A Brief History of Firearms
by Jim Supica
Copyright, Jim Supica - used by permission. Opinions are those of the author and not necessarily those of NRA or the National Firearms Museum. Originally published in "Guns."
As long as man has used tools, weapons have been among those of foremost importance. They have been used to provide food and protection since the formation of the earliest social units.
For centuries, and continuing through today, men and women have used firearms as the most effective weapons individuals can wield. Guns have been used to implement both the highest and basest goals of humanity - to put food on the table, to provide personal protection, to enforce or defy the law, to defend or acquire territory and treasure, and to liberate or to enslave.
Guns have also come to be used for a wide variety of recreational and competitive shooting, and millions of Americans exercise their constitutional right to own firearms simply for the pleasure of shooting or the enjoyment of ownership, in addition to more serious uses.
The origin of gunpowder is unknown, and may have occurred in China, Turkey, or Europe. The first record describing the combination of charcoal, sulphur, and saltpeter, to produce a rapidly burning or exploding powder is a coded writing by Franciscan monk Roger Bacon shortly before 1250 A.D.
Within 50 years, early cannon had been developed. A large thick metal tube with one closed end (the breech) and an open end (the muzzle) was loaded first with gunpowder and then with a projectile. The powder was ignited with a torch or smoldering ember through a small hole in the rear (the touchhole). The rapidly expanding gases from the exploding gunpowder would throw the projectile from the barrel. This basic principle still applies today.
It took another half-century for this concept to be applied to individual hand-held weapons. The first firearms, ca. 1350, called "hand cannons" or "hand gonnes," were essentially miniature cannons designed to be held by hand or attached to a pole for use by individual soldiers. They were loaded and fired in the same manner as the full-size cannons.
EARLY IGNITION SYSTEMS
For the next four centuries, the greatest advances in the evolution of firearms would focus primarily on the search for more reliable methods of igniting the gunpowder, in addition to design advances for more rapid repeat shots and better accuracy.
The term "lock, stock and barrel" comes from firearms design, representing the three major components of early guns. The barrel is self explanatory, and the stock is of course the wooden holder in which the barrel is mounted allowing the gun to be fired from the shoulder or from one hand. The lock is the mechanical contrivance that is used to ignite the charge of gunpowder in the chamber of the barrel.
The first gun to combine all three components was the matchlock, in the early 1400's. Many early hand cannons were ignited with a "slow match" - a length of slender rope or cord that had been chemically treated so that an end could be ignited and would continue to burn or smolder, much like a 4th of July punk used to shoot fireworks. Obviously it was awkward to hold both gun & slow match while trying to dip the match to the touch hole of the hand cannon.
The matchlock solved this problem by using an arm called a serpentine on the gun to hold the slow match. By mechanical linkage, a trigger on mounted on the bottom of the lock could be pressed to lower the match to the touch hole, which now included a small pan of fine gun powder that would be ignited first, transmitting the fire through the hole to fire the main charge in the barrel.
This simple system was followed by a much more complicated one, the wheellock in the early 1500's. It was the first to take advantage of the fact that sparks could be produced by striking flint or other substances against steel. The lock contained a wheel with a serrated edge, attached to a spring which could be wound with a separate key called a spanner, much like early clocks, and held under tension. A hammer like piece called the dogshead held a piece of pyrite rock. To fire a wheellock, the dogshead was lowered onto the edge of the wheel, which was released by a pull of the trigger causing a shower of sparks to fall into the pan igniting the charge. The principle is much the same as a cigarette lighter.
This was an improvement in reliability over the matchlock, primarily because the shooter did not have to constantly attend to the smoldering slow match to insure that it remained lit. It also avoided the problem of an enemy seeing or game smelling the smoke of the match before the gun was fired. However, it took highly skilled craftsmen to build the clock-like mechanism of the wheellock, making it an extremely expensive piece, primarily available to royalty and the like for hunting. Although wheellocks saw some military use, the matchlock remained the most common military firearm during the wheellock era.
Improvements using flint against steel to provide the igniting spark continued in the second half of the 16th century, with two early examples being the snaphaunce, the first flint lock type gun ca. 1560, and the Miquelet, following a couple decades later.
The snaphaunce held a piece of flint in the hammer-like cock, with a pan of priming powder mounted on the outside of the barrel over the touchhole as with the matchlock system. When ready to fire, a steel striking plate (the "battery") would be manually swiveled into place above the pan, and the cock pulled back until it was caught by a sear. Pulling the trigger would release the cock to swing rapidly forward striking the battery, and showering sparks into the pan, hopefully firing the gun.
As with all flint lock type systems, sometimes the priming powder in the pan would ignite, but would fail to transmit the fire to the powder in the barrel resulting in a failure to fire, and giving us a colorful phrase still used today - "a flash in the pan."
Of course, it was also vital to "keep your powder dry," and accordingly many early firearms of this era had a sliding pan cover to hold the powder in place and give it some protection against the elements. The pan cover would have to be manually swiveled out of the way before firing.
Around 1580, the Miquelet system improved on and simplified the snaphaunce by combining the battery and pan cover into a single piece, called the frizzen. This L-shaped spring-loaded piece would be pivoted down to cover the pan after it had been primed with powder. When the cock was released by the trigger, it would swing forward striking the frizzen, producing sparks at the same time it pushed the frizzen up and forward to expose the powder in the pan to the igniting sparks.
In the early 1600's, the basic design of the flintlock, originally known as the French lock, was perfected. The major improvement over the Miquelet consisted of moving the mechanical components for the lock mechanism from their previous position on the outside of the lockplate, where they were exposed to elements and damage, to the interior of the lock.
One of today's premier gunmakers can trace its roots to this era. Beretta began operations in Brescia Italy in 1526, making it one of the oldest industrial companies in the world.
IMPROVEMENTS IN ACCURACY
At around the time flint lock systems were first being developed, two improvements were introduced that dramatically increased the accuracy of firearms.
Archers had found that if the fletching feathers on the rear of their arrow were at a slight angle, causing the arrow to rotate in flight, their ability to hit the target was improved. This concept was applied to gun barrels by cutting slowly twisting grooves down the interior length of the barrel, imparting a spin to the bullet as it left the muzzle. These grooves were called rifling, and "rifled muskets" or "rifles" so equipped were found to be much better at hitting their mark over further distances than "smooth-bore" muskets.
With the improved accuracy offered by rifled firearms, a system of aiming them other than pointing became more important, and early forms of sights became more widely used. A common system, still used in many guns today, was a notch of some type at the rear of the barrel and a post on the front. With this type of open sight, the top of the front sight post is aligned with the target, and the post is centered by eye between the edges of the rear sight notch, with the top of the post level with the tops of the sides of the notch. When the sights themselves are properly physically aligned with the axis of the bore, this system still provides all the accuracy required for most practical shooting needs.
EARLY GUNS IN AMERICA
Despite imaginative pictures of Pilgrims bearing flared-muzzle flintlock blunderbusses, the earliest firearms in American were doubtless matchlocks and the occasional wheellock.
