The American Revolution was fought—and won—with guns, and the weapons have become ingrained in U.S. culture, but the invention of firearms started long before colonists ever settled on North American soil. The origin of firearms began with gunpowder and its invention, mostly likely in China, more than 1,000 years ago.
Historians estimate that as early as 850 A.D., alchemists in China stumbled upon the explosive properties of gunpowder (a combination of potassium nitrate, sulfur and charcoal) while seeking an elixir of life.
A Chinese Buddhist alchemist wrote the earliest known account of the substance, saying, “Some have heated together the saltpeter, sulfur, and carbon of charcoal with honey; smoke and flames result, so that their hands and faces have been burnt, and even the whole house burnt down.”
Initially black powder, as it was known, was used for fireworks, but the substance soon found its way into weaponry. Cannons and grenades were among the earliest weapons to incorporate gunpowder, followed by primitive handheld firearms, which consisted of a hollow bamboo tubes, packed with gunpowder and small projectiles. The devices had limited range and were likely used only in hand-to-hand combat.
Thanks in part to the Silk Road and adventurous traders like Marco Polo, by the 13th century ancestors of the modern firearm had spread from Asia to Europe, where they were further developed as weapons in the form of matchlock, wheel lock and flintlock firearms.
By the time early colonists arrived in America in the 15th century, firearm design had advanced significantly and the weapons were routinely included in journeys to the New World.
Among the firearms commonly associated with the early colonists was the German-made blunderbuss, an early version of the shotgun that featured a flared muzzle and a broad opening at the top, which made for faster and easier loading.
Colonists also carried matchlock muskets, which used a match—in the form of a small piece of burning rope—to ignite gunpowder through a small hole in the gun’s loaded barrel.
For early settlers pioneering the wilderness of North America, gunsmiths became vital members of small settlements.
These skilled metalsmiths developed the American long rifle, which also became known as the Kentucky, Ohio or Pennsylvania rifle. These rifles were sometimes elaborately carved and decorated with finely etched brass or silver plates.
But the rifle’s most critical quality was its extended barrel that featured twisting grooves along the interior bore. These grooves guided a lead ball or other projectile to spin as it exited the barrel, ensuring a straighter line shot and better aim for the gunner. Improved aim was especially critical for early settlers when hunting game for a meal.
Revolutionary War Firearms
During the Revolutionary War, some American militia fighters engaged in guerilla-style tactics using their hunting rifles to take out British soldiers from distant cover.
But most militia and continental soldiers used a combination of British Brown Bess and French Charleville muskets. These smoothbore weapons offered less precision in aim, but were faster to reload. As demand increased to arm the American Revolution, local gunsmiths began to manufacture their own versions of the European-made muskets.
The spark used to ignite gun powder in early American-made smoothbore weapons was usually generated by a piece of flint striking a metal plate or “pan” coated in gun powder. A well-trained soldier could generally fire and reload a flintlock weapon three times a minute, whereas the American long rifle required a more tightly loaded bullet and generally took a minute to load and fire a single shot.
In order to boost the fledgling nation’s home-grown arsenal, General George Washington ordered the establishment of the Springfield Armory in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1776. At first the armory stored ammunition and gun carriages, but by the 1790s the armory began to manufacture muskets and eventually other guns.
Around the same time, the U.S. government and some states began hiring smaller gun-making outfits to produce guns or gun parts, based on the weapons being produced at the U.S. armories. Some of the oldest U.S. gun makers got their start then, including Eliphalet Remington, who began producing flintlock rifles in 1816.
Remington Arms Company has persisted to current times (although the company filed for bankruptcy in February 2018 due to sluggish sales). Also getting his start during this period was Henry Deringer. Deringer produced flintlock rifles for the U.S. government starting in 1810. Today the name Deringer is commonly associated with small, concealable handguns.
And Eli Whitney, originally famous for inventing the cotton gin in the 1790s, later developed a system to produce interchangeable rifle parts.
