Many people consider guns as a relatively modern invention. That means people often think the history of guns dates back only a few hundred years when, in actuality, the gun dates back about a thousand years. The history of firearms is long and storied, consisting of many twists and turns along the way. But despite many design improvements and changes, guns essentially carry out the same concepts and functions as they did a millennium ago.
What Was the First Gun?
The first firearms can be traced back to 10th century China. The Chinese were the first to invent gunpowder, and historians typically credit the first guns as being weapons the Chinese called fire lances.
The fire lance was a metal or bamboo tube attached to the end of a spear. The tube was filled with powder and shrapnel, which was then set off at the beginning of a battle to try and gain an advantage. It worked like a combination of a flamethrower and a shotgun, expelling flames and pellets at the enemy target. Fire lances gradually became closer in concept to shotguns as powder improved.
From Fire Lance to Cannons
While the fire lance is considered the forefather of all guns, it wasn't until a few centuries later that firearms became more commonplace and used in warfare.
In the early to mid 1300s, the first cannons appeared in Italy, bringing the forebear of the firearm westward. These cannons were subsequently used in war during the 1340s, which marked the first use of modern firearms in battle.
From there, the employment of cannons revolutionized warfare on land as well as at sea. The usage of cannon artillery altered every aspect of warfare from tactics to how fortifications were constructed.
Cannons Get Smaller, and the Firearm Is Born
The Europeans began to quickly outpace the Chinese, becoming more advanced in gunpowder methods and making drastic improvements in the actual firearms themselves. The European cannon became the standard bearer as the pinnacle of firearm technology over the next few centuries.
As these centuries progressed, new and improved cannon designs continued, and, in some cases, firearms became much smaller and more portable. This eventually led to the development of the hand cannon in the early 15th century. The forefathers of modern handguns, hand cannons were the first of the smooth bore personal firearms and were introduced to infantry units of the Ottoman Empire in the late 15th century.
Improvements to Firing Mechanisms Change the Role of Guns
Shortly after the original smooth bore hand cannons were developed, improvements to their firing mechanisms made them much more effective. These new mechanisms were called the match lock, wheel lock, dog lock, and flintlock; all of which were mechanical improvements to the way the gun achieves ignition of the powder. By improving the ability to ignite the powder, the gun's overall reliability was improved, thus ensuring better operation in the field.
Prior to inventions like the flintlock, operating the weapon required having something to stabilize the gun. You needed to use one hand to operate the firearm and another to ignite the powder. This made firing the weapon inefficient and cumbersome. It also ran the risk of failed operations due to accidental ignition or the powder being wet.
The mechanical implementations of firing mechanisms as well as the discovery of the rifling principle radically altered the trajectory of firearms. The improved form, function, and general usability of firearms brought them into the modern era. These weapons were no longer relegated to being obscure battlefield instruments; they had been transformed into useful and vital tools.
Firearms soon became more accessible to the general public and were easier to use in common tasks such as hunting or self-defense. This altered everyday life for the average person in many ways — even those who didn't own guns.
In terms of time, it was just a short trip from the creation of the first true flintlock to what could be considered to be the first modern handgun: the Colt revolver.
Guns Continue to Develop Over Time
The Colt revolver was invented in the 1830s, roughly 800 years after the invention of fire lances. However, it was only 200 years after the introduction of the flintlock. Comparatively speaking, this is a pretty rapid transition.
It's also worth noting that Colt revolvers can still be purchased today with relatively little design change from the originals. When you think about modern firearms, you're probably not likely to think of something introduced in the early 1800s as being a modern gun. In fact, the last war to only use muzzle loaded guns was the Crimean War, which took place from 1854-1856. By the mid 1800s, the modern style of firearm was experiencing widespread adoption.
Even machine guns can trace their roots to the same era. The Puckle gun was an early repeating gun that could be considered a precursor to modern automatic or machine guns, and it was patented in 1718. This is almost a full 60 years before the American Revolution. Most people don't think of George Washington and machine guns as being contemporaries, but the technology was already developing in his lifetime.
Another more traditionally accepted machine gun precursor, the Gatling gun, was invented and patented in the early 1860s. Less than 30 years after the introduction of the Colt revolver, the Gatling gun represents a major technological leap in a short amount of time. The Gatling was so advanced that it was used by militaries throughout the world up until 1911.
The Rise of Modern Guns
Speaking of 1911, if that year sounds familiar to you, it's probably due to the fact that you can enter a gun store today and hold a genuinely modern gun (one that was recently manufactured) known as a 1911.
The 1911 is a handgun, typically in .45 caliber (although available in others), that's so named because that was the year it was invented. To put that in perspective, as you read this, there are current manufacturers producing guns that operate on a design originally introduced in the year 1911.
While this is an impressive testament to its inventor, it also helps to put in perspective the fact that firearm advancements can progress and develop quickly while the results remain in use for extended periods of time. The 1911 itself has been used by the U.S. military since its inception; multiple U.S. military units currently use the 1911 pistol as a primary sidearm. One could even make the argument that from the introduction of the 1911 until today, handguns have remained largely unchanged.
Modern rifles have followed a similar path to that of the 1911. Famous modern sporting and military rifles such as the AK-47 and the M16 were introduced in the 1940s and 1950s respectively. As with the 1911, these rifles remain largely unchanged from their original designs. In actuality, most changes from their original incarnations are largely improvements in materials used for manufacturing and cosmetic enhancements.
As you can see, there are certainly drastic differences between the fire lance and the 1911. Today's modern firearms are drastic departures from crude tubes attached to spears. At the same time, modern firearms are simply a logical progression of improvement efforts over time.