However, during the Colonial years, a distinctly American type of gun would be developed, by first dozens and then hundreds of gunsmiths scattered through the new land. In the late 17th and 18th Centuries, colonists coming to America brought their indigenous European firearms and gun design concepts with them. The gun was a necessary and treasured tool when pioneering a frontier wilderness far from civilization, and gun makers were valued and essential members of the small settlements.
The American long rifle, variously known as the Kentucky, Pennsylvania, or Ohio rifle, is most likely the descendant of the German Jaeger (translated "hunter") type flintlock, a practical classic European hunting rifle. In the New World, it slowly evolved into a longer barreled firearm with wooden stock extending the full length of the barrel, while the rear of stock developed a graceful downward curve. Eventually, deluxe versions would come to be decorated with colorful brass or pewter inlays in the stock, with stars, hearts, and simple animal silhouettes being popular motifs. The brass covered patchbox in the rear of the stock would become more elaborate and decorative over time.
This is gun that fed and defended early pioneer families. Marksmanship was a valued, necessary, and common skill.
European military doctrine of the time called for the use of smoothbore muskets as the primary martial firearm. Although less accurate than rifled arms, the smoothbore allowed for faster reloading, since a lead ball slightly smaller than bore diameter could be rammed down the barrel with wadding quite quickly, even as the barrel became fouled from gunpowder residue from previous shots. By contrast, to be effective, the lead bullet for a rifled arm must fit the bore tightly to engage the rifling, and takes more time and effort to ram home.
European armies would meet on a field of battle in massed formations and exchange volleys of fire from their smoothbore muskets, more pointing the weapons at the clustered line of enemies across the field than precisely aiming, and relying on volleys of multiple lead balls to strike down some opponents before closing for combat with saber and bayonet. The classic British Brown Bess and French Charleville Musket were sturdy smoothbore flintlock designs, well suited for this type of combat.
The ways and rules were changing, however, and in the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, and the War of 1812 American marksmen used their rifled "squirrel guns" and well-honed shooting skills to good effect on selected targets from longer distances and from behind cover in wilderness areas.
After securing independence, the new country rapidly sought its own means of mass producing military arms, establishing government arsenals for the manufacture of firearms at Springfield in 1795 and Harpers Ferry in 1800. Many of their early products were indeed smooth bore muskets, still a useful military arm. However, the age of the rifle as an essential weapon for the marksman in combat had arrived.
In addition to arsenal made firearms, the U.S. and some states contracted with numerous small individual gun making firms to produce military weapons or parts based on sample patterns provided by the government. America's oldest continuing gunmaker traces its lineage to this era, with Eliphalet Remington producing barrels as early as 1826. The Remington firm remains one of Amercia's premier gun manufacturers today. The famous Henry Deringer, whose name later would become synonymous with small concealable handguns, produced flintlock rifles for the U.S. government as early as 1810; as did Eli Whitney's Whitney Arms nearly a decade earlier.
THE PERCUSSION SYSTEM
Although the flintlock system predominated in firearms production for nearly two centuries, problems remained. A shooter often had to carry two types of powder - fine grained for priming and coarse for the main charge, and the system was unreliable in wet weather. It was difficult to store a gun loaded and ready for use.
In 1807 a Scottish clergyman, Rev. Forsyth, is credited with developing an ignition system based on the principle that certain chemicals would ignite with a spark when struck a sharp blow, a concept which can be observed in toy cap pistols or "pop rock" type fireworks today. Various methods to utilize this approach were tried, and in 1822 the percussion cap was invented.
The percussion cap contains a small charge of chemical in a small copper cuplike holder which can be quickly pressed onto to a nipple mounted in the rear of a gun barrel. When the trigger is pulled, the hammer strikes the cap, igniting the chemical which sparks through a hole in the nipple into the main charge in the barrel, firing the gun. This system offered such obvious advantages to the flintlock method that gunmakers around the world rapidly adapted their existing designs to percussion ignition, although within 50 years of accelerating firearms evolution it, too, would be obsolete.
REPEATERS AND BREECHLOADERS
The introduction of the percussion system marks the beginning of a dramatically rapid era of firearms advancements, coinciding with the Industrial Revolution and including the era of the American Civil War, through the turn of the century. During this relatively brief time, guns would go from primitive flintlocks to the basic systems that still dominate firearms designs today.
Development of effective breechloading systems was one of these concepts. From the matchlock through the early percussion era, the vast majority of guns had been "muzzle-loaders." That is, the powder & projectile had to be dropped down the muzzle at the front of the barrel, and rammed to the rear before firing. This made reloading awkward, especially if trying to shoot a long gun from a prone position or behind cover or concealment, and, as noted earlier, became more difficult after a few shots when barrel fouling made the job more strenuous. This led to many attempts to develop a gun that loaded from the rear of the barrel, although most early efforts were not effective due to weakness of materials and the leakage of hot gases from the breech seal when the gun was fired.
In the early 19th Century, various breechloading designs finally reached production in quantity. A notable example is the U.S. military Hall North system, which in 1833 marked both the first U.S. percussion arm, and the Army's first breechloader. In 1841, the breechloading Dreyse needle gun, which packed the projectile and powder together in a combustible cartridge, was adopted in Germany as the first military bolt action gun.
The Civil War saw the adoption of a wide variety of breechloading systems, including those made by Sharps, Maynard, Burnside, and many others.
An even more pressing concern was the relatively long time it took to reload a firearm, and the need for rapid follow-up shots. An archer could loose several arrows in the time it took a "musketeer" to reload after he had fired his weapon.
In even the earliest days of firearms design, this could be addressed in a limited manner by mounting multiple barrels (and usually multiple locks) onto the same stock. This basic concept is still in use today, in the double barrel shotguns produced by some of the finest gun makers in the world, including firms such as Browning, Franchi, Beretta, Remington, Ruger, and Charles Daly, and is a system preferred by many discriminating hunters and competitive shooters.
However, with more than two barrels, the system begins to become heavy and cumbersome. Other systems were tried, including manually rotated groups of barrels mounted to a single lock, multiple superposed charges within a single barrel, and cylindrical or rectangular clusters of chambers which could be manually repositioned to align with a firing mechanism and barrel.
The most successful solution was invented by Samuel Colt. He developed a handgun design with a rotating cylinder with multiple chambers, each of which could contain a charge of powder topped by the bullet, loaded from the front of the cylinder. The rear of the cylinder was closed, with a nipple for a percussion cap installed at the back of each chamber. When the hammer is cocked, a fresh chamber rotates into alignment with the rear of the barrel, and when the trigger is pulled the hammer drops, firing the load in that chamber. This is the basis of the mechanical system still used in all revolvers today.
Colt's first manufacturing venture was based in Paterson, N.J., and produced percussion revolvers with folding triggers and revolving shotguns and rifles. These are called Colt Paterson models by modern collectors. Relatively few were produced, and the firm folded, having been in business only from 1837 to 1841.
