Early Firearms History
As discussed previously in the Definition of a Gun, the basic requirements that make a gun a gun are these: a barrel, a charge and a projectile. That being said, early firearms evolved from simple bambo – and later metal tubes – with powder and shot in them, to craftily made weapons of improved accuracy and lethality. The first designs of mass produced early firearms were the matchlocks.
The first advancements to the method of firing a gun was an effort to find a way to integrate the charge into the weapon itself. To accomplish this, early firearms included a small bowl-shaped metal plate at the breach of the weapon called a “flashpan”. The flashpan had a small hole connecting it to the breach where the firing powder was contained. A small amount of powder would be placed into the flash pan and, when lit, would ignite the rest of the powder in the breach propelling the projectile out of the gun.
Initially, the powder in the flashpan was ignited using a handheld cloth or stick with a flame on the end – a match. The gun was held in one hand and the match in the other. This made for difficulty in keeping a steady aim and was quickly improved upon.
In the effort to improve accuracy as well as to speed up the firing process, the act of igniting the powder in the flash pan was made simpler with the invention of the “matchlock”. The matchlock contained the first “mechanism” to expedite the firing process of hand-held firearms. With the matchlock, no longer did the shooter have to lower a lit match into the flashpan to ignite the powder – the mechanism did it automatically. This advancement freed up both hands to steady the weapon and, more importantly allowed the shooter to keep both eyes on the target.
Introduced in the early 15th century, the matchlock consisted of a curved metal clamp alongside the gun known as a “serpantine”. The serpantine would hold a slow-burning match and, when a lever would be pulled, the serpantine would lower the match into the flashpan igniting the powder. As the design evolved, the serpantine would be fitted with a spring and pulled back (or cocked) and a trigger was used to release the spring sending the match forward into the flashpan.
Early firearm matchlock designs mostly were used to construct muskets – these were long, smooth barreled guns fired with both hands. Those who used these weapons were know as musketeers. There were very few matchlock designs made into pistol-sized guns. There were, however, some versions of the matchlock designed as shotguns. The shotgun version had wider, shorter barrels and fired multiple, smaller projectiles with a single shot. Many of these earliest versions of shotguns were known as the “blunderbuss”.
Watch a matchlock being fired:
It would take nearly another 200 years before the matchlock would be improved upon. The very first true flintlock firearm was developed by Frenchman Marin le Bourgeoys who designed it for King Louis VIII. Flintlock muskets, pistols and rifles were the mainstay of every European and American army from 1660 to 1840.
The flintlock improved upon the matchlock in several ways. First of all, an open flame was no longer needed as it was replaced with a simple spark. The spark came courtesy of the serpantine being fitted with a piece of flint. The flashpan was replaced with a smaller “priming pan” that held a lesser amount of fine black powder. The priming pan, like the flashpan, contained an opening into the breach which contained the rest of the powder. A small piece of steel (called a “frizzen”) was mounted to the top of the priming pan and, when the trigger was pulled, the flint would strike the steel creating a spark igniting the powder in the breach.
Like the matchlock, the flintlock design was also initially a smooth bore long gun, or musket. However, the flintlock design allowed for more variations of weapons and so many short barreled pistol designs and shotgun designs were developed. Flintlock pistols were commonly used by officers on sailing ships and some armies as well. The blunderbuss shotgun designs were more common with sailors and pirates. Some were even designed to fire ropes from one ship to the other. However, the most intuitive design during the flintlock period affected firearms in an incredibly revolutionary way.
See a flintlock being fired:
Up until the late 15th century all flintlocks, and their matchlock predecessors, utilized smooth bore barrels. This means that the inside of the barrel was smooth providing little friction for the projectile allowing for maximum speed. The barrels were also a bit larger than the projectiles being shot from them to allow for some powder residue to build up before the barrel would need to be cleaned. While this allowed for more sustained firing without cleaning, the accuracy of these weapons suffered for it. Even with the long barrels of these firearms, maximum range was about 50-75 yards.
Before firearms, the precursor to the musketeer was the archer. For the average soldier, the bow and arrow was the only way of getting to a foe from a distance. Some time in the early 15th century, archers discovered that they could get more accuracy over distance by curling the tail feathers of their arrows causing the arrow to spin while in flight. This spinning – much like a spiraling football – was an advancement that would find it’s way into firearms in the form of rifling.
Rifling is the spiraling grooves cut into a gun barrel that cause the bullet to spin thereby providing greater accuracy over longer distances. Muskets that utilized this technology were referred to as rifles. These early rifles increased the effective range of the weapon to 200-300 yards. Rifles were seen as early as the latter part of the 15th century, however they weren’t widely adopted by most militaries of the day. While a bit of powder residue wasn’t a problem for smooth bore muskets, it was a big issue for rifles requiring more frequent cleaning. This did not make them practical for repeated use in battle and therefore rifles were limited to mostly target shooting or hunting.
Because the practices of warfare at that time were to line up soldiers in parallel lines facing each other, the limited range and poor accuracy of muskets did not negatively affect their widespread use. However, an 18th century conflict in North America would change all that: The American Revolution.
In the early part of the war, both the Americans and British infantry primarily used muskets. For the British, it was the Brown Bess – described as the gun that built the British Empire. The Americans, however, were mostly supplied with Charleyville muskets provided by the French. The common style of warfare of the day was practiced with both sides lining up against each other – the officers in the back or up on a hill away from the battle – while both lines marched towards each other.
However, some time into the war, the Americans began changing tactics at smaller skirmishes and then in more widespread clashes. Using the famous Kentucky Long Rifle, American marksmen began targeting British officers rather than just the infantry. Because of the range of these rifles, the Americans saw great success with this tactic – even though the British generals despised it. While perhaps deemed “unsportsmanlike”, this tactic was one of the reasons for the Americans’ victory in their war for independence.
After the American Revolution, early firearms continued to evolve and change, however, rifling would eventually become part of almost every firearm in existence. From howitzers to handguns, every firearm – with the exception of shotguns and musket recreations – utilize rifling. Don’t believe me? Check the opening of just about any James Bond movie and you’ll see the signature rifled barrel of Bond’s Walther PPK.
See an example of rifling below:
With the exception of rifling and the upgrade to flintlocks, early firearms changed very little from the 1400’s to the end of the 1700’s. But, the 19th century would see incredible advancements that would lead to the birth of the modern firearm.