In 1836, Samuel Colt received a U.S. patent for a handheld pistol that featured a multi-firing system based on a rotating barrel with multiple chambers that could fire bullets through a lock and spring design.
Soon Colt’s name would become synonymous with the revolver, especially the Colt Single Action Army revolver, often called a Colt .45. The Colt .45 revolver is sometimes referred to as “the gun that won the West,” though other firearms, including the 1873 Winchester repeater rifle, also claim that title.
With some initial help from Eli Whitney, Colt developed molds at his armory in Hartford, Connecticut, that could forge metal pieces comprising the revolver. The innovation enabled Colt to mass produce the weapon and market it not only to the military, but also to cowboys in the Southwest, Gold Rush miners in the Rockies and law enforcement officials nationwide.
One of the company’s advertising slogans, “God created man, Sam Colt made them equal,” would become legend to gun-lovers.
Colt’s patent on his revolver design assured his company dominated the market on rotating barrel revolvers, as well as shotguns and rifles until the patent’s expiration in the mid-1850s.
Civil War Firearms
Once Colt’s patent lifted, other companies, including Remington, Starr, Whitney and Manhattan began manufacturing revolver-type weapons and the firearm became one of the main side arms for both Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Among the most famous manufacturers of the revolver design was Smith and Wesson, whose versions proved faster to discharge and reload.
Just before the start of the 20th century, Colt, followed by Smith and Wesson, would develop revolver cylinders that would swing out to the side for unloading and reloading bullets. The so-called “double action” design would dominate revolver models throughout the 20th century.
Rifles and muskets also went through rapid improvements up to and through the Civil War, aided in part by the Industrial Revolution. A major flaw of the flintlock design was that wet weather could foil a gunner’s chance to fire his weapon.
To avoid this problem, gunsmiths developed new types of ignition systems that protected gun powder from the elements. The percussion system, developed in 1807, used a small copper cap filled with charge. The cap was inserted into a “nipple” at the rear of the gun barrel and, when the trigger was pulled, a hammer struck the cap, igniting a spark in the cap and then the gun powder.
Other improvements included breechloading systems that allowed the gunner to load the weapon from the rear, rather than having to tamp it down from the gun’s muzzle end. Rear-loading or breechloading systems developed by gun manufacturers, including Sharps, Maynard and Burnside, packed the projectile and powder together in a single, combustible cartridge. The system not only saved time, it also avoided exposing gun powder to wet conditions.
Next, gun manufacturers set their focus on speeding up the time required to reload a weapon. Colt’s revolver system offered one method for rapid reloading, but by the mid 19th century, it wasn’t the only game in town.
Another concept mounted multiple barrels onto a single stock to gain more bang for every trigger pull. Double-barrel shotguns are still produced today.
The Spencer Repeating Rifle Company patented a design at the start of the Civil War that was capable of repeated firing following a single ammunition load. The Spencer gun (a favorite of President Abraham Lincoln) loaded multiple cartridges at once by storing them in a magazine at the rear of the gun. Each shot was then fed into the chamber through a manual mechanism.
Benjamin Henry developed a similar model, in the Henry, and patented the design in 1860. During the Civil War, the Henry was called “the rifle you could load on Sunday and shoot all week long.” Perhaps more importantly, the Henry became the inspiration for the classic Winchester rifle.
John Moses Browning
One of the most acclaimed firearms designer in history, John Moses Browning of Ogden, Utah, began designing for the New Haven-based Winchester Repeating Arms Company in 1883 and created a version of the rifle that incorporated a pump action.
Pump, or slide-action guns feature a mechanism where the shooter pulls back a grip on the gun’s forearm and then pushes it forward to eject the empty shell and reload the gun with a new shell. Browning, however, would become best known for his contributions to automatic loading firearms.
In automatic weapons, power generated by the firing of the weapon is used to eject empty cartridges and reload. Among Browning’s 128 gun patents, some of his best-known weapons include the M1911 pistol, the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) and the M2 .50 caliber machine gun, which he designed in 1933.