The idea was too good to die, and in 1847 Colt was back with a new, heavier, more powerful revolver, this time with a traditional bow type triggerguard. Prompted by an initial order from Captain Samuel Walker to equip his troops in the Mexican war, the new model tipped the scales at nearly five pounds, and remained the most powerful repeating handgun until the introduction of the .357 magnum nearly 90 years later. It was called the Walker Model, after the young captain. Colt's revolvers were initially manufactured by Eli Whitney, but Colt soon had his own plant in Hartford, Conn.
Colt had patented his revolving cylinder design, and so held a monopoly on revolver manufacture for a number of years. The only serious competition for a repeating handgun was the pepperbox design, in which a cluster of barrels, each with a percussion nipple on the rear, rotated around an axis by the pull of a ring trigger which also cocked the hammer and released it to fire the chamber which had rotated into position. Pepperboxes were made by a number of European and American firms, the foremost probably being the succession of companies founded by Ethan Allen, including Allen & Thurber and Allen & Wheelock.
The Colt pattern cap & ball revolver rapidly came to dominate the repeating firearms market however, with Colt offering revolving shotguns and rifles as well as handguns. Among his most successful designs were the little 1849 Pocket Model in .31 caliber, the mid-sized 1851 Navy Model in .36 caliber, and the 1860 Army Model, offering .44 caliber chambering in a much smaller and handier package than his earlier Walker and Dragoon models. After the expiration of Colt's patent in the mid-1850's, other firms jumped into the revolver business, with major manufacturers including Remington, Starr, Whitney, and Manhattan. From these and other makers, the percussion revolver was the major sidearm of the Civil War.
THE SELF CONTAINED CARTRIDGE
The cap and ball revolver offered an effective repeating firearm, with five or six shots available as fast as the hammer could be cocked and the trigger pulled. After the gun was shot dry, however, re-loading was a slow & cumbersome process, involving loading each chamber with loose gun powder and a lead bullet, ramming the loads home, and placing a percussion cap on the nipple of each chamber. What was needed was a self-contained cartridge with the primer, powder & bullet all in one neat and weatherproof unit.
An early attempt at this was the pinfire system, first introduced around 1846, in which a firing pin was mounted on each copper cased cartridge, igniting an internal primer when struck by the gun's hammer. Although it gained a good deal of popularity in Europe, it never caught on much in the U.S., with the external pin on each round being a bit cumbersome and hazardous.
Among the firms eagerly waiting for the expiration of the Colt revolver patent was a partnership of an inventor named Daniel Wesson and an older businessman, Horace Smith. A few years earlier, in a previous partnership, they had entered the race for an effective repeating firearm shooting self-contained cartridges with a lever action pistol. This pistol had a tubular magazine mounted under and parallel to the barrel, and shot "rocket balls" - hollow based lead bullets, with the powder and primer mounted in the base of the projectile itself.
They pursued production of their lever action pistols only a few years, and the design was acquired by a shirt manufacturer, who carried it further. His name was Oliver Winchester, and his famous lever action rifles, based in large part on the design of the first Smith & Wesson partnership eventually became the most popular repeating rifles of the post-Civil War 19th Century, called by many "the gun that won the West."
The second Smith and Wesson partnership had designed a tiny .22 revolver. Perhaps more important than the revolver was the cartridge it fired. It consisted of a copper casing, with a hollow rim at the bottom which held a priming compound. The case was then filled with gunpowder, and capped with a lead bullet mounted into its mouth. When the firing pin of the revolver's hammer struck the rim of the cartridge, the priming ignited the powder, firing the bullet, leaving the empty copper casing in the chamber.
The cartridge was essentially identical to the modern.22 Short rimfire, and was the grand-daddy of all our traditional ammunition today.
As Colt had patented his revolver, so Smith & Wesson acquired the patent to their innovation, and held a fairly complete monopoly on the production of effective cartridge revolvers through its expiration in 1869, although there were a number of infringements and evasions of the patent as the market rapidly recognized the superiority of metallic cartridge ammunition.
THE AMERICAN WEST
The military has sometimes been slow to embrace firearms innovation, preferring tried & true technology over the new and untested, and this was certainly true during the Civil War and Indian Wars era. Winchester had abandoned the rocket ball system in favor of a .44 Rimfire cartridge in it's famous brass framed Henry rifle in 1860, but only a few were purchased and used during the Civil War. The Spencer Repeating Rifle Company had also patented an effective lever action repeater firing metallic cartridges by the beginning of the Civil War, but its adoption by the Army was resisted until it was demonstrated to President Lincoln, who promptly personally championed it purchase.
Although the Spencer was the most widely used repeating long gun of the Civil War, and breechloading single-shot Sharps rifles in the hands of expert "Sharps-shooter" marksmen took a toll, the vast majority of the soldiers on both sides were armed with muzzle-loading percussion muskets.
With the post-war Westward expansion, the civilian demand was for the new repeating metallic cartridge firearms. Winchester responded, first with an improved brass frame rimfire Model 1866 lever action, followed by a centerfire Model 1873, and then by Models 1876 and 1886, made strong enough to handle true big-game cartridges in the .45-70 class.
Marlin was Winchester's strongest competitor in the field, with Whitney Kennedy and Evans also producing lever action repeaters.
Despite the development of repeaters, single shot rifles remained a popular option, and in the early years of metallic cartridges, they could handle stronger rounds than the more complicated repeaters.
The tradition of powerful, big bore rifles for the large game of the American west such as bison, wapiti, and grizzly bear certainly pre-dates the Civil War. As first trappers and mountain men, and then settlers and farmers pushed into the great plains and Rocky Mountain west, a new type of American rifle was developed to meet the need.
The percussion Plains Rifle tended to be shorter than its long slender Kentucky rifle predecessor, to handle easier on horseback and in brush. It took a heavier, larger diameter ball appropriate to the larger game, which necessitated a heavier barrel, the weight of which was another factor dictating a shorter length. The Plains Rifle tended to have a half-stock, with the wood only cradling the rear half of the barrel, contrasted to the full stock Kentuckies. As befits a working gun, decoration tended to be minimal or non-existent.
In the years preceding the Civil War, Plains Rifles by prominent makers such as Hawken and Gemmer, both of St. Louis, were eagerly sought after by long hunters and pilgrims heeding Horace Greeley's advice of "Go West, young man."
After the war, Sharps began producing its well respected breechloading single shots for centerfire metallic cartridges, and with a half-inch diameter projectile, the "Sharps big 50" was perhaps the quintessential "buffalo rifle." Other popular single shots included the Winchester Model 1885 High Wall and Low Wall rifles; Stevens Ideal rifles, and the sturdy Remington Rolling Block rifles. Most were offered in a variety of frame sizes, barrel lengths and weights, and calibers ranging from .22 rimfire to the .40 to .50 caliber rounds favored by commercial hunters. Various types of sights were available, from simple through elaborate, and various stocking options could be had, from fairly straight forward through the ornate buttplates and triggerguard configuration favored for Scheutzen style target competitions. The single shot was generally considered to be more accurate than early repeaters, and so was favored for target competition and other precision work.
The American West of 1865 to 1900 is perhaps one of the most popular and romanticized eras of American history, with the lore of cowboy and Indian, lawman and outlaw, figuring large in our collective imagination. The handguns of this era also have a special fascination.
