fire of 300 rpm.

Another class of weapons derived from the assault rifles are carabines. These are just basically rifles with a shorter barrel than their typical “full size” counterpart. Their usage is between an assault rifle and SMG, especially in urban combat where distances are pretty close. But this class was quickly supplanted by the apparition of a new type of assault rifle : the bullpup designs. These configurations locate their chamber and magazine behind the trigger group, and permit a shorter overall weapon for a given barrel length. One of the first weapons to have this design was the French “FAMAS” (1971). Many firearms followed this configuration which  spread around the world. The only disadvantage was that a bullpup is less intuitive to reload than the classic configuration. Other noticeable bullpup assault rifles : the Austrian “Steyr AUG” (1977), the British “SA80” (1985), the Belgian “FN F2000” (1995), the Israeli “Tavor TAR-21” (2001).

comparison between a conventional design and a bullpup design & the French FAMAS

Sub machine guns have also been modernized, with new designs such as the Israeli “UZI” (1954), The American “Mac-10″ (1964) and one of the most iconic SMG’s, the German ” HK MP5″ (1964). This one fired the 9x19mm NATO standard pistol cartridge, and was considered as the best weapon of its class. However the sub machine gun was in danger of becoming obsolete due to the development of kevlar armour in the 1970’s, which stopped pistol calibers. SMG’s needed the ability to defeat kevlar armour while restraining their compact size. Thus a new class of weapons was born, half carabine, half SMG : The “Personal Defence Weapon” (PDW). The first PDW was the Belgian “FN P90” (1990). It has a bullpup configuration but this time, the magazine was inserted horizontally above the barrel. The cartridges were rotated inside the magazine to chamber them in the correct direction. The weapon uses mainly polymer reducing its cost and weight. The caliber it fires is the 5.7x28mm which is as powerful as an assault rifle cartridge, and as small as that of a pistol. In this way the P90 is able to pierce armour that would stop a SMG. Other companies developed also their own PDW with own proprietary calibers : the German “HK MP7” (1999), the American “KAC PDW” (2006) and “AAC Honey Badger” (2011).

the German MP5 & the Belgian FN P90

Modern weapons are not complete without some attachments. These are made to improve the maniability, recoil, and targeting of a firearm. The first attachments in history were telescopic scopes, used on sniper rifles. Bipods are also used on them to have a better stability when shooting in a prone position. Then the first suppressor, also called “silencer” was made in 1902. It’s purpose is to reduce the sound of a shot by slowing gases at the exit of the muzzle. Suppressors are effective only with “subsonic bullets” which means their velocity must be below the speed of sound. Muzzle brakes help to reduce recoil of a firearm by leading the gases towards a direction where the firearm is moving when firing (up and backwards), to reduce the effect and help to get a better control of the weapon. Most weapons today use “picatinny rails”, a system created in the late 1980’s to standardize attachments. They are usually located on the handguard and sights, to attach some electronic devices (flashlights, laser pointers…), optical devices (reflex sights, holographic sights, magnifying sights, night vision scopes…), and vertical or angled grips, and some weapons even offer the possibility to add a grenade launcher under the handguard.

Examples of many accessories that can be mounted on a Colt M4

Before producing a firearm, designers create many prototypes and experimental concepts to test various ideas. An interesting concept was made by the German company “Heckler and Koch”, which had the idea of creating a firearm that wouldn’t need to dispense spent cases after firing. In 1967, they started the development of a caseless ammunition and an assault rifle that could fire this cartridge : the “HK G11” and its 4.73×33 mm round. The first prototype was produced in 1974; it featured a bullpup design and feeding system similar to the FN P90 and an integrated magnifying sight. The caseless ammunition is supposed to shoot the projectile and the plastic “envelope” itself through the barrel. The project was abandoned due to many issues with the new cartridge, because of its high heat sensitivity.

The German HK G11 & its caseless ammunition

Firearms have drastically changed history and the way nations fought, especially during the last century, where a lot of new classes of firearms have appeared, and has its own role and purpose on a battlefield.


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