The M2 was adopted by the U.S. military and after only slight modifications, became the main U.S. sidearm issued through the Vietnam War. The M1911 was the U.S. military’s first semi-automatic handgun and versions of it remain a weapon of choice among military, law enforcement and sports shooters.
Before Browning developed his semi-automatic handguns and machine guns, Indianapolis, Indiana-based Richard Gatling had already created an earlier, more primitive version of the machine gun.
In the early 1860s, Gatling received a patent for a hand-cranked, multiple barreled weapon that could fire 200 rounds per minute. The Gatling gun could fire for as long as the gunner turned the weapon’s crank and an assistant fed the machine ammunition.
Hirem Maxim, an American-born British inventor, would take the machine gun to the next level with his Maxim gun. The weapon harnessed the recoil energy from each bullet fired to eject a used cartridge and pull in the next one.
The Maxim machine gun of 1884 could fire a barrage of 600 rounds per minute and would soon arm the British Army, and then the Austrian, German, Italian, Swiss and Russian armies.
The Maxim gun and its later versions under Maxim’s new company, Vickers, became pervasive in World War I, while German forces used their own versions of the machine gun. U.S. forces would eventually bring Browning machine gun models to the front.
The barrage of fire generated by machine guns on all sides lead to the development of trench warfare, since shelter became critical for soldiers trying to avoid rapid-fire sprays of bullets from the new weapons.
A generation later, during U.S. conflicts in Nicaragua and Honduras, the advent in 1918 of the lightweight Thompson submachine gun, also known as the Tommy gun, would offer a hand-held version of the deadly machine gun as one of the first portable and fully automatic firearms.
While the Thompson was developed too late to be used in World War I, its inventor, John Thompson, marketed the gun through his company to law enforcement. But the weapon also found its way into the hands of criminals whom law enforcement was targeting.
In the age of Prohibition, the Tommy gun became a weapon of choice among gangsters, leading to many of the era’s most horrifying crimes, including the infamous Valentine’s Day Massacre of February 14, 1929.
That slaughter and others like it inspired the first federal gun control law in American history: The National Firearms Act of 1934, which forbade a private market for the Thompson. Eventually the weapon would find purpose as a weapon in GI’s hands on the battlefields of World War II, alongside Browning’s automatic rifles and machine guns, the M-1 Garand semi-automatic rifle and the American-made M3 sub machine gun.
Among the most significant firearm inventions during the Cold War era was the AK-47 rifle, developed by Mikhail Kalashnikov for the Soviet military in 1947 (AK stands for “the Automatic by Kalashnikov”). The short-barreled weapon with steep front-sight posts and curved magazines offered the rapid-fire of machine guns with lighter-weight portability.
The deadly effectiveness of the Kalashnikov in the Vietnam War led defense forces at the Pentagon to produce a new U.S. assault rifle, the AR-15, which became known as the M-16.
Both weapons are gas operated, meaning that a portion of high-pressure gas from the cartridge is used to power the extraction of the spent cartridge and insert a fresh one into the weapon’s chamber. Both can fire up to 900 rounds a minute.
Into the 21st century, modernized versions of the fully automatic AK-47 and the M-16, chiefly the M4 carbine, have dominated U.S. military rifle power.
In the civilian world, the AR-15, a semi-automatic version of the M-16 has become popular among gun sports enthusiasts, as well as among mass shooters (in Newtown, Conn., Las Vegas, Nevada, San Bernardino, Calif. and Parkland, Fla.).
Today, the term semi-automatic refers to auto-loading guns that require a trigger pull for every shot fired, as opposed to fully automatic weapons which can fire multiple shots for every trigger pull.
Both versions of the modern automatic weapon can fire hundreds of bullets per minute and represent a vast leap beyond the nation’s earliest guns, such as flintlock rifles, which even highly skilled gunners only managed to fire three times in one minute.
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