The most famous is undoubtedly the Colt Single Action Army, introduced in 1873, and also known as the Peacemaker. Its sturdy reliable design and effective cartridges made it a favorite with Westerners on both sides of the law.
It is little recognized, however, that Smith and Wesson large frame top-break revolvers and their foreign copies represented the most prolific full size handgun pattern of the early cartridge era. All variations on the Model Three frame, the first was the American model in 1870, followed rapidly by the Russian model. The Schofield model was made for the American military in the 1870s, followed by the New Model Number Three and Double Action models.
The S&W design was much faster to load & unload than the Colt. When a latch in front of the hammer was released, the S&W barrel & cylinder pivoted forward, automatically ejecting empties and exposing all six chambers for reloading. To reload the Colt, each individual chamber had to be aligned with a barrel mounted ejector rod, and the single empty brass case punched out and replaced with a fresh cartridge before rotating the cylinder to the next chamber, repeating the operation a total of six times to fully load the revolver. Smiths were also generally held have an edge in accuracy, although the Colts were simpler, sturdier, and less liable to malfunction in extreme environments. A large portion of S&W's early production went to foreign military contracts.
Other revolvers of the era included the Remington 1875, similar to the Colt pattern, and the unusual but exceptionally well made twist-open Merwin Hulbert revolvers.
The military's resistance to new concepts continued into the Indian War years of the late 19th century. At a time when repeating rifles with 16 or more rounds available as fast as you could work the lever were available, the Army chose to stay with a single shot as its primary issue long arm. One concern cited was that soldiers armed with repeaters might expend ammunition too rapidly in the heat of battle.
Economic factors undoubtedly influenced the decision as well. Vast quantities of now-obsolete muzzle loaders remained in inventory from the Civil War. A method was developed to convert these to breech-loading cartridge rifles by cutting open the rear of the barrel & installing a breechblock that could be flipped open to load cartridges and remove empty brass like a trapdoor. When manufacture of new rifles resumed, they were based on the same system, and the "Trapdoor Springfield" single shot became the standard military rifle from 1873 through the beginning of the Spanish American War in the late 1890's. In defense of the Army's decision, the trapdoor's .45-70 cartridge was significantly more powerful, with longer effective range, than anything available in a repeater in the early 1870's.
A similar thought process led the military to initially select a Remington single shot in 50 caliber as its first cartridge handgun. By the mid 1870's, however, the Colt Single Action Army (SAA) and the Smith and Wesson Schofield six shot revolvers became the Army's primary sidearms for the Indian Wars era.
After the Custer rout at Little Big Horn, there was a vigorous debate over the military's choice of weapons. Some of the Indian victors had been using repeating rifles. One school of thought contended that if Custer's men had been armed with lever action rifles instead of trapdoors, and fast loading Schofields instead of SAA's, the outcome might have been different, although that conclusion is hard to support in light of the vastly outnumbered 7th Cavalry's forces and strategic choices.
Although the big sixguns of the Old West are those that capture the public fancy, their production quantities were significantly less than smaller frame revolvers. S&W offered tip-up spur-triggers and top-breaks in single or double action; Colt produced a series of single shot derringers and spur-trigger revolvers; and Remington offered spur-trigger revolvers and its famous double derringers, in addition to other designs.
The late 19th Century saw a proliferation of small manufacturers churning out cheap small single action spur-trigger revolvers, sometimes derisively referred to as "Suicide Specials." Other firms such as Harrington and Richardson, Iver Johnson, and Hopkins and Allen produced millions of inexpensive but generally serviceable small top-break and solid frame double action revolvers. These companies have been referred to as the "armorers to the nation's nightstands," accurately reflecting the fact that even persons of moderate means could afford their products as a handy means of home and personal protection.
BIRTH OF THE MODERN REVOLVER
Just before the turn of the 20th Century, a new type of revolver was developed, first by Colt in 1889, followed by S&W in 1896. This revolver used a solid frame, like the SAA, but the cylinder swung to the side to load and unload. Empty cases were simultaneously ejected by pushing a plunger-like ejector rod at the front of the open cylinder. S&W called their versions "Hand Ejectors" (HE) to differentiate the method of operation from their top-break automatic ejecting products.
These swing-out cylinder revolvers were also "double action" (DA), a term describing the ways in which the gun could be fired. Early revolvers were usually "single action" - the hammer had to be manually cocked before the trigger pull performed the "single action" of dropping the hammer to fire the round. On the DA revolvers, the gun could be fired in the traditional single action (SA) mode. Alternatively, the DA could be fired by a longer heavier pull on the trigger, beginning with the hammer in the down, uncocked position. In this mode, the trigger would perform the "double action" of first cocking and then dropping the hammer to fire the weapon.
This type of revolver rapidly caught on, and would become the dominant handgun design for most of the 20th century in America.
In its early revolvers of this type, Colt offered revolver frame sizes from its massive New Service, through handy compact pocket sized revolvers with short 2" "snub nose" barrels. When the New York City Police got a brash new young Commissioner just before the close of the 19th Century, he selected the little .32 Colt New Police as that department's first standard issue handgun. He also instituted the first formal police marksmanship training under the guidance of Sgt. William Petty, who happened to be a national shooting champion. The Commissioner's name was Theodore Roosevelt, and a few years later he carried another swing out cylinder Colt, a New Army model, when he led the First Volunteer Cavalry up San Juan Hill in1898.
The early S&W HE's ranged from the large N-frame, the first of which was the famous Triple-Lock which introduced the .44 Special cartridge, through the tiny .22 Ladysmith, which was far smaller than any swing-out revolver being made today.
Smith & Wesson found the workhorse of their product line in 1899 when it made its first medium sized K frame "Military & Police" (M&P) revolver, chambered for their new .38 Special cartridge. Although Colt & S&W shared the police market in the first half of the century, after WWII through the 1970's the S&W K frame in .38 Special was probably carried by a majority of law enforcement officers in America.
The same cartridge was also popular in the smaller short barrel 5-shot J frame "Chiefs Special," serving both the police backup gun and the civilian concealed carry market. Colt's competing Detective Special packed six rounds in a package that was only slightly larger. The little J frame was also the platform for S&W's "Kit Gun," a handy .22 revolver that would easily fit in a hunter's, camper's, or fisherman's "kit."
Continuing through today, the .38 Special in a well made double action revolver such as those by S&W, Ruger, Colt, or Taurus is considered by many to be the best choice for a first-time shooter's home defense handgun. In the small J frame size, is also the first choice of many experienced shooters for their personal concealed carry. The combination of safety, reliability, simplicity, and effectiveness in a gun that is small enough to carry easily, yet large enough to be manageable is still hard to beat.
MEANWHILE IN EUROPE …
The double action system for revolvers had caught on faster in Europe than in the U.S. In was used for early pinfires, and for military handguns such as Britain's ugly but reliable and hell-for-stout Webley top-breaks in .455 caliber.
While the U.S. market was well satisfied with lever action repeating rifles, a different repeating mechanism gained favor with the armies of Europe.
