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The evolution of firearms

Armed and dangerous

For as long as human civilisation has existed, there has been a need to defend ourselves or to fight others for resources. While we mastered clothing, food and more to protect ourselves against the elements and our own ailments, we also developed and improved weapons for when the defence needed to be more ‘hands-on’. As history has recorded since their invention, firearms have proven to be the most effective means to achieve this purpose. Maybe more often than not, they’ve been misused to cause harm. The evolution of guns is perhaps a testimonial to what mankind can achieve, even when the motivation to do so was often conflicted between a need to defend and sheer, terrible violence.


Although still widely debated, the popular opinion amongst historians is that gunpowder originated in China in the 11th century. Although it was first used for fireworks and as an incendiary substance on arrows, it soon gained popularity in weapons. The Wujing Zongyao, a military manual from early 11th century China, was the first to conceptualise various kinds of military weapons like “flying incendiary club for subjugating demons,” “ten-thousand fire flying sand magic bomb,” “burning heaven fierce fire unstoppable bomb,” and more outlandish plans, most of which eventually boiled down to basic firearms, cannons, bombs, etc.

Fire lance in action

One of the earliest ancestors of the modern gun was the fire lance. While initially , it was nothing more than a little pyrotechnics attached to a typical spear for shock value, as gunpowder improved and the explosion became more powerful, pellets and shrapnel were added. In 1259 a pellet wad that occluded the barrel was recorded to have been used as a fire lance projectile, making it the first recorded bullet in history. Refinements to the fire lance formed the basic principle of a gun’s structure that comprised of three parts: a metal barrel, gunpowder with high nitrate content, and a projectile that fills the muzzle completely so that the gunpowder charge can exert maximum force during propulsion.

The same concept was applied to cannons, and then hand cannons. And ever since then, right up to the modern gun, it’s all the same principle at work.

Manual firearm action types
Bolt-action After rifle is fired, operating the bolt ejects an empty case and loads a fresh cartridge from the magazine
Lever-action Operating the lever ejects empty cases, moves ammunition from the magazine to the chamber, and cocks the action
Pump-action Operating the pump ejects empty cases, moves ammunition from the magazine to the chamber, and cocks the action.

Fire in the hole

For the next few centuries, the main focus was on finding ways to reliably, and efficiently light the gunpowder, along with improving repeat rates and accuracy. If you’ve heard the phrase “lock, stock and barrel”, that comes from the three components of early guns – the barrel), the stock (which was used to support the gun against the torso), and the lock, which was the device used to ignite the gunpowder. The first gun to bring all three together was a matchlock gun, in the early 14th century.

An early matchlock gun

Better, Faster, Stronger

After the match lighters, the flintlock system arrived, which used flint to create sparks to ignite gunpowder. Shot accuracy was increased by the addition of grooves inside the barrel, which led to muskets, or rifles. Next, the percussion system offered significant advantages over the flintlock system by dropping the cumbersome powder and using a much easier cap-based system. Eventually, breechloaders dropped the front loading method altogether, and we ended up with almost modern looking guns.

The flintlock mechanism

Samuel Colt came up with the rotating cylinder with multiple chambers that would align a fresh cartridge when the hammer was cocked, and the revolver was born.

The Colt Root Model 1855


At this point, majorly due to the invention of smokeless powder, which was way more efficient, the gun design was headed towards automatic loading. Up until now, a reload would require some mechanical action on the user’s part – swivelling a lever; lifting, pulling, or pushing a bolt; or cocking the hammer or pulling the trigger to advance a revolver cylinder to the next chamber, etc. German manufacturers Mauser and Luger led the charge in bringing out production models that featured autoloading. In fact, Luger brought in the grip-frame mounted magazine design.

Early prototype of Mauser C96 made by Wilhelm Mauser and Paul Mauser brothers, featuring the slender oval cross-sectioned grip that earned it the nickname Broomhandle

Today’s automatic firearms extend the definition a bit further by allowing rounds to be fired as long as the trigger is held down. These fully-auto firearms, compared to the single-round ‘semi-automatics’, are also known as machine guns. The Gatling gun with its rotating barrel design was one of the firsts.

The iconic Tommy gun that has also been called “the gun the made the 20’s roar” and the “Chicago typewriter.”

At this point, everyone wanted the usability of the SMGs, without compromising on the effectiveness of full machine guns. This led to the development of ‘assault rifles’. Although pioneered by the Germans, it would be the Russian Kalashnikov model AK-47 that would go on to become the most widely produced military long arm design in history.

Certainly the most well known of the lot, the AK47 is popular for a number of reasons

Modern times

Compared to pre-21st century, recent times have seen more focus on increasing the power of the handgun. While the S&W Magnum was already setting new milestones in 1935, it recently took things to a whole new level with the 0.500 Magnum that surpasses the power of quite a few high power rifles at 2500 ft/lbs of muzzle energy.

Some useful firearms jargon
Calibre The calibre of a bullet refers to a rough measurement of its diameter, expressed either in decimal fractions of an inch or millimetres. For example, a .45 calibre cartridge takes a bullet approximately 45/100″ in diameter, which would also be very roughly 11 mm in diameter
Muzzle Energy The kinetic energy of a bullet as it is expelled from the muzzle of a firearm
Magazine That part of a firearm which stores extra ammunition

In 1982, the semi-auto market was taken over by the unconventionally designed Glock, that featured a plastic-like polymer frame. While traditionalists were initially against the ‘tupperware gun’, today it’s more likely that you’ll find a Glock in a police holster in the US than any other gun.

A first-generation Glock 17 with the slide locked back displaying its vertical barrel tilt

In the last 50 years, guns have moved over towards many alternative materials for a variety of reasons. Alloys and metals like scandium and titanium have been used to bring down the weight while stainless steel has been included to avoid rust in high moisture environments.

A Romanian soldier using a night vision scope

On the aiming side of things, telescopic sights have been in use for a while. By the 80s, even hunting handguns had started using scopes.  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 by the military and other users.

The future of firearms

Alongside packing in a grenade launcher or shotgun capabilities, certain guns today can already fire underwater, shoot around corners, be 3D printed, folded into compact sizes, unlocked by fingerprints, adjust themselves according to the target and do a whole lot more.

Corner Shot CSM

Connected guns in the future will receive data from the base regarding targets, and in a way, ‘aim themselves’ – a terrifying thought! We can only hope our species eventually lets go of its bloodlust, because guns are only going to get better, and people worse…

Arnab Mukherjee

Arnab Mukherjee

A former tech-support desk jockey, you can find this individual delving deep into all things tech, fiction and food. Calling his sense of humour merely terrible would be a much better joke than what he usually makes.