When the switch to metallic cartridges began, many of Europe's early single shot rifles used a "bolt action" breechloading system. In bolt action rifles, a bolt handle extending from the breechblock is lifted up, unlocking the breechblock, and pulled to the rear, sliding the block back to allow a cartridge to be loaded into the chamber in the rear of the barrel. The bolt handle is pushed forward and then down, engaging locking lugs to hold the breechblock in place while the rifle is fired. Single shot bolt action rifles adopted by militaries included the Chassepot (France 1866), Vetterli (Switzerland 1869), Berdan (Russia 1870), Beaumont (Netherlands 1871), and the Mauser (Germany 1871). Of these, the seeds of greatness lay in the last, the invention of brothers Peter & Paul Mauser.
The earliest military bolt action repeating rifles used tubular magazines under the barrel, similar to the system on most American lever actions. The Portuguese Kropatschek in 1878 was among the first of this type. Mauser's tube mag repeater was first produced in 1884 as the German Model 1871/84.
Most of these early military cartridge rifles chambered cartridges similar to the U.S. .45-70 - a large heavy round-nosed bullet in the half-inch diameter range (10 to 12 mm), in a metallic case filled with a healthy charge of blackpowder. In 1885, smokeless powder was invented, and would lead to dramatic changes in firearms and ammunition design.
Smokeless powder, as the name implies, had the military advantage of not generating a cloud of smoke when fired. Blackpowder smoke would reveal a shooter's position visually and, after a few rounds, develop a haze that could begin to obscure his vision. Another advantage was that smokeless powder produced far less fouling after shots than blackpowder, meaning that more shots could be fired before cleaning, and that powder debris was less likely to clog an action.
Its most important quality, however, was that when ignited, its gases would expand more rapidly, creating higher pressures and driving the bullet to a higher velocity when it left the muzzle. As a bullet approaches 2000 feet per second (about twice the speed of sound), its wounding capacity increases dramatically, allowing a lighter, smaller diameter projectile to have the same "stopping power" as a larger heavier round at a slower speed.
The faster, smaller diameter, bullet will also have further range and a flatter trajectory. A bullet leaving the muzzle of the gun does not fly straight. From the instant it departs the barrel it is "falling" toward the ground due to the effect of gravity. A gun's sights are adjusted so the barrel is actually pointed very slightly up, giving a slight rainbow like curve to the bullet's path. A faster lighter bullet will travel further before gravity pulls it to earth, and a smaller diameter bullet has less wind resistance. The flatter trajectory means it will be on target over a longer distance.
In general terms, the caliber of a bullet refers to a rough measurement of its diameter, expressed either in decimal fractions of an inch or millimeters. For example, a .45 caliber cartridge takes a bullet approximately 45/100" in diameter, which would also be very roughly 11 mm in diameter.
Firearms designers took advantage of the new smokeless powder, using a smaller bullet closer to 1/3" diameter (8mm most popular, but ranging from under 7mm to 9mm). Heavy lead would still be used to form the core of the bullet, but it would be encased in a harder copper or brass metal jacket so it would not quickly foul the rifling in the bore with soft lead that rubbed off at the higher velocities.
The first such bolt action repeating rifle and smokeless smaller caliber ammunition combination to be adopted by a military was the 8mm French Lebel bolt action in 1886.
The pointed "spitzer" bullet design is much more aerodynamically efficient than a round nose design, offering better accuracy at longer ranges. However, when such cartridges are loaded nose to tail in a tube magazine, there is a danger that the pointed nose of one bullet will ignite the primer of the cartridge in front of it when the rifle recoils. Use of a box type magazine, where the cartridges are stacked parallel one on top of the other overcomes this obstacle to spitzer bullets. The British Lee Metford bolt action, generally based on the Mauser concept, in .303 caliber used such a box mag in 1888, and in 1889 Mauser produced its own 8mm box magazine rifle.
Another early box magazine repeater was the Mauser & Mannlicher influenced German 1888 Commission rifle in 8mm, which rapidly became a staple design; while the Austrians adopted a straight-pull bolt action Steyr Mannlicher repeater in 8mm the same year. Mid-bore bolt action box magazine designs rapidly followed, such as the Danish Krag Jorgensen in 1889 (with the US adopting a Krag based design in 1892), and the Swiss straight pull Schmidt Rubin in the same year. The year 1891 saw the adoption of the Lebel pattern Mosin Nagant by Russia, the 6.5 mm Italian Carcano, and the 8mm French Berthier.
During this period, military bolt actions were often modified to incorporate the new advances, and numerous military rifles from the turn of the century or slightly later are bolt action single shots converted to magazine-fed repeaters, or had large bore barrels relined to smaller calibers.
The perfection of the bolt action design is believed by many to be the Mauser 98, introduced in 1898. Improvements include cocking on opening of the bolt rather than closing, an added safety lug, and a larger chamber ring. This basic design became the basis of many, if not all, subsequent bolt action military and sporting rifles, and variations served as primary rifles for many countries through World War II. The tried and true U.S. Model 1903 which served with distinction through two world wars, with its "thirty ought six" (.30-06) chambering is basically a modified Mauser 1898 design. Current production sporting rifles such as the classic Winchester Model 70, and bolt actions by Remington, Ruger and others can trace their lineage to the Gewehr 98.
Another firearms design trend in Europe given a boost by the introduction of smokeless powder was the attempt to make automatic loading firearms. In general, gun designs to this point had relied on some mechanical action by the shooter to load a fresh cartridge into the firing chamber after the initial round had been fired, whether it was swiveling a lever; lifting, pulling, & pushing a bolt; or cocking the hammer or pulling the trigger to advance a revolver cylinder to the next chamber. Inventors sought a method whereby the loading of the next round would be accomplished automatically.
The first auto-loading pistol designs to see limited production were the German made Schoenberger and Borchardt designs in 1893 & 94 respectively. A couple years later, in 1896, the Mauser firm began manufacture of the first auto pistol to gain widespread acceptance, the Model 1896, nicknamed the Broomhandle for its slender oval cross-sectioned grip.
Germany continued its dominance in European firearms design when Georg Luger introduced his classic pistol in 1900. Whereas early automatics had used fixed box magazines, the Luger magazine mounted in the pistol's grip frame, was quickly detachable and easily replaced with a fresh magazine for a quick reload. Originally manufactured in 7.63 mm (.30 cal.), in 1909 it was adapted to a new, larger diameter cartridge, and the 9 mm Luger (or 9 mm Parabellum) round was destined to become possibly the most widely used centerfire pistol ammunition of the 20th Century. The Luger was widely adopted as a military pistol by many countries, including Germany where it was designated the "Pistole 08" (P-08) for the year it was first purchased, where it served through both World Wars. Its distinctive profile is widely recognized, and may be identified as "graceful" or "sinister," depending on the eye of the beholder and how many Grade B "Ve haff vays of mekking you tokk" war movies he has seen.
JOHN MOSES BROWNING
At this point the history of firearms, we must travel back across the Atlantic, and back a few years in time to track the career of probably the greatest firearms inventor of all time, John Moses Browning of Ogden, Utah.
We've already mentioned one of Browning's earliest designs, the Winchester 1885 Single Shot rifle. Others brought the Winchester lever action repeaters into the smokeless powder era, first with the slim and handy Model 1892; followed by the Model 1894 which, with its "thutty-thutty" (.30-30) cartridge, became America's classic deer rifle; and the Model 1895 whose box magazine allowed the chambering of true high-power smokeless rifle cartridges with spitzer bullets in a lever action repeater.
Browning was also responsible for some of the first repeating shotguns. Revolver based shotguns had been around since the Colt Paterson models of the 1840's, but had never caught on (probably because of he tendency of hot gases escaping from the cylinder gap to pepper the supporting hand with powder grains). Spencer Arms (of Civil War lever action rifle fame) had manufactured a moderately successful repeating pump or slide-action shotgun as early as 1882. As would befit the Winchester legacy, Browning's first design for that a repeating shotgun for that firm was a lever action, the Model 1887. This was followed by a pump action Model 1893, which would be modified to become highly successful Model 1897.
With a pump or slide-action firearm, the shooter pulls back on the wooden forearm and then pushes it forward to eject the empty shell and replace it with a loaded one. Browning had earlier applied the principal to a handy little .22 rifle for Winchester, the classic Model 1890, which remained popular for decades, happily employed in shooting galleries, by squirrel & rabbit hunters, and for all around "plinking."
It was in the area of automatic firearms, however, that Browning probably made his greatest advances. Auto-loaders use the part of the force of the firing cartridge to eject the empty casing and load a fresh round into the chamber. This may occur by direct or delayed blowback of the breechblock, by utilizing the recoil of the gun, or by redirecting some of the expanding gases of the burning gunpowder from the barrel to operate the action.
In 1900, the same year as the Luger was introduced, Colt first offered a Browning designed auto-loading pistol, the .38 caliber Model 1900 Automatic. Variations and improvements followed in rapid succession, with a smaller Hammerless .32 Pocket model in 1903, and a tiny vest pocket-sized .25 caliber pistol in 1908. Colt introduced the .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) cartridge in the Browning designed Model 1905.
This is the cartridge that would be chambered in the famous Model 1911. The 1911 was rapidly adopted by the U.S. military, and, only slightly modified over time, remained the primary U.S. issue sidearm through the Vietnam War. Colt and many other firms continue production of 1911 pattern pistols today, and they still serve military, law enforcement, and personal protection duty on a regular basis. It is the handgun of choice for many shooting sports that seek to simulate combat type shooting, and in accurized forms is dominant in many traditional target shooting sports. Its mastery requires effort, training, and practice, but in the right hands, many would argue that it is the finest combat handgun of all time.
While the 1911 may have been Browning's finest handgun design, his contributions did not end there. His final pistol design, the Model 1935, took advantage of the Luger's smaller diameter 9mm cartridge "double stacked" in two parallel columns in the detachable magazine for a total magazine capacity of 13 rounds (compared to 7 rounds in a 1911 mag). The 1935 is also known as the Browning High Power.
It's worth mentioning that most detachable magazine auto-loading pistols present a potential hazard for untrained individuals. It's easy to check whether most double action revolvers are loaded simply by swinging open the cylinder and looking. However, a person who is not familiar with firearms may assume that an auto-loading firearm is unloaded once the magazine has been removed. This is a potentially lethal mistake. An auto-loading pistol may still have a live round in the chamber after the magazine has been taken out. In most designs, this round will fire if the trigger is pulled, with the potential for tragic consequences.
Browning's auto-loading designs were not limited to handguns. His "humpback" Auto 5 shotgun was a tremendous success, popular still today, and has been made by Fabrique National, Remington, and Browning.
FULL AUTO FIREARMS
Browning's inventiveness extended to military firearms as well, especially machine guns.
Today, the term "semi-automatic" or semi-auto is used to refer to the auto-loading guns that fire only one round for each pull of the trigger. Although Colt originally called the Browning pistols "automatic pistols," in modern usage the term "automatic firearm" is used to describe a gun that fires multiple rounds for a single pull of the trigger.
These "full-auto" firearms, popularly called "machine guns," will usually continue rapidly firing until the trigger is released or the magazine is empty. Those that will fire a set number of rounds, usually 3, with a single pull of the trigger are called "burst fire," and those which can be set to fire either a single shot per trigger pull, or to fire full-auto are called "select fire."
In most states, full-auto firearms can be legally owned by private citizens, although they must be registered with the government and are closely regulated. Based on the names of the laws that regulate them, they're sometimes called "NFA" (National Firearms Act) or "Class III" firearms. Their primary uses are military and specialized law enforcement applications, and they are not generally considered to be good choices as general personal defense firearms. However, they are enormous fun to shoot in a safe well-supervised recreational setting, and have a dedicated following of collectors.
The concept of a firearm that will spray stream of bullets is hardly a recent one. Most famous of the early rapid-fire guns was the Gatling gun, which fired steadily through a cluster of rotating barrels so long as the gunner was turning its crank and his assistant was feeding ammunition. It was first demonstrated in 1861, and was a successful military design.
The first successful true full-auto machine gun, which would fire continuously while the trigger was held back, was perfected by Hiram Maxim in the 1880's and adopted by several armies in the 1890's. John Moses Browning invented a number of successful machine gun designs, beginning in the 1890's. His most remarkable achievements were probably his water cooled .30 caliber Model 1917, and the .50 caliber M-2 "Ma Deuce," which is still in use today.
The machine guns briefly described above fall in the category of fixed-position, crew-served weapons, and their continued evolution is outside the scope of this work. Browning's famous BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) was a traditionally stocked box magazine full auto rifle in .30-06 caliber. While it served decades as an effective weapon, it would generally be fired from a bipod.
SUB-MACHINE GUNS, BATTLE RIFLES, and ASSAULT RIFLES
While cartridges in the .30-06 class are readily aimed and controlled in single shot fire, including semi-automatic fire, they tend to be less controllable and thus less effective when fired full-auto offhand, due to the recoil and cumulative muzzle climb with each round to leave the barrel.
This limitation of full-auto fire from a personal weapon was first addressed by the development of "sub-machine guns." Generally these are full-auto capable weapons designed to be fired from the shoulder like a rifle, but chambered for a lower powered pistol cartridge instead of a full power rifle cartridge. The resulting weapon was controllable and could be effectively aimed in short range full-auto fire. The stubby pistol cartridges used could efficiently burn all their powder in a shorter barrel than required for a high powered rifle round, resulting in a lighter gun with a shorter & handier overall length. The trade-off was that their effective range is much shorter than a traditional rifle, and an individual round hits with less power. The sub-gun is considered more effective where encounters are likely to be fast and at short range, such as trench warfare, inside buildings, or in heavy jungle. They are less effective for precision shooting or over long ranges.
Probably the first was the Bergmann Schmeisser MP18 of WWI. One of the best, and certainly the most famous, was the Thompson Sub-machine gun or "Tommy Gun," introduced at the end of that conflict, in .45 acp. Used by both law enforcement and gangsters, it has been called "the gun the made the 20's roar" and the "Chicago typewriter." It went on to serve honorably in WWII and beyond. Other WWII sub-guns included the German MP38 & MP40, the British Sten gun, the Russian PPS series, and the U.S. M-3 "grease gun."
A milestone in post-war submachine gun design was the 9mm Uzi, designed by Israeli officer Uziel Gal, and first produced in 1951. Although still popular, it has since probably been replaced as the first choice sub-machine gun for military & law enforcement by the MP-5 in the same caliber, produced by the German firm of Heckler & Koch (H&K).
Most countries entered WWII with a bolt action as their primary battle rifle.
Germany had its latest Mauser, the 8mm Kar 98, Britain the Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) in .303 caliber, Japan the Arisaka, and so forth. The Springfield '03 was still widely issued to American forces, but in the decade preceding the outbreak of hostilities, the U.S. army had been first testing competing designs of semi-auto rifles, and then proceeding with manufacture and issue of the pattern deemed best.
The U.S. M-1 Garand in .30-06 caliber was without question the finest full power rifle fielded in WWII. Instead of a fixed or detachable box magazine, it was loaded with 8 rounds held in a metal clip. When the last round was fired, the clip was automatically ejected with the action remaining open for quick insertion of another loaded clip. It was rugged, reliable, and powerful.
It was also heavy. The Army sought a weapon that was more accurate and powerful, and had a longer range than a pistol, but which was lighter and handier than the full size rifle, intended primarily as a secondary weapon for tankers, artillery crews, and personnel who were not in a primary combat role. This role was ably filled by the M-1 Carbine, a semi-auto accepting a 15 round detachable box magazine. It fired a new straight-wall cartridge, midway in power between the pistol and the full sized rifle.
Germany also was developing a mid-range shoulder weapon, but with a different intent. They sought a detachable magazine rifle that would fire a reduced power cartridge and would be controllable and effective in full-auto firing mode, with more range & power than a sub-machine gun. The resulting MP-43 filled the bill, but was developed late in the war. The concept was one which would survive the conflict - the Germans called the weapon a "Sturmgewehr," loosely translated as "assault rifle."
Most military establishments hesitated to downsize the power and range of their primary rifles in the early Cold War years. The semi-auto detachable magazine concept was an obvious success, and there was something to be said for full-auto capability. A series of full power "battle rifles" were introduced to meet this need - the FN-FAL and the Heckler & Koch G3 being two patterns that were widely adopted. The U.S. developed a Garand look-alike with detachable magazine and full-auto capability, the M-14.
However, the assault rifle concept wouldn't go away. The Soviet Union accepted the lower-power round idea in its fixed magazine semi-auto chambered for an intermediate power 7.62 x 39 mm round in 1945, the SKS, which saw wide distribution and production in Soviet client states, and enjoys popularity in the post-Cold War US as an inexpensive semi-auto military surplus rifle.
They followed two years later with what would become probably the most widely produced military long arm design in history, and the quintessential assault rifle - the Kalashnikov designed AK-47, in the same caliber.
The AK-47 is a select fire (semi-auto or full-auto) carbine size weapon with a detachable 30 round box magazine. It has a well-deserved reputation for relatively cheap production, and for reliability even in the most adverse environments, or when used by under-trained indigenous forces who may neglect maintenance. It makes extensive use of sheet metal stampings in its construction, with a simple wooden buttstock with pistol grip.
The U.S. version of the assault-weapon configuration was introduced in 1963, originally known as the AR-15 and XM-16 designed by Eugene Stoner. It was ultimately adopted as the M-16 manufactured by Colt. It is chambered for the 5.56 Nato round, a military twin of the .223 Remington cartridge, and takes a detachable box magazine of 20 or 30 rounds. The rear sight is mounted on a distinctive integral carrying handle, and the stock and handguard are made of black synthetic material.
Initial reviews of the M-16 were mixed. A combination of an improper type of powder used in cartridge manufacture and a mistaken belief that maintenance could be neglected resulted in some early failures in the field. Some in the military establishment resisted a .22 caliber round for combat, dismissing it as a "poodle shooter."
This concern may be understood by reviewing a statistic commonly used to summarize a cartridge's power level - the muzzle energy. Muzzle energy is a product of the weight of the bullet and its velocity at the moment it leaves the barrel, expressed in foot pounds. The WWII & early post-war battle rifles chambered for .30-06 and 8mm Mauser class cartridges typically develop 2000 to 2600 ft/lbs. of muzzle energy. By contrast, the .45 acp and 9 mm Luger rounds commonly used in military pistols and sub-machine guns run in the 300 to 400 ft/lb. range. That's nothing to sneeze at, by the way; the common .22 Long Rifle cartridge, which can certainly be lethal, runs in the 90 to 125 ft/lb. range.
The intermediate "assault rifle" cartridges, such as the 7.62x39 mm and 5.56 Nato, average in the 1200 to 1600 ft/lb. range. As you can see, the designers of these were effective in splitting the difference between the high power rifle and pistol cartridge power ranges, but many old soldiers were not sold on the compromise.
On the other hand, both M-16 rifle and ammunition were significantly lighter than either the old battle rifles, or the AK system, allowing an infantryman to carry more ammunition or other load, and with tuning & evolution, the M-16 pattern proved to be highly accurate out to distances reached by the earlier full sized battle rifles.
The evolutionary descendants of the AK-47 and M-16 have become the dominant military rifle patterns as the world enters the 21st Century. Both have proven to be effective in combat.
Semi-automatic versions of both designs have become highly popular with civilian shooters in recent decades, with the AR-15 (semi-auto version of the M-16) coming to dominate many types of target competition.
In the 1970's, anti-gun forces incorrectly applied the "assault rifle" terminology to these semi-auto sporting versions. The function of the sporters is identical to other semi-auto sporting guns - it takes a separate pull of the trigger to fire each round. They lack the full-auto capability that originally defined "assault rifles."
However, the terminology redefinition stuck, leading to ill-conceived legislation that temporarily banned the production of certain types of guns based solely on cosmetic appearances. Fortunately, the Clinton semi-auto ban has since sunset, making these popular semi-auto rifles again available in their original configuration at affordable prices.
MODERN GUN MILESTONES
Recent decades have witnessed the continuing evolution and development of other types of sporting firearms, with several recurring trends.
Handguns, and revolvers in particular, have seen the development of more and more powerful ammunition. In 1935, Smith and Wesson rocked the handgun world with the introduction of the .357 Magnum cartridge and their prestigious Registered Magnum revolver to fire it. At a time when full power "big bore" handgun rounds ran in the 300 to 350 ft/lb. muzzle energy range, S&W upped the ante to over 500 ft/lbs. Results of actual law enforcement shootings suggest that the .357 magnum round, with 125 grain hollowpoint loads, may be the most effective "stopper" still today. The fact that revolvers chambered for the .357 Mag. can also shoot the milder .38 Special has contributed to their continuing popularity.
S&W followed this with the .44 Magnum in 1955. With muzzle energy approaching 1,000 ft/lbs., the .44 Mag changed handgun big game hunting from a "stunt" to a serious and common sporting pursuit. When the Dirty Harry movies hit the theaters, lots of folks with more imagination than experience decided they needed "the world's most powerful handgun," not understanding how to manage the considerable recoil. It was not uncommon to find a S&W .44 Magnum advertised for sale in "as new" condition, with 6 cartridges missing from the 50 round box. Once around the cylinder was enough for many would-be Harry Callahans!
Just recently, Smith & Wesson raised the bar to a previously unimaginable level with the introduction of their X-frame .500 Magnum revolver. Developing an incredible 2,500 ft/lbs. of muzzle energy, the 500 readily surpasses the power level of many high power rifles.
Auto-pistol evolution took a leap forward in 1971 when the Smith and Wesson Model 59 was the first combine the Browning High Power high capacity double stack magazine with the double action mechanism of the German WWII era Walther P-38. A number of firms followed suit, and the genre, known as "wonder nines" for their usual 9 mm chambering, began to make inroads into a police market that previously had been dominated by double action revolvers. The Swiss-based firm of Sig Sauer developed a strong reputation for quality and reliability in this type of pistol, and the Beretta Model 92 in the wonder nine configuration replaced the old warhorse 1911A1 pistol as the U.S. Army standard issue.
In 1982, the semi-auto pistol market was turned upside down by a new Austrian manufacturer offering a radically different design with the frame made from plastic-like polymer, and a funny name. Traditionalists initially scoffed at the 17-round design with no external manual safeties other than a lever on the face of trigger, and an operating system that was neither SA nor DA, but instead called a "safe action" by the maker. Tupperware jokes abounded. At the other end of the spectrum, anti-gun fanatics ranted & frothed at the mouth over "plastic guns" that would be "invisible" to airport X-ray machines (not true).
However, beauty is as beauty does, and the Glock did nothing but perform, combining reliability, simplicity, affordability, and functional accuracy. Today, it is likely that more Glocks ride in police holsters than any other make.
The trend to new materials other than traditional blue steel and wood had begun years before. Smith and Wesson used lightweight alloys to make lightweight guns easier to carry, beginning with aluminum frame Airweight Chiefs Specials in 1952 and continuing through Scandium and Titanium alloys today that get .38 revolver weights down to the 10 ounce range.
Smith and Wesson and Charter Arms led the way in using rust-resistant stainless steel for small revolvers likely to be carried in sweaty environments close to the body, beginning in the mid-60's. Since then, stainless steel has nearly replaced blued carbon steel in revolver designs, and has made major inroads in long gun and semi-auto pistol production.
Many major handgun makers have followed Glock's lead in offering synthetic framed auto-pistols, and synthetic stock have been found to be more lightweight and less affected by environmental extremes than wood for long gun stocks. Rubber has replaced wood as the most likely handgun grip material.
In the repeating shotgun field, the Winchester Model 12 became probably the standard for pump shotguns in the mid-20th Century, perhaps replaced by the Remington Model 870 in more recent years. Semi-auto shotguns have overcome their reputation for finicky performance, first with Remington 1100, and then the Benelli Model 90 enjoying an outstanding reputation for reliability in recent years.
Probably the last of the great firearms inventor / entrepreneurs in the tradition of Sam Colt and D.B. Wesson was Bill Ruger. His Sturm Ruger firm developed a reputation for improving classic sporting gun designs, and turning out a broad line of well-made and reasonably priced firearms, from revolvers and rifles through auto-pistols and over-under shotguns.
Other new firms sprang up to challenge the old line makers with improved or cheaper versions of the classic designs. Springfield Armory has become a major maker of military pattern sporting arms based on classic military designs such as the 1911 and the Garand patterns. Taurus began to offer serious competition to S&W in the revolver field. Firms such as Bushmaster and others began to develop a reputation for quality AR-15 semi-auto rifles, a market once belonging to Colt. Other makers such as Uberti and Navy Arms saw the strong nostalgia market for 19th century designs, and began to produce quality version of early percussion revolvers, Single Action Armies, Winchester lever guns, and other arms appealing to Old West buffs and participants in the fun new sport of Cowboy Action Shooting.
Options for aiming a firearm have expanded dramatically over the past 50 years. Telescopic sights for precision rifle shooting were used as early as the Civil War. However, it wasn't until after WWII that it became a standard practice to mount a scope on most serious hunting rifles, and the technology of these optics has continually evolved and improved. In the 70's and 80's, scopes came to be used on hunting handguns. New forms of sighting equipment such as electronic red dot sights, glow in the dark night sights, ultra-compact laser aiming systems, and even night vision scopes have come on the market and met with acceptance, and have been incorporated on firearms from concealed carry handguns through target competition arms, and military issue rifles.
Firearms ownership and usage is a treasured American tradition. There are two fundamental requirements for those who would participate in this experience.
The first is of course safety.
Everyone needs to know the basic safety rules by heart. There are many, but the following, if committed to memory and followed religiously, will prevent tragic mishaps:
- Treat every firearm as if it is loaded.
- Never let the muzzle point at anything you are not willing to see destroyed.
- Do not touch the trigger until your sights are on target.
- Be sure of your target, and what is beyond it. Firearms projectiles can travel long distances, and will penetrate many visual barriers.
- Keep your firearms so they are not accessible to unauthorized, untrained, or irresponsible individuals.
Even folks who choose not to own guns need to be sure their children understand basic gun safety. For the smallest kids, the NRA's Eddie Eagle program has a basic, easy to remember drill for what they should do if they come across a gun:
STOP! Don't touch. Leave the area. Tell an adult.
No one is born knowing how to shoot. If you choose to own a firearm, get instruction in how to use it safely and effectively. Even if you don't own a gun, such training can still be a good idea, as it may someday be as vital to you or a loved one as training in CPR.
The NRA is the largest firearms training organization in the world, and offers solid programs for folks from total beginners to advanced shooters. Ask a local gun shop, gun club, shooting range, or police department to put you in touch with an NRA certified program, or find a course near you.
This brings us to the second requirement for firearms owner. Vigilance.
There is a special genius to the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution, which protects the individual and collective civil rights of Americans. It is no mistake that the Second Amendment to that document provides that "… the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."
If it were not for the National Rifle Association, that basic human right would have been lost long ago. It's an on-going battle; not always an easy or popular one, but an essential one nonetheless.
Put bluntly, if you are an American gun owner, and are not a member of the NRA, you are not pulling your weight.
You can join the NRA at membership.nrahq.org.
From The Blue Book of Gun Values
- Serialization/ Date of Manufacture
- Store Brand Crossover List
- Proof Marks
- Gun Collector Organizations
Articles by Jim Supica
- What's my gun worth?
- Evaluating Firearms Condition
- Hard to identify or value firearms
- Pieces of History: A system for evaluating historically attributed firearms
- How to be a Gun Collector
- Collectors Federal Firearms License
- How to ship guns and ammo
- Gun Auction Buying Tips